In 1996, Hanna Heath, a young Australian book conservator is called to analyze the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, a priceless six-hundred-year-old Jewish prayer book that has been salvaged from a destroyed Bosnian library. When Hanna discovers a series of artifacts in the centuries' old binding, she unwittingly exposes an international cover up.
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Hanna's modern-day analysis is interspersed with chapters working backwards to the Haggadah's origins. While Hanna can only make inferences based on chemical analysis, author Geraldine Brooks imagines characters and situations that explain the butterfly wing, the hair fiber, and creation of the Haggadah itself. She takes us to Nazi Germany, 16th-century Venice, and 15th-century Spain, painting a vivid portrait of Jewish persecution. Each act of oppression and violence takes the Haggadah to a new country and ultimately to its final home. While this is based in fact, it is largely fiction (Brooks' Afterword clearly explains all of this).
Meanwhile in the present time, Hanna has a contentious and complicated relationship with her mother, and develops feelings for a Bosnian man involved in the Haggadah conservation. The romance was insufficiently developed, and didn't seem credible, and the denouement was a bit rushed. Still, I enjoyed reading the interconnected history of something I knew very little about.
Despite how much I enjoyed it, I will admit that People of the Book had some flaws. The story of Hanna Heath and her strained relationship with her ultra-feminist, professional mother is cliched and not given enough room to become a realistic exploration of a such a complicated relationship. In addition, a few plot points are contrived, but I can forgive that simply because the book appealed to the book lover in me. Which is a nice segue way into . . . WHY I HATE THE KINDLE (and all other eReader devices).
First off, don't lecture me about how this is the future and I need to embrace it. If you own a Kindle, fine. Enjoy. I'm not suggesting that the privilege be taken away from you. However, I'll not be tempted by the siren song of fashionable technology. I love books. I love the way they feel. I like physically seeing the progress I've made as I turn page after page. I love the cover art. I love how books look on a shelf (in home decorating magazines, I delight in trying to identify the books on the shelves of well-appointed dens and studies). I like to select which books are going on vacation with me, agonizing over which ones might suit my mood. And, when I see someone reading a book, I will often become a creepy Peeping Tom of sorts as I try to catch a glimpse of the book cover so I can see what they're reading. I judge you by what book you're reading--if you're reading Neil Gaiman, I want to know you; conversely, if you're reading Twilight, I may be silently hoping that you get to join the undead (but in a more permanent dead sort of way). So much of that is lost with an eReader. And, after reading People of the Book, I'm aware of how much history can be lost. Not just the tiny fragments that get wedged into the bindings and between the pages, but the history of the people who owned and cherished the book. A world where physical books become obsolete and everyone has an entire library on one portable reading device is also a frightening possibility. How easy then for the next dictator to destroy our beloved texts. Smash one eReader and hundreds, thousands of books efficiently and permanently lost--far more efficient than book burnings. It's the impermanence of it all that scares me. Not only that, I think that obsession with books, recognizing and identifying with others because you notice the Christopher Moore font on the book cover or the tell-tell cover art of a Tim O'Brien paperback, helps create a reading community that we're connected to and a part of. How many chance encounters, spontaneous conversations, or just the simple nod of respect to complete strangers with whom we briefly feel connected when we realize we're reading the same author on the same bus--how many of those moments are lost when we're all carrying around the same reading device that indicates no individuality or reading preference to those around us? Will we feel as open to asking a complete stranger, "What are you reading?" Obviously, not all books are as important as the Haggadah, but I like to think that we all cherish our own quaint libraries and someday perhaps they will tell the world about who we were.
People of the Book has a fantastic premise: Dr. Hanna Heath is a book conservator who specializes in Hebrew manuscripts. Her work takes her to Sarajevo, Bosnia, where a rare Jewish prayer book, the Sarajevo Haggadah, has recently come to light. Hanna inspects the book, looking for clues to its long history. In the pages of the Haggadah she finds part of an insect wing, salt residue, a wine spill, and a white hair; missing from the book are the clasps that would have adorned the cover. Each of these things add to the history of the Haggadah, and so the chapters of People of the Book tell their stories, and the stories of the people connected with the book. We read about the hiding of the Haggadah during WWII, its narrow escape during the Inquisition, and its creation in Spain. People of the Book spans over 500 years - years that are linked by this prayer book, and by the lives of Jewish people across Europe.
