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20 July 2010

People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

I love it when a book is able to seamlessly and eloquently combine fiction and history, leaving you wondering where fiction ends and truth begins.  As a voracious reader, I enjoy being able to delicately step through a story's pages and revel in the imagination of the writer, whilst learning a new nugget of actual history that sadly, didn't make any of my history classes in high school or college.

People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks, does just that.  This is a treat beyond all compare, beauty of history and story within front and back covers.  The Haggadah is a Jewish book that is read on the first night of Passover and tells the stories of enslavement, and the subsequent miracles performed by God which ultimately resulted in freedom.  In People of the Book, Hannah Heath is a rare books expert from Australia who travels to battle-torn Sarajevo in 1996.  Her task is to preserve the beautiful Sarajevo Haggadah that has just been uncovered after 100 years.  This Haggadah, though, is very different both in color and in sketch -- odd that it has survived throughout the years, since its original creation date sometime in the 14th century in Spain would have been during a time when drawing a person and illuminating it as such, although clothed, was considered offensive.  Somehow it has survived throughout the years from the Spanish Inquisition to the Holocaust.  Piqued by this curiosity, and passionate about preservation, Hannah also finds several items that are encapsulated within the pages of the book, such as a red stain, or a white hair, or an insect wing, and these objects become the opportunity for the author to explain in whose hands this book may have fallen, and the significance they earned in history.  We watch the book travel from Venice and to Vienna, and we learn the stories of the people who held the book, cared for the book, and saved the book, ultimately saving a critical piece of Jewish history.  Although some of these sections are fictionalized, the story of the Sarajevo Haggadah sends the message to the reader that it has become even more than just the colorful drawings and the binding of it, but about the people of the book, the people who fought and died for this incredible piece of history.

I found this refreshing and moving, and I was struck by the significance of a book that is of such beauty and importance to history.  It made me wonder who really were the people that protected it through hundreds of years?  Geraldine Brooks writes each character and scene in such a fluid manner, moments depicted with such heartbreak, such horror, and yet with hope.  It moved quickly for me and it wasn't long before I finished.

When I closed the book, I felt regret that I had never learned of this subject and felt that it was a duty of mine to learn more on such an important topic.  I immediately began to research away and found several important sites that held more information that helped my education on this subject grow.
Reading People of the Book has made my visits to the museum a much different experience, awareness more profoundly etched within me, as I look at an object on display -- in whose hands did this significant artifact fall, how did this manage to survive time and human ignorance to get to this museum behind protected glass, for me to view?  And on my list of places to visit, I will add Sarajevo no matter how battle-torn, simply to be able to visit with the amazing Sarajevo Haggadah, where it is on permanent display.

Please visit Farm Lane Books Blog and the recent post on Book Drum, which is designed to help a reader truly understand all aspects of the book they are reading -- a bit like an online book site that provides a snapshot into the history or areas discussed in a book.


  1. Just read your post... I loved this book when I read it last year, and then suggested it to my book group. It was a book I had absolutely no trouble re-reading, and I was so surprised when some of the group were not as entranced as I was.

    I agree with you, Geraldine Brooks wrote beautifully and I too wanted immediately to know more about this book of which she wrote. I loved the care with which the book had been protected, and the story of the exotic artist who might have created the fabulous illustrations...

    I talked about this book so much that I bored my friends to death, but most that I conviced to read it said they couldn't put it down. Strangely the ones at Book Group who didn't like it were hung up on the jewish-ness. I doubt they'd get the one I just finished at all!!

    I am very possessive of some books and I would like to think they will be handed through a few generations. Sadly nothing of mine has the allure of the Haggadah.

  2. I have this one sitting on my shelf - I bought it on a whim, because I liked the cover and thought it sounded rather interesting. And from your post, I can definitely see that I am going to be in a for a treat when I finally read this book. I love it when a book meshes fact and fiction and you can't tell where one begins and the other ends - that is just amazing to be able to integrate both together so seamlessly. I loved your review of this book and can see how much it truly captivated your interest. I love when that happens! I've read a few books that have led me to read other books in order for me to gain a better understanding or to learn more historical information, etc. Its always such a great reading adventure when that happens. Great post!

