Chairman's Corner: July 30, 2020

Jo Reed:I'm Josephine Reed from the National Endowment for the Arts with The Chairman's Corner, a weekly podcast with Mary Anne Carter, Chairman of the Arts Endowment. This is where we'll discuss issues of importance to the arts community and a whole lot more.

Welcome to the dog days of summer when everyone is longing to get away, but given that the ongoing pandemic is limiting travel for many of us summer reading and the ability to find new worlds through the pages of a book are more essential than ever, and a terrific resource for choosing a new book for your summer reading is the Arts Endowment’s Big Read program which supports dynamic community reading programs each designed around a single Big Read selection. Here’s Mary Anne to tell us a little bit more about the program and to share a couple of the books from the list she thinks are perfect for the long, hot days and nights of summer. Hi, Mary Anne.

Mary Anne Carter: Hi, Jo, and thank you. We have such a great list of wonderful books through the Arts Endowment’s Big Read program and the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read is a partnership with Arts Midwest and it broadens our understanding of our world, our communities and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book. There are currently 25 titles in the Big Read library and they showcase a diverse range of titles that reflect many different voices and perspectives, and for example two that I particularly love are “Lab Girl” by Hope Jahren and “Can’t We Talk About Something more Pleasant?” by Roz Chast and while both are memoirs they couldn’t be more different.

Jo Reed: Let’s start with “Lab Girl,” which I’m currently reading because I knew you were going to talk about it. Give us a thumbnail sketch of the plot.

Mary Anne Carter: Well, “Lab Girl” tells the story of a young woman who finds friendship in odd places, battles bipolar disorder, perseveres through setbacks, relishes hard-earned triumphs and becomes a respected scientist and passionate observer of the natural world. Some of the many things that I love about the book are the fun facts that the author intersperses throughout the story. No risk is more terrifying than that taken by the first root. A seed knows how to wait. A vine makes it up as it goes along. I love that.

Jo Reed: I do too. Mary Anne, tell us about the author, Hope Jahren. Who is she?

Mary Anne Carter: Hope grew up in the small town of Austin, Minnesota, where her family has been for three generations. Her father taught physics and earth science for 42 years and had a lab at a local community college where Jahren and her three older brothers loved to hang out. She completed her undergraduate education in geology at the University of Minnesota in 1991 and went on to earn her Ph.D. in 1996 at the University of California, Berkeley in the field of soil science, and shortly after that she went to Georgia Tech where she opened her first lab with the help of a close friend. She worked at Johns Hopkins University for almost a decade and then moved to Honolulu where she became a tenured professor at the University of Hawaii and built the Isotope Geobiology Laboratories and then in 2016 she moved to Norway where she is currently a professor at the University of Oslo’s Centre for Earth Evolution and Dynamics and runs her own lab.

Jo Reed: Now I’m in the midst of reading this and I am so struck by the vibrancy of her writing; it’s precise and vivid and personal. And I love the way she conveyed the cold immensity of the Minnesota winters and the silences in her house, she said it wasn’t unusual for she and her brothers to go for days without speaking, and then in contrast the picture she painted of the sanctuary she found in her father’s lab and how labs became home for her; and, the ability she has to convey the wonder and strangeness of plants and the power and beauty of science is dazzling.

Mary Anne Carter: It really is and to be able to write about science in a way that people want to read and enjoy is a real gift and two things really stood out to me in this book that I enjoyed. One is I also grew up with three brothers and although we never went days without talking I can say we probably went days without talking nicely to each other for a while and so I loved the story and the interaction and seeing a bit of my own childhood in that. The second thing that really struck me is the perseverance of the author and in a few weeks you and I will discuss a book that we’re doing here at the National Endowment for the Arts that also talks about perseverance, and so because that has been on my mind so much that really pulled forward in the book for me as we’re going along our own path obviously a separate idea of perseverance, but overcoming, sticking to something and being able to live out your dream really just was a standout for me in this book.

Jo Reed: The second book you chose is “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” by Roz Chast. Roz Chast has been a cartoonist at The New Yorker for decades so, no surprise, it’s a graphic memoir and it is an amazing book. Can you give us the gist of it?

