Category: Non-Fiction

Beautiful Country

Cover image for Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang

by Qian Julie Wang

ISBN 9780385547246

“From then on, there was no saving me. I lived and breathed books. Where else could I fund such a steady supply of friends, comforts, and worlds, all free for the taking? And so portable, too–everywhere I went, there they were: on the subway, at recess, on the steps outside of Ba Ba’s office. Unlike my teachers and classmates, they were reliable.”

In Chinese, America is known as Mei Guo, or the beautiful country. When Qian Julie Wang was only five years old, her father left for America and she did not see him for two years. Although the book is set almost entirely in North America, Wang’s memoir is in many ways about the intergenerational trauma of the Cultural Revolution, which shaped her parents’ choice to eventually leave China for an uncertain life as undocumented immigrants in the United States. Where once her father had taught English literature, and her mother had taught math, in America they were reduced to surviving on a variety of menial jobs from hair salons to piecework sweatshops to sushi factories. Wang arrived in New York City at the age of seven in 1994, and would not become an American citizen until 2016. Beautiful Country tells the story of some of the intervening years, covering elementary school and her first year of middle school before taking an unexpected twist that I won’t spoil here.

Wang is vague on the details of what exactly happened to her father’s visa, which does seem to have initially been a working visa, but she and her mother came as visitors and overstayed. Such details were immaterial to a very young child in any case. In America, Wang’s parents ruthlessly hammer home two crucial lessons. First, avoid the authorities at all costs. This leads them to mistrust what little support is available to them as undocumented immigrants, even when they could desperately use the food or other services. Free school lunch is one of the few forms of assistance they deem it safe to accept since they have already exposed themselves to some extent by enrolling their daughter in school. Second, Wang is taught to say that she was born in America, and has always lived there, a fiction which is initially undermined by the fact that she arrives in her second grade classroom largely unable to speak English. Unwilling to rely on the whims of the classmate reluctantly roped into translating for her, Wang begins teaching herself English with the help of PBS Kids. She also finds the first place that feels like home in her new country in the form of the Chatham Square branch of the New York Public Library.

Beautiful Country also chronicles the Wangs’ fraught search for some sense of community or support in their new home. Used to being considered intellectuals, the Wangs find that in New York’s largely Cantonese immigrant community, speaking Mandarin leads to the assumption that they are “farmers from Fuzhou.” Wang’s parents had two couples with whom they were close friends in New York, but were fond of saying that they were not the type of people they would have chosen to associate with back home. They were friendships of necessity. Still more disturbing is the account of a lonely older white man they call Lao Jim who uses his money to buy the time and attention of Asian women at the salon where Wang’s mother worked one of many jobs. He takes the Wangs to McDonalds every weekend, and teaches Wang’s mother how to drive, but the relationship is always tinged with the ominous warning given by one of his other girls, Mimi. “You know he’s disgusting, right?” She warns. “He’s filthy. He has nasty thoughts about everyone. Even…her.” The outings do not stop, but Wang’s father always makes sure to accompany them.

Throughout, Beautiful Country is filled with the palpable anxiety of deportation, lurking around every corner. “Only later, after living many years in fear, would I understand that the risks were much lower than we believed at the time,” Wang explains. “But in the vacuum of anxiety that was undocumented life, fear was gaseous: it expanded to fill our entire world until it was all we could breathe.” The other pervasive feeling painstakingly described is going hungry. “Hunger was a constant, reliable friend in Mei Guo,” Wang recounts. “She came second only to loneliness. Hunger slept only when I did, and sometimes not even then.” Especially early in the book, Wang’s writing has a close, child-like perspective. But undocumented life in America forces her to grow up fast, becoming a source of both practical and emotional support to her parents, particularly her mother. Her experience becomes more contextualized, and I fell deeper into her perspective, only to be surprised when the book ended at sixth grade. We do not get to follow Wang’s winding journey to citizenship, but perhaps another memoir will be in her future. For now, Beautiful Country is an evocative portrait of those first five years of struggle to realize the promise of Mei Guo.

You might also like:

The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman

Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli

Calling Bullshit

Cover image for Calling Bullshit by Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West

by Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West

ISBN 9780525509196

“Myths are most difficult to debunk when they are interwoven with a person’s worldview and sense of cultural identity.”

