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Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark (Modern Library Paperbacks) Paperback – July 24, 2001

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Editorial Reviews Review

Never mind that upon her death in 1993, the then 100-year-old Dame Freya Stark rated a three-column obit in The New York Times. Mention her name to most Americans, and it will elicit a "Freya who?" The tales and travails of this romantic traveler, who marched alone into the Middle East from Persia to Yemen, discovering lost cities and creating an anti-Nazi intelligence system along the way, are captured in this compelling biography by former New York Times reporter Jane Fletcher Geniesse.

The author unveils not the fearless wanderer whose mappings and 30 books brought Stark awards from the likes of the Royal Geographical Society and made her a darling of British society. Instead Stark is seen as humble, insecure, and forever caught in the role of perpetual alien--be it when the English-born child grows up in Italy, where her mother lives in scandal, or when she plunges alone into the East, a feat never before accomplished by a Westerner.

An unwilling iconoclast whose love of travel, she would say, began as an infant when her father carried her in a basket over the Dolomites, Stark longed for the social security of the times: marriage and children. Proposals fell through, on occasion her beloved was married, or the romantic emotions she felt went unrequited--and besides, as a friend later pointed out, marriage would have spoiled her with its confinements. Rising above depression, self-imposed ostracism, and her numerous illnesses, Stark learned Arabic and how to climb mountains, map, partake in geographical digs, and find a niche in strange cultures.

Initially ridiculed for her passionate fondness of the Middle East, her writings ultimately generated vast interest for that mysterious part of the world, where she was surprisingly embraced, made privy to political movements closed to most foreigners, and even shown precious Islamic documents. At times a nurse, a war correspondent, a negotiator, Stark was a one-woman revolution of her time. Geniesse's intoxicating documentation of her life not only serves to stir up new interest in Stark's many books; it also ensures that the name Freya Stark will live on long after her obituary is but a scrap of yellowed, crackling newsprint. --Melissa Rossi --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

A celebrated explorer, mapmaker, ethnographer, amateur archeologist and prolific memoirist, British travel writer Freya Stark (1893A1993) crisscrossed the Middle East, breaking bread with villagers, sleeping in nomads' tents and undertaking colorful and daring adventures. Former New York Times reporter Geniesse credits Stark with fostering a sympathetic understanding of diverse peoples, yet also views Stark's nomadic life of nonstop wandering as an escape: she sees Stark as a successor to mid-Victorian romantics who perceived the exotic East as an alternative to the West's soulless commercialism. During WWII, Stark, fluent in several languages, helped Britain create a propaganda network stretching from Cairo to Baghdad, aimed at persuading Arabs to support the Allies or at least remain neutral. In retaliation, Mussolini imprisoned her aged mother. In 1943, the British government sent Stark, a longtime anti-Zionist, on a tour of the U.S. with the aim of deterring Washington from supporting the creation of Israel. Defending Stark against charges of anti-Semitism, Geniesse writes: "She foresaw that the creation of a Jewish homeland that displaced Arabs to fulfill the dream would spawn a legacy of violence lasting for years to come." With a psychologist's acumen, Geniesse provocatively portrays Stark as a charismatic maverick with a ruthless, competitive streak, a voraciously needy woman of fragile self-esteem. Photos. (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Series: Modern Library Paperbacks
  • Paperback: 410 pages
  • Publisher: Modern Library; New edition edition (July 24, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375757465
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375757464
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (54 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #94,839 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

71 of 71 people found the following review helpful By Arali on November 4, 2001
Format: Paperback
As a lover of biographies, I became interested in this book after reading a positive review from Modern Library. What could be more interesting than to read about a woman ahead of her time, fearless, captivating, smart and daring? Dame Freya Stark was all of these things, as well as a little "difficult".

