Inder's Reviews > The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life

The Orientalist by Tom Reiss
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's review
Jan 26, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: history, culture, colonial-postcolonial, russia, mid-east, germany, read-2010, biography
Recommended for: Ammon
Read from October 22, 2009 to January 25, 2010

One-third biography and two-thirds history, this is the story an of obscure, forgotten author, Lev Nussimbaum, aka Essad Bey, aka Kurban Said, caught up in the throes of 20th Century Europe and the Near East. The son of a Jewish Baku oil millionaire, Lev escaped the Russian Revolution to remake himself as a German writer, "Muslim Prince," and biographer of Mussolini.

The very best parts of the book were the colorful descriptions of the oil town Baku, on the Caspian Sea in current-day Azerbaijan, the fascinating insights into 19th and 20th Century Jewish "Orientalists," and the many interviews with friends and relatives of Lev. But as interesting as Lev is, through most of this book, Lev's story takes a back seat to European, Russian, and Near Eastern history. Reading this, I discovered how sadly ignorant I am about the Bolshevik revolution and the rise of Fascism and Nazism, and certainly, the history of the Caucasus.

Tom Reiss expertly weaves together extensive historical research with personal details that make the material sing. Even the footnotes are deftly funny. There just a few spots in the book that dragged a bit. But this book is an education unto itself, and I recommend it.

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Reading Progress

10/22/2009 page 9
10/26/2009 page 56
12.53% "I have already learned so much more about the Caucasus and Central Asia than I ever imagined ..."
11/19/2009 page 180
40.27% "Shifting back and forth between the Christian Patriarchy movement and the calamitous 20th century - I need something light and fluffy now."
12/23/2009 page 240
53.69% "The 20th century continues to be calamitous."
01/15/2010 page 264
59.06% "Coming back to this after a break for sociobiology."
01/20/2010 page 301
67.34% "Although this is listed at almost 500 pages, most of it is notes, so I'm actually in the last few pages here. This has been heavy but great."
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Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

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Chrissie Have you read Ali and Nino: A Love Story yet? I thought I would read the love story first and then the memoir about the author. Curious to read your review!

Inder I have read it, and it's really lovely - I reviewed it on Goodreads (no spoilers). I recommend it! That's why I'm reading this biography, but I have to say, it's good in its own right. You could appreciate the biography without reading Ali and Nino. Cheers!

Chrissie Well I have both and I too had planned to read the fiction first. Nice to know I have this good read ahead of me! The Biography sounds fascinating! Starting a new book is like a little Xmas for me :0)

Inder Ali and Nino is a very short, quick, delicious read (I think I read it in one day, on a flight, in my pre-baby days). The Orientalist, on the other hand, is a beefy history of practically everything but nonetheless engrossing. Both books deal with aspects of 20th century history that you otherwise might not ever hear about - I don't know about you, but I was not very knowledgeable about the Caucasus before taking these on! Enjoy!

(And I definitely know what you mean about Christmas - this may be why I always seem to have a currently-reading list of like ten books!)

Chrissie Me, I have to read one at a rime b/c I like one best and I just give up on the others.......

message 6: by Inder (last edited Jan 21, 2010 11:13AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Inder I often take a break in the middle of a longer, tougher read (like The Orientalist, actually) to read something that seems more compelling at the moment. But I usually come back to the first book eventually. I have a harder time doing this with fiction than non-fiction, though. I do not usually read more than one novel at a time. Non-fiction seems easier to put down and pick back up.

And to be fair, there is stuff on my "currently reading" list like The Bible. Can't read that in one sitting! That's a longer-term project.

Chrissie OMG no - I understand completely!

Chrissie I just started Trinity, which is very long. It feels like I have to hurry up and get to this book after reading the author's nove...... How to get stressed!

Inder Chrissie wrote: "I just started Trinity, which is very long. It feels like I have to hurry up and get to this book after reading the author's nove...... How to get stressed!"

Ha ha. I totally know the feeling! I'm always eager to finish what I'm reading and move to the next thing, but you really can't let your fun reading stress you out! If you do, it starts to seem like work! (I'm a lawyer, so I basically read and write for a living; I have to compartmentalize like crazy in order to fit in and enjoy so much fun reading, and I'll be d----d if it starts to feel like a chore!)

message 10: by Chrissie (last edited Jan 27, 2010 11:54AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Chrissie No, reading is fun. What is bugging me a bit now is that I am reading Trnity b/c I got it from my Mom for Xmas. She really wants me to read it...... in other words immediately. I DECIDED to read it now, so I should stop complaining. It was my choice, and hej I am beginning to get into it and it isn't bad at all.

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