Park Bagger

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Marlis Butcher
Genres: Non-Fiction, Memoir
Pub. Date: Apr. 2021 (read May 2021)

Congratulations to Marlis Butcher for having visited every National Park in Canada! That is an amazing accomplishment and I very much enjoyed reading about it.

I really liked how the book is organized by region, with an entry for every National Park. It makes it easy to reference if you just want to read about a specific park or region, though it does make some sections a little bit tedious. I honestly had no idea how many national parks Canada has in the north of the country. It makes sense because many of the parks are dedicated to the preservation of wildlife and wildlife habitat. Many of the parks are difficult to access and in some cases, Marlis is one of a very limited number of visitors. A lot of the parks aren’t set up for tourism and Marlis brings a keen sense of adventure to every park she visits, many of which are not for the faint of heart!

I loved reading about these remote parks because each one was very much its own unique expedition for Marlis, with lots to write about it terms of gear, itinerary, terrain, wildlife, and activities. The many smaller parks of the provinces do start to blend together after a while though. Because of size and accessibility, her trips to many of these parks were shorter, leaving less of interest to write about, so I did find some of these sections a bit slow, but still enjoyed the opportunity to learn about every park.

Marlis is a good writer, she’s not a great writer, but I don’t expect her to be. The idea of this memoir is to share about her unique experience in our park system, so I never expected this to be a literary masterpiece and she does a good job. I would definitely recommend this to nature lovers and really enjoyed the experience of visiting every park in Canada through Marlis’ eyes!

Two Trees Make a Forest

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Jessica J. Lee
Genres: Non-Fiction, Memoir, History
Pub. Date: Jul. 2020 (read Jan. 2021)

I was really intrigued by the title and synopsis of this book and picked up a copy from my local bookstore. Soon afterwards it was shortlisted for Canada Reads 2021 and I was even more excited to read it!

Two Trees Make a Forest is Canadian author Jessica J. Lee’s second book. As the name suggests, it’s about her travels in Taiwan whilst trying to learn more about her grandparents past. Her grandparents were both Chinese, but immigrated to Taiwan where they raised their daughter, before eventually all settling in Canada. Lee grew up in close proximity to her grandparents, yet in many ways felt like she didn’t really know them. They talked little about the past and though her family held a close connection to Taiwan, Lee knew very little about their life there. After the death of her grandfather, the family discovered a letter he left behind about his past, inspiring Lee to visit Taiwan and learn more about both her family history, and the unique history of the island.

This was a well written book, but it was a struggle for me to finish it. I found Lee’s stories about her grandparents and family to be really interesting, however, they are really only a small piece of this book. Revisiting the title of the book, it does tell us that this book is as much about “Taiwan’s mountains and coasts” as it is about her family, but I guess I was just expecting something a little different. This is not a story of Lee following her roots around Taiwan, but rather Lee finding herself around Taiwan, while simultaneously coming to terms with the family history that has been in many ways lost to her.

Lee is an interesting storyteller and the book focuses just as much on Taiwan’s geographical history as it does her personal history. She talks about the history of the island the geographical uniqueness of it. Her love for Taiwan certainly shines through and I did learn some interesting facts about Taiwan and it’s history, but I also learned a lot more about Taiwan’s trees and mountains than I really bargained for. On paper, as an avid hiker, you would think I’d love it, but I’m not really a big non-fiction reader, and certainly not a history reader, so it just didn’t quite deliver on something I was excited about reading.

So it’s a bit of a hard book to rate because I did think it was good, I just wasn’t invested in it. I read everything about her family history, but I ended up skim reading a lot of the geographical information. Good, just not for me.

The Woman They Could Not Silence

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Kate Moore
Genres: Non-Fiction, History
Pub. Date: Jun. 21 2021 (read Jan. 2021)

To all the women who have had someone call them crazy.

I stumbled across The Woman They Could Not Silence on Netgalley and immediately put in a request because I loved Kate Moore’s last book, The Radium Girls. In a similar vein, her new book shines a light on an important part of women’s history that has been somewhat lost to time. Moore excels at writing this kind of journalistic memoir in a way that is riveting to read and immediately connects readers to the protagonists. Despite this being a non-fiction book, it reads like fiction, bringing historical figures to light in a way that makes readers really empathize with their plight. In short, Moore knows how to ignite righteous anger at the injustices that have been, and continue to be, perpetrated against women.

This story starts in Illinois in 1860 and centers around one woman, Elizabeth Packard. After 21 years of marriage and bearing 6 children with her husband Theophilus, he has Elizabeth committed to the Illinois State Insane Asylum against her will. Her crime? Questioning Theophilus’ bible study teachings in the church in which he is a pastor. Pushing back against your husband, questioning religion, and being intelligent in general were all signs of mental illness in the 1860’s, and as such, Theophilus has no difficulty in getting his wife locked up.

Elizabeth immediately fights back against the claim that she is insane, but recognizing that such pleas will only make her look more insane, she does her best to maintain her dignity at the asylum and after her first meeting with the state hospital director, Dr. Andrew McFarland, with whom she develops a good relationship, she is sure her release will not be long in coming.

