The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe – Book Review

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe
Published by Knopf, an imprint of Random Houseox

For as long as he can remember, Will Schwalbe’s mother has been almost a super-human figure. She was Harvard’s first female director of admissions, then later the founding director of International Rescue Committee’s Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children. Nothing could slow Mary Anne Schwalbe down, except stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Even cancer didn’t slow Will’s mother down as much as it would most people. Still, though, there were those periods of enforced rest, the doctor appointments, the chemotherapy treatments. Will is lucky enough to have the flexibility and proximity to attend many of his mother’s appointments with her. When they are together, the conversation frequently defaults to the same thing it has throughout their lives: books.

The End of Your Life Book Club is as much – or more – about Mary Anne’s life with and death from cancer than about the books that the two read together. It is a chronicle of the last months of her life, a testament to her strength, and Will’s coming to terms with the way his family’s life will be forever changed.

This is an emotional book, and yet I personally failed to connect to it emotionally. I believe that this has more to do with the circumstances – I started it immediately on the heels of another extremely emotional book which also dealt with hospitals and death and I believe I was just wrung out.  Honestly, I also thought that the books themselves would be a bigger and more integrated part of Schwalbe’s story.

Although each chapter is given the title of the book they read at that point in time, the books themselves are discussed to varying degrees and do not always seem particularly important to what they are going through. I do appreciate that Schwalbe is trying to be faithful to what actually happened and it would be disingenuous at best to make individual books seem more important to this process than they were. I suppose the difference is that I was expecting more about how the specific books helped the Schwalbe family cope and The End of Your Life Book Club is more about how the process of reading brought comfort to Will and Mary Anne during Mary Anne’s illness.

People who have dealt with the terminal illness of a loved one will likely find much to connect with in The End of Your Life Book Club, even though I personally did not.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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The Reservoir by John Milliken Thompson- Book Review

The Reservoir by John Milliken Thompson
Published by Other Press

When a young, pregnant woman, Lillie, is found floating dead in Richmond’s reservoir, the cause of death is originally thought to be suicide, but soon the evidence piles up so that murder is suspected. Before too long, the police pick up Lillie’s cousin Tommie, with whom she had been having a fling. As it becomes more and more obvious that Tommie was with Lillie the night she died, he is put on trial for her murder, his own life hanging in the balance.

The Reservoir has just a bit of a slow start. I read about 35 pages and put it down for a week, without ever particularly needing to pick it up again. Once I finally picked it up again, however, I finished the last 300 pages in just two sittings in under 24 hours. Thompson has brought 19th century Richmond to life.

The based-on-a-true-story events of The Reservoir are viewed at somewhat of a remove, with distant language, but it worked in this case. Tommie is removed from his own life, awaiting the outcome of his trial. The narrative distance also contributes to the questions about whether or not Tommie is a reliable narrator in his tales of what happened to Lille, of what really happened.

After a slow start, The Resvoir is a truly engrossing, beautifully-written literary historical mystery.

We will be discussing The Reservoir right here on Tuesday, July 26 as part of BOOK CLUB, all are welcome to attend.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher for BOOK CLUB.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch – Book Review

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch
Published by Harper Books, an imprint of HarperCollins

When Nina Sankovitch’s sister died of a quickly killing cancer at the age of 46, Nina was heartbroken. Unable to figure out how life without Anne-Marie could even continue to go on, Nina was in a serious funk; certainly she was still functioning, but the day-to-day living was largely without joy, and the reality of grief was wearing Nina down, bit by bit. Finally, Nina realized she had to do something to take back her life, not to forget Anne-Marie, but to make peace with her passing, to escape the grief. It was then that she decided on a year of reading.

Books. The more I thought about how to stop and get myself back together as one sane, whole person, the more I thought about books. I thought about escape. Not running to escape, but reading to escape. –p. 20

And so Nina decided that her job, for one year of her own life, would be simply to read. She was going to read one book per day, and begin every morning by writing a review of the previous day’s book on her website, Along the way, she began to be revived by her time with books, a passion which she and Anne-Marie had always shared.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is an absolutely lovely account of the healing power of literature, of the power that books new and old have to speak to our lives today. That said, it had the potential to go very wrong, a book about all the books one person read in a year could easily be banal, a series of “and then I read… and it was….” Sankovitch managed to take the books she read and the lessons learned from them, though, and weave them together with the year of her life as well as some family history to create a cohesive and compelling narrative with many quotable lines about the power inherent in books.

