People of the Book – Geraldine Brooks

Some of the writers I admire the most are former journalists who turn to writing fiction. Dennis LeHane is a great example of journalist-turned-fiction-writer, and Geraldine Brooks is another. Hindsight being twenty-twenty and all of that, I sort of wish this is the career example I had followed, but I watched my mom struggle as a small-town journalist for decades and, more importantly, got to know many of the young journalists we rented part of our house to growing up, and readily realized no matter how great a journalism school I attended, more likely than not I’d end up in some similar backwater town covering the status of strawberry crops and bovine tuberculosis. Also, lest we forget, I mostly wanted to be a Broadway actress until I was 24 or so (nobody appreciates revisionist history).

Still, though.

Oh my God you guys, I am tired. Grace has been waking up in the middle of the night several times a week recently. I think it’s a combination of the stress of potty training and what it inherently means and her two-year molars which are taking FOREVER to come in. This is partially why it took me a month – a month! – to finish Geraldine Brooks’ marvelous, beautiful People of the Book. I like this reason much better than another, less justifiable one – that this book brought to light tremendously lacking areas of history on my part and I had to educate myself as I read. The blame rests with Brooks for the final reason – she created such an intricate, complicated, compelling and yet gorgeously written narrative that I found myself really taking time with the book in an attempt to both understand and savor it.

People of the Book is anchored by the narration of Hannah Heath, an Australian rare book expert hired to analyze and conserve the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, which has been rescued from Serbian shelling during the Bosnian War. The book is one of the earliest Jewish works to contain images, and has survived sine 1350. Hannah discovers various items in the haggadah as she conducts her work, including a white hair and wine and salt stains. These items set the structure of the book, with each item serving as a piece of the book’s story. In between these stories, Hannah tells her own story as the preserverer of this piece of art.

This book illuminiated so much lacking in my educational background when it comes to religion and history that it is embarrassing. For instance, conceptually I understand that Jews have been persecuted for centuries. In reality, anything that occurred prior to the Inquisition I am pretty blurry, if not downright uninformed, about. And while I’m familiar with parts of the Bosnian War, a war that occured during my teenage years, I still found huge pieces of information just shocking, particularly the close proximity of the warring factions which yes, I know, is a ridiculous thing not to have realized but again, as a teenager I was more into the lyrics of “Miss Saigon” than, say, maps. I had to take my time reading this book, looking terms and timelines up on occasion and refreshing my knowledge of Jewish culture. The stories of the caretakers of the Haggadah are stories I will always remember, and they are so wonderfully told that I think they will be shaping my reading for the coming year, if not longer.

I thought Hannah was a strong narrator – she was certainly a character who stuck in my mind, and I cared very much what happened to her. I have a few quibbles with her storyline (and I guess this is where I say SPOILER ALERT) – for instance, the dischord between Hannah and her mother felt slightly – just slightly – overdone, and I didn’t necessarily need Hannah’s ancestry to out of nowhere suddenly be Jewish – it was sort of hammering home the point just a little too much – but even as I thought these things I realized I didn’t really mind, because the brilliance of the rest of the book triumphs over these minor quibbles.

Brooks is an astounding writer and I am excited to tackle March sometime this year. I’ve never been as over the moon for Louisa May Alcott as other readers are but I never considered myself terribly interested in the plague or Bosnia and she’s managed to prove me wrong on both of those accounts. Reading writing by Geraldine Brooks makes me happy to be alive – I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

7 thoughts on “People of the Book – Geraldine Brooks

  1. I read “People of the Book” a few years ago with a book club and loved it so much that we eagerly decided to read “March” as the next book. Big mistake for me. I did not take well to “March” and I felt like Brooks ruined one of my favorite scenes from “Little Women” with her interpretation. Perhaps it just didn’t mesh with my style. I’m eager to hear what you think of “March”.

  2. You’ve made “People of the Book” sound immensely appealing. It’s gone onto the list I tack up of my refrigerator to remind myself that yes, indeedy – there are people who actually sit down and read and I could be one of them.

    I enjoyed your comment about “the close proximity of the warring factions”. When I first went to Europe and made my first trip, from London across the channel to Paris, at the end of the trip I thought, “That’s IT?” After years in Texas, which happens to be farther from the Louisiana border to El Paso than Chicago is from New York – well, it just warps perception somewhat.

  3. I enjoyed reading both books and I look forward to your review of March. I kind of preferred March to this one (I read March first) because I found that there were just too many coincidences to make it believable.

  4. Amal – isn’t it terrible that I actually never really liked Little Women? It’s like saying you don’t like Anne Shirley! (Love her, though) – so I don’t have any scenes from the book I hold dear…thanks for checking in on the blog!

    Stefani – it’s really worth it!

    Shoreacres – I have always made time to read – no matter what else I have going on in my life, there is always time for reading!

  5. Smithereens -I agree – the coincidences are a little much in People of the Book but I was able to forgive them because I enjoyed and learned so much from it….it also helped that *some* of the coincidences were true.

  6. People have recommended this book to me for years, but you’re the only one, so far, who’s really made me want to read it. I tried to read March when it first came out, couldn’t get into it, and that kind of turned me off Brooks. Amazing how fiction can make us realize how ignorant we are, huh? I like novels, though, that fill in some of those gaps for me. For more on Bosnia, I highly, highly recommend The Cellist of Sarajevo, one of my very favorite reads of last year. A plus: it’s short. You can read it in less than a month and still look stuff up :-)!

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