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Publisher's Summary

“Just as awe-inspiring as the Nobel judges claimed.” (The Washington Pos)

“Olga Tokarczuk is one of our greatest living fiction writers.... This could well be a decade-defining book akin to Bolaño’s 2666.” (AV Club)

“Sophisticated and ribald and brimming with folk wit.... The comedy in this novel blends, as it does in life, with genuine tragedy.” (Dwight Garner, The New York Times)

The Nobel Prize winner’s richest, most sweeping and ambitious novel yet follows the comet-like rise and fall of a mysterious, messianic religious leader as he blazes his way across 18th-century Europe.

In the mid-18th century, as new ideas—and a new unrest—begin to sweep the Continent, a young Jew of mysterious origins arrives in a village in Poland. Before long, he has changed not only his name but his persona; visited by what seem to be ecstatic experiences, Jacob Frank casts a charismatic spell that attracts an increasingly fervent following. In the decade to come, Frank will traverse the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires with throngs of disciples in his thrall as he reinvents himself again and again, converts to Islam and then Catholicism, is pilloried as a heretic and revered as the Messiah, and wreaks havoc on the conventional order, Jewish and Christian alike, with scandalous rumors of his sect’s secret rituals and the spread of his increasingly iconoclastic beliefs. The story of Frank—a real historical figure around whom mystery and controversy swirl to this day—is the perfect canvas for the genius and unparalleled reach of Olga Tokarczuk. Narrated through the perspectives of his contemporaries—those who revere him, those who revile him, the friend who betrays him, the lone woman who sees him for what he is—The Books of Jacob captures a world on the cusp of precipitous change, searching for certainty and longing for transcendence.

©2022 Olga Tokarczuk and Jennifer Croft (P)2022 Penguin Audio

Critic Reviews

“Sophisticated and ribald and brimming with folk wit. . . The comedy in this novel blends, as it does in life, with genuine tragedy.”–Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“Monumental . . . could help the Swedish Academy restore its rather tattered reputation as an arbiter of serious literature. …Tokarczuk is as comfortable rendering the world of the Jewish peasantry as that of the Polish royal court. . . . Incalculably rich in learning and driven by a faith in the numinous properties of knowledge.”–Wall Street Journal

“It’s just as awe-inspiring as the Nobel judges claimed. . . . Miraculously entertaining and consistently fascinating. Despite his best efforts, Frank never mastered alchemy, but Tokarczuk certainly has. . . . Haunting and irresistible.”–The Washington Post

Editor's Pick

The opposite of a beach read
Most people, if asked to name a female Nobel Prize winner for Literature, would say Toni Morrison. But who is your second favorite? Mine is Sigrid Undset, a woman who won the Nobel in 1922 for her sweeping historical novels. So when Olga Tokarczuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021, I wondered about her 2014 novel, The Books of Jacob, which wasn’t yet available in audio, or even in English! Instead I read Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, a literary whodunit in which Tokarczuk’s wit and characterizations both shine, even in translation. In the meantime, Jennifer Croft was translating The Books of Jacob, and Allan Lewis Rickman and Gilli Messier were narrating it; this month it arrives at Audible (and clocks in at 35+ hours). I can’t wait to brew myself a cup or two of Soderblandning tea (that’s what they serve at the Nobel dinner in Stockholm) and to dive into Tokarczuk’s epic about a messianic religious leader (Muslim, Christian, and a proto-Zionist) in 18th-century Europe. After all, we have at least six months until they anoint a new Nobel laureate. —Christina H., Audible Editor

What listeners say about The Books of Jacob

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  • Overall
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A notorious false messiah and his followers

Jacob Frank was a notorious false messiah who eventually underwent baptism along with thousands of his followers but never really became believing Christians. They created their own deviant heretical group that combined aspects of Christianity, Islam, Kabbalistic mysticism and hedonistic depravity Even worse than their predecessor Shabatai Zvi they caused much calamity for traditional Jews by maligning them with knowingly false accusations of ritual murder. Eventually the descendants of some of his adherents became members of Polish and European upper crust society.
This novel by Polish author Olga Tokarczuk is based on the historical characters and events, It has recently been translated into English. She does a masterful job of describing life in mid eighteenth century eastern Europe and her research into Franks’ heretical movement is meticulous and detailed to the nth degree
Listening to the audiobook is a challenge to someone unfamiliar with the history and I would recommend reading a brief overview of the period that can be found in Graetz “History of the Jews” or a similar work. I also found keeping track of the unfamiliar Polish names adopted by numerous characters confusing at times. Overall a very well done book and production

15 people found this helpful

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Dense & Difficult But Rewarding

The Books of Jacob is a historical novel based on a real-life figure, Jacob Frank, who, in 1750s Poland declared himself the Messiah. Specifically, he claimed to be a reincarnation of a previous self-proclaimed heretical messiah, Sabbatai Zevi, who developed groups of followers, known as Sabbateans, in the 1600s. Frank claimed he would unite the three major religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but was evidently a typical cult leader, charismatic and cruel and arrogant and abusive.

This novel tells the story of Frank through the people that knew him and lived alongside him. There many characters and so many names: Father Benedykt Chmielowski, Katarzyna Kossakowska (née Potocka), Elżbieta Drużbacka ... If that seems difficult to follow, IT IS. And to make things more complicated, many of the characters have multiple names, because they get baptized or married or just opt to take on a new name. Tokarczuk does what she can to help us keep track by repeating names ("Avacha, whom he sometimes calls Eva now") or having chapter titles like, "The story of His Lordship Moliwda, or Antoni Kossakowski, of the Ślepowron coat of arms ..." but I often got lost and had to rewind a bit. (If, like me, you got a bit lost trying to follow the characters in My Brilliant Friend, you might struggle to keep up here.) I also had a physical copy of the book, which helped greatly, and which also includes many beautiful illustrations.

