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A Guide for the Perplexed

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The incomparable Dara Horn returns with a spellbinding novel of how technology changes memory and how memory shapes the soul.

Software prodigy Josie Ashkenazi has invented an application that records everything its users do. When an Egyptian library invites her to visit as a consultant, her jealous sister Judith persuades her to go. But in Egypt’s postrevolutionary chaos, Josie is abducted—leaving Judith free to take over Josie’s life at home, including her husband and daughter, while Josie’s talent for preserving memories becomes a surprising test of her empathy and her only means of escape.

A century earlier, another traveler arrives in Egypt: Solomon Schechter, a Cambridge professor hunting for a medieval archive hidden in a Cairo synagogue. Both he and Josie are haunted by the work of the medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides, a doctor and rationalist who sought to reconcile faith and science, destiny and free will. But what Schechter finds, as he tracks down the remnants of a thousand-year-old community’s once-vibrant life, will reveal the power and perils of what Josie’s ingenious work brings into being: a world where nothing is ever forgotten.

An engrossing adventure that intertwines stories from Genesis, medieval philosophy, and the digital frontier, A Guide for the Perplexed is a novel of profound inner meaning and astonishing imagination.

See also: String Theory: The Parents Askenazi , the digital only prequel to A Guide for the Perplexed.

342 pages, Hardcover

First published September 9, 2013

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About the author

Dara Horn

19 books569 followers
Dara Horn, the author of the novels All Other Nights, The World to Come, and In the Image, is one of Granta’s "Best Young American Novelists" and the winner of two National Jewish Book Awards. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and four children.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 516 reviews
Profile Image for Jill.
2,186 reviews81 followers
September 11, 2013
Like other novels by the talented Dara Horn, this book has layers upon layers that challenge the reader intellectually without pulling you away from the story.

This book is, on one level, a retelling of the Biblical story of Joseph, who was sold into bondage in Egypt by his jealous brothers. If you haven’t read that story in a while, I won’t mention many more parallels, lest it be spoilery. But in a nice twist, rather than Joseph, we have a story about Josephine (or “Josie”), and her envious sister Judith. At Judith's encouragement, Josie leaves her husband and young daughter behind to travel to Egypt, and there she is kidnapped by revolutionaries.

It is also a story about memory and the gates of perception. What becomes our sharpest memories about ourselves and others, and how does that choice or phenomenon affect our interaction with the present and the future?

Tying these two themes together are two other themes. (Horn is always complex, making the title of this book sort of a double entendre!). One theme is a fictional retelling of the historical discovery of the Genizah in Cairo. A Genizah is a repository of memories: in the Jewish religion, any object inscribed with the name of God cannot be destroyed, so synagogues designate rooms as repositories for marred, worn, or otherwise damaged documents they could no longer use. This storeroom is known as a Genizah, or “hiding place.”

Josie has created a computer program to store memories which she calls Genizah. It has been wildly successful. It takes any input - including documents, notes, pictures, and videos - and categorizes them, putting them behind visual “doors”. The more labels or categories one adds to the data, the better the program can sort and retrieve any memories or ideas. Then it can generate patterns so you can see persistent behaviors and themes and perhaps even predict future outcomes. And if we can save the past, and “recreate” people from these memories, haven’t we in some senses “resurrected” them from the dead? And what about the converse: is Hell just oblivion? Is that what we all really fear?

All of this is echoed in the fourth theme, the great 12th Century work of philosophy by the Jewish scholar Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed. Because of his adaptation of Aristotelian thought to Biblical faith, Maimonides influenced a number of scholars who came after him, including the noted Christian theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas.

In the [original] Guide for the Perplexed, a copy of which was [actually] discovered in the Cairo Genizah, Maimonides considers the reconciliation of ideas about God's omniscience, omnipotence, and benevolence with (a) the problem of evil in the world, and (b) whether or not this could mean that mankind has free will. As Judith Plaskow (Professor of Religious Studies at Manhattan College) once wrote, the most salient existential dilemma is not how a supposedly good and omnipotent God would permit evil in the world, because we cannot know the answer. Rather, she suggests, a better question is how, given the reality of evil, we deal with it. And how then do we justify faith or lack of faith? What stories do we tell ourselves? These issues become critically important to Josie after she is kidnapped in Cairo, and because she has with her a copy of the Maimonides work, it helps her understand her fate.

