"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.
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"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, they 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.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-07-16
- Reviewer: Staff
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. Schwalbe, founder of Cookstr.com and former editor-in-chief of Hyperion, along with his father and siblings, was blindsided by the news; his mother, Mary Ann Schwalbe, had been an indomitable crusader for human rights, once the director of admissions at Harvard, and a person of enormous energy and management skills. Could a book club be run by only two people? Schwalbe and his mother wondered as they waited together over many chemotherapy sessions at Memorial Sloan-Kettering. It didn’t matter: “Books showed us that we didn’t need to retreat or cocoon,” he writes; they provided “much-needed ballast” during an emotionally tumultuous time when fear and uncertainty gripped them both as the dreaded disease (“not curable but treatable”) progressed rapidly. 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. (Oct.)
A book lover to the very end
What self-respecting reader isn't a sucker for a great book about other great books? The End of Your Life Book Club is that much and more.
After Will Schwalbe’s 73-year-old mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2007, he began accompanying her to many of her chemotherapy treatments and doctor’s appointments. Both book lovers—Schwalbe is the former editor-in-chief of Hyperion Books—they often passed the time by reading, talking about reading or both.
Their informal waiting-room book club endured for the remaining two years of her life, and led to this tender tribute to Schwalbe’s mother and also to the universal power of books to unite and heal. In it, he chronicles the many books that he and his mother, Mary Anne, read together, and how those books shaped their final years together.
“In our society, after someone dies, there’s a period where you’re almost supposed to stop talking about her,” Schwalbe says from his New York City apartment, where he lives with his longtime partner David. “It’s a great joy in life to talk about the people you love. My main impetus was to show how books can connect and bring people closer. My mother taught me so much and I wanted to share it.”
A small, gray-haired dynamo with super-sized energy and opinions, Mary Anne Schwalbe served as director of admissions at Harvard University and Radcliffe, and founding director of the Women’s Refugee Commission. She and her husband raised three voracious readers who, as Schwalbe recalls in the book, learned early on that reading was a priority: “On weekends, when Mom and Dad had settled into the living room, each with a stack of books, we had two options: We could sit and read, or we could disappear until mealtime.”
Sometimes, the books mother and son read were purely escapist (like P.G. Wodehouse and a 1949 beach read called Brat Farrar). That came in handy when Mary Anne was enduring what she called one of her “not great” days.
Other times, the books allowed them to broach tough topics. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking helped Schwalbe understand the importance of acknowledging his mother’s pain. Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety led to talks about what Schwalbe’s father would do once Mary Anne died. “It was a shorthand way to talk about my father,” Schwalbe says. “It was too painful to talk about head-on.”
But most of all, their impromptu book club of two allowed them to simply be, as mother and son.
“We weren’t a sick person and a well person,” Schwalbe says. “We were just two readers. That was a revelation.”
Certainly Schwalbe knows his books, having spent several years in publishing. He left Hyperion to start a cooking website, Cookstr.
“The best thing about leaving publishing is now I get to read,” Schwalbe laughs. No longer a slave to a stack of manuscripts, he finally gets to indulge in what he calls “reading promiscuously.” He and his mother also chose their books haphazardly, drifting between genres.
“We were given books; we knocked them over on a bookstore shelf and then bought them,” he says.
Schwalbe realized he wanted to write about their book club while his mother was still alive. She initially demurred when he told her his idea, but the next day began emailing him her thoughts, along with a list of books they’d read together. The rest of his family soon was on board, too.
“They encouraged me to write the book I wanted to write,” he says, even though that meant laying bare some incredibly personal experiences in order to paint the full picture of his family.
One of Schwalbe’s favorite outcomes of writing this book so far is that early copies have inspired people to start reading with their family. He got an email recently from a woman who has started a book club with her grandson, a teen who is reading The Hunger Games to her.
“That made me so happy,” he says. It’s a fitting tribute to a woman who died at 75 but left an enduring legacy.
“There are a lot of extraordinary people in this country and most don’t get an obituary in the New York Times,” Schwalbe says. “Mom was not somebody who was in the New York Times. She was one of those extraordinary, ordinary people.”