04/26/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Crumbs of Wisdom from The Bread of Angels

Initially, I was reluctant to pick up Stephanie Saldana's stunning new book, The Bread of Angels, because of its twee title and all the blurbs likening it to that irritatingly neurotic travelogue, Eat, Pray, Love.

But once I started reading, I couldn't put this book down. The complex emotional struggles that Saldana recounts, in a vivid memoir of her year as a Fulbright scholar in Syria, hooked the imagination of this cynical former Middle East reporter. It's a raw and evocative read about a young woman's Damascene conversion. To find such empathy, exasperation, humor, humility, and tenderness in a single volume is rare. In a first book, it's remarkable.

At age 27, in a single year, Saldana ricocheted from Texas to Damascus, Massachusetts to Morocco, from Harvard yard to a teenage girls' madrassa. Her academic goal was to trace the prophet Jesus in Islamic tradition, and through immersing herself in such a severely foreign setting, the lovelorn grad student also hoped her shattered heart might heal. Happiness is a tall order, particularly when Middle Eastern wars send refugees spilling into cramped Syrian neighborhoods, her blunders in the Arabic language keep backfiring, and her own Christian faith falters. She contemplates chucking it all in to become a nun, and ultimately becomes smitten by a novice monk.

The resulting tale of an intellectual runaway is as intricate as the design etched on an Arabesque tray, with loops and whorls interlacing into startling patterns. Saldana is young and Catholic, and sometimes it feels as if we are eavesdropping in the confessional. Yet Saldana is observant and sharp, and avoids stereotyping the Arabs she encounters in the bazaar and the veiled girls she teaches inside a mosque classroom. It's an uncommon perspective.

With unflinching honesty, the pint-sized poet and divinity scholar from Texas processes and reprocesses what unfolds around her in the old quarter of Damascus and inside a stark desert monastery, while dissecting the failings of her intimate relationships with her lovers and with God.

Somehow Saldana sidesteps melodrama, even when a month-long spiritual retreat in silence morphs into an encounter with a self-deprecating "Woody Allen" Christ as intense as an LSD trip.

She writes:

At the monastery I will suspend time and space for a month, gradually relinquishing my hold on the exterior world, and enter into the landscape of the Bible...I will occupy my own mind, perhaps a more frightening terrain than any country to which I might travel.

The sense of place and history is acute in The Bread of Angels and the characters are authentic and warmly drawn:

"As an American living in Syria during the Iraq war, at a moment when my country was largely despised in the region, I could at least find comfort when I remembered the historical circumstances of the company I kept...I guess that all of us were outcasts, living in a neighborhood of exile...I began to feel I had access to almost every story that had ever existed in that part of the world... The unfortunate ones from across the region fled their homes during various conflicts...and made new homes in these neighborhoods: Christians, Muslims, and Jews; Armenians, Kurds, Circassians, and Palestinians; militant jihadis going to and coming from the war, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fleeing their homeland, and finally, little old me."