She Ain’t So Sweet: Book Review – Rejected Princesses

Rejected Princesses
Jason Porath

The premise – all the women in history who would never in a million years have a Disney movie made about their (real) life exploits. The gals whose work was ignored, overlooked or stolen, or those ladies who kicked ass, fought tooth and nail and severed some heads. You know, like Boudica or Elizabeth Bathory.

Porath does extensive research on each woman he covers, and he manages to find historical women from all over the globe. Each entry includes a graphic (the project started when he was an animator at DreamWorks), a fun and witty bio of the gal’s exploits, and some entries include notes on the artwork (ie. why Boudica is dressed that way, who are the people in the background, etc).

While Rejected Princess might seem like an inspirational book for girls, readers should be forewarned, these ladies would never get the “princess treatment” (have a blockbuster movie made about their life) for a reason. Many of them are inspiration but maybe kind of boring (Ada Lovelace), and some of them are just straight up evil (Elizabeth Bathory… but wait, Porath reveals that she probably wasn’t as evil as she’s been made out to be.) Porath is good enough to give each entry a maturity rating, so if you are reading this book with your kids, you can choose what level to stop at. He also flags each entry with other details such as abuse, sex, violence, etc.

This is a super fun collection that makes it clear that women in history were not all demure sweetness. They often fought for what was rightfully theirs, outshone their male peers at many endeavours, and could even be violent terrorists.

Porath has a huge but easy to navigate website that is updated regularly, and which includes many of the entries from the book (a heavy tome with over 100 bios), but also many that aren’t; a search function to find your favourite rejected princess, and an extensive shop with everything from shirts to phone cases to calendars. He’s apparently got a backlog of women to write about, but there’s a place to make suggestions, and a fun FAQ page where he explains his decision to include women with violent histories as well as the good girls who are more inspiring.

This is a great book, perfect for not only your favourite badass gal, but for any lady person (okay, really for anybody… guys need to see women kicking ass, too) over the age of 12.

 

Read More

Book Review – The Neapolitan Quartet by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend
The Story of a New Name
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
The Story of the Lost Child
Elena Ferrante

It’s January and with this chilly month comes the typical list of resolutions, including the one to read more. I don’t necessarily want to read more, but I do want to keep better track of what I’m reading. I have a tendency to not bother writing about books that I don’t care much for, but in truth, I can learn as much about life (and writing) from books I dislike as those that I enjoy. I’m also getting a jump on the book a week goal by counting books 3 and 4 of he Neapolitan Quartet as my first two books of 2017.

Recently I was headed to the library to return book 3 (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay), and pick up book 4 (The Story of the Lost Child), when a neighbour stopped me to ask if I was enjoying the series. They’re intense, I replied. She was concerned about finding time to sit down and read any quantity of the book with two small children around, and at first I suggested that she find herself some “me time”. But in fact, I almost have begun to think that these books are best read only a few pages at a time.

(more…)

Read More

Book Review – Four Great Books About Strong, Amazing Women

lilacgirlsNot by design, my fiction selections recently have all been about strong, amazing women, and have all been written by women. This is the general inclination of my taste in fiction anyway (more Colette, less Hemingway), but there seems to be a general consensus in the mainstream that there just aren’t great stories about strong women out there. I think that’s an incorrect assumption. There might not be as many stories with female protagonists as there are male, but there is some great fiction available featuring fabulous gals doing memorable things.

Lilac Girls
Martha Hall Kelly

What do a New York socialite, a Polish underground resistance fighter and a Nazi doctor all have in common? Not much, actually, but in Martha Hall Kelly’s Lilac Girls their stories weave together through the time period of WW2 and the following decades. Polish teenager Kasia is sent to the all-female concentration camp Ravensbruck where Herta, a young German doctor, takes part in experiments on Kasia and her sister. Years later the sisters are helped by socialite Caroline to receive medical treatment to fix the damage done by the Nazi testing, as well as to track down Herta to ensure she can no longer practice medicine.

The strongest of the stories here, and the most heart-wrenching is Kasia’s, based on the true story of Nina Ivanska, which details the treatment of the camp prisoners, including the tests done on the “rabbits” of Ravensbruck. The guilt she feels at causing her sister, mother and some neighbours to also be picked up in the sweeps of Polish resistance fighters plagues her long after she is free from the torture of the camp. I felt that Herta was not explored in as much detail as she could have been, and there are whole periods where we do not hear from her (such as her time in jail, trial at Nuremberg, etc) that might have, if not made her more sympathetic, at least been a window into what she felt, or was thinking, during the tests she did on innocent women. We get her emotions and thoughts when she first arrives at the camp, and when she is fleeing from the allies, but not much to help us understand the why of her actions during the tests.

