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,...

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A Guide for the Perplexed: A Novel

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

Elif Batuman
“It’s not every day you come across a genuinely page-turning kidnapping story that is also replete with historical, psychological, and interpretive insights into Maimonides, envy, and motherhood, not to mention replicating the narrative structure and central themes of the biblical story of Joseph. A Guide for the Perplexed is Dara Horn’s most ambitious, audacious, edifying, and entertaining novel yet.”
Jewish Daily Forward
“A Guide for the Perplexed is a richly layered book that leaves a reader…grateful and impressed.”
Boston Globe
“Dara Horn's fourth, and best…. [A] humane, erudite novel.”
Entertainment Weekly
“Horn moves seamlessly back and forth in time.”
Bill Goldstein - NBC's Weekend Today Show
“[A Guide for the Perplexed] is so beautiful, so mystical, so exciting… I really urge you to read Dara Horn.”
Geraldine Brooks
“Intricate and suspenseful, A Guide for the Perplexed is both learned and heartfelt, an exploration of human memory, its uses and misuses, that spans centuries in a twisty braid full of jaw dropping revelations and breathtaking reversals. An elegant and brainy page-turner from a master storyteller.”
Starred Review Booklist
“[Within A Guide for the Perplexed] 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.”
Tablet Magazine
“Horn is embracing her own, livelier brand of Jewish history, embodied in the joys of discovering-and creating-the past anew.”
Jami Attenberg - New York Times Book Review
“[An] intense, multilayered story… Horn's writing comes from a place of deep knowledge…”
Andrew Ferman - Miami Herald
“Wondrous…a richly layered novel…. Horn has magically summoned the wisdom of the ages to address a most contemporary dilemma…riveting and suspenseful…. A novelist at the height of her powers.”
Jewish Ledger
“Dara Horn’s writing never disappoints.”
Jewish Book World
“A spellbinding story… a novel of astounding imagination and profound meaning.”
Jewish Journal
A Guide for the Perplexed affirms Jewish survival.”
Howard Freeman
“Lends itself to meaningful discussion.”
Jewish Review of Books
“[Horn] is first, and foremost, a storyteller, yet these stories carry [her] readers higher and further [sic] than many of her contemporaries do with dazzling prose…its three hundred pages fly by…. Where Horn’s novel shines most, and most darkly, is in its central plot.”
Bill Goldstein - NBC's Weekend Today
“[A Guide for the Perplexed] is so beautiful, so mystical, so exciting… I really urge you to read Dara Horn.”
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.)
New York Times Book Review
“[An] intense, multilayered story… Horn's writing comes from a place of deep knowledge…”
Bill Goldstein - NBC's Weekend Today
“[A Guide for the Perplexed] is so beautiful, so mystical, so exciting… I really urge you to read Dara Horn.”
Jewish Book World
“A spellbinding story…a novel of astounding imagination and profound meaning.”
Jewish Review of Books
“[Horn] is first, and foremost, a storyteller, yet these stories carry [her] readers higher and further [sic] than many of her contemporaries do with dazzling prose…its three hundred pages fly by…. Where Horn’s novel shines most, and most darkly, is in its central plot.”
Jewish Ledger
“Dara Horn’s writing never disappoints.”
Howard Freeman
“Lends itself to meaningful discussion.”
Jewish Journal
A Guide for the Perplexed affirms Jewish survival.”
Library Journal
Horn's latest after The World To Come is part thriller and part philosophical rumination on family and memory. Josie and Judith Ashkenazi have a long history of sibling rivalry that has intensified over the seven years Judith has worked for her younger sister. Josie's company produces Genizah, a Facebook-like digital archive that catalogs life in real time via cell phones, computers, cameras, and other personal technology. While working in Egypt as a software consultant for the Library of Alexandria, Josie is kidnapped. As the family deals with the aftermath of the kidnapping, the narrative travels back in time to Solomon Schecter's expedition to Egypt to investigate the Cairo Genizah. This enormous and unsorted archive was filled with both religious and secular documents dating back as early as 870 CE. Both the real and fictional genizahs raise questions throughout the novel about how and why we choose what to remember or forget. VERDICT Readers will be taken in by this literary thriller's fast-paced plot and complicated but well-imaged characters. Recommendations for readers interested in learning more about the Cairo Genizah include Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole's Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Genizah or Mark S. Glickman's Sacred Treasure: The Cairo Genizah; The Amazing Discoveries of Forgotten Jewish History in an Egyptian Synagogue Attic. [See Prepub Alert, 3/18/13.]—Pamela Mann, St. Mary's Coll. Lib., MD
Kirkus Reviews
Horn (All Other Nights, 2009, etc.) is nothing if not ambitious in concocting this stew of Middle East politics, computer sci-fi, Jewish philosophy and romantic melodrama about a Jewish techno-entrepreneur taken hostage in post-Mubarak Egypt. The wonderful title comes from the 11th-century work by Maimonides rediscovered in the 1890s by Solomon Schechter of Cambridge University, who found pages of Maimonides' writing in an Egyptian synagogue storeroom called a genizah. Interwoven with a less than effective re-telling of Maimonides and Schechter's history, Horn's present-day fiction concerns the beautiful if geeky genius Josie, who borders on autistic in her lack of empathy for others. California-based Josie has invented a software program, not coincidentally called Genizah, which tracks and stores the moments a person is experiencing in order to turn them into a full memory of her/his life. Her company is thriving, and Josie is happily married to handsome Israeli Itamar. She chooses to ignore her 6-year-old daughter Tali's worrisome emotional quirks, perhaps because her own childhood memories include being an outcast among her doltish peers, including her older sister Judith. Judith's memories differ from Josie's--she is haunted by her mother's favoritism toward Josie and her inescapable role as the lesser sister. Employed by Josie's company, she is lonely and jealous that everything comes so easily to Josie. Then Josie is kidnapped while consulting with the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. Believing Josie has been killed, Itamar and Tali depend increasingly on Judith, who blossoms into the loving person she always wanted to be. But Josie is not dead. She is busy creating a genizah so her Egyptian captor can recreate the life of his dead son. The philosophical questions raised are intriguing, if faddish: Is God omniscient? What is memory, and can it be trusted? What is the relationship between past and present? What is time dilation? The psychological plot concerning the characters is less captivating, although Judith is a standout. A work marked by brilliant conceits and clever plotting.
The Barnes & Noble Review

