Tag: Will Schwalbe

Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2014

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2014. Click the title for a link to the full review where applicable. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year.

Brown Girl Dreaming

ISBN 9780399252518

Cover image for Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline WoodsonI received an advance reader copy of this memoir in verse at ALA Annual in Las Vegas this summer. I had been asking publishing house representatives at various booths about books with diverse protagonists, when a lovely rep for Penguin Young Readers excitedly pressed a copy of Brown Girl Dreaming into my hands. I’d never read anything by Jacqueline Woodson, and a memoir in verse didn’t really sound like my thing, but the rep’s excitement stuck with me, and I took the book home. Then, in November, I was following the National Book Awards on Twitter when the watermelon incident unfolded. I hadn’t yet read Brown Girl Dreaming, but it seemed like time to pick it up. I read the entire book in less than twenty-four hours. Far from being a challenging read, Woodson’s flowing free verse slides down easily, telling the story of a black girl who is born in the North in the 1960s, but grows up at her grandparent’s home in the South at the height of the Civil Rights movement. This beautifully written memoir is both timely and a pleasure to read. I never wrote a review because I didn’t make a single note while I was reading, but I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Categories: Young Adult, Poetry, Memoir

Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me

ISBN 9781592407323

Cover image for Marbles by Ellen ForneyShortly before her  thirtieth birthday, artist Ellen Forney was diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder. Worried that medication would damage her creativity and destroy her ability to earn a living as an artist, Forney resisted treatment until she become so depressed she couldn’t function. Marbles chronicles the trial and error process of finding the right medication to treat her illness, while also exploring the relationship between mental illness and creativity that has plagued so many artists. At the same time, she must come to terms the fact that things she once considered part of her personality and identity are in fact symptoms of her disease. Forney’s evocative black and white images capture the experiences of depression and mania in a way that is entirely different from the many prose novels about the subject.

Categories: Memoir, Graphic Novel

My Life in Middlemarch (US)/The Road to Middlemarch (UK)

ISBN 9781482973556

Cover image for My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca MeadOne of my favourite reads of the year, I listened to My Life in Middlemarch as an audiobook, performed by the unsurpassed Kate Reading, who as far as I am concerned can read all of my audiobooks to me forever. Unfortunately for my blog readers, I almost never review audiobooks, since I don’t make any notes while I’m listening. My Life in Middlemarch combines memoir with literary criticism and biography. Writer Rebecca Mead tracks her long relationship with George Eliot’s famous novel from her first reading at the age of seventeen, to more recent revisitations in middle age. With each reread, it is not Middlemarch that has changed, but Mead, who finds her focus shifting to different aspects of this multifaceted novel as she moves through adulthood. Interspersed with her own memoir and musings are reflections on the life of George Eliot, also known as Mary Ann Evans, who herself led a very interesting life that defied social expectations of the period.

Categories: Biography, Memoir, Criticism

The End of Your Life Book Club

ISBN 978-0-307-96111-2

Cover image for The End of Your Life Book Club by Will SchwalbeIn 2007, Will Schwalbe’s mother, Mary Anne, returned from a humanitarian trip to the Middle East with what initially looked like hepatitis, but which turned out to be Stage IV pancreatic cancer. As she began treatment to slow the disease and hopefully prolong her life, mother and son started trading books, and discussing them when he drove her to medical appointments. Their books become a proxy for important conversations about mortality and end-of-life care, helping them navigate the difficulties of Mary Anne’s final months. Packed with wonderful book recommendations, and a great story about a mother-son relationship, The End of Your Life Book Club is especially recommended for those who agree with Mary Anne, that “reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying.”

