Etta and Otto and Russell and James

Rating: .5
Author: Emma Hooper
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Magical Realism
Pub. date: Jan. 2014 (read Mar. 2019)

Okay, Emma Hooper is definitely emerging as one of my favourite writers! I read her second book, Our Homesick Songs, last year and absolutely loved it! I may have been a bit biased because it’s a book about Newfoundland, but Hooper herself isn’t a Newfoundlander and I really think it’s a book that can appeal to anyone. So when I saw her debut novel on sale at Book Outlet, I had to buy it.

Hooper has a really lovely way of writing and I could see how her style wouldn’t appeal to everyone, but I really love it. I feel like joined the “Book World” last year when I started my book blog because I was suddenly exposed to all these other book bloggers and booktubers that I hadn’t before. Booktube for sure is comprised mostly of young book bloggers (like they make me feel old), so they trend towards reading a lot of YA contemporary and YA fantasy. I’ve always liked both of those genres, but when I started engaging more in the book world, suddenly I felt like this was all I was being exposed to and as a result, I started reading a lot of YA and fantasy.

This is fine, because I love both those genres, but I’ve definitely become fatigued with them over the last 4-6 months and I went on a fantasy freeze back before Christmas. I enveloped myself back in fantasy in January again and I probably should have paced myself a little because coming into March, I definitely need another fantasy break.

Anyways, this was all a long winded way of saying that I’m trying to get back into reading some more literary fiction and reading Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James was like a breath of fresh air. I’ve discovered over the last few years that I prefer character-driven stories over plot-driven stories, even though they sometimes involve more of a commitment to read. I always love a good character driven story and overall I find them more rewarding.

I love Hooper’s subtle Canadian stories. I invested some time last year in reading more Canadian literature and damn, a lot of Canadian literature is just depressing. But even though both of Hooper’s books have some pretty sad themes, they are a joy to read and I love how she entwines magical elements into her stories and builds her narrative around everyday, mundane life events.

To get more to the point, Etta and Otto and Russell and James is story about people and relationships and the things we need to do in order to survive and find happiness. Etta and Otta have been married for many years when Otto wakes up one morning and finds a note from Etta saying that she needs to see the ocean and has decided to walk there. Etta and Otto live in Saskatchewan and Etta has chosen Halifax as her preferred destination. Russell is Otto’s best friend and adopted brother who lives next door and they are both affected by Etta’s absence since she has been with them since they became men.

The story follows Etta as she makes her way across Canada and Otto and Russell and they try to figure out how to live and adapt without her. We simultaneously get flashbacks to their shared childhood and the historical events that defined their lives. And like Hooper states in the synopsis, if you want to find out who James is, you’ll have to read the book.

Everything about this book is subtle, but I love how Hooper creates this sense of atmosphere throughout her novels. Do I believe Etta could survive walking across Canada without even a sleeping bag or a raincoat? Absolutely not, but Hooper makes her stories seem incredibly simple, while at the same time being very complex. I know I don’t understand even half of the nuances and themes of this story, but I like thinking about them. I love that Hooper never tells us how to feel, or even really how her characters feel. Everything is left up to our interpretation.

Like Our Homesick Songs, this is a look at the people who leave and the people who stay and how both of those journeys are impacted by that decision. Is home a place or is it the people who make up that place? How do our experiences and memories shape us?

I originally gave this book 4 stars, but after reflecting and writing this review I’m bumping it up to 4.5. I’m filled with such melancholy thinking about this book and there was honestly nothing I disliked about it. Our Homesick Songs is still my favourite of the two, but this one was wonderful too.

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Milk and Honey

 

 

 

 

 

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Rupi Kaur
Genres: Poetry
Pub Date: Nov. 2014 (Read Mar. 2018)

I read Rupi Kaur’s second book, The Sun and Her Flowers, last year and really liked it, so I decided to pick up her first book as well. These are both poetry anthologies with feminist themes that tell short stories of heartbreak and healing, explore love and sexuality, and promote self-love. The books are also illustrated with sketches, which makes for a nice reading experience.

This is a very fast read, I read the entire book in under an hour in one sitting. Milk and Honey is Kaur’s debut novel – I definitely liked it, but I think I liked her second book a little bit more than this one and it had stronger themes.

