Imagine you have just learned your mother has cancer. Imagine you and your mother form a book club for the two of you. Imagine you discuss the books you read during chemo treatments, hospital events, and at any other opportunity. This scenario is the true story Will Schwalbe shares in his book The End of Your Life Book Club. When his mother, Mary Anne Schwalbe, returned from one of her humanitarian trips, this one included Pakistan and Afghanistan, she learned she had pancreatic cancer. Their book club carried them through the final two years of her life while she maintained humanitarian, business, social, and family ties.
Writers as Readers, WaR, met February 4, at the Barnes and Noble at Cherry Vale Mall to discuss Schwalbe’s New York Times best-selling memoir. We were not familiar with Will’s book prior to its selection. Our discussions ranged from cover art, through story arc, to favorite scenes and words.
In our opinion, the bound book appeared academic with its words-only front cover; we weren’t likely to pick it up. The soft book cover included a picture and a quote by Entertainment Weekly: “A graceful, affecting testament to a mother and a life well lived. Grade A.” The consensus: more likely to pick up the soft cover, however, the title alone did not invite any of us to read it. The book was recommended to us by a trusted book store owner else it could have gone undiscovered. It is a gold mine of great books; “…from classic to popular, from poetry to mysteries, from fantastic to spiritual.”
Each chapter heading is the title of a book, which ties to experiences that Will and Mary Anne have and the insights they gain when reading the book. The son/mother/cancer treatments story lines often emulate the particular book’s theme.
Many of the books Will and Mary Anne read were new to us, with one resounding exception, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. We did recognize and many had read, The Hobbit, The Painted Veil, Murder in the Cathedral, The Year of Magical Thinking, and Olive Kitteridge. We realized our reading experience was richest when we were familiar with a chapter’s primary book. This prompted the thought of reading Will and Mary Anne’s sequence of books over a two year period to simulate their experience and gain the most from the books they read.
During Mary Anne’s battle with cancer she raised funds to build a library and establish mobile libraries in Afghanistan. She monitored the progress of Obama’s presidential race and cheered when he was elected. She prayed for the return of David Rohde, a New York Times reporter captured by the Taliban. He escaped unharmed before she died. When in Florida, she hoped to see the manatees, and was euphoric when they appeared. Each event gave her peace in her final months.
The End of Your Life Book Club is packed with wisdom. “Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying.” Books with dark themes help a person to “understand the world as it is, not as we would like it to be.” Will and Mary Anne understood that while reading and discussing books they wouldn’t be “the sick person and the well person; would be mother and son entering new worlds together” – this gives them ballast amid the chaos of Mary Anne’s illness.
From The Etiquette of Illness, Will noted: “Ask, Do you want to talk about how you’re feeling. Don’t ask if there’s anything you can do. Suggest things, or if it’s not intrusive, just do them.” And, “You don’t have to talk all the time. Sometimes just being there is enough.’”
Other quotes and observations throughout the book include: “…be in the present… live more fully every minute… The greatest gift you can give anyone is your undivided attention. …books…help us talk …give us something we all can talk about when we don’t want to talk about ourselves.”Our review included: overall opinion of the book (neutral, then enhanced through our discussion), pace (contemplative), strengths (references to great books; inspired attention to now) and weaknesses (wanted deeper character development), plot (proposed: Will, protagonist; time, antagonist), themes (death and dying, relationships, spirituality, missed opportunities, values of writing, reading and discussion, plus many others), and structure (effective).
As to whom we would recommend read this book: anyone racing through life focused on what’s ahead, and/or are involved with a terminally ill person.
This book provides valuable insight into living in the present. Mary Anne would say, you can’t change yesterday, you don’t know if you will have tomorrow; you can optimize today.
In the Epilogue Will wrote, “I came to realize the greatest gift of our book club was that it gave me time and opportunity to ask her [his mother] things, not tell her things.
She [Will’s mother] never wavered in her conviction that books are the most powerful tool in the human arsenal, that reading all kinds of books…is the grandest entertainment, and also how you take part in the human conversation.”
Note: At the end of the book is an alphabetical listing of the authors, books, plays, poems, and stories discussed and mentioned within the book; excellent reading for several years.
WaR’s next read is a young adult novel, Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. WaR will meet again on March 4, 2014, 6:30 – 8:30 pm, at the Barnes and Noble, Cherry Valley Mall.