Madeleine Thien

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016, Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien is a novel of epic proportions. It tells the story of two families whose lives intersect during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in China, culminating in the massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The novel opens with Marie (Jiang Li-Ling), the daughter of Chinese immigrants, living in Canada with her mother. Her father has abandoned them and returned to Hong Kong where he later commits suicide. When the daughter of one of her father’s former friends arrives at their home seeking refuge, Marie begins a fractured odyssey to learn of her roots. Her odyssey unveils an intricate web of connections with family and friends who lived through China’s Cultural Revolution. Woven within the shifting time lines and different generations are actual historical events that lend authenticity to the novel.

Thien portrays a memorable array of characters with colorful names like Big Mother, Knife, Old Cat, Swirl, Wen the Dreamer, Ling, Sparrow, Ai-ming, and Flying Bear. Each character struggles to maintain a semblance of personal dignity and authenticity while living within the severe restrictions of the Cultural Revolution. Against the backdrop of famine in the countryside, portraits of Mao Zedong and Zhou EnLai glaring from city street corners and inside buildings, forced separation of families, “re-education” in labor camps, random accusations of “counter-revolutionary” activities, neighbors betraying neighbors to save themselves, the parroting of the latest government sponsored slogans, castigation of students and faculty for their embrace of European music and musical instruments, and government sanctioned torture and executions, Thien details how a repressive regime instills fear by invading every aspect of people’s daily lives.

The characters pursue a variety of paths to survive the onslaught of repressive measures. Some take to hiding their libraries in secret, underground cellars; some communicate secret messages encoded in The Book of Records; some transport themselves to different worlds by composing and/or playing classical music; some acquiesce to the demands of the regime; while others refuse to submit and are punished accordingly or go into hiding. For some the daily humiliations and beatings are too hard to tolerate, and they commit suicide.

The characters meditate on the nature of time; the many uses of language to hide, reveal, betray, and coerce statements of self-incrimination; the definition of art; and the power of literature to link past, present, and future. But it is music that plays the most prominent role in the novel. References to classical music and the compositions of Bach, Beethoven, and Prokofiev infuse the novel and stitch together the lives of the characters, providing them with solace and a temporary means to escape the brutal reality of their lives. The characters immerse themselves in and have an intimate relationship with music. Young Zhuli is a gifted violinist who takes her own life after suffering a demoralizing humiliation and severe beating; her uncle Sparrow, on the faculty at the Shanghai Conservatory, is a brilliant composer who experiences a shut down of his creative juices for decades; and the talented pianist Kai eventually takes his own life, unable to forgive himself for betraying friends and colleagues.

Thien has crafted a novel deeply rooted in the politics of China, but its detailed depiction of life under a repressive government is universal. The location may change; the players may change; but the nature of oppression does not. As Old Cat says to Zhuli:

If they want to come for you, they will come, and it doesn’t matter what you read or what you failed to read. The books on your shelves, the music you cherish, the past lives you’ve lived, all these details are just an excuse. In the old days, spite and jealousy drove the eunuchs in all their power struggles. Perhaps we live in a new age, but people don’t change overnight.

A powerful novel, complex in execution, panoramic in scope and depth, profound in insight, and universal in applicability.

Highly recommended.

 

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Manda Scott

Boudica: Dreaming the Serpent Spear is the fourth and final book in the Boudica series by Manda Scott. This has been a captivating series about the warrior queen Boudica as she spearheaded the Celtic struggle to defeat the Roman occupation of Britannia. This final book coalesces the threads from previous books and brings them to a culminating, climactic battle in which Boudica is killed and the Celtic warriors are forced to retreat in defeat. Although history tells us the Boudica does not live to see the expulsion of Rome from Britannia, nevertheless, Scott’s masterful and tension-filled description of the final battle keeps us hoping until the last page for an alternative outcome.

The characters are vividly portrayed and show growth. Bán/Valerius is reconciled with his dual identity and is no longer conflicted about where his allegiances lie; Cunomar shows his maturity by putting the needs of the people above his own need to prove himself worthy. Although still a young child, Graine shows a maturity and understanding well beyond her years but one that perhaps borders on implausibility considering the physical and emotional trauma she experienced at the hands of the Roman conquerors. And, finally, there is Boudica, a mother, a sister, a warrior, a hero, and a leader. Through her portrayal of Boudica, Manda Scott shows that a leader transcends her physical limitations because she represents something larger than herself. By the end of the series, Boudica the warrior is no longer capable of being the warrior she once was, but Boudica as a symbol and representative of her people’s aspirations remains untarnished.

The final book of the series veers more toward historical fantasy than historical fiction in that gods and spirits of the ancestors intrude in the affairs of humans with greater frequency than in previous books. And animals continue to be endowed with an uncanny connection with humans, anticipating their thoughts, actions, and emotions.

Scott draws the reader into a world in which men and women willingly sacrifice themselves for the greater good; in which to die in battle is considered the highest honor; in which the spirits of ancestors are seen to receive the dead; and in which dreamers are honored and relied upon to manipulate nature, send their thoughts across great distances, and give direction and guidance to the people.

The battle for control of Britannia is depicted as a clash of cultures. The invading Roman army is technologically advanced, disciplined, organized, eager to pillage natural resources, and brutal in its treatment of the indigenous population. The indigenous population consists of feuding tribes, which eventually unite to fight a common enemy. They communicate with nature and with the world of the spirit just as easily as they communicate with each other. Viewed by their Roman conquerors as primitive, they paint their bodies, run around naked, and engage in an elaborate system of mystical beliefs that baffle and scare the invading army. But they behave according to a strict code of honor, placing loyalty to family, friends, and tribal affiliations above all else.

The novel is not without its shortcomings. Descriptions of the battles can be confusing and some passages are obscure and unnecessarily drawn out. But the biggest drawback lies in the conclusion. The intense tumult of the final battle, replete with clashing armor, screams of vengeance and death, blowing trumpets and horns, thrashing horses, and dismembered limbs was a thrilling page-turner. By contrast, the final scene with the dying Breaca feels inconclusive and disappointing, as if the novel fizzled out with a whimper.