Milk and Honey is broken into 4 parts, the Hurting, the Loving, the Breaking, and the Healing. Kaur addresses a lot of themes in this short book, looking at love and sexuality and the the heartbreak that can accompany it. I thought it had a strong start with the chapter on the Hurting, which is a devastating look at abuse, and I really liked the last chapter, the Healing, which is cathartic and empowering.

I didn’t love the middle section, especially the Loving, which I personally found a little over the top. Kaur is very descriptive of her feelings on love and relationships in both her books and love for her seems to be an all-consuming feeling which I personally find a little intense. For me love is about the little moments. Those small, every day gestures in which your partner demonstrates their love for you and the closeness you build with that one person. Kaur is very intense in her love (and her break-ups) and I just couldn’t relate because I have always felt very grounded in who I am, whereas Kaur felt a little defined by her relationships. That said, I’ve been in the same relationship for the last 7 years, so I definitely can’t relate to that feeling of “new” love anymore, which is totally fine.

However, Kaur is also very much about self-empowerment and self-love, which I enjoyed. I thought these themes, and the feminist undertones, were stronger in The Sun and Her Flowers, which is probably why I enjoyed that anthology more. Milk and Honey is still a good, quick read though and there were several beautiful passages, here’s one of my favs:

i want to apologize to all the women
i have called pretty
before i’ve called them intelligent or brave
i am sorry i made it sound as though
something as simple as what you’re born with
is the most you have to be proud of when your
spirit has crushed mountains
from now on i will say things like
you are resilient or you are extraordinary
not because i don’t think you’re pretty
but because you are so much more than that

The Marrow Thieves

 

 

 

 

 

Rating:  ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Cherie Dimaline
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult
Pub Date: Apr. 2017 (Read Mar. 2017)

“Sometimes you risk everything for a life worth living, even if you’re not the one that’ll be alive to see it.”

This was a beautiful book! I’m so glad it’s in the Canada Reads shortlist this year because I think it’s unlikely I would have discovered it otherwise and that would have been a shame because the writing is so gorgeous!

The Marrow Thieves is a short novel by Métis author Cherie Dimaline about a dystopian Canada that has been ravaged by climate change and disease and a large portion of the population has been wiped out. In the aftermath, everyone but indigenous peoples have lost the ability to dream. In an attempt to discover why the government starts constructing new schools (that mirror the old residential schools) to study indigenous peoples. It turns out that the ability to dream comes from your bone marrow and the government starts rounding up and experimenting on indigenous peoples to harvest their bone marrow.

Frenchie has slowly lost everyone in his family and finds himself alone in the woods. He follows his family’s plan to head North and eventually runs into other bands of ‘Indians’ who are slowly treking their way North as well and he is adopted into a new family and they travel together. Their group consists of an elder, Minerva; their leader, Miig; and several other young people who have lost their families. Miig tries to preserve the old ways through story-telling and everyone has the opportunity to tell their own ‘coming-to’ story.

I loved the writing in this book and learning everyone’s story – hearing about their struggles and how they came to end up part of this little adoptive family. They all come from different backgrounds and families, but they have retained their ability to dream and their desire to survive in the angry world around them. Miig teaches them how to hunt, cook, fight, and survive in the wild and how to connect back to their original roots.

I really liked this because I thought by telling this horrifying, dystopian story, Dimaline was able to convey some of the horrors that have been committed against indigenous peoples in the past in a way that enabled you to empathize emotionally with them and better understand how they felt. On paper, everyone knows about the residential school systems and the struggles of indigenous peoples to retain their culture, but that part of history feels a degree removed and it’s shameful so I think people generally avoid thinking about it.

It reminded me a little of Tim O’Brien’s book, The Things They Carried, in it’s ability to use exaggeration to convey emotion. The Things They Carried is a book about O’Brien’s experience in the Vietnam War that is written to read like a memoir, but is actually partially fabricated. O’Brien’s essay about being drafted and his internal debate about whether he would defect to Canada to avoid going to war is one of the best essays I’ve ever read. It reads like non-fiction and is an exaggerated account of O’Brien’s experience, but it is so effective because the exaggeration is what enables to you really feel his despair, frustration, and hopelessness. Dimaline’s horrifying account of the marrow thieves is what enables you to relate and empathize with the persecution of indigenous peoples throughout Canada’s history. I mean, I obviously empathized with them before and thought the residential schools were horrifying, but this book uses science fiction and exaggeration to evoke a much stronger emotional reaction.

