Queen of the Desert (2015)

Reviewed by Katy Zignego (Library Staff)

Queen of the Desert was a snooze in the truest sense–I fell asleep with about 20 minutes left to go in the movie. The story of Gertrude Bell, English gentlewoman adventurer in the Middle East, should have been riveting, but I simply couldn’t bring myself to engage with the characters.

The film opens around 1900, with a youngish Gertrude (Nicole Kidman) bemoaning the tedium of life in England. My first thought was that Nicole Kidman, nips and tucks notwithstanding, is too old to play a debutante. I understand the filmmakers had to choose an actress who could portray Bell at the ages of both 30 and 50, but if I were doing the casting I would have erred on the side of youth. Worse casting woes were yet to come. Gertrude persuades her father to finance a trip to Tehran, where she immediately falls in love with both the desert and British diplomat Henry Cadogan (James Franco). All I can say is that there must have been some Pineapple Express involved when the casting director chose Franco for the role. The little attempt he makes at a British accent falls so flat, one almost wishes he would have just gone Kevin Costner and not tried it at all. And the near-constant smirk that has served him so well through such fine films as This Is the End and Why Him? clashes violently with the dopey, lovelorn Cadogan character. I was actually relieved when Gertrude’s father refused to allow their marriage and Franco made his exit, stage left.

Of course, this romance seems to have been made up out of whole cloth for the purposes of the filmmakers. Because a woman must have suffered a disappointment in love in order to choose to break the bonds of polite society, right? Right? So Gertrude takes her broken heart into the desert and apparently becomes an expert on the peoples of the Middle East. We never get to see much of her interactions with the indigenous population she is meant to be studying. The next hour or so of the movie sees her riding her camel across desolate vistas, with a small train of brown men, besting each male authority figure she meets. She defies the Ottoman army, the British consul, and a Druze sheik, and we are meant to marvel at her bravery. The mood is lightened for a few minutes by her meeting with a delightfully fey Lawrence of Arabia (Robert Pattinson), then it is back to the old camels-and-sand show.

Why is it that a film about a pioneering woman can’t leave the glass ceiling storyline alone? I can’t help but think that a very good story was squeezed out by the director’s compulsion to hammer away at the patriarchy with these repetitive Gertie-versus-The Man vignettes. Certainly lost in the shuffle was any accurate portrayal of the desert peoples to whom the real Gertrude Bell devoted her life. Shame.

I dozed off shortly after the start of the Great War, so maybe the film got better in the last few minutes. But I won’t be revisiting Queen of the Desert to find out. Instead, I think I’ll check out the biography Desert Queen, by Janet Wallach, to find out a little more about the real Miss Bell and her world.

Available through the Bridges Library System

Weekly Book List: Week 19 (Books about Travel)

Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes / Elizabeth Bard

Documents how the author fell in love and discovered the excellence of French cuisine during a life-changing lunch in Paris, recounting her decision to leave her fast-paced New York life to build a life abroad. (944.361 BAR)


A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail / Bill Bryson

Bryson shares his breath-taking adventures and the fascinating history of the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail, as he travels slowly on foot. (917.4 BRY)


Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia / Elizabeth Gilbert

Traces the author’s decision to quit her job and travel the world for a year after suffering a midlife crisis and divorce, a journey that took her to three places in her quest to explore her own nature and learn the art of spiritual balance. (910.4 GIL)

Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy / Frances Mayes

The poet and travel writer describes her experiences in Tuscany during the restoration of her countryside villa. (914.55 MAY)


A Year in Provence / Peter Mayle

The author describes his experiences when he and his wife moved to a two-hundred-year-old French farmhouse, and shares his observations on the people and culture of Provence. (944.9208 MAY)


Around the World in 50 Years: My Adventure to Every Country on Earth / Albert Podell

Even the most jaded armchair traveler will enjoy these breezy anecdotal vignettes from Podell’s 50 years of journeying. His goal: to visit every country on Earth. He accomplished this with good cheer and buckets full of stamina during hundreds of trips by car, jeep, minivan, camel, elephant—you name it. (910.4092 POD)

Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel / Rolf Potts

here’s nothing like vagabonding: taking time off from your normal life—from six weeks to four months to two years—to discover and experience the world on your own terms. In this one-of-a-kind handbook, veteran travel writer Rolf Potts explains how anyone armed with an independent spirit can achieve the dream of extended overseas travel. (910 POT)

