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People of the Book – Book Review

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“Well from what you’ve told me, the book has survived the same human disaster over and over again. Think about it. You’ve got a society where people tolerate difference, like Spain in the Convivencia, and everything’s humming along: creative, prosperous. Then somehow this fear, this hate, this need to demonize ‘the other’ – it just sort of rears up and smashes the whole society. Inquisition, Nazis, extremist Serb nationalists…same old, same old. It seems to me the book, at this point, bears witness to all that.” -From People of the Book, page 195-

Of course, a book is more than the sum of its materials. It is an artifact of the human mind and hand. -From People of the Book, page 19-

Pulitzer prize-winning author, Geraldine Brooks, has written another stunning and impeccably researched book. People of the Book begins in 1996 when rare book expert (and conservator) Hanna Heath is summoned to post-war Bosnia to examine an ancient manuscript.

The Sarajevo Haggadah, created in medieval Spain, was a famous rarity, a lavishly illuminated Hebrew manuscript made at a time when Jewish belief was firmly against illustrations of any kind. It was thought that the commandment in Exodus “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or likeness of any thing” had suppressed figurative art by medieval Jews. When the book came to light in Sarajevo in 1894, its pages of painted miniatures had turned this idea on its head and caused art history text to be rewritten. -From People of the Book, page 8-

Between the pages of this incredible book, Hanna discovers clues to its history:  a fragile insect’s wing, a missing clasp, a small wine stain, a drip of salt water and a single white hair. In alternating chapters, the clues reveal themselves and uncover the people whose hands the manuscript passes through…and remarkably the author and illustrator of the Haggadah. The reader visits Sarajevo in 1904, Vienna in 1894, Venice in 1609, Tarragona in 1492, and Seville in 1480. At the same time, Hanna’s story is also gradually revealed as she moves forward from 1996 to 2002.

People of the Book is inspired by the true story of the of the Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. Brooks novel, however, is richly imagined – borrowing certain facts and then creating multi-layered characters and situations which immerse the reader in a fictional world of intrigue, emotion and wonder. Brooks did her homework – and People of the Book includes fascinating facts about early art history and the skill of book conservation, as well as the history of the Jewish people.

I turned a page. More dazzle. The illuminations were beautiful, but I didn’t allow myself to look at them as art. Not yet. First i had to understand them as chemicals. There was yellow, made of saffron. That beautiful autumn flower, Crocus sativus Linnaeus, each with just three tiny precious stigmas, had been a prized luxury then and remained one, still. Even if we now know that the rich color comes from a carotene, crocin, with a molecular structure of 44 carbon, 64 hydrogen, and 24 oxygen, we still haven’t synthesized a substitute as complex and as beautiful. There was malachite green, and red; the intense red known as worm scarlet – tola’at shani in Hebrew – extracted from tree-dwelling insects, crushed up and boiled in lye. Later, when alchemists learned how to make a similar red from sulfur and mercury, they still named the color “little worm” – vermiculum. Some things don’t change: we call it vermilion even today. -From People of the Book, page 15-

I found this novel immensely satisfying  and one which I highly recommend for readers who enjoy world literature and have a fascination for books and art history, as well as for those who enjoy unraveling mysteries.

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16 Comments

  1. Jill says:

    I really liked this book too. I am not sure why the critics gave it mixed reviews (I remember you sharing a review with us when this book released). I hope to pick up her Year of Wonders this year.

    =) Jill

  2. Carrie K. says:

    I have this on my to-read stack – now I can’t wait to get to it! If only I didn’t have three ARCs to get through first.

  3. Caribousmom says:

    Jill: I don’t understand the negative reviews at all. I thought this was brilliantly conceived and written…and thoroughly enjoyable. I have yet to read Year of Wonders.

    Carrie: I know what you mean about the ARCs…I have far too many sitting unread at the moment and need to get to them soon!

  4. Myrthe says:

    I have it on my TBR-pile. When I first heard about it, I didn’t really care about the book, but the more I heard about it, the more it “grew” on me and the more interested I became. Now I can’t wait to read it!

  5. Caribousmom says:

    Myrthe: I sat on this one for quite awhile too – it took a book group to get me to read it; now I wish I hadn’t waited so long!

  6. Teddy says:

    Great review! This one is on my TBR, with the recomendation from several of my on-line friends, such as yourself.

  7. Caribousmom says:

    Thanks Teddy :) I hope you’ll like it – and can’t wait to read your review!

  8. Trish says:

    Yay! I recently got this book but I haven’t read it yet because I hadn’t really heard glowing things about it (probably in light of March, which I also haven’t read). I’ll definitely have to move this one up on the TBR.

  9. Caribousmom says:

    Trish: I’d read the same bad reviews…and was reluctant to read it too. But now I am so glad I ignored those bad reviews!

  10. I’m glad to read your great review! I’d read some so-so reviews and was afraid to read it after Year of Wonders. I’m adding this review link to my TBR list.

  11. This sounds like a FASCINATING book to read and I would love to do so! Great review. You explained it well without giving anything (really) away. I’m very curious about it. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  12. Caribousmom says:

    Small World: Thank you! I know that some readers didn’t like this book – but I really loved it. It completely fascinated me.

    Carrie: Thanks! It *is* fascinating!

  13. Megan says:

    I just picked this up at work (the library) today. I’m super-excited about it! A few of my friends have heaped much praise on this book, and your review makes it even more enticing. I’ll admit to being a lurker on your blog – it’s so easy to get engrossed and lost in all the thoughtful information and insight you provide. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  14. Caribousmom says:

    Megan: Thanks for coming out of “lurkdom” to weigh in … and thank you for the compliment on my blog *blushes* This is such a great book – I hope you love it as much as I did.

  15. Tish says:

    This is my next up book. i have read all of her other books and it seems to me that she does not have great reviews,so, I just ignore reviews of her books now.
    can’t wait to read it now!

  16. Caribousmom says:

    Tish: I know some people did not rave about this one as I did..BUT at the Expo I actually talked to several readers who were loving the book as well! I think she tends to get mixed reviews. I enjoyed March quite a bit, too.