Beyond the Trees

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Adam Shoalts
Genres: Memoir, Non-Fiction
Pub. Date: Oct. 2019 (read Sep. 2020)

I have a bit of a backlog of reviews to write, but I decided to start with Adam Shoalts’ book, Beyond the Trees, because it’s the one that stands out the most in my memory. 

Adam Shoalts is a Canadian adventurer that had his 15 minutes of fame when he discovered a waterfall canoeing the Hudson Bay lowlands that wasn’t shown on any maps. From there he landed a job as Explorer in Residence with the Canadian Geographic Society, which pretty much sounds like the coolest gig in the world to me. 

In honour of Canada150 in 2017, he decided to do something extraordinary and canoe his way across the entire arctic circle in one summer. Now that sounds pretty wild to me already, but it reality, it’s even more wild than it sounds. There’s no obvious river that follows along the entire arctic circle, so Shoalts created his own 4000 km route across the great white north, canoeing dozens of rivers, many kilometers of portaging, and even canoeing across Great Bear Lake. And he did all of this solo.

Nothing makes me happier than exploring the great outdoors, so everything about this book enthralled me. What I liked most about the book was the realization that Canada still has so much unexplored and uninhabited wilderness. There’s really no where else in the world you could go where you could travel 4000km and only see about a half dozen people throughout 4 months. It really was just Adam and his canoe and the great wildness of the north.

Now upon reading this, it immediately becomes evident that Shoalts is not your average adventurer. It was easy to think from the outset that he was just a normal guy with big ideas, but don’t be fooled, he is a very experienced outdoorsman. He starts off by hiking 300km up the Dempster highway in Yukon in like 6 days and then proceeds to beat every single distance expectation he sets for himself on the trip, arriving early to each milestone. 

He starts his canoe adventure on the Mackenzie River and we are shocked to find out that not only does he plan to canoe 4000km, he plans to paddle more than half of it upriver. That’s right, more than half of his journey was against the current and in some rivers, against rocks and rapids. He travels using a number of different techniques, sometimes paddling, sometimes poling (using a long stick to push upriver against the bottom), sometimes dragging the canoe with a rope from the shore, and of course, portaging. A few times he even rigs up a little sail to his canoe to propel him upstream when the wind is behind him.

All in all, the journey takes him from the end of May to early September. He had to time the trip to leave right after the ice flows broke up in the river and planned to arrive at Great Bear Lake once the ice had broken up there as well. Unfortunately, it was a late spring and he had the added challenge of fighting against the ice on several parts of his journey.

Anyways. I don’t want to give it all away, but it’s safe to say this book captivated me. I can’t really pinpoint exactly why, his writing is pretty straightforward and honestly it’s not very introspective, so it was really just how incredible this journey was that propelled me through the book. I could see it not being for everyone, there’s a lot of descriptions of paddling and portaging that could get tedious. Plus I wish he’d spent a little more time on self reflection, but even still, I loved the book. I read complaints on his other book that he came across as really arrogant, I did not get that vibe at all in this book and actually thought him reasonably humble, so it seems like something he’s working on since his last book.

His journey was a real test of endurance and I have to conclude that Adam may be part machine to have undertaken it so quickly. It’s amazing to think of so much untouched wilderness. Thanks to Adam for sharing it with us!

She Said

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey
Genres: Non-fiction
Pub. date: Sep. 2019 (read Aug. 2020 on Audible)

I’m getting in a bad habit of not writing any reviews for a while and then doing them all at once, which definitely isn’t great for remembering the details. I’ll do my best, but it’s been about a month since I read this one.

I jumped right into She Said pretty much immediately after finishing Ronan Farrow’s book Catch and Kill about the same topic. It was a lot of reading to do about one sleezebag, but I think reading them back to back was a good call as I was already familiar with the large cast of characters that makes up the story.

While Farrow seemed to have more testimonies and evidence of criminal charges against Harvey Weinstein, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey deserve a lot of credit for being the first to break the story. Journalists have been trying to break this story for decades and kept being stymied, so it definitely matters that these two women were finally able to do it and it really opened the door for others like Ronan Farrow to bring this man to task.

