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.

 

Brother by David Chariandy

“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.”

3/5 stars.
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. 

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“Brother” will be defended by Lisa Ray in the Canada Reads 2019 debates taking place on March 25-28, 2019.


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.

Homes: A Refugee Story by Abu Bakr al Rabeeah

This is why we need books. How else could we, being privileged to be born in a safe country, possibly know what a person like Abu Bakr has been through.

4/5 stars.
ebook, 136 pages.
Read on February 5, 2019.

For those that know nothing about this book going into it, as I did, I encourage you to keep it that way because by the time I got to the end I was blown away on how this novel came to be. Also, I don’t know about you but as a Canadian, this book fills me with pride knowing that we are continuing to make this kind of impact, especially considering the current political atmosphere. I read this book in one sitting because I was so in awe of Abu Bakr’s story.

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Chuck Comeau will be defending Homes during the debates on March 25-28, 2019.

This is the first book in the Canada Reads 2019 shortlist that I have read so far. Will it take the cake during the debates? We will find out.

 

Abu Bakr and his family were originally from Iraq but when tensions turned violent over Shias and the Sunnis his father made the decision to move to Syria in hopes of a safer and better life. Abu Bakr is just a boy when he makes this move and initially, he is filled with excitement as it means that he gets to be close to his cousins. However, this safe haven turns into a war zone under president Assad and Abu Bakr’s childhood is robbed from him as he comes into his teenage years knowing the sounds of bullets, the colour of blood and ripped flesh, as well as intense grief and fear as it rips through Syria. Abu Bakr’s father had a plan from the start when they moved to Syria and it was to get on a refugee list with the UN. He was diligent and he called all the time to try and get his family somewhere safer. His diligence eventually pays off but it still comes with a steep emotional fee for Abu Bakr and his family.

Once in Canada Abu Bakr and his family face a new set of trials, starting with learning English since none of them speak a word. Here Abu Bakr gives an honest account of his first-time experiences in Canada and how he learned to connect with others through soccer.

So here is where I think the spoiler is, as I am reading this book I got the impression that Abu Bakr is full grown man discussing his childhood and how he came to live in Canada with his remarkable and tragic story. Then I get to the acknowledgements I come to realize that Abu Bakr is still a high school student and has only been in Canada a few years! With the help of his English teacher, Winnie Yeung, the two of them create this moving story of his journey to Canada.  What an achievement! I mean, what the hell were you doing when you his age? Certainly not learning how to survive in a war-ridden and death-filled country and then learning another language to write a selling novel about the whole ordeal. This is why we need books. How else could we, being privileged to be born in a safe country, possibly know what a person like Abu Bakr has been through. How can we come to appreciate what we have with gratitude? We listen and we read.

For anyone that doesn’t understand the refugee crisis and supports closing borders, I beg you to read a few more books like this one. Stories of immigration and refugees in Canada are becoming more prominent and it’s because it’s becoming a part of who we are and their stories are becoming ours. This book felt extra special to me as Abu Bakr moved to a city that’s three hours away from where I grew up and knowing that he has had a positive experience with Canadians warms my heart. I would highly recommend this light, short, and moving read for any Canadians. I would also extend this book recommendation to any Americans who want to know more about the positive experiences of keeping your borders open.