The Woo-Woo by Lindsay Wong

This is a trainwreck of an upbringing that you can’t help but sympathize with, as you berate yourself for laughing at the strangeness of it all.

4/5 stars.
ebook, 304 pages.
Read from March 3, 2019 to March 9, 2019.

Lindsay Wong describes the Woo-Woo as a Chinese superstition that ghosts are the cause of bad things in your life, which unfortunately for her and mental-health-ridden family, meant an array of irrational behaviour followed by never seeking treatment. This book is in the Canada Reads 2019 shortlist after a few near misses in previous years so no doubt this book will be a fan favourite for the debates.

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Joe Zee defending The Woo-Woo by Lindsay Wong during the debates taking place on March 25-28, 2019.

Lindsay and her siblings are first generation Chinese-Canadians. Her family came over from Hong Kong and settled in Vancouver which has a large Chinese population giving the city the appropriate nickname of Hongcouver. She lives in an upper-middle-class neighbourhood with her mother father, brother and sister, and for a short time her grandmother. Lindsay basis of daily dealings with her family and her life included things like swearing, name-calling, bribes with money, escaping life decisions and people with makeshift camping trips, and smothering bad feelings and “ghosts” with junk-food. Shouting matches, arguments, grudges and personal hang-ups are what Lindsay thought being a family was all about.

Despite her family having a comfortable income Lindsay wore old, dated clothes and showered once a week. Lindsay lacked the social skills to make friends but her aggression made her an excellent hockey player, an endeavour her father bribed her into to achieve some sort of Canadian-dream status.  Her father insisted that she was extremely stupid and fat as some messed up means of motivating her to achieve more along with a sick sense of dark humour. While her mother fell prey to the mental illness that plagued her own mother resulting in her being obsessed with ghosts and trying to protect her family from them. Her protection came in the form of insisting that her family never show any emotion as to not invite the ghosts in, terrorizing midnight wakings, lighting Lindsay’s feet and bedding on fire, day-long walks in shopping malls, and more.

Lindsay grew up in fear the Woo-Woo as she saw it slowly wreck her grandmother, her mother and eventually even her Aunt, whom she thought was safe. Without the means to empathize and deal with normal human situations in a healthy manner, Lindsay was in constant worry about her own mental state. Despite all this Lindsay managed to get into a university far from home where she was relieved to finally escape her family, only to find that the Woo-Woo seemed to have followed her there.

Even with these enormous hurdles to overcome, Lindsay seems to have found peace and understanding with her upbringing. Despite the dark and sometimes traumatizing events that Lindsay endured she approaches her story with a stoic and entertaining sense of dark humour. This is a trainwreck of an upbringing that you can’t help but sympathize with, as you berate yourself for laughing at the strangeness of it all. It brings awareness to the stigmas around mental illness and the barriers we still have to overcome, especially culturally, which healthcare systems could benefit from learning more about.

If you live in Vancouver, I would absolutely say this is a must-read. This is also a relevant book for those looking from some reprieve from their own families and mental health struggles.

The most moving part of this story comes from Lindsay finding the courage to write such an intimate memoir about her family, especially since she is writing from a standpoint of success in battling her inner Woo-Woo and family troubles. It’s a testament to the power of healing yourself and finding faith in yourself against the odds.

 

 

Suzanne by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette

A creative memoir on the presumed life of an absent mother.

4/5 stars.
ebook, 265 pages.
Read from February 28, 2019 to March 1, 2019.

Anaïs never knew her mother’s mother, Susanne, nor did her mother, really. After her grandmother’s passing Anaïs hired a private detective to get the details on why her grandmother was such a fleeting presence in her family’s life. Short-listed for Canada Reads 2019, this is a creative memoir taken from the facts gathered by the private detective in an attempt to piece together the life a woman who abandoned her two young children and caused a void in her family that is felt for generations. The book will be defended by Yanic Truesdale during the Canada Reads 2019 debates at the end of March.

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Yanic Truesdale will be defending Suzanne by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette during the debates taking place on March 25-29, 2019.