One of the most shocking and memorable parts of Farrow’s book for me was the extent that other people went to to cover up for Weinstein. In this book, it was more the silencing power of NDA’s and the strength in numbers that left the largest impression on me. Kantor and Twohey talked to so many women and it was almost impossible to get anyone to go on the record. The biggest factor was that most of the women had signed NDAs and no one was willing to break the silence without similar stories from other women to back them up.

Ashley Judd was one of the women who really helped break the story open and I found it meaningful that she was willing to finally open up about her experience to Jodi and Megan because it was the first time she’d been approached by female journalists. It was also meaningful that the journalists boss was also a woman and yet another reason why having women in leadership positions is so damn important. While NBC was running around like chickens trying to kill the story to protect Harvey, the women at the Times were actually doing something about it. Respect.

Overall the book covers a lot of the same things. If I have to hear one more story about Weinstein cornering a woman in his hotel room asking for a massage I’m going to puke. But I thought She Said did a way better job at exposing Lisa Bloom for being such a snake. Reading about her in Farrow’s book I was like, ‘oh wow Lisa, low blow’, but this book really goes into the depth of which she was involved in helping Weinstein and exposed how a woman who made her name supposedly standing up for women, was actually actively trying to discredit and slander them. In essence, she really sucks.

What I really liked about this book was that it didn’t just focus on Weinstein. There’s a good part of the book dedicated to how disgusting Matt Lauer is and an even larger part about Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Supreme Court Justice, Brett Kavanaugh. A lot of reviewers felt this was a bit of a tangent, but I’m actually so appreciative to the authors for choosing to include this. I followed Kavanaugh’s hearing pretty closely at the time and I had no idea how reluctant Blasey Ford was to actually come forward. She tried to back out of it so many times, but ultimately gave up her anonymity to speak up for Americans because she just couldn’t justify not doing it.

Blasey Ford is recognized as one of the most reliable and best witnesses for a recount of sexual assault. She presented herself incredibly well at the hearing, speaking eloquently and specifically about what had happened to her. Almost everyone, even republics, agreed she was a good witness. Then Brett Kavanaugh got up and threw and hissy fit and was still confirmed to the highest court of justice in America. It’s repulsive.

Where Christine Blasey Ford failed was in being the only one. What all the women in the Weinstein case understood was that you can’t take someone down with only one story. You can’t even take them down with 2 or 3, you literally need dozens. What does it say about our society that we are so against believing women. Even if Blasey Ford’s testimony wasn’t true, do we really want a supreme court justice that we have to question in such a way? Much less one that is OBVIOUSLY not unbiased, highly driven by emotions, and threw a fucking temper tantrum at his hearing. If anything, he’s unfit to be a judge because of his temperament, no further evidence needed.

Finally, the book ends with a retreat with all the women that had come forward with allegations coming together to reflect on their stories, how it felt to come forward, and how we need to support and believe each other. It was really a beautiful part of the book and made me so much more appreciative to the two journalists for their work. While Farrow wanted to break the story and expose Weinstein, I felt these two women had compassion. They care and empathize for the very fact that they are women. Whether or not you have a story of rape or harassment like the women in this book, literally every woman has a story. It may seem small or as Roxane Gay would say, not that bad (also a great anthology, read it), but they all matter.

Catch and Kill

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Ronan Farrow
Genres: Non-fiction
Pub. date: Oct. 2019 (read Aug. 2020 on Audible)

Catch and Kill was one of those books that I read the synopsis for ages ago, added it to my TBR, and then promptly forgot entirely what it was about. My book club voted for this as our August book and I enthusiastically purchased the audiobook thinking this would make for a great listen! I was mostly right.