In the information age, we enjoy unprecedented access to knowledge. However, the deluge is difficult to sift, and there is more fake news, propaganda, and disinformation than ever before. All of this requires time and energy to sort through, and many people feel as if they do not have the necessary skills to perform such an assessment. Calling Bullshit offers a toolkit for spotting misinformation and disinformation, as well as suggestions for how to approach the actual act of calling bullshit when someone has shared questionable data. It also provides readers some suggestions for guarding against their own confirmation biases or desire to be right. Based on their course of the same name taught at the University of Washington, Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West lay out a toolbox for skeptics in the information age.

Calling Bullshit includes the type of skills that are taught to librarians, journalists, and scientists, all professions where assessing the accuracy of information is paramount. However, it also aims to teach readers strategies for spotting misinformation and disinformation that don’t rely on expertise in any particular field. For example, you don’t need to be a scientist to check the axes of a graph to make sure they haven’t been inappropriately foreshortened, or that the intervals are even. Nor do you need to be a computer programmer to consider the quality of that data that goes into the black box algorithm. If garbage goes in, garbage will inevitably come out, regardless of what happens in between. As the authors put it, “there’s no magical algorithm that can spin flax into gold. You can’t compensate for bad data. If someone tells you otherwise, they are bullshitting.”

The authors are specifically interested in the type of claims that cloak themselves in math, science, or other quantitative evidence as a means of trying to appear more valid than they actually are. This strategy is often effective because people are less likely to question quantitative evidence, often because they do not feel competent to evaluate it. However, there are a variety of methodological questions from sampling method to data presentation that anyone can ask of a study, without being an expert in that field. Each is illustrated with a variety of clear examples that help teach readers what to watch out for, particularly crucial for examining information graphics.

When it comes to sharing misinformation, Bergstrom and West argue that “participating in social media is only secondarily about sharing new information; it is primarily about maintaining and reinforcing common bonds.” This goes a long way towards explaining why people are often not terribly concerned with the exact truth of their postings, as well as why people share articles they haven’t read. If the headline conveys the right emotional valence and social signals—what the authors call “tribal epistemologies”—that may be all that is necessary for them to hit share, cementing their loyalty to the group. It also explains why arguing with these posts can be so fraught and fruitless; beliefs that are tied up in people’s identities are much harder to refute because persuading them requires not just debunking the incorrect information, but also contending with the emotional ties they have to what it signals.

While Bergstrom and West laud the merits of science as a method of investigation, the book also includes an important chapter on the limitations of science, and the ways in which it can itself be subject to bullshit through human foibles. Science is a system that tends towards self-correction by its very nature, but mistakes can and will be made along the way. This includes an overview of both misreporting on science by the press, and a dive into some of the ways that science can be misused, from p-hacking to publication bias. This is particularly useful for thinking about studies you read about in the news, where correlation and causation may have been conflated, or other important factors gone underreported.

To quote Jonathan Swift, “Falsehoods fly and truth comes limping after it.” Creating misinformation is easy; debunking it is a much more difficult task.  Calling Bullshit offers an interesting look at some of the reasons why that might be the case, as well as the tools for spotting the most common types of misinformation, accompanied by illustrative examples.

You might also like Reader, Come Home by Maryanne Wolf

Top 5 Non-Fiction 2021

My reading this year leaned heavily towards fiction but I’ve still got some great non-fiction picks for you. These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed–not necessarily published–in 2021. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year!

Burnout

Cover image for Burnout by Emily Nagoski

by Emily and Amelia Nagoski

ISBN 9781984817068

Burnout is an examination of both stressors and the stress cycle, as well as the cultural conditions that contribute to the stress and burnout experienced by women in particular. The first section of the book focuses on the key distinction between stress and stressors, and the separate techniques needed for dealing with each. Parts two and three delve into underlying causes. Burnout is about what happens when the instinct for self-preservation does battle with the deeply ingrained cultural message that caring for oneself is indulgent or selfish. The Nagoski sisters specifically look at the messages aimed at women, but many of the insights would be applicable to other marginalized identities as well. The book is written in an accessible even somewhat conversational style, and acknowledges the baggage that comes with words and concepts like “The Patriarchy (ugh)” that make these systemic issues difficult to talk about. This may be unpopular with some readers who prefer a more serious scientific tone, but this lighter touch will be key to the book’s approachability for others.

