Thursday, June 23, 2016

Book Review - "Unless" by Carol Shields

A perfectly normal, healthy and congenial nineteen-year-old young woman who grew up in a closely-knit and nurturing well-to-do family suddenly quits university, her family and her boyfriend to panhandle in a street corner of downtown Toronto.

The novel is the youngster’s mother’s account of her experiences in dealing with the shocking loss of her lovely eldest daughter. She makes a desperate attempt to come up with possible reasons for her derelict daughter’s inconceivable action. Being a translator (from French to English) of memoirs written by a renowned French feminist, who has long influenced her worldview about gender inequality, she develops a bent towards the theory that her daughter’s action is an expression of her powerlessness in face of the world’s entrenched prejudices towards women; her only defense is withdrawal from life altogether. Interviewing her daughter’s boyfriend and university professor doesn’t provide any rational clues. Her desolation drives her to write imaginary letters lashing out at those writers whom she considers as sexist bigots. Meanwhile, she struggles, along with her husband and the other two daughters, to continue living life as normal as she can manage, being aware all the while though of the big hole left in the fabric of the household.

The denouement comes as quite disturbing but not too much of a surprise. In these modern times, we all know how a traumatic event could exert damaging mental stress on an otherwise perfectly normal person. But the reader is left to wonder if the immediate tangible cause (a traumatic event) is the only cause that fully explains the youngster’s abrupt self-abnegation. Could there be an ultimate cause too? Could the mother’s maternal instinct be correct – that the intangible cause is the incremental build-up in the girl’s young mind of innate fear and powerlessness evoked by what she perceives as a male-dominant universe in which she would never achieve greatness?

What’s so haunting about this novel is the realization that not even parents' sacrificial love can shield their vulnerable young girls from some of the world’s harshest realities.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Book Review - "The Queen's Vow: A Novel of Isabella of Castile" by C. W. Gortner

This was an engrossing and educational read about the reign of Isabella I of Castile, a bodacious female monarch who made her indelible mark on Spanish history. The timeline of the story stretched from 1464 (when she was 13 and an infante, 2nd in line to the throne) to 1492 (when she reached her 41st year).

Her early life before her coronation in 1474 was mostly spent as a captive in the Palace of Segovia, entrusted to the care of her half-brother King Enrique VI, whose consort gave birth to an alleged bastard daughter Joanna. King Enrique seemed to vacillate between allowing and disallowing this daughter to have a claim to the throne. Meanwhile Isabella’s full brother Alfonso decided to fight for his own right by rising up in arms against the King, but was subsequently poisoned to death. During all this tumult, Isabella met the love of her life, Fernando II of Aragon, who sowed in her the idea of a unified Spain, bringing Castile and Aragon under their joint rule. After many twists and turns, the lovers were married, and Isabella was crowned Queen of Castile in 1474 upon the death of King Enrique. She was portrayed in those budding years as cool-headed, witty, patient and above all, devoted to a fault to her Catholic faith.

Almost immediately after their wedding, Isabella, together with her husband and co-ruler, plunged into years of wars against neighboring Portugal (because Joanna sought Portugal’s help in trying to reclaim the Castilian throne) and against the Muslim Moors in Andalucia (because the Catholic monarchs vowed on unifying Spain under one single faith). All these wars ended in victory for the Spanish monarchs. It should be noted that Andalucia had become a refuge for many Jewish conversos, or New Christians, who had been coerced to convert to Catholic faith.

In 1483, on the persistent urge of the Dominican friar Tomas de Torquemada, Isabella and Fernando decided to establish a State Council for Inquisition to enforce Catholic orthodoxy and to persecute those conversos who continued to practice Judaism covertly. In 1492, the Spanish monarchs issued the Alhambra Decree ordering the expulsion of all Jews who refused to convert to the Catholic faith.

Whether the true underlying reason for the Inquisition and Expulsion was for financial gains from confiscating Jewish assets and property, or for quelling rising social discord between Catholics and Jews, or for the sake of political expediency, it remained a debate for historians. But it was an undeniable fact that Isabella, for all her humane and rational disposition, did put her signatures on those draconian and dogmatic edicts (whether or not under her husband’s influence), which led to massive sufferings and decimation of lives. True, though, she was not the first European monarch or the last to pursue an anti-Jewish policy.

In 1492, Isabella also agreed to finance Cristobal Colon's (Christopher Columbus') groundbreaking voyage to the New World.

In the “Afterword”, the author made this remark:

Isabella defied categorization with her heroism and contradictions; awesome in her resolve to forge a united nation, she was often misguided in her devotion to her faith, which gave rise to that infamous system of persecution known as the Spanish Inquisition.

It’s interesting to note that in Castile, a princess was allowed to succeed as the reigning monarch, whereas in Aragon, the Salic law prevailed to prohibit all royal females from inheriting the throne.