The book is great. I vaguely knew it was about Harvey Weinstein, but I had no idea it was also about years of cover up and a culture of silence at prominent news outlets. There’s a lot more to be found within these pages than just the breaking of the Weinstein case and the follow-up #metoo movement. What really stuck with me was the level that powerful men go to to both silence and discredit women, but also the level that other powerful men will go to to protect the power of other men. There is so much gaslighting of women, it just really struck home how much women are up against in Hollywood, the entertainment industry, and really just in general. It’s ironic that people like Donald Trump cry fake news at liberal media outlets and then it turns out that those same media outlets are in fact protecting other wealthy white men like Donald Trump.

I have to give props to Farrow, this was a wonderful piece of journalism. It really does read like a thriller crime novel and at times I struggled to believe the scope of influence that Hollywood’s powerful have over the entire industry. How widespread a network serial abusers have, the insane amount of power, and how far the industry will go to protect their talent. What is most terrifying is the culture of NDA’s that seems to exist throughout our entire society, well beyond the confines of protecting just the rich and powerful. In the wake of the #metoo movement, it’s become evident that so many companies use NDA’s to protect any and all levels of powerful men, even those that are not Hollywood famous. What’s more frightening (to me anyways) is the many abusers working for organizations that are not newsworthy. Those women face the same shame and sabotage to their careers with none of the fanfare (by which I mean press interested in exposing their abusers or access to funds to seek legal counsel).

The book has a large cast of characters that at times feels a little confusing, but Farrow maintains a compelling narrative throughout the entirety of the book. I feel like I’ve attempted other audiobooks of this nature where I got lost in all the names, but for the most part I was able to follow along with Farrow and keep most people straight. Where I did think the book could use a little improvement though was in providing adequate backstory. I felt that Farrow assumed I had more knowledge about the book and who he is than I actually did. I had no idea who Farrow was before reading this and he would often allude to people or events without giving the proper context. It’s a small complaint, but at times I felt he was little ahead of his reader.

The only other complaint I have was with Farrow’s accents in the audiobook. They were truly terrible and really took away from the narrative. Apparently every single person Farrow knows has some kind of accent and he is terrible at all of them. It was distracting and frankly a bit embarrassing. But what was worse was his impersonations of women. Please please please, don’t try and use a voice when you are reading for women. It was insulting. He made all the women sound really breathy and bad. Just use your own damn voice. Your accents and impersonations add nothing and are distracting from an otherwise good audiobook.

The one part of this audiobook though that you will not get from the paperback is the recording of Harvey Weinstein. I can’t remember the name of the women who took the recording, but it’s the one where he’s trying to get her up to his hotel room (I know, that could be anyone, Weinstein is disgusting) and she is protesting and he says “I’m used to that”. I assume the paperback has a transcript of the recording, but the audiobook has the actual recording and it is chilling. His coerciveness and entitlement is repulsive – I could easily see this being a trigger for victims of abuse though, so please be aware.

In conclusion, this was a great piece of investigative journalism and I applaud Farrow for his conviction in sticking with it, but more importantly, my praise goes out to all the women who were a part of this story. To the women brave enough to come forward with their stories; to the women whose careers were ruined; to the women who reported and were ignored or hushed with NDAs; and to the women who have not come forward but who have still suffered all the same. They are the real heroes of this story. I hope that your courage will allow the women who come behind you to be heard, believed, and amplified.

If you’re looking for another perspective, check out She Said, by Jodi Kantor and Meghan Twohey, which I will be adding to my TBR. Please read this, but more importantly, please believe women.

Rick Mercer Final Report

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Rick Mercer
Genres: Non-Fiction, Essays
Pub. date: Nov. 2018 (read Jun. 2020)

The second audiobook that I read by Newfoundland authors in June. While by a Newfoundlander, this one isn’t focused on Newfoundland, but instead features a collection of rants from the Rick Mercer Report, which ended its 15 season run in 2018. The Rick Mercer Report is a pretty beloved Canadian news show that features comedic segments filmed all over the country where Rick visits community events, or groups, or landmarks, or just has fun hanging out with Jan Arden. But every show ends with a rant from Rick about the latest scandal or event plaguing the nation.

