By Chance Alone – Max Eisen

By Chance Alone - Max EisenCanada Reads winner. This poignant and powerful memoir, written by an Auschwitz survivor, in presented in three parts. First, a happy childhood in Southern Czechoslovakia. Then second, at age 15, Max and his family are transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the spring of 1944; he is separated from his mother and three siblings instantly who are all killed. Initially Max and his father and uncle work as slave labourers but then are separated and his father and uncle are targeted for death. Max’s survival is by chance (hence the title). He is arbitrarily selected to work in the concentration camp infirmary; this provides a unique look at how this “hospital” worked while staffed by political prisoners. The third chapter is post-liberation which is fraught with problems leading to a complicated process as a young orphan to find his way to Canada. One striking feature of the Auschwitz story is that simple survival was the over-arching imperative so Max’s psychological and emotional response to the loss of his entire family had to be suppressed. The Canada Reads success was due to three factors. First the panel proponent, Ziya Tong, was well-organized and passionate. Second, the current emergence of white supremacy (e.g. New Zealand atrocity) in the world demands an understanding of the holocaust. And the third factor was sort of reverse ageism, that Max represents a disappearing generation of Auschwitz survivors and so it is important to give this book an audience.

Homes – Abu Bakr Al Rabeeah, with Winnie Yeung

Homes - Abu Baker Al RabeeahCanada Reads runner-up. Abu Bakr was born in Iraq. At the age of 9, his family relocates to Syria because of sectarian Sunni-Shia conflict, only to be swept into the Syrian civil war. The chapter headings are deceptively simple, unassuming and low-key: “May 2012: My First Massacre”. Finally, Abu Bakr’s family are accepted as refugees to Canada and so arrive in Edmonton in December 2014. Abu Baker speaks no English so his first school requirement to write a short story about his background is created by Google Translate. He then works with his ESL teacher Ms. Yeung to create this book. Thus, the literary style is basic but the simple stark prose lends itself to the telling of a profound story of survival and courage. The CR panel was influenced by the strong parental love element and the good news and hopeful ending.

Suzanne – Anais Barbeau-Lavalette (translated by Rhonda Mullins)

Suzanne - Anais Barbeau-LavaletteCanada Reads contender.This is a beautifully written book, a fictionalized biography of the author’s grandmother who abandoned her young children to live a separate life. So the book is an attempt by the author to discover the story of her grandmother and in the process, the author achieves some understanding and respect for this mysterious part of her family history, the missing grandmother.  It was a mistake, in my opinion, for some of the CR panel to dwell obsessively on why a young mother would abandon her children in 1952. Rather, the reader should accept that this was her choice for complicated and yes, inexplicable reasons; Suzanne never requested forgiveness yet the author (her granddaughter) does achieve some reconciliation from the reconstruction of Suzanne’s missing history. The writing is poetic, beautifully written in the second person. The story unfolds in non-linear tantalizing episodes, some detailed, some mysterious with gaps. This is a truly evocative read and highly recommended.

Brother – David Chariandy

Brother - David ChariandyCanada Reads contender – previously described in January 2018. This wonderful book should have been the winner but once again, listeners to CR discussions must be mindful that winners are not due to literary merit because of the limitations inherent in the choice of the proponents. Canada Reads is interesting but still a reality TV show. Everyone should read Chariandy’s book.

The Woo Woo – Lindsay Wong

The Woo Woo - Lindsay WongCanada Reads contender. This is an extraordinary memoir about a Chinese-Canadian family in a Vancouver suburb. The Wong family is remarkably dysfunctional; Lindsay regularly received the following comments as a child: “you are fat, lazy and retarded”! She describes her upbringing with candour and does not flinch from castigating her own poor behaviour. Her mother is consumed by fears of demonic possession by malevolent ghosts, the woo-woo. This fear means that mental illness is treated as a woo-woo possession and thus is not treated except with ineffective exorcism attempts. And unfortunately there is a clear family history of untreated mental illness: a paranoid schizophrenic grandmother, a mother and aunt who may be bipolar. When Lindsay is afflicted by a rare medical condition (migraine-associated vestibulopathy), her woo-woo fears reappear. This is a disturbing story with harrowing details of abnormal psychology, interspersed with some splendid examples of comic relief. How does someone overcome such an upbringing? A challenging book, an uncomfortable read but worthwhile.

Eligible – Curtis Sittenfeld

Eligible - Curtis SittenfeldThis delightful novel is a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice. The Bennett family lives in Cincinnati and Pemberly is an estate near San Francisco. The descriptions of the Bennett family antics are divine, especially Mrs. Bennett and the two youngest sisters, Lydia and Kitty. To underscore the modern context, a reality TV show plays a prominent role in the plot progression. Ms. Sittenfeld is a very fine writer (American Wife); her ability to construct vivid characters reminds me of Lionel Shriver. The shift from acute antipathy to love for Liz and Darcy is described wonderfully; this book is a real joy to read.

Dear Evelyn – Kathy Page

Dear Evelyn - Kathy PageSimply put, this is a great book: the story of Harry and Evelyn, their wartime marriage and subsequent long time together. Ms. Page writes with beautiful detail producing an intoxicating richness: learning poetry in school, the song of a thrush. Harry is accommodating, too accommodating. Evelyn is an intense wife and an even more intense mother. And slowly, their relationship disintegrates – nothing dramatic, just a slow progressive loss of civility, less forgiving, cumulative resentment, more impatience. Eventually Evelyn realizes that Harry is not the man she married. Overall, this is a thoughtful and wistful look at long relationship – highly recommended.