Earlier this week I had the great pleasure of talking to Will Schwalbe about his moving and uplifting memoir The End of Your Life Book Club. Will in person is as warm, friendly and interesting as his book suggests, and our conversation ranged from favourite reads and funny anecdotes to personal reflections and universal observations - it was a chat full of laughter and much food for thought.
As I wrote the other day, Will's book is about the importance of books as manuals for life, of reading as comfort and joy, as a means of understanding others and sharing experiences. As he recounts the last two years of his mother's life, the books they read and discussed through so many hours spent in hospital waiting rooms and during chemotherapy sessions provide a counterpoint to the very living - and dying - mother and son were doing.
Will's mother Mary Anne Schwalbe was an impressive lady. In a working life which took her from being director of admissions at Harvard and Radcliffe to founding director of the Women's Refugee Commission and other important positions besides, she focused on doing and on making a difference, both by means of her career but also through many selfless (often anonymous), private acts of kindness and generosity which touched and changed lives in big ways and small. She comes across as a wise person and a thoughtful one, practical and punctilious, courageous and conscientious, a good listener and an empathic friend to all; in her approach to an illness she knew would eventually end her life she was remarkably sanguine - stoic, uncomplaining, positive and prepared.
As Will talks of the ups and downs of his mother's last two years - and let me stress that this is a beautifully balanced and emotionally sensitive account, never maudlin or sentimental - so he shows us the books they used as "ballast", or as a life raft in unpredictable and often heavy seas. Whether they are laughing at the humour of Alan Bennett and P.G. Wodehouse, admiring the humanity and elegance of Alexander McCall Smith, discussing the issue of violence against women through Stieg Larsson's novels or literacy in Afghanistan (a cause very close to Mary Anne's heart) with reference to Khaled Hosseini, Will and his mother connect through books and, crucially, confront on the page subjects they might have tended to avoid off it.
Whether you read this for the lovely bookish chat (there is a list of all the books and writers mentioned in the memoir at the end), for Will's thoughts and observations on so many aspects of reading, or whether you pick it up because you're interested in how to live well - Mary Anne had that gift even in extremis - I can't recommend this book too highly.
Mary Anne Schwalbe died three years ago today. Will feels that his mother lives on through the books she loved and admired, the ones which will forever be a point of affinity or link back to her; he's too modest to say that she is a vibrant, inspiring presence on the pages of his own book, but she is.
I'll leave the last word to him: "We're all in the end-of-our-life book club, whether we acknowledge it or not; each book we read may well be the last, each conversation the final one ... Books can be how we get closer to one another, and stay close, even in the case of a mother and son who were very close to each other to begin with, and even after one of them has died."