Tags: Non-Fiction, Science

Facing the Mountain

Cover image for Facing the Mountain by Daniel James Brown

by Daniel James Brown

ISBN 9780525557418

When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941, the lives of thousands of Japanese Americans changed forever. Prominent first generation Japanese immigrants were arrested on pre-emptive suspicion of disloyalty. At the same time, many of their sons were trying to volunteer for military service, only to discover they were barred from enlisting as “enemy aliens” despite their American citizenship. The ban would hold until 1943, at which point they became subject to the draft, even as many of them were living in concentration camps following their exclusion from the West Coast under Executive Order 9066. Daniel James Brown, author of The Boys in the Boat, follows the exploits of the 442nd Regimental Combat Unit, a segregated unit set up specifically for Japanese American soldiers. Fighting in the European theatre of World War II, the unit served with distinction, taking heavy casualties, and becoming the most decorated unit in the American military. In Facing the Mountain Brown predominantly focuses on three men—Kats Miho, Rudy Tokiwa, and Fred Shiosaki—who volunteered for military service, although two older Japanese American chaplains also play a prominent role, as does conscientious objector Gordon Hirabayashi. Sifting through the Densho archives, as well as many more sources such as letters provided by the family of Chaplain Hiro Higuchi, Brown has woven together strands of personal stories that come together to shed light on a vast and complicated chapter in American history. He succeeds in bringing to life the personalities of his primary subjects, while also maintaining a view of the wider historical context in which their stories took place. 

Tags: Non-Fiction, History

Gmorning, Gnight!

Cover image for Gmorning Gnight by Lin-Manuel Miranda and illustrated by Jonny Sun

by Lin-Manuel Miranda and illustrated by Jonny Sun

ISBN 9781984854278

The contents of this book started life as a series of good morning and good night tweets by playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel) from about 2016 to 2018. They are something between poetry and affirmation; little nuggets of encouragement and inspiration, or even commiseration. The book’s subtitle describes them as pep talks, which is apt. This little book gathers them together into a collection illustrated by artist Jonny Sun with black and white line drawings on facing pages. In the midst of a long, crappy year, my best friend and I began trading these back and forth via text message on many days, a little spot of brightness and connection in the endless drag of the pandemic. This ritual proved to be a lovely little lift to the spirits when I needed it most, so this book holds a special place in my heart this year.

Tags: Non-Fiction, Poetry

Tiny Beautiful Things

Cover image for Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

by Cheryl Strayed

ISBN 9780307949325

Before she became famous for her 2012 memoir Wild, Cheryl Strayed anonymously wrote an advice column for The Rumpus for two years under the pseudonym Sugar, where she answered letters from people seeking guidance about life and love. Tiny Beautiful Things collects readers’ favourite Dear Sugar columns, as well as a number of original letters. This collection is an intimate illustration of how someone sharing the particular tragedies of their life can be surprisingly generalizable. Strayed’s deeply empathetic replies to her readers about their dilemmas dovetail with stories about her own life, including lose her mother early, her struggle with drug addiction, and her complicated relationship with her father. This book is nearly a decade old now, and I’ve read it perhaps three times in that span, though I was never a Dear Sugar reader in its digital incarnation despite being a fan of the advice column genre. Strayed is funny, compassionate, and honest, and her writing is both beautiful and compelling. In a year full of comfort reads this was lovely to return to once more.

Tags: Non-Fiction, Essays

Two Trees Make a Forest

Cover image for Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Lee

by Jessica J. Lee

ISBN 9781646220007

Jessica J. Lee grew up in Ontario, a biracial child more connected to her father’s large Welsh-Canadian family than her mother’s side of the family tree, which hailed from China via Taiwan. She knew only her maternal grandparents, Po and Gong. For most of her life she was unbothered by this, however, as she grew older she developed an “inarticulate longing” for both her family history, and the island from which they had come to Canada. Her grandfather was lost to Alzheimer’s disease, and her grandmother spoke rarely of the past before her death, leaving Lee to take her own journey to Taiwan with her mother in order to reconnect with her family history. In revisiting the scenes of her mother’s childhood, as well as hiking and biking through the forests and marshes of the island, Lee explores the importance of place to our understanding of self. As an environmental historian, Lee is concerned with the physical island of Taiwan, with its geography, flora and fauna, in addition to its anthropological history and personal connection. Her book is memoir meets family history meets travelogue. Two Trees Make a Forest is a memoir about the vast complexities of identity, and Lee does a beautiful job of articulating the nuances. Her family are settlers in Canada, and she is simultaneously grappling with the fact that her family is part of a long history of Chinese colonialism in Taiwan. Lee blends history, geography, language and family legacy in a meditative account of what it means to be caught between worlds.

Tags: Non-Fiction, Memoir, Canadian

What were your favourite non-fiction reads of 2021? Anything you’d like to recommend?

