Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

Allow me to explain sales conference preparations.  At least for Random House, we are sent lists of the titles that will be discussed at conference and that we will then sell to stores afterward.  There is an expectation that we will sample most of the books--pretty much everything for which their is edited material available.  On top of that reading, their are books called out as priority titles for my channel--the independent bookstores around the country.  These priority titles are divvied up among the reps so that by the time we get to sales conference at least a couple of people in the room have read the book and can offer sales handles and impressions.  And then there are a few titles which we're all supposed to read.  These are the books that, in a perfect world for the publisher, would become huge bestsellers or award winners or cultural milestones (or all of the above).

Back in February, the Random House reps were buzzing about a book assigned as a top priority for the fall season.  We were all assigned to read it, and my boss, Valerie, already raved about how compelling a read it was.  I was interested, and it's part of my job to read the priority books, and I'd met the author years earlier at a bookseller meeting when I was working for BookPeople.  He was Will Schwalbe, and at the time he was the editor at Hyperion.

Will Schwalbe
I started reading The End of Your Life Book Club on a Thursday.  I read about 30% of the book, and then I emailed my boss and told her that I felt like I understood the book and could sell it, but I didn't think I could finish it.  It hit too close to home.  All day Friday I tried to work, and to start reading another book, but I was distracted.  I couldn't get Will's book out of my head.  I ended up reading it over the weekend, and then I tracked down Will's email and sent him a letter about how much his book moved me.

The End of Your Life Book Club is an incredible memoir that details the relationship between Will and his mother Mary Anne, and how the two of them shared books in a two person book group after Mary Anne was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  The first thing to know--Mary Anne was an incredible woman; she was the first female head of admissions at Harvard University, and she was a lifelong leader in championing education and literacy around the world.  She taught her children to love books, so it was a natural question for Will to ask his mother "What are you reading?" as they waited for a doctor's appointment.  Thus began their journey together through cancer and family as told through the books they shared.  From Crossing to Safety to The Hobbit to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, they ranged freely from book to book, discussing the unimaginable--the knowledge of life and death and fear and anger and faith--through the stories they shared.

Mary Anne Schwalbe passed away a couple of years ago, and then Will began to write.  From the emails we exchanged after I'd finished reading his book, he shared this: "I had all sorts of reasons for wanting to write this book. Selfishly, it provided a way to keep Mom's voice in my head for years after her death. But more than that, I also wanted to provide a springboard for people to share their stories of people they love who have died, and also to engage around topics so many people shy away from: not just death, but dying."
Mary Anne Schwalbe raised money for mobile
libraries in Afghanistan later in her life.

My mother had passed away from cancer just six months before I read The End of Your Life Book Club, in August, 2011.  She was a high school English teacher and she shared her passion for literature and education to several generations of students, including my siblings and me.  I credit Will's memoir with allowing me ways of thinking about the void left after my own mother's death, and a means of processing my own grief.  I found myself thinking about how I relate to people through books, from tumultuous teenage years when my mother and I could still agree that Beloved and The Great Gatsby were brilliant works and that Twain was a safe space for us to argue (I hated Huck Finn, she loved it).  I have found friends through book conversations--hate Confederacy of Dunces? We can hang out--and strengthened those friendships through the books we shared with each other.  "What are you reading?" is the ice breaker, and the language spoken in the world I inhabit, and chances are that if you're reading this blog, you inhabit that world too.  (Or, you know, you're looking for porn and were woefully misled in that Google search.)

Since reading The End of Your Life Book Club, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the books I wish that I could discuss with my mother.  I've been reading other books that friends have recommended in the past that have sat on my shelves for years; reading The Secret History helps me feel closer to a friend because it's a book she loved, even though I've been traveling for work quite a bit recently and haven't seen much of this friend recently.  People ask if Gianna and I hang out or talk frequently, particularly since Gianna left Random House and we weren't actually working together anymore.  And yes, Gianna and I talk (or text, or email) all the time, but frequently we're talking about the books we're reading.

Will Schwalbe and I exchanged a handful of emails in February, and then recently I contacted him again to ask permission to write about this contact on this blog.  And those emails, an exchange floating from careers to grief and loss to sleep difficulties and hotels, those emails also always contained a discussion of the books we're reading.  It's the language we speak.

I'm including the long list of books and authors Will and Mary Anne Schwalbe discussed during the two years she battled cancer.  I encourage you to read The End of Your Life Book Club, and then to keep reading.  This list is a great place to start.

