Category: Non-Fiction

The Moment of Lift

Cover image for The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates by Melinda Gates

ISBN 978-1-250-31357-7

“The correlation is as nearly perfect as any you will find in the world of data. If you search for poverty, you will find women who don’t have power. If you explore prosperity, you will find women who do have power and use it.”

After leaving Microsoft to raise her three children, Melinda Gates and her husband created their foundation for charitable giving, with an emphasis on global health. For many years, Gates worked behind the scenes of the foundation, while her husband continued his work at Microsoft. But it would not be until 2012 that Gates stepped fully up into the public eye to sponsor the London Summit on Family Planning that she clearly emerged as a leader, and began to place greater emphasis on gender equity issues. Here, she makes her case for why lifting up women and girls has a profound and measurable impact on the very issues of global health and hunger that the foundation had been working on all along. On a personal level, she shares how she overcame her inclination towards privacy in order to become a stronger advocate for the issues she cares about. The author’s proceeds from the book will also be donated to charity.

The Moment of Lift chronicles the Gates Foundation’s slow tiptoe into gender equity work, an area that was long seen as a departure from their core mission of innovating in the arena of global health, and then helping partner organizations deliver those innovations to the people who needed them. Melinda Gates has a good eye for combining punchy facts with real-life illustrations of their principles, drawing on her extensive travels for the Gates Foundations to provide them. The book is divided into nine chapters that focus on issues the foundation has worked on, including family planning, child marriage, and access to education for girls.

Gates begins with the controversial issue that drove her into the public eye, as a Catholic who supported family planning and access to contraceptives. She writes about family planning with carefully chosen words, emphasizing how it allows women to choose when to have children, without ever mentioning whether. She largely avoids the issue of birth control for single women, and focuses on timing and spacing pregnancies for maternal and infant health, and is very clear about differentiating family planning from abortion. She speaks candidly about the political and religious implications that have become attendant on working on these areas, so her arguments are finely calibrated to try to avoid those pitfalls. These chapters feel very guarded, as if the author is braced for the inevitable blowback.

The Moment of Lift is a reflective book that examines what it takes to do effective philanthropy. Gates acknowledges that “we at the foundation were latecomers to using gender equity as a strategy. As a result, we have lost opportunities to maximize our impact.” She also examines the potential problems caused by huge influxes of money from outsiders who assume they know best. For example, partner organizations may chase the grant money, and in doing so commit to a less effective intervention strategy, simply because it is the idea being backed by the wealthy donor. She also repeatedly emphasizes the danger of not listening the people on the ground, both the local partners that will do the work, and the people who will receive the benefits, or harms, of the chosen approach. She provides multiple examples of situations where it was assumed that education was all that was needed, when in fact more complicated factors were at play. Sex workers in India in the 1990s already knew that they were at risk of HIV if they didn’t use condoms. They didn’t need education on that fact, or even better access to condoms. They needed clients not to beat them if they tried to initiate condom use, and they needed the police not to beat them if they were caught carrying condoms. To achieve that, they needed such beatings to have consequences, but it took non-profit organizations a long time to hear those women, and understand that the issue was violence, not sexual health education. These women were taking a longer-term risk, a costly gamble to avoid a guaranteed short-term consequence.

The chapters on women’s work—paid and unpaid—contain the most personal detail, both about Gates’ home life, and her time at Microsoft. She expresses a desire not to equate her experiences with those of the other women she writes about, but to demonstrate the breadth and reach of such issues of inequality. I was particularly interested in her reflection on how she contributed to a work environment that was hostile to the working style of women at Microsoft by initially trying to emulate the hard-charging, aggressive styles of the men she saw around her, some of whom later admitted that they too had only been trying to live up certain ideas about the successful businessman. Acting out roles we don’t believe in can help to perpetuate the systems that led to these harmful ideas in the first place.

Some of the stories Gates shares are hard ones, but she encourages the reader to “let your heart break” rather than turn away. As a book, The Moment of Lift is quiet rather than incendiary, but perhaps that will enable some to hear it who would otherwise cover their ears.

You might also like: Leaving Microsoft to Change the World by John Woods

What Matters Most

Cover image for What Matters Most by Chanel Reynolds by Chanel Reynolds

ISBN 978-0-06-268943-6

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“It turns out the hardest thing I’d ever had to do wasn’t removing medical support; it was figuring out how to tell Gabi his dad was dead.”

