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The End of Your Life Book Club

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An Entertainment Weekly and BookPage Best Book of the Year

During her treatment for cancer, Mary Anne Schwalbe and her son Will spent many hours sitting in waiting rooms together. To pass the time, they would talk about the books they were reading. Once, by chance, they read the same book at the same time—and an informal book club of two was born. Through their wide-ranging reading, Will and Mary Anne—and we, their fellow readers—are reminded how books can be comforting, astonishing, and illuminating, changing the way that we feel about and interact with the world around us. A profoundly moving memoir of caregiving, mourning, and love—The End of Your Life Book Club is also about the joy of reading, and the ways that joy is multiplied when we share it with others.

326 pages, Paperback

First published October 2, 2012

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About the author

Will Schwalbe

5 books1,261 followers
Greetings! Since we are both here, I’m guessing you are probably a fellow book-lover. Always great to meet other members of the tribe!

I’ve put a lot about myself in my books, but here are some of the basics. I was born in New York in 1962; grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts; went to boarding school in New Hampshire, and to college in New Haven, Connecticut. So I consider myself a New Englander, even though I’m not one by birth.

I’ve worked as a journalist, in the television business, and even (briefly, in college) as a substitute teacher. But I’ve spent most of my life in publishing: at William Morrow, and then at Hyperion, where I was Editor in Chief. In January 2008, I left Hyperion to found a startup called Cookstr.com and ran that for six years. It’s now part of Macmillan Publishers, where I’ve worked since 2014.

Books have been the constant in my life. From those my mother read me when I was too young to read, to those my father read us when we could read but still liked to be read to. From books I read under the covers, long after I was supposed to be asleep—including every single thriller by the magnificent Alistair Maclean—to books that I found in my teens that helped me imagine all different kinds of lives, and see the world through others’ eyes.

I’ve written four books. The first -- SEND: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do it Better – was written with my friend David Shipley. The second, THE END OF YOUR LIFE BOOK CLUB, is about the books I read with my mother when she was dying. The third is BOOKS FOR LIVING, about the role books can play in our lives and how they can show us how to live each day more fully and with more meaning. And the fourth is WE SHOULD NOT BE FRIENDS: The Story of an Unlikely Friendship that started in college and has enriched my life for forty years and counting.

I live in New York City with my husband. We’ve been together since way back when I first moved to Hong Kong in 1984. We have one African violet, that’s a bit lopsided; books everywhere; and are obsessed with our neighbor’s adorable chow, Lucky. We also have five godchildren, one niece, and four nephews.

I love meeting fellow readers and hearing from readers about all different kinds of book. I answer everyone, though sometimes it can take me a bit of time. My favorite question to ask or be asked is a simple one: “What are you reading?”

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5 stars
15,176 (28%)
4 stars
19,908 (37%)
3 stars
12,826 (23%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 7,895 reviews
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
3,922 reviews35.4k followers
October 29, 2016
Update: I read this book when it was first released. I paid full price - bought the hard copy and still own it and have referred to the glossary in the back of the book many times.

I have also - since reading this book bought AT LEAST a DOZEN copies ....or more ( Not at full price)... but in perfect condition to give to close friends...
heck -- I've sent the book to a few people on this site.
I LOVE this book - I adore Will ( the author) ...
And Ive known Will had been writing a new book about BOOKS for a couple of years - or longer, Will? lol
Well, it's finally finished!!!!
I've requested to read it on Netgalley -- if they turn me down - I think I might need to kick somebody in the balls... lol
but in case they do -- I'll get my hands on the book one way or another --- I suppose I'll have to buy the book again if I want the hard copy. Which I do!
Will ...If you are reading this... I want a signed copy!!! :)

Ok...being serious... I was shocked to learn --( but soon recovered from the news)... that not everyone loved this book... but I did!!!!
Just sayin!!!!
I always recommend it!!!!


I agree with the tip I received ---
BUYING the BOOK ---(not the kiddle)--- is a real treat. Its a book I want to own!

Its a book I'll open more than once.

I'm already reading "Magical Thinking" by Joan Didion ---(one of the books talked about in "The End of Your life Book Club")

I have several other books (I own) which I also have not read 'yet' which I now want to read (sooner --rather than wait) --

"Crossing to Safety" by Wallace Stegner (I've read other books by him which I loved --but missed this one) --
and...."Suite Francaise" by Irene Nemirovsky ---(which I forgot I have 'not' read but had planned to) ---

and finish reading other short stories in the book "Too Much Happiness" by Alice Munro which I haven't....

plus...'others' ---

NOT to mention THIS book itself was a GEM:
Words & thoughts that come to mind when I think of this beautiful book Will Schwalbe wrote as a tribute to his AMAZING MOTHER are:

'dignity', do the best you can in life, LIVE and allow yourelf to BE HAPPY, celebrate, pray, give, forgive, find positive solutions,
family, love, art, beauty, travel, the world, pain, suffering, death, unlimited possiblities, cherish the moments, express our passion...
BOOKS make a difference in our lives...and we make a differnce 'in life' just by reading itself!

Thank you Will for this book you wrote. You, and your entire family are an inspiration. Your mothers is a woman I would have loved to have had tea with --taked books with....

I can 'feel' her smile myself!

I only cried in 'one' sentence of this book It was when Will took his mother's hand --when he came up beside her ---when he saw her walking the street in N.Y.

Will ---You are a beautiful son and human being!
60 reviews
July 9, 2013
I truly wanted to enjoy this book. I read this book for a book club and at first I thought it was a good choice. It sounded like something I would really want to sink my teeth into, however, I just did not find it interesting. It is appalling that I was 90% of the way through and telling myself, don't worry, she must die soon and it will all be over (I feel like a terrible person). I appreciate that Will Schwalbe's mother appears to have been a woman who championed many valuable causes and did great things, however, the description of her in this book doesn't even make her sound human. That is due to the writing than the woman- it felt like she was being portrayed as some saint-like creature.

