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Geraldine Brooks – People of the Book

December 17, 2012

136. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (2008)

Length: 372 pages
Genre: Contemporary Fiction; Historical Fiction

Started: 28 November 2012
Finished: 06 December 2012

Where did it come from? Library booksale.
Why do I have it? Alyce’s fault.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 29 October 2009.

One book contains an
incredible history
within its pages.

Summary: Hanna has devoted her life to the conservation and restoration of antique books and manuscripts, and she is good at what she does. But she still never expected to be called in to work on the Sarajevo Haggadah, a six-hundred-year-old Jewish prayer book that is lavishly illuminated in the style of Christian works from the time, and was saved during the bombing of Sarajevo by a Muslim museum curator. As Hanna works to examine and save this priceless artifact, she uncovers clues about its past, a past that took the haggadah to the encampments of World War II resistance fighters, to a Viennese doctor’s office, the chambers of an agent of the Inquisition, to the Spanish expulsion of the Jews, all they way back to its creation.

Review: I didn’t realize this when I picked this book up, but it employs one of my favorite literary devices: interweaving past and present storylines. In this case, as Hanna uncovers each trace of the past in the book, the story of the people involved throughout the book’s history is told, unfolding backwards through time. I really liked the fact that this created a dual way of looking at the book. It’s clear that Hanna’s research alone doesn’t tell her the full story, the way it is presented to the reader. So on the surface, Hanna’s story is really just a frame for the stories of the book’s history (although Hanna’s story does have a plot of its own as well.) But on a deeper level, and one that grew in the back of my mind as I read, it’s equally possible that the stories the book tells are not the real stories, that they are simply things Hanna is telling herself as a means of explaining how a specific insect wing wound up between the pages of the book, that the characters in this version are not really the real people of the book. Which, since the Sarajevo Haggadah is a real thing, much as Brooks describes it, means that of course the characters are made up… but that their counterparts did exist on some level. My favorite kind of history and art history is the consideration of the lives of the real people who interacted with an object or a place over the centuries, so this sort of speculation is unsurprisingly right up my alley.

