People of the Book

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From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of March, the journey of a rare illuminated prayer book through centuries of war, destruction, theft, loss, and love.

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People of the Book: A Novel

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From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of March, the journey of a rare illuminated prayer book through centuries of war, destruction, theft, loss, and love.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
March, Geraldine Brooks's second novel, won her the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. People of the Book, her third novel, seems headed for comparable acclaim. Its plot revolves ever so gracefully around the true story of the Sarajevo Haggadah, a 14th-century Sephardic holy book that somehow survived centuries of hatred and destruction. Into this real-life epic tale of heroism and chance, Brooks has skillfully woven a historical fiction of uncanny force. In her hands, this improbable, even wondrous story of one document's survival becomes both a timely meditation on faiths in conflict and a tense historical thriller. Superb storytelling; a literary masterpiece tinged with the excitement of rediscovery.
Jonathan Yardley
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.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Reviewed by Margot Livesey

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.

Margot Livesey'sThe House on Fortune Street will be published by HarperCollins in May 2008.

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Rare because haggadahs are seldom illuminated and precious for the quality of those illustrations, the Sarajevo Haggadah has survived the siege of that city, saved by a Muslim who headed the library at the National Museum. Rare books conservator Hanna Heath, summoned from Sydney to Sarajevo to evaluate it, finds tiny clues-an insect's wing, a wine stain, a hair-that establish its provenance and lead into flashbacks about the book's history, showing how it survived the Spanish Inquisition, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and the Nazis and how it came to be created in the first place. Not the least of these stories is Hanna's own. Brooks, whose March won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006, convincingly re-creates several unfamiliar settings-Seville in 1480, Barcelona in 1492, Venice in 1609, Vienna in 1894, Yugoslavian resistance to German occupation, and Sarajevo in 1996. Reader Edwina Wren, faced with re-creating all these accents, sometimes defaults to one that's generically foreign. Some of the many characters could also have been a little more developed, but this is both a literary novel and a popular hit, one of those big, ambitious, impossibly erudite books that pursue hidden knowledge through the ages. Recommended.
—John Hiett

School Library Journal

Adult/High School -Hanna Heath, an Australian book conservationist, is thrilled to be chosen to work on the rare illuminated Haggadah created in Spain in the Middle Ages. The book had been protected in a museum in Sarajevo until 1994, when it was rescued from certain plunder during the Bosnian conflict and hidden in a bank vault by a Muslim librarian. Hanna is as eager to learn and preserve the mysterious history of the codex as she is to restore the manuscript. How did it come to be illustrated, a practice believed to have been forbidden by Jewish law? What is the meaning of the wine stain, the hair, the insect wing, and the salt crystals? The author uses these artifacts to weave a thrilling tale of the unusual creation of the Haggadah in Seville in 1480 and its dangerous journey to Tarragona, Venice, Vienna, and finally Sarajevo. It is a story of the Inquisition and wars, and the enlightenment or ignorance of the men and women who would save or destroy this brilliant treasure. Integrated into these compelling vignettes is Hanna's own story: her passion for her work, her unhappy relationship with her mother, and her bittersweet love affair. Sophisticated teens will appreciate Hanna's sarcastic, witty observations, which mask a vulnerable lack of confidence. The mystery of the codex and the forensic examinations are intriguing and will keep readers eagerly awaiting the next revelation. Inspired by the true story of the Sarajevo Haggadah, Brooks has imagined a thrilling mystery and a history that has deep ramifications in our own time.-Jackie Gropman, Chantilly Regional Library, Fairfax County, VA

Kirkus Reviews
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 prizethe printed page. Rich suspense based on a true-life literary puzzle, from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Brooks (March, 2005, etc.). Agent: Kristine Dahl/ICM
The Barnes & Noble Review
Before you give yourself up to the sweep and scope of People of the Book, the captivating new novel from Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks, grab some paper and a pen. You'll be glad you did. From the opening chapter to the closing page, Brooks crams so many people, places, and events into her ambitious and intricate account of a Jewish prayer book that she leaves you longing for a scorecard.

