By the Book @ Rogers Memorial Library

The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe

“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.”

Every now and then I fall in love with a book.  It might be fiction or nonfiction, serious or funny…I don’t know what the magic formula is, but I find myself recommending it to perfect strangers.  The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe, is that kind of book.  Wise, gently funny, with fascinating characters, heartwrenching truths and a lot of talk about books…..what could be better?

Will’s mother, Mary Anne Schwalbe, was a small woman who lived a tremendously meaningful life.  She served as the director of admissions at Radcliffe and Harvard.  After moving to New York, a mysterious postcard led her to Thailand to work in a refugee camp.  Upon her return, she became the first director of the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children.  She traveled extensively for this work, in some of the most dangerous parts of the world.  Through it all, she remained a concerned mother and an involved grandparent.   She approached her final illness with clear-eyed realism, yet never gave up hope or lost her strong sense of faith.

Mary Anne was dying of pancreatic cancer when she and Will formed their peculiar book club of two people.  As they sat waiting in doctors’ offices, or watching the chemo liquids drip, Will and his mom discussed books, and in doing so, also talked about her coming death.   Sometimes the plot of a book raised issues that were too difficult to face head-on.  When Will questioned whether they should read books about people with cancer, Mary Anne said, “Well, I don’t think it’s any sadder to die from cancer than from a heart attack or another disease or an accident or anything else.  It’s all just part of life, real life.  If we rule out books with death in them, we wouldn’t have much to read.”

From Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner, to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson, Will and his mother explored ideas and feelings through the books that they read together.  Whether the books were serious nonfiction tomes, or the light stories of P.G. Wodehouse, this mother and son grew closer and learned new things about each other.  Mary Anne liked sweet books, but not silly ones.  She thought that authors who wrote silly books really didn’t have much to say.  She didn’t mind depressing books, because they helped her remember how lucky she was.

While this book is bound to be compared to Tuesdays With Morrie, by Mitch Albom, or The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch, it offers its own unique look at the end of life journey.  Readers will close the pages of The End of Your Life Book Club feeling that they have gotten to know an extraordinary woman.  They will also have been allowed to take part in a very small, and very special book club.

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