Though Dr. McFarland is unable to determine the root of Elizabeth’s insanity, he is convinced it is there and will be revealed in time. Due to her intelligence, she is granted special privileges at the hospital. However, despite these privileges, Elizabeth soon becomes aware of the level of abuse that is being perpetrated by hospital aides within the walls of the hospital and starts stirring up trouble with the other inmates. This results in the revoking of Elizabeth’s privileges and life at the hospital soon becomes very hard for her.

The rest of the novel is about Elizabeth’s struggles in the asylum and her fight for freedom. Elizabeth is very intelligent and an accomplished writer, and though Dr. McFarland tries to silence her within the walls of the hospital, she is determined to record and share her story. She makes friends within the asylum and keeps a secret journal of all the abuses she witnesses. I couldn’t help but compare her to Alexander Hamilton because the woman constantly wrote like she was running out of time!

However, her goals are not only to record history, but to change it. Elizabeth is strategic in going about this. She knows that raging against the machine will get you nowhere in an insane asylum and so she goes about cultivating relationships and manipulating those around her, including McFarland. I found it really interesting to read about Elizabeth’s experiences and progression while at the asylum.

The whole system is completely unjust for so many reasons, but the two that stand are that, first, almost no proof is required to lock a woman up in an asylum. All Theophilus needed was 2 certificates of insanity from local doctors, which he was easily able to procure thanks to his influence as a man and pastor. Unmarried women are entitled to a trial before being shipped off to the asylum, but married women need only the desire of their husbands. As they are considered his property, they are not permitted any voice of their own. Many of the other women in the asylum were in the same situation as Elizabeth and had been sent there without any legal rights.

Second, the whole premise of what qualifies a person as insane or cured is entirely stacked against the patients. Like I said, women could basically be committed for showing any inkling of self thought or governance. Theophilus didn’t like that Elizabeth was questioning things or flouting his authority, so he quickly put an end to it. But what’s really enraging is that women who push back against the diagnosis of insanity only further the diagnosis. Showing any kind of indignation at anything is basically a sign of insanity. Women were only considered cured when they would finally submit to everything: the will of the abusive attendants, their doctor, and their husbands. The injustice of the system is that it literally conspires to make you insane and then only release you at the moment when your spirit is finally irreparably broken.

I say Elizabeth’s progression is interesting because she somehow manages to hold on to this one thread of truth throughout the entire ordeal, the idea that ‘I am not insane’. She is determined to be free and she is determined to be free under her own will, not through submission. The longer she is imprisoned, the more frenzied she becomes in her desperation to get out. She documents her experiences and ideas in a kind of manic fervour that you can’t help but question if maybe she is going a little bit insane. Rather than diminish, her ideas of justice and equality of women only grow more and more ambitious to the point where she envisions women as totally equal to men and able to even hold public office, something that is quite radical in 1860 and unlikely to get you released from an insane asylum.

I don’t want to give away the whole book because even though it’s historical, it’s still a story and I did take joy from the experience of having no idea whether Elizabeth was going to succeed and to what degree. She inspired a book to be written about her, so I knew she was going to have some level of success, but it was honestly so bleak, it was hard to imagine how a woman would ever recover from either the trauma or the stigma of such an asylum.

But Elizabeth is a fighter and I honestly can’t imagine a woman with more spirit. She had a lot of influence on early American politics and it is a shame that her name is virtually unknown, even among the roll call of suffragettes. But such is the way of women’s history and I love that we keep hearing about more and more women who have contributed greatly to our society but who’s legacies have been little preserved.

The author added a post script at the end of the book that I really liked. The book will make obvious the impact Elizabeth’s writings and efforts had on the women’s rights movement, but it also highlights how these same ideas are still present in today’s society. The idea of insanity is still used today to threaten, discredit, and silence women. Men have always used the excuse of ‘craziness’ to belittle women. The idea that fault lies only with women is still wildly believed by many men and women, even if only subconsciously. When men don’t like the ideas or actions put forth by women, it’s only too easy for them to dismiss them entirely with the callously thrown away phrase “she’s crazy”. I think we see it used most often by men to either dismiss the actions or requests or a partner or to speak of their ex. But even women use it to describe other women, particularly in scenarios where it relates to how other women interact with men (I’m thinking of reality television here).

But the idea is everywhere. Moore draws attention to its presence even at the top level of the American government when Trump once screamed at Pelosi for being wrong in the head. Powerful men still seek to silence women through the threat of insanity. For this reason, I thought this an extremely important read. A lot of the content didn’t surprise me, but experiencing it through Elizabeth’s eyes did help to put it into perspective. Even after all the work that Elizabeth did, Dr. McFarland is still kindly remembered by the eyes of history while Elizabeth has more or less been forgotten.

This wasn’t a perfect book. I thought the writing was a little simplified in the beginning, though it got much stronger as the story went on. I also thought the story could have been shortened, some parts are a little over indulgent and I fear the length may deter some readers from this. But overall, still an excellent read and I would definitely recommend!

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.