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A lifetime of learning about life through books

Jan Hearne • Mar 4, 2013 at 9:40 AM

I am reading Herman Wouk’s “Marjorie Morningstar.” It is his 1955 novel about a beautiful, talented young woman who wants to be an actress. Her mother is a social climber. I can see where this is heading.

“Marjorie Morningstar” is not a book I expected to be reading at this time of my life. When I was in my late teens I read Rona Jaffe’s “The Best of Everything,” about young hopefuls in New York. It is natural for starry-eyed girls to read that sort of book. But a woman who has moved from romantic to pragmatist to borderline and often over-the-edge cynic isn’t likely to read “Marjorie Morningstar.”

But I am, because Mary Anne Schwalbe said it was one of her favorite books when she was a young girl, and she had excellent taste in books.

In 2007, after Mary Anne was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer, she and her son, Will, formed a book club of two.

While Mary Anne was undergoing chemo, waiting while the slow drip of chemicals made their way into her body, she and Will either read or talked books. Will chronicled that time in “The End of Your Life Book Club.”

I knew Mary Anne and I were simpatico when I saw the title of the first chapter: “Crossing to Safety.” Wallace Stegner’s novel is one of my favorites, and Stegner is perhaps my favorite author.

Mary Anne read right up to her death, books like “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery, “Continental Drift” by Russell Banks, and “The Lizard Cage” by Karen Connelly.

This was not light reading, nor were these always “cheerful” books. Mary Anne liked to learn things about life, her son said, and the things she learned didn’t have to be pleasant.

Mary Anne was the first female admissions director at Harvard University. She went on to found the Women’s Refugee Committee and served as its first director. As part of her work, she traveled to places like Monrovia “while Charles Taylor’s rebel forces were attacking,” Will wrote.

She went to hot spots like Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire. She was returning from a trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2007 when she began to experience the symptoms of her cancer.

Mary Anne always read the last page of a book first because she wanted to know how things turned out.

Once she was diagnosed, Mary Anne knew how the story would end, she just didn’t know when, and for two years she lived her life despite the sometimes debilitating and always unpleasant side effects of chemo.

Because I came to like Mary Anne Schwalbe very much and because she had a bright, inquisitive mind, I will read from her book list for years to come. With each new title I will pause to remember her remarkable life and regret that she didn’t have more time.

Jan Hearne is the Press Tempo editor. Reach her at jhearne@johnsoncitypress.com.

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