Saturday, January 03, 2015

Book Review: The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

I came across this book quite by chance while randomly browsing some other books on the web. The title of the book caught my eye as did its blurb – a mother and a son jointly read books together and then discuss them, at a time when the mother is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and does not have very long to live.

To say that I thoroughly enjoyed the book would be an understatement. Firstly, the premise itself is quite unique and nothing like anything that I have read before. Secondly, it is a book about books – it is quite liberally sprinkled with all the books that the duo read for their 'book club' with their varied observations on it. As a bookworm and a bibliophile, I could not be more thrilled. Thirdly, we often do not read about a son talking so passionately about his mother; there are several instances of a father-daughter and a mother-daughter bonding.

When Will Schwalbe learns that his mother is diagnosed with cancer, he does not know to react. But he decides to turn to books. As he mentions, “Books reminded us that no matter where Mom and I were on our individual journeys, we could still share books, and while reading those books, we wouldn't be the sick person and the well person.” They form a book club where they frequently exchange books and discuss them.

What I found fascinating while reading the book was that Will's mother, Mary Anne, was a perfect example of 'Lean In', much before Sheryl Sandberg coined the term. She was the first female director of admissions at Radcliffe and then Harvard. She also headed a girls' school in New York. In her 50s, she started helping refugees around the world visiting war zone places like Bosnia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Burma, etc., eventually founding the Women's Refugee Commission. She also helped raise money for a national library and cultural center at Afghanistan's Kabul University. Basically, she achieved what most of us can only hope to achieve in bits and pieces.

Through the 'book club', Will and his mother were not just reading and discovering books, they were rediscovering themselves as well. Will notes, “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. Reading isn't the opposite of doing; it's the opposite of dying. I will never be able to read my mother's favourite books without thinking of her.” I completely agree with Will on this point. I just find it wonderful how we build memories as we read books. And don't most of our relationships have as their foundation a common love for reading?

During one of the book discussions, Mary Anne said, “Every great religion shares a love of books, of reading, of knowledge. When I think back on all the refugee camps I visited, all over the world, the people always asked for the same things: books.” She never wavered in her conviction that books are the most powerful tool in the human arsenal, that reading all kinds of books, in whatever format you choose is the greatest entertainment and also is how you take part in human conversation.

The book also touches upon a very important point, one that Atul Gawande is now making with his book 'Being Mortal' – end-of-life care. This focuses not just on managing pain but also on helping patients and their families maintain the best possible quality of life throughout the course of an illness. Towards the end, when his mother realized that any treatment would only reduce her quality of living, she chose to be home with a caring nurse amidst her books and her collection of pottery surrounded by her family.

Though you know right at the beginning what the end is going to be, I would still urge you to read this book. It fills you with a sense of hope and a sense of wanting to do something with our limited time on this planet. Mary Anne's life should inspire all of us; her warm nature, her deep involvement with society, her commitment to her family and friends, her passion with reading different genres of books and her belief that, at the end of the day, kindness begets kindness. With this book, I would like to believe the author Will Schwalbe has paid a perfect homage to the memory of his mother.

As an aside, I came across an interesting tidbit as I read the book. Will's sister-in-law Nancy was commissioned by the second-richest family in India to do a giant mural for the ballroom of the house they were building in Mumbai, which would be the tallest private house in the world. For those of us who stay in Mumbai it is not very difficult to imagine who that family could be. For the others, does Antilia ring a bell?


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