Thursday, October 11, 2012

Jill Krementz covers The End of Your Life Book Club

Will Schwalbe kicked off a six-city promotional tour of his new book in Manhattan at Barnes and Noble.

His inspiring personal journey (with a first printing of 100,000 by Knopf ) was featured this past Mother's Day on the Opinion page of the New York Times.

Good Housekeeping is publishing an excerpt in their December issue, on stands in mid-November. Circulation is 4.5 million.
The End of Your Life Book Club
By
Will Schwalbe, Alfred A. Knopf, $25

Mary Anne Schwalbe was loved, and revered, by all who knew her.  As a young girl she grew up reading Nancy Drew mysteries by Carolyn Keene along with Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk. A lifelong educator, Mrs. Schwalbe was the admissions director at Harvard, a guidance teacher at Dalton, then head of the Upper School at Nightingale Bamford. 

Mary Anne Schwalbe in the mid 1990s when she was Director of the Women's Commission.
Later on, in her mid-fifties, her life took a different course and Schwalbe devoted herself to needs of women and children refugees, as founding director of the Women's Refugee Commission.

Will Schwalbe, her son (one of her three children), is a long-time book editor — most recently, editor-in chief of Hyperion Books — and the founder of the online recipe site, Cookstr.com.  A chronic insomniac, he is a voracious reader.

In October of 2007, Mary Anne Schwalbe was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She began out-patient chemo treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering accompanied by her son Will.  He asked her what she was reading.  Her answer: a Wallace Stegner novel, Crossing to Safety.

And so it was, on that November afternoon, their “foodless book club of two members” was born.  From then on, until his mother died two years later at the age of 75, they read more than a hundred books — classic and modern novels, mysteries, biographies, short-story collections, poetry, histories, self-help books, and the Bible. 

They discovered that while they were reading they weren't a sick person and a well person, but a mother and son sharing a journey together — accompanied by P.G. Wodehouse, Patricia Highsmith, John Updike, Alan Bennett, Mary Oliver, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison, Colm Toíbín, Elizabeth Strout, Khaled Hosseini, Charles Dickens, Reynolds Price, Joan Didion, and Annie Lamott to name only a few fellow travelers.  The result is an inspiring and unique memoir: The End of Life Book Club. 

This is a book for anyone who loves books. I urge you to buy at least two copies — one for yourself and one as a gift for someone you love.
Will Schwalbe standing outside the Barnes and Noble at 150 East 86th.
Ainlay Dixon with Will. Ms. Dixon had returned recently from Bolivia as part of a trip around the world to places including Borneo. She is a friend of Schwalbe's from high school and college and was the photo editor for Cookstr.com.
Will's father, Douglas Schwalbe, who proposed to Mary Anne on their first date.

He was thirty-one and she was twenty-four.

Mr. Schwalbe's company, Schwalbe and Partners, represents concert artists, conductors, singers, and musicians.
Erinn Hartman, Assistant Director of Publicity at Knopf, with Miwa Nesser, Director of B&N's "Discover Great New Writers" program.

Schwalbe's book is a "Discover pick" for November and December.
Naomi Wolf and Will Schwalbe have been close friends since their freshman year at Yale. Kari McCabe, another classmate of Will's at Yale, is an interior designer.
Susan Crawford, professor at Harvard Law School. David Cheng, born in Hong Kong, is a designer of men's outerwear. He and Will have shared a life for 28 years.
"My mother taught me that reading isn't the opposite of doing, it's the opposite of dying. That books are how we take part in the human conversation. It's a language to discuss the things most difficult to discuss and most important. That books in whatever form – electronic, even though that wasn't for her, or printed, or audio – are how we know what we need to do in life and the world.

"Mom would never say why don't you put down that book and do something. Reading was doing something.

