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A Guide for the Perplexed: A Novel Hardcover – September 9, 2013

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The latest novel from Horn (All Other Nights) is actually several books in one. One strand, a historical narrative set in 1896, depicts Cambridge professor Solomon Schechter's discovery of the Cairo Genizah, a repository of thousands of documents in an old Egyptian synagogue; while another, set in 1171, recounts how the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides wrote The Guide for the Perplexed, a book attempting to reconcile divine providence and free will, after the drowning death of his brother David. Lastly, the novel explores sibling rivalry, taking the biblical tale of Joseph and his brothers as a foundational case study. Josephine Josie Ashkenazi—the inventor of Genizah, a software program that comprehensively archives moments from its users' lives—is encouraged by her envious sister Judith to accept a consultant position at the Library of Alexandria. Soon after Josie arrives in post–Arab Spring Egypt, however, she is kidnapped. When a video appears online of Josie being hanged, Judith moves in with her sister's family, sleeping with her brother-in-law and caring for her six-year-old niece. If this sounds melodramatic, that's because it is. Worse yet, there is something profoundly unlikable about all the characters involved. Still, Horn raises intriguing questions—including some of the eternal variety and others very much of this moment. Agent: Gary Morris, David Black Agency. (Sept.)

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Horn follows All Other Nights (2009), about Jewish Americans in the Civil War, with another richly textured blend of history, psychology, religion, and human emotion. Josie Ashkenazi is a brilliant software designer who has created a program that allows its users to record every element of their lives and, thus, to keep the past alive, at least digitally. Her software is called Genizah, after the Cairo Genizah, a repository of ancient Hebrew manuscripts kept in storage for centuries because Jewish law forbids throwing away anything inscribed with the name of God. The Cairo Genizah was discovered in 1896 by Solomon Schechter, whose story is told in alternating chapters with the modern-day account of Josie’s capture by Islamic terrorists in Egypt. But the layers don’t stop there. Josie’s story, including the role of her jealous sister, Judith, parallels the biblical account of Joseph, and interwoven through all these thematic and narrative structures is Maimonides’ A Guide for the Perplexed, a twelfth-century philosophical treatise that has influenced religious scholars for nearly 1,000 years. Yes, the novel is as intricately constructed as Joseph’s coat of many colors, and, yes, it echoes the thematic density of the philosophical work after which it is named, but beneath all that beats the living heart of a very human drama, one that will have readers both caught up in the suspense and moved by the tragic dimensions of the unresolved dilemma at the core of the story. Should we be compelled, as both Schechter and Josie are, to help rescue the “vertiginous bottomless pit of forgotten lives” trapped in the past, or must we face the realization that “the act of reliving the past could consume the future”? --Bill Ott

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; First Edition edition (September 9, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393064891
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393064896
  • Product Dimensions: 0.7 x 0.1 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (123 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #636,388 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Dara Horn was born in New Jersey in 1977 and received her Ph.D. in comparative literature from Harvard University in 2006, studying Hebrew and Yiddish. In 2007 she was chosen by Granta magazine as one of America's "Best Young American Novelists." Her first novel, In the Image, published by W.W. Norton when she was 25, received a 2003 National Jewish Book Award, the 2002 Edward Lewis Wallant Award, and the 2003 Reform Judaism Fiction Prize. Her second novel, The World to Come, published by W.W. Norton in 2006, received the 2006 National Jewish Book Award for Fiction, the 2007 Harold U. Ribalow Prize, was selected as an Editors' Choice in The New York Times Book Review and as one of the Best Books of 2006 by The San Francisco Chronicle, and has been translated into eleven languages. Her third novel, All Other Nights, published in 2009 by W.W. Norton, was selected as an Editors' Choice in The New York Times Book Review and was one of Booklist's 25 Best Books of the Decade. In 2012, her nonfiction e-book The Rescuer was published by Tablet magazine and became a Kindle bestseller. Her newest novel, A Guide for the Perplexed, is available in September 2013. She has taught courses in Jewish literature and Israeli history at Harvard, Sarah Lawrence College, and City University of New York, and has lectured at over two hundred universities and cultural institutions throughout North America and in Israel. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and four children.

Customer Reviews

I am reading the book for a book discussion group.
Jane Durango
In this expertly crafted novel, Dara Horn weaves together three absorbing stories that range from the present to nearly a millennium ago.
Barbara Ollech
Enjoyed the history provided by the author within her novel...I like reading historical fiction.
Linda L.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition
People who read this well-written novel will enjoy the plots in this story and learn much about the history and love of literature, ancient and modern; rational philosophy, such as do people have free will and why do people suffer; and the conditions in late twelfth and late nineteenth century Egypt, as well as the complex horrifying conditions in Egypt today. They will also find themselves thinking about the question do we remember what occurred in our past, and is history documenting what actually occurred.

