The End of Your Life Book Club - Will Schwalbe

During her treatment for cancer, Mary Anne Schwalbe and her son Will spent many hours sitting in waiting rooms together. To pass the time, they would talk about the books they were reading. Once, by chance, they read the same book at the same time—and an informal book club of two was born. Through their wide-ranging reading, Will and Mary Anne—and we, their fellow readers—are reminded how books can be comforting, astonishing, and illuminating, changing the way that we feel about and interact with the world around us. A profoundly moving memoir of caregiving, mourning, and love—The End of Your Life Book Club is also about the joy of reading, and the ways that joy is multiplied when we share it with others.

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While on her way back from a humanitarian trip, author Will Schwalbe's mother fell severely ill. It was initially diagnosed as hepatitis, believed to be caught (possibly) from contaminated water. Further tests showed the case was more complicated than that. While there was evidence of hepatitis, Schwalbe's mother informs him that the doctors found it was not viral, but "related to a tumor in the bile duct". What she had, in fact, was advanced pancreatic cancer. This book is a sort of memoir documenting Schwalbe's final years with his mother as she fought to survive her diagnosis. Since his mother had to sit around between treatments anyway, Schwalbe gets the idea for them to start up a little book club just between the two of them, recommending titles to each other, reading and then discussing their thoughts. It begins as a way to pass the time but morphs into a way to talk about deeper thoughts or topics they might not otherwise know how to bring up.

 

Schwalbe's memoir is also a kind of love letter just to the joy of books in general, the ability to save a person they can possess. 

 

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... books can be how we get closer to each other, and stay close... 

 

The way Schwalbe writes about his mother, she seemed like a really cool lady with a great way of looking at life. I especially liked when Will describes them getting into the "physical book vs. ebook" debate. He was all for ebooks and their convenience and she points out that while she could see the benefit of ebooks, they're not the same when it comes to gifting a book to someone. People just don't get as excited over being given a electronic file. SO true!! I also liked her stories of how her life brushed up against literary royalty -- a college professor of hers had dated Scottie Fitzgerald, the daughter of Zelda & F. Scott; how she once shared a college class with John Updike; the house she and her husband rented in Cambridge in Julia Child's neighborhood. Such a strong spirit came through the pages, I got a little sad when Will talks about how his mother loved her books so much that she feared not being able to have the strength to read in her final weeks of life... and how, when he saw her really immersed in a story, plowing through one book after another, it made him think to himself If she can still read whole books in an entire sitting, the end is far off yet.

 

There was one sure way to avoid being assigned an impromptu chore in our house -- be it taking out the trash or cleaning your room -- and that was to have your face buried in a book. Like churches in the Middle Ages, books conferred instant sanctuary. Once you entered one, you couldn't be disturbed. They didn't give you immunity from prosecution if you'd done something wrong -- just a temporary reprieve. But we quickly learned you had to both look and be completely engrossed -- just flipping pages didn't count.... Mom and Dad spent hours every week reading -- and whole weekend days. Mom was always a little amazed at parents who thought their kids should be reading more but who never read themselves. It reminded me of a line I'd heard a Denver newscaster say, in all seriousness, during host chat: "I like books. I don't read them. But I like them."

 

This book didn't have quite as much on the actual books read as I thought it might. It seemed more like a man's tribute to his mother, his sharing of her cancer story, with some book anecdotes sprinkled throughout -- but I still found myself really enjoying it and I think any bookworm is bound to get something from this one, at least from one reading. I wasn't as moved by it as I had hoped I would be. There was something about the tone, at least in some parts, that seemed a little more distanced from the topic, a little more clinical in tone than I would expect. But there were moments where the bond between them really shined through, so an enjoyable read in the end.