Evaluation: I told you there are four basic themes, but actually there are others as well. There are contemporary (or perhaps, more accurately, timeless) ideas explored about marriage and parenting and sibling rivalry, for example. Horn incorporates so many clever layers into this story that it would take a book of my own to explicate them all. If you like intelligent fiction; fiction that makes you think about religious, philosophical, political, technical, and personal issues and how they intersect, Dara Horn is one of the best authors I know who makes this happen. In addition, the story itself, without any layers or higher meaning at all, is a good one; one that is thought-provoking enough on its own to provide endless conversation for a book club or with a reading partner.
Profile Image for Susan.
309 reviews11 followers
November 11, 2013
I was left speechless by this book. It is a story within a story within a story, all in a larger context of the questions: "what is memory?" and "who am I, really?" It also explores the superficial and deeper meaning of relationships and connections, providing much food for thought (and Torah drashes, if one is inclined in that direction, as I am). Dara Horn uses the famous text by Moses Maimonides as the inspiration for her title, and incorporates his life and work into the story. It is very hard to comment on this book without telling the story, and to tell the story would ruin it for anyone who wants to read it. Let's just say you don't have to be Jewish to get the message. A long time ago I took an adult ed class on the original Maimonides text, and I am now inspired to study it again. If you are interested in a story with multiple parallel as well as intersecting perpendicular lines, with hidden mysteries revealed yet made more mysterious with each door (a critical image in the book) opened or closed, this is for you. I am ready to read it again, and again, and again.
88 reviews3 followers
September 25, 2013
I have been a big fan of Dara Horn and loved "The World to Come."

I have also done a lot of reading in Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed (I am a rabbi and a philosophy major)

So I was looking forward to reading this book a great deal.

But I found it deeply disappointing. I enjoyed the sections on Solomon Schechter and, to a lesser extent, the parts reflecting on the life of Maimonides. Yet the contemporary sections struck me as contrived, completely improbably and, worst of all, cruel. I did not like a single one of the modern characters and did not enjoy spending time with them.

The very end of the book was mean-spirited. This is a re-telling of the Joseph story, but it re-tells it in a way that lacks the subtlety and hope that comes at the end of the Genesis version. This one ends on hatred and utter despair.

Spare yourself reading this book.
Profile Image for Oriana.
Author 2 books3,298 followers
June 18, 2013
Here is a short list that should tell you everything I think about this book:

1. I got it at BEA.

2. I carried it around during like the wettest two weeks ever, even in a derecho, and it is pretty well destroyed.

3. I finished it at the park, lying in the last sun rays of the day.

4. I will be gifting it to my mom next time I see her.

So there you have it, right?


Okay, let me break it down.

1. means that A Guide for the Perplexed is going to be pushed hard by Norton, and also that it's made for mass consumption. These are not things I love.

2. means that, although it's not super long, it took me about twice as long to read as normal, indicating that I was not very compelled by it. In fact, the book has three braided plots, and one of them was awfully compelling, but every time it got to a cliff-hanger, I had to wade through the next installments of the other two plots, and by time I got back to it I was unfocused at best.

3. means that although I always walk my dog around 6, I wanted to be done with this book and have it out of my bag so bad that I left him waiting until close to 7. (Sorry, puppy.)

4. means that it is very Jewish, character-driven, viscerally scenery'd, well described, and ultimately over-emotional and a little hokey. These are things my mom loves.
Profile Image for Jan Rice.
522 reviews444 followers
November 5, 2014
Here is the challenge of a 19th century Jewish pioneer in Palestine, after a fall through a hole in the earth, to his twin brother, a Cambridge scholar:

...While I was waiting to be rescued, I wondered how old the cistern must have been. On the floor I found the answer: a bronze coin from the time of the Maccabees, lying at my feet. I'm sure you make all kinds of important discoveries in your fancy library every day, but I doubt you will ever fall through a hole in the floor and land in the memory of God.

Oh, how wrong he is! Throughout this book, people in several segments of history are more or less literally falling down wormholes of memory, making for exploration both of memory and of what our responsibility to the past--and the future--is. I loved it--the people and their philosophical conundrums, and what they just might have figured out that I didn't know I needed to know. For example, not everybody has to be a genealogist:

It had never occurred to her, until now, that the act of reliving the past could consume the future....

Not only is this book about memory, it's about siblings, who come in pairs here. It's a modern-day Joseph story, only with girls! Josie (get it) is the precocious talent who earns the enmity of sister Judith, and, yes, ends up in Egypt some time after the 2011 revolution, at which point the present-day scenario darkens--the only way to transformation and redemption. The historical threads are juxtaposed yet it all works. I didn't feel wrenched away. In fact I might have liked the historical segments just as well or better.

The genre is not literature. It's action. A philosophical, intellectual, and historical, but not literary thriller, I'd say, all of it tending toward the literary but not quite there yet. This is the first Dara Horn novel I've read, so I don't know how her work is trending, but did see somewhere or other that this is her most ambitious or intricate work yet. Perhaps she'll eventually jettison the thriller mode and go with the literary. What I think that means is that then she could just let her present-day characters develop as they may without having to subject them to the exigencies of plot, which I thought happened a couple of times. When that happened the story was rolling along so well it jumped right over the hurdle, but still I thought I noticed. The author didn't have to manipulate her historical characters that way; it's the present-day folks who have to advance the action.

