After buying a bookshop in the southwest corner of Scotland in 2001, the author/owner keeps a one-year diary of the bookshop activities in 2014. He is an often grumpy and irascible commentator on: his rotating staff and their idiosyncrasies, his customers, and the precarious state of independent second-hand bookshops. And his pet peeve, the Amazon juggernaut. There is lots about buying books from estates. Throughly entertaining.
Simply put, this is an amazing book. Ms. McKay is an excellent novelist (The Birth House, The Virgin Cure, Witches of New York). Her new book is a memoir with a unique context. Her great-great-aunt, Pauline Gross, confided to a pathology professor in 1895 that she expected to die young because she had observed a very strong family history of cancer. This statement led to a cancer genealogy study that ultimately resulted in the discovery of a gene mutation that creates a devastating cancer susceptibility, now known as Lynch Syndrome. Part of the book imagines the lives of Pauline and sister Tillie, the direct ancestor of Ms. McKay. Along this history, there are some dedicated physician-scientists but the ugly reality of eugenics is part of this quest. Much of the book is deeply personal since Ms. McKay also has the Lynch Syndrome mutation. What thought process informs the decision to undergo genetic screening? How does one live with this knowledge, with implications for your children (there is a 50% risk of transmitting the mutation)? And finally, there is Ami’s deeply moving and loving relationship with her mother so this is also a memoir of love and fate, tremendous family resilience, the link between the genes we inherit and the life we choose. This is a fantastic read.
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.