Brooks starts out easy. It's 1996 and Hannah Heath, an expert in rare books, has been lured from her laid-back life in Australia to Sarajevo, "where they just stopped shooting at each other five minutes ago." Hannah's job is to conserve and analyze the world-famous Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the earliest illuminated Jewish texts. The ancient manuscript, filled with images so rich and beautiful that it is now a priceless artifact, has appeared, vanished, and reappeared numerous times in its 500-year history. Its most recent rediscovery in war-torn Sarajevo, where a Muslim librarian has saved this Jewish holy book, is nothing short of a miracle.

Hannah, at age 30 a cranky and demanding loner, is the first expert to handle the Haggadah in more than a hundred years. Though uneasy in the bombed-out city, she's ecstatic at the chance to preserve the rare volume:

As many times as I've worked on rare, beautiful things, that first touch is always a strange and powerful sensation. It's a combination between brushing a live wire and stroking the back of a newborn baby's head.
The Sarajevo Haggadah lives up to her expectations. Decorated with pigments made from silver and gold, saffron, malachite, and crushed lapis lazuli, it's a thing of extraordinary beauty. It also contains startling anomalies -- paintings of the human form done at a time when this was considered the highest sin, and the depiction of the earth as round, drawn when such a radical concept was punished by torture and death.

Though Brooks's book is a work of fiction, the Sarajevo Hagaddah itself is quite real. The author first learned of it during her stint covering the Bosnian war for The Wall Street Journal. When the manuscript suddenly resurfaced, speculation about where it had been, and how and by whom it had been saved over the course of its lifetime, fueled her imagination. With scant information to get in her way, Brooks was free to blend existing fact with her own lively fancy.

Though Hannah gets the story started, the series of tiny artifacts she finds in the binding of the Haggadah soon send us across the Continent and back in time. A fragment of an insect wing leads to Sarajevo in 1940. Right away, we reap the benefit of Brooks's gift for quickly setting a scene:

The wind blew across the Miljacka river, hard as a slap. Lola's thin coat was no protection. She ran across the narrow bridge, her hands thrust deep in her pockets. On the other side of the river, a set of rough-hewn stone stairs rose abruptly, leading to a warren of narrow lanes lined with shabby apartment buildings.
Later, with equal deftness, Brooks lets us share a character's yearning for a long-lost home:
We do not feel the sun here. Even after the passage of years, that is still the hardest thing for me. At home, I lived in brightness. Heat baked the yellow earth and dried the roof thatch until it crackled.
And here, with the sparest of imagery, Brooks walks a desperate boy onto a frozen river, then breaks your heart:
Embracing his little sister, he stepped off the bank, onto the ice. He walked to the center, where the ice was thin. His sister's head lay on his shoulder. They stood there for a moment, as the ice groaned and cracked. And then it gave way.
Each object that Hannah finds within the pages of the Sarajevo Haggadah acts as a springboard for Brooks to tell a new piece of the tale. A missing decoration on the manuscript leads to fin-de-siècle Vienna, where German nationalism is on the rise. Wine stains on the parchment point to the Inquisition in Venice. A white hair reveals a series of surprising twists in 15th-century Spain. In between historical chapters, Hannah's own life takes center stage. A love affair, a family secret, and a betrayal send the story spinning.

Gathered together, the historical vignettes form a patchwork of information, not just about the manuscript's journey, but also about the long and tangled history of persecution among Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Brooks's knowledge runs deep. She packs each page with history and context, then illuminates them with emotion.

I wanted to give a sense of the people of the book, the different hands that made it, used it, protected it. I wanted it to be a gripping narrative, even suspenseful. So I wrote and rewrote certain sections of historical background to use as the seasoning between the discussion of technical issues.
That's Hannah explaining her approach to work, but it could just as easily be Brooks explaining the genesis of the novel.

For the most part, she -- and Hannah -- succeed. But a story made of fragments leads to a fragmented story. Though Brooks works hard to bring life and urgency to each new setting and cast of characters, the constant change can be jarring. The choice to move backward in time, from the present day to the Haggadah's creation in Spain five centuries ago, makes for a sometimes arduous read.