But don't overly credit the bitchy conclusion of The New York Times book review, which said that she, the reviewer, felt she was being force-fed too much information. I couldn't help but think that reviewer was feeling competitive, like a Goodreads reviewer hesitating to give his or her Goodreads sister or brother a "like" when the count is close. Ah, the pangs of sibling rivalry.... Although in reality that could never happen here....

It hit me that what I remember about books is the people, not the plot. I think that's true. For example, the Harry Potter books: as soon as I finished one I couldn't tell you what happened in it. And the other day I was writing about The Stand, which I read maybe 20 years ago and of which I retained virtually nothing. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books? Mostly what people experienced and revealed. Mainly the world of the people, not so much what they did. The heartbreak of the girl in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn after 50 years. And Ladies of the Club after 30. So all I'm saying is that the plot is there for the characters, not the characters for the plot.

Finally, in terms of what this book provoked in me, I have a long-running debate with myself about whether it's always better to know the truth about something that has happened, or could there be some cases in which it would be better not to know. I'm talking about, for example, where an affair has occurred. Should the straying partner keep it a secret? Or must the truth out? I generally fall on the side of the truth. Secrets corrupt. But there was a truth so dark, so terrible, in the Louise Erdrich novel The Master Butchers Singing Club (no, if you haven't read it--I'm not going to tell you what it was) that it almost had me changing my mind. The conclusion of A Guide for the Perplexed set me back on the side of truth, lest without one's knowing the truth of the past, history might be destined repeat itself.
Profile Image for Rachel.
289 reviews32 followers
October 12, 2013
For fear of appearing ungrateful for winning a Giveaway, I wanted to give this book 2 stars. However, I feel that honesty (especially where books are concerned) is more important than winning more free books.

Reading this book felt like work. Had I not felt a sense of obligation to finish it, I would have stopped reading very early on and returned it to the library as I usually do with books that just aren't sitting well with me. However, I trudged through. There were a few chapters that were interesting (namely, Josie in the pit), but I found the vast majority of the characters either superfluous or unlikable (or, in Judith's case, completely vile and unredeemable). I also though the author did a poor job selling Schechter's voyage to Egypt as being something meaningful or important, so his chapters were especially difficult for me to read.

There were small moments when I thought Horn did a good job capturing the Jewish experience of feeling alienated and of sometimes being asked very offensive questions by people who are strangers to Judaism and Jewish culture. However, I also thought that this book would be unapproachable to anyone outside of Jewish or Israeli culture, and thus those classic experiences are merely just unfortunate cliches those of us who grew up with this heritage can all relate to, rather than perhaps an enlightening window to someone looking in from the outside. This could have been a universal story that shared a specific cultural experience in a cross-cultural way but, having burrowed so deeply into a specific in-group, I fear that that's where it will stay.

Horn's Hebrew transliterations also seemed to inconsistently follow the general rules of Hebrew transliteration, and so I had many instances where I wasn't quite sure how to pronounce the word in my head. While I have a basic understanding of Hebrew, I would have liked to learn some new words from this story and was frustrated that the transliteration wasn't clear-cut (I ended up Googling most things, which made it even harder to focus on the story).

I also think the meaningfulness of A Guide for the Perplexed, and the path that it weaves across the story, was diminished by Horn's addition of other timeline-crossing details. I think this was supposed to bind the different characters more closely, but I thought that these little details made the author look lazy, despite all her research, and really didn't introduce any additional meaning into the story. It just served to decrease the binding and timeless properties of the Guide itself.

I think that this story was very ambitious, but it simply failed in it's execution. By adding so many characters and timelines and filling them with details that took away from the story, the characters all came across as shallow. I think Horn was trying to address too many things, including (but not limited to): technology's role in society, the current political upsets in the Middle East, cultural differences between East and West, the challenges and realities of being a woman in Egypt, kidnapping, terror, parenting, sibling rivalries, death and loss, mental illness, forgiveness and repentance, spirituality, justice, religious doctrine, perspective's impact on reality, and memory. It was too much and, in it's broadness, every area suffered.

I felt neither satisfied nor unsatisfied with the ending: I was simply glad it was over and that I could leave this story and it's characters behind.
Profile Image for robin friedman.
1,792 reviews220 followers
May 25, 2023
Maimonides In A Contemporary Novel

Some historical background may be useful in reading and reviewing Dara Horn's novel, "A Guide for the Perplexed." The great medieval Jewish philosopher and physician Maimonides (1138 -- 1204) wrote a famous and difficult work of philosophy, "The Guide for the Perplexed" that has been highly influential among Jewish and non-Jewish thinkers. The meaning and significance of the Guide and of Maimonides' own religious views is still discussed today. Broadly speaking, the work explores the relationship between religion and science, as science was known in the 12th century, and attempts to reconcile the two. In the late 19th Century, Solomon Schechter, a Jewish scholar in Britain, discovered a large cache of documents in a synagogue in Cairo, stored in what is known as a Genizah. The Cairo Genizah included many documents by and about Maimonides and thus greatly increased understanding of the philosopher and his work. Maimonides is the subject of a large scholarly literature. Schechter later moved to the United States and founded the Jewish Theological Seminary. In 2008, an American scholar, Joel Kraemer wrote a biography, "Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization's Greatest Minds" which explores Maimonides' life and work in detail and which draws heavily on the Cairo Genizah. I have read Kraemer's book and reviewed it on Goodreads. Horn's novel draws on Kraemer's biography and also returns back to Maimonides and Schechter themselves.