Rick Mercer Final Report features a number of Rick’s rants, including his most popular rants over the years, as well as some unpublished rants and an update from Rick at the end of the book. I always loved watching Rick Mercer’s segments and his rants definitely galvanized some of my own political activism in University. I expected to like this book more than Mark Critch’s, Son of a Critch, and while I did still enjoy this, it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for. Or maybe I just have to acknowledge that with the way society has changed in the past decade, some of his older rants just don’t have quite the same effect. In theory it’s great to have a compilation of all Rick’s best rants, but they are of course dated, and fortunately I’m just not really interested in listening to Rick rant about Stephen Harper any more.

Rick does include some stories about the show in the book, and that’s where I thought the book really shined. Rick’s gotten into so many shenanigans over the years, I loved hearing some reflective storytelling about those experiences. I think if the book had been more focused on storytelling it would have had a little more meaning and would stand the test of time better later. But that’s okay – this book is a celebration of the show and Rick’s rants and it’s nice to have this compilation to memorialize the show. He’s been inspired by Canadians and in turn we’ve been inspired by him – I was definitely sad to see the show end.

Chase Darkness With Me

Rating:
Author: Billy Jensen
Genres: Non-fiction, True Crime
Pub. date: Aug. 2019 (read Sep. 2019 on Audible)
Narrated by: Billy Jensen

Chase Darkness was a bit of an impulse buy. It came up in my search of “best audiobooks of 2019” (or something along those lines) and as usual, I bought it because I thought the narrator sounded good.

I recently listened to Michelle McNamara’s audiobook, I’ll be Gone in the Dark, which I really liked, so I figured I give this one a try too. The non-fiction nature of true crime translates pretty well to audio format and I was not disappointed. What I did not realize until listening to this book though, is that the author, Billy Jensen, is actually the author that finished Michelle’s book after her death. So it made for a really interesting read because he references Michelle’s book throughout and spends a chapter discussing the capture of the Golden State killer, which had not occurred at the time of publication of I’ll be Gone in the Dark.

So I do feel a bit like I stumbled upon this whole fan base of true crime and citizen solved crimes. Billy Jensen is a journalist. Unlike Michelle, he wasn’t totally focused on solving one single case, although there were crimes that have stuck with him over the years that he would really love to see solved. But Jensen’s real focus was on solving crimes through crowd sourcing on social media. He was haunted by several criminals who have never been ID’d, despite the police having decent photos or videos of them. Billy wondered if any of these crimes could be solved using social media. He experimented a bit with crowd sourcing and suddenly he was actually helping solve crimes!

That does make it sound a little bit easier than it actually was. In many cases Jensen was not able to get an ID on the criminals or killers, but in other cases, sharing crime videos and photos on platforms like facebook, and targeting the audience to a radius around where the crime was committed, did actually result in positive ID’s of the criminal!

I found this book interesting because it does look at a variety of cases instead of just one, and there is the immediate satisfaction of finding the answer to crimes that are many years old. Plus it was interesting to learn about the frustrations Jensen faced when he either couldn’t get an ID, or worse, did get an ID, but never a conviction or even an investigation because the police just couldn’t build up enough evidence. It was interesting that some of the criminals were ID’d based not on facial recognition, but recognition of their size, voice, gait, or general demeanor.

I’m not going to discuss any of the cases in my review, there wasn’t any particular case that stuck out to me. Mostly it was just interesting learning about citizen investigations. I find true crime fascinating enough, but I’m definitely not an aficionado, though it was interesting learning about people that are. There’s definitely a huge portion of people out there that are obsessed with true crime and solving decades-old crimes. Jensen is one of them and did let his obsession take over his life, especially once he actually starting solving crimes and had the police and victim’s families actively approaching him for help.

The book did end a little earlier than I was anticipating, because the last part is dedicated to citizen solves and is basically Jensen advising people who want to get involved in citizen investigations. That’s personally not me, so I skipped the last bit, but still enjoyed the book overall. It’s narrated by the author and I thought he did a good job.

I do think it enhanced the experience that I had already read Michelle McNamara’s book, so I’d maybe recommend reading hers first, though definitely not necessary. Both books had similar topics, but offer different listening experiences.