Sunday, August 10, 2014

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28. My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira



Highly recommended to Civil War and medical history buffs. Mary Sutter is a young midwife who aspires to be a doctor. Rejected by medical schools on the basis of her gender, she volunteers as a nurse during the Civil War and learns the surgeons' art. Accordingly, this is not a book for the squeamish. Some of the best parts include graphic descriptions of Civil War medical procedures, primarily amputations. The author drew on resources from the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland, as well as written accounts from doctors and nurses during the war, notably Louisa May Alcott's Civil War Journal and Hospital Sketches. Dorothea Dix features prominently, and Florence Nightingale is an inspiration. I kept waiting and waiting, and Clara Barton, my childhood hero, did finally make an appearance!

The male characters, including President Lincoln, are less interesting, and the muted love story is unnecessary. Portions of the book are overwhelmingly bleak, but the character is captivating, the writing evocative, and the plot tightly wound.

29. The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo



There is so much I have to say about this book, I could probably write a dissertation. But since it's currently necessary to spare my mental faculties the exertion, I will note only a few things:

1. The concept, of examining the relationship between the fictional and historical Anne, and tracing the progression of Anne's image over the centuries (though mostly the twentieth and twenty-first), is manna to my soul. In fact, I engaged in a similar project in high school, in regard to Elizabeth I.

2. Susan Bordo is the most "present", non-memoirist, non-fiction writer I've ever read. Her views and opinions are extremely upfront, which is both helpful because I can more easily judge her biases, and distracting, because I disagree with many of her opinions and they sullied my view of the book.

3. Specifically, Bordo quite viciously harangues one of my favorite books, Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl, and also more cautiously criticizes one of my favorite popular historians, Alison Weir. I think her criticism of Gregory is more fair than her criticism of Weir, although I think the larger basis of her criticism of Gregory is rather silly.

4. Bordo's largest complaint is that Gregory's novel has tainted readers' sense of history and skewed their view of Anne. She's not wrong--but that is not at all Gregory's fault, nor, I feel, a legitimate criticism of a historical fiction writer. Criticizing a historian for inserting non-verifiable narration is legitimate, but when someone is writing fiction, they have license to invent. Now, Bordo takes issue with Gregory's statements that her works are as historically accurate as possible or "likely" scenarios. In this case, i agree with Bordo that Gregory's scenarios are not remotely likely except within the bounds of her universe--but I fully support and applaud Gregory's right to invent that universe.

5. To add, Bordo is concerned that readers will believe events that occurred in Gregory's books are actual history. This may be true, but that is on them. When I read The Other Boleyn Girl, I was already well versed in Tudor lore, and knew that many of the events are just inaccurate or based on malicious rumor, and of course, there's no way we can know what Mary or Anne Boleyn's personalities were really like.

6. Bordo doesn't like that Gregory appears to follow conventional stereotypes of both characters-Anne as conniving bitch and Mary as sweet and simple-but a) That's Gregory's perogative as novelist and b) I don't think she DOES. That's where the characters' baselines are, but both characters are so much more. In Bordo's version of The Other Boleyn Girl,"Anne [plays] the role of wicked witch and Mary the long-suffering virtuous heroine...Anne...goes to the scaffold while Mary, with Elizabeth in her arms, retires to a bucolic life with her husband and children" (p. 220).

The whole point of the novel is that Anne and Mary are two sides of the same coin. Mary is also clever and also manipulative at times, Anne is also sweet and also sympathetic at times. Plus, the book is ABOUT MARY. Mary is the PROTAGONIST. That means she gets more attention, more character development, and she gets to be the "good girl," though even in the book, she is hardly virtuous by any standard. Anne is more complicated, Mary's "shadow" in the novel, but definitely not the "wicked witch," or Villain, that would have to be Henry, the Duke of Norfolk, and a whole cadre of powerful men.

Also, while this may be the case in the movie, at no point in the book does Mary have Elizabeth in her arms. And the bucolic life with her husband and children? Hardly. Mary remains a courtier, and her children after her, and neither a bucolic ending nor the actual ending is mentioned in the book, since it just ends with Anne's death. Next, Bordo argues with Gregory's statement that "Mary's story is one of absolute independence and victory" and is a "triumph of common sense over the ambition of her sister Anne." (qtd. 221)

In response, Bordo says "Huh? Sex is allowed, but ambition isn't? What kind of feminism is that?" (p. 221).

What Bordo isn't considering is that it took a great deal of independence for Mary to choose, on her own, to marry a man she loved. This was a bold move for a sixteenth century woman, and in turn, she was financially and socially cut off by her family. And since when do we measure feminism by ambition? I get that ambition should be permissible of course, but many view it as a negative trait in men as well as women. Feminism is making conditions so that everyone has the freedom to choose. That includes the right to choose a family--plus this is set in the sixteenth century, which makes the relevance of feminism debatable-Gregory claimed Mary was independent, not feminist, as she could not have been historically.

7. Phew. Also, The Tudors gets mentioned a lot. It seems Bordo is a big fan, and it gets a mixed bag of criticism and compliments (a lot of compliments for Natalie Dormer's performance), but if Gregory is historically inaccurate, The Tudors definitely is. I stopped watching because the inaccuracies drove me crazy. And yet, Bordo openly acknowledges their rights to fictionalization, even though, if anything is skewing a wide range of peoples' perceptions of Anne, it's The Tudors.

8. Anne of the Thousand Days, another incredibly historically inaccurate film, would be the heroine if Bordo's book had a heroine. She gushes continually about the film and the actress who played Anne, Genevieve Bujold. Now, I agree, it's a remarkable film, and I do like Anne as a free-love hippie, but is it even allowable to consider the possibility that the historical Anne may have been this wonderful strong-minded independent woman---but she may also have been a shrew? WE SIMPLY DON'T KNOW. So while examining the images of Anne is interesting, policing them is simply arrogant.

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