Indigenous peoples are obviously incredibly tenacious and this book re-iterated that. It is really a pretty simple story about family, love, and the bonds we build with those around us. Who are we when everything else is stripped away from us? What can we become when faced with adversity, antipathy, and violence? Is family blood or the bonds we build we those we love? I thought this was a thoughtful, well written novel and I would definitely recommend to all Canadians! I read both The Boat People and The Marrow Thieves and while I really liked them both, I think this was my favourite of the two.

February Summary

You wouldn’t think that 3 days would make that much of a difference, but only having 28 days in February always makes the month go by so quickly!

I’m really happy about the 3 books I challenged myself to read in February as part of my goal to read to 3 books about Canada. I think it would have taken me a while to get to any of these books if I hadn’t publicly challenged myself to do so. To be honest, I even debating dropping the last one from the list and just reading 2, but I’m glad I pushed myself to read all 3 because I really liked them all! It’s only been 2 months, but actually taking the time to do some research and thoughtfully pick my challenges has been paying off with some quality literature.

Anyways, let’s jump right in with my February Summary:

Books read: 9
Pages read: 3,276
Main genres: Fiction, Fantasy
Favourite book: Saga, Volume 8

February started off with a stream of half-star reads. I don’t like giving half star ratings, but it’s a fine line between 3 stars and 4 stars and sometimes you just need to compromise. So I gave my first 3 reads of the month all 3.5 stars.

I started off with Tiger Lily, which is a re-telling of Peter Pan from Tinkerbell’s perspective, featuring Tiger Lily as the main protagonist. I thought this book was actually fantastically written, Jodi-Lynn Anderson’s writing is very beautiful and lyrical, but I struggled to get into the story, hence the 3.5 star rating. I already bought a copy of Anderson’s latest novel, Midnight at the Electric, and I’m excited to check out some more of her writing.

Next I read an advanced reader copy of Lisa Jewell’s latest book, Then She Was Gone, that I got from Netgalley. I’ve been dying to read some of Jewell’s stuff, so I was happy to give this one a try. I liked it in that it was formatted quick differently from any other mystery/thriller that I’ve read, but it was a little bit predictable in parts and I also found it extremely disturbing. However, like Tiger Lily, I’m intrigued to try some more of Jewell’s work next time I’m in the mood for another mystery!

The last of the 3.5 star reads was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. I have to admit, I really didn’t want to read this one. It sounded a lot like The Rosie Project to me, which I didn’t like, but my book club picked it for our February read and I’ve been seeing a lot of good press about it, so what could I do? This was probably my least favourite of the 3. I found it kind of boring, but I do think it was a well written book (definitely better than The Rosie Project) and I appreciate what the author was trying to do with this novel.

As you can see, I was kind of putting off tackling any of my Canadian reads for my Monthly Challenge, so after I finished Eleanor I decided to tackle The Boat People and The Break. Both of these books were fantastic! I feel like it took me forever to get through The Boat People, but it was a fascinating read about immigration and morality and it really made me think. In contrast, The Break is a family drama about a Métis family and all the hurts and grievances they’ve weathered together over the years. It was a inter-generational read that was just so well written and had so much depth, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Actually, in between those 2 books I snuck in a quick reading of the latest Saga volume, which came out at the end of December. I slowly worked my way through the first 7 volumes of Saga last year, and while I really liked them all, this one affected me more than the rest. I think Brian K. Vaughan actually went a little more heavy-handed than usual on the social commentary in this one. At first I thought it was a bit much, but I guess I was wrong because this volume just stands out more than any of the others for me and it was pure enjoyment from start to finish. Vaughan tackles abortion, miscarriage, and grief in this volume and it really packed a punch, especially at the very end when parts of the cast are finally re-united.

I was avoiding starting the final book in my February Challenge all month, mostly due to length, so I fit in a quick read of The Lightning Thief. This is the first book in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series and I’ve been wanting to read this for ages because everyone seems obsessed with everything Rick Riordan writes! This was another book that was just a lot of fun. The writing was hilarious and there was so much action packed into this middle grade book! Percy was witty and I loved his sidekicks, Annabeth and Grover. I would like to read more of these, but I suspect it may take my a while to get to them, but they’re definitely good if you’re looking for a laugh.