The description of the Mother/Son relationship didn't make me feel emotional, the book club books were not discussed in enough detail to make me want to read them and it seemed like a lot of this book was screaming 'look how privileged we are'. Although it seems like the Mother did a lot for refugees, it often comes across that she was detached and cold towards her own children. At best, reading the book made me feel like I had trespassed at someone's funeral/wake at worst it made me feel like I was participating in a very dull book club. Perhaps I am being overly harsh, but would really not recommend this to anyone else and believe this was published mainly due to author connections.

Rant over!

Profile Image for Debbie W..
709 reviews453 followers
February 27, 2021
If you had only 24 hours to live, which book would you choose to read?

Soon after her diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, Mary Ann, and her son, author Will Schwalbe, began to share and discuss a variety of books that had made an impact on their lives. His memoir describes his mother as a strong, worldly, kind woman, and he relates to us her life, thoughts and beliefs which were often affected by the people she met and the books she read. Some of the books mentioned are now on my WTR list!

This was a very inspirational and enlightening story, and at times, very sad for me, as it brought back fond memories of the book discussions I would have with my mom before her recent death.

A very thoughtful read. I look forward to reading Schwalbe's Books for Living.
Profile Image for Nancy Kennedy.
Author 11 books54 followers
January 23, 2013
Will Schwalbe began accompanying his mother to chemo treatments for her pancreatic cancer at Sloan Kettering. To pass the time, Mr. Shwalbe asks his mother, "What are you reading?"

Fortunately, Mr. Schwalbe and his mother had always shared a love of reading and enjoyed spirited conversations about their favorite books. While the endless chemo treatments proceed, and his mother's disease progresses, the two make their way through books of all kinds, from the popular (The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency) to the obscure (Eleanor Rathbone and the Politics of Conscience).

The mother-son book club not only serves to pass the time, but it deepens their relationship and provides an outlet for discussing uncomfortable end-of-life issues. They read Randy Pausch's The Last Lecture and Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. With his "book club," Mr. Schwalbe gives a wonderful gift to his mother, an outlet for discussing issues that make most people around a sick person uncomfortable -- and a way to talk about something other than being sick.

I also appreciated that Mr. Schwalbe, a person of no professed faith, does not denigrate the books his mother cherishes at the end of her life -- The Book of Common Prayer and Daily Strengths For Daily Needs. He comes to see not only the good they did his mother, but how their underlying messages shaped his mother's character all her life. (She was a well-known activist for refugee causes. She was raising funds for a library in Afghanistan at the end of her life.)

Mr. Schwalbe's portrait of his extraordinary mother is respectful and well balanced. He acknowledges all the people who loved her, honored her and cherished her. He hints at frustrations ("How, I wondered, could anyone always want to talk to everyone?"), but it's clear that he and his mother shared a close and loving relationship. This is a son's gentle tribute to his mother, a memoir that shows how one family negotiated the reality of death and dying with creativity, love and respect.
Profile Image for Anne Bogel.
Author 6 books52.2k followers
January 26, 2023
A powerful memoir about the ways we connect with books and with each other. After his mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, she and Will formed a two-person book club, doing their best to make their way through the many books they've been meaning to read together. This led to meaningful conversations about a variety of books while they waited during her chemotherapy appointments. A thoughtful read that will give you plenty of food for thought—and books to add to your TBR.

I had a rich conversation with Will in What Should I Read Next #184: You’ll never conquer your TBR—and that’s a good thing.
Profile Image for Holly.
1,004 reviews218 followers
August 13, 2016
The book discussions were cursory, at best. I hadn't intended to find myself reading a memoir of a parent's pancreatic cancer; call me oversensitive (and a sucker), but books like this make me FURIOUS! The author seems like a nice man and all, but what exactly is the draw for readers? It's his personal memoir and story of his mother, and it's actually really, really boring. The book club-thing is a gimmick - Schwalbe works in publishing, after all (i.e., he had connections and help getting it published). If it had been my memoir I doubt it would have been accepted:
"Hey, Mom! Let's you and me read something edgy like Pynchon or something sweet like Alice Munro before we dart off to a benefit or the symphony or to humanitarian work in the Third World - oh sorry, what? you're dying and cannot get out of bed and are in constant pain and wasting away in starvation and subsisting in a perpetual morphine haze? Have hope! Reading fiction will put it all into perspective for us!"
(So is it true that there were drug trials for pancreatic cancer treatment accepting patients in March 2009? Note to self: if you're going to get cancer, be rich and well-connected and live near Memorial-Sloan Kettering and not in BFE).
I don't expect anyone to "like" this review, and obviously I have some unresolved issues . . . if you like the book and it's making the world a better place, then great.
Profile Image for Eric.
645 reviews104 followers
January 6, 2013
A beautiful book about the connection through books a mother and son were able to make it the years leading up to her death from pancreatic cancer. I lost my mother to cancer six years ago, and I really envy how Will and his mother Mary Ann were able to find a common language to discuss the questions of life, death, and the possibility of the hereafter.

I wish my mother and I had had that common language. And I wish my stepfather, through his own bitterness and lashing out, hadn't poisoned my process of mourning by making some very cruel statements. I'm still processing the loss six years later, as a result.

Reading this book may help bring peace to many people. I recognize how good it is, but it's brought up a lot of angst for me. But at the same time, it's helped me to rid myself of a lot of misplaced guilt that I had been placing on my own head. I do tend to do this; to beat myself up unjustly. I need to stop doing that.

But I remember the time in the hospital room when my mother and I acknowledged death's approach and our love for each other. No one else was a party to that conversation but her and me. And no one can judge that or take that away from me.
Profile Image for Diane.
1,080 reviews2,633 followers
October 23, 2012
"Reading isn't the opposite of doing; it's the opposite of dying."

This is an amazing memoir. Mary Anne Schwalbe was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2007, and she and her son spend time sharing books and holding informal book club chats, partly because they were both avid readers and partly to take Mary Anne's mind off of her illness. So it's a book about books, but it's also about the lessons Will learned from his mom.

