Thursday, January 10, 2013

The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe

You might expect a memoir about the two years an author's mother spent dying from pancreatic cancer to be a depressing tearjerker. Yet The End of Your Life Book Club is anything but--it's uplifting, funny, and full of good book recommendations. The responsibility for the tone of the book rests with the author, as well as with his mother, a truly remarkable woman. Mary Anne Schwalbe was a wife and mother of three, as well as an actress, director of admissions at Radcliffe and Harvard, a teacher and head of school, and a long-time leader in providing help to refugees--particularly women--around the world. Even during two years of grueling treatments for a cancer she knew was not curable, Mary Anne  continued a project she had started pre-diagnosis: building a library in Afghanistan.

The book covers Mary Anne's work, her treatment, and family dynamics, but at the book's core are son Will's recounting of the book discussions he and Mary Anne had during the two years of her illness. Many of these discussions took place while Mary Anne was receiving chemotherapy. Starting with Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety, their shared reading helped mother and son talk about a wide range of topics, from the personal to the philosophical. Mary Anne used the book club as an opportunity to get Will to read and talk about religion (she was a Christian, he is nonreligious), but they also read popular novels as varied as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and People of the Book. They also read short stories, poetry, biography.

I fear my description does not do The End of Your Life Book Club justice; it's definitely a worthwhile read, if only to expand your "want-to-read" list.

Favorite passages:
Reading isn't the opposite of doing; it's the opposite of dying.

For me, there's something about flying that isolates and intensifies sadness, the way a looking glass can magnify the sun until it grows unbearably hot and burns.

Mom taught me not to look away from the worst but to believe that we can all do better. She never wavered in her conviction that books are the most powerful tool in the human arsenal, that reading all kinds of books, in whatever format you choose . . . is the grandest entertainment, and also is how you take part in the human conversation. Mom taught me that you can make a difference in the world and that books really do matter: they're how we know what we need to do in life, and how we tell others.

1 comment:

  1. I was a bit surprised by this book in that I thought it might be dreary, but I actually found it uplifting. Each chapter is a book they read and discussed. I had read many of the same books and that enriched Schwalbe's book for me. Those I had not read, I made a list and have begun reading them.

    Maycee Greene (Olympia SEO)