Tag Archives: Canada Reads 2019

‘Suzanne’ by Anais Barbeau-Lavalette

Anais Barbeau-Lavalette never knew her grandmother Suzanne, an artist who abandoned her husband and children to find her freedom. Originally published in French (La Femme qui fuit), and translated by Rhonda Mullins, this is an imagined story based on historical clues. This is how Canada Reads 2019 describes it:
“Suzanne, winner of the Prix des libraires du Québec and a bestseller in French, is a fictionalised account of Suzanne’s life over 85 years, from Montreal to New York to Brussels, from lover to lover, through an abortion, alcoholism, Buddhism and an asylum. It takes readers through the Great Depression, Québec’s Quiet Revolution, women’s liberation and the American civil rights movement, offering a portrait of a volatile, fascinating woman on the margins of history. And it’s a granddaughter’s search for a past for herself, for understanding and forgiveness.”

The family had always seen the grandmother negatively as the rebel who abandoned her children. So the author wrote this book to gain a more sympathetic view of Suzanne, to discover why she did what she did. Unfortunately, though lyrically written and epic in scope considering what it all covers in a small novel, the book just didn’t work for me. In fact, it achieved the opposite. To me Suzanne came across as selfish and self-indulgent, blindly seeking happiness and satisfaction and never achieving it because of a lingering guilt about the loss and the cost of leaving. It was telling to me, that Suzanne never seemed to settle down after she left, but meandered from lover to lover, and cause to cause. There was no redemption in the end, which made it all feel rather empty. Books like Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls have similar themes, but somehow were able to create more empathy in me.

Yanic Truesdale, Michel from Gilmour Girls, will be defending the book in the debate. Here is Yanic in an interview with the author.

‘Homes: A Refugee Story’ by Abu Bakr Al Rabeeah with Winnie Yeung

“That’s how it was in Syria; when we heard an explosion, we ran towards the chaos. Often the police and ambulances were late arriving, if they arrived at all, so we took care  of each other.”

This is an important memoir written by Iraqi teenager Abu Bakr Al Rabeeah (pronounced: Abu ba-CAR al Rah-Bee-ah) with the help of his teacher Winnie Yeung. It is a book that I think every Canadian would benefit from reading and I think it deserves to win Canada Reads 2019.

Whenever we see news footage of Syria, with all the broken buildings, bombed out neighbourhoods, and hear about the random violence that the place has suffered from for so long, it seems impossible to imagine how it was for people to be living there in the midst of a civil war. Bakr has done just that. He has told the story very honestly and vividly. “We all gained skills that we could not have imagined. Knowledge that we never really wanted to know filtered into our lives. Our ears could pick out the differences between mortars, grad rockets, and car bombs. We could tell the high notes of the metallic smell of fresh blood on the streets from the low reek of a corpse waiting for days to be found in the rubble.”

Wise beyond his years because of his circumstance, Bakr also speaks simply as a normal teenager about going to play video games with his cousins and soccer with his friends. He was just 10 when the conflict began and his memories are childlike, yet riveting because his days were marked by the juxtaposition of living the life of a normal teenager in the middle of a war zone.

What I like most about the book is his honest perspective about how it was when he came to Canada as a refugee. When he was living in constant danger he dreamt of a life where he could safely live and move and go about daily activities. But when a new home in Canada became a reality, it was far from easy, albeit safe. He speaks of homesickness and a host of unexpected and different fears to deal with like fitting in, learning language, and building a new life in a foreign culture. Though totally understandable, these emotions also made him feel ashamed and ungrateful for the opportunity he had been given to begin a new life in safety. Homes features a remarkable young man and a compassionate teacher who have given Canadians a window to understanding the refugee experience.

‘By Chance Alone: A Remarkable True Story of Courage and Survival at Auschwitz’ by Max Eisen

“If you survive, you must tell the world what happened here. Now go.”

These were the very last words that Tibor “Max” Eisen ever heard his father speak, and he spent the rest of his life fulfilling that promise. At the age of fifteen, Eisen entered Auschwitz and lost everyone he loved in a matter of months. Now at the age of 86, he says his heart is full again. Retired from business, Eisen works harder than ever as a Holocaust educator in schools and other institutions throughout the country. He also accompanies groups to Poland, all to ensure that the collective suffering of so many will never be forgotten.

For those of us who have European roots and family members who themselves went through WW2, this will be a hard one to read. His story is undeniably compelling, but for those of us already familiar with the atrocities, it may be difficult to face again in such detail. However, for young people who have never encountered war or for whom the Holocaust is unfamiliar, it is an important book to keep historical memory alive.

Eisen believes strongly that putting his story out there goes beyond historical education. Learning about the Holocaust for young people is crucial because it “puts their own struggles in perspective, encourages the protection of a democratic society, and helps them speak out when they see injustice.” Though Eisen has been speaking about his survival for many years, this book is the permanent contribution to that cause. He includes a number of pictures that personalise and enhance the story he tells. Will this one win Canada Reads 2019?

‘Brother’ by David Chariandy

The Canada Reads 2019 debate has the theme, “One Book To Move You” and the majority of the finalists are memoirs. Of the two that are not, one is based on the author’s grandmother’s life, and the other is this one, a novel about immigrant youth and racial profiling that reads like a true story.

It’s going to be tricky for Canada Reads contenders this year, to debate several tragic harrowing stories. How does one decide between racism, genocide, child abandonment, flight from war, and mental illness?

Set in Scarborough, Brother is the heartbreaking story about siblings caught up in a police crackdown following a tragic shooting. They have goals and dreams for the future but their situation is far from hopeful. The writing is beautiful and it is really amazing how much the author was able to pack into a relatively slim novel, exploring race, immigration, identity, masculinity, prejudice, survival, poverty, single parenting, community, family, friendship, loyalty, grief, and loss. But the difficulties for immigrant youth described so elegantly in this novel, are sadly a reality for many Canadians. It actually reminded me of a book I read last year; Brother felt like a poetic version of Why Young Men? by Jamil Javani. Both books are very interesting and eye opening.

‘The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons, and My Crazy Chinese Family ‘ by Lindsay Wong

Canada’s Annual Battle of the Books has as its theme this year “One Book to Move You.” This is the first of the five shortlisted books I’ve read so far. Since I have tickets to be in the studio audience once again this year, I want to read as many as I can before the CBC debate starts in March!

Like Educated, this is the story of an incredibly horrible and abusive upbringing. When Lindsay Wong, often troubled by dizziness and nausea,  finally breaks away from her family and is living in NYC, she discovers that she actually has a neurological condition that has been causing her crippling symptoms–so, not the woo-woo after all. Lindsay Wong shares her dysfunctional family’s mental health struggles, where illness and weakness of any kind was nothing more than ghosts and demon possession.

It’s meant to be darkly comedic, but her writing style and humour just didn’t work for me. Even though she holds a BFA in creative writing from UBC in Vancouver (which she calls University of a Billion Chinese in Hongcouver) and an MFA from Columbia University, she says this in her acknowledgements, “Writing makes me want to gouge out my eyeballs.” Why would a writer say that when the book was meant to be cathartic? No doubt it was difficult for her to be honest about her upbringing and though I commend her for raising awareness within her culture about mental illness, I hesitate to recommend that this should win Canada Reads 2019 and be a book that all Canadians should read. Though the story is eye opening and harrowing, I found the book to be repetitive, disconnected, and just not that well written. It’s not even clear to me how she survived and how her obvious strength and resilience helped her overcome, which means all that remains is nothing more than a horrible story trying to be funny.