Two Trees Make a Forest

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Jessica J. Lee
Genres: Non-Fiction, Memoir, History
Pub. Date: Jul. 2020 (read Jan. 2021)

I was really intrigued by the title and synopsis of this book and picked up a copy from my local bookstore. Soon afterwards it was shortlisted for Canada Reads 2021 and I was even more excited to read it!

Two Trees Make a Forest is Canadian author Jessica J. Lee’s second book. As the name suggests, it’s about her travels in Taiwan whilst trying to learn more about her grandparents past. Her grandparents were both Chinese, but immigrated to Taiwan where they raised their daughter, before eventually all settling in Canada. Lee grew up in close proximity to her grandparents, yet in many ways felt like she didn’t really know them. They talked little about the past and though her family held a close connection to Taiwan, Lee knew very little about their life there. After the death of her grandfather, the family discovered a letter he left behind about his past, inspiring Lee to visit Taiwan and learn more about both her family history, and the unique history of the island.

This was a well written book, but it was a struggle for me to finish it. I found Lee’s stories about her grandparents and family to be really interesting, however, they are really only a small piece of this book. Revisiting the title of the book, it does tell us that this book is as much about “Taiwan’s mountains and coasts” as it is about her family, but I guess I was just expecting something a little different. This is not a story of Lee following her roots around Taiwan, but rather Lee finding herself around Taiwan, while simultaneously coming to terms with the family history that has been in many ways lost to her.

Lee is an interesting storyteller and the book focuses just as much on Taiwan’s geographical history as it does her personal history. She talks about the history of the island the geographical uniqueness of it. Her love for Taiwan certainly shines through and I did learn some interesting facts about Taiwan and it’s history, but I also learned a lot more about Taiwan’s trees and mountains than I really bargained for. On paper, as an avid hiker, you would think I’d love it, but I’m not really a big non-fiction reader, and certainly not a history reader, so it just didn’t quite deliver on something I was excited about reading.

So it’s a bit of a hard book to rate because I did think it was good, I just wasn’t invested in it. I read everything about her family history, but I ended up skim reading a lot of the geographical information. Good, just not for me.

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.

Nice Try, Jane Sinner

Rating: 
Author: Liane Oelke
Genres: Young Adult
Pub date: Jan. 2018 (read Jan. 2019)

Wow! This book has been sitting on my shelf for a while, so I finally decided to read it on a whim and ended up reading the whole 400 page book in a single sitting! I read pretty fast, but it’s been a while since I’ve marathoned a single book that fast! It’s an extremely fun read and the style and content really lends itself well to a quick read.

Nice Try, Jane Sinner is about senior year high school student Jane Sinner. She’s been expelled from school in her final semester and we’re not sure why, but in order to finish her diploma, she enrolls in a community college for the Spring and Summer semesters. She feels it’s important to move out of her parents house for a while, but she doesn’t really have much money, so when she sees an advert for really cheap rent in a house near campus, she jumps on it. The only catch is that she’ll be one of six people living in the house and will have to participate in a big brother style reality show called House of Orange. Jane is looking to re-invent herself, so she decides to apply.

I really liked this book. I thought Jane was hilarious and the book never takes itself too seriously, even though it does still have some pretty serious underlying themes. It’s by a Canadian author from Calgary who now lives in Vancouver, so I could definitely relate with the content and setting and thought it was a breath of fresh air from all the American YA books set in the south (I also laughed a lot at all her disparaging comments about Edmonton). I am always looking for new adult books about college/university students, and while I will still definitely categorize this as YA, I liked the college setting and that it focused on the transition to college, which can be a challenge.

This book has a lot of different themes; the pressures of high school and college, the challenges of overcoming our past, and dealing with mental health and suicide. However, one of the main themes in this book, which I really liked, was about religious tolerance and finding and leaving Christianity. Christian lit is really not very good, so I’m always intrigued when there’s a good side story about a character’s relationship with Christianity. In Jane’s case, she’s grown up going to church her whole life and her parents and many of her friends are devout Christians. Jane eventually comes to the realization that she doesn’t believe in God and then finds it very difficult to cope when her entire belief system suddenly crumbles around her.

