Unique Book Club of Two

 Get a couple of readers together and you’ve set the stage for a conversation about who’s read what, titles flying back and forth in a frenzied literary exchange. More organized book groupies convene in book clubs — eager-beaver readers anxious to discuss characters, plot, theme and more.

“The End of Your Life Book Club,” by Will Schwalbe, features a unique book club made up of two — Schwalbe and his dying mother Mary Ann. Diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer in 2007, they spend the last two years of Mary Ann’s life sharing their common love of literature, and in the process learning much about themselves.

Mary Ann Schwalbe was a humanitarian. At 73, she’d just returned from another of her trips to a war torn country. Her latest project was working with a foundation to establish libraries in Afghanistan, a country she’d visited nine times. It took some time to recoup from these exhausting journeys, but in 2007 she didn’t bounce back like she normally did.

Initially her doctors believed she’d contracted a form of hepatitis — fatigue drained her, she was losing weight and the whites of her eyes were yellow. Soon, however, the culprit was diagnosed. Notoriously difficult to pin down, her pancreatic cancer had already spread to her liver. Chemo was prescribed, hours spent hooked up to a drip in a hospital. Trips that necessitated her depending on others to accompany her, one of whom was Will. Thus began their book talks, conversations that not only passed the time, but provided insight into life issues and, as death neared, intimate conversations about faith and the hereafter.

There’s wisdom on the pages of this marvelous read — courage on display — the indomitable spirit of a woman willing to face death head on, and to make “living while dying” the philosophy of her final days. The Schwalbes’ experiences make for a touching read, a testament to the power that story has to connect us, and a beautiful tribute of a son’s love and admiration for his mother.

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Funny, Funny—Bang, Bang

Guest review by Mindy Sansoucie, Missourian staff.

Think of an assembly line. The workers are efficient, smooth, with perhaps similar backgrounds and economic status. Together they clock in and clock out. However, off the clock they are individuals with blood-pumping wants, needs and tragedies.

In “Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories,” by Sherman Alexie, these individuals are Native Americans scattered across reservations and cities, each contributing to the story of their race, each undertaking a unique human experience. Portraits of these characters, the war dancer and drug-addict Junior and the compulsive basketball star Frank Snake Church, are the status quo of a forgotten people that Alexie presents in his book of short stories.

Put on your war paint and get ready for a funny, funny, bang, bang range of emotion as you sit down by a smoky campfire with Alexie. His game is juxtaposition, and Alexie is an all-star athlete, not to mention a living literary legend. In the autobiographical “War Dances,” Alexie seems to hover over his body as he is diagnosed with a brain tumor. Even so, he requests music out of an “alcoholic Indian father jukebox” as he goes into an MRI.

Alexie confronts fascinating and beautifully taboo topics in “The Toughest Indian in the World,” such as Native American homosexuality and the warrior Indian male.

If you are a tenderfoot experiencing Alexie for the first time, get ready for a “slice of redemption pie” in the form of deadpan humor. Alexie fans used to his style will recognize satirical battles on basketball courts against Indian stereotypes.

The need to hold on to a fading culture is especially poignant in the new story, “Cry, Cry, Cry” that opens “Blasphemy.” Junior is an admired, charismatic war dancer on his reservation, selling dope to make ends meet. He has a violent streak that graduates from “possession, intent to sell, and statutory rape.” Alexie gives commentary on the “dark and bitter and accelerated” progression of violence that accompanies addiction.  At the same time he poses the question: what happened to our warriors after the white man saved us?

“Blasphemy” carries heft, with over 30 short stories of healing and humor. They are footsteps in the lives of everyday Indians. Savor them, as they are building blocks that further cement Alexie as a literary legend.

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Crime King Pens Another Hit

Nobody writes seamy-crime better than Dennis Lehane — case in point “Mystic River” and “Gone Baby Gone.” And who can forget, “Shutter Island,” a book sure to send chills up your spine.

This trio of grab-you-by-the-throat thrillers are just some of Lehane’s offerings, many of which are set in Boston, where his newest “Live By Night,” begins before moving south to Florida and Cuba.

It’s the prohibition era, gangs are jousting for power, cops collect kickbacks from mob bosses, and tough broads hang on the arm of married thugs with an unknowing wife back at home.

Irishman Joe Coughlin gets involved in a life of crime full well knowing his dad, a Boston captain in the police force, is being paid to look the other way by the powers that be. Leading by example isn’t his father’s strong suit, yet the two share a bond.

As a young man, Joe dabbles in petty thefts, but eventually sets his sights on bigger jobs. He gets a tip on a speakeasy in South Boston, an easy hit that should be lucrative. Joe and his buddies pull off the heist, not knowing the joint is owned by Albert White, a dark-hearted mob boss with a cruel bent and a girlfriend that Joe’s immediately attracted to.

Emma Gould is trouble and Joe knows it, but he loses his head and plunges into a relationship that nearly gets him killed. White seeks revenge. The lovers suffer the consequences. Emma disappears, is presumed dead, and Joe lands in jail, where he spends two years trying to head off beatings and abuse, until an Italian mob boss he meets behind bars strikes up a deal and arranges for his parole so he can run his illegal operations down south.

With Joe’s release, the book shifts to a city near Tampa where Joe bootlegs rum coming from Cuba, becoming rich and eventually respected, even falling in love with a Cuban beauty — the only woman capable of making him forget Emma Gould. Though Joe is a mobster, Lehane makes him out to be a sympathetic character, the best of the bad guys. One almost feels sorry for him when the chips are down.

There’s action on every page of this hard-hitting novel told in Lahane’s distinctive voice. Readers will stay up late at night to finish “Live by Night” and then be disappointed the story is over.