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By the Chapter, Day 1 | People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

March 16, 2009

Welcome to By the Chapter. This week’s featured book is People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. Sharing hosting duties with me this week is Elizabeth from As usual, I need more bookshelves.


If you’re not familiar with People of the Book here’s a little background on the book from Amazon:
Late one night in the city of Sydney, Hanna Heath, a rare book conservator, gets a phone call. The Sarajevo Haggadah (Wikipedia link), 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.

Link to pictures from the Sarajevo Haggadah
These illustrations are incredibly breathtaking, especially when you realize the age and time in which they were created. Be sure to click through all the links on the left side bar of Sarajevo Haggadah page.



Follow the journey with Elizabeth and myself this week.



This is a fictionalized story based on fact. Told in alternating chapters Hannah, a book conservator, takes us back through time following the journey of the Sarajevo Haggadah. The remarkable odyssey of the Sarajevo Haggadah in the People of the Book starts in Sarajevo in 1996 and travels back through the centuries to 1480. A point of clarification about Hannah’s conservator job I wasn’t aware of. Her job is to bring a book to a state where it can be handled and displayed, not to it restore to it’s original condition. Meaning that she doesn’t remove stains, markings or restore illustrations. She repairs bindings, tears, and other assorted damage. Leaving the assorted stains and markings allows historians to trace it’s travels through sophisticated DNA testing.

So far I’ve journeyed through 104 pages. Hannah has repaired the book for display finding a piece of insect wing, one white hair, and a missing clasp. She’s also discovered a wine stain and salt drop within it’s pages. Tracing the history of this book, through the insect wing, Hannah discovers that during the early 1940s the Sarajevo Haggadah was rescued from the hands of the Germans by the National Museum kustos (curator), Serif, and secreted away in the mountains with family.

The binding itself leads us to Vienna in 1894 where I’m currently at.


Hannah isn’t a character that I know much about right now. She and her mother, a doctor, have a difficult and strained relationship. She becomes involved in the lives of the museum kustos, Ozren Karaman, and his hospitalized son Aida. In the short time she’s spent in Ozren’s company she’s built an attachment to father and child so strong that she’s gone as far as to smuggle the child’s x-rays out the country without Ozren’s permission and against his wishes.

I’m not really sure where Hannah’s story is headed at this point in the book. I can’t see her being more than a facilitator and guide of the Sarajevo Haggadah’s story. Unlike Sarah’s Key where Ms. de Rosnay was able to bring Julia’s and Sarah’s stories together I don’t see that happening here.

What I love about stories such as the People of the Book is when an author is able to take a historical event or fact which has moderate to little known information and creates a story which holds my interest and makes me believe what I’m reading. Weaving fact and fiction together takes imagination and ingenuity and Ms. Brooks does a splendid job.

The story of the Sarajevo Haggadah is very intriguing. To think we have these wonderful treasures surviving thousands of years, enduring countless encounters with nature’s elements and human mishandling, and through the marvels of modern technology we can unlock their secrets. I expect this will be very educational and engrossing journey.

This book is definitely holding my interest from a historical aspect. Ms. Brooks is a new-to-me author but I’m looking forward to finishing this wonderful book and reading her other novels.


If you’ve read, or are currently reading, People of the Book please share your thoughts with us.

This week’s reading scheduling:
Monday: The Printed Page
Tuesday: Elizabeth from As usual, I need more bookshelves
Wednesday: The Printed Page
Thursday: Elizabeth from As usual, I need more bookshelves
Friday: The Printed Page/Elizabeth from As usual, I need more bookshelves



  1. March 16, 2009 4:32 am

    My favourite parts of this book were definitely the historical sections. I did enjoy the restoration aspects as well, but didn’t really warm up to Hannah. It will be interesting to read along with you this week.

  2. March 16, 2009 7:04 am

    I really liked this book even though I only gave it 4*. It would have received 5 except for the chapters on Hannah’s life. I got so involved in the historical stories, that it felt jarring to me to then have to read about Hannah.

  3. March 16, 2009 12:11 pm

    Oh, I just bought this book last week. I sure wish I had time to read it with you.

  4. March 16, 2009 4:09 pm

    I am reading this book too. Wow.. your post is Awesome. I hope I can follow along and read with you.

  5. March 16, 2009 5:51 pm

    I’m actually feeling a bit of kinship with Hanna – I get what she means when she talks about how she’d rather be alone to do her work. I’ll be interested to see if you ever warm up to her…=)

  6. March 20, 2009 3:33 pm

    I read this book in January. I did love the history connected. I also found interested articles about this history. The book from the 1940’s, 1890, and further. This story may have interested me because I am Jewish. If you would like to see what I had to say about the book you can read it on my blog, at Jewish Rantings. The book did hold my interest but the end of the book seemed a bit far fetched. When I finish books I make a decision, to keep it for myself. Or do I give it to the library. People of the Book, I kept for myself. If that tells you anything.
    I enjoyed reading your prospective.


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