Dara Horn (b. 1977) is a young American novelist whose works have received considerable praise and who holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Harvard University focusing on Hebrew and Yiddish Literature. Her novel, "The Guide for the Perplexed" includes several strands. Part of the novel is set in the Egypt of Maimonides' time and includes quotations and discussions of themes from the "Guide". Another part of the novel is set in the 19th Century and covers Solomon Schechter's discovery of the manuscripts in Cairo.

In addition to these broad, widely separated components which would make a historical novel, Horn's novel has a distinctly contemporary setting. The larger part of the book is set in the contemporary United States, Egypt, and Israel. The primary character is a young, intellectually gifted American woman, Josie Ashkenazi, who is a software prodigy. She has invented a program she calls Genizah (after the Cairo Genizah) which has an uncanny ability of tracking all the events in one's past. The program becomes wildly popular and Josie has her own company. She is married to a programmer from Israel, Itamar, and has a six-year old daughter, Tali. Josie also has an older sister, Judith, of no particular intellectual gifts. She has given Judith a job in her company when she could find nothing else. There has been severe sibling rivalry between Judith and Josie since childhood. Josie receives an invitation to visit the Alexandria Library in Egypt to help with the software. While in Egypt, she is kidnapped and treated severely by an outlaw gang. When she is alone with herself, she reads Maimonides' "Guide". The novel tells Josie's story and that of her family interspersed with the stories of Maimonides and Schechter.

The above brief summary of only part of a relatively short novel suggests that the book is overburdened and overly broad. That is indeed the case as the book moves back and forth between scenes in the contemporary world and scenes in the 12 and 19th centuries, each of which would bear detailed, careful treatment on their own. In addition to its overly ambitious scope, several other elements of the book left me dissatisfied. The book is disjointed in that Josie's story and the historical stories are only related loosely by themes with little plot connection between them. Further, the main plot of the book, involving Josie and her journey to Egypt is contrived and unconvincing in many particulars. The book relies heavily on several broad themes, including the Biblical story of Joseph and his brothers, and sibling rivalry between family members who are gifted and those who are less gifted. These themes and other are taken through each of the three plot lines in a way which is overly obvious and manufactured. Then too, the main character, Josie, is dislikable in ways the author may not have intended. She is arrogant and overly-taken with her own strong intelligence. Even when Josie undergoes severe hardship and mistreatment in Egypt during the novel, I found it difficult to sympathize with or to root for her.

I had a great deal of trouble with this novel but concluded that its strong points outweighed its deficiencies. I found the scenes with Maimonides and Schechter well done and the discussion of portions of Maimonides' "Guide" thoughtful. It seems to me valuable in a novel to present Maimonides to readers that might otherwise have little knowledge of his life or work. Although Josie is not a sympathetic character, some of the themes of the novel as they involve intellect and its value are treated thoughtfully. In Jewish thought, Maimonides is the primary example of philosophical rationalism, which some other Jewish thinkers do not share. There is a tendency to over-value intellect as against feeling, for example, and as against the vast majority of people who are not strongly intellectually gifted or inclined. Horn's book explores this theme, well in places, clumsily in others. There is a wonderful scene in the book in which the highly intellectual Solomon Schechter visits his long lost brother who doesn't read and who has settled in Palestine. The book includes discussions about time and about remembering and visiting the past which are interesting and its discussion of sibling rivalry, while overly-systematized, is pointed. I thought the book read well and quickly and enjoyably on the whole in spite of its disjointedness, contrivance and, in places, serious philosophical discussion. Thus, I thought that the book succeeded more than it failed.

I enjoyed the opportunity to think about Maimonides again. His thought, and that of other great thinkers, is always worthwhile and stimulating to get to know. I was pleased that he figured prominently in this novel.

Robin Friedman
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,002 reviews36k followers
March 26, 2014
Such Rich texture of a novel...beautifully crafted!
Engaging 'knots-in-your-tummy' page turning disturbing parts to read.
Thought-provoking- From the very first page --to the last page.