So far so good, right? This is a pretty intriguing idea for a novel, and I was really excited to read People of the Book. In the end, however, I thought it missed the mark. Here's why:
1. I never really cared about any of the characters. There were so many stories in this book, because it was tracing the history of the Haggadah, and so each character was only around for one section of the book. Just as I was starting to get interested in one person's story, it was over, and I had to meet an entirely new cast of people. Also, the character who held the book together, Hanna, was underdrawn. I never really had enough time with her to care about her life either, yet the climax of the book revolved around her own personal crisis. When her life fell apart, I didn't care. When her life was put back together, I didn't care. Events that were supposed to evoke shock or sadness in the reader were meaningless, because I had never come to sympathize with Hanna.
2. The ending came out of nowhere. For the last few chapters, I felt like I was reading a totally different book - the plot was different, the characters were different, even the writing style was different. Hanna was doing and saying things that were inconsistent with her character, and the reasons behind the changes were feeble. Events were blown out of proportion, and problems to which I saw perfectly logical solutions were handled in extremely illogical ways. If the first 4/5 of the book were just ok, the last 1/5 was excrutiating.
3. The writing was immature. There were passages in this book that were beautiful - in fact, the entire section about the white hair was wonderful - but mostly, I found the narrative rushed and in need of an editor. Important events were glossed over, and then mass amounts of time were spent on small details and insignificant moments. Also, very little was left for the reader to piece together. Themes were so obvious that I felt I was getting hit over the head with them. I prefer when the author's messages are subtle, when I have to think about what I am reading, and so often with this book my only reaction was "ok, I get it!"
People of the Book had so much promise, and discussed so many powerful ideas, yet in my opinion its execution was poor. Brooks could have created something amazing, instead of something mediocre. I wanted to love this book, but in the end I was just disappointed.
I think Brooks has done an excellent job of providing us not only an entertaining story, but a frank and informative examination of the history and lives and treatment of the Jewish people in the last 500 years. She also gives us a look into life in Bosnia over the last 60 years. This book is very readable, very compelling and engrossing. I picked it up to read only a page or two as a preview, and didn't put it down until I finished the entire first section, nearly 50 pages later. I highly recommend it to anyone.
The “book” of the title is the Sarajevo Hagaddah, a real-live artifact – a beautifully illuminated medieval Hebrew book with a mysterious history. Brooks frames her novel by telling about Hanna, the
The first thing that put me off was the romance between the book conservator and the library director who has charge of the book. “Romance” is a generous adjective here – she thinks he’s cute, he invites her out to dinner, she licks his fingers in the restaurant and they hook up. Well, okay. It is the 21st century, and I admit to being a prudish old-fashioned woman when it comes to these matters. Notwithstanding my own moral views, I can imagine people having a different perspective on sex and morality than I do. What bothered me about this author and this book was that she didn’t seem able to imagine that people of another time might not think or act like 21st century liberated people!
The “book” of the title is a religious book, an artifact of an ancient people who have known persecution throughout all of their history, yet found something so meaningful and powerful in their faith that it has preserved them and bound them as a people to this day. I couldn’t imagine one could say anything meaningful about this religious artifact without addressing its religious meaning somehow, but Brooks pretty much did just that. The only part of the story and the only character drawn in any real depth was Hanna, the book conservator – and I did not find her particularly sympathetic. The other characters were, for the most part very shallow and very unlikely for the times and places they inhabited. It seemed obvious they were just stage settings for what another reviewer called Brooks’ “info dump.” And to be fair, the research must have been significant. I am glad I read People of the Book, and would recommend it -- with reservations.
This book is one of the most skillful renderings of a book that goes back and forth in time that
This is a historical fiction story about the Sarajevo Haggadah. (A Haggadah is a Jewish religious text that sets out the order of the Passover Seder. During Pesach, it is read every year on the first night, and in some traditions on the second night as well, for the Seder service.)
The story goes from present to past, back to present, to farther and farther in the past several times, each time returning to present day, and ending back again in the present.
I was afraid this storytelling technique wouldn’t appeal to me or that I’d have a difficult time remembering everything and everyone, but the author manages to tell each story flawlessly and she’s able to perfectly connect all the stories. I cared about so many of the characters in each historical period and place. I enjoyed every single sub-story, and I became emotionally involved with each one.
Right away, as soon as I opened the book, I was happy because there’s a map. A map is on the inside front and back covers. Oh, how I love maps in books! This one is wonderful because it follows the route the Hagggadah in the story took: from Seville in 1480 to Sarajevo in the twentieth century. There are a few drawings on the map of how things would have looked in these places/times too.