In July 2009, Chanel Reynolds’ husband José was struck by a turning vehicle while riding his bike in Seattle. For a week, he hovered on the cusp of life and death, long enough for Chanel to realize that they absolutely, definitely did not have their shit together. Their wills were written, but unsigned. She didn’t know how much insurance they had, or what it covered. She couldn’t even remember to bring a copy of his insurance card to the hospital. She didn’t know how to reach the paternal side of his family without the passcode to his phone. The list went on and on. They had a mortgage that absolutely required two salaries, and now they had no salaries at all, as managing his medical care, and then his funeral, became her full-time job, along with caring for their five-year-old son, Gabriel. What Matters Most follows Reynolds through the weeks and months after the accident, as she navigates the convoluted bureaucracy of death in America today.

The larger part of What Matters Most consists of Reynolds’ memoir about her husband’s accident, the decision to remove medical support, and the fall-out from his death. She is brutally honest about the mistakes they unwittingly made in the nine years of their marriage leading up to it, as well as her struggles in the days, weeks, and even years that followed. Grief is a strange country, but Reynolds takes us there vividly, through all the wild ups and downs, and unexpected turns of such a loss. This account also follows her into single motherhood, and through picking up the pieces of her life, and having to imagine an entirely new future for herself and their son. Her style is forthright, and occasionally irreverent, but still very affecting; she had me in tears more than once. The memoir portion stands well on its own and is worth reading quite apart from the advice Reynolds also provides.

Interspersed with the memoir sections are chapters drawn from the work Reynolds has done on her website, Get Your Shit Together. Several years after her husband’s passing, she felt compelled to share what she had learned, and try to help others avoid finding themselves in similar circumstances in the wake of a tragedy. Reynolds is not a lawyer or a financial planner, so her lists and advice are broad and general, hitting highlights such as insurance, wills, powers of attorney, and so forth. Her suggested tasks are as small as updating the medical and emergency information in your cell phone, and as big as writing, signing, and notarizing your last will and testament. While intended for an American audience, it would likely provide food for thought, and a kick in the pants to anyone who doesn’t have their affairs in order, regardless of nationality. In modern society, death has become an extremely bureaucratic and paperwork intensive event, placing significant mental demands on people who are already struggling with the emotional consequences of loss. What Matters Most encourages readers to help spare their loved ones this additional burden so that they can focus on grieving and healing.

You might also like Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

The Valedictorian of Being Dead

Cover image for The Valedictorian of Being Dead by Heather B. Armstrongby Heather B. Armstrong

ISBN 978-1-5011-9704-8

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “When you want to be dead, there’s nothing quite like being dead.”

With the tag line “Our lady of perpetual depression” Heather B. Armstrong has documented her mental health struggles over the years on her dooce blog, mixed in with stories about her life and family, leaving Mormonism while living in Utah, and becoming one of the internet’s first professional bloggers (and getting fired from her day job as a result). In more recent years, she has shared her divorce, and raising her two daughters alone, and even semi-retired from blogging due to the changing nature of sponsorship, and the increasing demands of influencer marketing. The Valedictorian of Being Dead recounts her most recent bout of severe depression, and the experimental treatment she underwent to try to reset her brain. Ten times over three weeks, doctors used propofol anesthesia—yes, the Michael Jackson drug—to induce a coma-like state, reducing brain activity to the bare minimum before bringing her back up in an effort to gain the benefits of electroconvulsive therapy without the negative side effects. For Armstrong, the treatment was life changing.

Given that she was one of the internet’s first big bloggers, it probably isn’t surprising that the first blog I ever followed was Heather B. Armstrong’s dooce blog, way back in the day before she was even a mom, let alone a “mommy blogger.” However, I fell off with reading somewhere along the way, probably because the increased focus on parenting wasn’t particularly interesting to a college student. So when I saw her memoir at ALA, I thought it would be cool to catch up. And indeed, I was pulled right back into what I enjoyed about her writing style, which is energetic, descriptive, and often darkly funny. “When she told me about my dazzling performance, I reminded her that when I want to do something well, I become the valedictorian of doing that thing. No one does dead better,” she writes after her mother describes witnessing her first descent into the abyss. She is equally adept at evoking the depths of depression, and the alien feeling of her own body while in that state.