"Stories from Genesis, medieval philosophy, and the digital frontier, A Guide For the Perplexed, is a novel of profound inner meaning and astonishing imagination" [this quote is taken from the 'flap' of the hardcover book]. I could not invent a better sentence to describe the basic details which to tell others ----(as to 'maybe' begin to understand just how unique an exceptional this book is).

Characters to remember: ....A Man, woman, child and aunt (Itamar, Josie, Tali, Judith)
Professor Solomon Schecter and two twin woman (Agnes & Margaret)>>> and 'his' twin brother.
Nasreen: Young stylish woman in Cairo
Smoking Rabbi in Cairo ...
Moshed & David (insightful story)....
More characters...
The Genizah ...and the invention by Josie --"an application" that records everything".

The New Library in Cairo...

Questions about Free Will -- and Control (present, future, past)

Relationships ---(trust, hurts, lies, forgiveness, etc.)

I loved this line: "The limit of human memory encourages humility".

The author, Dara Horn, is a very accomplished writer.
Her book has an emotional daily life 'feel' to it. ---
The story keeps 'flowing' --'evolving' ...(twisting & turning).
It intertwines with a century earlier --(which also feels 'human & real) --

I learned a little more from the Cairo Genizah ....and that Jewish Physicians in Egypt in 'Maimonides Time', often worked as pharmaceutical merchants as well as doctors. They would get medications from other countries.....then sell them to patients. Lots of wonderful history tied into this book.

NOTE: The 1973 War is mention between Egypt and Israel. The 'characters' in the book living in Egypt claim to have 'won' the war.

I was in Israel in 1973 during the war. I remember how things were.

I couldn't help but wonder???? (why??? is this conversation even being talked about 'now' in this book). I felt a physical 'gut' reaction ---(almost a worry). Does it help with 'peace'?
I have NO way of knowing...(honest)... I am NO expert in ANY way on Political 'anything'...
but I did notice how my body felt.

I HOPE this book would be enjoyed by people from 'all' faith's. I'm Jewish. The author is Jewish. Its filled with Jewish history & stories ---(I loved them)....

I was left [in the end] ---in tears actually... I was sad...
Thinking.... "Life Repeats itself". I've heard it before. You've heard it. We've all heard it. I just felt sad! Yet.....it was a FANTASTIC BOOK!!!!!!!

Profile Image for Sue  Parker Gerson.
187 reviews7 followers
June 13, 2013
It's rare that I give any book a five star rating. This one earned it, in spades. The triple story line involving modern characters, Solomon Schechter, and Maimonides (overlaid with biblical and psychological themes) is masterful. Brava, Dara Horn.
Profile Image for Suanne Laqueur.
Author 26 books1,495 followers
March 24, 2019
I read Dara Horn's The World to Come and loved it. I didn't love this one as much, I skimmed much of the philosophical stuff and didn't really feel Schuster's narrative was necessary. But now I know I really REALLY like Dara Horn and she has such a lovely long backlist for me to go through. (My TBR list is looking at me wide-eyed, shaking its head. No. Not more books. No. No more. Please...)
Profile Image for Magdelanye.
1,648 reviews202 followers
November 11, 2019

There are 5 theories concerning divine providence. p159

On the one extreme there is no providence at all; everything owes their origin to accident and chance. The other extreme posits that everything unfolds according to it's divine providence. Both extremes have their scientific and whimsical rationale. Between them are the theories that attempt to define their position by the degrees of free will that mediate between the extreme positions.

Dara Horn riffs on medieval scholarship and in particular the work of Jewish mystic Maimonades, who considered these things and wrote the original The Guide for the Perplexed But DH is is grounded in the modern world. The prominent thread concerns a case of epic sibling rivalry and betrayal; kidnapping; and inter-generational romance. Something about this approach makes the heavy stuff bearable.

What she doesn't know is what might have happened- what lies behind the doors that weren't opened, how much of what happened was determined by people's choices and how much by some force...beyond perception. p331

Depending on what you bring to it, this book may leave you more perplexed or it may provide a compelling and delicious clue as to what is crucial for our species survival.

*We can't control the past.
#That's true but it's also irrelevant. We control the way we remember the past, and that's what matters in the present. We choose what is worthy of our memory. p254

Books that don't exist are invariably better than those that do. p22
Profile Image for Alexandra.
271 reviews12 followers
November 2, 2013
I began this book with low expectations, as the Washington Post had only given it a middling review. To my surprise, I loved it. The characters are fresh and interesting. Most of the characters are majorly flawed in some way - arrogant, manipulative, etc. But Horn makes the reader understand what twisted the people in such a way, so that they feel utterly real, and become more sympathetic as the novel develops.

The parallel storylines show how different pairs of siblings throughout history dealt with religious and personal issues, from God to jealousy to asthma. I thought the sections with Solomon Schechter and Ramban added a real depth to the book.

The book was moving and beautifully written. I had read Horn's short non-fiction story on Varian Fry before, but none of her novels. Now I can't wait to read her other works.

