The End of Your Life Book Club

By Will Schwalbe

(Knopf Doubleday, $25, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

What qualifies an author to write about books? It helps to have a knowledge of publishing, and Will Schwalbe certainly does. A fomer editor in chief of Hyperion Books, he’s also a journalist who has contributed to such varied newspapers as The New York Times and the South China Morning Post. He founded and was CEO of and is a member of the board of Yale University Press. He also co-authored “Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better” with David Shipley. But what really qualified him to write this particular book was to have grown up as the loving son of a remarkable woman.

What is this book about?

When Schwalbe’s mother, Mary Anne, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and told she had just months to live, he was there for her during chemo sessions. And being lovers of books, they passed the difficult time by discussing them, as they regularly did before she became ill. They soon realized that by reading the same books at the same time, they’d become a kind of two-person book club and that the books they chose and the insights they gathered would enrich the time they had left to share.

As Schwalbe told an interviewer:

“For as long as I can remember, I talked about books with my mother.  …”What are you reading?” is a question we constantly asked each other. We were especially prone to talk about books when we were anxious or stressed – or when there was a difficult subject we wanted to tackle obliquely…. I’ve come to feel that whenever you share a book with someone, and talk about it, you’re creating a little book club. And these little book clubs can sustain us over the course of a short period of time – or a lifetime.”

Why you’ll like it:

While the sweet sadness of this book might make you tear up at times, Schwalbe is never maudlin in describing how books brought him and his mother, already close, even closer together as her life drew to its end. Besides offering a very engaging portrait of his mother, the book also serves to introduce (or remind readers about) some terrific books that they also might like.  As Schwalbe puts it:“…we were engaging with the world – learning, growing, travelling. We went to Khaled Hosseini’s Afghanistan, and Michael Thomas’s Brooklyn, and Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana. We met Jhumpa Lahiri’s new immigrants and Alan Bennett’s Queen of England. We learned about Irene Nemirovsky’s refugees and Ishmael Beah’s child soldiers. And when we did all this, we not only felt — but were – totally alive.”

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “Sharing books he loved with his savvy New Yorker mom had always been a great pleasure for both mother and son…. 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. …“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.”

Library Journal says: “…Throughout this memoir, Schwalbe and his mother discuss characters and themes from the books they read, and Schwalbe considers these same characters and themes in relation to his mother, who, as an administrator at Harvard and the Dalton School in New York City and a widely admired humanitarian, tirelessly strove to help others. …VERDICT This book will bring tears to readers’ eyes—it is an essential title for lovers of memoir. Recommended for anyone who enjoys books about mothers and sons, books about the love of books, and books about the strength of families.

“….While they waited together through interminable doctor visits, hospital stays and chemotherapy sessions, they discussed what they had been reading. This became the beginning of the “End of Your Life Book Club.” As Schwalbe points out, the name was appropriate not just because his mother was dying, but because any book could be your last. Books provided an avenue for the author and his mother to explore important topics that made them uneasy. As his mother told him, “That’s one of the things books do. They help us talk. But they also give us something we all can talk about when we don’t want to talk about ourselves.” They discussed books ….as “a mother and a son entering new worlds together.”…Schwalbe… introduces each of the authors with the insight of a veteran editor, highlighting their styles and strengths. Each chapter holds a subtle message fleshed out through their readings and discussions, and themes include gratitude, loneliness, feminism, faith, communication, trust and grief. In a heartfelt tribute to his mother, Schwalbe illustrates the power of the written word to expand our knowledge of ourselves and others,” says Kirkus Reviews.

“Tissues at the ready, I braced myself for “The End of Your Life Book Club,” Will Schwalbe’s memoir of his mother’s death from  pancreatic cancer. But Mary Anne Schwalbe is such a fierce, unsentimental heroine–and her son such a frank and funny storyteller–that what could have been an emotional roller coaster turns out to be a beautifully paced ride. …When her health starts to fail, Will joins her for hospital appointments. They wait, they talk, and they read together–everything they’ve ever wanted to discuss. As much an homage to literature as to the mother who shared it with him, Will’s chronicle of this heartrending time opens up his captivating family to the rest of us. We should all be so lucky as to read along with the Schwalbes,” says Mia Lipman forAmazon Best Books of the Month, October 2012.

When is it available?

Schwalbe’s book is on the new books shelf at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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