Book Review: Rejected Princesses by Jason Porath

rejected princesses

Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics by Jason Porath

Dear husband brought this book to my attention after hearing a segment about it on NPR (what a very good husband!). After hearing only a few anecdotes about it, I needed to read it, NOW. Thank goodness for Amazon Prime.

Rejected Princesses grew out of a lunchtime chat among Dreamworks animators: Who was least likely to be turned into an animated princess? Out of this seed grew a blog (http://www.rejectedprincesses.com) and the blog sprouted a book (with a second on the way!). The first volume is a massively heavy compendium of 100 women who defied norms, expectations, invading armies, assailants, and politicians. Each entry is roughly 2-3 pages long, and each features a Disney-style illustration of the featured “princess.”

The entries are neatly cataloged with maturity ratings and applicable trigger warnings. This means you can read the more family-friendly entries to the kids, and save the stories of rape, murder, and revenge for later (or never, as it suits you). In this way, Porath has created a book that has something for all ages, while at the same time not glossing over the violence experience by quite a few defiant women. The stories also skip across time, space, and legend. You’ll find biblical queens next to Bolivian revolutionaries next to British suffragettes next to African warriors next to Japanese samurais. You’ll find straight women and women who represent every color of the LGBTQA rainbow. Porath show us that there is a princess out there for everyone.

This book was amazing. Some women, like Hatshepsut (the only female pharaoh in Egypt), Harriet Tubman (“Moses” of escaping slaves), and Joan of Arc (the gold standard of defiant woman) I had heard of already, but others like Saint Olga of Kiev (who set a town on fire using pigeons), Calafia (mythical Muslim queen and namesake for the state of California), and Trung Trac and Trung Nhi (Vietnamese sisters who led armies to defeat the Chinese in the 1st century) I had never even guessed existed. The book is jam-packed with these kinds of stories, and the encyclopedia-entry-style of each story means it’s easy to pick up and put down as needed, and come back to your favorite parts. Once you read through the book, there are even more entries on the Rejected Princesses website, so you can head over there to keep getting your fix.

This is a great book for anyone looking for inspiration from some truly badass ladies. Porath’s rating system means that you can share these stories with the little girls in your life, and let them know they can grow up to command their own tank regiment (Mariya Oktyabrskaya), overcome handicaps (Wilma Rudolph), be great at math (Hypatia), and/or decide exactly what they want out life and strive for it.

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Book Review: A Good Country by Laleh Khadivi

A Good Country

A Good Country by Laleh Khadivi

Reza “Rez” Courdee is the son of Iranian immigrants living the good life in Laguna Beach, California. Rez considers himself a typical American teenager, partying, dating girls, smoking pot, and surfing with his friends. When most of his American friends stop talking with him after a misunderstanding while on a surfing trip, he finds himself befriending other local Muslim kids. After several high-profile terrorist attacks on American soil, Rez feels isolated by the quiet suspicion of his schoolmates and neighbors. Feeling rejected by the country of his birth, he begins to withdraw deeper into his Muslim identity. The shift from revisiting his roots towards radicalization is subtle, but Rez soon finds himself walking the path of an extremist.

This was an amazing book. I am still working through everything in it. Khadivi brings us into the life of a typical teenager, and then slowly unravels everything he formerly valued about himself to turn him into something darker. Perhaps the most startling thing for me was the illustration of the knife-edge existence of being “other.” When he is the typical American teen, he is accepted by his peers and neighbors to greater or lesser degrees. Neither he nor his parents are particularly religious, and he lives the life of a first generation American — strict parents who want to see him excel in his studies so he can grow up to fully realize the American Dream.

With the loss of his American friends, he finds himself teased by his new Muslim friends. He is called a poser and a fake; someone who wanted to be American so badly he rejected his Muslim heritage. With the terrorist attacks making every Muslim seem suspect, the path of least resistance becomes sheltering in the one community that doesn’t look at him like he may have a bomb strapped to his chest. This then is the razor’s edge. Is he American or is he Muslim? With his country and community reeling from terror attacks and falling deeper into islamophobia, it appears more and more to Rez that he cannot be both.