I would recommend this book to any book lovers, but also to those who are coping with the serious illness of a family member.

"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."
445 reviews15 followers
October 24, 2012
There were so many problems with this book. First, the author so worshiped his mother that the reader never got to know the real her. She was on the board of numerous international organizations that help refugees, orphans, and women. She traveled extensively, often coming home quite ill. She seemed to take this as part of her working overseas and refused to take the full course of antibiotics. (The author reports this as if it is heroic rather than foolish.) She also supposedly talks to everyone she comes into contact with, listening intently and asking questions, always with a radiant smile. Once she is diagnosed with cancer, she describes her days as "good" or "not so good"; she never talks of pain, but rather discomfort. She continues to travel and tirelessly championing the building of a library in Afghanistan. She attends her grandchildren's birthday parties even though she is supposed to avoid large groups of people who could make her sicker. Even though she only has months to live, she insists that her daughter take a job in Switzerland, as she plans on visiting when she vacations in London. Throughout it all, the author never shares if his mother is scared, angry, or any other negative emotion. (He, on the other hand, often bawls or gets sulky.) Because she is presented as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farms, the reader has no idea just how sick she is and she remains a detached character, not someone to root for. The tiny glimpses into the author's childhood show a mother who was not present for her children, neither emotionally nor physically. (The "turtle" incident is unbelievable. Don't get me started...) But, the author continues to extol his mother's virtues. (It was strange that he wrote so little about his father. He says in the intro that his father's story was his to tell, but, given that this is a memoir, Dad's absence was quite striking.)
So, I didn't love the mother (nor the son), but I could enjoy this book because of all the books they shared, right? Well, no. A number of the books didn't interest me because they seemed too dark. I had read some of the books that they read---and disliked them all. (The funny thing was that I don't remember the author talking about a book that they didn't like.) I did write down some of their choices to check out here on GoodReads, so I might find something from their lists that I like. We'll see.
Finally, the author worked as an editor for over twenty years, yet this book sorely needed editing. That made me wonder if the same book written by someone outside of publishing would have seen the light of day. I guess it pays to have friends in high places. Not recommended.
Profile Image for Emma.
971 reviews966 followers
February 7, 2017
3.5 stars

A hard one to review as my beloved nanny died of pancreatic cancer last year. I didn't realise this before agreeing to review the book and the parallel experiences made it a challenging read. Especially as her birthday has just gone and there are only three months till the anniversary of her death. She was on my mind even before reading this. Nanny and I never had a book club as such, but we both read a lot and often shared/talked about books. She is intertwined so much with my idea of reading that I will forever think of her when i'm siting with a book in my hand. So one of the comments Will Schwalbe reported his mother telling him really struck me: ‘That’s one of the things books do. They help us talk. But they also give us something we can all talk about when we don’t want to talk about ourselves’. In essence, that is what Will is doing with this book, using the selections made for their book club to tell the reader about what his mother, himself, and his family were going through. But it is also what he was doing within the book, both he and his mother were using the varied titles they chose to tell each other things they couldn’t say out loud, or raise topics they might not have otherwise been able to address directly. In this way, they discussed death, pain, religion, suffering, justice, love. And yet, despite these weighty subjects, it felt like the book didn’t go deep enough. So much of the reported time was spent in hospital or doctor waiting rooms and it read like a waiting room conversation, for the most part superficial and short. There were some moments of deeper meaning but it seemed to me that Will Schwalbe didn’t address either the books he and his mother read or tell the reader enough about why they were important. Perhaps he wasn’t truly ready or prepared to go that far, but it makes the book feel lacking. Certainly the books, despite being the focus of the title, were little more than background. I’d not have minded this if it meant more about the inspiring, wonderful person that Mary Anne Schwalbe was, but the hole was not filled by her or anything else. I was disappointed because I felt the project could have been so much more.

The most useful and positive aspect of the book was the person centred nature of the care that Mary Anne Schwalbe chose for herself. Throughout the book, she made decisions about her medical interventions and how she wanted her end of life period to look and feel like. In that, and all other things, her family seemed to support her wishes and her health in the way that she wanted. She remained in charge of her own body, within the framework of her cancer. As such, this might give the strength to others with illness to make decisions about their own care or allow their families to see how important it can be to manage cancer in the way that best suits each individual, even if it means some painful choices.

One book that they read was ‘The Etiquette of Illness’ by Sue Halpern and Will included the following checklist:

1) Ask: ‘Do you want to talk about how you’re feeling?’ (instead of asking straight away and putting the individual on the spot about answering)
2) Don’t ask if there’s anything you can do. Suggest things, or if it’s not intrusive, just do them.
3) You don’t have to talk all the time. Sometimes just being there is enough.

These were elements we put in place during the care of my nanny and which I also use in my work in the healthcare sector. Of all the books that are mentioned, this is the one I think others might find the most useful.
Profile Image for Teresa.
1,492 reviews
February 11, 2017
Há dias, fui comprar uma coisa (que não devia) e deparei com uma pequena estante com vários livros em promoção (quase ao mesmo preço da coisa "feia"). Este chamou-me a atenção pelo título; comprei-o e comecei a lê-lo pensando tratar-se de um livro sobre livros, que me iria dar a conhecer mais umas quantas maravilhas. Não é um livro sobre livros, apesar de nele haver referências a dezenas de obras literárias. É a história da mãe de Will Schawlbe, desde que lhe é diagnosticado cancro no pâncreas até à sua morte cerca de dois anos depois. O filho acompanha-a às consultas e sessões de quimioterapia e durante esse tempo criam um clube de leitura; lêem os mesmos livros e discutem-nos.

