A rigorously researched and lucidly presented account of a philosopher’s extraordinary journey.

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FROM MOSES TO MOSES

A historical novel that chronicles the trials and triumphs of the great Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides.

Moses ben Maimon, more widely known historically as Moses Maimonides, grows up in Córdoba during Spain’s “golden age,” during which not only prosperity reigns, but also religious tolerance, which permits adherents of the three Abrahamic faiths to live and worship side by side. Still, Jews are considered “dhimmis”—second-class citizens, below Muslims. But after the generally lenient Almoravid rulers are replaced by draconian Almohads, Maimonides and his family face a stark choice: flee, convert, or die. In his debut novel, Taylor (Medicine/Univ. Coll. London) details Maimonides’ lifelong search for a safe environment—one that’s stable enough for him to pursue his monumentally significant intellectual ambitions. Maimonides’ family finally flees Córdoba, and then Spain entirely, and after aborted attempts to settle in Morocco and Palestine, they finally find a home in Egypt. While in Morocco, Maimonides nominally converts to Islam but continues to secretly worship as a Jew—a criminal apostasy that’s punishable by death. The author deftly charts Maimonides’ intellectual development, particularly his attempt to reconcile supernatural elements of the Jewish faith with natural science: “He remained convinced of the importance of the scientific method, of the need for independent observation, and of the requirement to be rational in delivering treatment.” Taylor’s command of the details of Maimonides’ life, as well as the cultural and political features of the historical period, is simply magisterial. His account of his subject’s valiant attempt to preserve the Jewish culture and its ancient repository of biblical teachings is as engaging as it is moving. The prose is unfailingly clear throughout, but it’s more academic than literary in tone, and it reads more like scholarly history than literary fiction. Nevertheless, the author shows Maimonides’ life to be both dramatically thrilling and philosophically important.

A rigorously researched and lucidly presented account of a philosopher’s extraordinary journey.

Pub Date: March 22, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5462-9755-0

Page Count: 352

Publisher: AuthorHouseUK

Review Posted Online: Aug. 2, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2019

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A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

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HOMEGOING

A novel of sharply drawn character studies immersed in more than 250 hard, transformative years in the African-American diaspora.

Gyasi’s debut novel opens in the mid-1700s in what is now Ghana, as tribal rivalries are exploited by British and Dutch colonists and slave traders. The daughter of one tribal leader marries a British man for financial expediency, then learns that the “castle” he governs is a holding dungeon for slaves. (When she asks what’s held there, she’s told “cargo.”) The narrative soon alternates chapters between the Ghanans and their American descendants up through the present day. On either side of the Atlantic, the tale is often one of racism, degradation, and loss: a slave on an Alabama plantation is whipped “until the blood on the ground is high enough to bathe a baby”; a freedman in Baltimore fears being sent back South with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act; a Ghanan woman is driven mad from the abuse of a missionary and her husband’s injury in a tribal war; a woman in Harlem is increasingly distanced from (and then humiliated by) her husband, who passes as white. Gyasi is a deeply empathetic writer, and each of the novel’s 14 chapters is a savvy character portrait that reveals the impact of racism from multiple perspectives. It lacks the sweep that its premise implies, though: while the characters share a bloodline, and a gold-flecked stone appears throughout the book as a symbolic connector, the novel is more a well-made linked story collection than a complex epic. Yet Gyasi plainly has the talent to pull that off: “I will be my own nation,” one woman tells a British suitor early on, and the author understands both the necessity of that defiance and how hard it is to follow through on it.

A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

Pub Date: June 7, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-94713-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2016

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Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

CILKA'S JOURNEY

In this follow-up to the widely read The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), a young concentration camp survivor is sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor in a Russian gulag.

The novel begins with the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945. In the camp, 16-year-old Cecilia "Cilka" Klein—one of the Jewish prisoners introduced in Tattooist—was forced to become the mistress of two Nazi commandants. The Russians accuse her of collaborating—they also think she might be a spy—and send her to the Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia. There, another nightmarish scenario unfolds: Cilka, now 18, and the other women in her hut are routinely raped at night by criminal-class prisoners with special “privileges”; by day, the near-starving women haul coal from the local mines in frigid weather. The narrative is intercut with Cilka’s grim memories of Auschwitz as well as her happier recollections of life with her parents and sister before the war. At Vorkuta, her lot improves when she starts work as a nurse trainee at the camp hospital under the supervision of a sympathetic woman doctor who tries to protect her. Cilka also begins to feel the stirrings of romantic love for Alexandr, a fellow prisoner. Though believing she is cursed, Cilka shows great courage and fortitude throughout: Indeed, her ability to endure trauma—as well her heroism in ministering to the sick and wounded—almost defies credulity. The novel is ostensibly based on a true story, but a central element in the book—Cilka’s sexual relationship with the SS officers—has been challenged by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center and by the real Cilka’s stepson, who says it is false. As in Tattooist, the writing itself is workmanlike at best and often overwrought.

Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-26570-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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