Review: The Story of Mina Lee – The Monotony of the Great American Dream


Title: The Last Story of Mina Lee
Author:
Nancy Jooyoun Kim
Publisher:
Park Row Books

Genre(s): Fiction, Historical Fiction
Subject(s)/Themes(s): Asian-American immigrants
Representation: Korean MCs (ownvoices)

Release Date: September 1st, 2020
Page Count: 384 (hardback)
Rating: 4.0/10

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Margot Lee’s mother, Mina, isn’t returning her calls. It’s a mystery to twenty-six-year-old Margot, until she visits her childhood apartment in Koreatown, LA, and finds that her mother has suspiciously died. The discovery sends Margot digging through the past, unraveling the tenuous invisible strings that held together her single mother’s life as a Korean War orphan and an undocumented immigrant, only to realize how little she truly knew about her mother.

Interwoven with Margot’s present-day search is Mina’s story of her first year in Los Angeles as she navigates the promises and perils of the American myth of reinvention. While she’s barely earning a living by stocking shelves at a Korean grocery store, the last thing Mina ever expects is to fall in love. But that love story sets in motion a series of events that have consequences for years to come, leading up to the truth of what happened the night of her death.

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What traits do we inherit from our culture’s history?

That’s something I think about on occasion. Like, how a good chunk of our personality might be determined by something that some random person in our country did decades or centuries before we were born. One action that branched into another and another, until an entire cataclysmic event sprouted and fell with a ricochet that would be felt generations later.

Maybe it’s pride that we inherited. Maybe it’s something more sinister – bitterness, fear, hate, a defensiveness that comes from trying to squash down the knee-jerk bitterness, fear, and hate. Maybe such cultural traumas are always inevitably passed down, zero chance of escape, and the best we can do is understand and navigate them.

That’s more or less the lane of thought The Last Story of Mina Lee ventures into. And when it comes to the topic of personal traumas wrapped in cultural traumas and one’s disassociative response to them, this book nails it. Does it so well, in fact, that I felt disassociated from the narrative itself.

Boredom, meet book. The only reason I didn’t scribble it down as a DNF was because I wanted to know the real reason behind Mina’s death. Surely all this slow burn was leading up to some sort of payoff? Disappointment, meet Kathy.

The prose is a head-scratcher. The writing is technically good, descriptive and occasionally florid, and yet so dry that you can scrape splinters with it. The book is meant to be a slow-paced slice-of-life story strung together by small and intimate moments, but everything felt so strangely devoid of real emotions and it was like I was seeing things happen through multiple sheets of glass. Any emotional connection I formed with these characters were annoyingly casual and brief.

I found Margot’s chapters especially trying. A lot of dull spoon-feeding of exposition and musings and an endless list of questions. That last one drove me insane. Asking rhetorical questions every other paragraph doesn’t make a scene any more poignant or mysterious, and at some point it just becomes silly and reads like a weird third-person diary.

Still, Margot does offer some memorable moments of clarity and reflections regarding immigrant life and culture (if not a better insight into her own personality beyond “young Asian-American woman who has a prickly relationship with her mom”):

“How much language itself was a home, a shelter, as well as a way of navigating the larger world. And perhaps that was why Margot never put much effort into learning Korean. She hadn’t been able to stand to be under the same roof as her mom.”

Mina’s chapters are slightly better. They follow her as she tries to adjust to a new life in L.A. Koreatown in the wake of her family’s death. It’s a look into the life of an immigrant who arrived with nothing but the clothes on her back, hoping to escape into a better future – or, at the very least, a different one. It’s utterly, distinctly unromantic, which is both a positive and a negative. Mina’s day-to-day drudgery at her supermarket job is only punctuated by the occasional conversations with her neighbour and coworker, and it’s clear that this is a woman who’s stuck in a rut, going through the motions of life.

Is it a realistic portrayal of someone who’s in her position? Whittled down by recent tragedies, compounded by her memories of the Korean War, further compounded by her struggles as an undocumented immigrant? Absolutely. Does it make for an engaging read? No. Especially not when her conclusion feels so rushed and empty, like a book with the endpages ripped out.

And, at the end of it, I’m not quite sure what audience the book is meant to satisfy. Is it a mystery? If you squint really hard, yes. Is it a mother-daughter family drama? In a very one-sided, perfunctory way, sure. Are there other Asian-American stories that handle this theme of cultural displacement with more conviction? Definitely.

See – I too can ask many questions and give not-quite-satisfying answers.

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Thank you to the publisher for having me on the blog tour!

I’m now off to knock on the WordPress gates and have some words with whoever designed this new interface and grumble at the fact that we’re being forced to use it. WHY.

Meanwhile, you can also find me on:

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Smoke City – A Beautiful Story of Redemption and Hope and How We Choose to Live Our Lives

Smoke City
Title: Smoke City
Author: Keith Rosson
Publisher: Meerkat Press
Release Date: January 23rd, 2018
Genre(s): Contemporary, Fantasy, Paranormal, Historical Fiction
Page Count: 330 pages
Goodreads

Rating: 9.5/10

 

 

I’m speechless. I came into this book expecting something interesting and thought-provoking based on the cover and the blurb, but what I got exceeded my already-high expectations in every single way. I cried and laughed and cried. If you read one book this year, make it Smoke City. It is a dizzy melting pot of genres and subgenreshistory, fantasy, paranormal, and contemporary road trip. It had every potential to go off the rails. Instead, Keith Rosson has nailed every single element and given us an unforgettable story that brims with humour, hope, and the small and large truths of our lives.

