"The End of Your Life Book Club"

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

When the author's mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2007 he began taking her to her chemo treatments so that she wouldn't have to face them alone and so he could spend as much time with her as possible in whatever time was left. They were both avid readers and naturally fell into sharing and discussing the books they were reading. This book is Schwalbe's tribute to his mother (Mary Anne) and to the books that helped them through the two difficult last years of his mother's life.

When I was thinking about how to describe this book, the word that kept coming to mind was "admirable". It's easy for an author to take a story of tragedy and emphasize the negatives to wring out all the emotion possible - we've all read books like that - and I was impressed with Schwalbe's restraint. His love for his mother and his loyalty to her are beautiful. He writes honestly about her struggles as her condition deteriorates, but he does it tastefully, honouring her by allowing her to maintain her dignity in the telling of the story. He had great respect for her, and even for the faith that helped shaped many of her opinions but that he didn't share. It's an emotional story, deeply personal, but he never let it become morbid and never wallowed in emotion. I found that refreshing and, well...noble.

I also liked his style of writing. It's intelligent but easy to read and every page was interesting. He doesn't go deeply into their book discussions, but he does share enough to let us see what direction their conversations took and some of what they were learning on their individual journeys. At the back he lists every author and title mentioned in the book and there's a wide variety - from Alices's Adventures In Wonderland and The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Seventy Verses on Emptiness. It's a great list - fun to look through for me because I recognized about half of the authors and/or titles whereas most book lists leave me wondering why I don't recognize any of the titles at all and feeling rather out of touch (and, you know...stupid).

This is a well told, moving story, but in some way's it isn't the average person's cancer story, if there is such a thing. The family is quite well-to-do and had access to the very best care available, something a lot of this book's readers would not have. That isn't in any way a criticism of the book or the author - it's just a reality. It's a simple fact of life that having enough money makes things easier. At no point in the book is any of it taken for granted; several times Mary Anne acknowledges and expresses gratitude for the advantages she has. She spent years herself working with various charities and helping the disadvantaged around the world, and toward the end of the book she encourages people to get involved and support health care reform in America so that no American has to go without the care they need.

Some of my favourite passages:

1. This is a great opening line: "We were nuts about the mocha in the waiting room at Memorial Sloan-Kettering's outpatient care center."

2. "I often forget that other people's stories aren't simply introductions to my more engaging, more dramatic, more relevant and better told tales, but rather are ends in themselves, tales I can learn from or repeat or dissect or savor."

3. "...as the clock ticked, I resented other people for interrupting the limited number of conversations we had left."

4. "'Everyone doesn't have to do everything,' she told me. 'People forget you can also express yourself by what you choose to admire and support.'"

I liked this book very much and recommend it highly.


Anonymous said...

Will it make me cry?!

Ordinary Reader said...

booksaremyfavouriteandbest - if you do it will be because your heart aches for the author and his family, not because the books plays on your emotions. It's not a sappy story, just an honest one. So to answer you question - maybe, maybe not...oh heck, probably! I just had a look around your lovely blog and I'm a new follower!

Search Engine Optimization Olympia said...

Amazingly powerful...very thought provoking...an A list of books to add to my must read. A touching tribute about a woman of great compassion, genuine humanity and a caring spirit.

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