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Reviews of Dispersals by Jessica Lee

Dispersals

On Plants, Borders, and Belonging

by Jessica J. Lee

Dispersals by Jessica J. Lee X
Dispersals by Jessica J. Lee
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  • Published:
    Mar 2024, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rose Rankin
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Book Summary

A prize-winning memoirist and nature writer turns to the lives of plants entangled in our human world to explore belonging, displacement, identity, and the truths of our shared future

A seed slips beyond a garden wall. A tree is planted on a precarious border. A shrub is stolen from its culture and its land. What happens when these plants leave their original homes and put down roots elsewhere?

In fourteen essays, Dispersals explores the entanglements of the plant and human worlds: from species considered invasive, like giant hogweed; to those vilified but intimate, like soy; and those like kelp, on which our futures depend. Each of the plants considered in this collection are somehow perceived as being 'out of place'—weeds, samples collected through imperial science, crops introduced and transformed by our hand. Combining memoir, history, and scientific research in poetic prose, Jessica J. Lee meditates on the question of how both plants and people come to belong, why both cross borders, and how our futures are more entwined than we might imagine.

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BookBrowse Review

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Plants are a lens through which Lee tries to understand her own identity and that of her family. Born to a Welsh father and Taiwanese mother who settled in Canada, she is attuned to the realities of migration and a sense of "otherness" wherever she goes, be that her own home, her parents' birthplaces, or the many places she moved during a peripatetic adulthood. Of herself and her sister she says, "We wear a border in our bodies." Lee weaves together personal stories—of her family's gardens, trees from her youth, and learning to grow plants as an adult—with historical events and current social issues reflected in the natural world. For example, she describes how plants have been an instrument of empire, with the example of Japan gifting cherry trees during its imperial period in the 19th and 20th centuries...continued

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(Reviewed by Rose Rankin).

Media Reviews

Shelf Awareness
Exquisite, haunting ... Lee continues her insistent, clear-eyed quest for nourishment and vitality, even when both are complicated, and encourages readers to do the same.

Literary Hub
Lee evokes a centuries-long history of border crossings—by people and by plants—to throw into question what it means to really belong, love, and protect, and what our collective future might hold on a planet forever evolving in the wake of trans-continental migration.

Scientific American
Weaving material from literary, personal, scientific and historical sources, Lee examines plants—including seaweed and far beyond it—that broach human borders, exploring their migrations alongside her own ... Lee writes intimately about her own oscillating cravings for movement and rootedness against a backdrop of COVID and new motherhood ... Dispersals asks readers to consider how plants challenge not only spatial borders but taxonomic ones.

Library Journal (starred review)
Richly textured ... These essays critically probe the native/nonnative paradigm of invasive-species ecology. Lee's voice will stay with readers long after they finish this book.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Lee does a masterful job of blending personal reflection with natural and political history, and her prose is crystalline ... This deserves a wide audience.

Booklist
Lee writes lucidly about her encounters with various plant species and poses reflective questions about plants and her own sense of belonging. Memoir readers interested in plants and environmental studies especially will find a poignant meditation on the parallels between plants and human societies when it comes to life's transitions and movements.

Kirkus Reviews
The author laces her histories with a subtle and personal optimism. Just as those plants replanted far from home, we can adapt to transition, dispersal, and recollection. An insightful meditation on nature and identity within 'a world in motion.'

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Beyond the Book

Tea's Role in World History

Close-up photograph of a fresh green tea plant bud in sunshine Few plants have impacted world history as profoundly as Camellia sinensis, the tea plant. Jessica J. Lee, in her book Dispersals: On Plants, Borders, and Belonging, describes how tea is integral to both seemingly disparate halves of her family tree—her Welsh paternal grandparents and her Taiwanese maternal family all loved tea and consumed it constantly, in different permutations and customs all stemming from the same plant. Even as she struggles to re-learn Mandarin, the many words for tea spill out effortlessly when she remembers childhood teachings, so embedded is this plant in her being.

Tea is indeed intertwined with both Asian and British history—central to East Asian cultures for thousands of years, its ...

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Read-Alikes

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