In spite of these few shortcomings, however, Boudica: Dreaming the Serpent Spear is a crowning achievement in an entertaining and exciting series.

Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Alina Bronsky; translated from the German by Tim Mohr

So you live in the northern Ukrainian village of Tschernowo. Your village has been evacuated because of its proximity to the nuclear power plant accident in Chernobyl. In spite of dire warnings from your physician/daughter and government officials, you decide to move back to your village. You prefer to live in your own home in your own village on your own terms and not worry about radioactive contamination. You are a feisty octogenarian, fearless, full of grit, compassionate, kind, fiercely independent, and fiercely determined. Meet the delightful Baba Dunja in Baba Dunja’s Last Love by Alina Bronsky, translated from the German by Tim Mohr.

Baba Dunja lives in her once abandoned village with a handful of elderly neighbors, all of whom lead quiet, simple lives, unfazed by the radiation that has seeped into their bones or into the contaminated, misshapen fruits and vegetables they grow and consume. They form a small community, isolated from the outside world with occasional visits from reporters or from people in white protective suits who arrive periodically to take samples of insects, vegetables, and bodily fluids from the intrepid residents. The residents’ peaceful existence is temporarily interrupted when a stranger shows up with his young daughter to take up residence.

Into this improbable setting of a radioactive village, Alina Bronsky thrusts a motley crew of unique, quirky characters. There is the terminally ill Petrow who refuses to eat certain foods because they are hazardous to his health; the overweight but beautiful Marja who keeps company with a goat; the doll-like Lenotschka who is quick to smile as she knits her endlessly long scarf; the almost 100-year old Sidorow who proposes marriage to Marja after Baba Dunja declines his overtures; and the Gavrilow couple who keep to themselves.

At the center of it all is their de-facto leader, the endearing Baba Dunja. By choosing to tell the story through the first person point of view of Baba Dunja, Bronsky gives us intimate access to the mind of this feisty, lovable woman. She is strong, resilient, and calmly accepts whatever life throws her way. She has raised two children, survived an abusive and alcoholic husband, been exposed to lethal doses of radiation. Now all she wants is to be left alone to live a humble life in her radioactive village. And no amount of reasoning with her will change her mind.

Baba Dunja exudes wisdom, generosity, and equanimity. Her gentle spirit touches all who come in contact with her. She can sum people up in a few short, pithy sentences and loves them in spite of—or maybe because of—their foibles. The image of this diminutive figure, not more than five feet tall, with her wrinkled face, liver-spotted hands, billowing head scarf, limping slowly back to her home in a virtually abandoned radioactive village is an image not soon to be forgotten.

Highly recommended.

 

 

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

The Woman Who Read Too Much by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani is based on the life of the 19th century Persian poet, theologian, radical thinker, and staunch advocate for women’s rights, Tahirih Qurratu’l-Ayn. The novel pays homage to Qurratu’l-Ayn for challenging orthodox interpretations of Islam and for her insistence on a woman’s right to literacy. Qurratu’l-Ayn, referred to throughout the novel as the poetess of Qazvin, is a courageous, brilliant, and stunningly beautiful woman who refuses to compromise her principles or submit to the role of a subordinate female as dictated by her patriarchal culture.

Grounding her advocacy of women’s rights on Islamic texts, the poetess of Qazvin debates the clerics and mullahs sent to interrogate her, outsmarting them at every turn. She incurs the wrath of her husband because of her superior intelligence. She challenges the cultural precepts designed to restrict a woman’s intellectual development by citing Islamic religious texts, which impose no such restrictions on women. In short, the poetess of Qazvin defies cultural norms and threatens the status quo by being a woman who is not only literate but is also educated, intelligent, articulate, outspoken, fearless, and a religious scholar.

The men responsible for her incarceration and brutal murder are threatened by her intelligence and ability to unmask their motives and behaviors. In times of famine, public executions, assassinations, torture, and the Shah’s callous indifference to the suffering of his people, the all-consuming focus of those in power is what to do with a woman who reads and who teaches other women to read to provide them with tools to think for themselves.

Nakhjavani is to be credited for recognizing that opposition to pioneers frequently comes from the very people they are trying to elevate. The Shah’s mother is particularly virulent in her opposition to the poetess of Qazvin because she understands a literate female with the unmitigated gall to think for herself poses a serious threat to the status quo. The younger sister who ultimately betrays the poetess is fueled by vindictive jealousy.

The novel is in four parts: The Book of the Mother (the Shah’s mother); The Book of the Wife (the mayor’s wife); The Book of the Sister (the Shah’s sister); and The Book of the Daughter (the poetess of Qazvin). Nakhjavani employs interesting techniques in telling the story. None of the characters are named. Instead, they are identified by their roles, perhaps to suggest their universality. The non-linear narrative shifts backwards and forwards in time. The movement is spiral, circling back to the same event but moving upward as it does so with the addition of details, layers of meaning, and differing perspectives.

Nakhjavani sustains the readers’ attention with her storytelling technique and beautifully crafted sentences. Her words create patterns by weaving in and out through shifting time sequences. With irony and humor, the narrative voice exposes the hypocrisies, contradictions, willful ignorance, greed, and sheer brutality of those persecuting the heroine.

This is a novel about the power of literacy to subvert authority by undermining systemic efforts to oppress a people. It is about who has control over whom. Political events of the past and present are replete with examples of oppressive regimes exerting power over others by demonizing, persecuting, ridiculing and eradicating the opposition; engaging in censorship; curbing debate; stifling freedom of expression; seeking scapegoats for political unrest; and curtailing the education and movement of women. Nakhjavani’s novel about the struggles facing a pioneering advocate for women’s rights in 19th Century Persia is as relevant today as it was then. Ultimately this novel is about the struggle for autonomy and self-determination.

An inspiring and compelling read. Highly recommended

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Manda Scott

Boudica: Dreaming the Hound by Manda Scott is the third book in a four-book series about the Celtic warrior Boudica who led the tribes of Britannia against their Roman invaders.

