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!

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.

Greenwood

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Michael Christie
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Sep. 2019 (read Mar. 2020 on Audible)

It’s been just over a month since I finished Greenwood, so I’ll do my best to review. Like a lot of my audiobooks, I didn’t really have any intention of reading this book, but I stumbled across it, liked the sound of the narrator, and thought it seemed interesting enough. The story did get bogged down in places, but overall, I really liked it.

Greenwood tells the story of the Greenwood family over 4 generations and is a mixture of literary fiction, mystery, and dystopia all rolled into one compelling book. The highlight of the storytelling for me was in the structure. The novel starts on Vancouver Island in 2034. In recent years a tree virus has felled the majority of the world’s trees, but there’s still a pristine old growth forest that remains on a small island near Pacific Rim and it’s here that ecologist Jake Greenwood works, taking wealthy vacationers walking along the last remaining giants.

From here, each part of the story takes us back in time, to Liam Greenwood in 2008, a carpenter who renovates homes using reclaimed wood. Then to Willow Greenwood in 1974, a hippy and environmentalist who protests her father’s rich timber company. Then back to Everett Greenwood in 1934, a poor hermit who lives in the woods farming maple syrup, and then finally to 1908 and the events that started everything for the Greenwood Family. Once we reach 1908, the story reverses again as we slowly start to make our way back to 2034. It’s a fascinating structure. I loved going back in time to learn more about the events that preceded each storyline, only to learn new mysteries that I won’t find the answers to until the story reverses itself again.

The majority of the story takes place in 1934 and the actions Everett takes have a lasting impact on the Greenwood Family for generations to come. It’s interesting to see how secrets are hidden and how easily history can be lost over multiple generations. How quickly the cycle of poverty can reverse itself. My favourite timelines were 1934 and 2034, but I think they all offered something unique to the story. I did think the author dragged out the 1934 storyline a little bit too much – it is the critical part of the book, but I don’t really think this book needed all it’s 500+ pages and easily could have been more in the 400-450 range.

I did love how this book takes us all over Canada and parts of America and how it incorporates trees as its central theme. Even though some of the family members use the trees as a resource for profit and others seek to protect the trees, they all make their living from the trees and are impacted by them. It’s interested to see something inanimate like a tree take on such a central role in the novel. As someone who lives in Western Canada and loves the landscape here, I really enjoyed the exploration of the value of trees and was moved by the imagination of a world without them. Our old growth forests are incredibly valuable and I can’t imagine the loss of them, much less the majority of trees on the planet. How they scape our cities, towns, and parks and the number of resources that we pull from them.

So overall I did find the story slowed down in places, but overall I really enjoyed and would recommend to lovers of Canadian lit!

Dual Citizens

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Alix Ohlin
Genres: Literary Fiction, Canadian Lit
Pub. date: Jun. 2019 (read Feb. 2020 on Audible)

Dual Citizens is one of the those weird creations of Canadian literature that I ended up really loving, yet wouldn’t necessarily recommend to everyone. It’s a bit of an artsy story with a meandering plot, but it’s ultimately about family and sisterhood and that really resonated with me.

Lark and Robin are sisters that grew up in Montreal and received little attention or praise from their young mother. So they instead look to one another for support and long for the day when they can branch out on their own. Lark is shy but very studious and does well in school, earning herself a scholarship for a college in the States. Robin learns to play the piano and has a natural talent for it. She is dismayed when Lark leaves her behind to go to school and within the year she runs away to live with Lark.

Eventually Lark discovers a love for film and Robin is accepted to study piano at Julliard. But the pressure of music school gets to her and as Lark dives further into her film degree, the sisters begin to grow apart. The separation between the two sisters was jarring and upsetting for me. They were all each other had and I felt as set adrift by the separation as Lark did. The sisters are very different and Lark struggles to understand why her sister suddenly distances herself and they begin to grow apart, each caught up in their own struggles and insecurities.

Lark spends a lot of time working in the film industry and is quite successful, but she reads like a character who just moves through life without actually engaging in it. She is passive in every scenario and I really felt like part of her was missing during her estrangement from Robin. I’m not really an artsy person and I don’t care for film, but I really loved the storytelling in this book. I just felt this ache throughout for the relationship that Lark and Robin once had and the strain and impact that the loss of communication had on Lark. The feeling of incompleteness while the two were separated and the tenseness that continued between them even once they were reunited. It’s scary to watch two people that were so close become disconnected to the point that they don’t really know who the other person is anymore.

It really reminded me of the feelings of nostalgia and sadness that you get when you return home and realize that the people you loved and spent so much time with have all changed. The feeling of moving on, but thinking fondly of the experiences you once shared, but the sadness of realizing that some experience meant more to one person than the other.

It’s hard to describe, but Lark’s longing for both motherhood and a renewed relationship with her sister were so authentic. It’s a slow moving story with little driving the plot, but I related so keenly to Lark. I think Ohlin captured a very flawed, but real relationship, and I felt really invested in Lark’s life. I don’t think it’s a story for everyone though and I’m not sure I’d want to read it again because of the emotional toll, but I’m glad to have picked it up and thoroughly enjoyed the audiobook. A great story with a lot of depth!

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.