If you like innovative fiction, Jewish history, the perils of modern technology, the power of memory, or reading about modern Egypt, this book is for you. There are so many fascinating threads in "A Guide for the Perplexed." It is a book I will continue to think about for a while - and that is the best kind of book, in my opinion.
Profile Image for °amirah°.
13 reviews4 followers
January 5, 2021
Complex, riveting and rooted in so much theory and introspection that I couldn't help but drown in another existential crisis. The plot flashes from one century to another but all are linked by a single thread; I especially like how this was handled. However, in attempting to straddle diversely different individuals together, the author sacrifices too much by making almost every single character who matter share one too many similar qualities. This unsubtlety makes parts of the story too preachy, and the ending is just not my favourite. Still a good read.
Profile Image for Sophia Patrick.
26 reviews1 follower
January 23, 2016
A terrific idea and overall premise, undone by the weight of its ambition, hideously unsympathetic characters and clunky writing. It's a style so earnest and plodding it feels like it was written by a teenager who's only just mastered the English language and is encouraged into writing by a sympathetic and over-indulgent teacher. "Good for you Dara, you're so clever...blah blah blah."

What is perplexing is that someone saw fit to commission this and publish it in HARDCOVER NO LESS!!!
Profile Image for Tim.
50 reviews8 followers
June 12, 2013
I always feel smarter after reading a Dara Horn novel. They are always filled with historical nuggets that often too strange to be true -- but are. Her novels also often read as modern fables and always raise big questions for the reader to ponder. She is a joy to read, and I consider myself extremely lucky to have gotten an advance copy of The Guide for the Perplexed.
Profile Image for Doris Jean.
189 reviews29 followers
June 8, 2020
The title is the same as the work by the famous twelfth-century scholar, Rabbi Maimonides. The author seems to have been inspired by the famous work of Maimonides and by the findings of a Cambridge professor, Solomon Schechter, who about one hundred years ago made an important discovery in Cairo of a Genizah (means "hiding place"), a storage vessel of a stash of random writings. Among the papers found in the Genizah were discovered original writings of Maimonides. Add to this contemplations on human memory and on computer memory and on philosophical questions of Maimonides.

This story begins with Josie, a young mother who is a software engineer who has long worked on a platform she calls "Genizah" which randomly stores her life, including her husband, her daughter and her sister. Josie is attempting to create a universal memory archive. Josie is intrigued with patterns, memory, and random collections of data, behaviour, choice, free will, and predestination.

These ideas all morph into an adventure story of family relations, travel, kidnapping, betrayal and ambition with identifiable biblical undertones, such as sibling relationships, the story of Joseph, jealousy, and philosophical dilemmas.

I quote from the fly-leaf: "A multi-layered meditation on memory that weaves its way through history, politics, and sisterly rivalry while keeping the pages turning with a blockbuster-worthy kidnapping plot" by Judith Basya, HEEB. That is a good over-all summary of this GoodRead.
Profile Image for Zoe's Human.
434 reviews67 followers
March 26, 2017
A bittersweet tale of sisters with a layering of stories that reflects the stratum of their relationship. It is both intricate and evocative. The darkness of the story and ethical complexity of the cast may lack appeal for those who prefer characters of more clear cut morality. Personally, I prefer unidealized protagonists.
Profile Image for Becca.
425 reviews19 followers
August 28, 2016
Man, this book was overwritten. I think Horn must have intended it to be exclusively read by high school freshman literature classes. In fact, I believe that to such an extent, I feel a little bad about not writing this review as a five-paragraph essay. "How could that be a bad thing?" You might ask. Here's an example: Horn wanted to do a modern retelling of the story of Joseph and Judah. Great, fine. Classic stories have meaning in our time and all that jazz. But Horn worried that we might not get how clever she was being. So she named her Joseph character "Josephine" and her Judah character "Judith" and had them literally go to Egypt. The Tamar stand-in? "Itamar," of course. We're too stupid to catch anything less on-the-nose. (By the way, this lead to a hilarious and bizarre passage in which we were supposed to believe that a character whose last name is "Ashkenazi" -- to contrast her husband, Mr. Mizrahi, of course -- convinced an entire room of people that she wasn't Jewish, without pulling out a fake name.)

At times, it seemed that Horn was so hellbent on literary cleverness that I completely lost track of what she was even trying to accomplish. The Mizrahi/Ashkenazi naming quirk mentioned above, for instance, or why asthma is a recurring theme.

The central concept of the book -- do literal memories help us, or simply accumulate like sacred trash in a Genizah, was possibly interesting, but again dealt with in such a heavy handed way. The computer program to accumulate memories is called genizah, leaving no doubt to the reader what Horn what the reader's opinion to be and then layered with the additional stories of Rambam and Solomon Schecter and their interactions with the Cairo Genizah.

