The Vancouver Public Library’s One Book, One Vancouver touts itself as “Vancouver’s only city-wide book club, promoting reading and encouraging a culture of discussion in Vancouver by bringing people together around one great book.” This description conjures up an image of everyone on the bus, in line at the passport office or sitting on the toilet, reading the same book at the same time, and every conversation being about that book. If that were true, no one would feel like an outsider—unlike the main characters in the three books on this year’s shortlist, who are all people on the margins of Canadian society: Caribbean immigrants in an upscale Scarborough neighbourhood outside Toronto, Jewish immigrants in Toronto in the 1930s and ’40s, and people from all parts of the sexual spectrum in east Vancouver.
The Five Books of Moses Lapinsky by Karen X. Tulchinsky (Raincoast)—the book that was eventually chosen Vancouver’s must-read for this year—is the heftiest of the three. It follows Yacov Lapinsky and his cousin Max from the pogroms in Russia to 1930s Toronto. There they survive the Depression and the lack of opportunities for Jewish people by selling, door-to-door, anything they can get their hands on; and eventually they open Lenny’s House of Bargains. I loved Tulchinsky’s depiction of Toronto during the 1930s and ’40s, including some serious anti-Semitism, the boxing world of one of Yacov’s sons, the unrecognized sexual identity of another son, the difficulties that arise when a generation raised in Russia and a generation raised in Canada try to understand each other, and the love that holds it all together. This is a rich and absorbing family saga, and (except for a few chapters written from the modern-day perspective of Yacov’s grandson) the narrative device of jumping around in time gives the story even more depth.