Home Culture Books & Authors Frank, original and entertaining look at a grim subject

Frank, original and entertaining look at a grim subject

'Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? A Memoir' by Roz Chast (Bloomsbury) and 'Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof' by Alisa Solomon (Picador)
'Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? A Memoir' by Roz Chast (Bloomsbury), left, and 'Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof' by Alisa Solomon (Picador)

Roz Chast is the famed cartoonist at the New Yorker who has been called the magazine’s “one true genius,” and George and Elizabeth Chast – the subjects of this well-conceived graphic memoir – are the artist-author’s late parents.

A Chast cartoon in the New Yorker (where she has been a contributor for nearly four decades) is recognizable for its style and its pungent, often abstract humour. Her characters typically are depicted as ordinary folks inhabiting plain living rooms decorated with old-fashioned sofas, lamps, end tables, picture frames and patterned wallpapers.

If they are shown outdoors, it is often against a bustling urban cityscape of a row of storefronts, with jagged skyscrapers in the distance. Against this familiar repeating backdrop, her usually anonymous city dwellers often confront some small and usually funny or bizarre twist of modern urban living.

When she is at her best, her cartoons manage to capture a slice of the human character with all of its diversity, contradictions and foibles. Some are so good that they have been put onto the magazine’s cover.


For me, Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? came as a revelation. I’ve been a Chast fan for years without quite realizing the obvious fact that the wellspring of her original creativity is biographical. The characters she depicts are always these anonymous Janes and Joes, so the reader cannot quite discern that her muse springs from her own family and her own childhood in the depths of Brooklyn.

Another revelation was that Chast’s family is Jewish. The many biographical details that she depicts, including the immigrant experiences of her grandparents and great-grandparents, may therefore seem culturally familiar. It will also be familiar territory for those of us who have had to care for aging parents.

There’s no question that the subject of this book is somewhat dire. Essentially, it’s the story of how her parents get old, suffer ailments, and die. George and Elizabeth refuse to discuss planning details with Roz, their only child, who is both frustrated and yet relieved to skirt the issue of their mortality, at least for the time being. But of course the grim reaper inevitably arrives, curtly summoning the family with his insistent knock.

First her mother falls and is forced to go to hospital; then the dutiful daughter (who lives in Connecticut and has a family of her own) discovers that her father’s senility is much more advanced than she had realized. Ever eager to explore the optimistic side of any situation, Chast considers the fact that a senile person quickly forgets bad news; she depicts her father happily stepping down the avenue, singing “Oh, what a beautiful morning” the day after his lifetime partner has been rushed to the hospital in critical condition.

Chast charts the progress of her parents from their grimy old apartment in Brooklyn to Maimonides Hospital, then to a “Place” for Assisted Living, then to more hospital rooms. There are also assignations with lawyers, doctors, nurses, and paid live-in assistants all along the way. The cost of so much medical attention quickly skyrockets to alarming proportions. “We were blowing through my parents’ scrimpings at breakneck speed: about $14,000 a month, none of which was covered by insurance,” Chast divulges.

Yes, this is a grim subject; yet Chast’s take on the subject is unerringly frank, original and entertaining. Despite the bleak outcome, the topic affords her many occasions for levity and she offers the reader many welcome sidetrips into her past and other topics. Ultimately, her skill as an observer of human nature, and her brave honesty as a narrator, make Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? a book that many of us will find hard to put down.

Fiddler on the Roof (book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins) was an instant blockbuster success when it opened in 1964: the original production played some 3,242 performances and became the longest-running Broadway show of its time. A current first-rate revival on Broadway, starring Danny Burstein as Tevye, is continuing to draw appreciative audiences more than 50 years later. (See it if you have the chance; it’s not to be missed.)

Author Alisa Solomon traces Fiddler’s history from the moment the original Tevye stories were but a gleam in the eye of Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem. She traces what she calls “Tevye’s long journey to the New York stage” including a popular Yiddish production of Tevye der milkhiker (Tevye the Milkman), directed by Maurice Schwartz, that opened at the Yiddish Art Theatre on the Lower East Side in 1919. Among other early Yiddish productions, a movie version of Tevye der milkhiker was released in late 1939 and “expressed the anxiety and horror that gripped American Jews reading helplessly of Hitler’s advance across Europe.”


It was in 1961 that Stein, Harnick and Bock began poring over Aleichem’s old Tevye stories, hoping to weave them into a theatrical narrative for a new (and English-speaking) generation of Americans, in part because they wanted to reclaim a part of their own Judaism. Stein’s agent thought they were nuts. Solomon charts in fascinating detail how the musical painstakingly came together and how various storylines, lines of dialogue, and musical numbers evolved.

In August 1962, Bock and Harnick visited a previously dubious Robbins in his Upper East Side home office and played him the score. “He didn’t have to be coaxed,” Solomon reports. Before long Robbins went with them to visit Zero Mostel, who, despite his dislike of Robbins, ultimately accepted the role of Tevye. Solomon delicately explores the contrasts and conflicts between these two and other larger-than-life personalities in the production.

Wonder of Wonders shines as brightly as a row of Broadway footlights with well-researched background and cultural insights. In these highly readable 432 pages, Solomon easily makes us appreciate Fiddler On The Roof for the iconic American – and specifically Jewish  – cultural landmark that it is.