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.

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.

American War – Omar El Akkad

American War - Omar El AkkadThis is a remarkable book about a second American civil war (2075-95). The power is in the chilling demonstration of the cost of war to common people; this is not a story about soldiers. This war is driven by ecological issues and extreme partisanship, so very topical and prescient. Above all, this is a tough angry story about revenge and retribution. This is a debut novel that should be a formidable Canada Reads contender.