Pela primeira vez vou "falsear" as estrelas com que avalio um livro, quebrando a minha regra de me basear apenas no gostei "muito, pouco, nada". Se fosse ficção quantificava-o com três estrelas, correspondentes ao "gostei", porque acho que Will Schawlbe é um bom filho mas não um bom escritor. Mas porque achei admirável a pessoa que foi Mary Anne Schwalbe - antes e durante a doença - acrescento uma estrela. A outra Estrela dedico a uma amiga (daqui do Goodreads) que, tal como Mary Anne, também manteve a sua paixão pelos livros até ao fim...

(Eu não devia ter lido este livro...)
Profile Image for Diane .
378 reviews13 followers
March 2, 2013
A loving tribute to life and to reading.

I want to tell everyone I know -- READ THIS BOOK! The book cover's flap has the best word to described this book: profoundly moving, joyful (in spite of loss) and a celebration of life, love and the written word.

I'm very fussy about reading non-fiction and more judgmental of non-fiction than fiction; very often I think someone wants to tell a story just to 'hear' themselves 'talk'. But this book was not about that, and easily earned 5* from me.

If you do pick this book up (and you should!) be prepared to add quite a few books to your TBR.

Just a few (of many) touching and poignant moments in this book for me:

Page 57 (Will remembering a family friend who passed away) "No one in the family has ever really gotten over Bob's death. We talk of him daily...He remains for my family the perfect model of how you can be gone but ever present in the lives of people who loved you, in the same way that your favorite books stay with you for your entire life, no matter how long it's been since you turned the last page."

From Page 255 Mary Anne speaking to Will about doing more in the world: "...You can always do more, and you should do more -- but still, the important thing is to do what you can, whenever you can. You just do your best, and that's all you can do. Too many people use the that they don't think they can do enough, so they decide they don't have to do anything. There's never a good excuse for not doing anything..."

Now that I have finished, I miss the Schwalbe family very much.
Profile Image for Tom.
325 reviews29 followers
November 30, 2012
This book is one hell of a journey; it is not always easy to read. Some parts are hysterically funny, and others are crushingly sad.

"The End of Your Life Book Club" details the final two years of Mary Ann Schwalbe, who died after battling metastatic pancreatic cancer. In the pantheon of cancers, pancreatic is one of the most deadly, especially once it spreads to other organs, the liver, in Mrs Schwalbe's case.

She is a woman unaccustomed to sitting still. She was an educator, a philanthropist, and a champion for human rights, especially for refugee women and children in war-torn nations. She thought nothing of flying to Thailand to work among the sick and wounded for six months. Her spirit was indomitable, and it remained so till the very end.

Author Will Schwalbe had a remarkable career in publishing, working for Scribner's, Hyperion, and other major imprints. He got his love of books from his mother.

The End of Your Life Book Club had two members: Will and his mother. It started almost by accident. Will took his mother to her chemotherapy sessions. While they waited to be called back--and during the hours the treatments took--the two talked about books. At first, they touched on what each other had been reading. As time progressed, they took it to a new level, both of them reading the same book, so that they could discuss it while the medicine dripped slowly into Mary Ann's veins.

Their discussions were interesting and very literate, but the true bliss in this book is how discussing a work of fiction could elicit a story from their real lives. Sometimes it was a shared family memory; other times, Mary Ann described one of her many adventures, or Will talked about authors he'd published, or his new dot-com business.

Over the two years they shared their club, we get a sense of how amazingly generous a spirit Mary Ann had, and the love she had for her husband and three grown children. She had a strong faith--a Presbyterian--and Will didn't. This didn't bother her too much. She mentioned with a laugh that God hears heathens' prayers too.

The whole family is remarkably educated, and notable for their achievements. She insists they live their lives unabated. At day's end, though, they all rally around their mother.

Mary Ann didn't let cancer slow her down much. She managed to travel, both domestically and abroad. She was adamant that she wanted to see her grandchildren grow up.

Sadly, the point came where chemotherapy no longer worked, and her tumors grew rampantly. Mary Ann never whined or lamented "WHY ME??" She plowed forward. She made funeral arrangements, wrote letters for her grandchildren to open when she was gone, and she put her affairs in order. She did NOT go gentle, to paraphrase Dylan Thomas.

When it was time to stop fighting, she accepted her fate, and made the most of her remaining time on earth. Even when she was confined to bed, she and Will talked books. She read until the day she slipped from consciousness, and she died, knowing her family would miss her, but they would be fine.

This is an extraordinary book. At its core, it tells the story of Will and Mary Ann's book club. Even if this book just covered their readings and literary discussions, it would be worth a read. (My favorite Book Club topic was the proffered theory that one could either like C.S. Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia" series, or J.R.R. Tolkien's Hobbit tales, but not both; and that while Lewis insisted the Narnia books were not Christian allegory, Tolkien claimed his were (Will was a Tolkien; his brother was a Lewis))

What Will Schwalbe does so brilliantly is use the book club as a framework upon which to sculpt his truly inspiring and amazing mother's life, and the family she loved and cherished, eccentricities and all.

Mary Ann Schwalbe was one of a kind: she was whip-smart and educated, generous, fearless, and yet always quick to speak to anybody: from the custodian to the Chief of Medicine, Mrs Schwalbe had a kind word for everyone.

This is not always an easy book. It doesn't dwell excessively on the gorier aspects of cancer, but it's always there, always in the background: we know that this remarkable woman is going to die from a horrible disease.

Even as the end approaches, Mary Ann Schwalbe had a surprise or two. Before she left Memorial Sloan-Kettering and entered Hospice home care, she had Will fill out a duplicate "Do Not Resuscitate" form. He penned in her name: Mary Anne Schwalbe. She gently corrected him: there was no "e" on the end of "Ann." His whole life, he'd thought her name was Mary Anne. It seemed a testament to her life force that her DNR form had a scratched-out letter.

Mary Ann's death is not what makes "The End of Your Life Book Club" so engrossing; it's her splendid, generous, exquisitely lived life.

