August 10, 2017
Beach Reads for and about Old Folks
Who wants to spend their beach vacation reading about growing older? These recommendations just might surprise you.
“The Accomplished Guest” by Ann Beattie
Ann Beattie’s 1983 book of short stories, “The Burning House,” explored the drift, emotional detachment, and cynicism of boomers, whose worldview was darkened by Watergate. That book made Beattie’s reputation, and she has been prolific ever since, including regular appearances in The New Yorker. Her 2017 short story volume, “The Accomplished Guest,” is, for now, a bookend to “The Burning House” (Beattie is only 69 and no doubt has more books in her). While baby boom skepticism remains a central theme, her characters have developed a little heart and sentimentality over the years. I particularly liked “Company,” about an older couple entertaining newlyweds at their Maine summer house (one advantage of getting older). All night, Henry ruminates about his death. But as this glorious summer evening draws to a close, he finds reason to celebrate his friendship with the much younger Jackson. Jackson is still decades away from facing his own mortality, but tonight, they are “just two men – you know, any two men – passing time on the back porch.”
“Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” by Roz Chast
For months, I ignored raving recommendations about Roz Chast’s book on how she navigated her parents’ old age. I should not have. This book by the long-time New Yorker cartoonist is a poignant, laugh-out-loud funny examination of the guilt, love, memories, regrets, anger, and tenderness that churn inside adult children carrying their parents through the final stages of their lives. It’s the funny parts that keep you going, like the 10 pages of photographs devoted to things like her parents’ “work stations” (piled so high with stuff that there’s nowhere to work) and a collection of 1950s eyeglasses (cat’s eye glasses are in style again). Although this is a difficult topic, Chast is the reader’s compatriot. She has survived an ordeal that you have, or will, go through. Perhaps you’ll heed this recommendation to read this book.
“Die Laughing: Killer Jokes for Newly Old Folks” by William Novak
Some jokes in this book of jokes about aging are sexist, like a good Henny Youngman quip. And all of them are, by definition, “ageist.” But I laughed anyway. The jokes about memory, which tend to be cliché, are also funny. Novak, a prolific celebrity biographer, does more than dabble in humor: he also co-authored the well-known “The Big Book of Jewish Humor.” When first opening up “Die Laughing,” I flipped right to the jokes. It took awhile to notice that Novak does a little insightful educating at the beginning of each chapter. In the “Memory” chapter, he explains the critical difference between typical failing memory and dementia. In “Doctors,” he points out that the upside to seeking medical treatment are the endless opportunities to joke about doctors. He also comments on, or gives the history, of many of his jokes. One dates back to 4th century Greece. These added bits are funny too, and laughing is good for old souls. Here’s a sample of Novak’s jokes:
Victor, who was close to eighty, was in the hospital for a serious operation. But he agreed to have it only if it was performed by his son, a respected surgeon.
Just before the anesthesiologist came in, the patient asked for a word with the surgeon.
“Don’t be nervous, Ted. Just do your best. And I want to remind you that if anything should happen to me, your mother will be moving in with you and Janice.”
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