  3. I still haven't read anything written by Geraldine Brooks. I have this one on my shelf and really should try to read it soon. You've made it sound wonderful - I'll try to read it next month :-)

  4. Sounds really interesting! I think historical fiction, when done well, can be so compelling. I just recently finished "Blood Royal" and I it was great--a story I wasn't even aware of.

  5. I agree, I love it when a historical novel can not only entertain but educate or at least make you want to read more.

    Great review of this book. I have it but just haven't gotten around to it. Shame, I know!

    Have you read anything else by Brooks? I highly recommend Year of Wonders.

  6. Thank you for the reminder about this book I really want to read. I love that blend of history and fiction, so this sounds perfect.

  7. Sorry for the delays in response -- I am finally in Key West! Yay!

    Chat Noir -- I'm surprised to hear that some in your book group didn't fall in love with it! There is just something in the way that Geraldine Brooks writes that just made me fall in love with the characters, the story, it was beautiful!

    Nadia -- You will absolutely enjoy this story! I'd love to hear your thoughts as well!!

    Farm Lane Books -- Do read it, and also let me know what you think! It's wonderful to see what everyone thinks!

    SogniESorrisi -- Ooh, Blood Royal, I've heard about that one, I might try to pick that one up!

    Iliana -- I did read Year of Wonders! And I absolutely enjoy that one as well -- it took me just a bit to get used to how she wrote that one, keeping it authentic to how everyone more thank likely addressed each other at that time, but once I got used to it, I couldn't put it down!

    Andi -- Definitely pick this one up, I'm sure it will not disappoint!

  8. My friend recommended this book to me long ago, and I never read it. Now with yours, I am intrigued again.

  9. Ooh, Ruth -- you must read! And I would love to hear your thoughts on it, too!

  10. Your comments/appreciation of the book are very much in synch with mine. I was surprised that some people were put off by the "Jewish-ness" of it. I found these characters fascinating - as I did all the characters in the book. My book club did not read this book but we did read "Year of Wonders" by Brooks. That was my introduction to her. When I saw that she was the author of "People of the Book" I knew it would be good. Now I have to read "March".

  11. I read this a few years ago and loved it - I loved how there were so many layers and threads to this book. Glad you enjoyed it too.

  12. Julie -- the culture of the book and the people associated with it were what made the book come alive for me! I loved every second of it, and felt deeply for the characters and the tragedy that they were experiencing whilst still preserving and saving the Haggadah. It was a beautiful story for me -- and when I read what Year of Wonders was about, I was on board! I'm with you, now I need to read March!

    The Book Whisperer -- You are absolutely right, the intertwining threads and layers that encompassed this really was brilliant, wasn't it? I adore Geraldine Brooks' works!

  13. I read this awhile ago because some of my friends and my sister had raved about it, but I have to be honest and say I just couldn't get into it. I'm not sure why, but I've never been able to get unto any of Brooks other books either so the answer might lie there?

  14. Becky @ Page Turners -- Thanks for stopping by! Well, not every book works for everyone, unfortunately! Year of Wonders is a tough read to get into, as it's written as you would expect people to write and speak in that timeframe. She definitely has a unique style to her formats!

  15. I read this book as made it even better with your research...thanks.

    BTW, LOVE YOUR counter....I got the Widget and put it on mine.


  16. @ Elizabeth -- Thanks for stopping by and thanks for such kind words!!

  17. It is outstanding and you are welcome.

  18. Great review - I really must read this one. I love books about books and I really enjoyed her Year of Wonders when I read it many years ago (entrancing).

  19. @ Book Lover Book Reviews -- I loved Year of Wonders, too! Linus' Blanket just read and reviewed it as well, and it is an all around well-received book! I really enjoy her style of writing, and the creativity/imagination that goes along with it! I think you'll really enjoy People of the Book as well -- let me know what you think if you pick up the book!


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