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The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life Paperback – March 14, 2006

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Editorial Reviews

From Bookmarks Magazine

Reiss persistently peeled away layers of fact and fiction to recount a remarkable life. He was also lucky: his subject’s elusiveness made ferreting out truth difficult, but Reiss discovered six of Nussimbaum’s notebooks in the possession of his last editor. Critics agree that The Orientalist fascinates from both a biographical and cultural perspective-it’s rich in exotic settings and characters, from an Austrian baroness to a former Hollywood starlet. Despite its charm, the book has some faults. Reiss seems to have included every piece of information he encountered, from historical anecdotes to ornate set pieces. Some factual errors, the book’s brisk pace, and the lack of maps may confuse readers. Still, The Orientalist is excellent look into the reinvention of self during one of history’s most turbulent times.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Lev Nussimbaum fabricated a life that in its brief arc encompassed the whole of the Western and Near Eastern culture of his time. A Jew from the Caucasus, born in the first throes of the Russian Revolution, he styled himself a Muslim prince. As Kurban Said, he wrote a best-selling novel that made him the toast of Nazi Germany. Inventing and reinventing himself, he left a confused and perplexing trail. Reiss pursues two great narratives, one recounting Nussimbaum's life itself, the other following the author's quest to ferret from among myths and outright lies the truth of this man's life. Along the way, readers absorb much about oil-rich Azerbaijan, the Russian Revolution, the rise of fascism, and the centuries-old clashes of cultures and religions in the Caucasus and Middle East. Digressions abound because of Nussimbaum's intricate, multicultural encounters. In the hands of a less adept writer, such complex history might grow opaque and tedious, but Reiss' storytelling flair and the utterly compelling character of Lev Nussimbaum turn this biography into a page-turner of epic proportion. Mark Knoblauch
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition (March 14, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812972767
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812972764
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.3 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (106 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #24,873 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

My recommendation is: read the book.
Prof Maurice Fuchs
Reiss gives us a great history lesson about the first half of the 20th century and tells the incredible story of Lev Nussimbaum's short life.
Maria Meylan
This book is well researched and well written.
Dr. Avner Falk

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

115 of 122 people found the following review helpful By Candace Siegle, Greedy Reader on March 1, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Fantastic in both senses of the word, this biography of Kurban Said--or should I say Essad Bey or Lev Nussimbaum?-is impossible to put down. The book's subtitle is "Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life," but fortunately much of the subject's life remains tantalizingly unexplained. Author Tom Riess does a masterly job following Lev's trail, but how nice it is to know that even with the marvels of the internet, the hard work of a very dedicated writer, and the discovery of deathbed papers, so many details of a life lived completely in the 20th century and in the spotlight on several continents can remain a mystery.

So who is this book about? As Kurban Said, he was perhaps the author of "Ali and Nino," the story of love between a Muslim boy and a Christian girl set in the central Asian city of Baku just before the Russian Revolution. It has never been out of print since its publication in the 1930s and remains very popular in any number of languages. As Essad Bey he was the author of biographies of Stalin and Nicholas II and a book on the Azerbaijani oil industry. He was invited to be Mussolini's official biographer. His socialite wife claimed not to know who he really was, and their divorce made the tabloids. As Lev Nussimbaum he spent his life fleeing one hideous revolution after another, but still managed to die of natural causes. You couldn't make this stuff up.

Reiss is a fluid, vivid writer who captures the mystery, excitement, and plain oddness of this subject's life. He places Lev's story (he calls his subject Lev) brilliantly within its historic context, and his depiction of the Russian revolution in central Asia is terrific.
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79 of 85 people found the following review helpful By David H. Schmick on March 5, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This is simply the best book I have had the good fortune to read in quite some time, in fact years. It ranks better than the five stars I can award, and it is indeed a work of art...a masterpiece. Reiss has conceived a book which reads like a novel, has the expansiveness of a travelogue, and a concise history of both the eastern and western worlds from the turn of the 20th century to the rise of Hitler.

We visit many countries here...Azerbaijan, Persia, the old Soviet Muslim republics, Russia, Germany, Italy, France and more. However much seems to center on the Ottoman Empire and it's influence on all of the other cultures between 1905 and the thirties. We are also priviledged to entertain first hand information on the Cossacks, the Russian Revolution, the Spartacist Revolt, and the rise of Hitler and Mussolini. We meet and are exposed to the thoughts and lives of so many famous people of the era.

The expanse of this book and the information contained within is a goldmine for both historians and literary types. It offered me so many opportunities to leave the book and to explore so many other books that it was definitely worth reading for just that. The main character, who went through more incarnations than Madonna and Michael Jackson combined, is absolutely compelling.

I could not in any way wish to obtain more from any book.
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36 of 37 people found the following review helpful By Richard M. Murphy on February 22, 2005
Format: Hardcover
In this gripping account of an Azeri Jewish writer named Lev Nussimbaum who reinvented himself as a Muslim Caucasian prince named Esad Bey and became the toast of Weimar Berlin, Tom Reiss sketches a parallel history of Europe and Asia between the wars.

Nussimbaum was both a walking clash of civilizations and a talented writer who left us one great romantic novel, Ali and Nino, the story of a doomed love affair between a Muslim boy and a Christian girl set in Baku during the final years of World War I. Nussimbaum himself came of age in Baku, a cosmopolitan, oil-fuelled boomtown poised between Christian Europe and Islamic West Asia.

To the people of this region, history itself must have seemed to be dissolving along with the Romanov and Ottoman Empires. It was the perfect era for a master shape changer whose own biography is no less fantastical than those of his characters. After a comfortable childhood in Baku, where his father made his fortune in the oil industry, Nussimbaum spent the remainder of his brief life as a stateless refugee. Reiss follows the young writer from Baku to Iran, Istanbul, Germany, Austria, the United States and finally the resort town of Positano on the Italian Amalfi coast, where Nussimbaum died penniless and alone after experiencing international literary celebrity while still in his twenties.

Reiss definitively solves the 80-year mystery of Esad Bey's identity. His intimate, ironic portrait turns many histories on their heads, not least the beginnings of Soviet communism and German fascism. But in the end, "The Orientalist" is a tragic story of one man's doomed effort to transcend history. Like some Hegelian surfer dude, Nussimbaum was ultimately crushed by the same wave that had carried him to stardom.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Doctor Haushka on February 16, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Who was "Kurban Said"? This was maybe not the most pressing question in my life before I began reading this scholarly yet utterly readable and fascinating book. But the question at the heartv of the book soon became a deeply meaningful, many-layered one. It not only asked about the mysterious real life-- lives? -- behind the name, but somehow it also began to ask something (or say something) important about the forces that caused the twentieth century to go as it did.

A pretty powerful question, as it turns out! For a proper answer, every page of Reiss's gorgeous, plaintive, and meticulously researched book is required. And was enjoyed.(Reiss can be quite amusing as well.)

In the heartbreaking end, Reiss leaves no doubt about the strangeness and the complexity of things: world events, the human psyche, etc.

That's on one hand.On the other, he leaves no ounce of doubt about the true identity of Kurban Said either. He even gives him the last word.A very sad end to the really amazing story of a man who tuly was a victim of history, and then became a victim of himself.
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