The End of Your Life Book Club
by Will Schwalbe
published by Alfred A. Knopf
Vintage Canada 2013
352 pages $19.95
"What are you reading?" Will Schwalbe asks this question of his mother, as they are sitting in a waiting room of a cancer treatment centre.
The question sparks a renewed conversation between the two of them about books. The End of Your Life Book Club is Schwalbe's recounting the two years following his mother's diagnosis with adavnced pancreatic cancer.
Together, they become an informal book club of two, discussing books already read, books they wanted each other to read, and new books that arrived for them to share. Schwalbe, at the time, was the editor in chief of a major American publishing house (Hyperion). His mother, Mary Ann, seventy-three at the time of her diagnosis, had lived a rich and varied life with brief careers as a young actress, a prestigious university Admissions Officer, a teacher, board member of several non-profit charitable organizations that worked with immigrants and refugees, and a world traveler. Simultaneously, she was a mother to three children and a loving partner to her husband.
Mary Ann Schwalbe definitely had a life worth celebrating. And Will chronicles her life through the literary adventures they share on this, Mary Ann's final journey.
Schwalbe, as might be expected, is an intelligent and sharply focused writer. Every chapter takes its title from one of the books he and his mom are discussing or from a passage in one of those books. Schwalbe includes short excerpts from some of these books and I was contunually startled by the fine insights these excerpts - from an immensely wide range of authors - brought to illuminate both his mother's and his own life. Some of these are gently funny, some are pompous, most reveal the heart of our human condition. Of course, that is what great writers and great literature does.
So the core gift of The End of Your LIfe Book Club is this collection of deeply moving literary references that give reverance to both dying and living.
Both of them share a passionate love for books, that is, reall books that you hold and turn their pages. Here is how Schwalbe describes them: "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 basked wrapped in a sweatshirt. But at other times, they'll confront you and you'll literarlly 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 may make me feel, but I can't feel them. They are all soul with no flesh, no texture, no weight."
In addition to discussing authors, Will asks his mother questions that allow us, the reader, to gain her own personal life insights. Having been a working mother all her life, Mary Ann bristles when she was challenged about this. "People don't talk about working fathers", she once said to me. She came to as many of our school plays and sports events as she could. "I think parents should do their best not to be unhappy. That's the worst thing for children - to have unhappy parents. If you want to work outside the home, you should. If ou can affort not to and don't want to, then you shouldn't."
The End of Your LIfe Book Club ends up being a multiple - layered love story. It is about a deeply felt love between a mother and her son and about their shared love for good literature.
It is likely that most of us have known someone who is dying, whether a friend, someone within our own immediate family or even a distant relative. Schwalbe's book has so many insights and gifts in it, I recommend it to anyone for personal comfort and preparation, including our own enevitable ending.
Michael Sobota is a Thunder Bay-based writer.