Review: The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Shwalbe

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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.

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Currently Reading : The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Shwalbe

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I heard about this book a while ago and I wanted to read it immediately. It took me a while to get around to it because of all the other books that I have piled up. Anyway, I got it on my kindle last night and since then, I have been eating it up.

As for what this book is about, take a look at the synopsis:

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. 

I am more than sixty pages into this book and it is beautiful.