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Short Takes

‘The Creation of Anne Boleyn’ ‘On Sal Mal Lane’ and ‘The Honest Toddler’

The Creation of Anne Boleyn

THE CREATION OF ANNE BOLEYN: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen

By Susan Bordo

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 343 pp.,

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Illustrated, $27

Much of what is “known” about Anne Boleyn is wrong. She didn’t have six fingers or a third nipple, according to author Susan Bordo, nor did she poison her husband’s first wife or cuckold him with 100 other men. Bordo argues that the real Boleyn, second wife to King Henry VIII and the first English queen to be executed, was a fascinating historical figure about whom much will never be known, and whose negative public image in the five centuries since her death owes largely to shoddy early accounts by her enemies, as well as an enduring “potent mix of misogyny and anti-Protestant fervor.” Seen widely as “the embodiment of feminine voraciousness and evil,” Boleyn is better understood, this book asserts, as a partner in her husband’s thinking on the verge of the English Reformation, a well-educated religious reformer in her own right, and a woman we can’t quite call a feminist — that would be anachronistic — but whose strength and self-assurance earned her a “reputation as a woman who simply would not behave as she should.”

Bordo debunks the many errors, misinterpretations, and bold-faced lies (including the rumor that Anne’s miscarried fetus, delivered just a few months before her beheading, was “grossly deformed,” a sign, some said, of witchcraft) found in the vast library of Boleyn histories. In the book’s second half she grapples with the competing and incomplete portraits of Anne in literature, television, and movies (with perhaps more attention to the Showtime miniseries “The Tudors” than anyone might want). Still, Bordo’s sharp reading of Boleyniana and her clear affection for this proud, unusual woman make this an entertaining, provocative read.

On Sal Mal Lane

By Ru Freeman

Graywolf, 336 pp., $26

Sitting off a major road in the capital of Sri Lanka, Sal Mal Lane is a leafy cul de sac home to under a dozen families. When the Heraths move there in 1979, they join other ethnic Sinhalese, Tamils, Burghers, and one Muslim family. “To the untrained eye,” author Ru Freeman explains, the differences among racial groups were all but invisible, glimpsed only in “the drape of a sari, the cheekbones on a face, the scent of hair oil.” But as the four Herath siblings play with other kids on their block — getting in trouble, defying parents, forming bonds of friendship and love — their diverse nation tumbles into ethnic violence and civil war.

Freeman’s second novel is an achingly gorgeous heartbreaker. We know it will be all along, as an old-fashioned omniscient narrator warns of bad news — and when it comes, it is very bad — and yet we cannot stop reading. Freeman has an unerring eye for adult childishness (as in the neighbor clinging to “a life buttressed by a few good prejudices and much keeping-to-ourselves”) and childhood wisdom. Devoted, sometimes quarreling, always enmeshed, the four Herath siblings grow up amid rumors of a war that teaches them ugly things, but can’t touch their innate beauty.

THE HONEST TODDLER: A Child’s Guide to Parenting

By Bunmi Laditan

Scribner, 241 pp., $19.99

Awash in a sea of advice books from know-it-all mothers, adorably befuddled fathers, and avuncular pediatricians, it can be difficult for a parent to find clear, simple solutions to child-rearing problems. But why bother? “Being a parent is very simple,” writes Bunmi Laditan, representative for Twitter sensation Honest Toddler. “There is no reason for you to constantly go to other adults who do not know your toddler for advice or conspiring.” Laditan, who only breaks character in an afterward describing her “HT,” writes from the perspective of a small but self-confident, demanding, juice-seeking young person, and for readers who know such a person, it’s awfully funny.

HT argues that parents should not serve lentils, which “taste like wartime and look like destruction,” or asparagus (“nature’s original scarecrows”). Cake, however, is “nature’s vitamin.” HT is blunt where other childcare experts are not: “sleeping through the night isn’t a real thing. The idea was invented by the pillow industry in 1807 and has been chased by parents ever since.” Of Mommy and Daddy, HT is adamant that “[s]pecial time might be fun for parents, but it is hazardous” as it may lead to Infant Sibling Disease.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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