Friday, July 12, 2013

Hard Rewards

    This has been a summer of hard reading. I’ve picked books I knew would be a challenge for a variety of reasons and set my goal on tackling each and every one of them. And I am winning. My happy dance is occurring right now at my computer desk and chair, be glad you cannot actually see it firsthand. Just go with me in spirit. 

    So what have I been reading? Well, today I am going to write about just a couple of them, starting with Veronica Roth’s Divergent and Insurgent. Two of the older girls participating in the week-long creative writing class I taught raved about the first book, Divergent. I mean they went on and on about it in a way that only teenage girls can. I checked it out on Goodreads and learned it is a dystopian science-fiction. My first reaction involved vigorous head shaking indicating refusal. But if you recall my New Year’s Resolution was to read more broadly and in more genres so I decided to give it a try. 

    Divergent is the first in this trilogy by newer author Veronica Roth. A fast-paced novel with a sixteen year old heroine, this work has definite appeal for the YA audiences. Beatrice, the main character, is flawed just enough for most of us to relate to her but is also profoundly determined and stubborn, qualities many of us enjoy in characters. I found a lot of comparisons to the Hunger Games both in theme and style. I read Insurgent after finishing book one but have not read the third installment yet, mainly because the library does not have it and I am not willing to buy it. While I did not feel the second book compared well to the first, I gave Divergent 4 stars on Goodreads based on its endearment to the YA audiences, its careful avoidance of promiscuity (which I appreciate as a mother and a teacher), high energy pacing, and strong characters. 

    While Roth’s books were easy to read in terms of style rather than appeal, the other book for today was a challenge on another level. I just finished The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe. Wow. Hard.Core. 

    I kept seeing Schwalbe’s story pop up in recommended lists on Amazon, Goodreads, and the like but for months, I avoided it. Even after I took the plunge and ordered it, I just wasn’t sure I was ready to actually crack the spine. After all, this book is about watching someone you love slowly die right before your eyes. This theme hits kind of close to home for me, except that I am on the other side of it. 

    The End of Your Life Book Club is a true-story written as a memoir by a son, cataloging the informal book club shared by his mother and him during the last two years of her life. It is a profoundly moving tale, describing the conversations shared between the duo, often using books as springboard for deeper discussions on the meaning of life. 

    So much of what makes this story unique and special is learning about Mary Anne Schwalbe as a woman both before she became ill and after. A tireless advocate for refugees, literacy, women, and children, she traveled the world championing her causes before growing ill. Even as her Stage 4 pancreatic cancer progressed, she continued to focus her efforts on building a library in Afghanistan, no small task in that. Clever, determined, slightly-controlling, and a true matriarch, Mary Anne led a life well-lived until the end. We have the pleasure of learning about her and the entire Schwalbe family through this memoir. 

    In addition, because books are central to everything the family does, we are introduced to works from every genre and authors, new and old. Mary Anne and Will’s book club, often held at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, weaves together topics to life, death, right, and wrong through literature. And in typical Mary Anne style, it’s always about the endings because she reads those first!

    I gave The End of Your Life Book Club 4 stars on Goodreads. In all honesty, the only reason I didn’t give it 5 was because at times I found the story stalled and moved a little too slow. I am also not overly-religious and while I respect Mary Anne was, I did not relate to these aspects of the work. Overall, I loved reading this hard story, reflecting on the journey, and hoping that in the end, mine will be a life well-lived too.

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