The Last Story of Mina Lee

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Nancy Jooyoun Kim
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Sep. 2020 (read Aug. 2020)

Special thanks to Harper Collins Canada for providing me with an advance copy of The Last Story of Mina Lee in exchange for an honest review.

I was thrilled to receive a copy of The Last Story of Mina Lee because it sounds like everything I love in a book – a multi-generational family drama about an immigrant family trying to fit in in America. It instantly reminded me of Jean Kwok’s books, which I love, and is quoted as being great for fans of Celeste Ng, whom I also love.

It tells the story of korean mother and daughter, Mina and Margot Lee. Mina moved to America in the late 1980’s to escape the trauma of losing her family in Korea and ends up living in LA, becoming pregnant with Margot. 26 years later Margot is living and working in Seattle and comes home to find her mother has passed away. Margot believes there may be something suspicious in Mina’s death and begins to investigate, discovering along the way that Mina had a lot of secrets. Margot struggles to come to terms with what she learns as she mourns the death of a mother she feels like she never knew.

The story takes place across two timelines. One is the story of Mina’s arrival in America and the first year of her life in LA. The second is modern day Margot trying to find out what happened to her mom. It’s a great family drama about the challenges of bridging two cultures and what drives people to seek a challenging undocumented life in America. It’s about how you never really know the history people are carrying with them and the way in which our secrets can haunt both us and the ones we love.

I thought this was a great debut novel, but I didn’t love it quite as much as I’d hoped. I felt the author struggled to keep the story moving at times and that the dual timeline wasn’t as well executed as it could have been. I was enthralled with Mina’s story and found it fascinating to learn about what drove her to America and the challenges she faced once arriving. It sheds a lot of light on how undocumented individuals are taken advantage of and can easily become trapped. How employers can abuse and manipulate their workers under the threat of reporting them to ICE. Unfortunately I didn’t find Margot’s story quite as engaging.

I struggled to understand why Margot was so suspicious of her mother’s death, I understand it was her own way of grieving her mother, but I didn’t really love the decision to try and link the present and the past. Mina’s life in the 1980’s was in most ways totally separate from her present day life, and I didn’t like how the author tried to link these two timelines so closely when they were so far removed from one another. The mystery element just didn’t really work for me and I think I would have preferred a more simple family drama about Mina’s life and Margot mourning the loss of someone she thought she knew but discovered she really didn’t. The right elements were all there, I just would have like to see some greater emotional exploration over the mystery.

But overall, it was a solid debut and I would give it 3.5 stars. Despite finding some weaknesses in the plot, I thought the writing was good and I’ll definitely be interested to see what else Nancy Jooyoun Kim writes in the future. I thought it was actually being released today and timed my review as such, but I see now on Goodreads that it actually released a week early, so happy 1 week since publication!

A Very Punchable Face

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Colin Jost
Genres: Humour, Memoir
Pub. date: Jul. 2020 (read Jul. 2020 on Audible)

This was a fun read that pretty much delivered what I was expecting, with a few surprises. Not totally sure why I picked this one up, I think I just saw it Audible and thought it would be a funny listen. I don’t really know that much about Colin Jost or have any particularly strong feelings about him, but I always get a kick out of watching him and Pete Davidson on Update so I figured why not give it a go.

Like most memoirs of this type, the book is a collection of stories, mostly funny, about Jost’s intro to comedy and his time at SNL. The essays are good and I laughed out loud at more than one of them, although I was left wondering how one person, who never really does anything dangerous, can injure themselves so many times. He had some interesting insights into what it’s like working at SNL – the long hours, the seemingly endless amount of rejection, and how you always have to be prepared to just roll with the punches (pun intended).

I think jost is a little too fond of Staten Island and maybe needs to be more critical of its flaws and that he should probably get over the google incident, but what stuck with me were his more meaningful essays about his mom and the NYC fire department. As a community of firefighters, many were first responders for 9/11, including Jost’s Mom, and I really appreciated his thoughtful essay on what that was like for him and his family. I’m a sucker for men who openly love their moms (hello Trevor Noah), so I really liked this essay.

Beyond that I don’t have a whole lot to say. Jost alludes at the end that he may soon be moving on from SNL and I would agree with his assessment that after 15 years, it’s probably time. I’m interested to see what else he’ll do next. There’s just one thing in this book he’s wrong about; Aidy Bryant. She is the best cast member.

Catch and Kill

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Ronan Farrow
Genres: Non-fiction
Pub. date: Oct. 2019 (read Aug. 2020 on Audible)

Catch and Kill was one of those books that I read the synopsis for ages ago, added it to my TBR, and then promptly forgot entirely what it was about. My book club voted for this as our August book and I enthusiastically purchased the audiobook thinking this would make for a great listen! I was mostly right.