Armstrong is accompanied on her journey by her mother, who takes her to every treatment, and has to watch her child sink down into near-death ten times. While Armstrong remembers nothing, her mother has to watch the doctors grab her daughter’s almost lifeless body, and intubate her as quickly as possible so that she is not deprived of oxygen. Their supportive relationship was particularly poignant to me with the knowledge that Armstrong’s departure from the Mormon faith had strained her family relationships. There are a lot of affecting scenes in the book, but the one that really choked me up was when she describes how her mother once very matter-of-factly told her that their relationship would never be the same again without Jesus. This coldness is quite the opposite of the relationship that is illustrated in this book.

While Armstrong writes forthrightly about her mother and stepfather, and how they shared in this experience with her, she is more circumspect in the way she writes around her ex-husband, and about her father. Her ex is chiefly present in her fear of losing her children. In fact, the reason she let her depression go on so long, and get so bad without treatment, was because she was afraid he would find out how sick she was, and take her daughters away. Her relationship with her father is also fraught, and she had not intended to share the experimental treatment with him until her mother requested that she do so. There is a lot going on beneath the surface of these two relationships that is not deeply delved into, and yet the story is significantly shaped by their absence.

While the body of the text is written by Armstrong, and focuses on her personal experience, the afterword is by the doctor who led the study. While he is hopeful and excited by the preliminary work his team has done, he brings the necessary emphasis that this still an experimental treatment in need of further investigation. It balances Armstrong’s personal experience of success with the need for additional study in order to better understand how and why such a treatment might be successful, or what its limitations might be. Altogether, it is a fascinating account of one woman’s mental health struggles, and how they might intersect with treatment and acceptance more broadly.

You might also like:

Marbles by Ellen Forney

Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

A Woman of No Importance

Cover image for A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnellby Sonia Purnell

ISBN 978-0-7352-2529-9

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “Valor rarely reaps the dividends it should.”

In the midst of Nazi-occupied France, an American woman with a prosthetic leg who appears to be working as a journalist seems an unlikely candidate for one of World War II’s most successful spies. However, it was precisely this uncanny set of circumstances combined with her language skills and unique personality that allowed Virginia Hall to become an instrumental force in arming and organizing the French resistance movement. In contrast to many of her peers, she was so good at recruiting and coordinating that she gained a dangerous level of infamy in Lyon and beyond as The Limping Woman, soon becoming one of the Nazi’s most-wanted, until she was eventually forced to flee over the Pyrenees into Spain on foot. But her war would not end there, and she would go on to become one of the first women recruited into the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency after the war.

A Woman of No Importance brings to light the accomplishments of one of the war’s quietest heroes, a woman who avoided recognition, and even turned down a White House ceremony when it found her anyway. Still hoping to do field work after the war, she did not wish to draw public attention to herself. The tight-lipped policy that served her well in the war carried on throughout her life, so that she is little known today outside of intelligence circles. However, film rights for this book have reportedly been optioned, with J. J. Abrams directing, and Daisy Ridley attached to star, though no doubt both have been busy with Star Wars Episode IX.

An aspiring diplomat, Hall lost her leg in a hunting accident while stationed abroad as a clerk with the State Department in Turkey. Struggling for advancement, and repeatedly refused entrance to the diplomatic corps, she turned her back on the Department and went in search of other opportunities. She tried to join the women’s branch of the British army when war broke out, but since foreign nationals were not accepted, she eventually found herself in the French ambulance corps. With the United States remaining neutral at the start of the war, she began her work as a spy with Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), also known as the Baker Street Irregulars, or Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. Purnell’s previous book focused on the life of Clementine Churchill.