"In October 2007, my then 73-year-old mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that had spread. This usually is fatal within six months. Mom lived for two years. My brother and sister and father and I all took turns accompanying mom to her various appointments. I often went with her to chemo and we always talked about books as we had all our lives. Right away, we realized that we'd formed a very peculiar little book club – one with only two members – a mother and a son.

"This book is about the conversations I had with my mother, what I learned from her, and what we both learned from the books we read."
A photograph of Mary Anne Schwalbe in Pakistan, 2007.

"My mother's work brought her to refugee camps all over the world – Gaza, East Timor, Darfur, Burma, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan, Bosnia. Almost always during wartime. It also brought her many times to Afghanistan, including to the tribal regions, where she was shot at as she was being driven through a particularly remote area. She always said when asked about this that they weren't shooting at her – only the tires.

"Everywhere she went she heard the same words: books. That what refugees want more than almost anything. Books. For themselves. For their future. With books, there was hope. Without. None.

"By the end of this year, Afghanistan will have a national library and cultural center for the first time in decades. And there are already book boxes in more than 200 villages in all 34 provinces."
Wallace Stegner photographed in Los Altos Hills, California.

Will and Mary Anne Schwalbe began their book club by reading and talking about Stegner's novel, Crossing to Safety, and here is an excerpt from the first few pages of Will's book:

"Crossing to Safety, which was first published in 1987, is one of those books I'd always so intended to read that I spent years pretending not only that I had read it but also that I knew more about its author than that he'd been born in the early years of the twentieth century and wrote mostly about the American West. I worked in book publishing for twenty-one years and, in various conversation lulls, got into the habit of asking people, especially booksellers, the name of their favorite book and why they loved it so much. One of the most frequently named books was always, Crossing to Safety.

"I'd brought Crossing to Safety on so many trips and returned it to my bedside unread so many times that it could have earned at least one first-class ticket to Tokyo on Japan Airlines.

"It's a story about the lifelong friendship of two couples, Said and Charity, and Larry and Sally. At the start of the novel, Charity is dying of cancer. So once I read it, it was natural that I would want to talk about it with Mom. The novel gave us a way to discuss some of the things she was facing and some of the things I was facing."
Colm Toíbín photographed by Jill Krementz on June 4th, 1997 in New York City.

Another book on their reading list was Brooklyn by Irish novelist, Colm Toíbín.

"We'd both already read several novels by Tóibín: The Master and Story of Night and The Blackwater Lightship. Tóibín's portrayal of the relationship between gay men and their mothers, a theme that features in several of his works, was a topic Mom and I never discussed – perhaps because it seemed a little too close. I had come out to my parents when I was taking a term off from college during my junior years to work in television in Los Angeles. I 'd told everyone at college I was gay the day I arrived – yet I waited more than two years to tell Mom and Dad because I was worried that it would change our close relationship."
Longtime fans of Christopher Isherwood, Will and his mother re-read The Berlin Stories and Christopher and His Kind.

"Then as now I looked to books to make sense of my life. Most important to me had been Christopher Isherwood's Christopher and His Kind, a memoir in which he wrote about his life from 1929, when he moved as a young man to Berlin (mostly, as he wrote, to meet boys), to 1939, when he moved to America. During that time, he'd palled around with W.H. Auden; amply sampled Berlin's louche nightlife, fallen in love with a German man, wandered all over Europe trying to avoid the Gestapo, which was pursuing them, and written The Berlin Stories) his classic work, which was later made into the play and musical Cabaret."

Photographed by Jill Krementz, March 31, 1972.
P.G. Wodehouse with Jed, Remsenberg, NY.

Will writes: "P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves novels turned out to be a joy: tales of a butler of uncanny abilities and his sweet but hapless employer."

Said his mother: " They're slightly ridiculous, but also endearing. And I like the odd things that Wodehouse characters collect – socks and silver and monocles. It reminds me of so many of our friends who collect things, like jewelry made of mah-jongg tiles or postcards of all-female marching bands. He's clearly having fun with that world of dinners and engagements and dowager aunts. That's my point. The books are fun, not silly. There's a difference."
Nikki Giovanni photographed at her desk in her Manhattan apartment.

