Reviews for End of Your Life Book Club

Booklist Reviews 2012 September #1
*Starred Review* Schwalbe and his mother accidentally formed a book club in a cancer-treatment waiting room. As they discuss what they will read while Mary Anne is treated for pancreatic cancer, they deepen their already strong relationship. Schwalbe didn't plan to write this memoir as he was living it, so it's mostly nuggets of emotionally important remarks in the context of the development of his mother's illness. Will's love and respect for his mother shine through in the story of a remarkable woman's life, from how she helped refugees to her seeking to build libraries in Afghanistan. With 21 years of book-publishing experience, Schwalbe quickly introduces the books themselves in one or two paragraphs. The works they read offer a way to approach topics they otherwise wouldn't discuss, and the focus is more on what the books reveal than what happens in them. This touching and insightful memoir about the slow process of dying will appeal to readers of Tuesdays with Morrie (1997) and The Last Lecture (2008) but also to people who love delving into books and book discussions. Like Mary Anne, who reads the ending first, you know how this book is going to end, but although it is a story about death, it is mostly a celebration of life and of the way books can enrich it. Copyright 2012 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2012 October
A book lover to the very end

What self-respecting reader isn't a sucker for a great book about other great books? The End of Your Life Book Club is that much and more.

After Will Schwalbe’s 73-year-old mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2007, he began accompanying her to many of her chemotherapy treatments and doctor’s appointments. Both book lovers—Schwalbe is the former editor-in-chief of Hyperion Books—they often passed the time by reading, talking about reading or both.

Their informal waiting-room book club endured for the remaining two years of her life, and led to this tender tribute to Schwalbe’s mother and also to the universal power of books to unite and heal. In it, he chronicles the many books that he and his mother, Mary Anne, read together, and how those books shaped their final years together.

“In our society, after someone dies, there’s a period where you’re almost supposed to stop talking about her,” Schwalbe says from his New York City apartment, where he lives with his longtime partner David. “It’s a great joy in life to talk about the people you love. My main impetus was to show how books can connect and bring people closer. My mother taught me so much and I wanted to share it.”

A small, gray-haired dynamo with super-sized energy and opinions, Mary Anne Schwalbe served as director of admissions at Harvard University and Radcliffe, and founding director of the Women’s Refugee Commission. She and her husband raised three voracious readers who, as Schwalbe recalls in the book, learned early on that reading was a priority: “On weekends, when Mom and Dad had settled into the living room, each with a stack of books, we had two options: We could sit and read, or we could disappear until mealtime.”

Sometimes, the books mother and son read were purely escapist (like P.G. Wodehouse and a 1949 beach read called Brat Farrar). That came in handy when Mary Anne was enduring what she called one of her “not great” days.

Other times, the books allowed them to broach tough topics. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking helped Schwalbe understand the importance of acknowledging his mother’s pain. Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety led to talks about what Schwalbe’s father would do once Mary Anne died. “It was a shorthand way to talk about my father,” Schwalbe says. “It was too painful to talk about head-on.”

But most of all, their impromptu book club of two allowed them to simply be, as mother and son.

“We weren’t a sick person and a well person,” Schwalbe says. “We were just two readers. That was a revelation.”

Certainly Schwalbe knows his books, having spent several years in publishing. He left Hyperion to start a cooking website, Cookstr.

“The best thing about leaving publishing is now I get to read,” Schwalbe laughs. No longer a slave to a stack of manuscripts, he finally gets to indulge in what he calls “reading promiscuously.” He and his mother also chose their books haphazardly, drifting between genres.

“We were given books; we knocked them over on a bookstore shelf and then bought them,” he says.

Schwalbe realized he wanted to write about their book club while his mother was still alive. She initially demurred when he told her his idea, but the next day began emailing him her thoughts, along with a list of books they’d read together. The rest of his family soon was on board, too.

“They encouraged me to write the book I wanted to write,” he says, even though that meant laying bare some incredibly personal experiences in order to paint the full picture of his family.