As Caroline doesn’t interact with Kasia until decades after the war, Kelly has given Caroline a fictional storyline to interweave her plot with the other main characters. While this love story would be a great novel on its own, it felt distracting interspersed with what was going on with the other characters.

Overall, though, a truly interesting story that had me searching the internet for more information about the Ravensbruck rabbits and how they recovered from their atrocious treatment.

(more…)

Read More

The Not So Secret (And Actually Overtly Sexual) History of Wonder Woman

lepore_wonder_woman_coverAt the Toronto book signing for Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman, a guy at the back of the room got up during the Q&A section and asked an elaborate question about a specific story in a specific issue of the comic. Before Lepore could reply, another audience member stood up, vehemently yelled, “I disagree!” and the two began to argue about the plot while Lepore looked vaguely terrified. Fortunately, moderator Nathalie Atkinson (a culture writer for The Globe and Mail who happens to be married to the owner of a comic shop; one can guess she’s witnessed such an exchange more than once in her life) shut down the argument quickly and expertly, allowing Lepore to reiterate a point she had made earlier in her presentation – she is a historian, not a comic expert and her book was written from that perspective.

This is a good thing to remember when looking at The Secret History of Wonder Woman alongside Wonder Woman – Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948 by Noah Berlatsky. Berlatsky is the editor of a (mostly) comic-oriented blog called The Hooded Utilitarian. As such he comes at the story of Wonder Woman and her creator William Moulton Marston from a completely different perspective than Lepore. Which is why the two books work together so well to tell Marston’s story.

In fact, The Secret History of Wonder Woman is really the secret history of Marston, documenting his early life, his promising beginnings at Harvard where he earned degrees in both psychology and law, his marriage to Elizabeth Holloway and his subsequent relationship with his student/assistant Olive Byrne, who came to live with Marston and Holloway in a long-term poly-amorous relationship, giving birth to two children with him while also caring for his children with Holloway. Also important is the fact that Byrne’s family had a great effect on Marston – she was the niece of reproductive rights activist Margaret Sanger, someone who Marston greatly admired. Lepore doesn’t even get to talking about Wonder Woman until page 180.

(more…)

Read More

The Feminists Are Coming – And They Have Cupcakes

When I think of “feminism”, Nigella Lawson doesn’t really come to mind.

Not because I don’t think that she’s a strong woman, in control of her own career and destiny, but because the stereotypes that she plays to use a certain kind of femininity that puts women barefoot and back in the kitchen.

Most of the female chefs I know have had to work twice as hard as their male counterparts to be taken seriously. Women who opt to make pastry for a living – whether because they genuinely enjoy it or because the hours and physical demands are easier – are considered cop outs. It’s utterly unfair, but it’s still a stupid stereotype of the industry. And even the women who do choose to make pastry for a living do so in a professional context – wearing a proper uniform, hair tied back, back and neck and shoulders aching at the end of a day bent over a cake doing hours of icing work.

Nigella sets these ladies back, if we want to be honest about it. Because even if she IS running her own empire and selling lots of books… she creates a stereotype of a woman and a bowl of frosting that the rest of us all have to live down (or up to, depending on how insecure you are). Nigella causes people to assume that real pastry chefs flit around sticking their fingers in the bowl, making sexy face as they test their new products. And for the home cook, Nigella creates food porn aspirations that can never be achieved, causing men to wonder why their wives and girlfriends don’t wear sexy sweaters over tight-laced corsets while they bake cupcakes (yes, Nigella, we can tell you’re wearing a corset… come on honey, let that belly hang out!), and causing women to compare themselves unfavourably to someone with a team of assistants that undoubtedly not only includes photographers and food stylists but hair and make-up people as well.

I’m not saying that you can’t be a pretty feminist. I’m not saying that feminists shouldn’t bake. Hell, I’m not even saying that feminists can’t/shouldn’t own their sexuality and use it to get ahead. But let’s not kid ourselves into believing that Nigella posing with a bowl of batter and a tight sweater actually helps move the cause forward at all, okay? That’s she’s out there representing all the women trying to break free of the sexist stereotypes. And let’s really not pretend that real female pastry chefs don’t cringe when her name comes up because of the imagery she employs to sell some cookbooks.

 

Read More