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People of the Book (Brooks)

People of the Book 
Geraldine Brooks, 2008
Penguin Group USA
384 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780143115007

Summary 
From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of March, the journey of a rare illuminated manuscript through centuries of exile and war.

In 1996, Hanna Heath, an Australian rare-book expert, is offered the job of a lifetime: analysis and conservation of the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, which has been 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, a caustic loner with a passion for her work, discovers a series of tiny artifacts in its ancient binding—an insect wing fragment, wine stains, salt crystals, a white hair—she begins to unlock the book's mysteries. The reader is ushered into an exquisitely detailed and atmospheric past, tracing the book's journey from its salvation back to its creation.

In Bosnia during World War II, a Muslim risks his life to protect it from the Nazis. In the hedonistic salons of fin-de-siecle Vienna, the book becomes a pawn in the struggle against the city's rising anti-Semitism. In inquisition-era Venice, a Catholic priest saves it from burning. In Barcelona in 1492, the scribe who wrote the text sees his family destroyed by the agonies of enforced exile. And in Seville in 1480, the reason for the Haggadah's extraordinary illuminations is finally disclosed. Hanna's investigation unexpectedly plunges her into the intrigues of fine art forgers and ultra-nationalist fanatics. Her experiences will test her belief in herself and the man she has come to love.

Inspired by a true story, People of the Book is at once a novel of sweeping historical grandeur and intimate emotional intensity, an ambitious, electrifying workby an acclaimed and beloved author. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Birth—1955
Where—outside Sydney, Australia
Education—B.A., Sydney University; M.A. Columbia
   University (USA)
Awards—Hal Boyle Award, Overseas Press Club, 1990; Nita
   B. Kibble Award, 1997; Pulitizer Prize, 2006 (for March).
Currently—Virginia, USA


Geraldine Brooks is also the author of People of the Book (2008), Year of Wonders (2002), and the nonfiction works Nine Parts of Desire and Foreign Correspondence. A former correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, Brooks lives in rural Virginia with her husband, author Tony Horwitz, and their son.

More
Brooks was born in 1955 and grew up in the Western suburbs of Sydney, Australia. She attended Sydney University and worked as a reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald. As the Greg Shackleton Memorial Scholar she completed a Master's Degree in journalism at Columbia University in New York City in 1983. Subsequently Brooks worked for the Wall Street Journal, where she covered crises in the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans—in 1990, for coverage of the Persian Gulf, Brooks (with Tony Horwitz) received the Overseas Press Club's Hal Boyle Award for "Best newspaper or wire service reporting from abroad".

Brooks was awarded a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University for 2006.

Brooks married fellow Pulitzer recipient, Tony Horwitz, in Tourette-sur-loup, France, in 1984. They have a son, Nathaniel, and divide their time between homes in Virginia, United States and Sydney, Australia.

Her first book, Nine Parts of Desire (1994), based on her experiences among the Muslim women of the Middle East, was an international bestseller, translated into 17 languages. Foreign Correspondence (1997), which won the Nita B. Kibble Award for women's writing, was a memoir and travel adventure about a childhood enriched by penpals from around the world, and her adult quest to find them.

Her first novel, Year of Wonders, published in 2001, is an international bestseller. Set in 1666, Year Of Wonders follows a young woman's battle to save her fellow villagers and her soul when the plague suddenly strikes the small Derbyshire village of Eyam.

Her second novel, March, was published in late February 2005. An historical novel set during the U.S. Civil War, it chronicles the war experiences of the March girls' absent father in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. The parallel novel was generally well received by the critics. In December 2005 March was selected by the Washington Post as one of the five best fiction works published during the year. In April 2006, the book earned Brooks the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

March seems to have had its roots in Brooks' childhood. A copy of Little Women was given to Brooks when she was only ten years old, by her mother Gloria, a journalist and radio announcer. (From Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews 
Salman Rushdie was in town last night, and (along with 2,000 others) I got to hear his stirring exhortation about literature's power to change the world. Novels, he said, introduce us to a larger universe, enable us to see the world in a new way, and ultimately can bind cultures together in a common humanity. I'd been thinking about recommending Brooks's new novel—and now I must.
A LitLovers LitPick (March '08)


The good news is that this new novel by the author of March, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2006, is intelligent, thoughtful, gracefully written and original. Brooks has built upon her experience as a correspondent in Bosnia for the Wall Street Journal to construct a story around a book—small, rare and very old—and the people into whose hands it had fallen over five centuries.... Suffice it to say that it's a book that resides comfortably in a place we too often imagine to be a no-man's land between popular fiction and literature. Brooks tells a believable and engaging story about sympathetic but imperfect characters—"popular" fiction demands all of that—but she also does the business of literature, exploring serious themes and writing about them in handsome prose. She appears to be finding readers and admirers in growing numbers, and People of the Book no doubt will increase those numbers.
Jonathan Yardley - Washington Post


Reading Geraldine Brooks's remarkable debut novel, Year of Wonders, or more recently March, which won the Pulitzer Prize, it would be easy to forget that she grew up in Australia and worked as a journalist. Now in her dazzling new novel, People of the Book, Brooks allows both her native land and current events to play a larger role while still continuing to mine the historical material that speaks so ardently to her imagination. Late one night in the city of Sydney, Hanna Heath, a rare book conservator, gets a phone call. The Sarajevo Haggadah, which disappeared during the siege in 1992, has been found, and Hanna has been invited by the U.N. to report on its condition.

Missing documents and art works (as Dan Brown and Lev Grossman, among others, have demonstrated) are endlessly appealing, and from this inviting premise Brooks spins her story in two directions. In the present, we follow the resolutely independent Hanna through her thrilling first encounter with the beautifully illustrated codex and her discovery of the tiny signs-a white hair, an insect wing, missing clasps, a drop of salt, a wine stain—that will help her to discover its provenance. Along with the book she also meets its savior, a Muslim librarian named Karaman. Their romance offers both predictable pleasures and genuine surprises, as does the other main relationship in Hanna's life: her fraught connection with her mother.