Highly recommended.
Profile Image for sAmAnE.
459 reviews77 followers
December 10, 2022
گاهی هم نمی‌دونم. آدم چه می‌دونه. تا وقتی با کسی حرف نزنی، نمی‌دونی ارزش دوستی و نزدیکی داره یا نه. باید اول باهاشون حرف بزنی و ازشون سوال کنی بعد بفهمی ارزش دارن یا نه. من با همین روش یک عالم آدم جالب توی زندگی‌م دیده‌م و برخلاف تو احساس نمی‌کنم مزاحمم هستن، بلکه احساس می‌کنم هر آدمی برای خودش یک چیز جالبی داره که می‌تونم در موردش فکر کنم و با دیگران صحبت کنم. مثل کتاب‌ها...
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بهترین کتاب سال BookPage
بهترین کتاب سال Entertainment Weekly
برنده‌ی جایزه‌ی Books for a Better Life برای بهترین کتاب الهام‌بخش در ژانر بیوگرافی
نامزد‌ جایزه‌ی گودریدز
Profile Image for Mari Anne.
1,332 reviews24 followers
April 1, 2013
I started out loving the book and the story behind it... who wouldn't love a book about books. The whole idea of his mother dying of cancer didn't worry me as I am very much a realist about things like that. I LOVE to talk about books and I also love to read books where books are either the center of the story or almost another character (i.e. The 13th Tale, The Angels Game, Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society, The Book Thief, 84 Charing Cross Road.... I could go on and on). This one however, grew cold on me about half way through. Maybe it was the endless recitation of the cancer treatments or the preachiness that creeps in toward the end that bothered me, but I found that this book morphed less into a lovely memoir about his mom and their book club and more into a platform for his personal needs and views. Maybe I am being overly critical but it just turned a little sour for me toward the end. Recommended with reservations.
Profile Image for Alexandrea.
211 reviews12 followers
May 5, 2015
An absolutely wonderfully written book that is not just the personal experience of Will Schwalbe. This book explores the power of books, reading them, discussing them and intagrating them into our lives and the lives of others. I think we all have an understanding of how important our friends and family are, but this book brings home the importance of letting those people know not just how much you love them, but how proud you are of them or how much you respect them and what they have done or the decisions they have made. Everyone should read this book, no matter what they are going through, and even if they aren't going through anything at all but just living their life.


"...and I'm also talking about kindness, not just about being nice. You can be gruff and abrupt and still be kind. Kindness has much more to do with what you do, that how you do it."

"I like books. I don't read them, but I like them."

"You can always tell them to read..."

"We're all in the end-of-our-life book clubs, whether we acknowledge it or not; each book we read may well be the last, each conversation the final one."
Profile Image for Megan.
919 reviews2 followers
February 9, 2013
I don't often give books 2 stars, and I feel pretty heartless doing it for this one. But it deserves it. It maybe deserves 1, but I got some ideas for books to read, so fine. 2 stars. What are the problems with this book? Geez, where do I start? For having been an editor and...writer (?!) Will Schwalbe was desperately in need of somebody to teach him how to write. I am not exaggerating when I say that I could have written this book -- and I really don't say that kind of thing lightly. It was clunky and chunky and had WAY too many commas, parentheses, and sentences that went on for a full paragraph. I was SO bored that I skimmed through a good portion of it, and I only finished it because I was reading it for my book club. I kept wishing that I was reading a good memoir-type book like The Glass Castle, or Little Heathens, or Toast by Nigel Slater, or...well, anything, really. There are SO MANY other beautifully written memoirs that I was kind of annoyed I spent a week reading this one. Oh well, whatever, at least I have some books for my to-read list.
Profile Image for Linda.
1,408 reviews1 follower
May 22, 2017
I've had this book for sometime, I put off reading it because it was personal to me. I was afraid of what I would read, afraid of being sad. I was wrong! I loved this book for so many reasons. I was hooked from page one. Who doesn't love a book about books? There's so much more in this book, joy, life lessons, wisdom, an inside look at a family who is faced with a big bump in the road. Life has bumps in the road, some bigger than others. It's the way we choose to handle them that makes all the difference. The Schwalbe family handled it like a well oiled machine, as a team, with dignity, grace and much love. Kudos to Mary Ann Schwalbe for this. I think anyone that had the pleasure and honor of knowing her, their life had to be enriched and better. A beautiful tribute by her son, Will Schwalbe.
A favorite for 2017 ❤️
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,695 reviews14.1k followers
November 2, 2012
A book about a dying woman could be extremely melancholy and I will admit to having teary eyes at various points in this book. Yet, this book is so much more, it is a celebration of a life that was lived well, a life that helped other people, the love of a son for his mother and a love of books, stories and the belief that they can make a huge difference. In this book the author relates exactly how and why books have made such a huge impact on his life, the life of his family and his mother in particular. A celebration of reading and all it entails, how his mother will live on in her love of books and especially in the books that were her favorites and the love of reading she passed on to the rest of her family. A very poignant and heartfelt read.
10 reviews35 followers
June 11, 2013
Rarely do I take the time to write a review for the books I read, but I felt that I owed it to the author (and, most definitely, to his mother) to at least try and type out my thoughts as coherently as possible.

This was one of the few select books that captivated me from the very first page. I, undoubtedly like many others, couldn't help but grow attached to Mary Ann Schwalbe, a bibliophile who prefers to start off a book by reading the ending first. She seems to convey the type of woman that every girl would dream of growing up to be - an avid reader and theatre enthusiast, a loving mother and grandmother, but also a humanitarian who spends a great portion of her life in the most dangerous zones of places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Schwalbe successfully takes turns alternating between periods of grief, nostalgia, and sentimentality to periods of enlightenment and inspiration. He'll make you cry and laugh on the same page, but he'll also make you think twice about things that would originally cross your mind for a mere couple of seconds - things like health care, happiness, death, fate, and finding your purpose in life.

His writing is often simple, and flows with such elegance that the words will linger in your mind for hours to come.