Susanne was originally written in French under the title, La femme qui fuit (The Woman Who Ran Away) and has been beautifully translated into English by Rhonda Mullins. Bravo to Rhonda who has managed to capture the poetic prose of this story in translation.

Susanne is successfully written in the second person and reads like an elegant poem of yearning as Anaïs envisions her grandmother throughout the different stages of her life. The book is far from accusatory and it reads like a real memoir in many aspects. The yearning is for forgiveness, understanding, and for the answer to the one question that neither the author or her mother get an answer to, why did Susanne leave?

Susanne led a tumultuous and intriguing life that included the great depression, political and art revolutions, alcoholism, homelessness, asylums and more. Even with the details unearthed from Susanne’s life, the author can still only speculate as to what drove her to her decisions and imagine how she might have felt in different parts of her life. Why did Susanne decide to abandon her two children, one of whom is Anaïs’ mother, after giving them such tender care for a few years? And then show up at Anaïs’ birth and a few small moments in her mother’s life? Guilt? Remorse? Forced responsibility? As Anaïs speculates, Susanne may have lived with guilt but ultimately may not have been able to face the choices she made, to which, Anaïs forgives her.

What’s the most moving about this book is the wonderful poetic prose which makes for a highly readable book that is easy to connect with. Anaïs is an immensely talented writer whose writing it literary and stimulating while also being highly accessible. I truly enjoyed this novel and felt entwined with Susanne’s gripping story, even if it is only through the speculative hope of her granddaughter.

This engrossing story is going to give the other contender’s in the Canada Reads 2019 debate a run for their money and I am looking forward to hearing how it is received.

By Chance Alone by Max Eisen

If this book doesn’t move you, you must be a Nazi.

4/5 stars.
ebook, 304 pages.
Read from February 21, 2019 to February 27, 2019.

WWII holocaust memoirs is a genre I never get tired of. Ellie Weisel’s Night, Eva Mozes Kor’s Surviving the Angel of Death and Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning top the list as some of my favourite memoirs. I love to devour books in this genre so that I never forget the past and to find strength and gratitude in their trials and suffering. By Chance Alone is an award-winning book that made it into Canada Reads 2019 shortlist this year and will be defended by Ziya Tong during the debates at the end of this month. The debate theme this year is, “One Book to Move You”. Could this book be the winner?

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Ziya Tong defending By Chance Alone by Max Eisen

Max opens the book with his childhood in Czechoslovakia before the war and how idyllic his life had seemed to him then. He is barely a teenager when he enters the Nazi concentration camps. Upon arrival, Max didn’t know it would the last time he would see his mother and siblings alive again. He was nearly sent the gas houses himself as he was just barely old enough off for the forced labour camps with his father. Max details the horrendous conditions that he had to endure in fine detail making it hard to believe that humans are even capable of this kind of depravity. Max’s father’s parting words to him would become a major part of his adult life:

‘”My father reached out across the wire and blessed me with a classic Jewish prayer:

“May God bless you and safeguard you. May He be gracious unto you. May He turn His countenance to you and give you peace.”…

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

Max managed to stay alive in the camps through sheer determination and a lot of luck but in the end, he was the only one of his family members to survive. In Max’s adult years with the help of some of his grandchildren, he became an educator and speaker on the Holocaust as part of his healing process and to stay true to his father’s final parting words.

If this book doesn’t move you, you must be a Nazi. My heart ached for Max and his family as I visualized the real trauma and the suffering he dealt with. Moving stories like Max’s are important as they make sure that we appreciate all that we have and to never let us forget what happens when radical leaders have vicious and radical ideas. The persecution of the Jews didn’t happen overnight. It started with the spread of malicious ideas and propaganda by a terrible leader that created and encouraged blind ignorance that was then driven by fear. Humanity takes a long to time change and heal, even after the war when Max was trying to get out of the country to Canada he learned that many of the people responsible for torturing the Jews were getting visas before him and the other victims of the Holocaust.

We need Max’s story, and others like him, memorialized in words so that we can ensure that we never make the same mistakes with human lives again. Max is a living reminder to be kind and considerate to your neighbours, to immigrants, and to those suffering in other countries for wars they want no part and dream of nothing more than a safe place to call home.