Thursday, October 11, 2012

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

Not only is The End of Your Life Book Club Will Schwalbe's loving tribute to his mother Mary Anne's incredible life but it also pays homage to the the world of books and the love of reading. It is a wonderfully engaging, albeit sad, story that lets the reader listen in on conversations between Will and Mary Anne as they read and discuss a wide variety of books during the two years Mary Anne spent battling the cancer that eventually took her life. 

I am always so thrilled to find a book-about-books such as this one. Who better to inspire than a fellow reader? It was exciting to keep coming across familiar titles mentioned in the book, titles I had either already read or are already on my bookshelf waiting patiently for my attention. In between reading and adding new titles to my book list, I was busy marking passages that demonstrate the life-affirming power of books.

The End of Your Life Book Club is the inspiring true story of a son and his mother, who start a "book club" that brings them together as her life comes to a close. Over the next two years, Will and Mary Anne carry on conversations that are both wide-ranging and deeply personal, prompted by an eclectic array of books and a shared passion for reading. Their list jumps from classic to popular, from poetry to mysteries, from fantastical to spiritual. The issues they discuss include questions of faith and courage as well as everyday topics such as expressing gratitude and learning to listen. Throughout, they are constantly reminded of the power of books to comfort us, teach us, and tell us what we need to do with our lives and in the world. Reading isn't the opposite of doing; it's the opposite of dying. (inside cover)

Throughout her life, whenever Mom was sad or confused or disoriented, she could never concentrate on television, she said, but always sought refuge in a book. Books focused her mind, calmed her, took her outside of herself; television jangled her nerves. pg25

And yet there was one passage from Seventy Verses on Emptiness, translated into English by Gareth Sparham, that Mom had underlined:"Permanent is not; impermanent is not; a self is not; not a self [is not]; clean is not; not clean is not; happy is not; suffering is not."
This passage made a deep impression on me, and I found myself turning to it again and again. Although I wasn't sure exactly what it meant, it calmed me. pg29

These two books [The Savage Detectives by Roberto BolaƱo and Man Gone Down by Micheal Thomas] showed us that we didn't need to retreat or cocoon. They reminded us that no matter where Mom and I were on our individual journeys, we wouldn't be the sick person and the well person; we would simply be a mother and son entering new worlds together. What's more, books provided much-needed ballast - something we bother craved, amid the chaos and upheaval of Mom's illness. pg32

One of the many things I love about bound books is their sheer physicality. Electronic books live out of sight and out of mind. But printed books have body, presence. Sure, sometimes they'll elude you by hiding in improbable places: in a box full of old picture frames, say, or in the laundry basket, wrapped in a sheatshirt. But at other times they'll confront you, and you'll literally stumble over some tomes you hadn't thought about in weeks or years. I often seek electronic books, but they never come after me. They may make me feel, but I can't feel them. They are all soul with no flesh, no texture, and no weight. They can get in your head but can't whack you upside it. pg43

There are all kinds of serendipities in bookstores, starting with Alphabetical: while looking for one novel, you might remember that you'd always meant to read something by another author  whose last name shared the same first two letters. Visual: the shiny jackets on this book might catch your eye. Accidental: superstitiously, I almost always feel the need to buy any book that I knock over. And Prompted: both Mom and I gave very serious consideration to any book placed in the "staff recommendations" section, particularly if it sported a yellow stickie (aka Post-it note) or a handwritten shelf talker - a bookstore neologism I love, because it conjures such a vivd image of a shelf talking to you, or of a person who talks to shelves. pg140

As a reader, you're often inside one or more characters' heads, so you know what they're feeling, even if they can't exactly say it, or they say it so obliquely that the other characters don't catch it. Readers are frequently reminded of the gulf between what people say and what they mean, and such moments prod us to become more attuned to gesture, tone and language. pg176

A few of the books discussed within the pages of The End of Your Life Book Club were right there on my own bookshelf.

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