“Mom taught me not to look away from the worst but to believe that we can all do better. She never wavered in her conviction that books are the most powerful tool in the human arsenal, that reading all kinds of books, in whatever format you choose - electronic (even though that wasn't for her) or printed, or audio - is the grandest entertainment, and also is how you take part in human conversation. Mom taught me that you can make a difference in the world and that books really do matter: they're how we know what we need to do in life, and how we tell others. Mom also showed me, over the course of two years and dozens of books and hundreds of hours in hospitals, that books can be how we get closer to each other, and stay close, even in the case of a mother and son who were very close to begin with, and even after one of them has died.”
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Carol.
824 reviews482 followers
June 17, 2012
My sincere thanks to Alfred A. Knopf Publishing and Anne Kingman & Michael Kindness of Books on the Nightstand for the advanced reading copy of this book which will be published October 2012.

There is so much I'd like to tell you about The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe but this is one of those books you need t read yourself and take away what you will.

The title describes what we're about to read aptly as it is Will Schwalbe's story of the bound he and his mother, Mary Ann Schwalbe shared through books and reading during her treatment for pancreatic cancer. From the very first sentence "We were nuts about the mocha in the waiting room at Memorial Sloane Kettering's outpatient care center" to its very last words, this book is a loving tribute to Will's mother and perhaps if not totally healing at least to work through his grief.

The sentence stating that May Ann's cancer is treatable, not curable, lets us know at the start what the end result will be. Somewhere early on, Will admits that he knows the outcome but there will be some time before death comes. He often says what he wants "is Mom not to be dying" and I agree. Mary Ann is a remarkable woman who did remarkable things. She was a hard working member of International Rescue Committee and she often journeyed to Kabul and all over Afghanistan. One of her life's dreams was to see a library built in Kabul.

One touching moment for me was when Will meant to tell his mother "I love you" but instead told her how proud of her he was. This was something I had never thought to tell my own parents. As children and later as an adult, my father and mother often said these words to me. How I wish I had said those same words to them.
Profile Image for Jen CAN.
475 reviews1,311 followers
July 27, 2015
This was a fabulous read. I love to read and to be able to share my love of books with others and this was exactly about that and the relationship forged between son and terminally ill mother. It was one of those reads that made me sit back and think, WOW. Not only because of the love of reading they shared, but because this woman was a phenomenal person who changed people's lives, doing whatever she could to make things better. With even things as simple as a smile. This book made me want to do more with my life and to be a better person. What an inspiring woman to have as a mother and as a friend. I, too, share the belief that reading can make the world a better place. Reading can change lives. Kudos to a life well read.
Profile Image for Larry H.
2,481 reviews29.4k followers
November 24, 2012

In 2007, Will Schwalbe's dynamic mother, Mary Anne, was diagnosed with a form of advanced pancreatic cancer, which is always fatal. This was a shock to Will's entire family, as Mary Anne had always been a true force of nature, a crusader for humanitarian rights all over the globe, once the director of admissions at Harvard and Radcliffe, and truly an inspiration to everyone she encountered.

Mary Anne and her husband, Douglas, raised their three children with very strong principles of courtesy, faith, learning, and family, as well as a lifelong love of books. So it was not at all unusual when Will, sitting with his mother in the waiting room of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, asked Mary Anne, "What are you reading?" That conversation started the two on an incredible journey of reading, exploring new and favorite authors, and discussing topics far beyond the books they read.

As a voracious reader, I absolutely fell in love with this book on so many levels. The books that Will and Mary Anne read spanned many genres—fiction, mysteries, poetry, plays, psychology, religion, philosophy—and I was pleased that I had read a large number of the books they touched on, although I don't think it's necessary to have done so. As they read, Will recounted memories of his mother and her amazing life, as well as his childhood, interspersing them with the day-to-day challenges faced by a person living with "treatable but not curable" cancer.

"When you're with someone who is dying, you may need to celebrate the past, live the present, and mourn the future all at the same time," Will discovered at one point during this period of time. As he and his mother learned about new authors and revisited favorites from the past, he also learned a lot about his mother in the process—what motivated her crusade for humanitarian rights, what drove her to make each person she encountered feel as if they were special, and how she felt about dealing with her illness.

Schwalbe, who was editor-in-chief of Hyperion Books before leaving to found Cookstr.com, is a fantastic writer who makes his mother a vivid presence in this book. You feel fortunate to be a part of their conversations, and the things they discussed definitely made me think. But of course, you know where the book will end, so there is always a tinge of melancholy as you follow the path of Mary Anne's illness and the remarkable strength she showed.

As I've said before, I'm a huge sap, so this book was a powerful, inspirational, and emotional one for me, but so wonderfully written that I read the entire book in a day. This book reinforced my love for life and the importance of telling those you care about how much you love them and how proud of them you are, but also it reinforced how much I love reading. How can you not fall in love with a book that celebrates the love of books and reading?

One quote from Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader, which Will included in the book, really sums The End of Your Life Book Club up for me:

"Pass the time?" said the Queen. "Books are not about passing the time. They're about other lives. Other worlds."

I am grateful to Will Schwalbe for opening up his life and his mother's world in this book. It made me laugh, it made me cry, and it definitely made me think.
Profile Image for Cher.
800 reviews274 followers
March 26, 2016
This was unfortunately, not what I thought I was signing up for, though it was not without it's merits. I was expecting a story of a mother and son saying good-bye to each other, but with a heavy focus on reads they shared and discussions regarding these books. In reality, there are only tiny snippets about books - rarely was it enough to garner any real interest on my part. So, if like me, you came here looking for a book about books, keep looking.

Things I enjoyed: There are many great quotes from this book, something that adds to any read for me. I did not resent the family, as some reviewers do, for their financial success. It irks me to no end that our country is becoming a culture that punishes success and rewards mediocrity. I respect successful people and do not resent them for the financial rewards for which they have worked.

As a whole, this can be seen as a case study on how one dying person preferred to be treated and spoken to. While you cannot apply this as a generalization to everyone, it gives you ideas for what might be helpful in these awkward, difficult situations.

