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.

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.