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The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life (edition 2006)

by Tom Reiss

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Title:The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life
Authors:Tom Reiss
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Rating:***1/2
Tags:read 2012, non fiction, history, biography

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The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life by Tom Reiss

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English (12)  Finnish (1)  All languages (13)
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biography, nonfiction, winter-20122013, wwii, paper-read, dip-in-now-and-again, azerbaijan, adventure, history, jewish, slavic, anti-semitic, dodgy-narrator, wwi, teh-brillianz, italy, germany, france, spring-2013, austria, iran-persia
Read from November 30, 2012 to March 27, 2013

Dedication:

For Lolek,
who showed me how to travel,
and Julie,
who keeps me from going too far.
I wish they had met.

Opening: On a cold morning in Vienna, I walked a maze of narrow streets on the way to see a man who promised to solve the mystery of Kurban Said.

It's hard to warm to the chameleon, Lev, however his times were eye-poppingly interesting/terrifying; he was forever out of the frying-pan and into the fire and it could be this reason that he kept shape-shifying Zelig-style. Re-inventing oneself to survive is one thing, not knowing when to leave off is worrying - he had the personality traits to become a Hitler, Stalin, Napoleon, Mehmed.

This is an amazing piece of investigative literature by Reiss. Not a book to read at night because of the small font and the print is mid grey on recycled, therefore greyish, paper.

From the Guardian Sept 2011: Recently I read The Orientalist by Tom Reiss, a fascinating account of the life of Lev Nussimbaum, a Jew from Baku who after the Russian revolution escaped via Turkey to Berlin. Semi-safely ensconced in the Weimar capital, he converted to Islam, taking the name "Essad Bey". A career writing bestselling biographies of Stalin and Mohammed followed. His escapades took him as far as Hollywood before he decided to return to Europe at precisely the wrong moment in history. read more of this review here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/...

#79 TBR Busting 2013
9 likes ( )
  mimal | Mar 31, 2013 |
Rather than thinking of this as a biography, it may be more accurate to consider it a story of a man and his life in their historical context. I know that may not be a salient distinction for some, but I've read a good number of reviews that complain about the story being overly inclusive, padded, or wordy. It may be better to treat it as a text in which Lev Nussimbaum is an interesting and emblematic exemplar of the tensions and identity strains of the region in this era. Taking Nussimbaum's story as the point of depature and return, Reiss interweaves the story of a man--both Jewish and Muslim, Asian and European, Nussimbaum and Kurban Said and Essad Bey--with the events that shaped modern Euro-Asian history and the Jewish experience in the Old World. Reiss does this with only occasional repetitions and digressions that are too lengthy. I was least held by the end of the book, where Nussimbaum's story seemed to be wrapped up with an excess of brevity and alacrity. A good reflective and summative end note would have managed this problem. ( )
  OshoOsho | Mar 30, 2013 |
Born Lev Nussimbaum in Baku in the revolutionary year of 1905, and buried as Mohammed Essad Bey in Positano during the second world war, the writer who is the protagonist of this biography reveled in creating new identities and life stories for himself, but ultimately was trapped by the weight of geography and history. This book hadn't intrigued me when it first came out, but after reading Tom Reiss's The Black Count, I was eager to read this earlier work and I was not disappointed. Reiss became interested in Nussimbaum when he traveled to Baku to write an article about oil and was introduced to the novel Ali and Nino, written by someone named Kurban Said, said to be the best book to read about the place; who Kurban Said was was a mystery, a mystery which led him to research the life of Nussimbaum/Bey.

And quite a life it was. His father was a an oil millionaire in Baku, but father and son had to flee across the Caucusus after the 1917 revolution, with quite dramatic adventures along the way, adventures made even more dramatic by Nussimbaum/Bey when he wrote about them. (His mother, a revolutionary, had killed herself earlier.) As a child, and especially after this flight, young Lev became interested in what we would now call the multicultural but then was called, often derogatorily, cosmopolitan nature of the region, with Jews, Muslims, Azeris, Russians, and more interacting in business and in the streets. He became especially intrigued by Turkish culture in particular, and came to invent a Turkish and Persian heritage for himself.