Non-Fiction Mini Reviews

Burnout

Cover for Burnout by Amelia Nagoski and Emily Nagoski

by Emily and Amelia Nagoski

ISBN 9781984817068

“The good news is that stress is not the problem. The problem is that the strategies that deal with stressors have almost no relationship to the strategies that deal with the physiological reactions our bodies have to those stressors.”

Burnout is an examination of both stressors and the stress cycle, as well as the cultural conditions that contribute to the stress and burnout experienced by women in particular. The first section of the book focuses on the key distinction between stress and stressors, and the separate techniques needed for dealing with each. Parts two and three delve into underlying causes. Burnout is about what happens when the instinct for self-preservation does battle with the deeply ingrained cultural message that caring for oneself is indulgent or selfish. The Nagoski sisters specifically look at the messages aimed at women, but many of the insights would be applicable to other marginalized identities as well. The book is written in an accessible even somewhat conversational style, and acknowledges the baggage that comes with words and concepts like “The Patriarchy (ugh)” that make these systemic issues difficult to talk about. This may be unpopular with some readers who prefer a more serious scientific tone, but this lighter touch will be key to the book’s approachability for others.

Tags: Non-Fiction, Science

Gmorning, Gnight!

Cover image for Gmorning Gnight by Lin-Manuel Miranda and illustrated by Jonny Sun

by Lin-Manuel Miranda and illustrated by Jonny Sun

ISBN 9781984854278

“Your mind is yours alone. Do what it takes to make yourself comfy. Build a library in there, play some music. Make it your home.”

The contents of this book started life as a series of good morning and good night tweets by playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel) from about 2016 to 2018. They are something between poetry and affirmation; little nuggets of encouragement and inspiration, or even commiseration. The book’s subtitle describes them as pep talks, which is apt. This little book gathers them together into a collection illustrated by artist Jonny Sun with black and white line drawings on facing pages. In the midst of a long, crappy year, my best friend and I began trading these back and forth via text message on many days, a little spot of brightness and connection in the endless drag of the pandemic. This ritual proved to be a lovely little lift to the spirits when I needed it most, so this book holds a special place in my heart.

Tags: Non-Fiction, Poetry

Tiny Beautiful Things

Cover image for Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

by Cheryl Strayed

ISBN 9780307949325

“I’ll never know, and neither will you, of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.”

Before she became famous for her 2012 memoir Wild, Cheryl Strayed anonymously wrote an advice column for The Rumpus for two years under the pseudonym Sugar, where she answered letters from people seeking guidance about life and love. Tiny Beautiful Things collects readers’ favourite Dear Sugar columns, as well as a number of original letters. This collection is an intimate illustration of how someone sharing the particular tragedies of their life can be surprisingly generalizable. Strayed’s deeply empathetic replies to her readers about their dilemmas dovetail with stories about her own life, including losing her mother early, her struggle with drug addiction, and her complicated relationship with her father. This book is nearly a decade old now, and I’ve read it perhaps three times in that span, though I was never a Dear Sugar reader in its digital incarnation despite being a fan of the advice column genre. Strayed is funny, compassionate, and honest, and her writing is both beautiful and compelling. In a year full of comfort (re)reads this was lovely to return to once more.

Tags: Non-Fiction, Essays

Facing the Mountain

by Daniel James Brown

ISBN 9780525557418

“Why should they lay their lives on the line for a country that had forced them and their parents into bleak concentration camps? Why, if they fought for America, would America not at least release their family members, grant their parents citizenship, and restore their civil rights?”

When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941, the lives of thousands of Japanese Americans changed forever. Prominent first generation Japanese immigrants—the Issei—were arrested on pre-emptive suspicion of disloyalty. At the same time, many of their sons—the Nisei—were trying to volunteer for military service, only to discover they were barred from enlisting as “enemy aliens” despite their American citizenship. The ban would hold until 1943, at which point the Nisei became subject to the draft, even as many of them were living in concentration camps following their exclusion from the West Coast under President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. Daniel James Brown, author of The Boys in the Boat, follows the exploits of the 442nd Regimental Combat Unit, a segregated unit set up specifically for Japanese American soldiers, and headed predominantly by white officers. Fighting in the European theatre of World War II, the unit served with distinction, taking heavy casualties, and becoming the most decorated unit in the American military.

