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Old 01-22-2008, 09:13 AM   #1
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'People of the Book' - A book on Sarajevo Haggadah

'People of the Book': An erudite 'Da Vinci Code'

People of the Book
By Geraldine Brooks

By Susan Kelly, USA TODAY

Geraldine Brooks' novel People of the Book arrives with high expectations. Booksellers are comparing it to The Da Vinci Code and calling it the first literary hit of 2008.

Does Brooks deliver? Yes, and with less flash and more substance than Da Vinci. People of the Book is not as cinematic as Dan Brown's 2003 religious thriller, but Brooks is a skilled storyteller who also casts a spell of intrigue and evil in which demons feign divinity.

But her careful research and the novel's historic underpinnings make it highly unlikely People will face the criticism of factual flaws that dogged Da Vinci.

The titular book is a real one, the Sarajevo Haggadah. The richly illuminated Hebrew text, which recounts the story of Exodus, dates from medieval Spain. For more than 600 years, it was carried across borders and over seas to escape political and religious cataclysms.

The Haggadah came to rest in the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo, and Brooks, who covered the war in Bosnia for The Wall Street Journal, imagines its perilous journey in her third novel.

Brooks won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for March, a retelling of Little Women from the perspective of the father who goes off to war. Her first novel, Year of Wonders, about a 17th-century village shrouded by plague, was acclaimed for bringing new luster to historical fiction.

The author says that though People of the Book has its roots in history, much of it is her own invention. Her chief creation is Hanna Heath, an Australian book conservator hired to restore the Haggadah after it survives the shelling of Sarajevo.

As the sardonic Aussie tends the manuscript, she finds tiny artifacts — part of an insect's wing, a wine stain, salt crystals and a white hair. Believing they are keys to the book's mysterious past, Hanna takes samples to be analyzed.

Brooks alternates Hanna's account of her work and unraveling personal life with the story of those relics. The insect's wing takes us to Sarajevo at the dawn of World War II as the Nazis steal Jewish treasures.

The wine stain leads to Venice, 1609, where a tormented priest executes a papal order to burn most books written by Jews. The salt takes the story to 1492 and the Hebrew scribe who writes the text on the eve of the Jews' expulsion from Spain.

And finally, the hair harks back to Seville in 1480 and the unmasking of the artist. Hanna's own troubled past and uncertain future dovetail neatly with those of the book as both face betrayal from unexpected sources.

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.



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Old 01-30-2008, 03:32 AM   #2
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The New York Times - Bestsellers
Wednesday, January 30, 2008


Top 5 at a Glance
1. PLUM LUCKY, by Janet Evanovich
2. PEOPLE OF THE BOOK, by Geraldine Brooks
3. A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS, by Khaled Hosseini
4. BEVERLY HILLS DEAD, by Stuart Woods
5. WORLD WITHOUT END, by Ken Follett

The Christian Science Monitor
'People of the Book' offers lessons in tolerance
The new novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks features a book that becomes a witness to history.
By Yvonne Zipp

When the subject is genocide, readers tend to gravitate to the stories of survivors – from "Schindler's List" to "Hotel Rwanda." It may be, as charged, that people crave happy endings – even false ones, but I prefer to think that you need a little light when you're trying to understand so much darkness.

In her new novel, People of the Book, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Geraldine Brooks tackles a most unlikely survivor: The Sarajevo Haggadah, a 15th-century Jewish artifact that has managed to elude some of history's most notorious bad guys, from Inquisitors to Nazis. What is actually known about the book is enough to have Indiana Jones jamming on his fedora and heading off in hot pursuit. In this novel, Brooks bends her considerable imagination to uncovering the rest.

"People of the Book" opens right after the Bosnian war. It's 1996, and the Haggadah has just turned up in a bank vault, where it was hidden by a Muslim librarian who rescued the codex under heavy shelling. Australian rare-book expert Hanna Heath has been given the job of analyzing and conserving the book, "a lavishly illuminated Hebrew manuscript made at a time when Jewish belief was firmly against illustrations of any kind."