Categories: Memoir

Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood

ISBN 9780062242167

Cover image for Tinseltown by William J. MannThis true crime mystery set in silent film era Hollywood investigates the unsolved murder of film director William Desmond Taylor, who was killed in his home on the night of February 1, 1922. William J. Mann profiles three actresses who may have been involved in Taylor’s death, including two prominent stars, and reveals the secrets hiding behind Taylor’s cultured facade. Like any true crime writer, Mann believes he has cracked the cold case, but what really sets Tinseltown apart is his grasp of the history and politics of Hollywood. Mann situates Taylor’s murder in the broader context of the scandals that were plaguing the film industry in the 1920s, with particular attention to  the damage control done by Adolph Zukor, the CEO of Famous Players-Lasky, the largest film conglomerate of the period. This is a great pick for film lovers and mystery readers alike.

Categories: True Crime

That’s it for me! What were your favourite non-fiction reads of 2014?

The End of Your Life Book Club

Cover image for The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbeby Will Schwalbe

ISBN 978-0-307-96111-2

You can no longer assume, the way you could when I was growing up, that anyone is reading anything. But it’s a question my mother and I asked each other for as long as I can remember.”

Will Schwalbe’s mother, Mary Anne, was a dedicated educator and humanitarian who traveled the world, volunteering as an electoral observer in the Balkans, and serving as the founding director of the Women’s Refugee Commission. In 2007, she returned from the Middle East with what appeared to be hepatitis, but which would eventually correctly be diagnosed as Stage IV pancreatic cancer, which had begun spreading to her liver. Advanced pancreatic cancer is almost incurable, and many patients die within six months. As Mary Anne begins treatment to try to slow the advance of the disease, she and her son start swapping books, and discussing them when Will accompanies her to her various medical appointments. This informal book club of two becomes both a celebration of his mother’s life, and a way of coping with her imminent death, as well as reminder of the importance of continuing to live and take advantage of her remaining time. Despite her sickness, she was instrumental in planning and fundraising to help the Dupree Foundation build a library in Afghanistan, right up until her death in September 2009.

Both Will and his mother are well-read, and like to discuss what they have been reading. When Mary Anne becomes ill, talking about books sometimes serves as a proxy for the more difficult conversations between mother and son. They indirectly address how Will’s father will cope with his mother’s death when they discuss Sid, a character in Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, who loses his wife, Charity. “Do you think he’ll be all right?” Will asks his mother. “Of course it’ll be tough on him, but I think he’ll be fine. I’m quite sure of it. Maybe not right away. But he’ll be fine,” she replies, neither one acknowledging who they are really discussing. Charity is dying of cancer when the novel begins, so this book is particularly apt, but not all of the analogies between the books they choose and life are quite so direct.

The End of Your Life Book Club will undoubtedly appeal most strongly to avid readers, and perhaps be a little incomprehensible to those who don’t share a powerful love of books.  Will says that one of the things he learned from his mother is that “reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying,” but many non-readers would find the idea of spending the last months of your life on books unbelievable. Mary Anne also travels and spends time with family and friends, as most people would do, and continues her charitable works, but fellow book lovers will recognize in her the overwhelming desire to get to all the books you want to read before time runs out, and the frustrating knowledge that it wouldn’t be possible even if you had many years yet to live.

Despite the centrality of books and reading, this is also a great memoir for understanding terminal illness, and it includes important discussions of palliative care, end of life planning, and references to books such as Susan Halpern’s The Etiquette of Illness, from which Will draws valuable lessons about how to talk to his mother about her illness when she wants to discuss it, and how to set it aside and discuss other things when she doesn’t. While Will and his mother often come at hard conversations indirectly, through the books they are reading, they also have some very candid conversations as Mary Anne prepares for her final days.

In case your TBR pile isn’t already large enough, the numerous books discussed in The End of Your Life Book Club will probably result in more than a few additions. The full list of titles and authors forms a six page appendix to the book.  Each chapter is named after a book, but often more than one book is discussed per chapter. The discussions shared here aren’t deep literary analysis, but are rather chosen by Will to highlight aspects of his mother’s life and accomplishments, and particularly their conversations about mortality. Undoubtedly there was more to the conversations than gets shared in the book, but the parts that are included all drive towards these themes. The books play a prominent role, but the central story is that of Mary Anne’s life and legacy.