In the other strand of the narrative we learn, moving backward through time, how the codex came to be lost and found, and made. From the opening section, set in Sarajevo in 1940, to the final section, set in Seville in 1480, these narratives show Brooks writing at her very best. With equal authority she depicts the struggles of a young girl to escape the Nazis, a duel of wits between an inquisitor and a rabbi living in the Venice ghetto, and a girl's passionate relationship with her mistress in a harem. Like the illustrations in the Haggadah, each of these sections transports the reader to a fully realized, vividly peopled world. And each gives a glimpse of both the long history of anti-Semitism and of the struggle of women toward the independence that Hanna, despite her mother's lectures, tends to take for granted.

Brooks is too good a novelist to belabor her political messages, but her depiction of the Haggadah bringing together Jews, Christians and Muslims could not be more timely. Her gift for storytelling, happily, is timeless.
Margo Livesay - Publisher's Weekly


When Australian rare-books author Hanna Heath travels to Sarajevo to restore the legendary Sarajevo Haggadah, she gets a lot more than she bargained for. The beautiful book was rescued during a Serb bombing by Muslim librarian Ozren Karaman, and Hanna ends up deeply humbled by his suffering after their too easily launched affair. Eventually, she's led into her own past, where she unearths the truth about the father she never knew. What the reader gets in the meantime is an intriguing history of the Haggadah itself, revealed through artifacts accumulated over time and things the book has lost-its silver clasps, which were turned into earrings for a Viennese doctor's mistress in the late 1880s. From an insect wing, we learn that the book was saved from the Nazis by Partisan fighter Lola and a Muslim family friend; wine stains recall the Inquisition in early 1600s Venice and saltwater droplets the Jews' expulsion from Spain in 1492. A single cat hair returns us to the book's creation in 1480 Seville and the unexpected story behind its illustrator. Each story is engrossing and deftly woven into the narrative, though the telling is sometimes facile or cloying. Nevertheless, this latest from Pulitzer Prize winner Brooks (March) is a good addition to most libraries and excellent for discussion groups.
Library Journal


From 1480 Seville to 1996 Sarajevo, a priceless scripture is chased by fanatics political and religious. Its recovery makes for an enthralling historical mystery. In Sydney, ace (and gorgeous) old-book conservator Hannah Heath gets a 2 a.m. phone call. She's summoned to Sarajevo to check out a 15th-century Spanish-made Haggadah, a codex gone missing in Bosnia during a 1992 siege. The document is a curiosity, its lavish illuminations appearing to violate age-old religious injunctions against any kind of illustration. Remarkably, it's Muslim museum librarian Ozren Karaman who rescued the Hebrew artifact from furious shelling. Questioning (and bedding) Ozren, Hannah examines the Haggadah binding and from clues embedded there-an insect's wings, wine stains, white hair-reconstructs the book's biography. And it's an epic. Chapter by chapter, each almost an independent story, the chronicle unwinds-of the book's changing hands from those of anti-Nazi partisans dreaming of departing for Palestine from war-torn Croatia, from schemers in 1894 Vienna, home, despite Freud and Mahler, of virulent anti-Semitism. Perhaps the best chapter takes place in 1609 Venice. There, not-so-grand Inquisitor Domenico Vistorini, a heretic hunter with a drinking problem, contends in theological disputation with brilliant rabbinical star Judah Aryeh. The two strike up an unlikely alliance to save the book, even while Vistorini at first blanches at its art—a beautiful depiction of the glowing sun, prophesying, the hysterical priest assumes, Galileo's heliocentric blasphemy. Tracing those illustrations back to their origin point, Hannah unkinks a series of fascinating conundrums—and learns, even more fiercely, to prize the printed page. Rich suspense based on a true-life literary puzzle, from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Brooks (March, 2005).
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. When Hanna implores Ozren to solicit a second opinion on Alia's condition, he becomes angry and tells her, "Not every story has a happy ending." (p. 37). To what extent do you believe that their perspectives on tragedy and death are cultural? To what extent are they personal?

2. Isak tells Mordechai, "At least the pigeon does no harm. The hawk lives at the expense of other creatures that dwell in the desert." (p.50). If you were Lola, would you have left the safety of your known life and gone to Palestine? Is it better to live as a pigeon or a hawk? Or is there an alternative?

3. When Father Vistorni asks Rabbi Judah Ayreh to warn the printer that the Church disapproves of one of their recently published texts, Ayreh tells him, "better you do it than to have us so intellectually enslaved that we do it for you." (p.156). Do you agree or disagree with his argument? With the way he handled Vistorni's request?

4. What was it, ultimately, that made Father Vistorini approve the Haggadah? Since Brooks leaves this part of the story unclear, how do you imagine it made its way from his rooms to Sarajevo?

5. Several of the novel's female characters lived in the pre-feminist era and certainly fared poorly at the hands of men. Does the fact that she was pushing for gender equality—not to mention saving lives—justify Sarah Heath's poor parenting skills? Would women's rights be where they are today if it weren't for women like her?

6. Have you ever been in a position where your professional judgment has been called into question? How did you react?

7. Was Hanna being fair to suspect only Amitai of the theft? Do you think charges should have been pressed against the culprits?

8. How did Hanna change after discovering the truth about her father? Would the person she was before her mother's accident have realized that she loved Ozren? Or risked the dangers involved in returning the codex?

9. There is an amazing array of "people of the book"—both base and noble—whose lifetimes span some remarkable periods in human history. Who is your favorite and why?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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