A Woman of No Importance recounts the accomplishments of a confident woman with a talent for cultivating sources and allies who trusted her implicitly, a feat many of her male peers struggled to imitate. Virginia’s confidence was also her downfall, however, in the form of a priest called Alesch, who passed off his German accent and appearance by claiming to be from the border region of Alsace. He avowed himself as an enemy of the Nazis because they had killed his father, and he spouted anti-Nazi rhetoric from his pulpit every Sunday. In fact, Alesch was a spy for the Abwehr, the German intelligence service. Virgina was suspicious of him, but believed that she could handle him. This self-confidence would prove fatal to many members of her network when she was forced to flee the country. In her absence, Alesch had enough information from his contact with her to infiltrate her circuit, and Virginia was not there to gainsay him to her more trusting contacts. Because she failed to trust her gut, much of her network would be burned, a guilt which stayed with her, and compelled her to go back into France after a narrow escape. In the Haute-Loire, she would become a legend for organizing and arming the maquisards.

Most of Virginia’s fellow field agents were men, with whom she had relationships that ranged from collaborative to adversarial. The women she worked with were largely French recruits into her information network. Initially distrustful of sex workers, viewing them as collaborators if they took Nazi clients, Virginia eventually came to rely on the resourcefulness of such women. One small but fascinating aspect of this book shows how these women quietly participated in the resistance by such unorthodox means as getting enemy soldiers addicted to drugs, or deliberately infecting them with venereal diseases. This was in addition to more traditional means of assistance, such as providing safe houses, access to black market gods, or spiking an officer’s drink, and then rifling his pockets for information when he passed out.

This fascinating account takes the reader deep into the underground of the French Resistance, and behind the scenes of how the Allies worked to arm and coordinate with fighters inside the occupied country to end the war. Hall’s remarkable adventures make for a gripping, if bittersweet read. After struggling to find her place as a young woman, Hall achieved great success in the war, only to struggle to advance in her later career. What was forgiven under the exigencies of war held her back at Langley. That she is today recognized as one of the greats is but little consolation for the failure to fully utilize her talents.

You might also like Liar, Temptress, Solider, Spy by Karen Abbott

Shakespeare’s Library

Cover image for Shakespeare's Library by Stuart Kellsby Stuart Kells

ISBN 9781640091832

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“In all this time, the search came to nought. Not a trace of his library was found. No books, no manuscripts, no letters, no diaries. The desire to get close to Shakespeare was unrequited, the vacuum palpable.”

For a playwright so prolific and widely beloved—at least today—William Shakespeare left surprisingly little behind on his death in 1616 at Stratford-upon-Avon. His will makes no mention of papers or books, though he famously left his wife his second-best bed. In literary scholarship, the books, letters, and papers of famous authors become, after death, invaluable treasure troves for those who study their work. But in the case of the English language’s most famous wordsmith, no such legacy remains. Stuart Kells follows the many efforts that have been made in the four centuries since the Bard’s death to locate his papers, and the various searches and expeditions that have tried to track down Shakespeare’s library. But the itinerant playwright seems to have left little trace, and much has been made of that vacuum. This title was originally released in Australia by Text Publishing in 2018, and is being published by Counterpoint in the United States.

Shakespeare’s Library is divided into three parts, including The First Searchers, The Heretical Searchers, and Visions of Shakespeare’s Library. Kells begins with the earliest efforts to locate the Bard’s papers. It is a complex history, fraught with false leads, and red herrings. Bemused Stratford-upon-Avon locals have been known to play tricks on the treasure seekers, such as pretending that they recently burned a stack of old papers that might have belonged to their most famous son. Other searchers turned out to be frauds and con men, happily supplying the lack of Shakespeare memorabilia with documents of their own creation. This hair raising history will be enough to make you question any such future discoveries that have not been carefully vetted.

While Shakespeare is regarded as high literature today, this is far from having always been the case. Drama was considered a low art, while poetry was the pinnacle of literature. If you sift through the Elizabethan English, the Bard’s plays are filled with ribald jokes and innuendos. Indeed, the very term “bowdlerize” arises from the work of the Bowdler siblings, who created The Family Shakespeare in the 19th Century, expunging blasphemy and immorality from the plays, expurgating some ten percent of the original text to create a “cleaner” version suitable for family consumption. Indeed, Shakespeare was something of a vulgarizer of existing stories, punching them up for the stage. His shows played to popular acclaim, but little critical regard. While some book collectors did include play manuscripts in their libraries, they often did not bother to individually list them when cataloguing their collections.

