NYbookworm

Janet Wallach: Desert Queen- The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell

Posted by nybookworm on September 21, 2009

bellI always like to read but I’m sure I’m not alone in that I read a bit less during the summer months when the weather is beautiful and I’m more likely to spend time outdoors.  Still, I have been reading so I owe you some reviews, which I will try to catch-up on in the next couple of days.

One of my recent reads was Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia by Janet Wallach.  I know that’s a long title and the reason I insist on repeating it is because I think the title is generally indicative of the content of the book- ie, Wallach had some difficulties editing content.  One of the most important talents of a skilled biographer is to be able to spend years researching her subject and then distill that research into a readable text that pieces together a life without dwelling too much on the mundane and importing just enough of the context of the time.  It is often apparent from a biography (as it is from this one) that the author has become so entangled in the life of her subject that she feels compelled to include details that are probably better left in her notes.  The result is a long, somewhat dry and at times confusing book that leaves the reader slightly unsatisfied (if she is able to finish). 

The flaws of the book aside, I do think Desert Queenis a fascinating read that could have been even more so with a little more aggressive editing.  Its subject, Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) was a Victorian British woman (and anti-suffragette) who became one of the key political figures in the formation of the Middle East prior to and after WWI.  She traveled the Arabian desert alone, meeting with tribal leaders and mapping the territory until the British government was forced, despite her sex, to give her a political appointment in its foreign service because no one knew the area or its leaders better than her.   After WWI, she became one of King Faisal’s most trusted political advisers and a key figure in the formation of modern day Iraq. 

I would recommend this if you’re interested in the formation of the modern Middle East (and have some background knowledge already) or if you are interested in history generally or the history of women in political life.  Because it is a little dry and long, I probably would not recommend it broadly and particularly not for those who don’t often read nonfiction or history. 

Amazon Link here: http://www.amazon.com/Desert-Queen-Extraordinary-Gertrude-Adventurer/dp/0385495757

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