There are some books out there that you need at a certain time in your life. They can be therapeutic and upsetting but show you just how important a book can be as an object that emotionally resonates with you. These books may be recommended when you are going through something or they may be found through researching yourself. That said they are not self help books, just books which chime in with you at that moment. Will Schwalbe’s ‘The End of Your Life Book Club’ is one such book, a book that seemed to mirror my life in many ways it was both a comfort and occasionally uncomfortable, overall though just amazing. A book which no doubt I will not be able to do justice to.
One day when Will Schwalbe was taking his mother for one of her appointments at the Memorial Sloane- Kettering Cancer Centre he asked her ‘what are you reading?’ as they sit in the waiting room. Unbeknownst to them at the time this is the start of an unofficial, and not really ever totally acknowledged book group, book club that will see them reading and swapping the same books as one another during the hospital visits and small trips away over the months ahead. These books and their themes, characters and the questions they raise also occasionally being a way of mother and son talking to each other about the situation they find themselves in without ever having to spell everything out.
This might sound a little bit gloomy, and I will freely admit I did get very teary eyed in several parts of the book, yet this is actually one of the most heart warming and (I don’t want to use the word inspirational) uplifting books about cancer, death and grief that I have ever read – and probably one of the most important because it looks at it, confronting it, head on looking at the effects cancer has on the person with it and those around them. It is also very much a book about the power that books have and not just in these most emotional and distressing times but over someone’s whole life.
As much as this book is about Mary Anne’s condition and the books that she and Will read after her diagnosis, it is also the story of an incredible woman. Without her it would be very unlikely that there is now a library in Kabul, which the US Government has given $3 million towards, Afghanistan being one of her favourite places in the world. Mary Anne started off wanting to be an actress, then directing admissions for LAMDA in America, then working in education at Radcliffe and Harvard before turning to humanitarian work in Africa, Thailand, Afghanistan with refugees also setting up the Women’s Refugee Commission and looking at literature and libraries abroad. There is all of this and also her being a wonderful wife, mother and grandmother.
The whole theme of books being important at what is such a difficult time for Will and of course his mother all really chimed with me and what is going on with Gran at the moment. Though Gran doesn’t have pancreatic cancer, the tumour she has means the prognosis is similar. I am visiting whenever I can and the main thing that we both like to talk about it books. Face to face we have discussed books we have both read, authors we both wish we had and must do soon, topical things like if J.K. Rowling’s book is any good and if Mantel really should have won the Booker a second time. Every phone call, which is pretty much daily when I am not there, tends to have the question ‘what are you reading?’ thrown in at some point. Of course Will’s situation and mine are not the same, but this book made me feel like even though things will get hard and very upsetting what I have is very precious and so I am making the most out of it. ‘The End of Your Life Book Club’ is very much a prelude to grief, if that makes sense, and is exactly where I am at mentally. Will Schwalbe felt like a friend, without that sounding weird, that I was discussing this all with and in a way has made it all feel a little bit better, if that is possible, about everything or maybe more comfortable. The power of the book.
I could literally have filled a post or two on all the wonderful quotes about the joys of reading and bookshops, debates about certain titles, cosy books and confronting and even the debate over e-reader vs. real paper books in your hands – as the book has all of these and more – the one I wanted to use though was the one that struck me the hardest and I will always keep with me as I have popped it in my book notes notebook…
‘And then something occurred to me. “You know: the thing about our book club is that we’ve really been in it all our lives.”
Mom agreed but pointed out that she’d been doing the same but with others too – talking about books with my sister and brother and some of her friends. “I guess we’re all in it together, “ she said. And I couldn’t help but smile at the other meaning of the phrase. We’re all in the end-of-our-life book club, whether we acknowledge it or not; each book we read may well be the last, each conversation the final one.”
I want everyone I know to read this book. It doesn’t matter if you have had close contact with cancer, death or grief, this book will chime with you because you love books – which is why you have found yourself here I am guessing. ‘The End of Your Life Book Club’ is touching without ever being saccharine, confronting and honest without ever being emotionally manipulative. It also celebrates life and highlights that we are part of each other’s ‘life-book-club’s’ through the discussions we have at book groups, on blogs, to our friends and family, or randomly on public transport about books and the power that they have. It has also left me with a list of books to go off and read as long as my arm. One of my favourite books of the year and one I will be turning to again and again.
Who else has read ‘The End of Your Life Book Club’ and what did you think? Did you come away wanting to be Schwalbe’s new best friend too? I am tempted to write to him just about books. Which books have you read at just the right point in your life be it sad, difficult or happy? I would love to hear your experiences with books that have done that.