The book is great. I vaguely knew it was about Harvey Weinstein, but I had no idea it was also about years of cover up and a culture of silence at prominent news outlets. There’s a lot more to be found within these pages than just the breaking of the Weinstein case and the follow-up #metoo movement. What really stuck with me was the level that powerful men go to to both silence and discredit women, but also the level that other powerful men will go to to protect the power of other men. There is so much gaslighting of women, it just really struck home how much women are up against in Hollywood, the entertainment industry, and really just in general. It’s ironic that people like Donald Trump cry fake news at liberal media outlets and then it turns out that those same media outlets are in fact protecting other wealthy white men like Donald Trump.

I have to give props to Farrow, this was a wonderful piece of journalism. It really does read like a thriller crime novel and at times I struggled to believe the scope of influence that Hollywood’s powerful have over the entire industry. How widespread a network serial abusers have, the insane amount of power, and how far the industry will go to protect their talent. What is most terrifying is the culture of NDA’s that seems to exist throughout our entire society, well beyond the confines of protecting just the rich and powerful. In the wake of the #metoo movement, it’s become evident that so many companies use NDA’s to protect any and all levels of powerful men, even those that are not Hollywood famous. What’s more frightening (to me anyways) is the many abusers working for organizations that are not newsworthy. Those women face the same shame and sabotage to their careers with none of the fanfare (by which I mean press interested in exposing their abusers or access to funds to seek legal counsel).

The book has a large cast of characters that at times feels a little confusing, but Farrow maintains a compelling narrative throughout the entirety of the book. I feel like I’ve attempted other audiobooks of this nature where I got lost in all the names, but for the most part I was able to follow along with Farrow and keep most people straight. Where I did think the book could use a little improvement though was in providing adequate backstory. I felt that Farrow assumed I had more knowledge about the book and who he is than I actually did. I had no idea who Farrow was before reading this and he would often allude to people or events without giving the proper context. It’s a small complaint, but at times I felt he was little ahead of his reader.

The only other complaint I have was with Farrow’s accents in the audiobook. They were truly terrible and really took away from the narrative. Apparently every single person Farrow knows has some kind of accent and he is terrible at all of them. It was distracting and frankly a bit embarrassing. But what was worse was his impersonations of women. Please please please, don’t try and use a voice when you are reading for women. It was insulting. He made all the women sound really breathy and bad. Just use your own damn voice. Your accents and impersonations add nothing and are distracting from an otherwise good audiobook.

The one part of this audiobook though that you will not get from the paperback is the recording of Harvey Weinstein. I can’t remember the name of the women who took the recording, but it’s the one where he’s trying to get her up to his hotel room (I know, that could be anyone, Weinstein is disgusting) and she is protesting and he says “I’m used to that”. I assume the paperback has a transcript of the recording, but the audiobook has the actual recording and it is chilling. His coerciveness and entitlement is repulsive – I could easily see this being a trigger for victims of abuse though, so please be aware.

In conclusion, this was a great piece of investigative journalism and I applaud Farrow for his conviction in sticking with it, but more importantly, my praise goes out to all the women who were a part of this story. To the women brave enough to come forward with their stories; to the women whose careers were ruined; to the women who reported and were ignored or hushed with NDAs; and to the women who have not come forward but who have still suffered all the same. They are the real heroes of this story. I hope that your courage will allow the women who come behind you to be heard, believed, and amplified.

If you’re looking for another perspective, check out She Said, by Jodi Kantor and Meghan Twohey, which I will be adding to my TBR. Please read this, but more importantly, please believe women.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Christy Lefteri
Genres: Historical Fiction, Fiction
Pub. date: Aug. 2019 (read Jul. 2020 on Audible)

I read The Beekeeper of Aleppo for my July book club meeting. I was super excited when I first heard about this book because it sounded really compelling. It’s about the war in Syria and focuses on the journey of one couple as they decide to leave Syria and flee through Europe to the UK.

Nuri is a beekeeper with his cousin Mustafa and his wife, Afra, is an artist. They are happy in Syria and want to stay, but when war breaks out it becomes unsafe to do so and Afra becomes blind. So they finally decide to leave and try to make it to the UK, where Mustafa, who left earlier, is also trying to go. The book follows their journey across Turkey and Greece and eventually England. They face many struggles along the road, but the real struggle comes when they finally stop moving and are forced to come to terms with everything that happened to them before and along the journey.

I really wanted to love this. There were parts that I really liked and it was an interesting enough story, but I felt like it maybe could have benefited from a stronger author. The story had a lot of potential, but it was just lacking, both in writing style and intrigue. The story moved extremely slowly, which can work in a book like this, but it just didn’t have the writing to carry it through. The author has Greek/Cypriot parents and volunteered with a refugee NGO in Greece, which is what inspired her to write this story. I felt that the author had a story to tell, but unfortunately she just didn’t really have the prowess or the skills to tell it. I feel bad saying that because I’m sure her intentions were good, but the writing just didn’t work for me. I really wanted more from the story.

