Three Mini Reviews for August
Here are three quick reviews of three very different books I read this month. A fanciful retelling, a time travel story with heart, and a nonfiction personal travelogue. Which of them appeals to you?
The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo
Genre: Literary Fiction
Published 2021; 260 pages
This is a retelling of the Great Gatsby which I read so long ago that I only have the vaguest memory of the story. As I read this, it came back to me a bit, but this is clearly a different take. Still set in the 1920s and Gatsby is still a decadent, entitled person. Daisy is still an entitled flakey person. But the twist is that it's narrated by a new character who was adopted into one of the wealthy families - a young Asian woman (19-20) who isn't quite "in" but not quite an outsider. Jordan (not quite a name for the 1920's I think) is an interesting character: she's articulate, observant, a friend but in a removed way, a dabbler in magic. Here's the opening sentence:
"The wind came into the house from the Sound, and it blew Daisy and me around her East Egg mansion like puffs of dandelion seeds, like foam, like a pair of young women in white dresses who had no cares to weigh them down."
The writing style is befitting a retelling of Gatsby; it's elegant and slightly formal. It's feels very true to the era. But Jordan is a bit of a free thinker because she's 'different' and has had to find her own way. There's a bit of magic that I sometimes found confusing - it appears Gatsby has made a deal with the devil (?) and his property has a slight magical veil over it. Jordan has a touch of cultural, historic magic in that she can cut shapes from paper and they come to life. That whole aspect of the story felt appealing, but also felt a bit confusing.
Overall, I feel like it's a good version of retelling, keeping more to the original story than most retellings do, but not a 5 star for me, mostly due to the magic confusion.
Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen
Published 2019; 336 pages
I listened to this book and the audio was well done; the narrator managed a couple of accents and male/female voicing well. This is a time travel story that takes place in the 1990s and 2140s, as a time traveling secret agent has a landing go wrong and gets stuck in the 1990s for 18 years - against all rules he marries and has a child. Then another agent from the future finds him, takes him home (against his will; he doesn't want to leave his family) and as he returns to the future, his memories of that time start to return and he remeets his former fiance`. To her he's been on assignment a short time, but for him it's been 18 years!
Once he returns to the future, the story focuses a lot on his sense of loss of his family and the difficulty reconnecting with his fiance`. He finds a way to use the current technology to look back and find his wife and daughter and doesn't like what he sees so sets out to change it (again, against all the rules).
The second half of the book takes on an epistolary mode as lots of emails are exchanged between dad, Kin, and daughter, Miranda. That allows us to be actively involved in both timelines. A series of events occur that force Kin to return to the past to try and save his daughter. The ending seems a bit rushed to pull all the ends together, but it's a satisfying conclusion. This is a very readable, imaginative novel that unexpectedly blends the wonder of time travel with a strong dose of love and family connections.
The Catch Me If You Can by Jessica Nabongo
Published 2022, 416 pages
This travelogue book is by the first black woman to visit all 195 countries and 10 territories in the world. Over several years, this determined woman traveled the world and identified two important revelations:
"First, most people are good. My journey was made possible by the kindness of strangers - some who opened their homes to me and others who donated money to help me reach the finish line. I do not know when we started to assume the worst in each other, but if you consider yourself to be a good person, why would you assume that a stranger is a bad one?"
The second lesson: "we are more similar than we are different. In the end, neither race, gender, social class, religion, sexual orientation, body type, education level, nor nationality make you better than the next person."
Nabongo is a photographer and this book is almost a coffee table book of the countries she visited. It does not include all 195 because she feels like she didn't have enough personal experience of every country to write about it. In most cases she traveled with friends, but she also ventured out alone in order to meet her goal - which took just a few years. Each country gets a few pages - some beautiful photos and a brief write up with her impressions, what she did/ate that she loved and people she met along the way. She talks about how she felt and was treated as a black woman traveling to some pretty exotic places - and it wasn't all sunshine and lollipops!
While not a travel guide, it does mention specific sights, restaurants, or events that she did that she loved. She talks about some touristy things and some that she avoided. It reads more like a personal travelogue. It's not necessarily a book to sit down and just read straight through like a novel. It's a book to fill it the bits of time around other things when you can savor the photos and her experiences.