This is the most exciting book in the series so far. It lacks the long, drawn out, complex battle maneuvers of Boudica: Dreaming the Eagle (#1) and the unconvincing transformation in Boudica: Dreaming the Bull (#2) of Bán of the Eceni tribe into Julius Valerius of the Roman military.

The novel is full of interesting twists and turns, allegiances and betrayals, disguises, confrontations with the Romans, acts of heroism, sacrifice, and spiritual quests. Scott skillfully builds each scene to its inevitable climax/confrontation. The characters are more fully developed: Cunomar, Boudica’s son anxious to step out of the shadow of his parents by proving himself a battle-hardened warrior; Graine, Boudica’s youngest daughter, frail, delicate, and a powerful dreamer; Bán/Valerius struggling to come to terms with his identity and define his allegiances; and Breaca/Boudica bearing the heavy mantle of leadership. The novel ends with Boudica and Valerius amassing an army to fight the onslaught of Rome’s battalions.

The novel leans more toward historical fantasy than historical fiction since the voices and spirits of the ancestors play a prominent role and influence events more so than in previous books in the series. Animals, notably hounds and horses, exhibit a refined sensibility and connection with humans bordering on the unreal/magical. Dreaming becomes paramount as gods and spirits of dead ancestors communicate regularly with the living. The characters rely heavily on lucid dreaming to guide their actions, nudging the series more toward historical fantasy and further away from historical fiction.

Although Scott depicts the actions of the Roman military as brutal and savage and their alliance with slavers as driven by an unquenchable thirst for profit, not all Romans are painted with the same sordid paintbrush. Some behave with honor and are quick to condemn the gang rape of young girls and the slow deaths by torture and crucifixion. An intriguing aspect of the novel lies in its depiction of allegiances and loyalties to individuals with a shared history that transcend allegiances to the Roman military. We see this with the Roman prefect Corvus who chooses not to betray Breaca even though he recognizes her as Boudica. His loyalty to and feelings for Valerius are unwavering. We also see this loyalty in Longinus who fought along side Valerius against the rebels while both were in the Roman military but who now stands at his side with the rebellion.

Manda Scott combines extensive research on the era with a creative imagination to craft another page-turning, entertaining novel that continues the intriguing saga of Boudica, the Celtic warrior who took arms against the invading army of an empire.

Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Rebecca Solnit

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit is a collection of previously published essays. The topics address “mansplaining” (the irrepressible need some men have to “explain” things to women); the systemic and ubiquitous instances of violence against women; the devastating impact of the IMF on the economies of developing countries; why gay marriage is perceived as a threat to traditional marriage; the ways in which women are erased, silenced, and/or rendered invisible; a discussion of Virginia Woolf’s embrace of the unknown; the attack on women’s credibility; how some men’s feelings of entitlement impact women’s bodies and women’s voices.

In spite of the dire circumstances Solnit discusses, the collection ends on a positive note with the essay, “Pandora’s Box and the Volunteer Police Force.” In it Solnit argues although we still have a long way to go, now that feminists have let the djinns out of the bottle, there’s no going back. We are slowly but surely making progress.

Solnit’s essays are loosely connected with overall themes of gender equality and global justice. With an unabashed feminist lens, Solnit writes in an engaging style, peppering her points with humorous anecdotes when appropriate. But this is far from being a light-hearted, rose-colored view of the world. Solnit is unrelenting in exposing the global war against women and in drawing parallels between that and the exploitation of developing countries by their wealthier and more powerful neighbors. She draws on specific current events to buttress her case. Her chapter on “The Longest War” includes sobering statistics revealing the extent to which women are victimized by sexual harassment, sexual assault, battery, and murder. She argues for a need to examine the link between the social constructs of masculinity and male violence.

There are gaps in Solnit’s analysis. For example, she fails to address intersectionality: how racism, classism, and sexism create overlapping systems of oppression. She also tends to paint developing countries with the same homogeneous paintbrush. But to address these issues systematically would have required a more extensive work. Presumably her intention was more limited in scope.

As a work that advances the goals of feminism and one that engages in feminist analysis within its established parameters, Solnit succeeds admirably in putting together a collection of essays that introduce the reader to some of the basic tenets of feminism.

Recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Colm Tóibín

Based on the Greek myth of Agamemnon, House of Names by Colm Tóibín retells the story of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia to appease the gods; Clytemnestra’s revenge; and Orestes’ eventual murder of his mother to avenge his father’s death. Tóibín deviates from the original myth by minimizing the role of the gods and placing the action squarely on the shoulders of his characters. The point of view alternates between Clytemnestra, Orestes, Electra, and the ghost of Clytemnestra. The sacrifice of Iphigenia unleashes a cascade of catastrophes in which there is no shortage of political intrigue, blood-spilling, betrayal, and murder.

The opening section, told from Clytemnestra’s first person point of view, is the most riveting part of the novel. We share in her excitement as she prepares her daughter for the impending nuptials. We experience her anxiety and rage when she discovers Agamemnon’s deception. We hear her screams until she is forcibly silenced, gagged, and thrown into a pit while her daughter is dragged to the sacrificial altar. And as the novel progresses, we witness her descent into a cruel, violent monster.

Electra and Orestes are not portrayed as convincingly as is their mother. They seem to lack motivation and, in the case of Orestes, are more acted upon than acting. Orestes is portrayed as weak, hesitant, and submissive. He is a follower rather than a leader, taking his direction from Leander when they escape from their kidnappers and from Electra when he murders his mother. Electra is stronger and more capable of leading than is her brother. She shares her mother’s capacity for plotting and scheming and has assumed many of her mother’s mannerisms by the end of the novel. Interestingly enough, both Orestes and Electra refuse to hold their father responsible for Iphigenia’s death. But they have no qualms about blaming their mother for avenging her death.

Tóibín is at his best in his portrayal of Clytemnestra. He skillfully depicts her as larger than life, as the axis around which everyone revolves. She is a mother consumed with rage at a father who willingly sacrifices his daughter. She plots her revenge with meticulous care and relish. Her anger is augmented by her belief in the futility of the sacrifice since for her either the gods no longer exist or, if they do, they are indifferent to the actions of humans. Whatever sympathy one may initially feel for Clytemnestra rapidly dissipates, however, as we witness her plummeting in a vortex of cruelty, corruption, loneliness, paranoia, deception, and murder.