Poets were an integral part of The End of Life Book Club: Nikki Giovanni, Mary Oliver, T.S. Elliot, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, and W.H. Auden were among the favorites.

Toward the end of the book club, as Mary Anne Schwalbe lay dying, Will read out loud to his mother Mary Oliver's poem, written in 2004, called "Where Does the Temple Begin Where Does it End?"

There are things you can't reach. But
you can reach out to them, and all day long.
The wind, the bird flying away. The idea of God.
Reynolds Price in Durham, North Carolina.

They read Reynolds Price's Feasting the Heart, a book of fifty-two personal essays.

"He writes about the England that Mom loved in the 1950s when professional theater was incomparably brilliant, and ticket prices were laughably small, and includes a very moving tribute to teachers. He recounts his obsession with being on time and his frantic worry for (and growing irritation with) people who aren't.

"And he reflects, amid chapters on more mundane topics, on sickness – on the devastation and sadness of AIDS, on being in a wheelchair and on death."

Schwalbe then includes an excerpt from Price's book:

We've reached a point in American history when death has become almost the last obscenity. Have you noticed how many people refuse to say 'he or she died'? We're far more likely to say 'she passed away,' as though death were a sterile process of modest preparation, followed by shrink-wrapping, then rapid transit – where? Well, elsewhere. In short it's the single thing we're loath to discuss in public.

"That page was dog-eared by Mom."
Joan Didion, John Gregory Dunne, and their daughter Quintana Roo photographed by Jill Krementz at their home in Los Angeles on January 10, 1982.

They had both read Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking when it first came out but Will and his mother read it again. It's a memoir about Didion's life after the sudden death of her husband – and about their daughter Quintana Roo who would later die of pancreatitis. In re-reading this book Will and his mother found solace in Didion's words – "share" and "acknowledge" when she contrasts her grief after the death of her husband with what she felt after the death of her parents.

"What I felt in each instance was sadness, loneliness (the loneliness of the abandoned child of whatever age) regret for time gone by, for things unsaid, for my inability to share or even in any real way to acknowledge the pain and helplessness and physical humiliation they each endured."

It was after reading Didion that Will realized he could share by "talking about anything his mother wanted to discuss, or by sitting quietly with her reading. And I could acknowledge without probing or dwelling or fixating."
Anne Lamott photographed in her backyard in Fairfax, California by Jill Krementz on October 12, 1997.

In his book Will writes:

"I did pray. For my text, I used something I'd read in Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies; Some Thoughts on Faith, a book of autobiographical essays that's funny or heartbreaking whether you're a believer or not. Both Mom and I had read it when it came out in 1999 and had recommended it to each other simultaneously.

"In the book Lamott says the two best prayers are 'Help me, Help me, Help me' and 'Thank you, Thank you. Thank you.' Sometimes I alternate. Mostly I use both. But I'm also not above asking for specific things – like a good scan and more time with Mom – whether anyone is listening or not."
John Updike photographed by Jill Krementz on October 13, 1994.

"Mom asked me if I wanted to read the new Updike stories, a volume published posthumously, called My Father's Tears: And Other Stories."

"How are they?" I asked.

"They're wonderful. They're so well written. And you know there was a very smart kid in a freshman seminar I took when I was at Radcliff. I never really caught his name and years later I realized it was John Updike. He was clearly brilliant even back then. And the stories bring back so many memories – like our trip to Morocco that we took as a family. And there are ones of Cambridge, of course. Just start with one, and see what you think."

"Which story is your favorite?"

"The title story. It's a lot about death."

"And Mom showed me the section. It was a passage about a fifty-fifth high school reunion."
Updike at a local cemetery.