With this comes the impossible choice: does he cut himself off entirely from his past, his family’s history, and a large portion of his identity, or does he reject the country of his birth? In this story, Khadivi shows us that it is not necessarily hatred that drives the fall into extremism, sometimes it is hope: hope for a community that will not and cannot reject the seeker. And in trying to find this community, Rez falls afoul of evil men, men who are more than willing to prey on the uncertainty and vulnerability of teenagers to convince them that their hopes and dreams can be found at the end of a gun’s sights.

The book is incredibly moving. We like Rez, we want so much for him to find his place in the world. We practically shout at the page for him not to listen to these people leading him down this dark path. We also see just how difficult it is to fight this kind of radicalization. One character talks of dominoes falling; a terrorist attack breeds new fear, which gives rise to more islamophobia, which pushes more people towards violent extremism. The cycle seems self-sustaining, and the governments of the world have been stymied in finding an effective method of ending it.

This is an incredibly relevant book to read, especially now. In many ways, the book reminded me of Human Acts by Han Kang. The topics it deals with are difficult to face, but it is vital that we tackle this head-on, and try to break this cycle of violence. Perhaps one must ascend the hill traveled down on the path to extremism, and perhaps the climb becomes a bit easier with hope as your vehicle, rather than hatred.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads in exchange for an honest review.

The Poisoned Well: Empire and Its Legacy in the Middle East

The Poisoned Well: Empire and Its Legacy in the Middle East

The Poisoned Well: Empire and Its Legacy in the Middle East By: Roger Hardy

4 out of 5 Stars

I received an advance copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Roger Hardy has set out a monumental task for himself. In “Poisoned Well,” he seeks to lay out the development of the Middle East we see in our news feeds every day. From the downfall of the Ottoman Empire, to the bitter struggles that marked the death throes of European imperialism in the middle decades of the 20th century, Hardy focuses on the impact of European colonialism on the region and how imperial hubris helped to develop reactionary movements whose impact is still being felt today.

The scope of “Poisoned Well” is quite sweeping. It begins with the breaking up of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. In the post war peace talks, the Empire (which had allied with Germany) was to be broken up and split among the two major Allied powers at the talks, namely Britain and France. The plan, on paper, was for the pieces of the Ottoman Empire (some divided, literally at random, into new nation states by the Europeans) to be come colonies and protectorates of either France or Britain, with the goal of westernizing and modernizing these new countries, and eventually returning them to independence, as staunch allies of the west, safeguarding European interests in the Middle East. What actually happened should shock no one. The European powers found it hard to let go of their new colonies, especially after oil was discovered in the region.

Hardy takes us on a whirlwind tour of the region, giving us insight into the development of modern day Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Algiers, Iraq, Syria, and of course the still violently contentious Palestine/Israel conflict. Each country is allotted its own chapter, which generally gives some history of the area under the Ottoman Turks, and progresses through the start of colonization, through World War Two, and on to independence. With each, Hardy gives us both sides of coin, the British or French officials (political or military) who ran the country, and the nationals who pushed against them for freedom. Hardy gives special attention to the evolution of nationalist movements in each country, showing how the steps (and missteps) taken by the Europeans helped to shape the nationalist movements they were working against.

As you progress further into the book, certain names on both sides start to repeat, and you realize there’s another layer underneath Hardy’s narrative. European names reappear when politicians, journalists, or spies move from country to country for their work. The Arabic names reappear and you realize that there where two fronts to the nationalist movement in the Middle East. There was a nation-state level movement within each colony, but there was also a pan-Arabic nationalist movement, seeking to unify all the Arab nations under one banner (Hardy points out that this is very similar to one of the goals of the radical Jihadists we see today).

In all, Hardy has produced a wide-reaching, yet accessible book. It provides a great jumping off point for folks (like me) who don’t know much about the history of the Middle East; yet his use of first person accounts (though these are mostly from European sources) should interest a scholar of the area. In fact, I’d say that the weakest part of “Poisoned Well” is also the strongest. By giving us such a broad look at the colonial history of the Middle East, Hardy naturally has to sacrifice detail. Each chapter is a complete story in its own right, but Hardy will mention something in passing in the midst of a paragraph, and you get the feeling he just compressed a major political turning point into a few words. Fortunately, a Dramatis Personae and a bibliography at the end of the book allow for further reading.

Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. Reading “Poisoned Well,” it is striking (and depressing) how cyclical the western world’s dealings with the Middle East really are.