Mary Anne Carter: I loved this book when I first saw it on the list and first read it, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” This memoir tells the story of Chast’s parents’ final years through cartoons, family photos, found documents and a narrative prose. Rod Chast’s parents were in their mid nineties, living in the same rundown Brooklyn apartment they’d been in for 48 years where Chast grew up. The things Chast recounts are things that are all too familiar to so many Americans from cleaning out the parents’ cluttered apartment to the sudden learning curve and anxiety associated with wills, healthcare proxy, power-of-attorney forms, end-of-life directives and assisted-living costs, but the way she describes and draws these things is frankly laugh-out-loud hilarious as well as incredibly insightful.

Jo Reed: I agree. She managed to make me weep and laugh often on the same page and if “Lab Girl” was kind of familiar to you because like Hope you had three brothers this is so familiar to me because like Roz I’m an only child.

Mary Anne Carter: Yeah. So as you just mentioned, like you Roz Chast grew up in Brooklyn as an only child. She loved to draw. She found solace and inspiration in Mad magazine, which I love, which made-- and as you recall Mad made fun of popular culture in a way that no one else was doing so at the time. And while she was in high school she took drawing classes at the Art Students League in New York City and drew all the time until she left home for college and she ended up at the Rhode Island School of Design and graduated with a BFA in painting in 1977. And she never thought she’d be able to make a career of drawing cartoons but in 1978 she sold her first cartoon to The New Yorker and has continued to contribute cartoons to its pages and covers as well as other magazines ever since.

Jo Reed: I think Roz is probably best known for her very funny cartoons about neurotic people coping or not with the everyday anxiety that life can produce and I think it was so brilliant to use cartoons to speak about what is often unspeakable, that we’re living a longer life and more often than not as we get older, as our parents get older it brings enormous physical and mental diminishment. And as Roz points out this is not something we talk about; it’s something we don’t even know about until we have to know about it. And you’re making these decisions for your parents about again as we mentioned power of attorney, what’s a healthcare proxy, etc., etc., etc., but I also want to stress the book is so funny. She captures the personalities of her parents and the relationship so sharply, and maybe because I’m also from New York, but I know people like this who come through such adverse circumstances—as her parents had—so, the idea of being happy was ridiculous for them. As she says in the book, that was” for modern people; that was for movie stars, degenerates.” I think that paints a perfect picture of them.

Mary Anne Carter: It is perfect, and I appreciate this book so much because I have lived through this with both my mom and my dad now and until you go through it you don’t understand it and—

Jo Reed: Absolutely.

Mary Anne Carter: --it’s so difficult; it’s such a difficult time in your life that you have to maintain some humor to get through it and that’s what I think Roz does here. She makes it real. She makes it honest but she does it in such a humorous way because these are really important issues and if you have parents who are starting to get up there in age. And I was sandwiched in between a young daughter and my parents and I didn’t know, my brothers didn’t know when all of this hit us first with my mom and then with my dad, and I wish I would have had a book like this. And so I really encourage anyone actually but especially if you are thinking you are about to start to take over some of the affairs of your aging parents or might already be there this is a great book to read, to understand a little more and to keep perspective and to keep some humor in it and understand this really is a part of life’s process and I just-- I cannot emphasize enough how Roz captures the heartbreak but the joy of dealing with all of these things and just does it in such a way that you’re not going to cry the entire book; you’re going to laugh as you said out loud a lot.

Jo Reed: It’s a book that heals as well.

Mary Anne Carter: Yes. And Jo, this might be a good time to point out that studies show that reading for pleasure reduces stress, it heightens empathy, it improves students’ test scores, it slows the onset of dementia, and it makes us more active and aware citizen-- and aware citizens.

Jo Reed: And that’s a good place to leave it. Mary Anne, thank you so much and I will talk to you next week.

Mary Anne Carter: Thank you, Jo.

Jo Reed: That was Mary Anne Carter Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

You can find all kinds of support materials—commentary, podcasts, and discussion questions about the NEA Big Read books, including Lab Girl, and Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant at

I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe and thanks for listening.

Music Credit: “Renewal” composed and performed by Doug Smith from the cd The Collection.

Looking for some great summer reading? Mary Anne has suggestions from the National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read Library.