She does create some interesting characters, but they kind of all fell flat to me, like no one lived up to their potential. For example, why the obsession with bees? Like I get it, but what did the beekeeper story really add to this book? It was overdone with limited meaning. I also found the deeper themes to be lacking. I get what Lefteri was going for with Muhammed and Nuri, but it felt too forced to be natural or cathartic. I felt like she was trying to force an emotional reaction rather than one that would naturally occur from good storytelling and lived experience. Likewise with the symbolism of Afra being blind – it just felt kind of basic to me and I’m not totally sure what it added to the story. Like I get it – I just wish there was more to it.

Which raises the age old question of whether Lefteri was the right person to tell this story. I really do believe that people can and should tell stories that they haven’t been directly impacted by, but in 2020, it is starting to get a bit old reading so many modern day stories not told by own-voices authors. Jeanine Cummins got all kinds of flak for writing American Dirt – I’m not saying it wasn’t justified – but I don’t see how Beekeeper is any different. It just hasn’t been as big a seller I guess and so it hasn’t drawn the same backlash. Personally though, of the two, I thought American Dirt was the better story. But there’s no denying both books could have been written by different authors.

It’s really a hard question about where the line is. Lefteri got published where another Syrian author likely didn’t. I’m sure there are other authors writing these stories and I would love to see them in the mainstream. But honestly – that’s on me as a reader too. As a co-chair to my Book Club it’s something I need to reflect on more and take more ownership over. We are 10 individuals committing to read a book, it’s important that we pick the right ones, even if they’re not always bestsellers…yet. I will try to do better.

The Dutch House

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Ann Patchett
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Sep. 2019 (read Apr. 2020)

I read The Dutch House way back in April and I really wish I had reviewed it back when I read it. But it was in the middle of Covid back then and I wasn’t feeling much motivation to do anything, so I let it slide, which is a shame because I really loved this book. I’m going to do my best to review it now, but I apologize if some of the details are now a little foggy.

I read The Dutch House as an audiobook, which was a real treat because it is narrated by Tom Hanks! I wasn’t too sure what to expect, but it’s touted as a family drama that spans 50 years, so I was definitely intrigued. The story is about brother and sister Danny and Maeve – from their childhood right up to their late adulthood. At the center of the story is the Dutch House, an old and extravagant manor that was purchased by their father when they were children. Through a serious of events and misunderstandings, Danny and Maeve find themselves kicked out of the Dutch House, and though it’s decades before they ever cross the threshold again, the house and the fall out from the house still dominates their lives for many years to come.

It’s really a fascinating concept for a story. You don’t think of a house as being a protagonist to a story, but I also read Melina Marchetta’s, The Place on Dalhousie, last year and it’s interesting how much value we’ve learned to place on our childhood homes and how those spaces can influence us far into our adult years. Houses are after all so much more than just buildings, they are homes and the memories and feelings we attach to them are powerful driving forces.

At it’s heart I think this is really a novel about the influence our parents have on us and how powerful family bonds can be. Danny grew up tagging along after his father, Cyril, who was a self made business man who finds wealth in owning and renting real estate. Cyril thought he had finally escaped the cycle of poverty for his family, so it comes as a shock to Danny when he finds himself at the bottom and forced with making his own way in the world. At the same time, Maeve’s childhood is defined by the disappearance of her mother. Her mother never loved the extravagance of the Dutch House and leaves to volunteer in India. Danny and Maeve are always told about their mother’s goodness, but all they can see is the woman who was never there.

Both struggle from abandonment in different ways and the eventual falling out with their stepmother Andrea over the ownership of the Dutch House casts a shadow over the rest of their lives. Maeve is discontented at being cut out of the Dutch House and puts all her effort into helping Danny become as successful as possible, despite how miserable it makes him. Each character’s greed over the Dutch House ultimately consumes their lives, with each thinking that wealth will make them happy, when really it’s only the family that lived in the Dutch House that could do that.

This is the exact kind of literary fiction I love and reminds me that I really should read more family dramas. Each character is enormously flawed and nuanced. To the outsider it’s so obvious that Maeve needs to let go of the Dutch House and Danny to start pursuing his own happiness, but each continues down their own path of destruction, completely blinded by their feelings of injustice. Every character is complex, as are their relationships with one another. I suppose some people might find the plot lacking in drive, but these characters and their relationships with one another were like a train wreck I couldn’t look away from.

Tom Hanks narration is excellent and I think this is one book that time has improved for me. The characters were definitely frustrating at times, but looking back on it, the whole song and dance and obsession over the Dutch House was just so enthralling. Families can pick you up, but they can also let you down, and I loved watching how Danny and Maeve both grew and were stunted by their emancipation from the Dutch House. Would definitely recommend this book!