Brown predominantly focuses on three young Nisei men—Kats Miho, Rudy Tokiwa, and Fred Shiosaki—who volunteered for military service despite the discrimination they faced, although two older Japanese American chaplains also play a prominent role. Many of the young men tried to volunteer shortly after Pearl Harbor and discovered they were barred from doing so. Later the draft would be expanded to include Japanese Americans, and some would refuse to enlist due to the discrimination they and their families had faced. These are the no-no boys, and while they are mentioned occasionally, they are not the focus of Brown’s work. We get glimpses of life in the camps and other trials of those who remained behind through stories of the families and friends of the young men who are Brown’s primary subjects. But the main body of the narrative moves to Europe, where the 442nd served in Italy, France, and Germany.

One interesting aspect of the Japanese internment that Brown teases out in Facing the Mountain is the differences in the experiences of the Hawaiian and mainland Nisei. This comes particularly to light in section entitled Kotonks and Buddaheads, which were the nicknames for the mainlanders and the Hawaiian-born Nisei respectively. Because so much of the working population of the Hawaiian territory was of Japanese descent, it was deemed impractical—even economically catastrophic—to incarcerate them all. Some prominent Issei men were imprisoned, but otherwise the families of the Hawaiian-born Nisei remained largely at liberty. This was a sharp contrast to the harsh realities faced by the families of the mainland boys in the internment camps. Fred Shiosaki’s family was not incarcerated because they lived outside the exclusion zone, but their laundry business was almost destroyed by a boycott. The rifts created by the misunderstandings between the two groups almost tore the 442nd apart before they ever went into battle.

One outlier in Brown’s narrative is Gordon Hirabayashi, who was a conscientious objector even before the conscription of Japanese Americans. While most of Brown’s subjects fought on the battlefield, Hirabayashi fought in the courts, arguing that the curfews, exclusion orders, and evacuation zones were unconstitutional discrimination based on race. Inside the facilities where he was jailed a result, he also fought against the segregation of these institutions, exposing their hypocrisies and absurdities. For example, in a southern prison, Hirabayashi was assigned to be housed with the white inmates, but in a Washington State prison, he was assigned to the non-white dorm. Hirabayashi used these inconsistencies to peacefully agitate for prison reform. Alongside the combat troops, Hirabayashi and the two chaplains form a more philosophical contrast, helping to round out the narrative. Hirabayashi’s story alone would merit a book in its own right.

Sifting through the Densho archives, as well as many more sources such as letters provided by the family of Chaplain Hiro Higuchi, Brown has woven together strands of personal stories that come together to shed light on a vast and complicated chapter in American history. As with The Boys in the Boat, he succeeds in bringing to life the personalities of his primary subjects, while also maintaining a view of the wider historical context in which their stories took place. With none of the main subjects of the book alive any longer—the last, Fred Shiosaki, died in April 2021—the work of organizations such as Densho becomes even more important to preserving the memory of the injustices perpetrated against Japanese Americans during World War II. Brown’s work adds to that with a very readable account of some of those experiences, and a young reader’s edition is also expected in Spring 2022.

You might also like:

No-No Boy

The Buddha in the Attic

Snow Falling on Cedars

Canada Reads Along 2021: Two Trees Make a Forest

Cover image for Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Leeby Jessica J. Lee

ISBN 9781646220007

“I find in the cedar forest a place where the old trees can span all our stories, where three human generations seem small. The forest stands despite us.”

Jessica J. Lee grew up in Ontario, a biracial child more connected to her father’s large Welsh-Canadian family than her mother’s side of the family tree, which hailed from China via Taiwan. She knew only her maternal grandparents, Po and Gong. For most of her life she was unbothered by this, however, as she grew older she developed an “inarticulate longing” for both her family history, and the island from which they had come to Canada. Her grandfather was lost to Alzheimer’s disease, and her grandmother spoke rarely of the past before her death, leaving Lee to take her own journey to Taiwan with her mother in order to reconnect with her family history. In revisiting the scenes of her mother’s childhood, as well as hiking and biking through the forests and marshes of the island, Lee explores the importance of place to our understanding of self.

As an environmental historian, Lee is concerned with the physical island of Taiwan, with its geography, flora and fauna, in addition to its anthropological history and personal connection. Her book is memoir meets family history meets travelogue. On her first trip to Taiwan as an adult, Lee writes, “I moved from the human timescale of my family’s history through green and unfurling dendrological time, to that which far exceeds the scope of my understanding: the deep and fathomless span of geological time.” In trying to understand her family’s past, she also traces the island’s history of colonization, first being claimed by China in the late 1600s, roughly contemporary with the arrival of Western explorers, and briefly passing into Japanese hands for a generation, before becoming the home of China’s exiled nationalist government.

