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Nancy Pearl Book Reviews for 6/11/2007

Megan Sukys/Dave Beck
06/11/2007

Nancy Pearl brings us a biography of the remarkable Gertrude Bell, the first female British intelligence officer, and a best-seller from the U.K. that attempts to revive the lost arts of table football and fathering.

Gertrude Bell has been called both the female T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) and the woman who invented Iraq. Both descriptions, as we learn from Georgina Howell's riveting biography, Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations (FSG, 2007), tell only part of the story of this remarkable woman's life. Born in 1868 to a wealthy British family, she had a life full of firsts for her gender: she was the first woman to achieve a First in Modern History at Oxford, the first to win a prize from the Royal Geographical Society,and the first female British Intelligence Officer. After graduating from Oxford she visited Tehran, and, much as T.E. Lawrence did, fell in love with the Middle East. She ended up devoting a good portion of her life to understanding its complexities and shaping its future. (She was also an intrepid mountain climber – there's a pulse–pounding account here of one of her ascents in the Alps – organized the care of the wounded in France during World War I, and, somewhat surprisingly, spoke out passionately against women's suffrage in England.) She taught herself to speak and read Arabic and Persian, and, in the years leading up to World War I, explored the desert terrain by camel, always accompanied by a devoted group of servants who toted along everything that might be needed by a proper British lady on such a journey, including pistols, a canvas bath, tea sets (one imagines they were Spode, or Wedgwood), evening gowns, fur stoles, and Zeiss telescopes to serve as gifts to the tribal leaders she met along the way. Following the War to End All Wars, she drew up, on behalf of the British government, the boundaries of a new country to be carved out of the sands of Mesopotamia, and picked Faisal, son of a tribal chief from Mecca, to be Iraq's first king. Howell, who clearly fell in love with her subject while she was researching and writing this book, has given us a compulsively readable (and information packed) account of the life of one of the most fascinating women of the last 150 years. It can be highly recommended for biography fans, history buffs, or any reader with an interest in the deep background of events playing out in the Middle East today.

When the electricity goes off, your toy's battery dies, television fails to entertain, computer games pall, and there's simply nothing around that seems the least bit enticing, take a look at Conn and Hal Iggulden's ironically titled The Dangerous Book for Boys (Collins, 2007) and be instantly transported back to a simpler, less techno–mad existence, where there's always something fun to do or learn. Part nostalgia, part a plea for fathers and sons to spend some time together engaged in time–honored activities like table football or building paper airplanes, the pleasures of this book lie in finding the unexpected within its pages: there's a chapter on Navajo code talkers, as well ones on everything from how to write in invisible ink; the rules of rugby, building an electromagnet, the mountains of America (the top ten tallest are all in Alaska, I learned), famous battles, from Thermopylae to Gettysburg, constructing a treehouse; building a go–cart, the essential knots to learn to tie; and what every boy should carry around in his pockets every moment of every day (including a compass, band–aids, and fish–hooks), and books every boy should read (Roald Dahl and Winnie–the–Pooh among them). A huge best–seller in the UK, the book has been slightly edited for American audiences, so that a few articles, including the rules of cricket and the uses of conkers (chestnuts strung on a shoelace) have sadly been omitted. This is a perfect Father's Day gift.

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