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

The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen

“And here you are, safe in your asylum, one of the committed. The question is: Committed to what?”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 368 pages
Read from January 26, 2021 to February 2, 2021.

I was so excited to find this anticipated sequel to The Sympathizer on Netgalley and was even more thrilled that I’ve had a chance to read and review it before its publication. This story is a immediate continuation of The Sympathizer and won’t make much sense if you have not read it.

We were the unwanted, the unneeded, and the unseen, invisible to all but ourselves. Less than nothing, we also saw nothing as we crouched blindly in the unlit belly of our ark. . . Even among the unwanted there were unwanted, and at that some of us could only laugh.

Arriving in Paris as a refugee, the Sympathizer is still reeling from the trauma of his communist reeducation camp experiences in Vietnam. He was a communist spy working in America, a double-agent, though he always classified himself as a sympathizer to either cause, not that his blood brother Bon, an anti-communist, knows that. After a horrendous journey he and Bon arrive in Paris to stay with his French-Vietnamese ‘Aunt’, the communist woman who was his correspondence while he was in America. Between mingling with her snooty left-wing intellectual friends, the Sympathizer throws himself into capitalism through drug dealing. Bon is as immensely traumatized as the Sympathizer especially as he made it out of Vietnam alive but his wife and child did not. The Sympathizer knows that Bon will kill him if he ever finds out that he isn’t the die-hard communist hater that he is and that he was once a double agent but Bon is the closest thing to family that he has had since his mother. Unable to resolve his moral and political dilemma and unsure of where his personal beliefs stand he verges on the fence of nihilism and self-destruction.

And here you are, safe in your asylum, one of the committed. The question is: Committed to what? You have had two years …to confess to the crimes you have committed, to acknowledge that after everything you have been through, everything you have done, you are still committed to revolution, which must mean you’re crazy.

The book has a completely different tone and approach than the previous book. The Sympathizer was deliberately written as a spy or adventure type of novel. Wanting to take a different approach, the author stated in an interview that,

“I wanted to write a dialectical novel with The Sympathizer and to write a novel deeply influenced by Marxism and Marxist theory.” and to explore ideas such as “what does [a] disillusioned former revolutionary do with himself?”

Viet Thanh Nguyen,“On Writing Memory and Identity: An Interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen

This novel is by far more philosophical and theoretical than The Sympathizer which, at times is refreshing, but if you were hoping for more of the same spy action you might be disappointed. It’s not that this plot isn’t without action it’s that the author’s state is distressing and even while filling his head with rhetoric from people he would have gone on with previously, he see flaws in their beliefs and their racist personas and can’t come to terms with the indifferent person he is now. This story is one of trauma, love, friendship, sexism, rhetoric, and racism. The writing quality is still of immense quality and you still feel committed to this sad character and how his story is going end, it just didn’t pack the same punch as The Sympathizer. However, that book is definitely a tough act to follow. The narrator’s inner thoughts are still the best parts of the story and how he manages his trauma, decisions, and realisations. I really enjoyed reading this conclusion of his story and would highly recommend reading this novel to any that enjoyed The Sympathizer.

Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead

“…leaving home always hurts–home isn’t a space, it’s a feeling. You have to feel home and to feel it, you have to sense it: smell it, taste it, hear it. And it isn’t always comfortable–“

4/5 stars.
ebook, 224 pages.
Read from January 19, 2021 to January 24, 2021

This is my first of five of the Canada Reads 2021 shortlist. Devery Jacobs will be championing this book in the debates that will take place from March 8-11. The debates will be hosted by Ali Hassan and will be broadcast on CBC Radio OneCBC TVCBC Gem and on CBC Books

Jonny Appleseed is about a self-professed Indigiqueer named Jonny who battles his way out of growing up queer on a native reservation in Manitoba, Canada. Reflections of his youth mix the abuse he suffered from his step-father along with the toxic masculinity and patriarchy of the reserve that is beautifully counterbalanced by the strength and acceptance of the women and intimate friends in his life, especially his kokum. Jonny’s history intertwines with his modern day struggles as a self-employed prostitute and his conflicting love and friendships that have been affected by his upbringing. The story and his reflections take place one week before he is set to return home to the ‘rez’ of which he has not been back to for many years. Jonny’s reflections take on a dream like quality that takes the reader through many years of turmoil, determination, grief, sex, kinship, and love.

“Funny how NDN “love you” sounds more like, “I’m in pain with you.””

Jonny’s story embodies the racial and cultural situation of many native americans, or NDNs as they refer to themselves, in a raw and matter of fact manner. Jonny is poetic and unapologetic which is complimented by the graphic and honest writing that is both sympathetic and emotive. Jonny’s story is also very sex and LGBTQ+ positive in the way Jonny’s behaviours and descriptions are handled within the book. At its root, Jonny’s story is about coming home, find yourself, and connecting with the people who have supported and shaped the person you become.

I enjoyed the poetic qualities of this book immensely, especially with how they jived with the gritty descriptions of sex, grime, and poverty. The author’s writing is solid, engaging, and details his talents. He is able to portray feelings and relationships in an emotive and inclusive way that reaches the a reader at their core.

So, does this book meet the theme of this years Canada Reads, One Book to Transport Us? While there are more moments of transportation within Jonny’s story in terms how he views his home and his kokum along with the dream-like approach of the writing, when I envision a book that transports me it’s normally in a setting that portrays a lot of more happiness and hope. While I loved this novel, I am uncertain it will meet the bill for this year’s theme. I will be interested in seeing how Devery Jacobs defends this.