Tuesday, March 17, 2009

By the Chapter, Day 2 - People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Welcome to day 2 of By the Chapter, hosted by Marcia at The Printed Page, and this week, ME!! We are reading and discussing People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks.

Synopsis from publisher:

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of March, the journey of a rare illuminated manuscript through centuries of exile and war.

In 1996, Hanna Heath, an Australian rare-book expert, is offered the job of a lifetime: analysis and conservation of the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, which has been rescued from Serb shelling during the Bosnian war. Priceless and beautiful, the book is one of the earliest Jewish volumes ever to be illuminated with images. When Hanna, a caustic loner with a passion for her work, discovers a series of tiny artifacts in its ancient binding—an insect wing fragment, wine stains, salt crystals, a white hair—she begins to unlock the book's mysteries. The reader is ushered into an exquisitely detailed and atmospheric past, tracing the book's journey from its salvation back to its creation.

In Bosnia during World War II, a Muslim risks his life to protect it from the Nazis. In the hedonistic salons of fin-de-siele Vienna, the book becomes a pawn in the struggle against the city's rising anti-Semitism. In inquisition- era Venice, a Catholic priest saves it from burning. In Barcelona in 1492, the scribe who wrote the text sees his family destroyed by the agonies of enforced exile. And in Seville in 1480, the reason for the Haggadah's extraordinary illuminations is finally disclosed. Hanna's investigation unexpectedly plunges her into the intrigues of fine art forgers and ultra- nationalist fanatics. Her experiences will test her belief in herself and the man she has come to love.

My thoughts so far:

Hanna Heath is a book conservationist, who is thrilled to start her next job - she has been asked to spend a week repairing the Sarajevo Haggadah, an illustrated Jewish text that dates from the 1400s. At the time of its creation, Jewish texts were not illustrated, due to a Hebrew teaching that equated pictures in books with graven images. Because of this, the illustrated Sarajevo Haggadah is a huge score for a conservationist. Hanna makes a couple of interesting discoveries as she works on the book, which propel her to want to find out the book's history - why it was saved over and over, and why it was created in the first place.

I'm about 1/3 of the way through this novel, and I think it is growing on me. I have to admit, it is always hard for me to read the book AFTER a book I really loved. I've just finished The Hunger Games, which I found completely engrossing, so I knew People of the Book might take a little patience for me. And I was right - this is not a loud, crashing, adrenalin rushing book. It's a little bit quieter, deeper, slower paced. But I feel like I am starting to get into the flow, and I'm genuinely interested in where it will take me next.

I'm enjoying the character of Hanna quite a bit - apparently, unlike Marcia. =) Hanna is not comfortable with people, so doesn't really let them into her life. However, she is drawn to Ozren, the museum curator charged with guarding the Haggadah, and begins to become involved with him. At first, she plans that their relationship will be over quickly, but she finds herself unable to let him go. I am interested to see if she will continue to open herself up, or if her innate defense mechanisms will kick in first. Also, I can't wait to see what he thinks when he finds out how she has been meddling in his life!

I appreciate the humor that Brooks sneaks into the novel - it's pretty heavy subject matter, but she tosses in the occasional light moment that makes me chuckle out loud. For example:

"When you live in Sydney, it's not the simplest thing in the world to get a meter of calf's intestine. Ever since they moved the abattoir out of Homebush and started to spruce the place up for the 2000 Olympics, you have to drive, basically, to woop woop, and then when you finally get there, there's so much security in place because of the animal libbers you can barely get in the gate. It's not that I blame them for thinking I was a bit sketchy. It's hard to grasp right off the bat why someone might need a meter of calf's appendix."

See - sometimes, the book is just funny. For just a minute, and it doesn't distract from the serious tone, but I appreciate that Brooks can lighten the book, just for a bit.

And I loved the first story of the book's history, which involved Lola, a Jewish girl, and the Muslim family who took her in and, ultimately, saved the Haggadah from the Nazis. It was quite beautiful to read about Jews and Muslims NOT hating each other. I anticipate the next part of the book's history will be equally compelling.

So far I am enjoying it. I think it has great potential, and I am very interested to see what happens next! Stop by The Printed Page tomorrow, and then back here on Thursday, and see if Marcia and I still feel the same way by then.

1 comment:

Marcia said...

You and I are so far apart on Hanna which is what makes reading a book with someone else so interesting. We each have our own take on this particular character. What till you read my post tomorrow. I'm not very kind to Hanna.

For me the historical aspects are by far the most interesting. Each character, time and place adds more depth and understanding to why and how this simple family prayer book survives centuries to become a highly valued treasure.

I'm with you on the race relations aspect even though I didn't mention it in my post. It is encouraging when cultures that have vast differences come together without all the hatred and strife we've come to expect and anticipate.