For many reasons, I enjoyed the main character, "Mom"/Mary Anne. The mother, whom the autobiography (yes, auto, more on that later) is based on was an incredible woman that accomplished many things, touched many lives, and proves how much of a difference one person can make. She was also an utter control freak. That's ok - that is how she got so much done, and this "flaw", if you see it that way, made her more believable. If she had been painted as a perfect angel this book would have been too nauseating to stomach. I applauded how she supported her children when they came forth regarding their homosexuality. Other parents with her strong religious foundation may not have been so receptive, and I respected her more for this. Being a control freak and quite opinionated, there are snippets of her thoughts scattered throughout, some of which I found thought provoking and agreeable. For example, when buying art, she preferred to purchase from a young artist (career wise, not age) as more than likely, the financial sale would mean more to them than it would for a more established artist.

Things I disliked: Again, mom was a control freak. And yes, I listed this under both the like and dislike section, lol. I have no doubt that the majority of this book was written by the woman herself rather than her son - the BULK majority, just as it was really her voice writing the blog and not him. A control freak simply does not give free reign over something that is so integral and directly tied to them, and she knew the book would be written. Her control tendencies made me twitch when they spilled over to some of her thoughts/snippets, such as she feels it is ok for a woman to stay home and raise her kids, or it is ok for her to be career driven, etc. However, she then states she does not feel it is right for someone that procured an advanced degree to THEN later decide to be a stay at home wife or mom without working, as they owe it to society to keep working after receiving so much education. Bullshit. People change. What does not change, is someone's right to live their life however they choose.

Which brings me to what made me want to poke sticks in my eyes. This book is a long, gushing love letter to Obama. As a libertarian that passionately values small government and individual rights/liberties, I can promise you that is NOT what I thought I was picking up to read. I found these segments (many, many segments) to be nauseating and a needless distraction.

Pacing was also a problem. The very first part of the book was ok, and the ending was strong, but the vast majority of the book was tedious and slow. I found myself several times looking forward to it being over -- never a good sign.

All in all, this was a mixed package. In many ways I did not enjoy it and would not recommend it to people of like minded literary tastes. That being said, there were so many quotes that I loved and some redeeming qualities. Favorite quote: “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.”

I was wavering between 2 (it was ok) and 3 (I liked it) stars when finishing it, and with just a few short pages to go, the author threw in one last love note to Obama. Yeahhh, definitely just a 2.
Profile Image for Melki.
5,676 reviews2,324 followers
December 31, 2012
...no matter where Mom and I were on our individual journeys, we could still share books, and while reading those books , we wouldn't be the sick person and the well person; we would simply be a mother and son entering new worlds together.

Welcome to a most unusual book club where each book you read may be the last. The members are the author and his mother Mary Anne, who has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Her disease is treatable, but not cureable. There will be no miracles; the most she can hope for is more time.
So, to pass the hours during doctor visits and chemotherapy, the Schwalbes decide to read and discuss books.

We didn't read only "great books," we read casually and promiscuously and whimsically.

Besides being a great love letter to reading, this book serves as a wonderful tribute to Mary Anne Schwalbe, a fascinating and remarkable woman who traveled the globe for various human rights causes. Even her final weeks of life were spent crusading for healthcare reform and attempting to set up a library in Afghanistan.

She always read the end of a book first because she couldn't wait to find out how things would turn out.

Unfortunately, there is no surprise ending to this book. Though the author doesn't dwell in despair and sentimentality, expect to shed a few tears during the last chapter.

If you've been fortunate enough to have a parent with whom you've shared a love of reading, this book should have some meaning to you.

We all have a lot more to read than we can read and a lot more to do than we can do. Still, one of the things I learned from Mom is this: Reading isn't the opposite of doing; it's the opposite of dying. I will never be able to read my mother's favorite books without thinking of her - and when I pass them on and recommend them, I'll know that some of what made her goes with them; that some of my mother will live on in those readers, readers who may be inspired to love the way she loved and do their own version of what she did in the world.
Profile Image for Idarah.
464 reviews49 followers
May 18, 2014
“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.”

This is one of the most beautifully written memoirs I have ever read. When Schwalbe’s 73-year-old mother, Mary Anne, is diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, she determines to continue living her life at the same wistful speed despite grim life expectancy statistics. A retired teacher and active humanitarian, her son graciously introduces readers to this magnificent woman by means of their two-person book club, spontaneously contrived during Mary Anne’s lengthy chemo therapy sessions in hospital.

Both avid readers and lovers of literature, their book selections are never haphazard, and make for deep, philosophical discussions about death, living a meaningful life, and leaving the world better than you found it. In the process, the two form an even stronger bond, each using books as both teachers and healers on Mary Anne’s journey to death, and Will’s journey after her death.

I love books about books, and reading about people who are just as fond of literature warms my heart. It reminds me that in ancient times and even far into the future, there have and will always be people who are in love with the written word. Reading is how we can relate to each other and take part in the human conversation. It’s a huge responsibility, but so necessary!

The way Schwalbe paints Mary Anne’s final moments, surrounded by family and countless volumes of much loved books, was so elegant and beautiful. I still have a rock in my throat thinking about it now. I appreciate having gleaned a bit of her wisdom—for having met her, if only briefly.
Profile Image for Sub_zero.
698 reviews278 followers
March 11, 2016
El club de lectura del final de tu vida es uno de esos libros que se puntúan más con el corazón que con la cabeza. Pero considero ambos motivos igual de válidos. En ella, Will Schwalbe, que tiene un largo recorrido en el mundo de la edición, mantiene con su madre un vibrante y conmovedor diálogo a través de la literatura después de que a esta le diagnostiquen un cáncer incurable. Incidiendo en el carácter formativo y libertador de la palabra escrita, Schwalbe realiza una interesante exploración de la muerte y de cómo los libros nos ayudan a asimilar, no solo esta terrible experiencia, sino muchos otros obstáculos que de otro modo parecerían insuperables. Un libro en el que se habla largo y tendido de otros libros y que, como es de suponer, constituye un delicioso banquete para bibliófilos empedernidos.
Profile Image for Nancy.
1,286 reviews25 followers
April 28, 2013
I imagine that a reader's reaction to this book will be determined by their expectations. I wanted it to be a substantive book about books. It was not: it was a lovely memorial to Schwalbe's impressive mother and a tribute to his affection and respect for her.