Lee’s trip to Taiwan came after efforts to satisfy her longing through reading were mixed at best, and alienating at worst, being a by-product of the island’s long history of colonialism. She found that many English accounts of the island were written by nineteenth-century British geographers, and “these portrayals mingled beauty with fear, with curiosity and exoticism, occasionally with disgust. Though written in English, I struggled to find in them a language I could share.” Mapmaking was similarly fraught by the cataloguing efforts of both Chinese and Japanese colonial administrators steadily pushing the island’s indigenous people deeper into the mountains.

Language is also a theme that runs through the book, as Lee tries to reclaim some of the native tongue that has been lost to her. As a white-passing woman in Taiwan, she is asked why her Mandarin is so good, but if she reveals that her mother is from Taiwan, then she is asked why it is so bad. Language is a crucial barrier between herself and her family’s past. An important letter left by her grandfather upon his death must be entrusted to translators, and her mother’s annotations. Through her descriptions, Lee is able to convey how the language was both part of her, and not. When her mother taught her the Mandarin names for Taiwan’s plant life while they were hiking through the mountainous forests, Lee “found in them a longing to remember the things I had not known.” In a note at the beginning of the text, Lee explains the difficulties in something as seemingly simple as rendering Chinese and Taiwanese place names into roman letters; Lee was taught Hanyu Pinyin, while her elders prefer to use Wade-Giles, and she had to grapple with both systems to write her account in English.

Two Trees Make a Forest is a memoir about the vast complexities of identity, and Lee does a beautiful job of articulating the nuances. Her family are settlers in Canada, and she is simultaneously grappling with the fact that her family is part of a long history of Chinese colonialism in Taiwan. Her own grandparents only arrived there as rival governments were tearing China apart in the aftermath of the country’s revolution. “My mother, sister, and I stumbled over whether to call ourselves Chinese—we weren’t from a China that existed any longer—or Taiwanese. No single word can contain the movement that carried our story across waters, across continents,” Lee explains. “Political migrants. Exiles. Colonists. Diaspora. The past has many words for my grandparents’ generations, all of them containing a grain of truth.”

At the same time, her family was also on the receiving end of imperialism; her grandmother was living in Nanjing during the horrific Japanese invasion that is sometimes called the Rape of Nanking. “She never spoke of what happened in Nanjing. But I gleaned its seriousness at a young age through her unwillingness to set foot in a Japanese car or the ways she would suck her teeth in frustrated response to Japanese electronics,” Lee explains of her explosively difficult grandmother, known affectionately as Po.

In her memoir, Lee blends history, geography, language and family legacy in a meditative account of what it means to be caught between worlds: “I belong in a forest in a much bigger, colder country. I am not built for heat any more than my mother was built for winter. I speak in broken tones, making half sense to everyone I meet in Taiwan. My worlds exist in halves.” The liminality of her account is an inherent part of its beauty, and her unique perspective.

Two Trees Make a Forest was defended on Canada Reads 2021 by singer-songwriter Scott Helman. In his opening argument, Helman touted the book for its intersection of humanity and environmentalism, using the specificity of Lee’s family history to address the universal theme of finding our place in the world. His was the only non-fiction book at the table this year, and drew some early fire from other panelists. Day One of the program is full of panelist introductions, book trailers, opening statements, and author spotlights, with only a little bit of room for debate. Often the best thing a book can hope for is to fly low and avoid initial notice, something over which the defender has little control.

This year’s Canada Reads theme is “one book to transport us,” and the opening debate focused on how well the books did that at this moment, in the midst of a pandemic. No less than three of the panelists called out Two Trees Make a Forest as the book that did not work for them in this regard, with Rosey Edeh citing the non-linear structure, Roger Mooking pointing to the distraction of the environmental descriptions, and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee arguing that the book was overambitious. Helman’s rebuttal suggested that this is a book that calls for the reader to take a moment, a breath, and appreciate the Earth, and how the stories of our lives and the Earth are intertwined. He encouraged readers to make room for that.

When the time all too quickly came to cast the first round of ballots, Scott Helman and Devery Jacobs voted against The Midnight Bargain, while the other three panelists cast their votes to make Two Trees Make a Forest the first book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2021.

Check out these past Canada Reads contenders:

Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto

The Woo-Woo by Lindsay Wong

Top 5 Non-Fiction 2020

The year is drawing to a close, and I’ve left it to the very last minute to name my top picks from this year’s reading! These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2020. Click the title for a link to the full review. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year!