We are often told that we only get one life in this world, so make the best of it. Live without regrets. But what if we do get more than one life? And what if our regrets follow from one life to the other? These are questions that haunt Marvin Deitz.

Marvin is on the cusp of his 57th birthday. He’s the owner of a small record store in Portland, and, apart from his eyepatch, looks like nothing more than a nondescript office clerk. He also happens to be the most recent reincarnated form of Geoffroy Thérage, the French executioner of Joan of Arc. Yeah, you read that right. He believes he’s cursed to be reborn again and again, presumably until the end of time, as penance for the sins of his first life.

The Three Parameters of the Curse:

1) I will die sometime between infancy and my fifty-sixth birthday. I have never, ever lived to my fifty-seventh birthday, in any of my lives.
2) I will always suffer some significant disfigurement or physiognomic alteration sometime between infancy and my first two decades of life. Generally pretty early on. The disfigurement will be something that, to some degree, alters and dictates the pathway of my existence. Loss of limb, birth defect, etc. Losing an eye, as I did in this life, is actually somewhat mundane.
3) When I die, I will without fail die a violent death. No going peacefully in my sleep for this guy.

Marvin retains all memories of his previous lives, all of which are fraught with pain and horror. His past actions haunt himthe prisoners he tortured and the innocent lives he ended. And the heaviest burden of them all: the burning of Joan. Life has become a blur of greys and all he wants is to wait for the next violent death to claim him.

Michael Vale was once a young rising rockstar of a painter. The next big thing in the art world. But he burned too bright, too fast, and got too arrogant. One mistake led to another and another, and before he knew it, his career and personal life were taking a nose-dive. He’s neck deep in assault charges, bottles of alcohol, and no longer has the will to paint. Now he works as a cashier at a taco joint, dealing out hatred to himself and  others.

As these two men meet and journey their way to Los Angeles, we alternate between their viewpoints, each chapter short and digestible. We also get flashbacks to Vale’s early life and Marvin’s many lives, including that of Thérage. The latter provides a fascinating and bleak glimpse into the life of an executioner in the Middle Ages. Short, but told with so much pain, they make up some of the best parts of the story.

Vale and Marvin are a brilliant pair of contrasts and similarities. One mild-mannered and empathetic, the other perpetually brimming with energy and anger. Both wrapped up in regrets and bitterness. Both lost and fracturedshackled by the weight of their past and the off-handed cruelty of life.

You would think that in a story featuring the reincarnation of Joan of Arc’s executioner, said reincarnation would be the main draw. And it was, at first. But there was something about Michael Vale and his self-destructive ways that I found equally fascinating. Vale is an unrepentant alcoholic, he’s quick to anger, and would sooner land a punch than talk his way out of a confrontation. Seemingly plucked straight out of a grimdark novel, he’s someone you would give a wide berth at parties. Yet his story is one that invites sympathy and sorrow. Because it’s so very human. It’s mired in self-hatred and a lost love of life that so many of us can relate to. Marvin is the more likeable of the two, and his story is, if anything, even sadder–a string of hopes dared and crushed. He is a complicated mesh of history and fiction that you won’t be able to take your mind off of.

Their quest to find purpose and redemption is one that I was rooting super hard for.

The side characters that orbit these two are all very engaging and I chalk that up to the author’s touch for colloquial dialogues. They flow perfectly and they shift effortlessly from funny to moving. Gems like this, for example:

“So what is it that’s going to keep you afloat in Kodiak chew and ironic shirts when you’re in Los Angeles? Huh, my new friend Casper?”
Casper peered down at his chest. “What do you mean, ironic shirts?”
Vale’s eyebrows arched up. “I mean your shirt, man. The bald eagle holding the beer? Driving the truck? It’s ridiculous.”
“How is it ironic?”
“You mean it’s not ironic?”
Casper shrugged. “I don’t know. I like trucks. I like beer. Eagles are cool. I like it.”

The setting plays as equally an important role as the characters. I think the best road trip books are the ones that take mundane placesa parking lot, a motel, a stretch of farmlandand infuse them with a sense of both the familiar and the strange. Rosson does just that. He has a knack for distilling the heart of a location, a person, a scene, and transcribing them into words. His descriptions of the cityscape and its people are apt and so, so beautiful.

Speaking of strange, the author apparently thought that having the reincarnation of a 14th century executioner for a protagonist wasn’t weird enough, so he decided to add ghosts into the mix. In this version of America, smoke spirits (ghosts that resemble smoke, basically) have begun to appear in California and New Mexico. No one quite knows what they are, though plenty of theories are thrown aroundeverything from Russian scams to signs of the apocalypse. For most of the book, these ghosts exist in the background. It’s not until near the end that they merge with the main plot, and the result is well worth the wait.

Smoke City is a story of how much power we give to our pasts. Of how the choices we make too often dictate how we see ourselves for years down the line, sometimes the rest of our lives. How we punish ourselves for our actions, tell ourselves we don’t get to have happiness, that it’s too late to fix things. How we get trapped in an endless cycle of self- recrimination. And when life beats us down, we tell ourselves we deserve it.

But we are more than the summation of our mistakes. The past can be wielded by its hilt, not the blade.

And it’s never too late.