The final book in my Monthly Challenge was The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston. I admit, I did not want to read this one, but like I said, I’m glad I pushed myself to finish it. I had a lot to say about this one that I don’t want to get into again, so I’ll just say that it’s historical fiction about Newfoundland’s first premier, Joey Smallwood, who helped usher Newfoundland into confederation with Canada. Check out my full length review for more details. This book was meaningful to me as a Newfoundlander and I’m really proud that I finally read it. I gave it 4 stars.

And the last read I squeezed into February was The Power. I’ve been wanting to read this one since it came out at the end of last year since it’s been called the new ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ (along with Red Clocks). It’s dystopian science fiction where women develop the ability to produce electricity and use it through their hands. The book has such a great premise, but I was really disappointed with the author’s follow-through on the premise; I thought the book lacked focus and was poorly executed. It still make me think a lot though, so I gave it another 3.5 stars.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams

 

 

 

 

 

Rating: 
Author: Wayne Johnston
Genres: Historical Fiction
Read: Feb. 2018

Where to start? This was a very long book that took a lot of motivation to pick up off my shelf, but that I ended up having a lot of opinions about. I was worried that it was going to be really dense, but fortunately, it turned out to be a very well written and engaging book about Newfoundland.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is historical fiction about Joey Smallwood, Newfoundland’s first premier who helped to usher Newfoundland into confederation with Canada. He is both a well liked and disliked premier, depending on who you talk to. Johnston definitely takes a lot of liberties with Smallwood’s character in this novel, but the story is still pretty accurately based on his life in terms of what he accomplished.

The story starts with Smallwood as a child in the early 1900’s. His family were shoe salesmen in St. John’s and he lived up on the Brow looking over the Harbour until his uncle decided to pay to send him to Bishop Feild, the prestigious boy’s boarding school of the day. At Bishop Feild, he meets Prowse, grandson of a noted historian, and Fielding, a girl who attends the nearby sister school, Bishop Spencer.

Fielding is the other main character in this story and unlike Smallwood, her character is completely fabricated. Fielding has a cane, walks with a limp, has a wry sense of humour, with sarcasm and irony being her preferred mediums. She’s a bit of an outcast who goes on to work as a reporter for The Telegram, publishing critical articles about all branches and parties of the government. Fielding marches to the beat of her own drum and I really liked her. I loved that she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind and I loved her sense of humour.

This book actually had a lot more humour in it than I was expecting and it had me laughing out loud early in the novel. Below is one of my favourite quotes from the book, which is an argument Smallwood has with his mother, and had me laughing because I also grew up in St. John’s while my parents grew up in rural outport communities. This is pretty much the exact same thing my parents would say to me growing up and the biggest way you could offend my parents would be to call them townies.

“I’m a Newfoundlander, but not St. John’s born, no, not St. John’s born,” he said.
“You’re a bayman and you always will be,” my mother said.

I’ve been living on the West Coast for the last 4 years, so this was super nostalgic for me. Wayne Johnston is not even describing my St. John’s in this novel because it’s set between 1900 and 1950, but there’s something really special about still being able to vividly picture the setting of a story, especially when it’s a place like Newfoundland, which I hold so special in my heart.

I didn’t love Joe Smallwood’s character, but I did like the writing. This was one of my monthly challenge books and I’m glad I challenged myself to read it because I probably never would have gotten around to it otherwise. Johnston does a really great job with the setting. I don’t know how non-Newfoundlanders might feel about this book, but I loved the setting and the atmosphere Johnston created. Especially towards the end when we finally get to the whole business of confederation and the end of independence. I felt like Johnston did a good job of not taking a side and presenting both sides of the story. It really makes you reflect on what Newfoundland gained, what it lost, and what may or may not have been.

I read Greg Malone’s Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders several years ago and I felt that this book was a good contrast to that. Greg Malone is very clearly anti-confederation, as well as a bit of a conspiracy theorist. While I really liked Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders, because it has some great history in it and I learned a lot, it is very speculative and I liked that Wayne Johnston presented a more balanced version of history and I feel he left his personal feelings out of it.

For those of you not well versed in Newfoundland’s history, we we’re an independent country up until 1933 when we had a commission of government forced on us by the British as a result of our war debt (even though A LOT of Newfoundlanders lost their lives fighting for Great Britain in WWI – I am a little bitter, yes). I’ve written an entire blog post about Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders if you’re interested in our fascinating history (to me anyways), but basically we were supposed to get back our independence when we became self-sustaining once more, which we did after WWII. However, instead of just turning governance back over to Newfoundland, it was decided to hold a referendum to let the people choose if they wanted to join Canada instead.

