Sunday, January 12, 2014

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

"What are you reading?" is the question Will Schwalbe asks his mother, Mary Anne, as they sit in the waiting room of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.  Mary Anne has been diagnosed with a form of advanced pancreatic cancer, which is almost always fatal.  This is the story of a son and his mother, who start a "book club" that brings them together as her life comes to a close.  Over the next two years, Will and Mary Anne carry on conversations that are both wide-ranging and deeply personal, prompted by an eclectic array of books and a shared passion for reading.  Together they find that reading isn't the opposite of doing; it's the opposite of dying.

This book is about so much more than just a list of books that the two of them shared during the time prior to his mother's passing (though there is a list in the back of the book, in case some of their comments inspire you to seek them out).  It is a journey where two people explore the power of books and reading while coming to terms with one of life's most emotional passages--the transition from life to death.  How do we let go? How can we? And yet, we must.

Book Club will be discussing this at our January meeting, and I've made lots of notes about particular passages that held emotional resonance for me.  But because I try to keep things short here, let me list just one of them to give you an idea of the many beautiful passages in this book:

"One of the many things I love about bound books is their sheer physicality.  Electronic books live out of sight and out of mind.  But printed books have body, presence.  Sure, sometimes they'll elude you by hiding in improbable places...But at other times they'll confront you, and you'll literally stumble over some tomes you hadn't thought about in weeks or years.  I often seek electronic books, but they never come after me.  They may make me feel, but I can't feel them.  They are all soul with no flesh, no texture, and no weight.  They can get in your head but can't whack you upside it."

A beautiful book about the relationship between a mother and her son and their bonding over books.  As the book says, “We're all in the end-of-your-life book-club, whether we acknowledge it or not; each book we read may well be the last, each conversation the final one.”          

Mary Oliver is an American poet who has won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.  She is the author of many famous poems, including The Journey, Wild Geese, The Summer Day, and When Death Comes.  Nature suffuses and sustains her work.  Her latest book is a New York Times bestselling collection of new and favorite poems, celebrating the dogs that have enriched her world.  Since I am a great lover of all things canine, and a big fan of Mary's poetry, this book was a no-brainer for me to pick up.

These poems illustrate the wholehearted devotion of dogs, who love us unconditionally, and in the process teach us to love.  Of course the best way to recommend this book is to let you see one of the poems:

He puts his cheek against mine
and makes small, expressive sounds.
And when I’m awake, or awake enough
he turns upside down, his four paws
  in the air
and his eyes dark and fervent.
“Tell me you love me,” he says.
“Tell me again.”
Could there be a sweeter arrangement? Over and over
he gets to ask.
I get to tell.

This is a book for all of those who have canine companions, because as we all know, they are a kind of poetry themselves.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich


Award-winning novelist Louise Erdrich grew up in North Dakota, the oldest of seven children born to a Chippewa mother and a father of German-American descent.  She is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, and this story was inspired when she and her mother, Rita Gourneau Erdrich, were researching their own family history. 

One Sunday in the spring of 1988, a woman living on a reservation in North Dakota is attacked. The details of the crime are slow to surface as Geraldine Coutts is traumatized and reluctant to relive or reveal what happened, either to the police or to her husband, Bazil, and thirteen-year-old son, Joe. In one day, Joe's life is irrevocably transformed. He tries to heal his mother, but she will not leave her bed and slips into an abyss of solitude. Increasingly alone, Joe finds himself thrust prematurely into an adult world for which he is ill prepared.

While his father, who is a tribal judge, endeavors to wrest justice from a situation that defies his efforts, Joe becomes frustrated with the official investigation and sets out with his trusted friends, Cappy, Zack, and Angus, to get some answers of his own. Their quest takes them first to the Round House, a sacred space and place of worship for the Ojibwe.  And thus, the story begins.

In this book, Erdrich explores issues of family, personal identity, and cultural survival.  There are references to Native American history, law, and folklore and she weaves in notions of crime, justice, and revenge.   A powerful coming of age story that probes moral and legal ramifications of a terrible act of violence.

The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg

Now that the hustle and bustle of the Christmas holiday is behind us, I have some catching up to do on postings of books I've finished.  The first one is from one of my perennially favorite authors, Fannie Flagg.  As with all of Fannie's books, I found myself laughing out loud throughout while immersing myself in the heartwarming and hilarious southern world she creates populated by her finely drawn hysterical characters.

Mrs. Sookie Poole of Point Clear, Alabama, has just married off the last of her daughters and is looking forward to relaxing and perhaps traveling with her husband, Earle. The only thing left to contend with is her mother, the formidable Lenore Simmons Krackenberry. Lenore may be a lot of fun for other people, but is, for the most part, an overbearing presence for her daughter. Then one day, quite by accident, Sookie discovers a secret about her mother’s past that knocks her for a loop and suddenly calls into question everything she ever thought she knew about herself, her family, and her future.

Thus begins the search for answers, leading her to California, the Midwest, and even back in time to the 1940s.  The scope of the story spans decades and also generations.  The thing that makes all of Fannie's books such a joy is her unwavering belief in people, despite their weaknesses or eccentricities.  If you are looking for a book to lift your spirits and make you smile, this is the one.
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