From the Ashes

Cover image for From the Ashes by Jesse ThistleFrom the Ashes is the account of an unstable childhood, intergenerational trauma, and a young adulthood lost to the streets. After being abandoned by parents who struggled with their own demons, Jesse Thistle and his two brothers landed in the home of their paternal grandparents, where the boys were expected to work hard, were scolded for eating too much, or for any behaviour that reminded their grandfather of their wayward father. A lacklustre student, Thistle dropped out of high school, and was kicked out of his grandparents’ home when they caught him with drugs, beginning a decade-long downward spiral into homelessness and addiction. From the Ashes recounts his troubled childhood, his lost years on the streets, and his eventual recovery and journey into academia and Indigenous Studies. Thistle’s chapters are often short and somewhat fractured, an accurate reflection of a disjointed life punctuated by black outs. It is a chronicle of poor choices informed by pain, loneliness, and heartbreak. Occasional interludes are more like poems, including a disturbing section in which Thistle envisions turning into a wendigo who then cannibalizes himself.

Categories: Canadian, Memoir

The Golden Spruce

Cover image for The Golden Spruce by John VaillantSometime around the year 1700, a spruce seed took root in the fertile soil of the Yakoun River valley on Haida Gwaii, off the west coast of what would become British Columbia, Canada. Despite a rare mutation that caused its needles to be yellow rather than green—a flaw that should have impeded its ability to photosynthesize—the tree that became known as K’iid K’iyaas or the golden spruce, grew to be a giant that stood on the banks of the river until 1997, when it was deliberately felled as a protest again the logging industry. In The Golden Spruce, John Vaillant documents the history of tree, the troubled life of the man who destroyed it, and the impact of this act on the community that was its home. The Golden Spruce is part history of the logging industry, and part post-mortem of the murder of a culturally significant icon of the Haida people. The early part of the book is dedicated to the history of the Haida, and the North American logging industry, as well as a brief foray into the fur trade that preceded it. Vaillant treats this all as necessary context before introducing Grant Hadwin, the man who destroyed the tree in the dark hours of January 20, 1997. The Golden Spruce is a sad and disturbing story of destruction, ignorance, and waste. According to Vaillant, “left in peace, the golden spruce could have lived until the twenty-sixth century.”

Categories: Canadian

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground

Cover image for A Mind Spread Out on the GroundAlicia Elliot grew up largely on the Six Nations Reserve, home of her father’s people, with a gaggle of younger siblings. Her mother lived with them only intermittently; whenever her bipolar disorder became too pronounced, Elliott’s father would shuttle her mother across the New York border, and have her involuntarily committed. Her childhood was shaped by poverty, intergenerational trauma, and mental illness, all of which she reflects on in a series of essays. The collection opens with the award-winning titular essay, which is a rough English translation of the Mohawk word for depression or mental illness. This proves a central theme of the collection, as many of Elliot’s stories are about her mother’s bipolar disorder, and how it shaped and warped their family life for most of her childhood. A Mind Spread Out on the Ground blends the personal and the critical into incisive essays that cut to the heart of colonialism, and its effects on identity, community, and Canada’s conception of itself.

Categories: Canadian, Essays

Spillover

Cover image for Spillover by David QuammenZoonoses are diseases that originate in animals, usually harboured by a reservoir—a species that chronically carries the bacteria or virus but is not sickened by it—and are transmissible to humans. When the right set of circumstances occur, when the fragile ecological balance of the world is disrupted in a new way, a pathogen can spill over from animals to humans. Author David Quammen is a journalist with a long history of covering zoonosis, with the consequent experience in translating a highly technical subject for a lay audience. I read a variety of pandemic books this year, but if you’re only going to read one book about epidemics, this one combines multiple outbreaks into a single volume, highlights trends and commonalties, and provides a good basic understanding of the relationship between virology, ecology, and epidemiology. You’ll emerge from Spillover with a much better contextual understanding of our current situation, armed with many of the essential concepts for understanding the virology and epidemiology underpinning the ongoing public health conversations that have been dominating our discourse over the past year, and will no doubt continue into 2021.

Categories: Pandemic, Science

We Have Always Been Here

Cover image for We Have Always Been Here by Samra HabibSamra Habib’s family came to Canada from Pakistan in 1991, seeking freedom from the oppression they faced as members of the minority Ahmadi sect of Muslims. Along with her immediate family, they were accompanied by her first cousin, a young man about ten years her senior. When she was thirteen, she learned that her mother intended for her to marry her cousin when she turned eighteen. However, the marriage eventually took place when Habib was only sixteen years of age. For years, Habib lived a double life, secretly married to her cousin while still attending high school like an average Canadian teenager. We Have Always Been Here chronicles the complicated journey to reconciling her Muslim beliefs with her queer identity, and coming to terms with the choices her family made for her. In this memoir about the intersection of family, religion, and sexual identity, Habib shows an extremely touching thoughtfulness about her relationship with her parents. She stands firm in both her acknowledgment of the wrong they did her, and her ability to try to understand the circumstances that made them into the kind of people who would take such a step.

