Column: Books can have transformative power
As the dog days of summer continue with the occasional monsoon rainy day perfect for reading, I've been enjoying everything from Hillary Clinton's memoir "Hard Choices" to bestselling novels and classics like "Cosmos."
I also read "Further Out Than You Thought," an edgy novel describing life-changing events for a college graduate/stripper in Los Angeles as race riots exploded in 1992 after Rodney King's beating by police. Author Michaela Carter, a Yavapai College creative writing instructor and co-owner of Peregrine Book Company, captures a moment in time with her erotic, poetic prose. While the novel is for mature readers only, it could become a bestseller due to the power of the writing and the timeliness of the riot story as Ferguson, Mo., residents riot over a police officer shooting a black teenager.
However, there's a different book I can recommend to everyone I know.
Every book of value does more than just entertain you for a few hours. It may provide a glimpse into a different reality. It may expose you to a new idea or crystalize a belief.
When the writer's passion for a subject is properly conveyed, it can even inspire you.
"The End of Your Life Book Club" by Will Schwalbe does all of those things and more.
Bibliophiles will love this non-fiction book because it describes the influences of literature on the author and his mother. Additionally, it tells a story with universal themes: the importance of family and of relationships, the impact of turning-point decisions, and the role one person's life plays in so many others.
The book weaves these themes into the story of how Schwalbe's mother struggles to live with pancreatic cancer and how she dies.
Schwalbe's mother was a voracious reader, an erudite thinker and a woman from the first generation to "have it all," or as much of a life of work, motherhood and of the mind as she wanted. As he accompanied her to chemotherapy and spent time with her when possible, they discussed books they were reading - sometimes reading them at the same time to compare notes as soon as possible.
As you learn about Mary Anne Schwalbe's thoughts on the books, details of her life unfold, such as her work helping refugees worldwide through the International Rescue Committee and the Women's Refugee Commission, her past work as admissions director for both Radcliffe and Harvard universities and how she raised her children to be readers with her husband Douglas, an agent for musicians, conductors and singers.
Overhearing a woman's plea for help in paying for the outrageously expensive medication her elderly mother needs to survive, she picks up the tab - then becomes a staunch supporter of Obama for president, reading his autobiography and sharing it with her son. She is thrilled when the Affordable Care Act - which closed the Medicare doughnut hole - is finally passed and the financial suffering of fellow cancer patients she's come to know is alleviated.
Friends, former refugees and acquaintances she's helped throughout her life return the favor in as many ways as they can in the months after her diagnosis. She remains driven to the end to establish libraries in Afghanistan, gaining the support needed to ensure success before she is physically incapable of continuing the battle.
In their conversations on books, Schwalbe and Mary Anne discover insights into their lives they couldn't have gleaned from TV shows, film or small talk. Reading books requires self-examination to understand characters, motivations and actions. Writing is a thinking art that shapes opinions and feelings in a deeper way than others.
Most chapter names are the titles of books, including books on illness, faith and spirituality. Khaled Hosseini's first two novels set in Afghanistan are sources of discussion and fiction ranges from the classic "Marjorie Morningstar" and "The Painted Veil" to "The Lizard Cage," "People of the Book" and "The Elegance of the Hedgehog." A six-page appendix lists the authors and titles.
When I finished it, I contemplated how in our ADD world of texts, email, pithy news stories and sound bites, that only books can provide the sheer volume of facts and context to fully understand a complicated issue, or in Schwalbe's case, a complicated life.
Schwalbe captures the essence of a woman of substance whose work will make a difference long after she is gone. I feel lucky to have gotten to know her in the pages of a book.
Toni Denis is a freelance journalist and chairwoman of the Democratic Women of the Prescott Area.