House of Names is an engaging read in spite of some of its drawbacks. Tóibín’s imaginative retelling of the story is compelling in many ways, especially in his portrait of Clytemnestra and in his depiction of the political intrigue and devious machinations plaguing the dysfunctional house of Atreus.

Recommended

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Susan Abulhawa

The Blue Between Sky and Water by Susan Abulhawa tells the story of the Baraka family from the Palestinian village of Beit Daras. The story spans four generations, focusing on the plight of the women.

When the family is forced out of their ancestral home by the Israeli military, they make the trek to Gaza. Some are killed along the way; some sustain life-long injuries; others survive physically intact but emotionally devastated by the loss of their home and way of life. They settle in a refugee camp, cobbling bits and pieces of their lives to make a new home. At the center of it all is Hajje Nazmiyeh, the matriarch. She is the glue that holds the family together.

With vivid detail, Abulhawa describes the harsh reality of living under Israeli occupation and the challenges of survival during the Gaza blockade that made of the area a virtual prison. Forced to navigate Israeli checkpoints, food shortages, intermittent electricity and water supplies, unemployment, harassment by the Israeli military, daily humiliations, displacement, incarceration of loved ones, etc., the Baraka family confronts the challenges with a determination and resilience. The family is able to eke out a living, survive, and even laugh and love through pain and tears. The strength of their family bond is unshakeable.

The novel addresses the loneliness and displacement of the Palestinian diaspora through the figure of Hajje Nazmiyeh’s brother, Mamdouh, who emigrates to the United States with his wife, Yasmine. Mamdouh never feels fully at home in America. He is wounded by the alienation of his son who rejects his cultural heritage. After his son’s death in an accident, Mamdouh takes custody of his young granddaughter, Nur. His plans to take her to Gaza are thwarted by his sudden death. Nur is thrust into a downward spiral. Molested by her mother’s boyfriend, she is shuttled from one foster home to another until she reaches adulthood. Eventually she reunites with her family in Gaza where she finds herself wrapped in their cocoon of unconditional love and acceptance.

Abulhawa weaves actual historical events in the novel: the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their villages, the death of the peace activist Rachel Corrie at the hands of an Israeli soldier, the Gaza blockade, and the prisoner exchange. The novel’s strength lies in its depiction of the resilience and fierce determination of Palestinians to survive. The women, especially Nazmiyeh, are credited with holding the family together. Through her cooking, Nazmiyeh nourishes the bodies of her husband and children; through her unconditional love and devotion, she nourishes their spirits, restoring dignity and respect to a people living in a hostile climate whose intent is to strip them of both.

There is an element of magical realism threaded throughout the novel with the presence of a djinn with special powers; a sister who predicts the future while alive and guides the living after her death; and a young man who navigates across different time zones, communicating with the living and the dead.

Abulhawa covers a lot of ground in this novel, so much so that it suffers from a lack of cohesion. The incidents pile on, one after the other with little time to digest them; the characters are insufficiently developed; the situations seem contrived; the coincidence of Nur finding her family in a sprawling refugee camp in Gaza is far-fetched. The work reads more like the biography of a family than a literary novel. It lacks subtlety and nuance and is transparent in its use of events and characters as a platform to promote a political agenda.

Although it is regrettable her treatment of this important subject was not as effective as it could have been, nevertheless Abulhawa is to be credited for shining a light on the plight of the Palestinian people. We see the world through their eyes; experience with them their forced eviction from their homeland; witness their losses, pain, and suffering; and empathize with their longing to return to their homes.

Recommended with reservations.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar

The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination forges a ground-breaking contribution to feminist literary criticism. In this study, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue for the existence of a distinctly female literary imagination in women writers of nineteenth-century. Their landmark study has influenced how we read women writers ever since. 

Gilbert and Gubar systematically deconstruct the obstacles women authors faced and how their struggles are manifested in their works, beginning with the fundamental perception that literary authorship was perceived as an exclusively male activity, a patriarchal endeavor, bestowing ownership and authority on the work. As such, it not only excluded women from authorship, it asserted that women who were authors defied their essential nature, i.e. they were being “unfeminine.” Unlike their male counterparts who suffered from an “anxiety of influence,” women authors suffered from an “anxiety of authorship.”

Among the many patriarchal constructs inhibiting women’s writing were the stereotypical depictions of her as either angel or monster; the circumscribed space she was forced to inhabit in society; her limited sphere of permissible activities; the plethora of literary texts saturated with male hegemony and female subordination; the misogyny of Milton’s Paradise Lost; the trap of “feminine” roles in patriarchal homes; the deliberate malnourishment for her writing; the assumption of a vapid intellectual life; and the interiorization of her as Other.

Through their brilliant analysis of the writings of such authors as Jane Austen, Christina Rossetti, the Brontë sisters, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and through references to numerous others, Gilbert and Gubar demonstrate the strategies for artistic survival women developed to counteract these crippling constructs.

Comprehensive in scope, the study weaves the author’s biography with detailed textual analysis and discussion of her work to show how her thoughts evolved and in what ways and to what degree she was able to counteract patriarchal constructs. By interpreting the literature through the “mad woman” lens, Gilbert and Gubar open the literary work to subtleties and nuances, revealing sub-merged layers of meaning that may otherwise have been overlooked.

This is a fascinating study, a consummate tome of feminist literary criticism, and so well deserving of the high praise it has received. It is highly recommended as a valuable resource for students of Victorian women writers and for the readers who love to immerse themselves in the literary masterpieces they crafted.

Manda Scott

Boudica: Dreaming the Bull by Manda Scott is the second in a four-book series on the Celtic warrior Boudica, leader of the coalition of tribes fighting Rome’s invasion of Britain. As with the first book in the series, Boudica: Dreaming the Eagle, Scott combines historical research with a creative imagination. But this second book in the series falls short of its predecessor.    