So, I loved the story, and the way the plot was structured. I also thought Brooks did a very nice job with the characterization and the writing throughout. In particular, she did a very nice job of making each of her protagonists feel like a real individual with a unique voice. There were a few times when that voice, or a particular way of storytelling, was not my favorite, but that was more a feature of a particular character rather than the prose more generally, I think. In sum, I really enjoyed just about everything about this book, and am eagerly looking forward to reading more of Brooks’s writing. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: The most obvious fiction read-alike that I can think of is Girl in Hyacinth Blue, although for non-fiction The Lost Painting is thematically really similar. In any case, recommended for fans of historical fiction (or historical fiction interwoven with contemporary fiction!) and/or anyone who has ever wondered about the vicissitudes of a single piece of art.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: At Home With Books, The Boston Bibliophile, Linus’s Blanket, Ready When You Are C.B., and many more at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: I might as well say, right from the jump: it wasn’t my usual kind of job.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 8: ““Shalom, Channa,” he said, his thick sabra accent putting a guttural ch sound into my name as usual.” – A native-born Israeli.
  • p. 24: “Everyone else soon succumbed to a kind of sunstruck apathy, but Serbs and Croats were forever going at it, bombing each other’s socker clubs, stoushing with each other even in end-of-the-earth outback shitholes like Coober Pedy.” – fighting, violence, or a fight
  • p. 41: “The stout matrons and the loden-clad gents with their bourgeois solidity existed in an atmosphere that always seemed a little stirred, a little charged, like the air after lightning.” – A durable, water-repellent, coarse woolen fabric used chiefly for coats and jackets.
  • p. 54: “Celims in muted colors warmed the gleaming waxed floors.” – A tapestry-woven Turkish rug or other textile with geometric designs in rich, brilliant colors.
  • p. 59: “There were guards there, so Lola crept around to the side of the building, to the small room where the siddurim were stored.” – A prayer book containing prayers for the various days of the year.
  • p. 85: ““Let me see your Jewish manuscripts and incunabula.”” – A book printed before 1501.
  • p. 96: ““The first of the illustrated haggadot to be rediscovered.”” – plural of haggadah (a book containing the order of service of the traditional Passover meal).
  • p. 160: “He had applied to tutor a youth in Padua, and to take the bimah for a sick rabbi in Ferrara.” – The platform from which services are conducted in a synagogue.
  • p. 171-2: “Aryeh watched as the bankers shuffled and dealt hands of basset and panfil. He ordered wine and ambled over to observe a high-stakes game of treize.” – Card games.
  • p. 178: “Soon, the minyan would begin to gather.” – The minimum number of ten adult Jews or, among the Orthodox, Jewish men required for a communal religious service.
  • p. 217: “Most of the refugees who found places on the market’s edges were attempting to sell worthless things; threadbare cales and surcoats or a few worn-out household goods.” – Socks? I can’t find a definitive source.
  • p. 218: “Miriam slapped the meat onto the quadrae so hard that David’s slice broke, letting a trickle of juice dribble onto the table.” – square-shaped flat breads used in the Middle Ages instead of plates.
  • p. 220: “Most of the time, he found it hard to explain to his wife that his work as a sofer – a scribe of God’s holy languages – made him rich, despite the very few maravedis it earned them.” – any of various Spanish coins of copper or gold.
  • p. 229: ““I go now, in the greatest haste, to Granada, with every crusata I can scrape together.”” – ancient Castilian coin.
  • p. 239: “He wanted to say that he had not prayed as a Jew, as the phylacteries suggested.” – Either of two small leather boxes, each containing strips of parchment inscribed with quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures, one of which is strapped to the forehead and the other to the left arm; traditionally worn by Jewish men during morning worship, except on the Sabbath and holidays.
  • p. 262: “I always find myself lapsing into Paleolithic Strine when I’m around them, using words I’d never dream of using in real life, like cobber and bonza.” – Australian English.
  • p. 266: “Inside was a copy of an ambrotype and a screed in flamboyant handwriting from Frau Zweig.” – An early type of photograph made by imaging a negative on glass backed by a dark surface.
  • p. 268: “She was a tweedy matron of about sixty, built like a brick dunny.” – Australian slang for an outside lavatory.
  • p. 283: “Unlike me, he had traveled here voluntarily, to practice his art in the rump state that remained of the once-mighty nation al-Andalus.” – the remnant of a once-larger government, left with limited powers or authority after a disaster.
  • p. 291: “Last of all, there was a blue-black haik in the lightest merino that fell from the crown of my head to the tip of my toes.” – A large piece of cotton, silk, or wool cloth worn as an outer garment in Morocco.
  • p. 340: “Jim grinned. “Bloody balanda,” he said.” – Aboriginal Australian term for a white person.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. December 18, 2012 7:25 am

    Sounds interesting. The only book with a painting in it that I have read is The Girl with the Pearl Earring and I loved that one. The People of the Book sounds historically interesting too – though it’s been sitting on my shelf for a few years now and I never want to pick it up for some reason!

    • December 24, 2012 4:43 pm

      Joanna – It took me a long time to finally get it off the shelf too! ( I think what finally motivated me was the fact that my library had it downloadable e-book and I was travelling.) But it was not as heavy/dense as I think I was expecting, and a lot more engaging.

  2. December 19, 2012 2:38 pm

    I’m so glad you liked this one! This was one of the first audiobooks that I listened to and I highly recommend it, both for the content of the book and the audio production.

    • December 24, 2012 4:47 pm

      Alyce – Oooh, this would be interesting as an audio! Did they have a different narrator for each of the historical sections, or does one person read it all?

  3. December 19, 2012 4:10 pm

    I read this a few years ago and liked it very much too. Glad you enjoyed it.

    • December 24, 2012 4:48 pm

      Amy – Any suggestions for readalikes that I’ve missed? Either in the “art history” sense or the “interweaving past and present storylines” sense?

  4. December 22, 2012 11:29 am

    One of these days I am going to read more from Brooks. I really think I would like her, but haven only read one book by her so far…

  5. swright9 permalink
    January 3, 2013 10:02 am

    I too liked People of the Book a while back ago see but I think my favorite of hers is still “March.” cheers.


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