THE END OF YOUR LIFE BOOK CLUB, by Will Schwalbe. Alfred A. Knopf, 336 pp., $25.
Will Schwalbe's beautiful, affecting "The End of Your Life Book Club" is both a paean to the physical and emotional aspects of books and a memoir of his remarkable mother -- the first female head of Harvard and Radcliffe admissions and a lifelong humanitarian activist who helped found the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children. When Mary Anne Schwalbe was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastasized pancreatic cancer in 2007 at age 73, her son Will, then editor in chief of Hyperion Books, began accompanying her to chemotherapy sessions and oncology appointments at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. To help pass the hours and give a focal point to their conversations, the two constant readers formed a book group of two, which they joked was "the world's only foodless book club."
Over the course of two years, they shared and discussed dozens of books "to help Mom on her journey toward death and me on mine to life without her," never knowing how much time they had left. Their reading list included Wallace Stegner's "Crossing to Safety," Colm Toíbín's "Brooklyn," Irène Némirovsky's "Suite Francaise," Geraldine Brooks' "The People of the Book" and Mary Wilder Tileston's 1884 prayer book, "Daily Strengths for Daily Needs," all of which "gave us a way to discuss some of the things she was facing and some of the things I was facing."
Seamlessly and without pretension, Schwalbe integrates literary discussions with global issues and personal memories -- a feat that highlights not just how relevant but how integral literature can be to life. Readers will take away a terrific list of suggested titles, as well as precious nuggets of wisdom from this woman who, even before her fatal diagnosis, always read the ends of books first. She felt it was important to read about cruelty and dark themes because "they helped her understand the world as it is, not as we wish it would be." She told her son that mixed feelings are natural because "the world is complicated. You don't have to have one emotion at a time." And she fervently believed that "reading isn't the opposite of doing; it's the opposite of dying."