I wanted it to offer illuminating discussion between two people who used books as a therapy during a difficult illness. It did not. I am afraid this is a cynical reaction, but knowing that the author comes from the publishing industry, I felt that his litany of book titles was nothing more than a device to frame the story about his mother and create a secondary subject to make the book more marketable. Despite dropping the titles and plot summaries of dozens and dozens of books I never felt that Schwalbe recounted any meaningful conversations based upon the reading list he shared with his mother.

A perfect example of this was the very first book mentioned in the memoir: Wallace Stegner's CROSSING TO SAFETY. Despite mentioning a lifelong family friendship that blossomed from his mother's college days, he breezed through his plot summary of Stegner's work without discussing the personal parallels, or mentioning the book's theme of the transformative power of friendship.

The End of Your Life Book Club was a lovely valentine to the author's mother but, for me, nothing more.
Profile Image for Moonkiszt.
1,991 reviews208 followers
March 8, 2021
The End of Your Life Book Club
by Will Schwalbe

This book was a gift to me, and I read it with slowness and deliberation. As new books were introduced and discussed in this exclusive book club of mother and son, I took my time and made sure they were in my lists somewhere. There were a few I left off, they were too far afield, but I've copied the list in case I need to change my mind.

At the time Will's mother, Mary Anne (Ann) has received a diagnosis of an illness that will eventually end her life, they decide to read books together and discuss, book club style. Both are very well read, intelligent and experienced. To be given the opportunity to eavesdrop on their discussions of these books and read of their observations on how aspects of their reading and their experiences during this time in their lives impacted them has been a gift to me. I went through a similar time with my mother, not long ago, and all came barreling back to me. Once again it affirmed to me just how important it is to learn how to face these hard parting moments that are tossed haphazardly throughout our lives. As readers and writers know, such learning isn’t exclusive to your own experience with your own people - - you can also learn it from books. To that end, Mr. Schwalbe is gifting us his heart, his experience and his dear mother.

I have often found that death, especially a known impending death, can distill spiritual or religious beliefs. All is well only if everyone is on the same page. In today’s world, where individuality and freedom of choice is fully engaged, often family members are not on the same page, on many levels. A contest to convert, persuade or denounce can happen, even if one is trying their best to prevent it. Will’s mother was a Presbyterian, with some Buddhist leanings and Will was not. I found their intentional collaboration to be without strident preaching, big-eyed disappointment or condemning silence. Instead, they freely exchanged view points, and even shared admiration for the other’s viewpoints and support resources. I found that comforting, proof that it can be done. Proof that we don’t always have to live the all-or-nothing life, the one-right-way path, or bow to the all-is-lost-if-we-don’t-agree-on-every-point-at-parting mindset. This is one of the times, for the sake of peace, we really must drop such requirements. We can love each other, bless each other’s lives, without complete agreement. I'm very grateful to the author and his mother for this book.

Whether you are in front of, behind, or between these kind of experiences, it is inevitable that you will face your own partings sooner or later. Expected or unexpected they will each demand from you the full extent of your life skills to move through (though shards will ever remain). I recommend this open, vulnerable, and generously shared experience of two dedicated and enthusiastic readers, one who remains (here) and one . . .who remains (elsewhere).
Profile Image for Clarissa.
49 reviews24 followers
January 13, 2013
Maybe I'm a cold person because I didn't find this book touching, or maybe I have discerning tastes and I can smell when a former publisher called in a favor to a colleague a mile a way. The two members of this book club are Schwalbe and his mother, Mary Ann. Almost from the get-go I felt no bond with these people. Mary Ann was an admissions counselor at Harvard, in addition to holding similar positions at other Ivy League schools in addition to doing all kinds of humanitarian refugee work in all kinds of dangerous places. While Mary Ann did all sorts of good things for refugees; the details of which go on and on for pages, it also wasn't uncommon for her family to just have tubs of caviar at christmas time that her neighbors just dropped off. She talks about buying swanky real-estate on a whim the way I talk about impulse buying cookware at Target. I don't begrudge people their riches and I guess this is really not what put me off the most about her. I think what made her unlikeable to me is that for all the kindnesses she did for strangers abroad, she seemed like a distant person to the closest people in her life. She comes off as humorless, as is conveyed in a retelling by Schwalbe of a Christmas where they gathered around Mary Ann as she read the whole christmas story, and as little kids are prone to do.. they broke out into a giggling fit. Not only was she apparently furious at the time and threatened to revoke Christmas, over THIRTY YEARS LATER when Schwalbe brings it up she is still not the slightest bit amused. And did I mention she is well into the fourth stage of pancreatic cancer at this point?

The whole book alternates between recollections like the above and moments where Schwalbe just elevates his mother so high on a pedestal. Freely interspersed between all this is the wisdom of someone dying of terminal cancer ( SPOILER ALERT: Did you know you should savor every moment? Did you know you should live every day like it's your last? Did you know that you just don't know what's around the corner?) Wow, I guess the cat is out of the bag.

As far as the book aspect goes, I feel like it was added in throughout as an afterthought. Usually after Mary Ann dispenses some Hallmark, dying person wisdom. LIke "live every day like you last.. Just like in 'Crossing to Safety' !". Also, most of the books they read together are ones I strongly dislike or haven't read.

I would be lying if I said I didn't tear up a bit at the end- but the topic of one's beloved mother dying a slow death is sad no matter how awkwardly it's written and I couldn't help but think of my own mother, also a book lover, and feel a surge of love and an urgency to spend more time with her. This was about the only thing that made this book worth reading when all is said and done.
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