Dara Horn's A Guide for the Perplexed is philosophically ambitious and structurally complex. In this it resembles her three previous novels — In the Image, The World to Come, and All Other Nights — books that have won Horn an impressive list of awards and that moved the editors of Granta to select her as one of its Best Young American Novelists in 2007. This book divides its attentions between three distinct but conceptually linked plotlines. The main plot, which takes place in the present day, concerns Josephine (Josie) Ashkenazi, a highly successful software designer who has become famous by creating a program called Genizah, which allows users to record and organize events in their lives. Brought to Egypt to serve as a digital consultant at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Josie experiences, as Americans tend to, a certain degree of culture shock. But a far greater shock comes just before she is supposed to leave, when Josie is kidnapped by unknown assailants and thrust into a dirty cell.

The identity of her captors remains a mystery for most of the book (though after some time Josie develops suspicions). What is clear is that they are highly dangerous, particularly after they realize that she failed to buy the standard insurance before making her trip, so that they stand no chance of collecting a hefty ransom for their efforts. Meanwhile, back home, Josie's sister Judith insinuates herself into the household Josie has been absented from, coming to serve not only as a substitute mother for Josie's daughter, Tali, but as a substitute wife for Josie's husband, Itamar.

The remaining strands take place in the past and are based on real historical events. One retells the story of Solomon Schecter, a Jewish scholar at Cambridge who traveled to Egypt to retrieve a massive trove of historical documents from the Cairo Geniza, possibly the most important source of information about medieval Judaic culture in existence. The salvaged documents included a letter written by Moses Maimonides — author of the famous medieval philosophical tract from which Horn's novel takes its title — in which he laments the death by drowning of his brother David; and the third (and least-developed) plot in Horn's novel takes Maimonides himself as its central character.

Josie, as it happens, is in possession of a copy of A Guide for the Perplexed when she is kidnapped. Throughout her imprisonment she consults it, not only as a way of trying to make sense of her predicament, but as a way of staying sane. Maimonides' book is largely concerned with questions of free will and of the problem of evil, the very questions that come to dominate Josie's existence during her ordeal: How did I get here? Could I somehow have avoided this? Why should the universe subject undeserving human beings to such abject misery?

