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A Guide for the Perplexed: A Novel Hardcover – September 9, 2013
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"Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl
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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.)
*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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This is a heavy load to carry through the book, but Horn rises to the occasion. However, these neatly sowed seeds of a fascinating plot deteriorate into a soap opera when Josie travels to Egypt to advise the Library of Alexandria, is captured and held captive by Islamic extremists.
Unfortunately, the book does not achieve the suspense of other books which flawlessly meld the past with the present, science with religion, like those by Daniel Silva or Dan Brown. I think we will be reading many good books by Dara Horn in the future but this one can be skipped unless the reader has a strong interest in the Cairo Genizah or Maimonides.