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27th January
2014
written by Steph
End Of Your Life Book Club

The End Of Your Life Book Club

I never expected that traveling would change my reading tastes. All my life I’ve been a devoted reader of fiction and not really much else, and that’s honestly suited me fine. Don’t believe me? Of the 300+ posts that I’ve written about books on this site, less than 10 of them feature non-fiction titles. I’m all for reading broadly and diversifying one’s tastes, but I clearly also know what works for me and don’t stray too far from my literary predilections very frequently. And yet, ever since we’ve been traveling, I’ve found I have the attention span of a gnat, which not only makes it difficult to coherently synthesize and discuss the books that I do read after the fact, but it’s made focusing on my reading material a lot more challenging too. Part of why I failed to read very much last year is because I frequently found my attention waning and shifting whenever I picked up a book, except in the rarest of occasions, and I found that most novels simply did not capture or engage me in any real way. I’d put down books for days at a time without picking them up again, only to find that when I did, the story had pretty much fallen completely out of my brain. I couldn’t just peck at books sporadically, and my memory didn’t seem to have the capacity to retain enough plot to allow me to follow any novel in a lucid manner, and so I’d abandon one book after the next as I hunted (mostly futiley) for things that I could focus on. During this time, I discovered that I often had an easier time with memoirs, as they tended to pull me into their stories quickly and I could dip in and out of them over the course of several weeks and their coherency never suffered despite my haphazard reading schedule. I’d hate to cast aspersions on the memoir genre as a whole having, admittedly, not read much from it, but I think in part, the writing in the average memoir tends to have a lower difficulty threshold, so the cognitive demands placed upon the reader are perhaps less and the barrier to reader engagement is reduced. Or maybe there’s something about the conversational approach that memoirs tend to take, so that you actually feel like the author is speaking directly to you, like a friend would, and you’re just sitting down to a (somewhat) one-sided conversation and can enjoy the ride. I have no idea which of these alternatives is more plausible (or if both of them are bunk), but based on my experiences with The End of Your Life Book Club, I’m tempted to conclude in favor of the latter. My brain’s been feeling a bit like mush lately and I flirted with a few books unsuccessfully before picking this one up at random. And wouldn’t you know, from the very first paragraph, I was hooked. Indeed, by the end of the first chapter, I was actually in tears, so obviously I was going to keep reading. Obviously the reason I picked up TEoYLBC in the first place is because it ostensibly revolves around a book club ergo it should be a book about books (pretty much the one subject—along with travel—that will get me to break my “no non-fiction” edict). I honestly assumed (perhaps because of the way it was marketed, perhaps because of my own desires) that it would focus predominantly on the books that Will and his mother (Mary Anne) read together during the period of time that she discovers and undergoes treatment for pancreatic cancer; in my mind, the cancer storyline would just be a catalyst to motivate discussion of the books, a backdrop to the stage on which they played. The title kind of makes it clear (at least I thought so), what the book would be about. But any review you read about this book will point out that this is definitely not the case. It is Mary Anne who is really the lynchpin of the novel, and the books are just signing back-up for her. Though books are discussed and mentioned in every chapter (and every chapter takes the title of whichever book features most prominently), the truth is that most books are mentioned in a sufficiently off-handed way and then dropped that they sometimes feel a bit shoe-horned in, as if Schwalbe knew that in order to get this intensely personal memoir to appeal to a larger audience (beyond, perhaps, people who have lost a loved one to terminal cancer), he had to get just enough book content in there so that the central premise of the book (and its chief selling point) didn’t crumble. In a lot of cases, the books didn’t really get discussed or get given a plot synopsis, and were introduced and dismissed within a two or three paragraphs; it was rare for discussion of the books themselves to extend beyond a page before fading into the background. Not so for the talk of Mary Anne’s cancer and the treatments, how it all affected the Schwalbe family and put a damper on Mary Anne’s ambitious day-to-day doings (but not her indomitable spirit!). I’d say the book discussion to cancer talk to sharing Mary Anne’s generally awesome biography was about 15:50:35. Obviously this ratio does not mirror my own interest in these topics, at least not initially, and so after the first chapter (which speaks so lovingly about books and their power, that it was this, and not the talk of cancer, that brought me to tears) I was a bit annoyed and impatient to get back to the book talk. Schwalbe would drop just enough tasty tidbits about the books that he and Mary Anne were reading that I kept hungrily reading on, hoping to learn more and to revel in their collective bibliophilic joy. So I read on, and made my way through the bits about Mary Anne’s fascinating life and the cancer that had nothing to do with books, and a curious thing happened: I found myself caring about those storylines as well. I’ve since read some reviews where readers reported that they felt Mary Anne was difficult to empathize with, either because she and her family were clearly so well-to-do that their fears and concerns seemed trivial because they had the resources to throw money at whatever problems came their way OR because they felt Mary Anne was kind of abrasive as a character. I think that first position—that rich people are somehow less deserving of our sympathy, I guess because they have all that money so what more could they need?