Along with other emigrés from Soviet Russia, Lev and his father moved around Europe from Paris to Berlin, eventually becoming poor. Lev invented his Essad Bey persona, began to write nonfiction, and hung out with a literary crowd. Having grown up with the turmoil and danger of revolution, he had strong anti-revolutionary politics and even flirted with fascism. Later, he began to write fiction, married, visited the US, was divorced, and started writing fiction. Here is where the mystery of the name Kurban Said comes in. Eventually fleeing Nazi Berlin, he landed for a while in Vienna, then in Italy, where he became very sick and died, known in Positano only as "the Muslim."

Even more interesting than Nussimbaum's strange and sad story is the background Reiss provides on the times, places, and events. From the oil boom days in Baku to the cultures of the Caucasus, from the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary events in Berlin in the 20s and 30s to the lives of the emigré population in Paris and Berlin, from the fascination of the west with "eastern" culture to the effects of the Nazi takeover of publishing, and more, he brings compelling and (to me) little known history to life. As with his later biography, this one also reads like a novel, but Reiss conducted extensive interviews, read primary sources, and includes detailed notes and a lengthy biography.
4 vote rebeccanyc | Mar 17, 2013 |
a great biography of a complex enigmatic man ( )
  CynthiaScott | Jan 31, 2010 |
A very interesting book bridging East & West cultures in a most scholarly way and especially thought provoking subject of European pan -Islamists. ( )
  peterwhumphreys | Dec 25, 2008 |
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Book description
Lev Nussimbaum, a Jew, was born in October 1905 in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, an oil-producing region that would be torn apart by revolution. The author traces his remarkable flight from persecution via horseback, clever disguises, and his genius for reinventing himself. While Lev's own story is completely absorbing, the reader also learns a great deal about the Bolshevik Revolution, the "Great Powers", the First World War, and the rise of Hitler.

Highly recommended.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0812972767, Paperback)

A thrilling page-turner of epic proportions, Tom Reiss’s panoramic bestseller tells the true story of a Jew who transformed himself into a Muslim prince in Nazi Germany. Lev Nussimbaum escaped the Russian Revolution in a camel caravan and, as “Essad Bey,” became a celebrated author with the enduring novel Ali and Nino as well as an adventurer, a real-life Indiana Jones with a fatal secret. Reiss pursued Lev’s story across ten countries and found himself caught up in encounters as dramatic and surreal–and sometimes as heartbreaking–as his subject’s life.

 

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:52:17 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

This book traces the life of Lev Nussimbaum, a Jew who transformed himself into a Muslim prince and became a best-selling author in Nazi Germany. Born in 1905 in Baku, at the edge of the czarist empire, Lev escaped the Russian Revolution in a camel caravan. He found refuge in Germany, where, writing under the names Essad Bey and Kurban Said, his remarkable books about Islam, desert adventures, and global revolution, became celebrated across fascist Europe. But his life grew wilder than his wildest stories. He married an international heiress who had no idea of his true identity--until she divorced him in a tabloid scandal. His closest friend in New York was arrested as the leading Nazi agent in the United States. He was invited to be Mussolini's official biographer--until the Fascists discovered his "true" identity. Under house arrest, he wrote his last book, helped by a mysterious half-German salon hostess, an Algerian weapons-smuggler, and the poet Ezra Pound. As he tracks down the pieces of Lev's deliberately obscured life, Reiss discovers a series of shadowy worlds--of European pan-Islamists, nihilist assassins, anti-Nazi book smugglers, Baku oil barons, Jewish Orientalists--that have also been forgotten. The result is a thoroughly unexpected picture of the twentieth century--of the origins of our ideas about race and religious self-definition, and of the roots of modern fanaticism and terrorism.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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