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People of the Book (2008)

by Geraldine Brooks

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
8,625454641 (3.93)832
In 1996, Hanna Heath, a young Australian book conservator is called to analyze the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, a priceless six-hundred-year-old Jewish prayer book that has been salvaged from a destroyed Bosnian library. When Hanna discovers a series of artifacts in the centuries' old, she unwittingly exposes an international cover up.… (more)
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» See also 832 mentions

English (442)  Spanish (4)  Dutch (3)  German (2)  Portuguese (Brazil) (1)  Finnish (1)  All languages (453)
Showing 1-5 of 442 (next | show all)
From July of 2010, when I was reading it: Geraldine Brooks' writing is beautiful, filled with lyrical descriptions and vivid imagery. The narrative is peppered with interesting details about book conservation, the history of book making, and Sarajevo. The characters are well-rendered and believable, and Brooks brings war torn Sarajevo to life so well I could see it in my mind. Hanna, with her attention to detail, is a perfect narrator, likeable but still flawed, and the mentions of her troubled relationship with her mother add to her realism.

People of the Book is an incredible novel, well written and fascinating. The characters are all amazingly real, as are the historical and modern worlds they inhabit. Some of the events in the book, such as the Spanish Inquisition, are difficult to read about, but Geraldine Brooks treats them with respect. ( )
  JBuyer124 | Jul 30, 2020 |
could not finish ( )
  leebill | Apr 30, 2020 |
Every year at Passover, Jews around the world gather for a festive meal at which they are commanded to retell the epochal story of the Exodus from Egypt. The text for that retelling is known as the "Haggadah." Today, it is estimated that there are more than 3,000 versions of this book, a compendium of biblical excerpts, rabbinic commentary, stories and poems.

In her emotionally resonant new novel, Geraldine Brooks spins an intricate and moving tale of a Haggadah, and its stirring, almost miraculous story of survival. People of the Book is a work of fiction inspired by the true story of the Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah.

This chapter contains some very interesting and real facts about the REAL Sarajevo Haggadah. Some people may find this boring, or annoying. I found it all terribly fascinating. If you don't care about this, please skip this chapter.
"While some of the facts are true to the S. H.'s known history, most of the plot and all of the characters are imaginary. In real life, only after the war was it revealed that a Muslim librarian, Enver Imamovic, had rescued the codex during the shelling and hidden it for safekeeping in a bank vault. While these heroic rescues were my initial inspirations, the characters to whom I have ascribed these actions in the novel are entirely fictional. Also, the novel’s chapters “A White Hair” and “Saltwater” are entirely fictional. However, there is a saffron- robed, black- skinned woman at the seder table in one of the S. H.'s illuminations, and the mystery of her identity inspired my inventions. (!!!).
By 1609, the haggadah had found its way to Venice, where the handwritten inscription by a (real-life) Catholic priest named Vistorini apparently saved it from the book burnings of the pope’s Inquisition. Nothing is known of Vistorini beyond the books that have survived because they bear his signature. But many of the Catholic Hebraists of the period were converted Jews, and I used that fact in “Wine Stains.” In that chapter, also, the character of Judah Aryeh is inspired by the life of Leon Modena as described in 'The Autobiography of a Seventeenth Century Rabbi , translated and edited by Mark R. Cohen. Richard Zacks provided an invaluable collection of materials on gambling in seventeenth- century Venice. Because Bosnia was under occupation by the Austro- Hungarian empire when the haggadah came to light there in 1894, it was natural that it should be sent to Vienna, hub of culture and scholarship, for study and restoration. For the atmosphere in the city at that time, and especially for details such as the unctuous manners of telephone operators, I am in debt to the remarkable narrative history 'A Nervous Splendour' by Frederic Morton. Similarly, Brian Hall’s 'The Dreamers' and 'The Impossible Country' provided indispensable insights. While it is true that, by modern standards, the rebinding of the haggadah was mishandled in Vienna, the matter of the missing clasps is a novelist’s invention."

The true story of the haggadah's narrow escapes from destruction, chronicled in a December 3, 2007 New Yorker article by Brooks (featuring a color reproduction of one of the haggadah's striking illustrations), is so fantastic it seems almost impossible to fictionalize it. But what Brooks does so convincingly is what empathetic historical novelists do best --- offer us rich insights into the interior lives of both real and fictional characters that reveal the human drama behind a fact-based story. As one of the book's characters reminds us, "a book is more than the sum of its materials. It is an artifact of the human mind and hand."

Brooks's recreation of five historical epochs --- Sarajevo in 1940, Vienna in 1894, Venice in 1609 and Spain in 1492 and 1480 --- is so rich with period detail, lavishly and yet effectively displayed, that one stands in awe of the thoroughness of her research. (I did, and often..!). In each era the existence of the haggadah is threatened. Most dramatic, and most grounded in historical fact, is the story of how the book - only moments away from almost certain destruction by the Nazis - was hidden by the chief librarian of the Bosnian National Museum and then stored for the balance of World War II among Korans and other Muslim religious books in a remote mosque.

