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.