Travels with Charley: In Search of America / John Steinbeck

Author John Steinbeck was 58 when he set out to rediscover the country he had been writing about for so many years. With his elderly French poodle, Charley, he embarked on a quest across America, from the northermost tip of Maine to California’s Monterey Peninsula. Traveling the interstates and the country roads, they stopped to smell America: trucker and strangers, old friends and new acquaintances. (917.3 STE)

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail / Cheryl Strayed

A powerful, blazingly honest, inspiring memoir: the story of a 1,100 mile solo hike that broke down a young woman reeling from catastrophe–and built her back up again. (813.6 STR)


The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World / Eric Weiner

Draws on the author’s experiences as a foreign correspondent and reporter to evaluate more than three dozen countries for their happiness potential, in a lighthearted survey that includes profiles of such locales as the American shores, glacial Iceland, and the Bhutan jungles. (910.4 WEI)

Weekly Book List: Week 13 (Set in the Middle East)

The Arabian Nights 

Presents a collection of tales, including “Aladdin,” “The Wonderful Lamp,” “Sinbad the Seaman,” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” (398.22 ARA)


An Unnecessary Woman / Rabih Alameddine (Lebanon)

A love letter to literature and its power to define who we are, this is a nuanced rendering of one woman’s life in the Middle East. (FIC ALAMEDDINE)


The Blood of Flowers / Anita Amirrezvani (Iran)

After her father dies without leaving her with a dowry, a seventeenth-century Persian teen becomes a servant to her wealthy rug designer uncle in the court of Shah Abbas the Great, where her weaving talents prove both a blessing and curse. (FIC AMIRREZVANI)


The Sandcastle Girls / Chris Bohjalian (Syria)

lizabeth Endicott accompanies her father to Aleppo, Syria, to bring aid to the Armenian deportees. While there, Elizabeth meets Armen Petrosian, an Armenian engineer working for the Germans and searching for his wife and child, though certain they are already dead. In spite of the loss and horror around them, they fall desperately in love. (FIC BOHJALIAN)

Jerusalem Maiden / Talia Carner (Israel) 

Sacrificing her dreams of becoming an artist after tragedy strikes her family, Esther Karminsky, a young ultra-Orthodox woman in Jerusalem at the end of the Ottoman Empire’s rule, devotes herself to becoming an obedient “Jerusalem Maiden.” (FIC GARNER)


The ZigZag Kid / David Grossman (Israel)

Set in a little boy’s imagination, a comic tall tale follows an international outlaw and a would-be detective on a rollicking quest for the trademark purple scarf of a great actress. (FIC GROSSMAN)


The Kite Runner / Khaled Hosseini (Afghanistan)

Traces the unlikely friendship of a wealthy Afghan youth and a servant’s son, in a tale that spans the final days of Afghanistan’s monarchy through the atrocities of the present day. (FIC HOSSEINI)


Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books / Azar Nafisi (Iran)

From 1995-97 in Iran, Azar Nafisi gathered with seven of her former students, all young women, to read and discuss forbidden works of Western literature. Reserved at first, the women soon learned to speak their minds and share their repressed dreams. (955.054 NAF)


Silent House / Orhan Pamuk (Turkey)

Awaiting the arrival of her grandchildren in her home outside Istanbul, bed-ridden widow Fatma shares memories and grievances with her late husband’s illegitimate son until his cousin, a right-wing nationalist, involves the family in the Turkish military coup of 1980. (FIC PAMUK)


The Bastard of Istanbul / Elif Shafak (Turkey)

From one of Turkey’s most acclaimed and outspoken writers comes a novel about the tangled histories of two families. (FIC SHAFAK)

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George


Reviewed by Judy B (Library Staff)

A romantic, lushly poetic wander along the rivers of southern France by the lovesick Literary Apothecary Perdu. He dispenses his wisdom and his books to a myriad of strangers who never seem to work more than a few hours a day. Instead, they sit around chatting, drinking wine or coffee, eat French cuisine and watch the world flow poetically by. A literary journey to heal one’s over-stresses soul.
Beautifully narrated by Steve West, Emma Bering and Cassandra Campbell.

Located in Adult Fiction Audiobook (CDBOOK GEORGE)

The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson


Reviewed by Katy Zignego (Library Staff)

The newest travel book from Bill Bryson was hot off the press when I snapped up my copy at Books & Company. I am an inveterate Bryson fan, and I could barely wait to read this follow-up to Notes From a Small Island, my all-time favorite.

The premise is the same as any other Bryson travel book: crotchety middle-aged man travels around observing the locals, relating interesting anecdotes, and drinking excessive amounts of beer. In this case, he is touring Britain, just as he did twenty years ago for Notes From a Small Island.