The lack of survival of original play texts is even less surprising when you consider that the fad for first editions post-dates Shakespeare. Indeed, “in the seventeenth century, collectors replaced old editions with new ones, and regarded this as an improvement.” Still other collectors, more concerned with clean copies than original ones, thought nothing of a taking apart several editions, sometimes of different printings, and then rebinding them together into “mongrel editions,” thus completely destroying the “bibliographical integrity” of the books. Beyond just a history of the search for Shakespeare’s papers, Shakespeare’s Library also embeds a fascinating history of book collecting as passion and pastime.

Of course, one cannot go looking for the Bard’s papers without engaging with the Shakespeare Authorship Question. Nature abhors a vacuum, and a rush of frauds and conspiracy theories have arisen to fill it. If Shakespeare was merely a frontman for an anonymous aristocrat who was the real author of the plays, then of course it would not be surprising if he left no papers behind. Kells is an orthodox Stratfordian, but he attended university at Monash in Australia, which he discovered to be a surprising hotbed of anti-Stratfordians and Shakespeare heretics, an experience which Kells describes as being a bit like “discovering all your friends are Scientologists or swingers.” Kells is conversant with all of the various theories, as well as their problems and implications.

The argument that grows up from Shakespeare’s Library is much simpler; Shakespeare was a voracious borrower, an inveterate repurposer, perhaps even a shameless thief of existing texts. While ideas of authorship and copyright were much looser in Elizabethan times than our current understanding, Shakespeare was so egregious than even his contemporaries occasionally complained about his behaviour. Yet copious borrowing combined with diverse editors might make for exactly the sort of breadth and variety of knowledge that lead the conspiracy theorists to conclude that Shakespeare must have been an extremely well-educated and well-travelled aristocrat rather than a mere commoner who may have lacked so much a grammar school education.

Stuart Kells confidently takes the reader through this fascinating history, tracing the high highs and low lows of a centuries old quest. If the idea of Shakespeare’s original manuscripts makes you salivate a little, if the Shakespeare Authorship question horrifies and fascinates you in equal measure, then this is the book for you.

You might also like How to Be a Tudor by Ruth Goodman

Canada Reads Along: By Chance Alone

Cover image for By Chance Alone by Max Eisen by Max Eisen

ISBN 9781443448550

 “After many visits back to Auschwitz, I can also see that the physical remnants of the Holocaust continue to deteriorate, and that the first-hand witnesses, like me, are moving on in years.”

In the spring of 1944, Max Eisen and his family were rounded up from their home in a Hungarian-controlled region of the former Czechoslovakia, and deported to Auschwitz. This was the final step after five slow years of increasing hate towards Jews, and restriction of their rights and freedoms. Max’s entire family would perish in the camps, lost to the gas chambers, and to medical experimentation. But a lucky chance, resulting in a position as an assistant at the prisoner’s infirmary, would allow Max to survive, and bear witness, fulfilling his final promise to his father by becoming a dedicated Holocaust educator, and now memoirist. By Chance Alone recounts his childhood, time at Auschwitz, and his path to Canada.

Max was fifteen when he entered the camps as slave labourer for the Nazis. As he would discover later, his mother and younger siblings, including his infant sister, were sent directly to the gas chambers. Revisiting these events more than seventy years later, he brings an unusual perspective, simultaneously capturing his youthful naïveté about what was going on around him, and the later knowledge he would gain about the depth and scope of the atrocities. For the most part, he remains in the moment, recalling the events as they occurred, though occasionally he provides information he would not have access to until later. For example, when his father and uncle were selected, he had no idea what their fate would be, only that he would never see them again. Decades later would he learn that they had been chosen to be subjects in the Nazi’s twisted medical experiments.

While Mengele’s experiments are relatively well known, Max’s account takes the reader inside a different part of the medical establishment at Auschwitz, where imprisoned doctors cared for fellow prisoners with limited equipment and resources. Max worked under Polish dissident Dr. Tadeusz Orzeszko, who he believes to have been a member of the resistance, working to that end even while he was imprisoned. The additional comfort and resources Max was able to access as a medical assistant built up his strength, and were likely crucial to his survival of the death marches the Nazis took their Jewish prisoners on during the final days of the war. However, the end of the war did not mark the end of his ordeal as a refugee; a return to his home town did not yield a warm welcome. He recounts all of this in a straightforward prose style, bearing witness to what was done to his people, as he promised his father he would.