All in all, the extremely clumsy writing was so distracting that I got barely anything out of this book, but for the group that sent it to me, the PJ Library, a charity encouraging the modern Jewry to retain ties to their Jewish roots, that's probably right up their alley. I was shocked when I realized it actually was picked up by a formal publishing group outside of the Jewish world; I have no idea who else would read it.

Finally, I feel the need to be consistent in my complaining about the use of non-English languages, even though in this case, my Hebrew comprehension is good enough that it didn't personally affect me. Non-English languages should be used in English books only to set tone. If important information is conveyed it should be translated into English. Obnoxiously Horn walked all over that opinion: she both had important conversations carried out in transliterated Hebrew (which also, ugh! Those of us who understand Hebrew understand, so if you're going to be that obnoxious, go all the way and just use Hebrew characters) and then totally banal things unnecessarily translated, like "'sweetie', he called to her in Hebrew"
Profile Image for Susan.
221 reviews4 followers
January 31, 2014
A Guide for the Perplexed lives up to its title - perplexing. Dara Horn has done a great job of trying to tackle life's big questions: predestination v. free will; memory versus reality; envy and rivalry between siblings. She touches upon the disappointments of the Arab Spring, and takes us into the time of Maimonides (mid 1100s to early 1200) and the time of Solomon Schechter (mid 1800s) and two ladies who were also involved in the Cairo Genizah documents and bringing them to light. All of them happen to be sisters or brothers, all with "issues" - as do the two main protagonists: Judith and Josie Ashkenazi. However, in Horn's telling, we whiplash from the 1100s to present and to the 1800s and then within each time period, the protagonists think back on their own histories with their siblings. Sound confusing? Yes. And furthermore, I was unconvinced that either the Maimonides episodes nor the Schechter episodes were central to the main story: Josie, a present day computer genius who has invented a software program she calls Genizah -ostensibly because it records everything we do and say, forcing memory to adhere to the data rather than the meaning of memory. Nerdy to a fault, heckled and bullied as a child, she goes to Egypt at the government's invitation [illogically alone and unprepared for the environment she is cast into] to help with the ultra-modern Library of Alexandria where she meets a young, modern woman - who also has a sister, and she is kidnapped. The novel boomerangs back and forth in time and theme until ultimately we find an end to the kidnapping. Judith is the sister who is envious of Josie's life, felt unloved, and finds a way to get back at her sister. There were a few nice surprises in the development of the book, but overall, I think Horn could not decide what kind of novel she was writing and so tried to do too much. It didn't really succeed as a novel of ideas (too frivolous) or a thriller (not totally believable) or a love story (because the husband is not well developed enough). Would I recommend it? No.
Profile Image for Jeffrey (Akiva) Savett.
586 reviews29 followers
August 13, 2016
The fundamental IDEA behind this book is fascinating: what happens if we remember too much? This question was taken up by Horn in a recent Op/Ed piece in the Washington Post and was the reason I picked up this book. In the article, Horn suggests that by remembering everything, we remember nothing, and she relates this postulate to our society's Facebook and Evernote obsessed tendency to save and file.

It's a wonderful insight which Horn makes flesh through a modern retelling of the Joseph story and a fictional app called Geniza. That's just the beginning, however. There are really three thematically and even materially (you'll see what I mean) entwined stories which make up the novel: the modern story of two feuding sisters, a fictionalized version of Solomon Schecter's discovery of the Cairo Geniza in the late 1800s, and finally, an imagined retelling of uber-famous Jewish Philosopher, Moses Maimonides's relationship with his brother.

As you would imagine, this is a LOT to juggle in a literary sense, and I think Horn does just FINE. I capitalized the word IDEA in the first sentence of this review for this reason: this is ultimately an incredibly ambitious a novel about ideas, not fully fleshed out characters. I've read two of Horn's other books and have been impressed with both, so this is not an issue of style. I simply think the volume of what Horn was trying to shuffle, much like the parchment of the Geniza, forced her normally rich and poetic characterizations and prose to play a more utilitarian, and thus secondary, role to the philosophical threads she was weaving.

This didn't make me dislike the book. It's a very good read and leaves me with much to think about. I just found myself having to dismiss more heavy-handed pieces of dialogue and plotting than I am accustomed to from this author in particular, and from solid literary fiction in general.
Profile Image for Vicki.
486 reviews192 followers
September 9, 2016
To the author: Stop trying to make this book happen.

There are a couple of really interesting ideas in here (the concept of memory, Rambam, Solomon Schechter, the modern internet), and the author was so in love with them that she tried to make the plot happen around them. You can't force stuff like that. The plot was long and crawling and all of the characters were horrible and flat.