The novel contains four interweaving plots: (1) A modern tale about two sister, Josie and Judith, and the creation of a computer system that records, saves, and organizes life events so that viewers can see words spoken in the past and photo. (2) The story of Moses Maimonides and his brother David during the twelfth century, with a clear and correct explanation of parts of his philosophical masterpiece The Guide for the Perplexed. (3) The bizarre and cumbersome manner in which Solomon Schechter retrieved significant and mundane ancient documents from a synagogue storing room called Genizah in the nineteenth century, and his interactions with his brother. And (4) the tale of two sisters who aided Solomon Schechter, women who had previously discovered the oldest version of the Gospel Mark, the first book of the New Testament, which clearly ended without any mention of Jesus’ resurrection. Each tale shows some conflict between the siblings and each subtly explores the subject of forgetting and remembering, and how what one recalls after events is usually not what actually occurred.
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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful By jack fruchter on September 8, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition
Dara Horn has accomplished the near impossible feat of bringing the ancient Joseph saga into a contemporary setting.In addition,the centuries of jewish history and scholarship meld together as the 12th century scholar Maimonides and his writings come back to life, as they inspire people hundred of years later .This is a real page-turner for both every-day readers and for those who understand the deeply layered story that the author has created.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Bookreporter on September 24, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher and author of the important The Guide for the Perplexed, wrote, "You must consider, when reading this treatise, that mental perception, because connected with matter, is subject to conditions similar to those which physical perception is subject."

That idea, the intersection of mental thought, physical sensation and the role of perception, is a good place to start in discussing Dara Horn's latest novel, A GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED, which, as is obvious by the title, is indebted to the work of Maimonides. Yet it is not just the philosophy of Maimonides that Horn engages with, but also aspects of his life as well as that of another great Jewish historical figure, Solomon Schechter. She takes these two figures and combines them with the fictional character of Josie Ashkenazi, a computer genius and entrepreneur whose life is forever changed after a trip to Egypt.

Josie Ashkenazi is the creator and developer of an exciting computer program called Genizah. Named for the Jewish tradition of storing written documents instead of disposing of them, Genizah organizes all the data and information of a person's life. From passwords to images, recorded memories to scanned documents, Genizah saves everything in a virtual storage space but catalogs them in such a way as to see patterns and predict outcomes. Josie is also the sister of Judith, wife to Itamar and mother of six-year-old Tali. But her personal relationships are less successful than the business venture that made her rich.

Because Josie has always been the smart one, Judith, even though she is the older sister, feels like she was in her shadow. And Josie is often annoyed by her young daughter, who is at once quirky and difficult and totally ordinary.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Dharma on October 2, 2013
Format: Hardcover
There are some wonderful parts to this book. The recreation of the discovery of the Genizah in Cairo by Solomon Schecter is downright thrilling. Her description of the batty and brilliant Smith sisters is hilarious. Also she brings to life the quotidian world of Moses Maimonides, and creates a context for the letters from his brother which were found in the Genizah.

Unfortunately, in an attempt to make contemporary the story of Joseph, the plot elements concerning Josie in the Well, and Josie's trip to Egypt are totally unbelievable. Perhaps 10 years ago, a Jewish American woman CEO, married to an Israeli, could make a solo trip to Egypt without any bodyguards, but certainly not in the past 5 years, and definitively not after the Arab Spring. It's so hard to believe that the consequences of her actions fall flat, and the book loses it's hold. I don't want to give any plot spoilers, but the plot was spoiled for me here.

Dara Horn writes beautifully, her smooth incorporation of Jewish theology, and clearly drawn characters are compelling.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Marion E. Gold on September 17, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
There is no doubt that Dara Horn is a very gifted writer - and in "A Guide for the Perplexed," one is tantalized by how she approaches the relationships and conflicts between couples and siblings, and their respective professional and intellectual pursuits. In this book, I think readers also will glean more knowledge about the author's personal pursuit of answers to the perplexing problems of free will versus divine destiny than in her previous books. Clearly, Dara Horn still ranks among the best of the storytellers within her genre, such as Isaac Singer (Short Friday and Other Stories), Jerry Marcus (Shoshana's Song), and Naomi Ragen (The Sacrifice of Tamar). All show a real understanding and passion in their efforts to reveal the conflicts one inevitably faces when balancing the spiritual needs of the heart and mind with the realities of human nature and society. The master in my mind is Chaim Potok (My Name Is Asher Lev).
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