Reviews

Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark, by Jane Fletcher Geniesse

courtneymminor's review

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adventurous informative slow-paced

ida_ree's review

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3.0

Freya Stark was not shrinking violet. Born in the 1890s to English parents, she was raised mostly in Italy. She went to great lengths to learn Arabic and then traveled, against the advice of everyone, throughout the Mideast, drawing new maps and discovering the buried past.

For some reason, I didn't enjoy the book as much as I had anticipated. Maybe it's because I got the feeling I wouldn't have liked Stark as a person all that much? Maybe it's because her trips and personal relationships are described in ways that make it seem repetitive to me. Still, I admire her pluck and independence.

chellj's review

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3.0

"A book set somewhere you always wanted to go"

whats_margaret_reading's review

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3.0

Freya Stark, a trailblazing female explorer in the mid-20th century, is the subject of this well researched biography. Freya Stark was raised in Italy and England by separated parents, and lead a colorful life even before she decided to take on the exploration of the Middle East. She had learned languages as part of her colorful education, and took on Arabic as a special challenge after the end of her First World War nursing career. She challenged herself to traveling in war torn regions and among reclusive groups in Arabia and became an invaluable resource for British intelligence during the Second World War.

While Stark had incredible journeys of exploration and made major contributions to cartography, her personal life was a mess. Her mother was controlling and abusive, and an industrial accident early in her life made her self-conscious for the rest of her life. She had many failed relationships beginning in her early 20's, and may have contributed to her ability to convince herself that everyone was in love with her. Interpersonal interactions were contentious at times and and her work with two other female archeologists famously failed due to Stark's abrasive personality. Her personality also ran her into trouble with the British foreign service after World War Two, when her local knowledge was less desperately needed. She also decides to marry her gay best friend despite knowing for years he was not interested in women. Needless to say, that relationship was difficult.

This biography is at times highly academic, including passages from both Stark's letters and works as well as those around her. At other times there is a somewhat friendly and delicate tone when addressing personal matters in Stark's life, like a highly polite friend letting us in on a piece of gossip. Overall, Jane Fletcher Geniesse does a remarkable job telling the story of Freya Stark. Now, on to read in Stark's own words about her adventures!

librarianonparade's review

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4.0

Freya Stark lived a truly remarkable life. Born in Paris to an English father and an Italian mother of Polish/German descent, she was raised in Italy, chafing under the impositions of her vain, rather selfish mother who had left her husband to his bourgeois English life. Freya was largely self-taught, learning Arabic and Persian for fun, always fascinated by the Orient. She served as a VAD in Italy during WW1, and soon after set out on her independent travels in the Middle East.

And what travels! She would travel on foot, by donkey or camel into some of the most inaccessible regions of the Middle East, places that scarcely saw Westerners, let alone single Western women. She would infiltrate mosques and harems, climb mountains, uncover ruined cities, live amongst the simple people of the deserts, sleeping under the stars or in Bedouin tents. She wrote numerous travel books, becoming one of the foremost experts on Islamic history and peoples. During WW2 she worked for the British Ministry of Information in Egypt and Iraq as a propaganda expert, lending her knowledge of the region to support the British war effort.

This biography is no hagiography, exposing Freya warts and all - her bravery, independence, sense of adventure and fun is all laid out alongside her tendency to imperiousness, her habit of using people who could be helpful to her, her neediness and desperate longing to be loved. She comes across as a fascinating person, a woman who never let convention stand in the way of what she wanted, a true traveller keenly interested in everyone she came across, but somehow a woman who, whilst comfortable in any kind of surrounding, was never truly comfortable in herself.

nycsquirrel's review

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4.0

What an incredibly fascinating life. Freya Stark pulled herself out of tragic circumstances and used her intelligence to create a life of remarkable adventure, not without its human faultiness. Geniesse does her research to produce a detailed read while keeping it intriguing.

nadoislandgirl's review

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2.0

A biography of a fascinating woman. I very much wanted to learn about this woman - though this biography focuses a lot on Freya's complicated friend and family relationships, to such an extent that I kept thinking "yes, yes, you've said this already." I had moments when I would plow through this book, but other times when I could barely make it through a page. It took me a year to read. Interesting woman, but I'm not sure if I would recommend this biography to anyone.

bookcrazylady45's review

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3.0

Timing is everything. I bought this a couple years ago and started it and could not get into it and skimmed to finish and thought I would just give it away but held on hoping to give it another chance. Now that I am deep into reading biographies of famous aristocrats, adventurers, artists, aesthetes, writers, and poets and politicians who filled Britain from 1900 to 2000+, I read Freya's name in Nicholas Haslam's biography and picked it up to check on something and began reading and got caught up. I learned an extraordinary amount about the middle east which really gave me perspective on its current situation and actually clarified and slightly changed my point of view. Freya was a remarkable woman of genius with a love of adventure and incredible bravery. The small bits of her writing included in this books give some idea of her abilities and explains why her books were so successful. I could go on and on about what she did before and after the war, the famous men she worked with who appreciated her talents.

nanajo's review

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4.0

Although some of the extensive detail of Freya Stark's life can get a bit overwhelming, the author is to be complimented on her ability to capture the spirit of this amazing woman and her accomplishments. There is a good mix of focus on the woman as well as the political, historical, religious and cultural aspects of the countries that we are introduced to.
Freya's description of the missionaries of the 1920's "They suffer from stagnation of the brain, and that surely produces stagnation of the soul in time. To feel, and think, and learn-learn always; surely that is being alive and young in the real sense. And most people seem to want to stagnate when they reach middle age. I hope I shall not become so, resenting ideas that are not my ideas, and seeing the world with all its changes and growth as a series of congealed formulas." Well said, Mrs. Freya Stark.

bmwpalmer's review

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4.0

The perfect follow-up to [b:Desert Queen|16172|Desert Queen The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia|Janet Wallach|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1166719840s/16172.jpg|43113]. A very well done biography, even though at times I got the strange sense that the author didn't like her subject very much. Huh.