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?

Book Review: The Most Beautiful Walk in the World by John Baxter

I picked up this book with a lot of hope and excitement. I have been fascinated with France, and particularly Paris, ever since I started learning French from the 8th grade. But the book disappointed me. It is, not as I expected, about the many walks through Paris and the author's personal favourite. It is rather a collection of observations the author has about Paris, only some of which are related to him being a flaneur.

But, that is not to say I did not enjoy the book. It does mention tidbits about Paris and its literary inheritance which a lot of visitors may not know about. The author, who lives on rue de l'Odeon boasts of the famous bookstore Shakespeare and Company run by Slyvia Beach; Slyvia lived in the author's building where James Joyce often visited as did Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. So, one may say, John Baxter is quite qualified to write about Paris and its walks from a literary angle.

The author mentions that Paris belongs to its pedestrians. He quotes the writer Edmund White who wrote, “Paris is a world meant to be seen by the walker alone, for only the pace of strolling can take in all the rich (if muted) detail.” If the Paris of pedestrians has heroes, notes Baxter, they are Georges Eugene Haussmann (who got people back on the streets in the late 1800s) and Andre Malraux (the minister of culture).

Before the author came to Paris, he lived in Los Angeles which had “persuaded him that going anywhere on foot wasn't just unusual but downright unnatural, even illegal.” He mentions Ray Bradbury's 1951 short story “The Pedestrian” set in a future Los Angeles where nobody walks. The only man who defies this custom is hauled off by the Psychiatric Center because “Who but a madman would walk for pleasure” I would tend to agree. On my travels to the United States, I have observed that nobody walks, not even in the suburbs. People drive down to the nearest park and then take a walk there. The US is certainly not a country for flaneurs in my opinion!

The author also mentions that since nobody walks like the French, they are the people who have raised the political walk to near perfection. Parisians grow up with the promenade, or stroll, as a natural part of their lives.

Baxter gives some interesting tidbits about the various metro stations in Paris, at least I found them wonderfully fascinating. Pont Neuf, nearest to Le Monnaie, displays old coinage and an ancient hand press. At Concorde, each tile bears a single letter, as if for a giant game of Scrabble. At Varenne, nearest to the Musee Rodin, full-size replicas of his Thinker and statue of Honore de Balzac rule the platform. Louvre-Rivoli station is elaborately decorated with facsimile Egyptian status and other antiquities.

During the course of the book, the author takes us through some amazing anecdotes about Hemingway's life; he takes us underground Paris's streets where the catacombs lie; he talks about the fascination painters have with the city; and how the French really love their food.

At the end of the book, he also gives some tips to visitors. I found the following ones interesting:
  1. A true French cafe breakfast remains one of the great pleasures of life in Paris.
  2. Paris's twenty arrondissements spiral out from Notre Dame, with something interesting in each of them.
  3. Paris's rare-book market takes place every weekend on rue Brancion in the fifteenth, in what used to be an old slaughterhouse.
  4. Afternoon hot chocolate at Proust's favourite cafe, Angelina.
  5. Climb the famous stone staircases of Montmartre around 5.00 a.m. or take the little cable car, buy coffee and rolls, and eat breakfast on the terrace below the Cathedral of Sacre-Coeur.
Though the book did not live up to its title, I did enjoy reading it and the various little pieces of information it offered me in terms of its past inhabitants and how they came about to shape and build the city as we know it today. Rest assured, when I do visit Paris, I will be taking this book along with me if only as a kind of a tour guide.