Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The End of Your Life Book Club

I recently finished reading The End of Your Life Book Club, a memoir about a man’s relationship with his mother and the book club they formed after learning the mother had terminal pancreatic cancer. The mother, Mary Anne Schwalbe, died seven years ago on this day. She came across in her son’s writing as such a remarkable woman. She was ambitious, adventurous, kind, and giving. She traveled to 27 different countries, working with refugees, sometimes risking her life to help others. Through the strong relationships she’d built with people who were in a position to give, she raised the funds to build traveling libraries in Afghanistan and help further girls’ education. An advocate for human rights, she dismissed praise for her work, rejected compliments of being “brave,” and said the real bravery resided in the refugees she’d helped. Although I never knew her, today I’m taking some time to celebrate her remarkable life. About three hours ago I arrived in Bucharest, Romania. I thought of going out and having a drink in her honor, but I’m tired after a long day, so instead I’ll write this review and drink a Sprite. I’m sure her family is thinking of ways to honor her on this day and I want to do the same from this part of the world.

Some criticism I’ve heard from other readers is that the author, Will Schwalbe, seems too supercilious and pretentious. There were times when I agreed and thought some of the name dropping and the details about so-and-so’s Ivy League education were just a distraction from the marrow of this memoir, that is the mother-son relationship and the stories about Mary Anne Schwalbe’s fascinating life. One of the author’s observations bothered me because it seemed shallow in this particular context. He wrote that he and his mother were standing in a line at the hospital behind a woman who was “in her thirties, smartly but not expensively dressed.” The woman was crying because she couldn’t afford her medication. I understand the connection he was trying to make between her clothes and her financial dilemma, but the author failed to provide a compassionate picture of this woman. Luckily, his mother noticed the woman was crying about the cost of her medication and generously paid the bill. I think Mary Anne realized that it’s not fair for the cost of anything to be an anxiety attack for one person and a drop in the bucket for another. Mary Anne was such a remarkable woman that most people writing about her life, including her own son, would seem only average in comparison.

The author, her son, has lived a very privileged life. He worked in publishing and his mother urged him to quit because he wasn’t happy. I’ve often given friends the advice that if they’re unhappy at work, or in their relationships, they should just quit. This advice is not always so easy to follow, but the author’s life, the way it’s presented in this book, really did seem that easy. He never made clear what was at stake or made his problems relatable. The biggest problem he faces, apart from losing his mother, is insomnia.

Overall, I enjoyed this book because I love books about books. When I first looked at the table of contents and saw that each chapter was named after a different book, I knew I would end up adding most of them to my reading list. The books Will and Mary Anne read together are diverse and their discussions made me want to be there with them. Apparently, they were both such fast readers that each chapter contains multiple books they read together. A couple times one of them would say they loved a book so much they read it in one sitting. I’m such a slow reader that I don’t think I’ve ever read a book in one sitting in my life.

When they read ContinentalDrift by Russell Banks, Will grew worried that the book was too depressing for his mom to handle in her fragile state. Although it was sad, she had witnessed enough in her lifetime to grapple with even the saddest book. I recently heard a woman in her 70s say that because her time on this earth is limited, she’s not going to read any sad books. At the time, I thought that was one of the most foolish declarations anyone could make. That’s like saying, “I’m only going to watch Fred Astaire tap dancing movies, because tap dancing makes me happy.” I’m a big Russell Banks fan, although I haven’t yet read Continental Drift. I can’t imagine refusing to read a beautiful book simply because it’s sad. On the other hand, Mary Anne did choose a different version of Romeo and Juliet to be the last performance she would see, one in which the lovers both live happily ever after.

What’s next? A happy version of Hamlet? (Good morning, sweet prince! It’s time to party.) As terrible as that sounds, maybe there is a tendency for people in their old age to turn to things that make them happy and to wish for happy endings to all stories.

On the subject of grieving, I found A Grief Observed, by C.S. Lewis, and The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion, to be much more insightful. However, The End of Your Life Book Club isn’t really about grieving. It’s about celebrating his mother’s life and celebrating a shared love of reading. 

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