Canada 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.
Canada 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.
Canada 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.
A 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.
This book is subtitled “A Daughter’s Memoir”, and chronicles the last years of her parent’s lives after relocating from their home to London to a seniors residence in Ottawa. Ms. Hay’s wonderful prose describes her aged mother: “her loose skin hung off her like silken parchment … (her) bare arms were as pitiable as a ballerinas”. The decline in the health of her parents is described in depressing and brutally honest detail, proving once again that growing old is not for sissies. Ms. Hay’s relationships with her parents (and her siblings) is examined thoughtfully, carefully and critically, in particular her often fraught relationship with her tempestuous father. This is very fine writing, introspective and compelling.
These three graphic novels tell the story of Congressman John Lewis, an iconic hero of the American civil rights movement. The narrative is provided by Aydin and the evocative black and white drawings are by Powell. Volume 1 covers Lewis’ youth in rural Alabama, leading to the struggle to de-segregate lunch counters in Nashville. Volumes 2-3 cover the intense period from 1963 (the Birmingham church bombing) to the Selma March and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The controversial politics of the civil rights movement is detailed, especially the rivalries and debates over the extent of non-violence to be utilized by the protestors, and the participation of white protestors. The stark black/white drawings are very striking when illustrating the horrible abuse and violence subjected by the authorities towards the civil rights movement. This is powerful storytelling, and timely.
Previously, I used the words “brutally honest and uncomfortably candid” to describe Camilla Gibbs’s memoir This Is Happy, and the same descriptors can be applied emphatically to this memoir by Roxane Gay. Gay is subjected to a brutal sexual assault at age 12; she discusses being both a survivor and a victim. There are two dramatic aspects to the aftermath: her silence and her reaction to eating, to become fat and undesirable in order to be safe. Gay vividly describes living in a wildly undisciplined body as she becomes categorized as morbidly obese. The cruelty of public opinion of her appearance (i.e. fat shaming) is tragic. Her own analysis of her psychology is self-loathing. This is a deeply personal memoir that is often disturbing but occasionally comic as she describes how much she hates exercise. An amazing story.