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.

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.

Ragged Company – Richard Wagamese

Ragged Company - Richard WagameseThis wonderful book, published in 2008, is one of Wagamese’s best. The story centres on four homeless people, two of which are Indigenous. Their street life is altered dramatically when they accidentally find a winning lottery ticket for $13.5 million: talk about “and now for something entirely different”! ‘The evocative story line weaves between the altered present and their backstories. This book has a wider scope than Wagamese’s other fine books which mainly focus on indigenous characters. The development of trust when they were homeless and how their life is altered after the lottery win makes this a story of family, how families can (and can’t) cope with stress due to altered circumstances. And spoiler alert: the ending will bring you to tears. Thanks Katharine, for this recommendation.

Machine Without Horses – Helen Humphreys

Machine Without Horses - Helen HumphreysHumphreys is a great writer (Nocturne, The Evening Chorus, The Lost Garden). Her new book is fascinating because the first half is a personal account of her writing process: start with an idea, in this case an obituary of a reclusive Scottish woman who was a renowned salmon-fly dresser. Humphreys describes the essential questions: What is the story? Whose Story is it? How are you going to tell the story? The second half of the book is the imagined life of the Scottish woman; very entertaining.

Up From Freedom – Wayne Grady

Up From Freedom - Wayne GradyGrady was a Calgary WordFest author. His book is set in 1850s America, about slavery and abolitionists. A cracking good court case is at the end of the book, about the illegality of of miscegenation: marriage between white and black races. There is a haunting phrase that is repeated in the book: “some things are forgotten but nothing is ever forgiven”.

I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You – David Chariandy

I've Been Meaning To Tell You - David ChariandyA short essay on race relations, presented as an intimate letter to Chariandy’s 13-year old daughter. Chariandy’s family is mixed race; an especially poignant chapter entitled The Incident describes when his young son is confronted with the n-word on a school playground. This is very fine intelligent, thoughtful and introspective writing about a topic that remains critically important.

Women Talking – Miriam Toews

Women Talking - Miriam ToewsA fictionalized account of a true story, that women in a strict Mennonite community in Bolivia were repeatedly sexually assaulted while drugged, by men in their own community. The women are having introspective existential conversations: to stay (and fight) or leave? They also discuss moral issues of faith and forgiveness. The only periodic male point-of-view is the transcriptionist who is translating their conversations into English and who occasionally offers comment. The context is a conservative patriarchal society where women have no rights. They want safety for their children, the ability to practise their faith and to think for themselves. Powerful writing.