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Setting the Desert on Fire: T.E. Lawrence and Britain's Secret War in Arabia, 1916-18 Paperback – 18 Jun 2007


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Product details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC; New edition edition (18 Jun 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0747585539
  • ISBN-13: 978-0747585534
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 2.6 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 40,585 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

'Packs as much punch as one of Lawrence's train-blowing explosives' Sunday Times 'Barr puts the story of the Arab revolt and Lawrence's heroics in a wider context. This broad canvas takes in two extraordinary years of war and scores of significant characters ... Barr has been diligent in his research' Sunday Times 'Barr's cogent, vividly written book puts Lawrence centre stage but does not lose sight of the uprising's larger historical context' Financial Times '[Barr] introduces fresh materials to give new context to Lawrence and the present difficulties in Iraq' The Times

About the Author

James Barr graduated from Oxford with a first in Modern History, went on to write leaders for the Daily Telegraph and now works in the City.

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Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

59 of 61 people found the following review helpful By R. Pavey on 11 July 2006
Format: Hardcover
A good book on a perennially popular theme; it is scholarly and thorough, without being bookish or dull. James Barr writes compellingly and well, while still including plenty of original material and quotes from authentic sources. Crucially, he does not commit the cardinal sin of making his book less interesting or more serious than the events he explores, and manages to tread a fine line between writing a dry analysis of governmental policy and a 'boys' own' adventure story of romantic warfare in the desert. He discusses both aspects in an appropriate register, dealing lucidly with the complex political and strategic issues, while still injecting excitement into his narrative of the raids on the Hijaz railway, but without trivialising them.

The book really succeeds in showing the desert campaign in its context. This is no hagiography of Lawrence; Barr manages to see past Lawrence to all the other British officers involved, and also to the Arabs themselves, more usually seen as a picturesque backdrop to daring Public School escapades behind enemy lines. Equally, this is no revisionist history, attempting to cut Lawrence down to size. It is clear that he was a major figure, and a fascinating one, but not the only man involved. He shows Lawrence as a complex character; difficult, self-publicising, occasionally unreliable and troubled, but brilliant and the right man in the right place. It is also clear from the original sources quoted that there was an element of dashing amateurism in the Arab revolt; the raids are often described as 'stunts' and so on. Barr is good on allowing these sources to speak for themselves, while explaining the context and thus allowing the readers to judge for themselves how much credence to give to them.
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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Stephen Oliver on 17 July 2006
Format: Hardcover
I came to this book with only the sketchiest knowledge of the Arab Revolt, gleaned solely from one viewing of David Lean's 'Lawrence of Arabia'. Having read James Barr's interesting account of the Bow Group a number of years ago, I wanted to see how he would tackle a completely different field such as this. The result is a considerable enhancement of my understanding of the period, prompting a return to the film in the light of what I have just read.

The book's great strength for me was Barr's evident interest in the various characters, whether British, Arab, French or German, who light up his pages. The onward thrust of a tightly researched and closely written history is enlivened with numerous character sketches that give the story the feeling of the best kind of journalistic reportage. This feeling of engagement is further heightened by Barr's many references to his own travels in the region, and the clear sense that he was impelled to write his story from a fascination with the Arab world and the way its history has interwined with that of the West. Many of the events are, of course, thrilling enough in themselves, but Barr does not rely on this alone to grip the reader. As well as an excellent grasp both of the onward thrust of events in the Great War and the ambivalence of British policy towards the Arabs, he is good at going into the details of particular military offences or strategic discussions.

Current problems in the Middle East are also enlightened by Barr's take on these events, giving fascinating background to political dramas still unfolding there. It is not surprising that the name Osama Bin Laden makes its way into the index.
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40 of 42 people found the following review helpful By Mr. P. Kenward on 24 July 2006
Format: Hardcover
This is a very well-written book which throws a welcome light on the development of the relationship between the West and the Arab peoples. Compellingly paced and constructed, the book brings to life a lively and larger than life cast of characters, of whom TE Lawrence is just one. Barr's forceful narrative drive is enhanced by his appealing device of weaving in his own research trips through the region and the archives. Whether navigating wadis, photographing castles and train wrecks, or using CSI techniques to re-examine Lawrence's diaries, this adds a whole extra dimension to the book. It also adds a depth of understanding that helps readers who, like me, may not have a detailed knowledge of the region.

Barr has a fine historian's judgement, which he uses to good effect to provide sound analysis of events and motivations. A seriously good addition to the literature, and an interesting and timely focus on the Arab War.
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32 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Katharine Keen on 21 Sep 2006
Format: Hardcover
I have to confess that, not being well-versed in the military or political history of the Middle East, I approached this book with a certain degree of trepidation. I couldn't have been more wrong. After only one chapter, I was absolutely hooked and couldn't wait to read on. Barr's narrative is at the same time both intelligent and accessible and his pacy prose combined with personal anecdotes engage the reader from the outset. His ferreting out of previously unknown evidence about Lawrence's diaries adds a sense of intrigue and excitement frequently missing from non-fiction.

My only complaint is that, whilst reading this on holiday in Greece, I discovered that the cover wilts and bubbles when the temperature rises above 40. Somewhat ironic for a book about the desert...

An excellent read and one I highly recommend.
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