Picking up where Dreaming the Eagle left off, Dreaming the Bull begins with a lengthy description of ongoing battles and complex battle maneuvers between the two sides. The description is unnecessarily detailed, convoluted, and somewhat tedious. But once you get passed that, the pace of the novel picks up.

Intermittently threaded throughout the battles and skirmishes with the indigenous population, we witness Bán (Boudica’s brother) becoming progressively more brutal. The novel focuses on Bán and his downward spiral more so than on Boudica. Bán, who has adopted the name Julius Valerius, has immersed himself thoroughly in Roman culture and the military, dedicating himself to the Roman god, Mithras. He has worked his way up the military ranks, becoming increasingly brutal toward members of his former tribe and their coalition partners. He uses his knowledge of their battle maneuvers to entrap them, rapidly developing a reputation among all sides for his extreme brutality.

Unfortunately, Bán’s transformation from Bán of the Eceni tribe to Julius Valerius, Decurion of the first troop, First Thracian Cavalry, was unconvincing. Why does Bán become more Roman than the Romans? Why is he so hell-bent on destroying all traces of his heritage even after he learns his sister is still alive and leads the rebellion? Why is he so full of venom that he embraces every opportunity to betray the tribes and their cause? We read of Rome’s cruelty toward the rebels—tortures, crucifixions, flaying of victims, and hangings—all of which Bán eventually endorses. His pangs of guilt manifest through frequent visits from spirits of his deceased family and friends, but he suppresses their voices by calling on Mithras and/or burying himself in alcohol. His journey from Bán to the “Decurion on the pied horse,” the rebel’s most hated military officer in the Roman army, isn’t believable.

Scott peoples her novel with a motley crew of characters: a Roman emperor desperate to hold on to power; dreamers who commune with the gods, see into the future, and control the weather; a young man from the Eceni tribe turned cruel Roman soldier who suffers from a severe identity crisis; a female warrior who leads a coalition of tribes in the resistance to Roman occupation of its lands. The spirits of the dead make frequent appearances, blurring the lines between the real and imaginary. The transitions are seamless with characters dialoguing with one another as routinely as they dialogue with spirits. Greater prominence is given to life in the Roman military and the political intrigues of the Roman Empire than life among the rebels. Similarly, the degree to which we follow the tribulations of Dubornos, Cunomar (Boudica’s son) and Caradoc after their capture shifts the attention away from Boudica and relegates her to the margins of her own story. 

Despite its shortcomings, Boudica: Dreaming the Bull is an entertaining and compelling read as Scott manages to sweep us up in her vision of a time when Rome’s tentacles reached the shores of Britain.

Recommended with reservations.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

David Vann

Bright Air Black by David Vann is a lyrical masterpiece. Based on Euripides’ classical Greek play Medea, Vann’s re-telling of Medea’s story is dark, brilliant, and hypnotic. Two notes of caution, however. First, some familiarity with the story of Medea and Jason is necessary prior to reading the novel. And second, this is not a novel for the faint of heart. Vann spares none of the gory details of Medea’s horrific actions in all of their blood-curdling madness.     

The novel opens with Medea on the deck of the Argo tossing chunks of her brother’s body (a brother she murdered and dismembered) into the sea to delay capture by Aeetes, her father. Aeetes rages at his daughter each time he has to slow his ship to gather the bits and pieces of his son’s body to give him a proper burial. As horrifying as this opening scene is, it is just the beginning of a series of Medea’s violent and bone-chilling deeds.

Since the story is told from Medea’s point of view, we are sucked into her vortex of demonic rage. We watch as she scurries in the night to collect roots, plants, spiders, termites, salamanders, a scorpion, and mushrooms that induce hallucinations. She concocts a brew for Jason and his men using this potpourri, forces them to drink it, and proceeds to terrify them into submitting to her demands. We listen as she manipulates the daughters of Pelias into believing she can restore their father’s youth if they chop him into pieces, bite into his testicles, and throw his butchered body into her cauldron. We watch with horror and fascination as each of her schemes comes to fruition.  

Our perception of the world through Medea’s filter forces us to understand what motivates her to do the things she does. Medea rages at a world that marginalizes her because she is a woman and a foreigner and, therefore, deemed a “barbarian” by the misogynistic, male-dominated, xenophobic Greek society. She repudiates her designation as “Other”, viewing men with absolute contempt and seizing every opportunity to lash out and ridicule them. Her hunger for power prompts her to destroy anyone in her way. More than anything else, she wants control over her life, the ability to decide her destiny. She abhors submission of any sort and murders her two children rather than surrender control of them to Kreon’s soldiers. Her many references to Hatshepsut, the female Egyptian Pharaoh who ruled Egypt independent of any man, reflect her desire to reign as king. But because she knows Greek culture will not accommodate for a female ruler, Medea has to rely on Jason to help her get what she wants. She is complex, fierce, calculating, demonic, manipulative, and a brilliant strategist who leaves nothing to chance.    

 Medea’s internal machinations are captured by David Vann’s writing style—a style both mesmerizing and lyrical. Most sentences are in fragments with fleeting images. They surge in short, choppy spurts. Many are stripped of definite articles and verbs. There is very little direct dialogue and no quotation marks. The effect is jarring, the impact powerful. The style borders on stream of consciousness, thrusting us in different directions as we try to navigate the maze of Medea’s thought patterns and emotions.

It’s important to note that Medea is not the only character capable of brutality and murder. We are told Aeetes hangs corpses on trees; Pelias murders his brother and nephew to seize control of the throne. He also tortures and enslaves Jason and Medea for six years until Medea obtains their release through her gruesome machinations. But because these are powerful men, they act with impunity. Medea’s conduct suggests if it is acceptable for men to behave as monsters then it should be acceptable for women to do the same. She hammers her point by perpetrating her crimes in particularly graphic and brutal ways. For example, she not only decapitates her brother, she smears his blood, licks it, and spits it out in full view of Jason and his crew. As with her male counterparts, Medea’s goal is to instill fear and absolute obedience.     

