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A Book About Books: The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

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“Why didn’t I buy the paperback edition?” is the question that I seem to be forever asking myself these days. It generally happens after I read something remarkable and I want to share it with everyone. The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe, a wonderfully bibliotherapeutic memoir, is one such book.

If you love reading as much as I do – and I know most of you do – then I’d love for you to get a copy and let me know what you think. It’s best classed as a memoir, in which Will Schwalbe celebrates his mother’s life and their shared relationship with literature; something which becomes most prominent following his mother’s diagnosis with pancreatic cancer.

His mother, Mary Anne Schwalbe, truly deserved to have a book written about her life. In fact, I think it was necessary. She spent a great deal of her life in education, teaching and overseeing admissions (including some time at both Radcliffe and Harvard University), but during her last two decades she dedicated herself to working with refugees worldwide.

She spent six months in Thai refugee camps, was shot at in Afghanistan, and was an electoral observer in the Balkans. She founded the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, and persuaded the International Rescue Committee to set up a UK office. Towards the end of her life, her work to fund a library project in Afghanistan reflected her love of reading and her belief in its power to change.

Will Schwalbe describes Mary Anne as the ‘air traffic control’ in their family, as the person who would automatically assume responsibility and control over others. You notice this characteristic of hers throughout the book, not least in how ‘Will’s’ blog posts about her health are in fact written by her. In some reviews people criticise this side of her character, but I appreciated how Will wrote so accurately and honestly about his incredibly philanthropic and kind, yet always on the go, mother.

The ‘End of Your Life Book Club’ described in the title encompasses the literary bond between Will and Mary Anne that is strengthened with Mary Anne’s deterioration of health. Before her check-ups and chemo appointments, the mother and son discuss the books they have both been reading. As they choose to read (or reread) the same books together, their book club of two people is formed.

I love that there was a balance between classic texts and new fiction in their book club. Thomas Mann’s tomes and Tolkien’s The Hobbit are discussed at length, but so are novels such as Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Will and Mary Anne both provide their own insights into each text, and in the case that I’d read the book too, I also considered my own thoughts.

By reading this book you’re invited into Will and Mary Anne’s book club, and this is perhaps what I enjoyed most about it. Not only could I join their discussions of great books, but I could also find recommendations of novels I’d perhaps enjoy as much as they did.

After finishing The End of Your Life Book Club this morning, I’m going to send an email to my local village bookshop asking them to stock The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly and Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro in time for my trip back home next weekend. I’m in need of some real, tangible books, and Will Schwalbe’s remarkable book has provided me with the perfect ideas to start with.


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