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.

The Boat People – Sharon Bala

The Boat People - Sharon BalaThis is a novel created from a Canadian story – what happens to a boatload of Sri Lankans who arrive in Vancouver as refugees. The novel addresses a number of critical and important questions. What would you do to escape a deadly civil war? What would you reveal during the Immigration and Refugee Board hearings? How can the adjudicators determine what is truth from what might be lies or at least omission of facts? Part of what makes this book great is the detail of the chaotic refugee bureaucracy, and the ease of subverting refugee claims by politicians arguing that terrorists must be within the refugee population. So the context is vivid and important, and the three central characters are complex. Another remarkable first novel, this is the best of the Canada Reads books, in my opinion.

Brother – David Chariandy

Brother - David ChariandyThis is an outstanding book that everyone in Canada should read for its insight into the world of ethnic immigrant families. The place is Scarborough; the principal family has Trinidadian origins: two brothers and their mother. The fragility and vulnerability of their lives is captured vividly. There are issues of poverty and violence, and most chillingly, dangerous encounters with police. All the honours that this books has received (Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, etc) are richly deserved. This will be a formidable contender in the upcoming Canada Reads competition.

The Golem and the Jinni – Helene Wecker

The Golem and the Jinni - Helene WeckerA second recommendation from Steph, so thanks again. This book is another example of a remarkable first novel, notable both for its imagination and context. A golem is created from clay and brought to life by her master who then promptly dies, leaving her adrift in New York. A jinni is accidentally released from a copper container. Much of this book is about alienation – how to fit into a human population. And the context is glorious: New York in 1899 with detailed descriptions of Little Syria and the Jewish enclave with some fantastic trips to Central Park. And yes, there is a wicked villain! This is a very entertaining book.

The Illegal by Lawrence Hill

This is a no-brainer since The Illegal has just won the annual Canada Reads competition; happily, I am going to listen to Hill talk about literature at the Banff Centre on April 8. The Illegal is so topical, as it deals with illegal immigrants without documentation. Keita is a runner who literally is running for his life in much of the book. The book is set in a fictional location is the near future and the story telling is compelling with an illegal refugee trying to survive in a world of violence and corruption. The other characters in this novel are vivid and interesting and complex. This is masterful writing; as an aside, Hill is the only 2-time winner of Canada Reads (he won in 2009 for Book of Negroes).

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline.jpgThe story of Irish immigrants to NY tenements in the 1920s. Parents and siblings die in a fire so Niamh/Dorothy/Vivian at age 9 is loaded onto the orphan train and sent to the mid-west for hopeful adoption which generally becomes indentured servitude. The story is told as 1929-1943 flashbacks as the 91 year old Vivian is telling her story in 2011 to a contemporary participant in foster care. Parts of the story have a somewhat predictable Charles Dickensian feel, especially of the sad story of hopeless and cruel care at ages 9-10 but overall this is a very satisfying read.