I liked that Jane was able to come to terms with her beliefs, without the book being hugely critical of Christianity. She still has Christian friends, one of which is a bisexual teenager who has been able to successfully reconcile both her faith and sexuality with one another. I thought the book was very respectful of both Christians and atheists, which I really appreciated. It’s not a theme I was expecting to find in this book and it was a pleasant surprise.

Primarily though, this book is just a lot of fun. The dialogue is written like a movie script, which I think helped move the story along quickly and I was enthralled from start to finish. The reality tv show idea is brilliant and I thought the author executed it perfectly! You can tell she works in the film industry because it was just so easy to visualize this book as a tv show. When Jane would talk about each episode and the way the footage was cut, with the little humourous bits added in, I could see it in my mind and I just really wished it actually existed so that I could watch it and laugh along.

The reality tv show bit is hilarious and I loved Jane’s voice. She is super sarcastic and initially you think she’s overly introverted and I wondered if she might be agoraphobic. That was not the case at all and Jane ended up being extremely smart and witty. I loved all the characters in House of Orange, but Jane was definitely my favourite. I thought all of the other contestants and characters were very authentic and I had no trouble believing that any of these people might exist. My only minor criticism might be that I thought not a lot of the other characters had much character growth, but Jane had an immense amount of character growth, so I can deal.

Overall, I really wish this was a more talked about book because it is actually really good and I think it deserves a lot more praise. What a great debut novel! I really hope Liane Oelke writes more books because I will definitely read them!

Women Talking

Rating: 
Author: Miriam Toews
Genres: Fiction, Historical fiction
Pub Date: Aug. 2018 (read Aug. 2018)

How do I review this book? It’s just so damn important and something everyone should read.

I saw Women Talking on display at Chapters and as soon as I opened it up and read the forward, I knew I had to read it (plus I’ve been walking to read some Miriam Toews). Women Talking is a fictional account of the real life crimes committed against mennonite Bolivian women. Between 2005 and 2009, in a remote Bolivian community, women were repeatedly waking up having been attacked in the middle of the night. The attacks were attributed to demons punishing the women for their sins, but it was later discovered 8 men were sneaking in the the rooms of women all over the village, knocking them out with an animal aesthetic, and then raping them. Horrifying.

Women Talking focuses on some of the victims of these attacks, women from 3 generations of the Loewen and Friesen families. The rapists have been jailed in a nearby town and the rest of the men in the community have taken livestock to the town to try and sell to post their bail money. While the men are away, 8 women of the Loewen and Friesen families call a meeting (on behalf of all the women) to discuss what to do. When the men return home, the women will be called upon to forgive them, so as they see it, they have 3 choices:

1. Do Nothing
2. Stay and Fight
3. Leave

The entire novel consists of these women talking through these 3 choices and deciding on a course of action, and boy are their conversations illuminating. They discuss many philosophical questions about what each of these choices means and how their village got to this point. Some of the women are hurt, some of them are angry, and some of them are afraid. But while this is an upsetting story, it is also filled with love and even humour. The novel is only a short 200 pages, but I loved getting to know each of these women, watching them talk and relate with each other, share experiences, and share laughter. It is a brilliantly written novel and such a thought provoking piece of fiction. This book matters. Women matter.

There was so much of this book that I loved that it’s hard to pinpoint specific pieces. But one part I found particularly striking was when one of the women (can’t remember who… Ona maybe?) voices that maybe they should consider a 4th choice: asking the men to leave. It’s such an obvious solution. Absolutely the men should be the ones to leave. They are the ones that have violated and torn their community apart, they should no longer be permitted to participate in community life. But the option never really catches any traction with the women and they even openly laugh at it because it really is an outlandish idea to think that the men would consider leaving or even that the rest of the men and community would support the women in forcing these men to leave. It’s a sad truth, but these women understood (and I’m sure most other women do to), that even though it was the option that made the most sense, it would never really be an option.

I don’t want to give too much away about the book, so I’ll just say, please please please go to the library or the bookstore and pick yourself up a copy of this book!

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.