Joe Smallwood wanted nothing more than to do something for which he would be remembered. He dropped out of Bishop Feild and failed at making a life for himself in New York, so he was desperate to have an influence in Newfoundland’s future. He was an avid socialist in his youth, but upon realizing that Newfoundlanders were never going to buy into socialism, he turned his talents to the Liberal government. He helped former Prime Minister Sir Richard Squires with his re-election campaign in hopes of winning the nomination to run himself, but he is jilted by Squires again and again and struggles to get into politics.

In this novel, he is a huge supporter of unions, walking across the entire provincial railroad line to start a rail-workers union, and he later travels all around Newfoundland’s most remote islands, trying to start a fisherman’s union. This really gave me an appreciation for how Smallwood became so popular and influential and why he supported Confederation. He really cared about Newfoundlanders and he spent an inordinate amount of time speaking with the poor throughout his life. He was also the host of a popular radio show that focused on sharing stories of Newfoundland and about Newfoundlanders.

The fisherman were not nationalists of any sort…They would vote for Confederation to get the mother’s allowance and would live by Confederation exactly as they had before…They had starved through a depression that had ended when the war began. Now, they were terrified that another decade like the thirties was on its way.

The crowd from St. John’s, the merchants and the wealthy, were all big supporters of independence. But Smallwood understood from his travels around Newfoundland that the majority of Newfoundlanders were poor fisherman, struggling to keep food on the table. They didn’t care about the government of the day and it rarely affected them. Confederation wouldn’t really change anything for them, except they’d be able to profit from access to Canada’s established public services.

The anti-confederates must have wondered how they lost…They had been to London and they had been to New York, but they had never been to Bonavista or La Poile, and that was why they lost.

Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders leaves you feeling angry and riled up, but The Colony of Unrequited Dreams gave me an appreciation of what it was really like for Newfoundlanders. Forget the politics and the conspiracies, rural fishermen just wanted to catch a break and this was something I never really understood before. Yet Johnston still presents the other side of the story and makes you feel very nostalgic for what might have been. Personally, I wish we could have seen what might have been had we re-gained our independence, but I do also think it’s likely that we might have ended up joining Canada anyways and I’m proud to be both a Newfoundlander and a Canadian. I think this must be one of the reasons why Newfoundlanders always retain such a keen sense of home no matter where they go. There is something unique about Newfoundland culture that does not come from Canada because we have not always been Canadian.

The ending of this book was heartbreaking for me though. I was a little bit disappointed that Johnston chose to end this book about Fielding. I really liked her, but as a fictional character, I don’t think her story was quite as powerful and it felt very anti-climatic to suddenly jump back into Fielding’s past.

“You all but gave away Churchill Falls, which you had hoped would crown your career as Confederation had crowned Mackenzie King’s”

Johnston touches very briefly on Churchill Falls and I wish he’d explored it more. If this book had been written 10 years later, I’m sure he would have because the Lower Churchill is such a hot topic in Newfoundland right now. But I found this so heartbreaking because Churchill Falls was meant to be Smallwood’s swan song – his legacy – and instead it turned out to be one of the worst deals every made and a real sore spot for Newfoundlanders. Smallwood did not have a successful start as Premier and Johnston portrays him running out of time in office and chasing after Churchill Falls as his last chance to see Newfoundland transformed.

That said, my favourite part of this book is easily the way Johnston writes about Newfoundland. You can tell he has a great love and reverence for the island. I’m sure any Newfoundlander can relate as there’s just something that makes Newfoundlanders have this deep attachment to their homeland. She’s a rocky isle in the ocean, and she’s pounded by winds from the sea, but you just can’t help but love her ruggedness and her people. Smallwood was relentless and he really did want to do something good for Newfoundland. His whole life was dedicated to making Newfoundlander better and I do really think he cared about the poor Newfoundlanders and that they are what ultimately motivated him to chase after confederation.

I have often thought of that train hurtling down the Bonavista like the victory express. And all around it the northern night, the barrens, the bogs, the rocks and ponds and hills of Newfoundland. The Straits of Belle Isle, from the island side of which I have seen the coast of Labrador.
These things, finally, primarily, are Newfoundland.
From a mind divesting itself of images, those of the land would be the last to go.
We are a people on whose mind these images have been imprinted.
We are a people in whose bodies old sea-seeking rivers roar with blood.