The narrators, Gilli Messer and Allen Lewis Rickman (who only reads the sections narrated by Frank's disciple Nahman Samuel ben Levi, aka Piotr Jakubowski), are both excellent, and pronounce the Polish and Hebrew names and phrases beautifully.

The story is told through third-person omniscient narration as well as through letters, the journal entries of Nahman Samuel ben Levi, and the observations of an old woman, Yente, who is neither dead nor alive (don't worry, it's explained in the book). The work is dense and complex, but rewarding and worthwhile. Sometimes I just allowed myself to be confused for a while, and then I picked up the thread again and it worked out. I would encourage anyone who's interested to read an encyclopedia entry on Sabbatai Zevi and Jacob Frank before diving in, because if you understand the overall story you can better appreciate Tokarczuk's thought-provoking observations and wry humor and lovely prose (translated wonderfully by Jennifer Croft).

Take, for instance, this excellent passage on why Jacob Frank "has begun to introduce himself not as before, not as Yankiele Leybowicz, but as Jacob Frank," which means "foreign":

To be foreign is to be free. To have a great expanse stretch out before you—the desert, the steppe. To have the shape of the moon behind you like a cradle, the deafening symphony of the cicadas, the air’s fragrance of melon peel, the rustle of the scarab beetle when, come evening, the sky turns red, and it ventures out onto the sand to hunt. To have your own history, not for everyone, just your own history written in the tracks you leave behind.

I'm grateful that I stayed with this one.

P.S. It would also help, I think, to read some of Tokarczuk's previous works, especially Flights, because the two share many common themes, a somewhat similar structure, and the same exceptional translator.

10 people found this helpful

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Maybe better for reading than listening

Obviously, this book is long. It’s a marathon. The story is interesting but the most difficult part is keeping track of the stories. The names are in Polish, and then at one point everyone’s name changes. I recommend listening to the book as close to straight through as possible because I really struggled with keeping track of the characters and their storylines. I do think that the translation is very well done and the story is full of interesting twists. This book is more like “literature” than what I normally pick for casual listening. All together I enjoyed the book, but all of these factors together make me feel like I would have enjoyed the whole process a lot more if I had read the physical book instead of listening to it.

6 people found this helpful

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The books of the False Messiahs

I Just finished listening to over 35 hours of the Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk’s "The Books of Jacob"
Translated masterfully from Polish by Jennifer Croft.
Narrated by Gilli Messer and Allen Lewis Richman.

It is a masterpiece of historical fiction.

I was familiar with the subject matter of the book. I grew up in Israel and it was part of our history class curriculum. But still I learned so much more about the entire world of the " False Messiahs" and their influences on the entire Jewish and Catholic communities in their area.It is fascinating to listen to the stories depicted in the book to the details of names, places, family orientation and even food. Olga Tokarczuk transports us to the Seventeenth century in Poland, the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) and the lavish life in Austria.Based on over seven years of intense research, she embroidered the story of a jewish sect that became one of the most influential cults in the history of the Jewish religion.
Gilli Meser narration is vibrant and sophisticated. She is delivering accents in Polish, Hebrew and German like a native of these countries which helps understand the story and the characters . From her narration you are transported beyond imagination into the world of Shabatai Zvi and Jacob Frank. Most of the story is narrated by Gilli Messer, in addition to Allen Lewis Richman who narrated one of the main characters "Nachman" and this adds more depth to the story.
oth of them bring life to a mysterious world that leaves you curious to know more.

I highly recommend listening to this book! I already miss listening to it....







5 people found this helpful

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Epic story

The story roams over the rise and end of a messianic figure, told through the eyes of the many people he gathers around him.

Life in the cities and villages along the border area of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with the Ottoman Empire is on display. The people who consider Jacob to be their savior struggle for their place in the turbulent era of the late 18th century.

The journey we take in this story reflects the agony and the ecstasy of this group and the people they come into contact with.

2 people found this helpful

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Magnus Opus

This is a highly ambitious work of historical fiction. I hung in there for the entire ride, but it really was an arduous journey. I learned a lot and there were many interesting stories within the story and at times the writing was really lovely. However, as in so much historical fiction that I have read the character development is lacking and for me, it was very difficult to care about any of the people in the book. That made the book very slow moving. I am glad I did follow through to the end. I do like this author very much. I have also read Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, which I loved, and Flights.

1 person found this helpful

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Not for me

Usually I love books like this, historical fiction that is clearly well researched. I just found the story line too hard to follow. Probably better to read then to listen too. The pages I read were easier to follow and include lots of visuals.

1 person found this helpful

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A transforming experience

This narrated version of this obscure chapter in history has been a joy to listen to. The narrator, Gilli Messer has the appropriate cultural and linguistic acumen to make this story come a live. Listening to her has transported me to the scene where the events described have occurred. I could not wait for the next time To Turn my audible on to listen to this fascinating story. I must say being myself versed in Polish and Hebrew that Gilli pronounced the difficult names perfectly.

1 person found this helpful

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Breathtaking stories and performance

The story of the Frankist era of Jewish history is so convoluted and complex that it isn’t taught in standard Jewish education programs. It was fascinating to learn about in such beautiful prose. Thanks and great respect to the author, the translator and the narrators.

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The Moby Dick of religious delusion

From Smyrna to Berlin, from orthodox stetl to the French revolution, Jacob Frank’s sect of heretical Judaism preached salvation through sin. The sins are lively reading, and the Chronicle of families that fell for his visions and frauds fill a panoramic thousand pages. I stayed interested. About 2/3 through, the Jews change their names to Polish names, and after that I found it hard to follow who’s who. if you are interested in the history of Judaism, as I am, you’ll probably like this giant novel.