Euripides’ Medea and David Vann’s Bright Air Black can be seen as cautionary tales in that they share a common theme about possible consequences of “Othering.” They suggest that if a people is consistently “othered;” marginalized; discriminated against; denied rights available to others; stripped of voice and agency; labeled foreigners, savages, monsters; some of these people may one day rise up screaming revenge. And if that revenge is ever manifested, it may take a form that is brutal, monstrous, and designed to make us reel in shock and horror.     

This is a stunning novel in its haunting depiction of the internal machinations of a dark, complex, maniacal, and brilliant female in Greek mythology. Some may sympathize with Medea and understand her rage while condemning her actions. Others may turn away in disgust. But whatever one thinks of her, David Vann’s Medea is a character not soon to be forgotten.      

Highly recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Manda Scott

Boudica: Dreaming the Eagle by Manda Scott is the first of four books on the life of Boudica of the Eceni tribe, the female Celtic warrior who defended Britain against the invading Roman army beginning in the year 43 C.E.     

At the ripe old age of eleven, Breaca, later named Boudica, (“Bringer of Victory”) kills the man who attacked and killed her mother. We follow Breaca as she matures into a heroic warrior who slowly but surely assumes the mantle of leadership in her community.     

Manda Scott combines the available research on tribal Britain and the historical figure of Boudica with a creative imagination that is both convincing and compelling. She serves a tale of epic proportions. Scott plunges us into the world of 1st Century Britain with its tribal conflicts and alignments, its Dreamers who predict the future through their dreaming, its animals perceived as emissaries from the gods, and its spirits of the dead who frequently appear to the living to warn them of impending disasters and to guide them forward.    

Painted in vivid detail, this is a world simultaneously brutal and sensitive, a world in which battle scenes are littered with bloodied corpses and mangled limbs, a world of horrific torture and desecration of the dead. But it is also a world in which warriors value honor, loyalty, and oaths that bind; in which cultural rules are adhered to and respected even at the cost of personal sacrifice; in which the elderly are honored; and in which the spirit of community and sisterhood is in full display as the women rally around Breaca after the death of her mother and celebrate with her at the onset of her menarche.    

Love connections weave their way throughout this tapestry, including illustrations of parental love, sibling love, heterosexual love, and homosexual love. Love of animals is also in full display, including a boy’s love for his hound and his horse.    

Manda Scott has packed a great deal into this novel. And perhaps that is its biggest downfall. She has packed too much. The novel is long and unnecessarily drawn out. At times it was difficult to follow the complex technicalities of the battle scenes and to keep track of which tribe was situated where in the battle lines. In addition, transitions from the natural world to the world of the spirit weren’t clearly delineated. This required re-reading whole passages to distinguish the real from the visionary. But these shortcomings diminish in significance when one considers the work as a whole.    

Manda Scott has written an exciting novel immersing us in her fictional re-imagining of the life and times of Celtic Britain and the remarkable woman credited with challenging the Roman Empire. This is an extraordinary feat of the imagination that will captivate its readers, especially lovers of historical fiction.       

Highly recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estés is an unqualified call to arms for every woman to unleash the Wild Woman buried within her depths. Estés, a Jungian analyst and storyteller, interprets fairy tales and folk tales as empowering how-to guides for women to reconnect with their wild, instinctual natures. She invites women to view wolves as their metaphorical role models, as inspirations to help them unleash the shackles silencing their voices, stunting their behavior, and smothering their instincts.

By incorporating Jungian psychology and women’s intuition, Estés explores such themes as the importance of belonging; the deleterious impact cultural socialization can have on girl’s psychic development; the ways in which women stunt their own development by internalizing the “mother” voice; the recognition that effective mothering is contingent upon being mothered effectively; the necessity of returning to one’s “soul-home” for replenishment and self-nurturance. Each chapter focuses on a specific topic, for example, “Nosing out the Facts: The Retrieval of Intuition as Initiation” or “Finding One’s Pack: Belonging as Blessing.” Estés introduces the topic by summarizing a short tale and then dissecting and analyzing it to reveal its archetypal layers of meaning. She endows even the most seemingly innocuous detail in a story with meaning and significance.    

Estés is a gifted writer who alternates between explaining complex theories of archetypes and expressing her ideas with a folksy turn of phrase. For example, in describing her clients initial fear of Skeleton Woman and the positive qualities she embodies, Estés says: “It [Skeleton Woman] careens into shore, and before you can say jackrabbit, they [Estés’ clients] are running for their lives, and as analyst I am running along beside them trying to put a word in, while guess-who bumpety-bumps along behind.” Her writing is full of similar gems. At times, however, she has a tendency to repeat herself and prolongs explanations unnecessarily as she tries to hammer home her message. And some of her sentences suffer from excessive verbosity. But for the most part, her writing is engaging, lively, and spirited.    

Estés’ discussion is full of interesting insights and theories about why we behave the way we do. Her analysis helps us gain a better understanding of both the internal and external forces that collude to impede our development. With this understanding, we are given the tools for tapping into our inner resources to manifest our authentic selves.    

This is a book that can be read and re-read, slowly and thoughtfully, to extrapolate the nuggets of wisdom to be found in virtually every page. Some sections will prove more relevant than others depending on the individual, his/her experiences and stage in life. Also, the passage that resonates with a reader today may not be the one to resonate with the same individual years from now. But no matter where one is in life, no matter one’s circumstances, there is sure to be something here for everyone.    

Highly recommended.

Sylvia Plath

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” With that opening sentence, Sylvia Plath immerses us in the world of Esther Greenwood, the nineteen-year-old narrator of The Bell Jar. This opening sentence is prescient in that the reference to the Rosenberg’s electrocution foreshadows Esther’s electric shock treatments in the asylum; her declaration of aimlessness sums up the lack of direction she feels about her own life.    

Esther is articulate, intelligent, talented, and penetratingly honest. Plath does a remarkable job of taking the reader inside Esther’s mind as she struggles with herself and evaluates her life from the standpoint of a detached observer. Plagued with despair, self-doubt, and feelings of inadequacy and futility, her flirtation with thoughts of death permeate the novel. Her almost clinical exploration of the possible methods of committing suicide is chilling enough only to be compounded by the knowledge that Plath took her own life two weeks after the novel’s publication.    