Aside from that, this book also annoyed me on all levels of my personal identity:

1) As a female software developer. Trying to portray the mind of a software developer when you don't really understand what's going on. Throwing around terms like Objective C, C++, etc. , working around the language and culture of software development without actually understanding it and portraying it accurately.
2) As a Hebrew speaker. I speak Hebrew. I don't need to know that the author knows Hebrew. A lot of the time, she just threw in phrases in Hebrew that were irrelevant to the plot or character development, just to show off how much she knew. Irritating.
3) As a reader who is fairly intelligent and doesn't need to be spoonfed. You're going to name your characters, based off the story of Joseph and Judah, Josie and Judith? And the last names are Mizrahi and Ashkenazi? Really? Really?
Profile Image for Bill Dauster.
135 reviews2 followers
November 29, 2013
Dara Horn’s “A Guide for the Perplexed” is an elegant, finely-crafted retelling of the Joseph story from Genesis 36-50. Horn recasts Joseph and Judah as sisters Josie and Judith. Josie is the gifted developer of software (called “Geniza”) that organizes memories. Thomas Mann wrote in the opening lines of his magisterial retelling of the Joseph story “Joseph and His Brothers,” “Deep is the well of the past. Should we not call it bottomless?” And Horn, like Mann before her, skillfully plays on the theme of the pit and the past in the Joseph story. Beneath Horn’s current-day tale, she spins accounts of Solomon Schechter, the Rabbi-scholar of the Cairo Geniza, and of Moses Maimonides, author of the religio-philosophical work “The Guide for the Perplexed,” some of whose papers came to the Cairo Geniza. In artful prose, Horn weaves a story of the importance of memory, and how that differs from the past.
Profile Image for Arlo.
340 reviews9 followers
September 26, 2013
This was an ambitious novel with an interesting subject matter but it's downfall may have been due to it being to ambitious. There are three story lines and the modern story while engaging felt contrived and with some unrealistic occurrences.

The main down fall for me was that the book lacked the subtlety of her other novels. Every thing is in your face and clearly explained. The ending even tries to explain the messages in the book. The author needs to trust the reader and accept that not everyone is going to get the point.

3 stars(rounded up?)--I did like it
Profile Image for Maggie Anton.
Author 15 books260 followers
January 15, 2014
I didn't know how to rate this novel. The writing is superb, but the characters are mostly unlikeable, especially those in the modern subplot. Yes Horn wove the 3 parts together well, but I couldn't stand the modern one and eventually skipped those chapters altogether to concentrate on the Maimonides sections. While this book is supposed to be based on the biblical Joseph story [albeit with sisters Josephine and Judith], at least the Bible has an uplifting ending of forgiveness and redemption.
Profile Image for Vio.
249 reviews93 followers
April 12, 2016
It took me a while to finish it (only because my English is still poor), but I loved it and in the end I almost could not let it go. I guess the next book will be the prequel. :)
Dara Horn knows how to write, that National Jewish Book Award was surely merited (even if not for this book). I highly recommend this book and I cannot say it enough: ***do not google the book***, for the web is full of spoilers, which is a pity (!!!).
582 reviews
June 25, 2013
I rarely want to read a book again but this book had so many layers of meaning I am certain I missed something. Fascinating book. Excellent for book club discussions
Profile Image for Aliena.
288 reviews10 followers
April 12, 2019
When I look back on this book and try to gage my emotions, all I feel is confusion and sadness.
Profile Image for yoav.
252 reviews15 followers
December 8, 2017
ספר מטלטל. קשה להתייחס לעלילה בלי ספויילר.
הסיפור נע בין שלושה רבדים:
סיפורה של ג'וזי, גאון שהמציאה תוכנת גניזה שמרכזת ומתעדת את החיים ומאפשרת לשלוף כל זכרון ותמונה, ויחסיה עם בתה, בעלה ובעיקר אחותה, ג'ודית. בשלב מסויים ג'וזי נוסעת למצריים ביוזמתה של ג'ודית לעבודה על פרוייקט ומשם מטלטלים חיי המשפחה, משנים את צורתם ואת יחסי הכוחות ומטשטשים הגבולות והתפקידים במשפחה.
ברובד השני, מסופר סיפורו של חוקר יהודי מקיימברידג' שנוסע לאתר גנזך בעיר סמוכה לקהיר ועל הדרך צצים יחסיו עם אחיו.
ברובד השלישי, מסופר סיפורו של הרמב"ם מתוך עיניו, יחסיו עם אחיו הסוחר, אמונותו באלוהים ומורכבותה.
הרבדים משתלבים ונפרדים ובסוף מגיעים לאיחוד.
הספר כולו, בכל רובד שלו, כתוב בצורה סוחפת ומותחת, האסון כל הזמן ממתין מעבר לפינה (על אף שהוא במידה מסויימת כבר ידוע) והספר הולך ודן בשאלות של אמונה, מקומו של האדם והשפעתו על גורלו ועל יעודו בחיים ועל כשלונותיו.
בסופו של הספר נסגרים כל החלקים אבל בעצם נפתחים שוב.
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