Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Conquest - Yxta Maya Murray

The Conquest was published in 2002.  Despite a love of multi-cultural literature developing in earnest about that time, I had never heard of the novel or its author, Yxta Maya Murray, until I picked the work up at a used bookstore over a year ago.  (Have I mentioned that my TBR pile could easily claim its own room?!?)

Yxta is a law professor at Loyola.  Her first novel was published in 1998.  Her latest, A Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Kidnapped, was published in 2010.  As of today’s date, there are six novels in her canon and it would appear her fiction has been replaced by scholarly pieces on constitutionalism, rape, and violence.  The Conquest was her first foray into historical fiction, but she did not commit 100%.  In all honesty, there is so much about this novel that is deliciously amazing but it’s still not quite there.  Don’t get me wrong – I thoroughly enjoyed the story – but it’s almost like ordering dinner and finding it good but knowing a little more seasoning would send it over the top.

I think I connected to the main character, Sara Rosario Gonzales, because I personally have had to face my own life while hunting for the identity of an author of a dusty manuscript.  (My search for Hannah Crafts was brief but it has marked me for life.)  Sara is a rare book restorer who works at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.  A dusty 16th century manuscript finds its way to her desk to be restored.  The story of an Aztec princess (named Helen by her captors) enslaved and sent to Europe to entertain the likes of the pope and Charles V as a juggler is considered by scholars to be the work of a monk.  Sara is to restore it, but she finds herself made mad by her quest to prove the identity of the woman who penned it.

The manuscript, which Sara has named “The Conquest,” is provided in bursts of passages while Sara’s own love story unfolds.  Truth be told, I don’t like Sara and I don’t care for her love story.  The sections about her and Karl annoyed me as I eagerly awaited more of Helen’s story.  Sara’s hunt to prove The Conquest was written by a woman is at the heart of the novel.  There’s an intensifying suspense as she checks other historical references, using passages from the manuscript as clues to point her in the right direction.  The life of a painter said to be madly in love with the exotic princess.  Does she show in his work?  The written works of others from the Church, written in secret and not for public consumption, did these tales of sex and gluttony reveal the dark-skinned beauty.  Does she find her way into his journals full of food and scandalous affairs?

As Sara’s love life unravels, she resigns herself to the fact that Helen is fictional and indeed the shocking tale of women loving women and made “mad” by poetry, and pirates and obsidian daggers, and juggling spheres that can stop the Pope’s heart is nothing more than fiction penned the monk it has been attributed to by scholars.  Defeated in love and life, she catalogues the work.  She curses the manuscript for having ruined her life as she has lost Karl, seemingly for good.  She contemplates setting the ancient pages ablaze, but she could never hurt a book.  (I understand that sentiment!)  Then, at her lowest of lows, a letter from 1561, a love letter of course, makes it all worth it.

The novel is a love story that crosses ages and time.  It’s Helen moving heaven and earth for her true love, Caterina, and being blinded by her desire for revenge against Cortez.  It’s Sara spending every waking hour trying to breathe life into a manuscript and a woman no one believes existed in her quest to remember her mother.  Yes, this is a love story between Sara and her mother – Karl was an unnecessary distraction and Yxta didn’t flesh out the mother/daughter relationship the way I would have liked, but it’s a love story all the same.  Helen won’t be forgotten.  And neither will Beatrice.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - A Play by Jack Thorne

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Play by: Jack Thorne
Based on on original story by J.K Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorne

I intentionally left Rowling out of my title, because Rowling was largely left out of the script.  For something that bills itself as "the eighth story. Nineteen years later," Harry Potter and the Cursed Child reads more like fan fiction turned play than something crafted entirely by Rowling.  Part of the issue is the fact it is NOT A NOVEL.  I knew that when it was published.  I wasn't one of the disappointed readers who lost their wands over the play format.  I knew what I was getting into.  What I had suspected but didn't know for sure until I read the play was that Harry Potter's world is best viewed with Rowling's words.  The play is but bones of dialogue that desperately need to be fleshed out (and by Rowling) to fully join the Harry Potter canon.

There I said it.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a controversial topic among Potter-heads, muggle-born, and the magically inclined.  And for good reason - it simply doesn't fit and it's lacking in the magic.  Would this review be the same had I seen Noma Dumezweni breathe life into Hermione?  Or if I had witnessed Anthony Boyle in one of the more interesting roles of the play?  I honestly don't think it would.  Because there are glints of the magic within the script that would shine on stage.  And oh how I want to see it.  Because the magic of the play itself would allow me to move past parts of the plot that don't mesh with the Hogwarts I love.  

As for the plot, the idea that Albus would decide his mission in life was to save Cedric Diggory seems too much like holding on to the past, but that's the idea: Harry cannot escape his past and neither can his children.  Speaking of children, I don't much mind that Voldemort had a child.  The books imply a dark, sexual tension between him and Bellatrix. Delphi, whose name itself foreshadows the prophecies to come, is a curiosity.  How did Potter not sense something dark when he was in the same room with He Who Must Not Be Named's offspring?  Had he gone soft since the Battle of Hogwarts?  

And who is the cursed child?  There are a few vying for the title.

Harry Potter AKA The Boy Who Lived
    - He is forever scarred by his past and it truly marks everything he does and everyone he loves, Albus included

Albus Severus Potter
   - Named for two great men and the child of the Boy Who Lived, he never asked to be a Potter.  Expectations weigh too heavily on him.  He is lonely.  (I was horribly disappointed in how his siblings failed to assist him - the Weasleys were a lovingly, large family where siblings looked out for each other - why didn't James, Albus and Lily have that connection?)