This is the passage that Will's mother showed him from the Updike book:

"The list of our deceased classmates on the back of the program grows longer; the class beauties have gone to fat or bony-cronehood; the sports stars and non-athletes alike move about with the aid of pacemakers and plastic knees, retired and taking up space at an age when most of our fathers were considerately dead.

"But we don't see ourselves that way, as lame and old. We see kindergarten children – the same round fresh faces, the same cup ears and long-lashed eyes. We hear the gleeful shrieking during elementary school recess
and the seductive saxophones and muted trumpets of the locally bred swing bands that serenaded the
blue-lit gymnasium during high-school dances."
— John Updike
After Will's talk there was time for a Q&A.
The first question came from writer Sue Carswell. Ms. Carswell met Will's mother when she went as a reporter on a Women's Commission for Women and Children Refugee Mission and they
became friends.
Following Will's talk and a brief Q&A period, copies of the just published The End of Life Book Club were on sale.

Edwin Tucker has been the events manager of the 86th street Barnes and Noble store for three years.

And now that you've read some of the excerpts from the book you can see why that table was empty in a matter of minutes.
Also on sale were a good selection of books that had been among the favorites of the book club: Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk, Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas, Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, and People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks.

I can think of no better gift than to combine these titles, or others, with Will's book for those wanting to start their own book clubs.
One of the real pleasures of Will's book, besides re-reading excerpts from the books you've loved, is earmarking the pages describing the books you want to run out and buy. I am looking forward to reading the Wallace Stegner and the Michael Thomas.
"My mother taught me that reading isn't the opposite of doing, it's the opposite of dying. That books are how we take part in the human conversation. It's a language to discuss the things most difficult to discuss and most important. That books in whatever form – electronic, even though that wasn't for her, or printed, or audio – are how we know what we need to do in life and the world."
Alice Truax teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence. Truax was an editor at The New Yorker from 1992-2002, and her book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, Vogue, and The New York Review of Books. She has also edited a number of books including Will Schwalbe's (co-authored with David Shipley) Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better. Greer Baxter and Tess Tarantino, 14-year-old classmates at Chapin. They have been best friends since their first day of kindergarten.

Greer is my next-door neighbor; her mother, Gretchen Young, was a former colleague of Will's at Hyperion Books.
Mark and Angie Chait. Mr. Chait is an editor at Harper Collins and his wife, now a homemaker, was a model.

Mark worked with Will on several of the David Halberstam books published at Hyperion when Schwalbe was the editor-in-chief at the publishing house.
Doug Stampf and his husband Jeff Seroy. Mr. Stampf is an editor at Vanity Fair and a former colleague of Will's going back to their days at William Morrow.

Mr. Seroy is SVP of marketing and publicity at Farrar, Straus & Giroux where he has worked forever. About Will's book he had this to say:

"Among many other wonderful things, it's a very unusual book about books – something serious readers seriously love."
Schwalbe signs books for Doug and Jeff.
Filmmaker Josef Astor. Hugh Freund, Will's cousin, bought ten books.
Kari McCabe and David Cheng.
Finally! Last book signed.
Leslie Koch and Will Schwalbe. Ms. Koch (who went to Yale with Will) is President of The Trust for Governors Island, a 172-acre island and former military base in New York Harbor.

She is responsible for the planning, redevelopment, and on-going operation of the 150 acres of the Island owned by The Trust.
Casey Blue James graduated from Yale in May. She is the community manager for the book. "And what," I asked her is a "Community Manager?" "I run the web site and I run the social media online, like Facebook," she replied.

For Will's speaking schedule, click here.
The gang who made the evening such a great success.
Now here's an author taking his own advice! Schwalbe buying a copy of his book at the end of
the evening.
Author, and happy customer, leaving the store.
Special thanks to Sean Yule, Domestic Rights Director at Knopf, for sending me an Advance Reader's Edition of Will Schwalbe's The End of Your Life Book Club this past April, thinking I would love it. He was right.


Text and photographs © by Jill Krementz: all rights reserved. Contact Jill Krementz here.