Big Read kicks off Friday

Since the Kachemak Bay Campus brought Amy Tan to Homer for the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference, Homer has held four National Endowment for the Arts Big Read events. Tan visited as both the conference keynote speaker and Big Read author of “The Joy Luck Club.”

Friday at 7 p.m. at Alice’s Champagne Palace, The Friends of the Homer Public Library will host a kick-off with a drama slam for its latest Big Read author and book, graphic artist and writer Roz Chast and her memoir, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” It’s the fourth Big Read event for the Friends of the Homer Public Library and the fifth in town, following Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” and Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” and “The Bridge of San Luis Rey.”

The Big Read seeks to have as many people as possible read one book from a rotating selection of books by American authors living and dead. Sponsoring organizations select a book and apply for a grant to hold events in their town, sometimes with the author attending, as happened with Tan and O’Brien. Big Read events can include group discussions, writing workshops and discussions about the book’s themes. For Chast’s memoir about caring for aging parents and dealing with their death, Big Read presentations delve into many aspects of the theme, including estate planning, a community conversation for family caregivers, and even a fashion show at the Homer Senior Center.

Friends of the Homer Public Library and Big Read coordinator Mercedes Harness said the board chose “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” because Chast addresses issues of importance to Homer’s aging population and their caregivers.

“When the board read Chast’s memoir, it made them laugh,” Harness said. “We’re facing the same issues of aging parents or aging ourselves.”

Known for her biting New Yorker cartoons, Chast’s memoir is part of a literary genre that came out of the American comic book tradition. It follows ground broken by Art Spiegelmann’s “Maus,” a graphic novel about his Jewish family’s experience with the Holocaust, but with Jews depicted as mice and Nazis as cats. As a work looking at how to endure the medical challenges of aging, it also fits into a new use of the graphic novel as seen with Anchorage graphic memoirist Peter Dunlap-Shohl’s book about Parkinson’s disease, “My Degeneration.” As with Dunlap-Shol, Chast is also laugh-out-loud hilarious.

Harness said the graphic memoir might not fit everyone’s idea of literature. One Big Read event looks at that topic, a Pub Chat at 6 p.m. Feb. 12 led by author Tom Kizzia and artist Jennifer Norton, “But is it Literature?” Like Maus, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” softens the hard edges of tough subjects with the comic form. It also uses the conceit that at the heart of true humor lies pain.

“I think that’s the crux of why the board selected the book,” Harness said. “It uses humor and it’s written in a graphic style. Some people may never have read a graphic novel or graphic memoir. Those two things made it intriguing for the board to select.”

Norton said “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” intrigued her because of the combination of writing and imagery.

“She is a really visual thinker, which I really identified with,” Norton said. “…Words and images are not separate for me. Words conjure a lot of imagery. I feel like they go hand in hand.”

For the kick-off on Friday, Norton, the director of Pier One Theatre, has directed actors and writers Brenda Dolma, Brian Duffy, Nancy Chastain, Rachel Friedlander, Sally Oberstein and Carolyn Norton in a series of skits inspired by Chast’s memoir. The ensemble has been working the past week on writing and rehearsing the vignettes.

“It’s all a little bit tongue-in-cheek, though people have shared some genuine caregiving experience that’s both poignant and funny at times,” Norton said.

A mix of Millennials and Baby Boomers, the group includes people who might be caregivers in the near future as well as people to be cared for.

“One said she wanted to explore this as something that’s coming up in her future and what her options should be in her life, as a person who’s going to be needing care and making choices,” Norton said.

At the kick-off, the Friends of the Homer Public Library will loan out copies of Chast’s book. The library also has copies to loan that people don’t have to check out and can read at their leisure, to be eventually returned. Following the kick-off is music by Burnt Down House.

Reach Michael Armstrong at marmstrong@homernews.com.

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