Heath, a loner who prefers books to people, heads to Sarajevo, where she encounters both the book and the librarian. Ozren Karaman becomes Heath's (and a reader's) bitter docent through war-torn Sarajevo – pointing out ruined landmarks and the city's churches. Karaman mocks his city's faith that Sarajevo was too cosmopolitan to be the site of genocide. "We were too intelligent, too cynical for war. Of course, you don't have to be stupid and primitive to die a stupid and primitive death."

Idealists at war was actually the subject of Brooks's last novel, "March," for which she won the Pulitzer Prize. In that book, she plucked the father from "Little Women" and shipped him off to the Union Army, effectively proving that a battlefield is no place for a transcendentalist. Before she turned to fiction, Brooks was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal who covered the war in Bosnia. Her title obviously refers to the Koran, which calls Jews and Christians "people of the book." But Brooks is also literally referring to the people of this specific book – the ones who saved the Haggadah from destruction.

Heath traces the Sarajevo Haggadah back to its creation in 1480 Spain, giving Brooks the opportunity to write about the individuals who handled the book during fraught periods of its history. The sections of the novel that are most closely tied to fact resonate most strongly. A Muslim librarian really did rescue the book during the shelling of the city. And during the 1940s, an Islamic scholar actually smuggled the book out of a museum under the nose of a Nazi general. A number of the stories are wholly engrossing, such as the World War II tale of Lola, a young Jewish Partisan, who, along with the book, is saved from the Nazis by an Islamic museum director. While others, such as a papal Inquisitor in 17th-century Venice, don't satisfy as completely, they work as parts of the literary puzzle. And the mystery of the book's origin is suspenseful enough to keep a reader going even as historical improbabilities mount.

As the book goes further back in time, allowing for greater imaginative license, Brooks tries just a little too hard to build connections between religions. But that's not to take away from her abilities. In the hands of a lesser writer, it's easy to imagine the Haggadah having become a gilded Forrest Gump.

Brooks, unfortunately, does indulge in a little speechifying, even going so far as to have a character recite a summary paragraph. "Well, from what you've told me, the book has survived the same human disaster over and over again ... this fear, this hate, this need to demonize 'the other...,' " a friend of Heath's sums up for the benefit of the semiconscious reader.

The occasional heavy-handedness, as well as the fact that every single story is loaded with portent about the treatment of the Jewish people (and women) over the centuries, makes it impossible to shake off the knowledge that Brooks is always hovering over the pages, a benevolent professor conducting a history lesson in the importance of tolerance.

• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.


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Old 03-31-2008, 09:38 AM   #3
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Here's a new book on war in Bosnia, Sarajevo to be precise.

This brilliant novel with universal resonance tells the story of three people trying to survive in a city rife with the extreme fear of desperate times, and of the sorrowing cellist who plays undaunted in their midst.

One day a shell lands in a bread line and kills twenty-two people as the cellist watches from a window in his flat. He vows to sit in the hollow where the mortar fell and play Albinoni’s Adagio once a day for each of the twenty-two victims. The Adagio had been re-created from a fragment after the only extant score was firebombed in the Dresden Music Library, but the fact that it had been rebuilt by a different composer into something new and worthwhile gives the cellist hope.

Meanwhile, Kenan steels himself for his weekly walk through the dangerous streets to collect water for his family on the other side of town, and Dragan, a man Kenan doesn’t know, tries to make his way towards the source of the free meal he knows is waiting. Both men are almost paralyzed with fear, uncertain when the next shot will land on the bridges or streets they must cross, unwilling to talk to their old friends of what life was once like before divisions were unleashed on their city. Then there is “Arrow,” the pseudonymous name of a gifted female sniper, who is asked to protect the cellist from a hidden shooter who is out to kill him as he plays his memorial to the victims.

In this beautiful and unforgettable novel, Steven Galloway has taken an extraordinary, imaginative leap to create a story that speaks powerfully to the dignity and generosity of the human spirit under extraordinary duress.
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