Saturday, October 6, 2012

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

When Will Schwalbe’s mother was dying of pancreatic cancer, he often sat with her during chemo and they talked about books.  They’d always talked about books together but they soon realized that this was different; they’d created their own book club – one with just two members.

Early on, I began wishing I’d known Mary Ann Schwalbe.  What a woman she was: building a library in Afghanistan, serving as the Director of Admissions at Harvard, sharing unique experiences with her grandchildren.  But, wait a minute; I know Mary Ann Schwalbe very well.  Her son made me love this exceptional woman. I sat in on their discussions.  I was there for the setbacks and the celebrations.  At first I was concerned that the cancer diagnosis would mean that this book would be sad and I wasn’t sure I’d want read about this lovely woman’s demise.  I’d been through something quite similar with my own mother and fear gripped me. Thankfully, I was wrong, utterly wrong; this book is a joyful tribute to life, living, the sheer pleasure of reading, and the shared intimacy of sharing what you cherish with someone you love.

What reader wouldn’t delight in a book that celebrates reading and provides so many great titles.  A book that takes the reader through chemotherapy treatments during which she and her son talk about the books they’re reading doesn’t sound like it’d be mesmerizing but it is. When Will Schwalbe asked his mother “What are you reading?” I was part of the conversation.  And when books became a way to introduce topics that concerned them, I was cheering because some of those same books had helped me through similar difficulties. 

My own mother and I loved talking about Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety during my father’s illness and Schwalbe aptly illustrated the manner in which novels can help readers confront tough times. He notes, “The novel gave us a way to discuss some of the things she was facing and some of the things I was facing.  “Do you think he’ll be all right,” I would ask her, referring to Sid, who is very much alone at the end.  “Of course it will be tough on him, but I think he’ll be fine.  I’m quite sure of it. Maybe not right away.  But he’ll be fine,” she would answer, also referring to Sid, but perhaps to my father as well.”

Yet, the Schwalbe conversations weren’t just about dying, they also shared happy stories.  About Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader, “How could anyone who loves books not love a book that is itself so in love with books?”  Their enjoyment of this and books like The Elegance of the Hedgehog,  People of the Book,  A Prayer for Owen Meany, Olive KItteridge, Suite Française, and AThousand Splendid Suns made this voracious reader thrill to the fact that they also valued books that I adored.  That made me eager to try the books they read that I hadn’t and thus a bonus of this marvel is that I now look forward to reading Too Much Happiness, Felicia’s Journey, The Bite of the Mango and several others.

The book includes part of Mary Ann Schwalbe’s obituary by Marina Vaizey:  “This dynamo of energy was contained in a small, quiet, smiling, elegantly dressed woman, who could appear as conventional as a lady who lunched, but traveled the world often in desperately trying circumstances: she was an electoral observer in the Balkans, and was shot at in Afghanistan.  Mary Anne saw the worst and believed the best.”

This book is a paean to Carpe diem.  As Schwalbe wrote, “I was learning that when you’re with someone who is dying you may need to celebrate the past, live the present, and mourn the future all at the same time.”

Will Schwalbe’s tribute to his mother and to the power of reading is a book for every book lover.  It’s also the perfect gift for anyone in a book club.  I initially thought the title mawkish but then Schwalbe reminded me, “We’re all in the end-of-our life book clubs, whether we acknowledge it or not; each book we read may well be the last selection; each conversation the final one.”  Carpe diem, indeed.

Summing it Up: Buy this book for everyone on your holiday list.  Immerse yourself in the life of an exceptional woman.  Discover a list of enticing new titles.  The End of Your Life Book Club is an ebullient tribute to the power of the written word.

Rating:  5 Stars

Category: Grandma’s Pot Roast, Five Stars, Nonfiction, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Publication Date:  October 2, 2012

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