—is ludicrous, and perhaps I’m similar to Mary Anne who’s a bit of a bulldog to be sure, but who’s heart seems to be in the right place that the second one didn't phase me either. I never got the sense that she cared more for others than her own family, or that the author subconsciously was revealing his ambivalence towards her and how she treated him. She wasn’t an ooey gooey lady, she was a passionate woman who got things done. I think Will clearly reveres and respects everything his mother did, and appreciates the difficult position she was in juggling work (in which she pretty much always held a position of power) and raising a family of three. But above all, I felt it was clear that Will loved his mother and had no doubt that she loved him. What other readers pointed out as Mary Anne’s unforgivable flaws (e.g., not having patience for “silliness”), I simply saw as humanizing qualities: she wasn’t a perfect woman. She was an estimable woman, but a mere mortal one just the same. So, I really enjoyed learning about the wild ride that Mary Anne’s life was, from her traveling as a refugee worker to the darkest corners of the planet, to her work as the head of admissions at Ratcliffe College, to her campaign to have a new library built in Pakistan. It turns out that Mary Anne was an interesting lady, well worth having a book written about her, and I wound up not really begrudging the time spent on her story rather than her impressions of ones cooked up by other authors. I NEVER would have picked up the book if I knew so much of it revolved around her, but I can’t say that I am disappointed to have learned about her life. Interestingly, what I initially felt was this book's downfall, perhaps ended up being an asset: I wound up oddly enjoying the brief snippets of book talk that wafted through the book, odd because their brevity actually became a bit of their allure. I could always do with more book talk (that’s a given), but I do wonder how much of the way Schwalbe talks about the books hooked me. Because I was quite literally interested and excited to try each and every book that he mentioned, even ones that I already knew existed and had previously dismissed as not being my thing. Surely this is, in part, due to the enthusiasm with which Schwalbe talks about any and all books, but I also think it might have to do with the fact that each book is only introduced just long enough to pique your interest and tantalize you and then disappears… it’s never discussed long enough that you feel you have a really good handle on the book or feel like just by reading Schwalbe’s thoughts, you’ve gleaned all the good stuff you’d get from reading the book itself. So I found myself looking up pretty much every book he listed, flagging it for further investigation and adding it to mental TBR pile I keep in my noggin that never ever gets any smaller. The enthusiasm Schwalbe has for books and the way they nourish us is palpable and infectious. It carried me through the parts of the book that featured books explicitly into the parts that didn’t, simply because I felt I was amongst friends who loved books just as much as I do. I suppose it's a bit like when you find your favorite book bloggers and will read their reviews and posts, no matter the content, simply because you know you'll enjoy reading them even if the book they're talking about is one that interests you not in the least. There were so many wonderful quotes about books, and I think that speaks to not just my innate affinity for all things bookish, but also for Schwalbe’s writing style. I immediately felt that his prose was thoughtful and intelligent, but also a bit breezy, which made it easy to connect with him and whatever he was saying. I thought he nicely balanced sentiment with wit, and even though I did tear up a few times while reading this book, I didn’t feel like Schwalbe was trying to manipulate or tug at the heartstrings, he was just writing as truthfully as he could and I think that’s why it had the greatest effect on me. To sum it all up: I started reading this for the book aspect, stayed because of the writing, and found myself unexpectedly invested in the story of two strangers who I hadn’t known existed, and was happy to have spent some time with by the end. I felt deeply as I read, was engaged and entertained, and even if I got something slightly different than expected, I still closed the book (metaphorically at least, because I read an ebook version) satisfied at the end. Isn't that what we always hope will happen with every book we read? Rating: 4 out of 5

2 Comments

  1. I’m not sure that travelling changes your taste in books. I think it is a gradual thing that happens to everyone as they age. Travelling may speed up this process, but many of the older book lovers in my life have talked about their slow move towards non-fiction. I’m finding myself more interested in non-fiction too, although fiction still makes up the big majority of my reading. This book has been on my radar for a while, but memoirs don’t always work for me. If I spot a copy in the library I’ll give it a go, but I don’t think I want it enough to buy it yet.

  2. 01/29/2014

    @Jackie: I don’t think it’s worth buying (I can’t really envision re-reading it, except maybe to find specific titles he referred to, but you could just write down any that sound good while reading), but definitely try it if you see it at the library.
    Interesting to hear your thoughts on older people shifting towards non-fiction. I hadn’t considered that as a possibility… maybe as we age, we realize there’s so much to learn and time is running out?!? 😉

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