The End of Your Life Book Club

Monday, February 3, 2014

The End of Your Life Book Club
by Will Schwalbe

From the first pages we learn that Mary Anne Schwalbe is dying of cancer. Her son Will's nonfiction book chronicles this trying time in their lives while also delving into Mary Anne's past. It deals with grief and joy in equal parts, giving a balanced look at one woman's reaction to being diagnosed with a serious illness.

One thing I loved about this book was the focus on life and not death. Yes it is about his mother's struggle with terminal cancer, but it's truly about the life she lived before she was ever diagnosed. She was an incredible woman! She gave herself and her time to so many causes. She started international organizations to help refuge women and children. She raised her own children to be unique and intelligent individuals who take risks in life. She was kind and generous with both her time and her money and she expected a lot from the people around her.

I love that reading was such an integral part of Will and his mother's lives that sharing the books they were in the middle of was a natural part of their interaction. As he comments at one point, people always used to discuss what they were reading but nowadays it's safer to ask what people are watching on TV , because they might not be reading anything at all. The Schwalbes take the lessons they get out of different books and apply them to their lives. They discuss them in detail and compare notes about themes and outcomes. When you read about other countries or lifestyles it allows you to live a bigger life. They recognize that and expanded their horizons with each new book they chose.

"...books are the most powerful tool in the human arsenal, that reading all kinds of books, in whatever format you choose - electronic (even though that wasn't for her) or printed, or audio - is the grandest entertainment, and also is how you take part in human conversation.”  
Will's description of his childhood was captivating to me. I'm sure some of it can be attributed to seeing things through rose-colored glasses; our memories often become sweeter with the distance of time. But the fact that reading and culture were part of their lives was undeniable. That's not always the case with families, but if I have kids that's how I would want to raise them.

BOTTOM LINE: As I've said before, I'm a sucker for books about books. This is one of those, but it's also about living a life worth celebrating and remembering. It's about refusing to lose hope or give up. It's inspiring, but not in a saccharine way. I loved it and have already picked up a few of the books that Will read with his mother.
"He was the smartest and best read person any of us have every known, but he wore his learning so lightly and had such curiosity about other people that he had the ability to make everyone around him feel smart and well-read."

“Mom had always taught all of us to examine decisions by reversibility--that is, to hedge our bets. When you couldn't decide between two things, she suggested you choose the one that allowed you to change course if necessary. Not the road less traveled but the road with the exit ramp.”

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


Anonymous said...

Everyone is telling me to read this, and i'm just not sure. I'm afraid it's going to be sad because of the whole dying of cancer thing.

Ellie said...

I've had this on my shelf for some time now and I think it's time to get around to it. I've seen some very mixed reviews but it's a book about books so I can't resist!

annieb said...

I really loved this book and it is one I have saved and also purchased a copy to pass on. It was so very good and I didn't find it sad so much as inspiring. You are right about the mother being a remarkable woman.

JoAnn said...

One more for my wish list.... I love books about books, too!

Kailana said...

I have this. I am glad you liked it. :)

LindyLouMac said...

I think at the moment it is still too early for me to be able to cope with such a moving book, but I liked your review Melissa.

Brona said...

I agree with you Melissa. It was very simply written, but the positive, life-affirming nature of the book was so engaging and the list of books was so inspiring - it's hard not to recommend it to anyone who loves books about books and embracing all life has to offer.

thecuecard said...

Yes. I liked this book too. Here are my thoughts on it at It is sad but also as you said inspiring. Cheers.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

52booksorbust - I almost think it was less sad because you know she's dying of cancer from the first page. So instead, the book focuses on her life, not her death.

Ellie - I had very few expectations going in to this one.

annieb - I read a library copy, but I want to make a list of all the books they read.

JoAnn - Me too, I'm a sucker for those kind of books.

Kailana - Hope you like it too!

LindyLou - I definitely understand that!

Brona Joy - She really did embrace life, I love that!

thecuecard - I found her to be incredibly inspiring as well!