NEW Yorker Mary Anne Schwalbe was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2007. She died nearly two years later, at age 75.
But in between, she and her son, author Will Schwalbe, bibliophiles both, read and discussed nearly 50 books.
They formed the book club of the title, a club of just two members, mother and son, and read together — until Mary Anne could read no more. Out of that experience came this moving book.
Books had always played a pivotal role in Schwalbe’s life.
Every job he ever had — journalist, writer, editor and publisher — orbited the printed page. (Notable, however, is that his only previous book to this one, and which he co-authored, was a guide to email usage and etiquette.) His mother, a retired teacher, former admissions director for Harvard University, and founding director of the U.S. Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, was, likewise, an avid reader.
They’d always casually chatted about books they’d read, and had always shared a mutual excitement about books and ideas. But Schwalbe’s mom’s terminal illness gave new impetus and focus to their discussions.
They shared a variety of books, old and new, and their choices were eclectic in the extreme — everything from Stieg Larsson’s bestselling thriller The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Wallace Stegner’s modern classic novel Crossing to Safety, to T.S. Eliot’s 1953 play Murder in the Cathedral and the Anglican Church’s Book of Common Prayer. Two Canadian books made their reading list — Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness and Karen Connelly’s The Lizard Cage.
In often oblique ways, when they talked about books they were really talking about themselves, their relationship and the inexorable fact of a mother’s looming death. Inevitably, the book chat devolved into exchanges about the alchemy of love, marriage and friendship.
It puts you in mind of Socrates’s famous line: "The unexamined life is not worth living."
The book is a singular enterprise. But sometimes the results are mixed.
The quality of the writing varies wildly. Some chapters drag, or get a bit pedestrian. Others are, by turn, poignant, insightful and even transcendent.
The rule of thumb seems to be that the more engrossed the pair are by a particular book, the more the writing sings. And though the odd mutually resonating passage is cited, and bruited about at length, their discussions never descend into painful lineby- line grad-school analysis.
Ultimately, the book club left Schwalbe a legacy that will long survive his mother — one he couldn’t have anticipated when the two of them started their modest project.
"I will never be able to read my mother’s favourite books without thinking of her," he writes, "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."
Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.