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By the Chapter, Day 3 | People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

March 18, 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.



Since we last left Hannah and the Sarajevo Haggadah both have journeyed far. Hannah’s journey has brought her a family she had no prior knowledge of placing even more strain on her relationship with her mother. The Haggadah has become a world traveler moving through Vienna and Venice. First it lands in the hands of a book binding expert. Leaving Vienna behind the Haggadah next appears in the clutches of a Roman Catholic priest, via a Rabbi and his wealthy patron.


At this point in time, for me, Hannah’s personal journey isn’t adding anything significant to the storyline. It is simply there and is what it is. I don’t find that I’m vested in this fractured relationship with her deceitful, overbearing mother. Actually I find Hannah quite boring. I don’t skip the sections that pertain only to Hannah but I don’t pay very close attention to them either. I use these chapters to glean pieces of the Haggadah’s movement over the centuries through her study of research documents associated with this prayer book and the various stains and markings contained within its pages.

Whether fact, fiction or a combination of both this part of the book, the travels of the Haggadah, are what keeps me reading. Each of the separate locations and its assorted cast of characters add a unique voice to this story. We unravel a bit more of the mystery at each stop along this odyssey. There is the binder who is going blind from disease and is no longer reliable. A consequence of his medical condition is irreparable damage to the prayer book. Seeking treatment he sells valuable pieces of the Haggadah. Then we meet a Roman Catholic priest who sensors, and burns, potentially offensive books as part of his duties for the inquisition. Now the question becomes does he consign the Haggadah to the flames of hell or will long hidden, closely guarded family secrets halt his hand?


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 18, 2009 8:49 am

    Well, you weren’t THAT hard on her. =) I admit I got a bit bored with her by the end, also.

  2. March 18, 2009 10:22 am

    OK so I wasn’t that hard on her but I didn’t give her a good turn either. 🙂 Her chapters and storyline by the end really started taking away from the book instead of adding to it, for me. She really became inconsequential and I was frustrated with the ending.

  3. March 19, 2009 6:32 am

    Well, yes, the ending and I had our differences, as well….=)


  1. By the Chapter, Day 5 | People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks «

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