Plath’s prose is threaded with elegant metaphors and unforgettable images that evoke her narrator’s frame of mind. The writing is descriptive, clear, poignant, and reflective of a sensitive young girl alienated from the world around her and feeling hollow inside. Esther describes herself as trapped in a bell jar, isolated, exposed, stifled, and . . . “blanked and stopped as a dead baby.” From inside the bell jar, the outside world appears to her as a “bad dream.”

Esther draws us into her life, making us her companions as she evaluates herself and the people around her with a jaundiced eye. She drifts from one sporadic event to another with no apparent purpose and no obvious connection. The effect is jarring and reflects Esther’s spiraling descent into depression, breakdown, and attempted suicide. Her unabashed honesty is compelling. Her dry sense of humor is endearing. Her voice is gripping. And her refusal to conform to the restrictive pressures society inflicts on her is heroic.   

The novel closes with Esther’s appearance in front of the board that determines whether or not she is well enough to be released from the asylum. We cheer her on hoping she has extricated herself from the bell jar with its stifling, suffocating air and is now filling her lungs with air that is fresh, clean, and breathable. And we do so with the sobering knowledge that Sylvia Plath, the brilliant author who introduced us to this memorable character, tragically never escaped her own bell jar.  

Highly recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Luis Alberto Urrea

In The Hummingbird’s Daughter, Luis Alberto Urrea tells the story of his great aunt Teresa, known as St. Teresa, the “Mexican Joan of Arc.”   

Urrea chronicles the life of Teresa from the time of her birth as the illegitimate child of a young girl named “Hummingbird” and a wealthy Mexican rancher, Don Tomás Urrea. Abandoned by her mother, Teresa is initially raised by an abusive aunt and later taken under the wing of Huila, a respected medicine woman and healer.   

Teresa becomes Huila’s apprentice, developing healing powers and visions that eventually exceed those of her teacher. Her reputation spreads rapidly among the indigenous population, the poor, and the outcasts, all of whom flock to her side seeking blessings and healing. Her teachings of equality and justice threaten both the government and the church, eventually inspiring the Mexican revolution. Perceived as a danger to the establishment, she is captured and sent into exile in North America.   

This is a powerful story, powerfully told. Urrea has the skill of a master storyteller who underscores the irony and humor and cruelty found in life, describing all with unflinching honesty. He does not shy from describing the horrors, the filth, the stench, and the unimaginable brutalities human beings are capable of inflicting on each other in their pursuit of power. He also illustrates the sensitivity, generosity, and tenderness of people struggling to survive in a harsh political and natural environment. Peppered throughout the narrative are instances of magical realism—strange, inexplicable happenings; dream journeys; mysterious healings made with the touch of a hand; a girl who comes back to life just as preparations are being made for her funeral.    

Urrea skillfully immerses us in a different time, a different place. He breathes life into a panoramic landscape by flooding our senses with the sights, sounds, touch, and smells of humans, animals, and foliage populating the environment. His characters are well-rounded, recognizable human beings. Teresa is a compassionate, courageous, lively, vulnerable, and loving young girl, capable of enjoying life with gusto and of embracing all people regardless of—or maybe because of—their foibles, failings, and suffering. Tomás, her father, is a religious skeptic with a generosity of spirit and an ability to love unconditionally. And Huila is the no-nonsense crotchety old wise woman who recognizes Teresa’s true potential and teaches her to cultivate it.   

The Hummingbird’s Daughter is a masterpiece, vast in scope with vivid characters and a story line that grips the reader from the first page to the last.   

Highly recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Robert Low

Robert Low’s The Whale Road takes us back to over a thousand years ago to experience life as a Viking raider through the voice of young Orm Rurikson.  Orm becomes a member of the Oathsworn, the crew of a Viking raiding ship. The Oathsworn derive their name from an oath to Odin that binds them together in brotherhood. They are hired as relic-hunters. Through the many twists and turns of the plot, they eventually end up seeking the buried treasure of Attila the Hun. 

Low firmly thrusts the reader in a man’s world. With one notable exception, women are treated as incidentals, there for the taking. The novel is replete with crashing shields, slashing swords, clanging metal, whizzing arrows, dismembered body parts, obscenities, foul smells, graphic descriptions of bodily functions, breast-thumping machismo, swinging axes, gushing blood, and fierce hand-to-hand combat.

The writing is fast-paced and vigorous—sometimes a little too fast because it was difficult at times to know what was happening and who was fighting whom. The confusion is compounded by the plethora of Nordic characters, some of whom are mentioned in a few lines or a few pages only to disappear entirely from the novel. The first few chapters are especially bewildering with their convoluted story line and flashbacks. The writing is a little choppy, but one eventually gets caught up in the rhythm of the book and gallops along with the events.

References to Norse mythology and the conflict with the “White Christ” abound. And punctuated throughout the blood and gore are moments of surprising humor. The Oathsworn tease each other mercilessly, engaging in friendly put-downs and snappy barbs that are funny.

As the narrator of events, Orm Rurikson is unflinchingly honest. He describes the battlefield as a grim and bloody killing fest, one that bears no relationship to the heroic battle descriptions in the sagas of Norse culture. Brotherhood oaths and shield walls notwithstanding, Orm recognizes survival on the battlefield may have as much to do with luck as skill.

With its vivid, gritty, and visceral descriptions, this is not a novel for the faint-hearted or for those seeking novels about polite society. But if you’re looking for an action-packed, entertaining story, a compelling page-turner that grips you into the grisly warp and weft of a Viking raider’s life, then this is a book for you.

Recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Joyce Tyldesley

Hatchepsut by Joyce Tyldesley is a documented research on the life of Hatchepsut, the female pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty. Tyldesley pieces together the available historical and archaeological evidence to detail the life and times of Hatchepsut. Unfortunately, there is much that has been lost to us as a result of tomb robbers, the pillaging of Egypt’s antiquities, and the systematic attempts to erase all evidence of Hatchepsut’s rule shortly after her demise.     

