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Book Review: The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe (Alfred A. Knopf; 352 pages; $25).

No one likes to talk about death and dying.  Use of the “c” word can sometimes empty a room.  Yet we all have experienced the death of a loved one.  Heck, one day, we will all, each one of us, die.  Our time is short; therefore, we must make the most of it.

In early October 2007, Mary Anne Schwalbe was diagnosed with cancer.  Her son, Will, frequently accompanied his mother to chemotherapy treatments.  In the halls of Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s outpatient care center, a book club was born.

“Our book club got its formal start with the mocha and one of the most casual questions two people can ask each other: ‘What are you reading?’”

This was a natural question for them to ask one another.  Will was then Senior Vice-President and Editor-in-Chief of Hyperion Books.   According to Mary Anne’s obituary, “her first love had been theatre.”  She attended Radcliffe College and directed the American auditions for the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.  Mary Anne worked at Radcliffe and later at Harvard University as senior educational administrator.  Later, the family returned to New York City, where she continued to work in education.  However, for the last two decades of her life, Mary Anne “worked directly with refugees worldwide.”

“What are you reading?” was something Will and Mary Anne had asked each other for as long as Will could remember.  In the waiting room, and later during treatment, the world of cancer fell away for a brief time.  Books were an escape, a respite, against Mary Anne’s Stage IV pancreatic cancer.

Mother and son read old books and new; they read favorite tomes and ones they had only pretended to have read.  Will and Mary Anne read clunkers together; they also read thin volumes.  Their book club was a book club with only two members.  For them, though, two was just enough.

Books offered a connection between them.  They were close before the diagnosis, but the book club brought them even closer.  They were mother and son, yes, but they were also friends and equals.

Often, the themes of the books Will and Mary Anne read touched on the personal.  For example, Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (1987) prompted Will to ask his mother if a character in the novel would be all right in the end.  His wife was dying of cancer.  Mary Anne replied, “Of course it’ll be tough on him, but I think he’ll be fine.  I’m quite sure of it.  Maybe not right away.  But he’ll be fine.”  She was referring to the character, but she may as well have been referring to her own husband.

Death and dying are difficult subjects to broach, especially when your mother is the one dying.  Sometimes she may want to talk about it; some days she may not want to discuss her illness.  Soon, they both discovered that reading is the “opposite of dying.”

“Books had always been a way for my mother and me to introduce and explore topics that concerned us but made us uneasy, and they had also always given us something to talk about when we were stressed or anxious.”

After Mary Anne’s diagnosis, they discussed books more and more.  Through the stories they read, Will was able to discover things about Mary Anne that he never knew.

Mary Anne fought hard, but pancreatic cancer took her life on September 14, 2009.  Throughout the book, you will feel as if you know Mary Anne and Will.  When cancer ultimately takes her life, you will feel the loss.  I felt as if I had known this spunky, courageous woman who, even sick, was every bit the dynamo.

The End of Your Life Book Club is not only a memoir but it is also a love letter.  It’s a love letter to Mary Anne, yes, but it is also a love letter to the written word. Books are powerful; they bridge generations and illness.  They bring a mother and a son closer just as her days are waning.

Will writes with tenderness and bravery.  His story could not have been an easy one to write.  I am sure there were both tears and smiles as he came up with this wonderful, poignant story.  Mary Anne most definitely stood over his shoulder making sure everything was done to her satisfaction.

The End of Your Life Book Club is a story for your head and for your heart.

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Book Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (Random House; 336 pages; $25).

 

            We tend to take too many things and people for granted in our lives.  Please do not think I am preaching; I, too, am guilty.  Often, our iPhones, iPads, kindles, and other such devices preoccupy our daily routines.  The ping of an incoming message lures us to our screens like nothing else matters; our response to such stimuli is almost Pavlovian.  We tend to tune out anything else that is going on around us.  We forget those most important to us, and for that we are remiss.

We are not promised tomorrow.  In these uncertain times of war and terrorism, we sometimes forget that each day is a miracle.  Just take the events on July 20, 2012, when James Holmes killed twelve people and injured more than fifty others during a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado.  During this brutal and senseless tragedy, people aided the wounded and pulled them to safety, even when their own lives were in danger.  People banded together.  In the days since the killings, we have heard many stories of bravery and hope despite the ugliness of the act.  Funny how it seems we only become one in the face of a tragedy.

I ask you: If we are not safe in a movie theatre, where are we safe? The bleak answer I came up with was nowhere.  It was a profound and scary realization.