Categories: Canadian, Memoir, LGBTQ+

What were your top non-fiction reads this year? Did you read any pandemic books, or did you avoid the subject like the plague?

Know My Name

Cover image for Know My Name by Chanel Millerby Chanel Miller

ISBN 9780735223714

Content Warnings: Sexual assault, depression, suicide, mass shooting.

“The rules of court would not necessarily protect me; swearing under oath was just a made up promise. Honesty was for children. Brock would say and do what he needed, unabashedly, self-righteous. He had given himself permission to enter me again, this time stuffing words into my mouth. He made me his real-life ventriloquist doll, put his hands inside me and made me speak.”

When her victim impact statement was released to the world by Buzz Feed in June 2016, the young woman who had been sexually assaulted on the Stanford campus by Brock Turner was known to readers only as Emily Doe. In Know My Name, Chanel Miller reclaims her identity, shedding the scant protection of anonymity in order to more fully tell her story and advocate for systems that better serve and protect victims. In doing so, she reintegrates Emily Doe with Chanel Miller, breaking down the wall of separation she built between the two in order to protect herself as she tried to continue some semblance of her life while also navigating the court system in search of something like justice.

On the night she was assaulted, Miller was no longer a college student herself. Having graduated with a degree in literature form the University of California Santa Barbara, she was back home working her first job in a start-up when she attended the fateful party with her sister and her sister’s friend. Many memoirs begin with the inciting incident that is the book’s promotional hook, and then flash back to the subject’s childhood. However, Miller takes a more integrated approach, telling stories about her family, childhood, and education as they fit into the larger context of her experiences as a victim of sexual assault. As a result, they are more uniformly dispersed throughout the book and the early part of her narrative dives right into her memories of the night of her assault before her black out, and the aftermath as she wakes up in the hospital. The trial concludes near the middle of the book, and the latter half is given over to dealing with the sentencing and appeal, as well as the broader #MeToo movement, and the recall campaign to unseat the judge who sentenced Turner, as well as Miller’s fraught relationship with Stanford in the aftermath of what took place on their campus.

Know My Name is filled with visceral details that make it a difficult read. This includes not just Miller’s own assault, but several friends who were also victims of sexual violence, as well as accounts of a rash of student suicides at her high school, and the death of a friend’s roommate while she was at college in Isla Vista, in a mass shooting motivated by misogyny. However, sometimes the biggest impact is in the smallest details, such as Miller’s description of the moment that she realized her underwear was gone when she woke up in the hospital, or her heartbreaking account of the guilt she felt for taking a long shower to wash off the assault, because California was experiencing a drought. Miller articulates clearly that she is writing more for victims than for the general public in making these narrative choices: “As a survivor, I feel a duty to provide a realistic view of the complexity of recovery. I am not here to rebrand the mess he made on campus. It is not my responsibility to alchemize what he did into healing words society can digest.”

Nevertheless, there are a few small bright spots in Miller’s account, as she returns repeatedly to the two Swedish graduate students who were riding by on their bicycles when they witnessed her assault, interrupted her attacker, and chased him down when he tried to run away. Miller looked to both their actions and their testimony as evidence of the better side of human nature. She explicitly acknowledges Peter Jonsson and Carl Arndt, saying, “May the world be full of more Carls and Peters.” For months, she slept under a small drawing of two cyclists, guardians watching over her troubled rest. Miller’s relationship with her family, and her sister in particular, also stands out. In moments where she could hardly fend for herself, Miller nevertheless fought for her sister’s sake, fiercely protective of her since Tiffany’s identity, unlike Chanel’s, was not protected by the legal proceedings.

Although a very personal account, much of the book is about systemic effects and experiences, and the process that Miller did not fully understand she was undertaking when she told the police that she would agree to press charges. Miller rips back that curtain for the reader, taking us inside the grueling legal process, and the still more fraught mental and emotional recovery that followed. The court case is over, but the latter is clearly ongoing. Know My Name marks Miller’s effort to finally break out of that system, with all its failures and constraints, to tell her story on her own terms, as a fully fleshed-out person rather than a nameless victim.

You might also like We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib