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Marvelous and mystical stories of the thirty-six anonymous saints whose decency sustains the world–reimagined from Jewish folklore.

A liar, a cheat, a degenerate, and a whore. These are the last people one might expect to be virtuous. But a legendary Kabbalist has discovered the truth: they are just some of the thirty-six hidden ones, the righteous individuals who ultimately make the world a better place. In these captivating stories, we meet twelve of the secret benefactors, including a timekeeper’s son who shows a sleepless village the beauty of dreams; a gambler who teaches a king ruled by the tyranny of the past to roll the dice; a thief who realizes that his job is to keep his fellow townsfolk honest; and a golem–a woman made of mud–who teaches kings and peasants the real nature of humanity.

With boundless imagination and a delightful sense of humor, acclaimed writer and artist Jonathon Keats has turned the traditional folktale on its head, creating heroes from the unlikeliest of characters, and enchanting readers with these stunningly original fables.


From the Trade Paperback edition.
Published: Random House Publishing Group an imprint of Random House Publishing Group on Jan 1, 2009
ISBN: 9781588367822
List price: $9.99
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In The Book of The Unknown, Jonathan Keats creates a whole mythology out of bits and pieces of Jewish and Germanic religious myths and superstitions. It's a collection of short stories about people living in a medieval age, back when your profession defined who you were. The stories are light and humorous, never epic, and always touching.The book is framed around a Talmudic myth that the world is justified by the anonymous existence of just 36 good people in the world. Each story is about one of those people, but they aren't particularly moral or exceptional, they are mostly normal people who have mostly mundane jobs to do, and none of them know of their own importance.The first story is about a very simple fisherman who is married to an extremely intelligent harridan. Wishing to win her love, he trades his soul to a Dybbuk, a demon, for intelligence. He gains a sort of intelligence, but not like his wife's. Slowly, she falls in love with him. This man, although he traded his soul, and not an exemplar of morality, is one of the pillars of the world that justifies all of creation to God.The other stories include a whore who unites a town, a demon who saves one, a clown who heals a kingdom. None of the stories are strictly connected, but they all exist in an old Germany where golems are created, demons barter for souls, sleep is optional, and sins can be eaten.The Book of the Unknown is a wonderful little window into this mythological world that feels like it almost existed. It made me smile for days afterward, and I recommend it without reservation.read more
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This is a truly enjoyable book. I don't think it is meant to be taken quite as seriously as others have taken it. It is a look into the lives of 36 supposedly-rightous people who are crucial to the world at large. Apparently, according to Jewist tradition there must be 36 rightous people for God to consider the world worthy. The stories are fantastic and almost read like fairy tales...read more
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
[The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty-Six] by: [[Jonathon Keats]] ---A LT Reviewer Copy--- An excellent compilation of stories told in the style of Aseops fables. In the Jewish mystical tradition, it is believed that there are 36 hidden righteous people who alone, only known to God, sustains the world. This compilation contains 12 of those stories imaginatively retold,that offer a perspective on ordinary humanity. While some of the characters are laughable and pitiable, each of their tales offers a life lesson in fidelity, love, and pure humanity without shame or fakery. According to Talmudic superstition, anytime one of the "Lamedh-Vov" (the 36 pure souls) have become known, another takes his or her place. The author, so it is claimed, vanished shortly after turning in the manuscript, and some Rabbis believe it is because he went on a quest to discover if some of these people could actually be found. True or not, it makes for an excellent mystery while pondering the fates of a people. I highly recommend this book, whether one is familiar with Jewish folklore/religion or not. It makes you think deep about your place in the universe and your approach to life.read more
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
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In The Book of The Unknown, Jonathan Keats creates a whole mythology out of bits and pieces of Jewish and Germanic religious myths and superstitions. It's a collection of short stories about people living in a medieval age, back when your profession defined who you were. The stories are light and humorous, never epic, and always touching.The book is framed around a Talmudic myth that the world is justified by the anonymous existence of just 36 good people in the world. Each story is about one of those people, but they aren't particularly moral or exceptional, they are mostly normal people who have mostly mundane jobs to do, and none of them know of their own importance.The first story is about a very simple fisherman who is married to an extremely intelligent harridan. Wishing to win her love, he trades his soul to a Dybbuk, a demon, for intelligence. He gains a sort of intelligence, but not like his wife's. Slowly, she falls in love with him. This man, although he traded his soul, and not an exemplar of morality, is one of the pillars of the world that justifies all of creation to God.The other stories include a whore who unites a town, a demon who saves one, a clown who heals a kingdom. None of the stories are strictly connected, but they all exist in an old Germany where golems are created, demons barter for souls, sleep is optional, and sins can be eaten.The Book of the Unknown is a wonderful little window into this mythological world that feels like it almost existed. It made me smile for days afterward, and I recommend it without reservation.
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
This is a truly enjoyable book. I don't think it is meant to be taken quite as seriously as others have taken it. It is a look into the lives of 36 supposedly-rightous people who are crucial to the world at large. Apparently, according to Jewist tradition there must be 36 rightous people for God to consider the world worthy. The stories are fantastic and almost read like fairy tales...
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
