Thursday, April 18, 2013

P: Progressive Book Club


This month's PBC book is The End of Your Life Bookclub, by Will Schwalbe, and I'm a day late again--on purpose, since that made it come on "P."

This book affected me on a number of levels.  Although the book is in no way morbid or even, in some sense, about death, it is never far from the reader's mind that this is a narrative of the dying of the author's mother.  Though Schwalbe and his mother have always talked about the books they read, in a sort of accidental development, they began deliberately reading the same books at the same time, and discussing them (usually while she underwent her chemo or they waited for doctor appointments).  So, as a middle-aged adult who has already lost one parent (also to cancer), I was a bit gob-smacked by that aspect of the book.  As when I read Bill McKibben's Long Distance: A Year of Living Strenuously which also narrates the gradual death of a parent, I was treated to all my own feelings about losing a parent, including guilt that I wasn't able to be present for my Dad in the way that these authors were for their parents.

Mary Anne Schwalbe was an amazing person who dedicated much of her life to helping people in places where most of us won't even consider going.  She was all over the world, in and out of war zones, working in refugee camps and pushing charities to help the refugees.  Through it all, she remained a caring person who connected on a personal and individual level with everyone she met (in this way she reminds me of my own mother, who would make no difference in how she'd chat with the queen or the queen's charwoman).  So I also felt a bit of a jab at how little I've done in my life to make a difference (and occasionally felt a snarky urge to point out that a lot of what the author's family could do came of their rather obviously coming from money).  Mostly it's inspiring, though.

Then there were the books.  These two and their book discussions make me want to be a better reader, to resume reading more serious fiction (the stuff that I probably too often avoid as grim and depressing).  I actually would have felt a bit better if they'd occasionally trashed a book.  I'm not sure if they did a very good job of filtering their reading list to contain only books that they could truly appreciate, or if Schwalbe just didn't discuss the failures.

In the end, the best I can do is share some random quotes that I liked.

Early on there's a discussion of print books vs. electronic that totally tickled me:
Electronic books live out of sight and out of mind.  But printed books have body, presence. . . . 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 and no flesh, no texture, and no weight.  They can get in your head but can't whack you upside it.

Another great bit, on the value of reading for children:
There was one sure way to avoid being assigned an impromptu chore in our house. . . and that was to have your face buried in a book.  Like churches during the Middle Ages, books conferred instant sanctuary.  Once you entered one, you couldn't be disturbed.

As the book progresses, I am forced to think more about what it is saying about watching a parent die.  I am struck by a line:
So often over the course of Mom's dying, I noted how people would avoid touching Mom or talking to her, addressing comments and queries to us, even when she was right there. ("Does your mother want something to drink?").
I have been there briefly, just once, when my grandmother (then pushing 90) was taken ill, and the usual suspects (the older cousins) were for some reason not available to go to the hospital.  They finally phoned my older brother, but he was away and I was staying at his house.  So I drove 30 miles to the hospital, largely to provide Grandma with transport home.  But as soon as I was there, people started talking to me instead of her (not helped by her poor hearing--but she was totally present mentally, and could hear well enough if she could see them and lip-read some too).  I knew nothing of her meds, routines. . . and had to keep saying so, directing them to speak to her.  It's a sort of infantilization of the elderly, and a giant discourtesy.

Again, on how we see our parents, compared to how others do:
A friend's father introduces himself to the waiter at the start of every New York restaurant meal by saying: "Hi, I'm Eric, and this is Susie, and we're from Vermont."  My friend cringes ever so slightly whenever his dad does this.  I cringe a little when Mom is talking to Curt, thinking that he doesn't want to chat; he's trying to concentrate; she's just another old person dying of cancer.  But this isn't true--it's just the childish embarrassment we all develop about our parents: they are too effusive, try too hard; they just aren't being cool.

And, finally, there is the harsh truth:
I'd seen so many movies where characters sit by beds as their loved ones die.  They give speeches, hold hands, and say, "It's okay--you can let go."  What none of those books and movies conveys is how tedious it is.

What Schwalbe manages to convey is how much life a person can still have and share while dying.  Showing it through the insights he and his mother brought to and took from the books they read reminds us all of the power of the written word, as well as through the effort she continued to put into her current project (a library and mobile libraries for Afghanistan) right up until her death.

A final thought: the first two books we read for the PBC were about writing.  This book is about reading.  But without reading, there is no writing--reading by those for whom we write, and reading by those of us who also write.  This is a great book for writers, because it makes us think about how we read.


  1. Your book club sounds like fun - as do the books you've read.

  2. Feel free to join--click on the badge at the top of the page to see more about it!

  3. Hi Rebecca. That's what I thought too. I felt like don't nearly read enough or the books of the caliber they read. That's why the list. This year, I have a list for popular books I haven't read, but next year it will be the list I created from this book.

  4. HI Sydney,
    I tend to be dismissive of books that are super popular (getting featured on Oprah probably guarantees I won't read it)--which I know is grossly unfair and unreasonable. More serious fiction I've often dodged in recent years because much of it seems to be kind of depressing. But I'm pretty sure that's another over-simplistic response. So I may make a list of better fiction I want to read, rather than just using my completely random new-book generator, i.e., whatever catches my eye when checking books in/out or sorting them at the library!

  5. Fabulous review and insight on this book! I really appreciate the emphasis you've placed on reading and how important it is as a writer and as a connected person.

    Thank you for picking out quotes as well because I am enjoying this book vicariously through reviews. It sounds like a wonderful book that I will enjoy reading someday when the time feels right.

    1. This book seemed to lend itself to pulling out quotes--I kept marking pages and running to the computer to type them out before I forgot what I was thinking.

  6. Great post and description of the book. I didn't find it morbid at all either, but rather a story of love and reading and parenting and living and dying.

    I love how books became the dialogue for he and his mother. My father and I weren't very close, but we had our common love of books and writing. I don't have a touching bonding story to tell before he passed away, but I have his legacy of the language to carry in my heart.

    1. My Dad and I seldom shared books, though there was some overlap in what we read. Our big time for sharing, and it was often pretty random stuff, was while working jigsaw puzzles together. The last time we did that, he told me more about his time in the army (he went in a few months after the end of WWII) than he'd ever said before, by a wide margin.

  7. Rebecca—what a fantastic review with short notes from the book followed by a tidbit from your life! And so spot-on. I felt the same things and loved the same things. I noticed the same points.

    Such a wonderful wrap-up of the book. :)

    1. Thanks, Mike. It is really just a reaction from me--I liked this, and oh, that made me think of this. . . I really did appreciate her insistence that she might be dying--that she WAS dying--but she wasn't dead yet and no one was to treat her like she was. Live while you're alive. Plenty of time to be dead after. At the same time, Will clearly felt like honoring that left him with things unsaid that he wanted to say--so that was a two-edged sword.

  8. Hi Rebecca - this was a truly awesome review - I had so many comments I wanted to make to you as I read through. We lost my mum to dementia long before she died, but I held hands with my dad most of the day he went and we stopped talking after midday, just waited. Maybe I don't read enough, but I do a lot of thinking, and no way did I find waiting with him tedious. But like you I felt I hadn't done enough for either of them. Fortunately I talked to my mum's carers, who asked me whether I had enough training to understand her condition. Of course I didn't.
    We do our best, and that includes knowing when not to act, and when to just write so as to help others.
    We all have our talents - yours are awesome!
    Jemima at Jemima's blog

  9. Thank you, Jemima, for those kind words. I needed to hear that today.


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