I particularly enjoyed the story of present day Hanna’s relationship with her mother, but I hate to single out that one because there were so many wonderful characters and relationships. I was extremely touched by one of the main characters from the 1480 portion of the story.
On page 320 of the book this quote: “The point – that diverse cultures influence and enrich one another…” sums up a lot of what happens during the course of the 500 years of the story. While this influence was shown not always to be from benign relationships, I found it particularly interesting and heartwarming that positive relationships between Jews and Muslims were shown throughout these 500 years. If there are any villains at all, it is the Christian inquisitors and rulers during the late 1400s to the early 1600s, but Christian, Muslim, and Jewish characters from all periods are shown as admirable, and often as having friendly and mutually beneficial relationships with one another.
Both laudable and monstrous human characteristics are shown. There are people who risk their lives to save people and books; there is torture, slavery, and other atrocities as well.
As someone who loves books, and who appreciates old books, I found this fictional history of a book fascinating. I was also absorbed both by the inside look at the craft of book conservation work and by the detective work that can be involved as part of it.
On a personal note: I’ve been an Olympics junkie since my teens and clearly remember the Sarajevo Olympics, including the interviews at the time about how everyone in the area was getting along so well together, and then what happened there in the years following, so those parts of the story seemed very familiar to me.
Historical fiction stories often torment me because I always want to know what’s real and what is fiction. As I was finishing up reading this, I planned to research what was history and what was fictional in this tale. What I very much appreciated about this book is that the author gives the reader all this information in the afterword; she does so in a very few pages but does so comprehensively.
An added note: My book club meeting to discuss this book isn't for over a month, but I'm not concerned about it remembering enough; this is a memorable book.
She alternates chapters from the point of view of Hanna, a feisty young book conservator working on the haggadah, with episodes from the book's history, flowing through time and skipping across countries to follow it from its creation to its revered status today. It is an epic story, filled with hardship and death, war and persecution, romance and courage. Perhaps one of the reasons I preferred 'Year of Wonders' was its message of pulling together in times of natural disaster in order to survive. This novel was about the survival of the book when human bonds were being torn apart, and Brooks doesn't shy away from the cruelty of war and the idea of history repeating itself in the face of mankind's own futile desire for superiority.
I don't think I would read it again in a hurry - although the book survived, it was heartbreaking the way lives were being senselessly destroyed all around it. Suicide, murder, book burning, torture, it's all here. Most of this book is fictional, but the research on the religious turmoil and the bravery of the people known to have protected the haggadah is as meticulous as we would expect from Brooks. It's well worth a read: it made me think, it made me cry, it left me pondering huge themes and questions, and it reminded me of how lucky I am compared to these individuals who had to show immense courage just to hold on to their beliefs and stay alive.
Amid the politics between museums, the narrative floundered around telling why the Sarajevo Haggadah acquired a reputation as a groundbreaking codex due to it being illustrated etc. etc. So why wouldn't the story open with this aspect as a theme and tell the reader about the earlier travels and mysteries of the codex? Then the main 'present-day' tale could move forward seamlessly as part of the historical back story of the people who possessed the book through time (but more condensed with the the narrative of Hanna and her involvement)?
While Brooks apparently had a different agenda for her story, the published work came across as a meandering mishmash, with no real connections flowing between the changing story focus. The final letdown was the last six years of Hanna's life condensed out of the blue and then she's snatched back into the drama around the Haggadah in the final chapters. This last section was like reading a totally different book, especially since I was left with a sense of a rushed but fizzled completion.
Hanna, what a terrible waste of a person. Sarah, her mother, my GOD what a cold, stoney bas-relief of a human being she was. Orzen, Werner, yechptui on all of 'em and the parts set in the
The Sarajevo Haggadah is to be pitied that it was created by human hands. Books can bear evil (The Turner Diaries) but few become the focus of such concentrated evil as Brooks paints this poor thing.
Brooks isn't any kind of an exciting writer, and her structure here...skippity-lurch, tilty-whirl...never got down into anything like the *good* parts of the people who puke, fuck, and torture their way through the book. Too much to do, too much to tell, and I was left at the end of it all...blackly depressed. This may very well be the only time anyone will ever see me type this: Shoulda been longer. Or a short story. As it is, it's just a frustrating overachiever of a story, and that is annoying as all hell.