The chapter recounting the haggadah's jeopardy in early 17th century Venice is almost as heart-stopping. There, Giovanni Domenic Vistorini, the censor of the Inquisitor whose job it was to consign heretical works to the bonfire, sits with his pen poised above the parchment before deciding to spare it from the flames. All of the novel's historical sections are so packed with vivid detail and complex characters - princes, rabbis, artists, scribes and bookbinders - that each time the narrative returns to its contemporary setting we're eager to be transported back in time and, once there, find ourselves longing to linger.

What also sets this novel apart from more conventional works of historical fiction are the sophisticated themes that suffuse the narrative: the persistence of religious persecution, issues of religious and personal identity, and the close relationship between Muslims and Jews among the most prominent. Those ties may seem particularly startling to those familiar only with the Middle East conflict, and offer perhaps a glimmer of hope that someday they can be revived.

The contemporary narrative does not suffer in comparison to the historical segments, as some here at G.r. may think. Some here have also stated that there is a "melodramatic" subplot describing the fractured relationship between Hanna and her mother Sarah, an eminent but emotionally distant neurosurgeon, from whom Hanna ultimately learns a jealously guarded family secret. I thought it added to the storyline quite well, and I completely understood Hanna's relationship with her mother. Hanna's love affair with Ozren Karaman, the Bosnian librarian was also a very nice addition to the storyline. The ending was a brilliant piece of misdirection.

Geraldine Brooks most likely had herself in mind when Hanna observes, "By linking research and imagination, sometimes I can think myself into the heads of the people who made the book. I can figure out who they were, or how they worked. That's how I add my few grains to the sandbox of human knowledge." In PEOPLE OF THE BOOK she continues to raise the bar for practitioners of this literary genre.

This novel was truly brilliant. You do not need a surfeit of knowledge about Jewish culture or practices, in order to enjoy this novel. You do not need to have attended a religious festival to understand their importance and meaning. (But if you can, please do, if just for observance' sake. They are quite beautiful). You don't even need to have a tremendous knowledge of the wars between the factions that are in conflict, during the setting of this novel.

I, on the other hand, need to read more novels by Geraldine Brooks. 5 full stars for this breathtaking novel that had me spell-bound. Truly fascinating. Please give it a try. You might fall in love with it, as I have. ( )
  stephanie_M | Apr 30, 2020 |
People of the Book is a wonderfully written book of historical fiction in which the author relates many events of the dark and unhappy history of the Jewish people while presenting an engaging account about a possible history of a noted artifact. The research is thorough and deep, yet Brooks presents it so well that the reader is drawn to the story line much more that to the incredible quality of the research.
I have read other books where the author loses sight of the idea that, above all, he must tell an interesting story and falls instead into impressing the reader with the depth of the author's research. Brooks avoids this pitfall and presents what amounts to a collection of short stories that tell of major events in world history. By creating characters as they face those events, Brooks presents human stories told in historical contexts and creates a wonderful novel. ( )
  Paul-the-well-read | Apr 18, 2020 |
Beautiful mosaic-like novel. Loved it. ( )
  Loryndalar | Mar 19, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 442 (next | show all)
While peering through a microscope at a rime of salt crystals on the manuscript of the Haggadah, Hanna reflects that “the gold beaters, the stone grinders, the scribes, the binders” are “the people I feel most comfortable with. Sometimes in the quiet these people speak to me.” Though the reader’s sense of Hanna’s relationship with the Haggadah rarely deepens to such a level, Geraldine Brooks’s certainly has.
Brooks' novel meticulously, lovingly amalgamates mystery and history with the personal story of its heroine, rare-book expert and conservator Hanna Heath.
If Brooks becomes the new patron saint of booksellers, she deserves it. The stories of the Sarajevo Haggadah, both factual and fictional, are stirring testaments to the people of many faiths who risked all to save this priceless work.
added by DieFledermaus | editUSA Today, Susan Kelly (Jan 9, 2008)

» Add other authors (20 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Geraldine Brooksprimary authorall editionscalculated
Wren, EdwinaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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There, where one burns books,
one in the end, burns men. 

-- Heinrich Heine
For the librarians
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I might as well say, right from the jump: it wasn't my usual kind of job.
The words stuck to his tongue like...the ashes that had fallen in a warm rain after the last book burning.
I wanted to give a sense of the people of the book, the different hands that had made it, used it, protected it.  I wanted it to be a gripping narrative, even suspenseful.
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Hanna Heath, an Australian rare book expert, has been offered the job of a lifetime: analysis and conservation of the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, 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 discovers a series of tiny artificacts in its ancient binding -- an insect wing fragment, wine stains, salt crystals, a white hair -- she begins to unlock the book's mysteries, ushering in its exquisite and atmospheric past, from its salvation back to its creation through centuries of exile and war.
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