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273 of 294 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Larger than Life, July 5, 2013
This review is from: Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Ala Notable Books for Adults) (Hardcover)
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Scott Anderson brings an interesting background to this latest history of the modern Middle East. His father was an agricultural advisor to the US government. As a result, Anderson grew up largely in Taiwan and Korea, although he graduated from Gainesville High School in Florida. A novelist and veteran war reporter who has covered foreign conflicts for two decades in five countries, Anderson spent four years researching Lawrence in Arabia. He combines a feeling for foreign locales and an understanding of the realities of the battlefield with an extensive use of primary documents. The result is provocative history that reads like a political thriller.

Given the strategic importance of the Mid-East today, it is fascinating to read of the disproportionately large impact of some fairly low level functionaries in this "sideshow of a sideshow" (Lawrence's own words) in the run up to World War I. German academic and womanizer Curt Pruefer works to foment Arab jihad against British rule under the protection of Turkish rulers. Aaron Aaronsohn was a renowned agronomist and dedicated Zionist who gained the trust of the Ottoman governor by trying to relieve Syria of a plague of locusts. Twenty-seven year old American William Yale transitioned in a short eighteen months from roustabout duties in an Oklahoma oil field to Standard Oil's main agent charged with locating and securing oil in central Judea. Abdul-lah ibn Hussein is assigned by his father, Emir Hussein of Mecca, to sound out the British on supporting an Arab revolt in the Hejaz. Marching into history and legend was TE Lawrence who achieved the wholly unlikely transition from 21 year old archeologist in Syria in 1914 to head of a foreign Arab army in 1919, without a single day of military training.

"Lawrence was able to become 'Lawrence of Arabia,'" submits Anderson "because no one was paying much attention." Amidst the vast slaughter in Europe, the Mid-East theater was of distinctly secondary importance. Against this backdrop, the author shows both the poor decisions made by governments separated from action on the ground and the void that was filled by individuals such as those listed above. Through this lens, the reader sees the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the transition of European imperialism, the first steps in Western oil exploration, a side stage of the first world war and the creation of the modern Middle East.

Anderson balances all of this with a driving narrative that focuses more on political developments than on camel charges through the desert. When battles do occur, such as the failed British attack at Gallipoli, Anderson incorporates Lawrence's correspondence ("The Med-Ex came out, beastly ill-prepared"), eyewitness accounts ("the sea near the shore was a blood red colour, which could be seen hundreds of yards away") and unencrypted cables from War Secretary Kitchener. The strong narrative result bears the stamp of the author's experience as a war correspondent.

History should not be this much fun to read. Anderson's work includes imperial decisions, tribal revolt, the discovery of oil and larger than life individuals in an account that has significant implication for headlines in 2013. Lawrence in Arabia is the perfect summer book. It is important yet vastly entertaining, story as much as history, epic in scale yet attuned to the individuals who breathe life into it. Lawrence in Arabia is one of the quicker and most rewarding 500 page reads you are likely to undertake this year.
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Showing 1-10 of 12 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Aug 6, 2013 10:33:16 PM PDT
Lawrence was not T. E. Lawrence's first name.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 7, 2013 7:19:15 AM PDT
Thank you. Stupid error, now corrected

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 7, 2013 7:22:46 AM PDT
You are welcome...
Your fine review prompted me to buy the book.
Thank you.

Posted on Aug 9, 2013 6:30:29 PM PDT
I read everything TE Lawrence-related I can, so this one's definitely on my radar. Thanks for your review.

Posted on Aug 12, 2013 12:40:28 PM PDT
TSqrd says:
I haven't read the book yet but I'm curious why Gertrude Bell doesn't show up in the index. I would think that Lawrence's interactions with her would at least get some mention.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 21, 2013 9:21:43 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 22, 2013 6:57:16 PM PDT
Bell had little to do with the Arab Revolt in the Hejaz. She was only with the Arab Bureau for a brief time, and was mostly active in Mesopotamia.

Posted on Sep 1, 2013 5:12:59 AM PDT
Considering what is going in in the world around us today, this book, despite dealing with history of a 100 plus years is very timely. Considering what a mess the British made of the whole situation in the Treaty of Paris is it any wonder that they didn't want to get involved in the current mess regarding the " red line."

Posted on Sep 7, 2013 6:06:12 PM PDT
Great review. Thanks for posting it.

Posted on Oct 1, 2013 5:33:43 AM PDT
Nice review. I agree that this book reads like a novel. I downloaded it to an e reader, then used my laptop to as a sort of footnote to look at maps and biographical information on characters. Assigned to Central Command in the 1980's, I had experience in Egypt and Somalia. From that experience and recent events in the Middle East, I conclude that little has changed in the area in a hundred years with the exception of great wealth from oil revenues. With no formal military training, Lawrence was able to organize and conduct brilliant unconventional operations, only to be undercut by politicians in England and France. Lawrence was an educated and polished version of the Confederate, Nathan Bedford Forrest. In the grand scheme of history, the efforts of both Lawrence and Forrest amounted to nothing.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 7, 2013 12:19:04 PM PST
J. Scott says:
I like your e reader / laptop method to look at maps. I'm new to kindle and want to get this book. For me, I have got to have maps if I read history, otherwise I'm lost. So I may try this method. In well does kindle include maps if they are in the actual hardcover book?
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