This is a good book. It’s just not the great book that it could have been. The book has only 337 pages and yet, it felt like it went on a bit too long. The problem, I think, is that it has been billed as a book about books and it is that, but the book talk forms only a small part of the book.
What it is, is a memoir, a record of the two years that Shwalbe had with his mother from the time she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at 73 until the end when she lost her battle with the disease and died.
Those two years involved many tedious hospital visits and long hours spent waiting for treatment, time that could have felt tedious. The author and his mother took advantage of all that time by choosing to read and talk about all the books they were reading, just as they had done all their lives.
They read a whole lot of books, starting with Crossing to Safety by Wallace Steigner, and going on to A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly, Suite Franchise by Irene Nemirovsky, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by JR R Tolkien and a 100 other books besides.
I found it really charming that instead of getting depressed about the cancer, mother and son spent what little time they had, reading books and talking about them. It helped them connect and it helped them talk about things like death, that would otherwise have been very difficult to talk about.
This book, similarly, seems to have served as a way for the author to talk about his mother, Mary Ann Shawlbe, who was a truly remarkable woman. She was the director of admissions for both Radcliffe and Harvard back when it was highly unusual for women to work outside the home.
She helped found the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children when she was in her fifties. She served as the director of the organisation for several years. She went to Afghanistan, Liberia, Sudan and Bosnia among other war-torn places to work with and help the people displaced by war.
The book is really about her life and everything that she achieved and about all the trauma and difficulty of living with a cancer that is not curable. The end of your life book club is part of the story, but it felt almost incidental at times.