A creative memoir on the presumed life of an absent mother.
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.
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.
If this book doesn’t move you, you must be a Nazi.
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 Meaningtop 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?
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.
“Had I recognized it only then? We were losers and neighbourhood schemers. We were the children of the help, without futures. We were, none of us, what our parents wanted us to be. We were not what any other adults wanted us to be. We were nobodies, or else, somehow, a city.”
ebook, 132 pages.
Read on February 7, 2019.
This is the only full-fiction selection from the Canada Reads 2019 shortlist though its story is likely all too real for many. This is an intricate story of a set of first-generation Canadian brothers, Michael and Francis, and their upbringing in the rough neighbourhood of Scarborough, Ontario in the 90s.
The story has a weaving timeline that begins in the present day in which Michael is welcoming an old school friend, Aisha, into the home he still shares with his ailing mother after Aisha’s father has passed away. The two of them allude to a tragic event involving Francis and from there Michael ruminates on the details of his childhood opening the whole story up to the reader as well as the events that brought about the death of his brother, Francis.
Michael and Francis’ mother is originally from Trinidad and Tobago and with their father absent, she is the sole provider for her boys. She works hard, too hard, in order to keep food on the table for them. It is her character I find the most tragic. After Francis dies, she is never herself again. She tried so hard to bring her boys the best yet they were never able to overcome the impossible circumstances that poverty and race trapped them in.
Francis was the cool kid in the neighbourhood. Popular and into his fair share of trouble and with a dream of being involved in hip hop and music but was constantly fighting the barrage of prejudice against him. Kids from this neighbourhood were made up of a variety of immigrant families struggling to get by. Crime, poverty, and gangs became prevalent and not much was expected of kids like Michael and Francis, and like many of the kids in the neighbourhood, they got smothered in this trapt environment. Aisha was the exception. Aisha did well very well in school and managed to escape the neighbourhood with a scholarship. Aisha and Michael used to spend lots of time at the local library as a way to get out of the house and because Michael was never quite cool enough to hang out with Francis and his friends at a local barbershop.
The story is an encompassing story that touches on immigration, race, poverty and the Black Lives Matter movement, yet the approach of these difficult ideas is broached in such a delicate manner. It’s written in a very matter-of-fact way in that it emphasises that this is just another ordinary family and that their situation isn’t all that unique, making the impact of the story that much more poignant. It’s a very politically and timely piece that is uniquely Canadian in terms of the setting but all-encompassing with its ideas.
The ideas alone are enough to move you but the way Michael and his mother’s life end up, without Francis and without hope of a better life, are what truly make this novel.