Sunday, April 13, 2008

people of the book

One of the earliest Jewish religious volumes to be illuminated with images, the Sarajevo Haggadah survived centuries of purges and wars thanks to people of all faiths who risked their lives to safeguard it. Geraldine Brooks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of March, has turned the intriguing but sparely detailed history of this precious volume into an emotionally rich, thrilling fictionalization that retraces its turbulent journey. In the hands of Hanna Heath, an impassioned rare-book expert restoring the manuscript in 1996 Sarajevo, it yields clues to its guardians and whereabouts: an insect wing, a wine stain, salt crystals, and a white hair. While readers experience crucial moments in the book's history through a series of fascinating, fleshed-out short stories, Hanna pursues its secrets scientifically, and finds that some interests will still risk everything in the name of protecting this treasure. A complex love story, thrilling mystery, vivid history lesson, and celebration of the enduring power of ideas, People of the Book will surely be hailed as one of the best of 2008. --Mari Malcolm

I was so excited to read this. I've read several books on Convivencia Spain, the time period when the illustrated Sarajevo Haggadah was created. I've read a lot about the Sephardic Jews. I'd been waiting months for my turn with a library copy of The People of the Book--evidently it's very popular.

I'm disappointed. I did not find it terrible, merely so-so. The modern storyline was flimsy and the main characters rather unlikable. I loved to read about the conservator's techniques at the beginning, but once that was over I struggled to get through the modern sections. The mother/daughter spats are especially tedious. The historical parts look back at specific times in the book's history and the people who were in possession of the book at those times. Fascinating premise. However, I did not find the stories themselves especially compelling. Brooks is not a bad writer at all, but it takes tremendous skill to write gripping short stories, and these didn't grip me. Some of the characters were highly repugnant and they got a disproportionately large amount of page space. I would have liked to read more about the heroic characters. In an interview Brooks says that now that she's finished the book, she misses some of the characters, especially the most flawed ones. That she considered them the most interesting definitely comes through in the book. There is some graphic depiction of violence (not gratuitous--it's during the Inquisition), and too much sex. Just so you know, I am not opposed to sex scenes in books if they are pertinent to the plot. But I don't feel I need to know how every character is doing in that area. That is superfluous. I do not want to know those details about my friends and family and I don't need to know them about every last book character, either.

There is an entirely far-fetched plot twist near the end that really annoyed me.

On the positive side, I appreciated the tremendous amount of research that went into this book. It's inspired me to learn more about the history of Bosnia and even more about the Sephardic Jews. I have not read much about Kabbalah, for example.

As far as being "a celebration of the enduring power of ideas," I saw Brooks' attempts at that. Anti-semitism is contrasted with the periods of time when Jews, Muslims, and Christians more or less get along. I appreciated that too and it gave me a lot to think about.

Now how am I going to rate this book on Goodreads? Sometimes I really struggle to assign the stars. I keep going back to my book lists and editing them. Now I only have a few 5-star books, for example, because I want to avoid star inflation. My first impulse is to give it 2 stars, which is supposed to mean "It's o.k." But that seems low. And yet I don't know if I can give it a 3-star "I liked it." Hmm. I'll have to think about it. I deal with the major issues here, as you can tell.

I'd love to have more Goodreads friends. If you do Goodreads and you wouldn't mind being on my friend list, please email me at calandria4-at-comcast-dot-net.


Michelle said...

I read this one a few months ago. But now one of my reading weaknesses will become apparent. Book details rapidly fade from my memory. What was the twist at the end? The book making it back to Israel? And the two book expert guys being in on the plot? I can't remember quite how it ended. The only sex I really remember is the main charcter's in the present. I did feel like too much of her story (can't remember her name) diverged from the story of the Haggadah.

I also remember feeling like I wanted to know more about the characters, but at the same time, the main "character" of the book is the Haggadah. And so the snapshots of time, which would only give me a bit of detail about the people involved, seemed to be more intended to showcase the Haggadah.

I liked thinking about the voyage over time of this book. And the flaws in the characters didn't really bother me--I just thought of them as kind of normal people who happened to have a bit role in the creation and preservation of this amazing book.

But, your review makes me think I should downgrade my GoodReads rating. I think I gave it 4 stars.

Calandria said...

Hi Michelle,

The twist I'm referring to isn't so much a twist, I guess. More of an EXTREME coincidence. I'm talking about who found the book in Israel, 2002 and how she found it.

That's a good point that the main "character" is the Haggadah. As I said, I do LOVE the premise of this book. I did find most of the characters interesting. I would have liked to know more about Serif and Stella. Those were two heroic characters that Brooks didn't seem to know what to do with. I probably exaggerate when I say that so many characters were "highly repugnant." They were more like normal, flawed people as you say. But I felt like she dwelt too much on the repugnant details. Like the poor wino priest, for example. I didn't enjoy the details of Mittl's gonorrhea, either.

Don't downgrade it just because of my review. I wonder if maybe too-high expectations were part of my problem with it. I'm thinking of giving it 3 stars.

Michelle said...

Huh. Even with your details, I still can't remember the end, or who either of those characters are. I think I'll blame it on pregnancy, childbirth, and a newborn, plus use this excuse for at least a few more months.