By Chance Alone was defended on Canada Reads 2019 by science broadcaster Ziya Tong, who mounted a thorough and impassioned defence that emphasized the importance of Holocaust education in inoculating Canadians against hatred of all types. Tong cited a study that found one in five young Canadians are not sure what the Holocaust was. She felt that it was urgently important to for Canadians to read a book that would take the Holocaust from distant, colourless historical event to a living, breathing person who experiences those events. Armed with a variety of statistics, as well as enthusiasm for her subject, she urged Canadians to read By Chance Alone and remain vigilant against the rise of hate crimes in our country, and around the world.

By Chance Alone faced a few crucial moments throughout the week, including comparison of its writing to style to more lyrical works such as Brother. Tong made a persuasive case for Eisen’s narrative style, however, arguing that he was writing the voice of a child, but with the wisdom of a ninety-year-old. Other panelists praised Eisen’s attention to detail, and the hypnotic nature of his simple prose style. Tong also made a strong demonstration for the book’s contemporary relevance, bringing to the table a recent photo of Max outside a synagogue, which had been defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti only last year.

On Day Two, panelist Lisa Ray raised the question of what By Chance Alone adds to the body of Holocaust literature that is not already there, contrasting Eisen’s style to that of Elie Wiesel. In her initial rebuttal, Tong pointed to the infirmary as an entirely unique contribution that provided information about the camp that even other internees did not necessarily have. The subject was raised again on Day Three, where panelist and free agent Joe Zee argued that each perspective on the Holocaust was unique and new, and that it is history told in a way that cannot be learned from a textbook. It came down to a close call that day, with Ray and Yanic Truesdale voting against By Chance Alone, while Tong, Zee, and Chuck Comeau voted against Brother. However, the book carried on to the finale.

With one vote each from the remaining defenders on the last day, it was up to the free agents to determine the final result. Lisa Ray voted against By Chance Alone for the second day in a row. However, both Joe Zee and Yanic Truesdale voted against Homes. After much discussion on the final day of debates about the voice of the youth, and the wisdom of the elderly, both panelists were compelled by the argument that Holocaust voices are fading, and soon there will be no more living witnesses to tell their stories. Soon the books will be all we have left to ensure that we never forget. And so By Chance Alone became the winner of Canada Reads 2019.

That’s it for Canada Reads 2019! Thanks for reading along. Past winners:

Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto

Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis

The Illegal by Lawrence Hill

Ru by Kim Thuy

Canada Reads Along: Homes

Cover image for Homes by Winnie Yeung and Abu Bakr al Rabeeah by Winnie Yeung and Abu Bakr al Rabeeah

ISBN 978-1-988298-29-0

 “As much as father wanted us to believe we could keep living our lives, it wasn’t true. He was wrong. We couldn’t pretend this war wasn’t happening.”

In 2010, Abu Bakr al Rabeeah fled increasing Sunni/Shi’a tensions in his native Iraq, along with his parents, siblings, and members of his extended family. They sought refuge in Homs, Syria, where some relatives already lived. Unfortunately, they had fled right into the teeth of the Arab Spring, and the Assad regime’s crackdown on the uprisings inspired by the movement. The streets of Syria became war zones, as the state military fought with anti-government militias for control. Mosques were shot up, businesses were bombed, and schools exploded. Homes is the story of the al Rabeeah family’s journey from Iraq to Syria and Syria to Canada, as told to Bakr’s English teacher, Winnie Yeung.

Despite being a true story, Homes is written in the style of a novel, a work of creative non-fiction recounting the memories of Bakr and his family, based on interviews given to Winnie Yeung. It is both simply written, and yet striking. Little details, such as the word “first,” become particularly poignant, as Bakr describes his “first car bomb” or his “first massacre,” things you hope to live a lifetime without seeing, let alone more than once while still in elementary school. Bakr’s childhood is full of such events, so common they become almost mundane, even as the trauma continues to mount.

Juxtaposed against the horrors of the civil war are the ordinary rhythms of the family’s daily life in Syria. Bakr and his sibling must still go to school when it is open. He plays soccer with his friends and cousins. Not really knowing any better, he and one of his cousins amuse themselves by collecting spent bullet casings, without considering the lives those bullets may have taken. The families celebrate Ramadan, and continue to attend mosque, despite the risk of another shooting. His father and older brother run a bakery, selling his mother’s recipe for soft, chewy Iraqi bread, a contrast to the dryer pita-style bread more commonly found in Homs. Life goes on with the illusion of normalcy, until it is shattered again by the next attack.