Similarly risky was the structuring of the narrative with Anne-Marie’s death at the beginning. The reader does not know either Nina or Anne-Marie when their story starts, and so the grief of Anne-Marie’s passing could have fallen flat, been simply an uncomfortable truth. Instead, Nina draws the reader immediately into her family and her own feelings, to the point where you would be better off not starting this book in a public place (I nearly cried in Chipotle).

A story of individual growth and rediscovery, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair manages to avoid the trap of becoming maudlin and ridiculous as so many in that genre fall into, and instead has a note of universality for readers. Recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher for an episode of What’s Old is New.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht – Mini Review

The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
Published by Random House

In The Tigers Wife, Tea Obreht’s gorgeous novel set in a war-ravaged Eastern European country, life, death, and myth coincide. Although Natalia, a young doctor who has recently lost her grandfather, is the central character, Obreht’s narrative also follows Natalia’s grandfather’s periodic encounters with a deathless man, as well as the titular story of the tiger’s wife.

Tea Obreht’s debut novel is beautiful beyond belief. The writing is simply gorgeous, and the plotting impeccable. Obreht weaves a remarkable tale that defies easy description. In fact, I think it is better if I do not try to go into too much detail, as The Tiger’s Wife is so absolutely beautiful that I cannot do it justice.

This is one of those times where I must simply say, trust me, read it.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound | Amazon*

Source: personal copy.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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The Dead Beat by Marilyn Johnson – Audiobook Review

The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries by Marilyn Johnson, read by the author
Published in audio by Harper Audio, published in print by Harper Perennial, imprints of Harper Collins


There exists some nonfiction that I have a difficult time explaining in a concise manner while still making it sound somewhat interesting. “The Dead Beat” is one of those books. If put on the spot to describe the book, I would probably say, “it is about obituaries.” When pressed for more detail, I might be able to come up with, “it is about obituaries and the people who write them and, to a lesser extent, the people who read them.” Since that doesn’t sound the least bit interesting, I’m going to do something I do irregularly and provide you with the publisher’s description.

Marilyn Johnson was enthralled by the remarkable lives that were marching out of this world—so she sought out the best obits in the English language and the people who spent their lives writing about the dead. She surveyed the darkest corners of Internet chat rooms, and made a pilgrimage to London to savor the most caustic and literate obits of all. Now she leads us on a compelling journey into the cult and culture behind the obituary page and the unusual lives we don’t quite appreciate until they’re gone.

Ah yes, that’s much better.

Thoughts on the story:

I was morbidly fascinated by “The Dead Beat.” Not so much by all of the obituaries, but by all of the people who are themselves so morbidly fascinated by obituaries. Seriously, people, the obituarist (yes, that is a real word, at least as per this book and yes, my spell checker thinks I’m lying about it being a real word) convention was begun by a group of enthusiasts. Enthusiasts! About obituaries! I’ve heard the trope about elderly people reading the obituaries because it is where they can see their friends and know that the obituaries are many famous people are filed with newspapers well ahead of those people’s deaths just in case something should happen, but I had no idea how beloved obituaries are by so many.

I’m not entirely sure why I thought I would want to read (or listen to, in this case) this book, actually, because I’m pretty sure that before picking it up I had never in my life read an obituary of any sort. Even so, Johnson not only kept me entertained and got me educated, she almost made me want to start picking up obituaries and reading them. And, really, what higher praise can I give an author of nonfiction than to say that she kept me interested in something in which I have no inherent interest?

Thoughts on the audio production:

I thought that Johnson was actually a very good choice to read her own book. She didn’t necessarily have a huge range of emotion in her reading but the texts wasn’t such that needed a huge range, other than from somber to humorous to ironic. The fact that she knew well her subject and the people she was interviewing so well made her narration a net positive for the audiobook.


Definitely an interesting book, I think I would recommend it in either print or audio.

Buy this book from:
Audible: Audio
Powells: Print*
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound: Print*
Amazon: Print*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.