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New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast reads at the Free Library

As though going through a Rolodex, Roz Chast cycles through some of the reasons she had such a complicated, difficult relationship with her parents.

Roz Chast and her book "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?"
Roz Chast and her book "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?"Read more

As though going through a Rolodex, Roz Chast cycles through some of the reasons she had such a complicated, difficult relationship with her parents.

"They both grew up poor. They were born in 1912, so they graduated college into the Depression. Their experiences were . . . just awful," said the New Yorker cartoonist, who delves into that troubled relationship in her graphic memoir, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, published Tuesday by Bloomsbury.

Chast, 59, whose work is acclaimed for its wry humor and off-kilter style, will discuss the book at the Free Library of Philadelphia's Central Library at 7:30 p.m. Monday.

Public school educators from Brooklyn, George and Elizabeth Chast were in their 40s when they had their only child, Roz.

Their unique point of view and morbid fascinations ensured Chast would grow up a connoisseur of the terrible and the terrifying.

As she illustrates in the hilarious full-page panel "The Wheel of Doom," Chast grew up being taught that misery and death were always around the corner. Nothing anyone did was safe. Go swimming without a cap, laugh while you're eating, or sit too close to the TV and you're likely to contract some deadly disease.

Worse, life is full of random events that can kill you.

"They actually knew all these people who had all these terrible things happen to them," Chast said by phone. "They knew someone who was killed by a falling flowerpot. And my mom told me that her best friend caught a cold in her kidney after sitting down on the ground and died. A cold in her kidney? I don't even know what that means, but that's how [she] explained it to me."

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? inhabits a rich, strange intersection between the hilarious and the tragic.

Known for her autobiographical work about family life, Chast began composing the pieces collected here beginning in 2001, when, after a 12-year break, she reconnected with her parents.

"From 1990 to 2001, I had not stepped foot in Brooklyn ONCE," writes Chast, who lives in Connecticut.

"Denial, avoidance, selfishness, laziness, and the day-to-day business of my life (two little kids! cartoon deadlines! grocery shopping!) were all partly to blame. But really I just didn't want to."

Both sides were stubborn: Chast wouldn't drive to Brooklyn, and her parents would not leave it.

But there was so much more to it than long car drives, Chast admits.

"We were just not very comfortable around each other," she said. "They had me very late [in life]. I think they loved me and they did the best they could. I think they were more comfortable being with themselves."

Chast's sudden decision to drop in came at a fortuitous time: Entering their 90s, her parents could no longer care for themselves or the Brooklyn apartment where they had lived for 48 years.

Chast was disturbed by the chaotic, grimy condition of their apartment. (The book includes a nine-page collection of photos showing the crammed place.) And she realized that despite her terror, she had to step in and take charge. "They were entering a part of old age that I had known nothing about and that none of us had ever wanted to talk about," she said.

Chast's cartoons evoke hilarity and pathos - often in the same strip - as they chronicle the couple's deteriorating health. She explores her deeply conflicted feelings as she became their primary caregiver.

Things came to a head in 2005, when Chast's mother, then 93, fell from a stepladder. While her mother was in the hospital, Chast realized how deeply her father had become lost in dementia.

She made a heartbreaking - if logical - decision to move them to an elder-care facility, which they derisively call "the place."

Chast's father, George, died in 2007 at 95, and her mother, Elizabeth, in 2009 at 97.

Chast concludes Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? with a series of stark pen-and-ink sketches of her mother in her last days.

Chast, who has two grown children - a 26-year-old son and 23-year-old daughter - said her relationship with her mother was always fraught.

"She was a very complicated woman," she said. "She was very admirable in a lot of ways, very smart."

She adds after a moment, "and very tough."


Roz Chast: "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?"

7:30 p.m. Monday at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St.

Admission: Free. Information: 215-567-4341 or