Canada Reads·My Life in Books

8 books Two Trees Make a Forest author Jessica J. Lee loved

The environmental historian and writer shares some of her favourite books.

Scott Helman is championing Two Trees Make a Forest on Canada Reads 2021

Two Trees Make a Forest is a book by Jessica J. Lee. (Hamish Hamilton, Ricardo A. Rivas)

Jessica J. Lee is a British Canadian Taiwanese author and environmental historian. She won the 2020 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction, the 2020 Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature and the 2019 RBC Taylor Prize Emerging Writer Award. She is the author of two books of nature writing: Turning and Two Trees Make a Forest

Scott Helman is championing Two Trees Make a Forest on Canada Reads 2021.

Lee describes herself as a longtime book nerd: "I didn't fit in well in high school, so being able to escape into novels and philosophy books was really important."

These days, Lee said that the feeling of escape that books deliver is more important than ever. "Books are a patient kind of medium, which we don't really get from the Internet. There's that pressure to consume things at a certain pace. But with books, there's time to take your time and change minds," she said.

Lee spoke with CBC Books about the eight books she loved reading over the years.

Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry, illustrated by Wesley Dennis

Marguerite Henry was an American writer of children's books known for her books based on true stories of horses and other animals. (Aladdin)

"I was a horse girl. I loved horses. I loved the Saddle Club series, which was targeted to kids. But this book was really immersive and vivid. 

It was probably one of the first books that fascinated me for its depiction of landscape, animals and the power in nature.

"I was obsessed with this book for the scenery and the settings. I loved this idea of wild horses running along the coastline. It was probably one of the first books that fascinated me for its depiction of landscape, animals and the power in nature."

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy is an Indian author best known for her novel The God of Small Things, which won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 1997. (Alex Schmidt/DDP/AFP via Getty Images)

"I read this book in my first or second year of university. It was the first book where I stopped and I thought, 'I want to do this. This is what I want to do. I want to use language in these acrobatic ways.'

It was this book that alerted me to the magic of writing mechanics.

"I spent way less time thinking about the story than I did about the sound of words next to each other in that book. It was this book that alerted me to the magic of writing mechanics."

The Country and the City by Raymond Williams

Raymond Williams was a socialist writer, academic, novelist and critic. (Vintage Classics, Verso Books)

"This is a book of literary criticism that I come back to again and again in my writing and in my work. It was the first book about nature and about landscape that drove home for me the idea that nature writing and literature about land is always political.

It's a book that I come back to again and again in my writing and in my work.

"It's explicitly political, in that we're writing about urban rural divides, we're writing about livelihoods. We're writing about spaces that are worked instead of just vast empty wilderness. It's always about the human connection with land."

The Unofficial Countryside by Richard Mabey

Richard Thomas Mabey is a writer and broadcaster who focuses on the connections between nature and culture. (Little Toller Books, richardmabey.co.uk)

"This is probably my favourite book of nature writing. It pays close attention to the edges of cities — the bits of the city that most of us encounter day to day and ignore. 

"I liked it for that shift of attention: it was like a nature book that wasn't about some distant mountain or a remote wilderness. It was looking at the abandoned industrial fields at the edge of the railway line. I liked that way of looking at the world. 

It taught me more than most other books I've read about how to look at nature and how to look at the city with fresh eyes.

"It taught me more than most other books I've read about how to look at nature and how to look at the city with fresh eyes."

Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan

Preeta Samarasan is a Malaysian author. (preetasamarasan.com, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

"It's a book that I took out of the library when it came out, on a whim. I didn't know anything about it. I took it out because I liked the title, which is incredibly elegant. 

"But I took it out of the library once — and then again and again and again. I don't actually own a copy. It was a book I kept studying because of the way that it told a complex, intergenerational family story. It's incredibly lyrical. The prose is beautiful, but it's about generational trauma and structural racism. 

The prose is beautiful, but it's about generational trauma and structural racism.

"It's set in Malaysia and follows a family who experience a mysterious tragedy. It's one of those books that was so perfect. I couldn't stop thinking about it and it still is always in the back of my mind."

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Madeleine Thien's novel won the 2016 Governor General's Literary Award for fiction and the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize. (Babak Salari/Knopf Canada)

"I love, love, love this book. I remember that when I finished it, I was sitting at my kitchen table. I put it down and I cried for 20 minutes. 

It was one of those books that also really fed into my own thinking about how to write.

"It was like it shifted something in my own body. It was one of those books that also fed into my own thinking about how to write. It was the book I kept coming back to while I was writing Two Trees Make a Forest. I studied it a lot because I loved the way she wove in the present narrative of the story with the idea of an inherited story. It worked so well. 

"It is a book I study as a writer. Very few books have moved me as much as that book did."

The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi, translated by Darryl Sterk

Wu Ming-Yi is a Taiwanese author, artist, photographer, professor and environmental activist. His 2015 novel The Stolen Bicycle was translated by Canadian Darryl Sterk. (Chen Meng-Ping, Text Publishing Company)

"This book came out a while back in Taiwan. I was excited when it was translated, which was about five years ago. It's an amazing book. It plays with languages, and it renders different Taiwanese languages phonetically. It's fascinating on that level and it's structured gracefully. 

"I looked at this book a lot also while writing Two Trees Make a Forest. It helped me to see how my grandfather's story deserved its own space, because in The Stolen Bicycle, Wu Ming-Yi gives separate space in the form of these codas to the story of bicycles that have been in their life. 

It's an amazing book. It plays with languages, and it renders different Taiwanese languages phonetically.

"I learned a lot from that. It's such a rich story of tracing a family past and the way Taiwan has changed. It feels like walking into a forest and standing there."

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Ruth Ozeki is an American Canadian novelist, filmmaker and Zen Buddhist priest. (Penguin Canada)

"This is a novel that has shown me more about the aliveness of the world. There isn't a single thing in this book that doesn't feel alive and that doesn't have a power to it. Nothing is passive.

It's a novel where there's no passivity and there's such an active swirling of power.

"A piece of kelp or seaweed in this book has an entire world and an entire story. All of the people in the book and their words have such power. It's a novel where there's no passivity and there's an active swirling of power. 

"This book creeps into my mind when I think about writing and when I think about what I want from every book I read."

Jessica J. Lee's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

The Canada Reads 2021 contenders

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