Book review: Growing close, toward the end, over books

  • Article by: MEGANNE FABREGA , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 16, 2012 - 1:15 PM

A mother and son read their way to the end in a memoir made for readers.

"The End of Your Life Book Club," by Will Schwalbe.

"Books had always been a way for my mother and me to introduce and explore topics that concerned us but made us uneasy," writes Will Schwalbe in his new memoir, "The End of Your Life Book Club" (Alfred A. Knopf, 336 pages, $25).

In the autumn of 2007, Schwalbe and his mother had much to feel uneasy about: Mary Anne Schwalbe -- world traveler, advocate for human rights, mother, wife and avid reader -- had terminal cancer.

Mother and son had always discussed books; they were both "readers" in the truest sense of the word -- people who viewed reading as an essential component of daily life. After one of Mary Anne's chemotherapy sessions, Schwalbe realized how much his mother enjoyed it when he read a book that she had loved, so he began to read the books she recommended to him, despite his time constraints and struggle to come to terms with her illness.

"Mom started the book club unwittingly and I joined it grudgingly," writes Schwalbe. A book group of two, they sallied forth, reading "casually, promiscuously and whimsically," titles ranging from "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini to books by Jon Kabat-Zinn and Alice Munro. In the meantime, Schwalbe did his own difficult research into learning how to live in the moment with a parent who was slowly dying.

"The End of Your Life Book Club" is not an instructive text, but a memoir of Schwalbe's childhood spent in the home of parents who were readers. It is also an informal but poignant biography of Mary Anne Schwalbe, who was a working mother before the term even entered the popular vernacular, a woman in perpetual motion who "only when she was reading was she truly still." After a chance contact in 1988 with a nun working in Thailand, Mary Anne followed her heart halfway around the world to experience the plight of refugees firsthand. A year later she became the first director of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children.

Schwalbe's writing ebbs and flows, some sentences feel a little forced while others are seamless, but his unadulterated belief in the salvation that comes with books and reading cloaks his prose at every turn. Although his mother would have liked to see him embrace religion, she, perhaps unknowingly, raised him to worship the word instead of the "Word."

Fortunately for Schwalbe's readers, an appendix of the books read and mentioned in the text is included, for if there is one resounding message it is that there are so many books and so little time.

Meganne Fabrega is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

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