One of Schwalbe’s favorite outcomes of writing this book so far is that early copies have inspired people to start reading with their family. He got an email recently from a woman who has started a book club with her grandson, a teen who is reading The Hunger Games to her.

“That made me so happy,” he says. It’s a fitting tribute to a woman who died at 75 but left an enduring legacy.

“There are a lot of extraordinary people in this country and most don’t get an obituary in the New York Times,” Schwalbe says. “Mom was not somebody who was in the New York Times. She was one of those extraordinary, ordinary people.”

Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2012 August #1
Schwalbe (co-author: Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home, 2007) chronicles his book-related conversations with his mother after she was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer. Books provided the author with much-needed ballast during the chaos and upheaval of his mother's terminal illness. While they waited together through interminable doctor visits, hospital stays and chemotherapy sessions, they discussed what they had been reading. This became the beginning of the "End of Your Life Book Club." As Schwalbe points out, the name was appropriate not just because his mother was dying, but because any book could be your last. Books provided an avenue for the author and his mother to explore important topics that made them uneasy. As his mother told him, "That's one of the things books do. They help us talk. But they also give us something we all can talk about when we don't want to talk about ourselves." They discussed books not as a sick or healthy person but as "a mother and a son entering new worlds together." Their reading list was diverse and cut across genres, generations and borders. Some of the books included The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, The Book of Common Prayer and The Etiquette of Illness, and the authors included Dennis Lehane, E.M. Forster and Thomas Pynchon. Schwalbe, who served as the editor in chief of Hyperion Books, introduces each of the authors with the insight of a veteran editor, highlighting their styles and strengths. Each chapter holds a subtle message fleshed out through their readings and discussions, and themes include gratitude, loneliness, feminism, faith, communication, trust and grief. In a heartfelt tribute to his mother, Schwalbe illustrates the power of the written word to expand our knowledge of ourselves and others. Copyright Kirkus 2012 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2012 September #1
Schwalbe (former editor in chief, Hyperion; coauthor, Send: Why People Email So Badly and How To Do It Better) and his mother, Mary Anne, always had a bond forged with books, and after she was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, they strengthened that bond by forming a "book club" together. Throughout this memoir, Schwalbe and his mother discuss characters and themes from the books they read, and Schwalbe considers these same characters and themes in relation to his mother, who, as an administrator at Harvard and the Dalton School in New York City and a widely admired humanitarian, tirelessly strove to help others. In the process, Schwalbe shows why books were so important to him and his mother: they introduce readers to new worlds and fabulous characters while, at the same time, they help explain the world in which the readers themselves live. VERDICT This book will bring tears to readers' eyes--it is an essential title for lovers of memoir. Recommended for anyone who enjoys books about mothers and sons, books about the love of books, and books about the strength of families. [See Prepub Alert, 4/16/12.]--Ryan Claringbole, Chesapeake P.L., VA (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Publishers Weekly Reviews 2012 July #3

Sharing books he loved with his savvy New Yorker mom had always been a great pleasure for both mother and son, becoming especially poignant when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2007, at age 73. Schwalbe, founder of and former editor-in-chief of Hyperion, along with his father and siblings, was blindsided by the news; his mother, Mary Ann Schwalbe, had been an indomitable crusader for human rights, once the director of admissions at Harvard, and a person of enormous energy and management skills. Could a book club be run by only two people? Schwalbe and his mother wondered as they waited together over many chemotherapy sessions at Memorial Sloan-Kettering. It didn't matter: "Books showed us that we didn't need to retreat or cocoon," he writes; they provided "much-needed ballast" during an emotionally tumultuous time when fear and uncertainty gripped them both as the dreaded disease ("not curable but treatable") progressed rapidly. From Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach to Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns, William Trevor's Felicia's Journey to Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar, Geraldine Brooks's People of the Book to John Updike's My Father's Tears: the books they shared allowed them to speak honestly and thoughtfully, to get to know each other, ask big questions, and especially talk about death. With a refreshing forthrightness, and an excellent list of books included, this is an astonishing, pertinent, and wonderfully welcome work. (Oct.)

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