[The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty-Six] by: [[Jonathon Keats]] ---A LT Reviewer Copy--- An excellent compilation of stories told in the style of Aseops fables. In the Jewish mystical tradition, it is believed that there are 36 hidden righteous people who alone, only known to God, sustains the world. This compilation contains 12 of those stories imaginatively retold,that offer a perspective on ordinary humanity. While some of the characters are laughable and pitiable, each of their tales offers a life lesson in fidelity, love, and pure humanity without shame or fakery. According to Talmudic superstition, anytime one of the "Lamedh-Vov" (the 36 pure souls) have become known, another takes his or her place. The author, so it is claimed, vanished shortly after turning in the manuscript, and some Rabbis believe it is because he went on a quest to discover if some of these people could actually be found. True or not, it makes for an excellent mystery while pondering the fates of a people. I highly recommend this book, whether one is familiar with Jewish folklore/religion or not. It makes you think deep about your place in the universe and your approach to life.
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
An LT Early Reviewer bookA collection of short Jewish- shtetl-ish based folktales. In the fictional premise a researcher feels he might have come across a list (from an unspecified time in the past) of the Lamedh-Vov - 36 righteous people needed at any one time, according to the Talmud. He begins to visit their villages and discovers that each name is the center of a folktale the village has remembered to this day. The 36 are a mixed bag of thieves, gamblers and the like; even a false messiah. None of them know they are one of the 36, and they all seemed pretty innocent of their effects. The book is twelve of the stories he collected.These are mostly simplistic stories filled with innocent and naive characters, with ambivalent meanings. There is some profound power in their simplicity. They are commentaries on life in general, and love; or they are oblique modern commentaries. One thief demands, before he will return a stolen good, a fresh baked loaf of bread from a baker whose stopped baking and imports all his bread. Another character is hired to be the grim reaper, bringing a warrant of death to each villager just before they die. A fallen angle looks for a way to avoid returning to heaven.I found all the stories fun, sometimes really wonderful and thought provoking. Some were especially memorable. It's an easy quick read, with a lot to offer.
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The Book of the Unknown, by Jonathon Keats, is framed by a fictional Author’s Foreword and a fictional Editor’s Afterword, which place the pages contained between them into a twilight land, a fantasy realm where fairy tales are literally true. It is an effective method to coax the reader into the right frame of mind for these wonderfully bizarre tales. The foreword, in itself a kind of fable, presents the grounding fiction for the entire book: these tales were transcribed by a scholar after researching figures from Kabbalist folklore, the Lamedh-Vov. The Lamedh-Vov (or “Thirty-Six”) are unnamed, unknown saints who live among us and whose righteousness keeps the world in balance.This book presents twelve of these saints who, in the familiar way of fairy tale characters, are not all that virtuous. They are flawed saints, and their flaws are required to teach important underlying life lessons. Alef the Idiot lives more wisely than anyone else; Beit the Liar’s inventive details reveal a deeper truth; Dalet the Thief teaches us the true value of interpersonal experience over material wealth; Vov the Whore reveals the hypocrisy of those who claim to be entirely pure. This see-saw construct is effective, if perhaps a bit simplistic. Of course, fairy tales are structured in a straightforward way to teach a moral, and in this respect the tales succeed. The language is simple—but a little mysterious—and strange, magical events occur on a regular basis in the characters’ everyday lives. However, the overly consistent tone and structure of each chapter makes it preferable to read the book in short bursts in order to avoid fatigue. Indeed, even the fictional author tells us: “[The stories] came to me gradually, one at a time, and perhaps that is how they should be read” (10).This is not to say that the stories do not delight and entertain. Reading them one at a time allows them to be properly savored. I enjoyed each tale, particularly so when they became a little bit self-aware. From time to time, the characters acknowledge the influence of fairy tales on their existence, even as they assert its absolute veracity:—Where am I? Who are you? Have I stepped into a fairy tale?—There’s no such thing, Your Majesty. Don’t you know? You’re in your own country. (56)They even cross-reference fairy tales from other cultural frames-of-reference:"In the morning, two maids bathed her, and, while they combed her hair, a seamstress fitted her in a white silk gown. The fabric was lighter, and cooler, than her own bare skin, and, after the servants left her, she had to keep glancing in the mirror to make sure she was not standing stark naked, as she’d heard happened to certain emperors." (37)Some of the saints, who are themselves metaphors for a particular sin and its opposing virtue, are adept at making metaphorical connections. For example, Gimmel the Gambler attempts to explain to an orderly and tidy society what “gambling” is."First he compared it to choosing which crop to plant without being sure when summer would come, but in their country they had calculations that named the seasons in advance, to eliminate risk. Then he took love as an analogy: You gamble on the girl you wed. That confused them still more…" (50)I loved the idea of a gambler, “a man without evident purpose” (49), as a maker of metaphor. Gimmel is (at the heart of it) a poet! His purpose is not evident on the orderly surface, but rather becomes apparent only in the risks and leaps he urges us to take beneath the daily details of our lives.Other saints, like Chet the Cheat, are less adept at making comparisons:"So the sin-eater was fated to be carrion. Had Chet a mind for metaphor, he might have interpreted that in any number of ways, extracted meaning as the birds drew marrow from the bones. But Chet had no capacity for poetry. He was a practical young man, with a promising future in a respectable profession." (132)What is wonderful about this passage is how the very eloquent simile “as the birds drew marrow from the bones” is deftly employed to describe Chet’s lack of poetic mind. However, the narrator is certainly poetic. Or, alternatively, one could almost imagine Chet thinking about himself in the third person, in which case he has more metaphorical capabilities than he imagines he does.It is this deliberately blurry line between author and character that makes The Book of the Unknown so bewitching. The “author” of the book is a fictional character. The characters are, in a way, the authors of their own stories, in the same way that we author the arc of our own lives. These stories are, ultimately, about story-making, which is very pleasurable indeed.
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So this was a collection of unconnected stories. It had golems, angels, demons, and miracle healers but it really wasn't a swords and sorcery fantasy collection. It tended more toward "magical realism". Some of the stories ended rather abruptly but most had a nice message about everyday people that could be considered saints. Sometimes the message was a bit subtle but I think I got most of them.
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