Louisa May Alcott (Little Women)
W. H. Auden (“Musee de Beaux Arts,” from Collected Poems)
Russell Banks (Continental Drift)
Muriel Barbery (The Elegance of the Hedgehog, translated by Alison Anderson)
Ismael Beah (A Long Way Gone)
Alan Bennett (The Uncommon Reader)
The Bible
Roberto Bolano (The Savage Detectives, translated by Natasha Wimmer)
Geraldine Brooks (March; The People of the Book)
The Book of Common Prayer
The Buddha (The Diamond Cutter Sutra, translated by Gelong Thubten Tsultrim)
Lewis Carroll (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)
Julia Child (Mastering the Art of French Cooking)
Karen Connelly (The Lizard Cage)
Pat Conroy (The Great Santini)
Colin Cotterill
Roald Dahl (Charlie and Chocolate Factory)
Patrick Dennis (Auntie Mame)
Joan Didion (A Book of Common Prayer; The Year of Magical Thinking)
Siobhan Dowd
Dave Eggers
T.S. Eliot (Murder in the Cathedral)
Ian Fleming (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang)
Ken Follett (Pillars of the Earth)
Esther Forbes (Johnny Tremain; Paul Revere and the World He Lived In)
E.M. Forster (Howards End)
Anne Frank (The Diary of Anne Frank)
Nikki Giovanni
William Golding (Lord of the Flies)
Gunther Grass (The Tin Drum)
The Haggadah
David Halberstam (The Coldest Winter)
Susan Halpern (The Etiquette of Illness)
Mohsin Hamid (The Reluctant Fundamentalist)
Khalid Hosseini (The Kite Runner; A Thousand Splendid Suns)
Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train; The Price of Salt; The Talented Mr. Ripley)
John Irving (A Prayer for Owen Meany)
Christopher Isherwood (The Berlin Stories; Christopher and His Kind)
Jerome K. Jerome (Three Men in a Boat)
John Kabat-Zinn (Full Catastrophe Living; Wherever You Go, There You Are; Coming to 
Our Senses)
Walter Kaiser
Mariatu Kamara (The Bite of the Mango, with Susan McClelland)
John F. Kennedy (Profiles in Courage)
Larry Kramer
Munro Leaf (The Story of Ferdinand, illustrated by Robert Lawson)
Dennis Lehane
C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia)
Jhumpa Lahiri (The Interpreter of Maladies; The Namesake; Unaccustomed Earth)
Anne Lamott (Travelling Mercies)
Stieg Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, translated by Reg Keeland)
Victor LaValle (Big Machine)
Donna Leon
Malcolm X (The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley)
James McBride (The Color of Water)
Ian McEwan (On Chesil Beach)
Alistair Maclean (The Guns of Navarone; Where Eagles Dare; Force 10 from Navarone;
Puppet on a Chain)
Thomas Mann (Tonio Kroger; Death in Venice; The Magic Mountain;
Mario and the Magician; Joseph and His Brothers, translated by John E. Woods)
W. Somerset Maugham (Of Human Bondage; The Painted Veil; Collected Short Stories, including “The Verger”)
Rohinton Mistry (A Fine Balance)
JR Moehringer (The Tender Bar)
Toni Morrison
Daniyal Mueenudeen (In Other Rooms, Other Wonders)
Alice Munro (Too Much Happiness)
Nagarjuna (Seventy Verses on Emptiness, translated by Gareth Sparham)
Irene Nemirovsky (Suite Francaise, translated by Sandra Smith)
Edith Nesbitt (The Railway Children)
John O’Hara (Appointment in Samarra)
Mary Oliver (Why I Wake Early, including “Where Does the Temple Begin,
Where Does it End?")
Frances Osborne (The Bolter)
Randy Pausch (The Last Lecture)
Susan Pedersen (Elinor Rathbone and the Politics of Conscience)
Harold Pinter (The Caretaker)
Reynolds Price (Feasting on the Heart)
Thomas Pynchon
Arthur Ransome (Swallows and Amazons)
David R. Reuben, M.D. (Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex: But Were
Afraid to Ask)
David K. Reynolds (Constructive Living)
Marilynne Robinson (Gilead; Home)
David Rohde
Tim Russert (Big Russ and Me)
David Sedaris
Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are; In the Night Kitchen)
Peter Shaffer (Five Finger Exercise)
George Bernard Shaw (Saint Joan)
Bernie Siegel, M.D. (Love, Medicine and Miracles)
Alexander McCall Smith (The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency: The Miracle of Speedy
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (The Gulag Archipelago)
Natsume Soseki (Kokoro, translated by Edwin McCelland)
Wallace Stegner (Crossing to Safety)
Edward Steichen (The Family of Man, prologue by Carl Sandburg)
Wallace Stevens
Lydia Stone (Pink Donkey Brown, illustrated by Mary E. Dwyer)
Elizabeth Strout (Olive Kitteridge)
Josephine Tey (Brat Farrar)
Michael Thomas (Man Gone Down)
Mary Tileston (Daily Strength for Daily Needs)
Colm Toibin (The Story of the Night; The Blackwater Lightship; The Master;
J.R.R. Tolkien (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings)
William Trevor (Felicia’s Journey)
John Updike (Couples, My Father’s Tears)
Liv Ullmann
Marina Vaizey
Sheila Weller (Girls Like Us)
Elie Wiesel (Night)
Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire)
P.G. Wodehouse
Geoffrey Wolff (The Duke of Deception)
Herman Wouk (Marjorie Morningstar)

1 comment:

  1. In reading this book I came across several more titles that I will add to my reading list. It was almost like going to the library and discovering more books without having to leave home.