The island of Lee’s interest is Taiwan, and this linguistic excavation makes a fitting opening for a project that relies on archeological exploration ... The poignant question Lee’s story poses is this: How is one to distinguish the idiosyncratic and personal from tradition and culture? Even harder still, how is one to do this if sundered from that very culture? ... Throughout the book, Lee writes compellingly about all the ways Taiwan has been mythologized and orientalized, from the seventeenth century Dutch and Spanish, to Chinese and Japanese conquerors and colonists ... She also makes thoughtful and meticulous distinctions between language variations and transliteration standards in the Chinese diaspora—differences that are often elided in Western writing about Asia ... Love is attention, as the saying goes, and in this, Lee’s memoir truly shines. A remarkable exercise in careful attention, be it to the nuances of language, the turns of colonial history, or a grandfather’s difficult-to-read handwriting, Two Trees Makes A Forest is a moving treatise on how to look closely and see truthfully, even as the fog rolls in.
...luminscent ... combines a botanist’s precision with a poet’s eye and ear ... In Two Trees Make a Forest, she has created a powerful, beautifully written account of the connections between people and the places they call home.
... a stunning reconnaissance effort to uncover and connect with family history through language and landscape ... Through her luminous narrative, Lee provides an intimate history of an island, using all the languages available to her: English, Mandarin, Taiwanese, German, and those of an environmental historian ... Lee’s lyrical prose is steeped in observation ... Lee makes us feel we are experiencing this journey with her. Our hearts race, we catch our breath, our legs tire, and we take in the scenery ... Two Trees Make a Forest seeks to understand the forces responsible for exile, and the deep loss associated with it.
...complicated but thoughtful ... Lee’s journey is accomplished with uneven levels of literary success ... The divides of language, then, are a center point, and they go hand in hand with the unreliability of memory ... The story is, in a sense, unstable, and puts the reader in a precarious position: who can ultimately be trusted, if anyone, to share this family’s history? ... She dedicates much time in the memoir to incorporating the vast tale of Taiwan — its political landscape, the mapping of its boundaries, and its geography. But she often gets too stuck in the details without drawing parallels back to her own family in a timely enough manner, causing us to lose the reason for the narrative in the first place ... The narrator is a bit more successful when writing of the island’s early mapping and shifting geography rather than its political fluctuations. Though that, too, is aimless at times ... Such elegance of language is ever present in the work; poetic and emotive, unfurling to reveal passages about her family, her pain, and her exploration of Taiwan’s myriad habitats, which arise from its delicate status as an island positioned between two tectonic plates ... It is a troublesome place to be for the reader. But perhaps there is a method to that fragmentation.
Intermingled family, geographical and political history make this a fascinating and gentle read. It is both an introduction to Taiwan, its people and its topography, and a highly personal, and honest, account of one family. It is beautifully written, full of metaphor and short passages of illuminating description ... there is also a sense of rising peace. As Lee plods determinedly up mountains in the wind and rain she, like many before her, finds relief in the steady act of walking and the slow, determined growth of trees.
Lee finds her own ways of imprinting her rediscovered homeland on her spirit. Using her skills as a scholar, she identifies the many species she finds as she hikes and bikes through the countryside, some existing nowhere else in the world. As Taiwan reveals itself, Lee comes to a kind of peace. Gong’s past and her present, so evocatively examined, suggest the forest she needed to find.
As an environmental history scholar and nature writer, Lee brings a fascinating perspective to Taiwan based on an immersive connection to the land. Lee eloquently describes Taiwan’s landscapes and natural history ... There are some fascinating bits of information about Taiwan ... The pacing can be a little slow at times, especially due to the alternating sequence of the family- and nature-driven parts. This makes it somewhat like the literary equivalent of following a meandering route, where sometimes it’s what you see along the way and not the final destination that matters.
Jessica Lee brings natural, political, and family history together in a deft combination of scientific and political facts, environmental and political observations, and most poignantly, personal and family reflection ... The complexity of Taiwan’s history serves as an analogue for the tragedy of her Gong (grandfather) and Po (grandmother), and the twists and turns of their life—moving from China through Taiwan and finally to Canada. Lee writes with palpable fondness for Gong ... Lee’s memories of Po are more nuanced, and readers come to learn from where Po’s anger stemmed—a privileged childhood that turned into a hard life of privation and separation ... A key lesson in Lee’s book is that reclaiming the culture and landscape you have lost is hard work ... Ultimately, there are no answers—there is a futility in trying to find yourself in a landscape, much like the futility of trying to find meaning in Gong’s unfinished letter ... Lee teaches us that there is value in the journey.
This elegiac book, which smoothly incorporates historical and travel threads, was born from the desire to embrace her heritage. With a doctorate in environmental history and an impressive grasp of botany and geology, Lee takes readers on a fascinating tour of the island and its past ... Chronicling her adventures in the mountains and along the shores, she comments insightfully on contemporary issues of politics, prejudice, and pollution as well as her efforts to master the language and bond with long-lost relatives ... A beautiful and personal view of an island—and an author—shaped by environment and history.