Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Lee

“The gaps that bind us span more than the distances between words.”

2/5 stars.
ebook, 271 pages.
Read from February 4, 2021 to February 9, 2021.

My second of five of the Canada Reads 2021 selection that will be championed by Canadian singer-songwriter Scott Helman in the debates that take place in March.

I know, I’m behind but I’ve been up to my ears in essays. I was really looking forward to reading this memoir and learning a bit more about Taiwan. I really wanted to love this book but it fell flat for me.

The author is a first-generation Canadian and after finding a partial memoir from her grandfather she decides to embark on a journey to Taiwan to explore her family connections and history. The story floats between gorgeous and descriptive nature scenes as the author hikes through different parts of Taiwan, all while intermingling the details of her family’s personal history throughout. Her grandparents were originally from China but when the cultural revolution happened they relocated to Taiwan where her grandfather took up work as a pilot. The family then moved to Canada where the author was born. After her grandfather left, in his old age and on his own, to return to Taiwan no one really knew what he did with his final years as his health failed him. The author makes efforts to reconnect with her language and Chinese heritage to get a full understanding and appreciation of her family’s past and to place her own identity.

While the writing of this book was descriptive and engaging at points, the story’s timeline was all over the place, jumping from the past to her current excursions in Taiwan. The descriptions of Taiwan were sometimes enthralling and made you feel like you were in Taiwan but I felt that they went on too long as I was more interested in the family history which, I didn’t feel had enough of a presence. The book left me feeling like I had an incomplete picture of her family and I wanted to know more. Ultimately, this story is about the author’s journey but it reads and feels more like a journal than a novel. I wanted to like this novel more but I found it a bit boring if I’m honest. It’s not a terrible read, it’s just not as engaging as I was hoping it would be.

In terms of the theme for Canada Reads this year, One Book To Transport Us, this book does seem an appropriate fit with the way it makes you feel like you’re on a hike in Taiwan as well as transporting back to a time in Chinese history. We will see what the other contenders bring to the table.

The debates will take place March 8-11, 2021, hosted by Ali Hassan and will be broadcast on CBC Radio OneCBC TVCBC Gem and on CBC Books

As You Were by David Tromblay

Tromblay takes a no-holds-barred, full-frontal approach to his writing that is immersive and, at times, shocking.

4/5 stars.
ARC ebook, 251 pages.
Read from October 14, 2020 to October 19, 2020.

A big thank you to Dzanc Books who offered me an ARC copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

When the author learns that his father is dying he decides to write a memoir of sorts, a testament to the brutality that was inflicted on him as a child and as a young man. Tromblay is part Native American, on his father’s side, and after being abandoned by his mother, his grandmother raises him the only way she knew how. Tromblay’s grandmother lived through the reservation boarding schools that Native Americans were forced into, meaning that anything she knew about punishment came in the form of fear and physical abuse. To make matters worse, Tromblay’s father lived with them as well and not only is he an alcoholic but he suffers brain damage from a previous car accident making him extremely volatile and aggressive. Tromblay’s father always said to him, that the day that he could “take him” was the day he had no place under his roof. Tromblay eventually escapes his tormenters and finds himself in the Armed Forces as a young man. While his capacities for violence were put to good use, his experiences inevitably led to further trauma. 

Tromblay takes a no-holds-barred, full-frontal approach to his writing that is immersive and, at times, shocking. The book moves back and forth in time to parts of Tromblay’s childhood to pieces of his adult life and his time in the Armed Forces, often half a world away. Tromblay’s story is a unique coming of age story that discloses so much pain and humiliation and yet it is still an engaging read as the book’s tone is not one of pity. You get the idea that the author has accepted that this is just the way things are, just like a straight-faced soldier who has compartmentalizes his pain.  The story is written in the second person, as the author addresses himself giving the story a poetic and poignant feel, despite its raw content. As a reader you’re drawn to Tromblay’s torment through its honest and direct structure as well as the poetic style that comforts you, as you somehow already surmise the strength behind the author’s words, anticipating a positive outcome. 

“He does die, but it takes you another half-dozen drafts to say what you need to say. With his last breath, the last bit of angst drips out of your pen.”

p.250

Tromblay’s story is less about pain and more about overcoming it by confronting it head-on. It’s about a grieving process unique to those who have experienced traumas by people who were supposed to care for them as well as those affected by war and death. While there are many graphic details in the story that some might find triggering or disturbing, it was all part of a necessary process for Tromblay. His father’s death is an opportunity to release, maybe not forgive, but to let go and move on. 

With his father’s death, Tromblay finds some healing from his past and a future in writing to look forward to. After a decade in the Army, Tromblay went on to pursue his MA in Creative Writing having since published two books, of which this is his second. This book covers so many dynamic themes that it is an approachable story for those that are willing to follow in the author’s disturbing past and hopeful future. I would highly recommend it.

This novel is expected to be available for purchase in February 2021. 

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

“He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life. He was alone and young and wilful and wildhearted, alone amid a waste of wild air and brackish waters and the seaharvest of shells and tangle and veiled grey sunlight.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 216 pages.
Read from September 2, 2020 to September 7, 2020.

1992; I was six years old when Christopher Johnson McCandless set out on his grand adventure to embody his own philosophical belief in the existence of man. 

McCandless, who dubbed himself as Alexander Supertramp gave away everything and partook on an ‘adventure’ all over the country that eventually led him to Alaska, of which he deemed to be the ultimate frontier, challenge, and goal to live in and conquer. With next to no provisions, his wit, and determination, McCandless was a man who wanted to live by his own rules and ideals, even if that meant abandoning his family and friends. Little did McCandless know, that the spot he settled on in Alaska wasn’t all that far into the wild but that it would also become his resting place.  This is an immensely shallow summary for what is undoubtedly an intricate a read on a man with many intrigues and intelligence. 

This isn’t my first book by Krakauer. I read Into Thin Air and was immediately captivated with his detail, frank, and highly engaging non-fiction writing style. I actually wish Krakauer was a runner as I think he could write some amazing running related books. For example, Born to Run , written by journalist Christopher McDougall, while I really enjoyed the book it had structural and format issues and as well as a very  matter-of-fact and journalistic-writing approach. Both men are journalists but I feel like Krakauer really knows and understands how to deliver a good story. 

Krakauer’s take on McCandless, as well as his own exploits are what made this book for me. Krakauer’s personal intrigue and connection to McCandless, it’s what gave this book that special edge as he too felt some of the same urges, determination, and arguably recklessness as the young man. I imagine if Krakauer and McCandless had been given a chance to talk that they would have gotten on well and McCandless would have felt a little less alone in his ideas.  Krakauer’s in-depth retelling and interpretation of McCandless is what I really felt more connected with in this book rather than McCandless himself. That isn’t to say I didn’t appreciate aspects of McCandless, I mean the guy had some very valid points about modern society but in the same breath, took his views so seriously that he became selfish and dangerously fanatical at times. Krakauer did such a good job in giving a balanced perspective on McCandless that you feel like you’ve been given a good grasp of the whole situation as well as the fallout following McCandless’ death.

This book might not be everyone’s cup of tea however, you need to have some interested in adventure exploits and risk-taking or the choices that McCandless, and even Krakauer, make won’t resonate with you making which might make it it easier to brush these men off as ‘crazy’. However, even with a mild interest, the writing  of the book itself should be able to engage most readers on some level. This book was definitely a good read and I’m glad I finally got to it.