November 14, 2012

The End Of Your Life Book Club...


I read about The End Of Your Life Book Club online and downloaded it right away. This was a smart decision, as I loved - LOVED - this literate, heartfelt, touching book. I laughed a little, I cried a little, I could not put the damn thing down.

In 2007, Mary Anne Schwalbe discovered that she had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. She lived for two more years. During that time, she and her son Will spent many hours together as she received chemotherapy. In The End of Your Life Book Club, Will uses their conversations as a starting point for an affectionate memoir of his mother and their relationship. The two had always exchanged books and recommended readings to each other,  and at Mary Anne’s first chemotherapy session, they decided to form “a book club of two.”

So yes, this memoir is about cancer and death but more than that is about life. And books. And family, both blood and chosen.  
I read this book on my iPad, and flipped frequently to add to my reading list with all the books they were talking about; their reading choices tend to be literary and prize-winning, mine tend to be comical tales of gay hookers who solve mysteries on the side... so I may learn something here, as his conversations with his mother provide hints that make me want to explore their titles further. 

The author's mother was a teacher and fundraiser who travelled to Burma, Afghanistan and Sierre Leone, to work with orphans and lepers and refugees. She was an amazing woman, and it is heartbreaking and somehow inspiring to see her hit with pancreatic cancer which is not curable but treatable, so it is a long decline.

I identified a lot with the author -- cynical, artsy, gay, 40s, sometimes outside observer of life, thinks he is pretty smart; on more than one occasion I found myself up in the middle of the night, thinking about life, reading, as I read about Will Schwalbe up sleepless in the middle of the night, thinking about life,  reading as a way of coping.

Blended in with the life and death of this story are smart observation on everyday things, from insomnia to flying to high society. And I especially like how how the author's gayness is presented matter-of-factly and is not a vital plot point.

This is of course not really a book club or at least how we typically think of one; it is two people who share books and talk about them as a way of talking about life and death. He writes:
“No matter where Mom and I were on our individual journeys, we could still share books, and while reading those books, we wouldn’t be the sick person and the well person; we would simply be a mother and a son entering new worlds together.”  

This book made me think about cancer, death, family, joy, reading, refugees, doing more in the world, violence against women, and my own troubled relationship with my family. And it is not nearly as heavy or depressing as you would think.

The End Of Your Life Book Club is a warm reminder why we read and what our reading says about us, and the different ways we connect with others. Read it.