As the story moves to Canada, Homes also conveys the profound loneliness of leaving everyone you know, and everything you love, behind for a new country where you do not even speak the language. From business owner of a bakery, Bakr’s father is reduced to taking English classes, unable to care for his family in the manner to which he is accustomed. A better life has been promised, but when will it materialize? It is a blessing to be safe, but into the void of fearing for one’s life, new anxieties gather to take its place. Homes ends here, but in many ways, the al Rabeeah family’s journey has only just begun its next chapter.

Homes was defended on Canada Reads 2019 by musician Chuck Comeau, whose quiet debate style emphasized love, family, and hope. He particularly highlighted the father-son relationship, as well as the partnership between Bakr and his teacher that brought the book into being, first as an after school project, and then as a published work. He also emphasized that fact that it is essential for Western culture to have more positive portrayals of Muslim people, rather than only seeing them as stock character terrorists in film and television.

Homes received one strike on Day Two from Lisa Ray, and one vote against it from Ziya Tong on Day One, who said it was too much like her own book, but otherwise it moved through the week unscathed. Indeed, Homes slid quietly into the finale to go head to head with By Chance Alone, which Tong was defending. Discussion on the final day of Canada Reads 2019 ranged over several questions, including what each of the remaining books helped panelists to understand, why the free agents should vote against their opponents’ books, and whether or not the books could move Canadians to action. Many of the panelists brought up the relative ages of the two authors. While both were writing about their youth, one is still a teen, and the other is a nonagenarian, representing both ends of the life spectrum. It was pointed out that the voices of both the youth and the elderly can be discounted by society at large.

When it came time to vote, Ziya Tong of course voted against Homes, and Chuck Comeau against By Chance Alone. The three free agents cast their ballots, with Joe Zee voting against Homes, saying that he was persuaded by the argument that Holocaust voices are fading. Lisa Ray voted against By Chance Alone, saying that Homes was the book she wanted all of Canada to read. This put the final vote in the hands of Yanic Truesdale, who had previously voted twice against By Chance Alone. In a surprise change of heart, Truesdale cast his final ballot against Homes, also citing the argument that the voices of Holocaust survivors will soon be gone. Thus, By Chance Alone by Max Eisen was crowned the winner of Canada Reads 2019.

Catch up on Days One, Two, and Three of the debates, and check back tomorrow for my review of the winner!

Canada Reads Along: The Woo-Woo

Cover image for The Woo-Woo by Lindsay Wong by Lindsay Wong

ISBN 978-1-55152-736-9

“In our family, people did idiotic and medium-evil things to one another because they were possessed and not in control, so it was best not to think too much about the horrors of whatever had been said and done, because there was often no answer. We excused our behaviour by blaming the ghosts.”

Lindsay Wong grew up in a beautiful house in a wealthy suburb of Vancouver, in a neighbourhood whose moneyed façade belied the many grow ops and meth labs that dotted the mountainous foothills northeast of the city. It also did much to hide the fact that Wong’s apparently successful immigrant family, which contained engineers, and entrepreneurs, had a deep history of mental illness and abusive behaviour which they coped with in unusual ways. Displaying weakness or emotion, or being alone for too long, was a sure way to be possessed by an angry ghost or demon, and go “woo-woo,” the family euphemism for mental illness caused by possession. The Woo-Woo describes Wong’s unconventional and deeply disturbing childhood coping with her mother’s mental breakdowns, her father’s emotional distance and abusive verbal tirades, and her extended family’s general denial of healthy emotional expression or the existence of mental illness.

Wong has a rather lurid talent for description, which she applies liberally to herself and her relatives. Trying to explain the supernatural beliefs that were used to dismiss the family history of mental illness, she writes, “Our family insisted that supernatural outcasts chartered our bodies because we were born with watery minds and squishy hearts, which meant that anything dead could rent us for free.” Rarely content with a simple account, many of her descriptions are viscerally grotesque in this way. Because a history of mental illness is prevalent on the maternal side of the family, she writes that her mother’s “DNA was made from small and faulty atomic bombs,” and many other evocative ways of describing just how wrong things were in her childhood home.

