Snap Judgment: Books

The Orientalist By Tom Reiss

Before his untimely death at 35, Kurban Said was one of the Continent's most exciting, incisive and unwieldy writers. Born Lev Nussimbaum in early 20th-century Azerbaijan, the son of a Jewish oil baron, he survived countless revolutions and pogroms before converting to Islam, and wrote prolifically on the often destabilizing effects of Islam and oil in the Caucasus. Reiss's definitive biography traces Said's life as a composite of shifting aliases and improbable escapes, fueled by an indomitable creative spirit.

God Lives in St. Petersburg By Tom Bissell

Set mostly in Central Asia, the stories in this fresh and skillful collection center on American expats--often sick, dazed or unable to communicate--struggling to make sense of the political and cultural landscape. In the title story, the collection's best, a bisexual missionary and English teacher is shocked by his own abusive behavior toward his students. Though Bissell's vignettes are relentlessly grim, their insights into Central Asia--and the dislocated Americans living there--are memorably sparkling.

Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya by Jamaica Kincaid

In this recollection of a 2002 trip to the Himalayas to gather exotic seeds, Kincaid explores herself and perhaps her greatest passion outside of gardening: the power of the name. A Meconopsis is not the same plant in Nepal as it will be in Vermont. Neither is Kincaid the same woman. "I asked him the name of the mountain I saw ahead of me," she writes. "He said, 'That is not a mountain, that is a hill and it has no name'." Only Kincaid could make revelations so complex seem so utterly simple.