Drowning in the despair of a dead-end future and smarting after a broken engagement, Freya decides to embark on a journey to the Middle East and from that moment establishes the course of an adventurous and remarkable life. Having studied Arabic and arming herself with as much knowledge as possible about the people she is going to visit, Freya sets out to explore the mysteries of an often misunderstood people. Often with little else than a donkey and one guide, Freya would visit the remotest, most dangerous places of countries like Yemen and Iraq in search of lost civilizations and ancient ruins. Braving illnesses and occassional mishaps, her attempts prove fruitful as she is able to test the accuracy of British maps; and in proving herself a talented writer of her experiences, she is honored by the Royal Geographic Society. In time her successes win her the respect of both East and West and she becomes a hailed celebrity in her native Great Britain.

Leading a colorful life while making and breaking friendships, Freya is eventually given work with the British Foreign Service during World War II and manages to establish a successful pro-British propoganda organization in the Middle East. Having proven herself an invaluable asset to her country, Ms. Stark is eventually knighted by Queen Elizabeth.

Author Jane Fletcher Geniesse writes an honest account of this great traveler, neither glorifying or demonizing her.
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46 of 46 people found the following review helpful By R. Peterson on March 19, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Dame Freya Stark (who died in 1993 at the age of 100) was, simply, an amazing, uppity, wild woman - WELL ahead of her time and full of the demons and insecurities that frequently propel the great among us to show their true colors. Having lived in the Middle East I was absolutely absorbed by this incredibly well-documented and tenderly written portrayal of a woman who eventually became one of the England's most favorite travelers and 'royal geographers' (and, some say, an accurate foreteller of Arab/Israeli conflict)!  Stark struck out late in life (in her 30s) on a journey of solitary trips and exploration throughout Syria, Iran, Yemen, and other corners of the region, as well as living an extremely active British propagandist's life in Egypt during WW II. That she traveled alone in places where ne'er a Western woman had trod before is at first extraordinary, but in addition, she also had the skill, want, and presence of mind to write prolifically about her experiences and adventures, not only in the form of news articles but in detailed, emotional, voluminous letters to friends and family. And thank goodness. Stark's life was, in a sense, quite bi-polar. On the one hand she yearned to marry and have children and yet had she done that she would likely never have charted maps, discovered mythical ruins, and run rogue through various British attempts at diplomacy in the Middle East. Her parents split when she was young and her mother was a force to be reckoned with (and is probably responsible for destroying Freya's one attempt at a true marriage as well as destroying Freya's younger sister). Freya, in her search for marriage was drawn to gay men in the Royal British Foreign Service (whom she steadfastly refused to believe were gay).Read more ›
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36 of 36 people found the following review helpful By George B. Adams on October 24, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Spending time with interesting women who are inaccessible to us in real life is one of the pleasures of a good book and Jane Fletcher Geniesse has just added to the list. The author gives us a detailed account of the life of a fearless wanderer, Freya Stark, whose 100 years on earth (1893-1993)were packed with adventures to rival the tales of the Arabian Nights. Freya, though hardly living up to the attributes of her Norse namesake (no goddess of love and beauty, she!), nevertheless conquered the Arab world by making full use of her strengths: drive, intelligence, and an extraordinary empathy for the peoples of the Middle East. Geniesse does not dismiss her shortcomings but offers good reasons for the bizarre behavior of her heroine. She also handles the historical background with grace and understanding. It was an extraordinary time, made even more so by an indomitable English woman, and the author is to be congratulated for presenting her with such skill.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful By M.Y. Ullman on October 25, 1999
Format: Hardcover
This is a fair, rounded, and delightfully written biography ofa complex woman who was a brave, solitary British explorer in the Middle East and something of a social misfit in England. In addition to her acclaimed explorations, Stark put her experience to good use during World War II in the service of her country as a propagandist. Mrs. Geniesse bases much of her account on Stark's voluminous correspondence and on many interviews with people who knew her. In ably presenting the many facets of Stark's personality and achievements, she has also produced an extremely readable book.
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