Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe


The End of Your Life Book Club
by Will Schwalbe
narrated by Jeff Harding
Random House Audio, 2012
9 hours and 40 minutes
source: purchased

Publisher's Summary: 
"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.

My thoughts:

I always steer clear of memoirs dealing with illness or death of a parent, yet cannot resist books about books. For that reason, The End of Your Life Book Club  presented an unusual dilemma. My solution in this case was to avoid the book... and I did for nearly two years until curiosity finally won out. I gave in and listened earlier this fall.

Will's mother, Mary Anne, was a remarkable woman, very much loved by her family. After her diagnosis, Will and Mary Anne formed a two person book club which met at Memorial Sloan-Kettering during chemotherapy sessions. They read (or reread) many interesting books and their discussions provided a means of sharing thoughts on life and, eventually, death.

It is, of course, still a memoir about the illness and death of a parent, but because books and book discussion provide the structure, it was nowhere near as depressing as I'd anticipated.

Now for the books...

It made me want to reread several favorites including:
Crossing to Safety  by Wallace Stegner
The Uncommon Reader  by Alan Bennett
The Painted Veil  by W. Somerset Maugham
Brooklyn  by Colm Tóibín

I also made a long list of books to investigate:
The Etiquette of Illness  by Sue Halpern
Daily Strength for Daily Needs  by Mary W. Tileston
Marjorie Morningstar  by Herman Wouk
Gilead  by Marilynne Robinson (on my shelf)
Brat Farrar  by Josephine Tey
The Magic Mountain  by Thomas Mann (on my shelf)
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier  by Ishmael Beah
My Father's Tears: And Other Stories  by John Updike

A Favorite Quote:
I was learning that when you're with someone who is dying, you may need to celebrate the past, live the present, and mourn the future all at the same time.
If I'd read a print copy, there would be many, many more quotes to share, but that's almost impossible with an audiobook.

About the audio production:
Jeff Harding is no stranger to audiobook narration, but this was my first experience with his work. He did an excellent job narrating and immediately drew me into Will's story. In fact, I often wondered if it was actually Will doing his own narration. I would gladly listen to him again.

Bottom line:
If you enjoy books about books, don't be put off because this one is also about death and dying.

My rating:

28 comments:

  1. Isn't this a lovely inspiring book. It bumped up my TBR pile hugely!

    I've just read Colm Toibin's latest book and can't wait to try Brooklyn.

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    1. Brona - I just got Nora Webster from the library yesterday! Can't decide whether to read it after finishing The Hotel or save it for later and go straight to my CC Spin book. Brooklyn was a very good book, too.

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  2. Yeah, I've kind of avoided this one for the same reason. It sounds good but I'm sure it would make me cry.

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    1. Kathy - It still made me cry, but wasn't as overwhelmingly sad as I'd expected.

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  3. I'd avoided this one for the same reasons you did! But, I do love books about books...I might reconsider this one....

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    1. Sarah - It will still make you cry, but all the book talk is worth it!

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  4. I loved this book even though it made me cry. I'm glad you enjoyed it JoAnn.

    I saw the movie The Painted Veil and loved it.

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    1. Pat - Same here! The Painted Veil was a beautiful movie... loved the cinematography in that one. I highly recommend the book, too.

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  5. My first instinct was to put it off, too, as too depressing, but instead, it now sounds uplifting. And from your list, I see a book I read so many years ago: Marjorie Morningstar. I loved it, and wonder what I would think of it now.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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    1. Laurel-Rain Snow - It is a sad book, but not depressing. Mary Anne Schwalbe was really quite a remarkable woman and I loved listening in on the book club discussions.

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  6. Well, you make it sound good .. . but, like you, I have definitely tended to avoid books about the death of a parent! Yikes--we all know we are going to go through it, but I hate to think about it.

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    1. Leila - I put the book off for so long, but am glad I finally read it. The book discussions made for interesting listening and Mary Anne was an interesting woman. It's still a sad book though...

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  7. I've avoided this for the same reason, thinking I'd be depressed. I'll reconsider.

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    1. Beth F - The book did make my cry, but I'm still glad to have read it. I listened on my morning walks and almost always came home to look up a title or two.

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  8. I read this book and at the time didn't get depressed but was disappointed with it. Will got on my nerves. Loved the mother, loved the list of books but I felt Will was too mud about himself. He kept getting in the way of the story for me. But that was a long time ago when it first came out and I wasn't in as good of a space. Annoyed and depressed with the world. Maybe I should read it now I'm in a better space. Funny how we relate to books according to our own mood at the time. I enjoyed your review.

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    1. Pam - My mood defintley colors my reaction to books. I put this one off for a long time, but finally felt in a good frame of mind to read it. I liked Will's voice on the audio and I'm sure that also contributed to my positive reaction.

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  9. The dying part has put me off on this book so I'm glad to know that it isn't a problem. I have been curious about this one due to the bookish aspects. Looks like I'll have to add this to my TBR. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Katherine - It seemed like I was able to get beyond the sad parts and enjoy Will and Mary Anne's bonding/thoughts over books.

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  10. I'm so glad you enjoyed it! After listening to the audio, I wound up buying the print edition for a future re-read. Like you, I want to read The Etiquette of Illness by Sue Halpern, Daily Strength for Daily Needs by Mary W. Tileston and Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk. I should probably read Wouk's War & Remembrance first, though, since I already own it.

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    1. Les - The Etiquette of Illness sounds like a very practical and, sadly, useful book and I'm curious about Daily Strength for Daily Needs. Loved the miniseries based on Wouk's books back in the 80's (Winds of War, etc.) but have never read his books. Think I'll have to remedy that ...

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  11. This sounds interesting. I like the list of books, and I'm glad to hear your thoughts on the audio version of the book.

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    1. Monica - I liked this book much more than expected... now I just need to get to all the books! ;-)

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  12. Like you, the subject matter gave me pause but I also couldn't resist a book about books. There were a lot of good quotables in the book, and it gave me a lot to think about with regards to family relationships, living in the present, and how we connect to people.

    Mary Ann was a real inspiration too.

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    1. JaneGS - I'm glad I was finally able to get past my reservations and give the audio a chance. Not sure I'll purchase a print copy, but will definitely borrow one from the library to check all those quotes.

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  13. This has been on my wishlist awhile. It's hard for me to resist books about books too! Good to know the audio is good.

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    1. Stacy - This was such a unique premise for the memoir... think he did a good job pulling it off.

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