Friday, December 4, 2015

A Review of 'The End Of Your Life Book Club' by Will Schwalbe

"'What are you reading?'

That’s the question Will Schwalbe asks his mother, Mary Anne, as they sit in the waiting room of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. In 2007, Mary Anne returned from a humanitarian trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan suffering from what her doctors believed was a rare type of hepatitis. Months later she was diagnosed with a form of advanced pancreatic cancer, which is almost always fatal, often in six months or less. 

This is the inspiring true 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. Their list jumps from classic to popular, from poetry to mysteries, from fantastic to spiritual. The issues they discuss include questions of faith and courage as well as everyday topics such as expressing gratitude and learning to listen. Throughout, they are constantly reminded of the power of books to comfort us, astonish us, teach us, and tell us what we need to do with our lives and in the world. Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying. 

Will and Mary Anne share their hopes and concerns with each other—and rediscover their lives—through their favorite books. When they read, they aren’t a sick person and a well person, but a mother and a son taking a journey together. The result is a profoundly moving tale of loss that is also a joyful, and often humorous, celebration of life: Will’s love letter to his mother, and theirs to the printed page." 

I'm not really sure what I expected from this book before I started, but this book swooped me off my feet and didn't put me down until I'd finished.  By that point, I kind of felt like I'd lost a member of my own family.  Will's stories and retellings of his mother made me feel like I really knew her.  And she was a person you really wanted to know too.  She's really inspired me.  She was always doing something for other people.  She was working to build a library in Afghanistan; she kept in touch with people from all over the world, even just to check in and see how they were doing; she stood firmly by her beliefs, never wavering.  I aspire to be like this author's mother.

'The End of Your Life Book Club' has also reinforced my own feelings about books and the power of reading.  Will would go with his mom to chemo sessions and they would talk about books that they read and would switch and compare thoughts.  This is essentially what they did for years before, but with Will's mother's cancer, there was suddenly a sense of urgency.  Everyone knew that the prognosis was bleak, but as with any life, we never know how much time there actually is.  Novels tend to talk about things that normally we're afraid to bring up in casual conversation.  They open up the floor to talking about difficult subjects like death, pain, suffering... things a handful of us in the world won't ever have to experience.  Nevertheless, there are more people in the world than just this lucky handful.  In order to be better global citizens, we have to understand the experiences of others so that we might better help them.

I love how out of all things, it was books that brought Will and his mother though.  That's another one of my favorite things about books.  I've always been fascinated with people who aligns themselves with books because they found such a love for them.  Take fans of Harry Potter for instance: they call themselves Potterheads and they have created such a community for each other.  I don't know that I've seen anything quite the same since those books were published.  

This is a book that I would like to read again and even keep on my already overflowing bookshelves.  I read this book a year ago and finished while I was visiting England and still, this book has stuck with me.  It's so heartfelt and I haven't read too many books where the mother and the son have a strong connection as these two did.  That's very special.

I give 'The End Of Your Life Book Club':
Thanks for Reading!


A Review of 'Panic In A Suitcase' by Yelena Akhtiorskaya (Audio Book)

"In this account of two decades in the life of an immigrant household, the fall of communism and the rise of globalization are artfully reflected in the experience of a single family.  Ironies, subtle and glaring, are revealed: the Nasmertovs left Odessa for Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, with a huge sense of finality, only to find that the divide between the old world and the new is not nearly as clear-cut as they thought.  The dissolution of the Soviet Union makes returning just a matter of a plane ticket, and the Russian-owned shops in their adopted neighborhood stock even the most obscure comforts of home.  Pursuing the American Dream once meant giving up everything, but does the dream still work if the past is always within reach?

If the Nasmertov parents can afford only to look forward, learning the rules of aspiration, the family's youngest, Frida, can only look back.

In striking, arresting prose loaded with fresh and inventive turns of phrase, Yelena Akhtiorskaya has written the first great novel of Brighton Beach: a searing portrait of hope and ambition, and a profound exploration of the power and limits of language itself, its ability to make connections across cultures and generations."

It took me a while to figure out what this book was about.  The story is centered on a Russian family who moves to the United States after the fall of the U.S.S.R. and how they manage to straddle two cultures and keep up with the rules of both.  For me, knowing pretty much nothing about Russian culture, this was a glimpse into that and a little bit of a learning experience for me.  Of course, this family probably isn't representative of all Russian immigrant families, but even so.  More importantly, this book is about what it's like to emigrate and readjust to your new and adoptive home.  The thought of this family seems to be that you need to leave absolutely everything behind when you move away from your country of origin.  But that's not the case.  I don't know if that was the case before, but it's not the case now.  You might leave your home, but your culture is part of you.  You can't just shed it like an old coat and go get a new, more in-style one.  It depends on where you've grown up, I think.  The older generations in this particular family felt the need to move forward and do things the American way, although still hanging on to what I've gathered to be "Russian-isms," since they can't be shed, for better or for worse.  There's a clinging to tradition.  They still celebrate the same holidays that they did, but then there is almost the expectation, particularly for members of the younger generation, like Frida, to take up certain lines of work (Frida attends medical school and hates it). 

Frida was the most interesting to me, particularly as she got a little older.  Even though she lives with her Russian family, she was born and raised in the U.S., surrounded by different mannerisms and traditions and values.  So it's more of a struggle for her to figure out where she belongs.  Is she American?  Is she Russian?  Do her family's values mean the same thing to her as they do to her parents and grandparents?  What does it mean to be a first generation American citizen in her family?  This book is an interesting exploration of these questions.

I don't know yet if this is a book I will pick up again, but it was an intriguing read for now.  Maybe I'll have to read a hard copy version of this as opposed to listening to an MP3 track of the book.

I give 'Panic in a Suitcase':
Thanks for Reading!