Saturday, 9 January 2016

Excellent Daughters by Katherine Zoepf / Imperial Life In The Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran / The Boston Ranter by Layden Robinson

Excellent Daughters by Katherine Zoepf
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I received a copy of Excellent Daughters by Katherine Zoepf from its publishers, Penguin Press, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review. Excellent Daughters will be published on the 12th January 2016.

Women in Middle Eastern countries aren't often given much of a voice in the European press and media so, when I saw this book by journalist Katherine Zoepf, I was keen to read it. Zoepf spent over a decade meeting and talking to mostly young women across the Middle East, discussing their lives: education prospects, marriage plans, religion, social interactions, and hopes for their futures. Her writing was first published as articles in the New Yorker which results in some repetition across this relatively short book, although I believe the articles have been re-edited with new material added.

Excellent Daughters is written for a American audience so, understandably, has a strong Western filter. However, I liked that many of the conversations are reported word for word and, while Zoepf makes observations such as Saudi girls appearing younger in their behaviour than their American counterparts, she doesn't give this negative or positive connotations. Zoepf discusses how women are opening Islamic schools for girls, allowing them to read, interpret and argue Koranic laws from a female perspective. Others are taking advantage of new employment opportunities and the resultant financial freedom. Most interesting for me though was her conversations with women who, although they would like to change some aspects of their lives, don't want our Western ideas of commercialisation and individuality over community.

This survey attempts to portray many changes across a half dozen different countries, each of which has its own ideas of proper behaviour for its women. The country differences in themselves are fascinating, showing the popular Western media's idea of 'how Muslim women live' to be a wild misconception. However, I would have preferred a longer, deeper book, or a narrower subject focus because I often felt that Zoepf was just skimming the surface and there is much more to say.

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Books by Katherine Zoepf / Reportage / Books from America

Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is my second book for the 2016 Pile Reading Challenge.

Imperial Life In The Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran is a journalistic recounting of the disastrous American attempts to rebuild Iraq as a mini-America in the aftermath of the second Gulf War. Being British I have read numerous historical accounts of our monumental Empire-building cock-ups, however it would have been nice to believe that such heavy-handed imperialism was a thing of the past. Chandrasekaran's book shows that it certainly isn't and I spent much of the first half in a state of almost continuous disbelief. By the second half, I was becoming quite punch-drunk from the continued revelations.

When Iraq fell to the American army, politicians back in Washington had already determined that they wanted the country to rise up again as a shining beacon of capitalist democracy in the Middle East. They didn't know how to achieve this goal, but set about it by cocooning their staff in Saddam's luxurious palace complex, giving lots of press conferences in English and, most importantly, by only sending people who had been vetted for the 'right' political leanings. Not for ability or experience, just for an unshakeable belief in George W Bush. Extreme paranoia an advantage.

Imperial Life In The Emerald City is basically a guide for how not to occupy a country you have just invaded. Even if that country's people wanted you there initially, they will soon change their minds if treated as irrelevant and, with hindsight, it really is no surprise that organisations such as ISIS grew out of the chaos. I appreciated Chandrasekaran's clear writing style as there are so many different people mentioned that keeping track of who's who is difficult, especially for someone like me who doesn't really follow American politics. The book has extensive detail which makes vividly imagining the Green Zone enclave easy and I now feel as though I have a far greater understanding of what really happened in Iraq and why.

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Books by Rajiv Chandrasekaran / Reportage / Books from America

The Boston Ranter by Layden Robinson
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

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I was sent a copy of The Boston Ranter when its author, Layden Robinson, contacted me via Twitter. Unfortunately I gave up on reading the book about a third of the way through because I really didn't like the rambling writing style. There is little in the way of characterisation, description or atmosphere and the incredibly repetitive faux swearing (fuhkin, fuhkers, fuhk) just got tiresome.

View all my reviews on Stephanie Jane or on Goodreads

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