The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe
2012 Random House Audio
Reader: Jeff Harding
Finished on May 9, 2014
Rating: 4.5/5 (Very Good)
From Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach to Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, William Trevor’s Felicia’s Journey to Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar, Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book to John Updike’s My Father’s Tears: the books they shared allowed them to speak honestly and thoughtfully, to get to know each other, ask big questions, and especially talk about death. With a refreshing forthrightness, and an excellent list of books included, this is an astonishing, pertinent, and wonderfully welcome work. ~ Publishers Weekly
“Sharing books he loved with his savvy New Yorker mom had always been a great pleasure for both mother and son, becoming especially poignant when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2007, at age 73 . . . The books they shared allowed them to speak honestly and thoughtfully, to get to know each other, ask big questions, and especially talk about death. With a refreshing forthrightness, and an excellent list of books included, this is an astonishing, pertinent, and wonderfully welcome work.” —Publishers Weekly
“What are you reading?”
That’s the question Will Schwalbe asks his mother, Mary Anne, as they sit in the waiting room of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. In 2007, Mary Anne returned from a humanitarian trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan suffering from what her doctors believed was a rare type of hepatitis. Months later she was diagnosed with a form of advanced pancreatic cancer, which is almost always fatal, often in six months or less.
This is the inspiring true story of a son and his mother, who start a “book club” that brings them together as her life comes to a close. Over the next two years, Will and Mary Anne carry on conversations that are both wide-ranging and deeply personal, prompted by an eclectic array of books and a shared passion for reading. Their list jumps from classic to popular, from poetry to mysteries, from fantastic to spiritual. The issues they discuss include questions of faith and courage as well as everyday topics such as expressing gratitude and learning to listen. Throughout, mother and son are constantly reminded of the power of books to comfort us, astonish us, teach us, and tell us what we need to do with our lives and in the world. Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying.
Will and Mary Anne share their hopes and concerns with each other—and rediscover their lives—through their favorite books. When they read, they aren’t a sick person and a well person, but a mother and a son taking a journey together. The result is a profoundly moving tale of loss that is also a joyful, and often humorous, celebration of life: Will’s love letter to his mother, and theirs to the printed page.
I started listening to the audio version of The End of Your Life Book Club last year, but after finishing the first chapter I knew it was the sort of book that would require dozens of Post-It Notes. I decided to stop listening and instead read the print edition in order to highlight some of my favorite passages. However, I never got around to getting a copy of the book, so I started listening again (from the beginning) with the idea that I’d just make notes and glance at the book once I’d finished. I found myself still wanting to take lengthy notes about the various books mentioned, as well as highlight the passages about a parent with cancer, so as soon as I finished the audio, I immediately bought the book. As I sit here composing this review, I find myself re-reading not just a paragraph here and there, but full pages and complete chapters. In addition to the beautiful story about the author and his mother, it’s a wealth of information for any bibliophile!
Our book club got its formal start with the mocha and one of the most casual questions two people can ask each other: “What are you reading?” It’s something of a quaint question these days. More often in lulls of conversation people ask, “What movies have you seen?” or “Where are you going on vacation?” You can no longer assume, the way you could when I was growing up, that anyone is reading anything. But it’s a question my mother and I asked each other for as long as I can remember.
We all have a lot more to read than we can read and a lot more to do than we can do. Still, one of the things I learned from Mom is this: Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying. I will never be able to read my mother’s favorite books without thinking of her—and when I pass them on and recommend them, I’ll know that some of what made her goes with them; that some of my mother will live on in those readers, readers who may be inspired to love the way she loved and do their own version of what she did in the world.
On opening lines:
Mom and I loved opening lines of novels. “The small boys came early to the hanging” was one of favorites, from Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. How could you not go on reading? And the first sentence of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany: “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” And E. M. Forster’s first line in Howard’s End: “One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister.” It’s the “may as well” that draws you in—casual, chatty even, yet it gives the reader a strong sense that there’s a lot of story to come.
On bound books:
One of the many things I love about bound books is their sheer physicality. Electronic books live out of sight and out of mind. But printed books have body, presence. Sure, sometimes they’ll elude you by hiding in improbable places: in a box full of old picture frames, say, or in the laundry basket, wrapped in a sweatshirt. But at other times they’ll confront you, and you’ll literally stumble over some tomes you hadn’t thought about in weeks or years. I often seek electronic books, but they never come after me. They make me feel, but I can’t feel them. They are all soul with no flesh, no texture, and no weight. They can get in your head but can’t whack you upside it.
From the Epilogue:
I often think about the things Mom taught me. Make your bed, every morning—it doesn’t matter if you feel like it, just do it. Write thank-you notes immediately. Unpack your suitcase, even if you’re only somewhere for the night. If you aren’t ten minutes early, you’re late. Be cheerful and listen to people, even if you don’t feel like it. Tell your spouse (children, grandchildren, parents) that you love them every day. Use shelf liner in bureaus. Keep a collection of presents on hand (Mom kept them in a “present drawer”), so that you’ll always have something to give people. Celebrate occasions. Be kind.and
Even though nearly two years have passed since her death, I’m occasionally struck by the desire to call Mom and tell her something—usually about a book I’m reading that I know she’d love. Even though she’s not here, I tell her about it anyway. Just as I told her about the three million dollars the U.S. government has committed to building the library in Afghanistan. By the time this book is published, the Kabul library will be finished. I like to believe that she knows that.
…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—electronic (even though that wasn’t for her) or printed, or audio—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. Mom also showed me, over the course of two years and dozens of books and hundreds of hours in hospitals, that books can be how we get closer to each other, and stay close, even in the case of a mother and son who were very close to each other to begin with, and even after one of them has died.Final Thoughts:
In 1995 I joined my first book club. It consisted of two good friends and myself and we read a wide variety of novels, which we discussed over elegant lunches and often times while playing a few hands of Mahjong. Over the years I have since joined numerous online book groups, as well as face-to-face groups with co-workers and friends. My current group is comprised of three dear friends and while we don’t read an “assigned” selection, we get together once a month to share our recommendations of some recent favorites. As I read Will Schwalbe’s memoir, I couldn’t help but think of my own mother. Like her own mother and sister, she too is a voracious reader. There is never a conversation with my mom that doesn’t include the same question Schwalbe posed to his mother: “What are you reading?” I love that my mom and I share this passion for the written word and I look forward to many more years of her recommendations and thoughts on her current read. Maybe when I’m ready to dive back into this book (as well as some of the books mentioned by Schwalbe), she’ll decide to join me.