Gortner exhibits his talent in story-telling as well as his keen sense for cultural details in this riveting biographical historical novel. I’m giving it 4 full stars.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Book Review: "The Vatican Princess: A Novel of Lucrezia Borgia" by C. W. Gortner

This was an intensely enthralling read that transported me into the psyche of the protagonist. The novel is written from the perspective of Lucrezia Borgia in the first person. I’m usually not a fan of first-person narration, but it works surprisingly well in this novel, not to mention that the narrator is a male speaking in a female voice. There are a few graphic violent scenes that might not appeal to some readers.

The author successfully spins a possible theory and gripping plot about the much-maligned Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander VI, or Rodrigo Borgia, focusing on her first two political marriages and the enigmatic childbirth in between. In the narration, she morphs from an innocent adolescent who adores her family, especially her father and her older brother Cesare, to a victimized mature young woman who realizes that all her sufferings emanate from her family’s cruel and shadowy machinations. The transformation is fraught with unspeakable shame and pain, both physical and emotional. Her personal vicissitudes are set against a backdrop of political power strife between the Borgias’ papal monarchy and other Italian city-states and two European superpowers: Spain and France.

While the novel gives imaginary answers to the two burning questions that have been the subject of debate for centuries (did Lucrezia commit incest re: the enigmatic childbirth, and who murdered Juan Borgia?), in the end, there is no way of knowing what the “truth” really is.

The author says this in the Afterword, “This novel presents one possible theory (about Lucrezia’s incest), but I must emphasize that it is fictional, as is my theory about Juan Borgia’s murder. The frustrating truth is that we have no reliable documentation about what went on behind the Borgias’ closed doors.”

I find that many of the historical background details are similar to those found in Sarah Dunant’s Blood & Beauty: The Borgias, which suggests that the novel is well-researched. While Dunant employs a subtle and even keel approach in her writing, Gortner’s style in The Vatican Princess is more pungent and action-oriented. In Blood & Beauty, the characterization of Rodrigo, Cesare and Lucrezia are given more or less equal weighting, and the battle scenes and political intrigues are given a relatively detailed rendering. In The Vatican Princess, the spotlight rivets on the person of Lucrezia and her emotional trajectory.

Gortner’s vivid writing style and the tight plot structure appeal to me and I’m giving the novel 4 stars.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Book Review - "The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the Great" by Eva Stachniak

I’m giving this novel 3.7 stars.

This was an entertaining novel that read like a melodrama. The plot is believable and fastidiously executed. The writing is melodious and sentimental. The novel is immensely rich in descriptive details, especially about court etiquette, palatial decor, clothes and jewelry. Having recently read Robert Massie’s factual non-fiction title Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, I can avow that this novel is based on meticulous research.

The novel is written from the perspective of Varvara, a bookbinder’s daughter turned spy in the Russian court during Empress Elizabeth’s reign. The first two-thirds of the novel dwell on Elizabeth’s vagaries, her extravagance and her suspicious and jealous nature, all seen through Varvara’s critical eyes. By comparison, the character of Catherine the Great is given a much less detailed treatment, although it can be said that Catherine is shown in a much less flattering light here, compared to Massie’s biography.

Often, the narrative is bogged down with Varvara’s personal maturing pains and many unnecessary details about places and things that are unrelated to the royalties. As much as Varvara functions as an effective narrator, it seems that she occupies the center stage for too much of the novel to leave enough room for the leading character – who should be Catherine, as the novel subtitle suggests.

On balance, it is a remarkable historical novel about 18th century Russian court life. I’m giving it 3.7 stars.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Book Review - "The Rice Sprout Song" by Eileen Chang

This novel is the first novel that Eileen Chang wrote originally in English with a later version in Chinese (秧歌). I chose to read the Chinese edition as I wanted to feel closer to the characters in the novel as well as to the author. Before this novel, I had never read any of her works, because as an adolescent I had preferred to read novels by the Taiwanese novelist Chiung Yao (瓊瑤).

The title of the novel refers to a festive folk song that used to be sung by villagers in rural villages to celebrate abundant harvests. It is oxymoronic when placed alongside the theme of the novel, which is about starvation and hunger. The novel is set against a backdrop where the land reform introduced by the Communist Party promised the rural populace great hope but soon led to the absurd collectivization scheme, starvation and death on a horrifying scale.

The author notes in the Epilogue that her story is based on an essay in the publication called People’s Literature, written by a young Communist cadre to record his eyewitness account of what had happened in the spring famine of 1950 in a North China rural village. He had been sent there to live exactly like the peasants and learn from them. While experiencing hunger himself, he noted that everyone was forbidden to utter the truth, i.e., the unbearable sufferings during a famine. Anyone who dared whisper the truth would be deemed a nationalist spy and arrested.

In the novel, hunger is described as “having for every meal a bowl of watery rice gruel with a few inch-long strips of grass floating on top”. Gold Root with his wife Moon Scent and daughter are just a typical family in the Tam Village silently bearing with crushing poverty and slow starvation until one day his deep-seated rage explodes. He fulminates against the village leader Comrade Wong for stubbornly denying that the peasants are starving to death. The climax comes when a hungry and furious crowd starts storming the government granary….

My heart remained tightly knotted for a long while after reading the novel. How I wish that the novel were purely fiction, but the mere thought would be sacrilegious to those who have had the misfortune to have a taste of what constant hunger is like.