I think one of the reasons I particularly enjoy Bryson’s writing is that he likes history. Some travel writers like to talk about food, or scenery, or whatever je ne sais quoi makes anyplace someplace. Bryson’s schtick is history–the stranger, the better. He loves nothing more than a monument to a long-forgotten personage, like the plaque commemorating the site where the first person to be killed by a train perished in 1830. I, too, love those kinds of esoteric historical details.

For everyone who is not a history buff, Bryson’s inimitable sense of humor is his main selling point. The man is a hoot. He is unfailingly polite to everyone he meets, but in his mind (and on the page), he berates them for every infraction from slow service to poor grammar. I found myself chuckling fewer times during Little Dribbling than I have with other Bryson books, but there were still chortles aplenty. Maybe he’s getting a little gentler in his old age.

The final segment of the population to whom this book will appeal are the Anglophiles. Bryson is an American by birth, but he has lived in Britain for most of his adult life. His affection for the British people, their way of life, and the land itself shines clearly through all his grumbling. If you, like I, believe you are a British soul trapped in an American body, you and Bill will get along famously.

Located in Adult Nonfiction (914.1048 BRY)

Paris in Love by Eloisa James

Paris in Love

Reviewed by Jane Oliver-Purton (Library Staff)
Eloisa James’s life is about to change, at least a bit. Her mother has died of cancer, and she has been diagnosed with it, and although she is a survivor, she realizes she needs to clean out, step up, and decide what it is she really wants. What she wants is to live in Paris. After all, if she’s learned anything it’s that life can be short. She takes a sabbatical from her job as a Shakespeare professor and moves her Italian husband and two kids (11 and 15) and heads off to Paris. Her year is filled with fun, sadness, frustration, and is everything she needs it to be. I loved reading about the places I was familiar with in Paris, as well as those I was not – more exploring to do on the next visit. Enjoy the year with her, and if you’re not already in love with Paris, you, too, may be at the end.

Located in Adult Nonfiction (813.54 JAM)

The Good Shufu by Tracy Slater


Reviewed by Emi Weiss (Library Staff)

This book is the true story of a woman who falls in love with a Japanese man and ultimately gives up her life in the U.S. to live in Japan and take care of her husband, his ailing father, and eventually their child. It’s an interesting book because the writer is an uncommon housewife, or “shufu,” in Japanese. Before falling in love, she is a fiercely independent, professional woman. She had been stubbornly single and progressively urban in her style. Her journey in this life shift is written with great wit and alacrity. I recommend it.

Located in Adult Nonfiction (921 SLATER)

The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck


Reviewed by Anonymous (Library Patron)

This is a historic journey through modern times. Rinker Buck and his brother set out to trace the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon. Buck peppers his tales with humor and wit along side the detailed history and the huge impact the trail had during a mad dash to go west. The reader learns what goes into preparations including mule calling. Buck describes the western movement as swap meet mentality referring to offloading belongings and picking up on others. It’s also a personal journey for Buck as he often thinks of his father and the sign passed down that says “See America Slowly”. Helping hands, historic sites, challenges that go with traveling today in a covered wagon, and the oddities of existence through time are all combined to give us a rewarding read.

Located in Adult Nonfiction (978 BUC)

An Age of License: A Travelogue by Lucy Knisley


Reviewed by Emily Terasa (Library Staff)

In this stunning graphic memoir, Lucy Knisley recounts her charming adventures through Europe, including picnics at the Eiffel Tower, romance in cafes, and plenty of interesting food and cute cat cameos. While this is part travelogue and journal, Knisley digs deeper into her anxieties about her life and career and where she is headed. An Age of License comes from a French saying that points to young people having time to do what they want when they are young; they are given a license to explore. This is a wonderfully whimsical and beautiful graphic memoir that many will enjoy.

Available through the CAFE Library System

Almost Somewhere by Suzanne Roberts

Almost Somewhere

Reviewed by Terry Zignego (Library Staff)

Part memoir, part nature guide, part travelogue, this story is about three college women grads who spend one month hiking California’s John Muir Trail. One hiker is experienced, the other inexperienced and bulimic. Roberts writes about outdoor as well as relationship challenges with honesty and humor. I enjoyed her vivid nature descriptions as well as the bits of John Muir & trail history interspersed throughout. I will add the John Muir trail to my hiking bucket list.

Located in Adult Nonfiction (796.51 ROB)