This is far from the only detail that connects the three plotlines. There is, most obviously, the word genizah itself (it denotes a storage place for documents — particularly those that mentioned God and could therefore not permissibly be disposed of — in a synagogue). There is the fact that Josie's kidnapper's son, who was murdered by the Egyptian police, was named Musa, which also happens to have been one of the names of Maimonides. There is the fact that Josie, like Joseph in the Bible, was once thrown into a pit by an envious sibling, and went on to suffer a period of captivity in Egypt. And there is a good deal more of this nature.

The thematic entwining of the book's various narrative strands is intended, one gathers, to form a meditation on mortality, on the ways in which human beings survive in what survives them — in particular, the stories that they and other people tell about them — and the ways in which death defeats any human attempt to conquer it or to leave behind anything meaningful. These themes are most apparent in the passages about Solomon Schechter's excavation of the Cairo Geniza:

Schechter was too deeply immersed with the dead. For that is how he saw the books and papers he collected now: as dead people, buried in the genizah the way that bodies are buried in a cemetery, until, miraculously, the act of reading brought them back to life. He mourned each time he found a paper he could not read, and had to fight the urge to read every paper he touched. It was like watching dry bones come back to life, the reanimation of a world. He felt, as he worked, an all-powerful arrogance, a sudden and stupendous triumph over time and death.
This thought is repeated elsewhere. When Josie describes Genizah to her captors, for instance, she says, "When you have enough material to work with, you can almost build an entire person out of this. It's like bringing someone back to life." It's an interesting idea, though Horn is perhaps somewhat too insistent on making it explicit; attentive readers would surely have picked up on it for themselves.

At times, the book's secondary plotlines — those centered on actual historical figures, Schechter and Maimonides — feel as if they their sole purpose is to reinforce and illustrate the book's themes, and thus to add meaning and depth to the entirely invented chronicle of Josie and her captors. But that tale is not entirely satisfying either. Part of the problem is that none of the book's characters, not even Josie, feel fleshed out or fully imagined. (This lack of detail extends to other aspects of the book as well. In particular, I found myself wanting a more richly detailed picture of Egypt, of Josie and Itamar's house, and of the book's other physical settings.) Whether wholly concocted from the fabric of imagination or based on historical figures, the novel's characters often behave less like human beings than like mechanisms with the sole purpose of illustrating, and sometimes articulating, the themes the author is trying to get across. Tali, Josie's daughter, is particularly unconvincing: Horn's tends to use her as a mouthpiece for provocative ideas, and the result is that a good deal of Tali's dialogue rings false, as in the scene where she explains to Judith why she does not like to read:
I hate reading. Because the letters are big liars ? You try to read them, and you think you're right, but then it turns out you're wrong, because they lied. They have an E in them, or a G or an H or a W or a K, and then when you try to read them, it turns out those letters are just faking and they don't actually make a different noise from their real one, or they don't even make any noise at all. There are supposed to be rules about how they sound, but that's a lie too, because the letters hardly ever follow them. It's all just a big lie.
At another point in the book, Tali presents Judith with a riddle: "What's the same about an acorn, a tissue, and a penny?" Tali's answer is "nothing." As she explains: "The ingredients don't make sense! Only the INVISIBLE part makes sense!" There are moments, while reading Horn's novel, that the reader gains an intuition of the profound and beautiful book that might have been woven from the materials Horn draws on, a sense of how these elements might have been united and transformed into something greater and more profound than the sum of its parts, if only the magical part — the invisible part that would unite and make sense of the book's ingredients — had been successfully invoked. There was, perhaps, a fine, moving, and memorable book waiting to happen here. But A Guide for the Perplexed, for all its ambition, feels more like a pile of dry bones — one that the act of reading is unlikely to bring to life.

Troy Jollimore is Associate Professor of Philosophy at California State University, Chico. His most recent books are Love's Vision and At Lake Scugog: Poems, both from Princeton University Press.

Reviewer: Troy Jollimore

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393348880
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/7/2014
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 148,387
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Dara Horn

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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Customer Reviews

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  • Posted December 18, 2013

    A book of profound depth, character portrayal and plot interacti

    A book of profound depth, character portrayal and plot interaction, this book will keep you mesmerized from the first paragraph to the last ...and beyond. This is another masterpiece by Dara Horn that weaves outstanding story-telling in the Yiddish tradition of authors like Isaac Bashevis Singer into a modern-day story of the age-old issues of passion, jealousy and redemption. Bravo to Ms. Horn for giving us a novel that begs for deeper delving into the story's literal and philosophical underpinnings of Maimonides. As with her other previous novels, this one takes on deeper meanings every time you read it.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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