But while I was willing to grant Wong license to describe herself and her family however she liked as she worked through her traumatic childhood, I recoiled in horror at the way she applied this talent others, such as a disabled high school classmate with whom she is forced to form a sort of parasitic friendship. She describes the classmate as follows: “If Wobin’s boxy torso was a tree trunk, her arms were branches. And her poor fingers were practically lobster claws, clenched together in fleshy baseball mitts—she was a cruel caricature of Frosty the Snowwoman.” This entire section churned my stomach, and I was practically incandescent with rage when I learned that after assigning Wong to accompany this classmate as an exercise in empathy building, her school also gave her the duty of changing the girl’s sanitary pads. The whole premise of using a person with a disability as an object lesson was bad enough, but then to have her privacy so intimately violated by a classmate who had shown little capacity for empathy? I honestly wanted to quit right there and throw this book out the window. Dark humour is a coping mechanism that in some cases allows Wong to side step a deeper examination of her history, and her own behaviour.

I read most of this book over the course of two days, covering Wong’s childhood and into her university years. It is a childhood of abuse, emotional repression, and social isolation. Wong is heavily invested in seeing herself as one of the mentally stable ones in her family, but what she describes of her own behaviour is redolent of social anxiety, disordered eating, and post-traumatic stress. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that around the part of the book where she finally recounts her aunt’s famous suicide attempt, which occurred when she was twenty, I realized that the crush of family conflict and abuse was actually making me feel anxious and upset, and I had to put the book aside for a few days before finishing it more slowly. The theme of this year’s Canada Reads is “one book to move you,” and Wong was certainly successful in eliciting a powerful reaction. The lurid descriptions and dark humour belie the fact that she seems to be trying to maintain a certain emotional distance from the material just to get through it. Undoubtedly, this is a necessary survival technique when you come from a family that habitually refers to you as “the Retarded One.”

The Woo-Woo was defended on Canada Reads 2019 by fashion stylist Joe Zee, whose opening arguments focused on the necessity of talking openly about the things that make us uncomfortable, and combating mental health stigma. He championed author Lindsay Wong as an intersectional voice—a young Asian woman from a difficult background. Several of his fellow panelists admitted to finding The Woo-Woo a hard read, for many of the reasons I described above. Zee made eloquent rebuttals, arguing that Wong’s narrative choices allowed the reader to feel some small measure of the horror she was living every day.

Each book received one question on the fast first day of the debates, and the discussion of The Woo-Woo was based on a question about the book’s effectiveness in opening the reader’s eyes to cultures and experiences unlike their own. Yanic Truesdale—defender of Suzanne—spoke to the difficulty he had connecting with the people portrayed in the book, and finding his way into the narrative. Ziya Tong—defender of By Chance Alone—voiced concerns as a half-Asian woman herself that the book would reinforce some negative stereotypes that already exist about Chinese-Canadians. Joe Zee countered that while stereotypes are simplistic, the people portrayed in The Woo-Woo are nuanced and complex. Chuck Comeau—defender of Homes—described the book as being a tough read, but also an eye opener that effectively engendered sympathy. Lisa Ray—defender of Brother—did not have a chance to speak to this question, but in the Q&A after the debates, she expressed that she didn’t see an arc of growth or development, but rather a series of anecdotes.

When it came time to vote, Joe Zee cast his ballot against Suzanne, while Ziya Tong voted against Homes. Lisa Ray, Yanic Truesdale, and Chuck Comeau voted together, making The Woo-Woo the first book eliminated from Canada Reads 2019. The first day of debates always goes by extremely quickly, with each book only being briefly touched on, and one of Zee’s best moments as a defender actually came in the Q&A after the show, when he spoke powerfully about the language we use to discuss mental illness. While “that’s so gay” has been widely recognized as a harmful turn of phrase that stigmatizes a minority group, “that’s so crazy” is still a common colloquial fixture of our language. Indeed the word had been used quite casually by the other panelists during the debate. Despite the early elimination, Zee was an eloquent defender, and could prove to be a persuasive force as this year’s first free agent in the ongoing debates.