Wednesday, 4 September 2013

The End of your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

This is one of the books I grabbed at Sterlings bookshop the other day. The title had my attention right away. Anything with a book club in it because it has to be a book about books. This is so much more. The writer has written a book about the books he and his mother are reading after she is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The mother was always a great reader and loved books. They decided to have a book club between the two of them. They decided on the books, read them and discussed them, often while waiting for the chemo therapy.

This could easily be a very sentimental book but it is not. It is all through written in a matter of fact way and keeps a wonderful balance between the terrible times that are coming, a son's love for this mother and how to create quality time together.

The mother Mary Anne Schwalbe seems to have been a wonderful person. Full of energy and care for everyone around her. She was working all her life (not so common for women to work when she was young) as well as raising a family of three children. She was active in teaching, international humanity organisations and had a never ending regard for refugees around the world. Her last project was a library project in Afghanistan. A quite fantastic woman.
The son, Will, does not understand how she can always be so present and always seem to pay attention to all the people around her. For him, and as I am sure, for a lot of us we simply can't always give our attention like that. He found out when he was accompanying here to an IRC dinner that she was invited to:

'Held in the cavernous gilded ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, the dinner and award ceremony were powerful and moving as always. I watched Mom greet people, dozens and dozens of people.
How do you do that? How do you talk to fifty or a hundred different people without interrupting them or yourself? And I understood suddenly what Kabat-Zinn  means about mindfulness - it isn't a trick or a gimmick. It's being present in the moment. When I'm with you, I'm with you. Right now. That's all. No more and no less.'

...and later in the evening

'"The worse it gets in Afghanistan," she added, "the more convinced I am that we need to see this library project through. It may not be the biggest thing we can do, but it's something. And we've just got to do something".

This, I finally realized, was how Mom was able to focus when I was not. It was how she was able to be present with me, present with the people at a benefit or the hospital. She felt whatever emotions she felt, but feeling was never a useful substitute for doing, and she never let the former get in the way of the latter. If anything, she used her emotions to motivate her and help her concentrate. The emphasis for her was always on doing what needed to be done. I had to learn this lesson while she was still there to teach me.'

The mother had the peculiar habit of always reading the end of the book before starting it. She meant that then you can more understand how people act when you know how it ends. In this book, as the writer points out, you don't have to look how it ends, you will know how it ends.

'Had Mom ever been lonely? I asked her. No, she said.
'How can you be lonely, Mom said, when there are always people who want to share their stories with you, to tell you about their lives and families and dreams and plans?'

There are these people in the world who always has an interest in other people and other lives. The mother spent her whole life being interested in other people and also personally helped a lot of people to have a good life.  She was always remembered by these people and all along her illness she received calls, e-mails, letters and cards and other tokens of their care for her.

In the end of the book is a list of all the books they read during this time. A lot of them I have never heard about and some I have and some I have read. I just mention a few of them here.

Purgatorio by Dante
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (wonderful book)
The Pillars of the Earth by Ke Follett
Howard's End by E.M. Forster
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
The Tin Drum by Günter Grass
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
The Chronicles of Naria by C.S. Lewis
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
The Master by Colm Tóibín (wonderful book)
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

and many many more!

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