Scorpius Malfoy
    - The Son of a Death Eater who is, in many ways, a male version of Hermione.  A lonely boy, he buries his mother early in the script.  He is nothing like Draco, much like Albus is nothing like Harry.

   - Daughter of Bellatrix and Voldemort.  Her father was the Dark Lord she'd never meet (without the aid of some dark and rightly banned magic) and her mother was crazy and locked up for eternity.  She was raised by Death Eaters who didn't care for her.  An orphan, her search for answers and family love & approval mirrors that of Harry's so many years ago.  My money is on her.  Harry has love.  Albus has love. Scorpius has love.  There is no one to love Delphi.  There is no father to tell her he's proud.  No mother to appreciate the strength of her talents.  She is truly the cursed one.

Also, what to make of the fact Rowling ended book seven with  "All was well" when things are so very, very, very far from "well" in the Cursed Child.  

Crossposted on The Barking Bitch

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Isabel Allende - Maya's Notebook

Maya's Notebook

Isabel Allende
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean
Originally published in Spanish as El Cuaderno de Maya in Spain in 2011

The English translation of Isabel Allende's Maya's Notebook was published in 2013.  Surprisingly, I found it in a bargain bin a year or so ago.  It's been sitting patiently in my TBR pile since then.  (We do not discuss how quickly that pile is growing.  I'm just excited to finally be back to reading.  Not reading was like forgetting how to be me.)  Some of you know that I have a love of so-called "multicultural" books, and Allende is one of my favorites.  (The House of Spirits, Daughter of Fortune, Portrait in Sepia, and My Invented Country in particular.)  Maya's Notebook is no exception; Allende is a master story-teller and she uses words in such a brilliant way to paint some remarkable characters and settings.

The novel opens in 2009, a week after Maya's grandmother, Nini, spirited Maya off to Chiloe in Chile.  The novel is in first person, written as a journal from a broken girl whose road to recovery lies in memories - both the good and bad.  The reader quickly learns that Maya has been sent to Chiloe for her own protection.  Why she needs protection isn't so readily revealed as Allende, through Maya's journal entries, crosses spaces of time and countries seamlessly keeping the reader engaged in the 19 year old's story without giving an abundance of backstory at a pop.  What starts as a very self-absorbed tale of a 19 year old, albeit a scarred one, quickly becomes the story of a country, of a people, and of a family that cannot be bound by words.  As Maya becomes more comfortable with herself and her surroundings, the entries include more details of her past.

Allende takes us from the privileged streets of Berkeley, to a beautiful rehabilitation center in Oregon where Maya is tasked with caring for vicunas.  "...two slender animals with upright ears and the flirtatious eyelashes of a bride."  Maya stays with the program out of concern for the animals:  "I had to postpone my escape: the vicunas needed me."  From Oregon, Maya is taken on a hitch-hiking ride to hell with a trucker from Tennessee who says grace over breakfast after drugging and raping her, using his penis and the barrel of a gun to exert his dominance.  The rape is her fare, or so she learns.  This passage in particular is hard to stomach.  The passage left my stomach in knots and a tightness settled in my jaw when reading it.  As for Maya, it took many an entry into her journal and a lot of time in Chiloe to heal, before she could reveal the heartbreaking journey that left her in the care of Brandon Leeman, a hardened drug dealer, and his cohorts in Vegas.  In Sin City, Maya spiraled out of control.  By the time she realized what she'd become, she'd found it too late and too embarrassing to call her Nini for rescue.  When her criminal benefactor is murdered by his own men, Maya's life of luxury is gone.  Running for her life and quickly withdrawing from the ample substances he'd gotten her hooked on, Maya turns to prostitution.  But Leeman's criminal dealings and Maya's involvement in and knowledge of them have made the streets of Vegas deadly; Maya wasn't just another addict, she was the key to a fortune.  In time, the reader learns that Maya was sent to Chiloe because of Leeman's murder, dirty cops, and a storage facility with half a million dollars that only she knows the location of.  Thanks to the heart of gold druggie, Freddy, and the Widows for Jesus, she is saved.  Nini and Mike O'Kelly make the drive from California to take Maya back to rehab.  She tells them of the storage unit.  Mike and Nini are comically involved in a group called the Club of Criminals - this comes into play as they use their knowledge to plot Maya's escape from the States and to destroy the money and the counterfeiting plates found in the storage unit.

Those are the events that led Maya to Chiloe, and while their action may drive the novel, the pace of the Chiloen sections, the descriptions of the people and their own skeletons (child abuse, incest, the scars of the Pinochet dictatorship and the interrogations and disappearances that marked the '70s) give the story life. Maya learns why her grandmother was forced to leave Chile, what happened to Nini's first husband, and why the stranger in Chiloe, who hasn't seen her Nini in decades, was so willing to take her in like a stray dog.  Maya learns who she is.

Interesting note for me: dogs are featured pretty heavily in this novel.  From Daisy, the tiny pup Maya had as a little girl whose memory helps Maya get over her first heartbreak, to the dogs trained by Susan, her father's wife, to the purebred dogs signaling social class to Fahkeen, the stray described as "a cross between German shepherd and a fox terrier" who appears on page 15 and becomes a much-adored pet who saves her life.  It's interesting what Allende does with animals in this novel - particularly the dogs.

Maya's Notebook is a Bildungsroman, and Maya's journey is as painful as it is beautiful.  I can't recommend Allende or this novel enough, but I will say that some passages and descriptions may be too intense for some readers.  Happy reading!  You'll fall in love with Chiloe almost as quickly as Fahkeen fell in love with Maya.

**Cross-posted on The Barking Bitch!