Tyldesley’s scholarly approach to the subject is to be commended. She does not attempt to sensationalize the issue of a female pharaoh. She presents the known facts methodically; dispels the theory of mutual animosity existing between Hatchepsut and her step-son, Tuthmosis III; situates Hatchepsut’s rise to power within its historical context; provides alternative scholarly interpretations to events when relevant; and then suggests the path that seems the most logical. What emerges is a fascinating portrait of a powerful female who assumed the position of pharaoh after the death of her half brother/husband, Tuthmosis II.     

Hatchepsut went to extraordinary lengths to present herself as a viable, legitimate pharaoh. She wore male clothing, including a pharaoh’s false beard, and, among other things, ordered a sequence of images of her own divine conception and birth be carved in a portico in her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri. Since all kings of Egypt had wives, Hatchepsut selected her daughter, Neferure, to assume the role of the king’s wife, assigning her its duties.     

Tyldesley highlights Hatchepsut’s military exploits, her expeditions to foreign lands, including Punt, and her instigation of an impressive construction program of monuments and mortuary temples. Egypt experienced a time of prosperity and peace under her rule. She relied heavily on her advisor, Senenmut, for a number of years. But for reasons we can only speculate, Senenmut eventually fell out of favor with her.    

Shortly after her death and the ascension of Tuthmosis III as Pharaoh, systematic attempts were made to erase all evidence of Hatchepsut’s reign, including effacing her monuments and wall carvings on mortuary temples. This was tantamount to an attempt to erase her from history and to subject her spirit to a “Second Death” from which there could be no return. Although some scholars speculate that Tuthmosis III was avenging himself on his stepmother for usurping his right to throne, Tyldesley argues the evidence for this is inconclusive.     

We may never know all there is to know about Hatchepsut. But Joyce Tyldesley has produced an engaging, readable, scholarly work based on the available evidence about this female pharaoh. In the process, she has given us a glimpse of a fascinating woman living in fascinating times.   

Highly recommended.

 

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

James D. Sexton

Mayan Folktales: Folklore from Lake Atitlan, Guatemala translated and edited by James D. Sexton is a collection of folktales obtained in collaboration with Ignacio, a Guatemalan Indian whom Sexton met in 1970. Ignacio’s good relationship with the elderly in his village was invaluable in encouraging them to open up to him and to share their stories, stories that had been transmitted orally for centuries.

The 34 folktales in the collection are diverse. Some are for entertainment purposes only while others are for edification. Through these folktales, we learn about Mayan cultural values: the social obligations toward others; maintaining the proper attitude while participating in religious ceremonies and festivals; the gendered division of labor; the importance of sharing and compassion; the virtue of hard work; the proper way to grow crops; and respect for the environment. There is also a story of creation, which includes a modified version of the fall of first man and first woman.

The stories are populated with talking animals, humans transformed into animals and animals into humans, kettles and pans complaining about their burnt bottoms, talking beans and corn, tricksters and shamans, dragons and giants, and priests whose behavior is decidedly unpriestly. Some of the stories are funny; some are bawdy; some are edifying; but all are entertaining.

Recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English

Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, their sequel to Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, documents the role of the medical system in propagating and fueling sexist ideology. The authors argue it is not biology that oppresses women; it is a social system based on sex and class discrimination.    

Focusing on the late 19th and early 20th century, Ehrenreich and English cite one example after another of the barbaric “cures” women received for the ostensible purpose of healing them. These range from the compulsory “rest cure” made famous in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper to the placement of leeches on the cervix to combat amenorrhea.    

The authors discuss the impact of race and class on women’s health. Upper class and middle class women aspiring to the upper class were perceived as weak, sickly, and frail. They were prescribed a life of enforced leisure with little to no physical activity. Their confinement to the home coupled with unmitigated boredom led to the cult known as “female invalidism” or hypochondria—a condition made even worse by the rest cure. The male dominated medical profession fueled this myth of female frailty since it served the financial interests of the physician to do so.    

By contrast, working class and immigrant women, living in urban slums and exposed to hazardous working conditions, were perceived as breeders of germs and disease. They certainly did not have the luxury to indulge themselves in a rest cure or take advantage of medical care since that was virtually non-existent for the poor. Fear of the spread of disease, especially VD in the case of prostitutes, eventually spurred the growth of the public health movement and the birth control movement, both of which were aimed the reducing the risk of contagious diseases and curbing the population growth of the working class and immigrants.    

The authors conclude their study by discussing the changes that have taken place since the 19th and early 20th centuries in the medical profession’s treatment of women. They urge women to educate themselves on their bodies and to recognize their biological similarities with all women while acknowledging the medical needs of women will vary based on race and class.  

An essential read for those interested in the use of medicine as a form of social control whose purpose is to bolster a sexist ideology. 

 

 

Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English

Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English traces the systematic and systemic persecution of women as healers beginning with the witch-hunt craze of the 14th through 17th centuries up to the early 20th Century. As Ehrenreich and English demonstrate, women have always been healers, primarily healers of women and the poor. But their journey has been fraught with peril. For over five centuries they faced a systematic, two-pronged attack on their vocation: first from the church and then from the male-dominated medical profession. 

The number of women in Europe who were tortured, burned at the stake, or executed by the Protestant and Catholic churches over a period of three centuries is staggering. By some estimates it is in the millions. These women were accused of any number of crimes: consorting with the devil; committing sexual crimes against men (including causing male impotency and making their penises “disappear”); committing murder; distributing poison. They were even persecuted for using their knowledge of human anatomy and medicinal herbs and remedies to heal and help the sick! As Ehrenreich and English point out, there has not been a consistent justification for shunting women from healing roles.

As we moved toward the 20th Century, the establishment of medicine as a profession requiring university training further diminished the role of women as healers since women were denied access to university. Forced out of the role of healers, women adopted the supporting role of nurses. As such, they manifested the “wifely virtue of absolute obedience” to the doctor, and the “selfless devotion of a mother” to the patient.  

Even though the situation for women in the medical profession has improved since its publication (the 1970s), Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers is still well worth reading because it illuminates how two powerful forces systematically and consistently colluded for many centuries in ejecting women from their role as healers and replacing them with male physicians.  

Highly recommended.