However, during the shootings, I was lucky enough to be in the midst of reading a novel that managed to restore my faith in man.  Although The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce is fiction, it can teach us a lot about life.  Harold’s inspirational journey changes his life and those closest to him.  Harold is no superhero; rather, he is an ordinary man who does an extraordinary thing.  We can all learn a lot from him.

Harold Fry is 65 and retired six months ago. He spends most of his time sitting in his chair.  Estranged from his son, Harold has spent a lifetime not questioning and instead being meek and mild.  In other words, Harold is the proper Englishman; he does not believe in rocking the boat.  He and his wife, Maureen, sleep in separate rooms.  Over the years their relationship has deteriorated.  For years, “they had been in a place where language had no significance.  She only had to look at him and she was wrenched to the past.  Small words were exchanged and they were safe.  They hovered over the surface of what could never be said, because that was unfathomable and would never be bridged.”

Then, Harold receives a letter from Queenie Hennessy, an old co-worker from twenty years ago.  “It’s—cancer,” Harold tells Maureen.  “Queenie,” he explains, “is writing to say goodbye.”

The news overcomes him.  Harold writes her a note, but it just seems so darn inadequate.  After a life of inaction, Harold is desperate to do something.  What begins as a quick jaunt to mail Queenie’s letter spirals into an unlikely journey of 87 days and 627 miles from Harold’s home in Kingsbridge to Queenie’s hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Harold’s mindset is simple, really.  He believes that as long as he keeps walking, Queenie “must live.”  Harold calls the hospice and begs one of the nuns to give Queenie a message: “Tell her Harold Fry is on his way.  All she has to do is wait.  Because I am going to save her, you see.  I will keep walking and she must keep living.”

You may laugh at Harold at first.  I know I did.  He sets off with just the clothes on his back and he even wears a tie.  No fancy walking shoes for Harold.  He just wears his trusted old yacht shoes.  He has no water bottles or Powerade, no nutrition bars, and no cell phone.  He does not even have that much money!  I did not expect Harold to get very far, honestly, with no supplies and little money.  I kept waiting for someone to murder him actually.

But, over time, I came to believe in Harold, too.  His journey is difficult, though, as all quests must be.  Maureen fails to understand why exactly Harold is undertaking this pilgrimage.  She thinks her husband had an affair with Queenie.

Joyce throws many obstacles in Harold’s path.  Sometimes it seems as if he will never complete his expedition.  His body fails him; his spirit plummets.  Harold endures awful English weather and snickers from those who see an old man walking on the side of the road.

When he tells the people he meets along the way his story, many help him on his quest.  Some provide plasters and tape for his feet; some give him food.  Others give him a bed to sleep on.  A few just listen.  Many encourage him to keep going.  Harold tells them about Queenie, and they, in turn, tell Harold their own stories—uplifting anecdotes of sick loved ones or even accounts of their own struggles in life.  Harold internalizes their chronicles; they actually become a part of him.  Funnily enough, Harold, in a nod to Forrest Gump and Jesus, attracts disciples.  His groupies only end up distracting Harold, though, from his goal.  But only temporarily.

The roadblocks Harold must navigate his way through mirror the obstacles we all must overcome in life.  Like Harold, we must persevere, even when our goals seem impossible.  Harold tells us, “I admit it is an awfully long way to Berwick.  I admit I am wearing the wrong clothes.  And I also admit I have not the training, or the physique, for my walk.”  Harold never gives up, though: “Even when a big part of me is saying I should give up, I can’t.  Even when I don’t want to keep going, I still do it.”  He may falter, he may fall down, but he gets back up again.

Harold keeps his eye on the prize: getting to Queenie.  For Harold, his journey is transformative.  Harold is “beginning again.”  He learns “it was the smallness of people that filled him with wonder and tenderness.”  The world, he realizes, is “made up of people putting one foot in front of the other.”  One of the most profound of Harold’s revelations is this: “everyone was the same, and also unique; and that this was the dilemma of being human.”  The Harold at the end of this story is not the same Harold we met in the beginning.

Joyce produces a life-affirming story.  The novel is a tribute to her dad, who died of cancer.  This book has Joyce’s “heart in it,” and it shows.

In these uncertain times, we’re lucky to have Harold, an “Everyman” archetype, whose improbable journey fills us with hope and renews our faith in the human spirit.  Harold and those he meets show there is still goodness in people, even when it seems the world is crazy.  Harold goes on a 21st century pilgrimage and he takes us with him.  You will root for this unlikely hero, and you will take a part of him with you.  I guarantee it.

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