In this book, Dr. Hanna Heath, an Australian expert in book conservation, was called to Sarajevo at the beginning of the cease-fire to inspect the haggadah and unravel its mysterious origins. As she inspected the book, Hanna extracted several clues to its past: an insect’s wing, sliver clasps, red stains on the page, a morsel of salt and a white hair. As she investigated each clue, Brooks took the reader back in time to how each item found its place in the haggadah. The “flashbacks” are all fictional, but they provided a narrative on the treatment of Jews through the years, from the Spanish Inquisition to World War II – and how one book survived it, thanks to the love and care of the people who were entrusted to protect it.
Admittedly, I found some of the historical narratives a little drawn out, but each fact had its place in the large context of the story. Hanna’s personal life also entered into the story, which in my opinion did not add to the story of the haggadah but explained why she became so interested in the conservation of books.
All in all, I enjoyed People of the Book because of what it represents: “It was here to test us, to see if there were people who could see that what united us was more than what divided us. That to be a human being matters more than to be a Jew or a Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox.” The real Sarajevo Haggadah is testament to this feeling, and thank God there are people out there who remember that humanity should transcend everything else.
If you like religious historical fiction, I highly recommend People of the Book to you.
I have a long commute to work, and while I generally prefer non-fiction, I'm pretty forgiving when it comes to what I listen to on the way. This is the
The narrator (Edwina Wren) makes the dialogue of every non-native English speaker (and, alas, there are many) sound like Bela Lugosi. It was like having Count Dracula right there next to me on the highway and at traffic jams - but instead of telling me about some of his more interesting victims, he's reading his grocery list. "Bread, eggs, milk, grapes..." over and over and over. Because that's how incredibly boring this story is. I did not like the characters, I did not care about the Haggadah and halfway into this I finally returned it to the library.
The idea that a forensic investigation would yield as much information as Hanna's did is laughable. I really didn't appreciate the "witty" observations stereotyping America or England (or anyone else). Each of Hanna's "conflicts" (and there were several) was more unrealistic than the last (what kind of 30-year-old scientist doesn't ever demand that her mother tell her who her father was?!?) and completely petty compared to what the Jews in the historical stories were going through. (Jews in Spain/Venice/Sarajevo were being exiled/tortured/killed but you can't manage to ask your mother who your father was?!?). Each of Hanna's issues comes to some kind of conclusion, but not a satisfactory one.
Hanna's story was told in the 1st person, and the historical stories were told in the 3rd person. It worked well and made perfect sense! Except the last of the historical stories was in 1st person. So that was weird.
Things I liked: The narrator Edwina Wren (particularly her accents); the background/insight into Sarajevo and the Bosnian War, which I did not previously know anything about; the historical stories were not bad (as I mentioned) and I liked the fact that they were presented in reverse chronological order.
In short, there is way too much going on here, and most of it doesn't work.
I haven't heard that she wrote dozens of books. But just a few. And that was enough experience for her to get a polished masterpiece. To admit that the brutal acts of violence and murder depicted in this book could be daily routine at many times and in many places in history,
I really must go to Venice sometime. I keep hearing about this legendary city and have only my imagination for now to experience it with.
For one thing I found the “relationship” between Hanna and her mother to be a real strain. It was both formulaic and unbelievable. Brooks made mom such an unlikeable bitch that she was almost funny. Maybe Brooks didn’t feel as if she had enough of a villain in any of the other characters so she decided to focus the reader’s negative energy in one (unlikely) place. On her own, Hanna is not that compelling, so maybe Brooks felt she needed a boost into our hearts. Sure she is only facilitating the story of the book, but that could have been done with Ozren and perhaps done better. I find it frustrating to be endeared to a character based on the negativity of another.
At least Hanna’s tenuous relationship with Ozren didn’t go by way of the clichéd thousands. Their distance and then his betrayal kept the smarm to a minimum, which was nice. Brooks did step into it with the teacher/mentor though. His betrayal of Hanna wasn’t exactly shocking, but I didn’t understand his motivation and the explanation was thin. Reparations for the war? Really? I didn’t buy it. And the whole red herring suspect was just played.
The saving grace was the stories of the people of the book. Not all of them were equally fascinating, but I enjoyed them all, especially the one that featured the book’s illustrator. I would have liked to know why she and the deaf/mute son were on the run though (from the story just after hers chronologically). That was never explained. I also liked the story of the War in Bosnia and Lola’s tale. Meeting her again late in the book was a nice touch. The stories about the Jewish/Christian clashes were a bit of a strain. I get tired of the persecution of the Jews rather quickly since it’s been so much a part of fiction and movies for my entire life. I know it and I get it and it’s horrifying, but also draining to read again and again.