So keep that pen and paper handy. Write down names. Mark down dates. Using a map will probably help. How the lives of the people of the book merge, diverge, and reconnect forms the affecting arc of this ambitious and accomplished novel. --Veronique de Turenne

Veronique de Turenne is a Los Angeles–based journalist, essayist, and playwright. Her literary criticism appears on NPR and in major American newspapers.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781433212697
  • Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/28/2008
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged
  • Pages: 12
  • Product dimensions: 6.54 (w) x 6.53 (h) x 1.22 (d)

Meet the Author

Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks is the author of Year of Wonders and the nonfiction works Nine Parts of Desire and Foreign Correspondence. Previously, Brooks was a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, stationed in Bosnia, Somalia, and the Middle East. END


Australian-born Geraldine Brooks is an author and journalist who grew up in the Western suburbs of Sydney and attended Bethlehem College Ashfield and the University of Sydney. She worked as a reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald for three years as a feature writer with a special interest in environmental issues.

In 1982 she won the Greg Shackleton Australian News Correspondents scholarship to the journalism master's program at Columbia University in New York City. Later she worked for The Wall Street Journal, where she covered crises in the the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans.

Her first novel, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague was an international bestseller. In 2006, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2006 for March, a story that imagines the Civil War experiences of the absent father in Louisa May Alcott's beloved classic Little Women. She has also written nonfiction, including Foreign Correspondence, an award-winning memoir about her search for the international penpals who enriched her childhood.

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Interviews & Essays

Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks published her first book, Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, based on her work as a journalist in the Middle East, in 1994. Three years later, Brooks recalled her Australian childhood -- and the pen-pal network that introduced her to the wider world -- in Foreign Correspondence. She became a novelist with Year of Wonders (2001), a vivid and accomplished tale set in a plague-stricken English village in 1666. Her second work of fiction, March, a powerful imagining of the Civil War experience of the father whose absence haunts Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2006.

The inspiration for March came to Brooks after she had already begun writing another book. That novel emerged from the history of a Hebrew codex created in medieval Spain, a rare illuminated manuscript that had made its way through five hundred years to the war-torn Sarajevo of the 1990s. Set aside by the author as she immersed herself in the events of the American Civil War, the tale of the Sarajevo Haggadah was picked up again after the completion of March and has earned wide acclaim.

Spanning five centuries and four cultures, People of the Book combines several elements of Brooks's earlier work, both fiction and nonfiction -- the interest in Islamic heritage illustrated in Nine Parts of Desire, the influence of cross-cultural exchange expressed in Foreign Correspondence, and the fascination with historical periods made palpable in both Year of Wonders and March. Encompassing romance, adventure, espionage, and erudition, People of the Book invents a history for the Sarajevo Haggadah based on the spare but tantalizing available knowledge of its past. Within a tense, page-turning framing narrative that follows Hanna Heath, a young Australian rare book expert called upon to restore the manuscript, Brooks sets historical episodes that travel backwards in time from World War II Bosnia to 1894 Vienna, Venice during the Inquisition, and the 15th-century Spain of the Convivencia. The result is a tour de force of storytelling imagination and a magnanimous embrace of large concerns -- chief among them the liberating but ever-embattled virtue of tolerance. --James Mustich

JAMES MUSTICH: Let's begin with the genesis of People of the Book. When did you first learn about the Sarajevo Haggadah?

GERALDINE BROOKS: I was working as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, and my beat was the United Nations, so I was occasionally required to go to Sarajevo to cover the U.N. operations there. It was on one of those trips, during the siege of the city in the early 1990s, that I heard my fellow journalists speculating about this priceless 15th-century Hebrew codex that was the treasure of the Bosnian museum. It was missing, and nobody knew where it was. So there were rumors that the government had sold it to buy arms, which they desperately needed. Somebody else said, "No, no, everyone knows the Israelis sent in a Mossad team to take it out." The truth turned out to be, in a way, much better than the rumors: a Muslim librarian in the first days of the war had braved shelling to go into the museum, crack a safe, and bring this book to safety.

JM: When you first heard of it, though, its whereabouts was a mystery.

GB: Yes. And I was inclined to think it was lost, because thousands of books went up in flames during the siege. JM: When did you find out what had actually happened to it? GB: It was just before the end of the war. The Haggadah was brought out very ceremonially, as a great surprise, at the seder of the Sarajevo Jewish community. I thought, "Ah, well, that's interesting," and I kind of filed it away. But I guess it took root in my imagination. I was very intrigued with how this book that had been created during one period of cross-cultural harmony -- in Spain during the time of cross-fertilization of ideas about art and science known as the Convivencia, which came to a violent end in 1492 -- had made it through 500 years to Sarajevo, a city whose own multicultural tolerance was being smashed by ethnic cleansing. It was as if the book were fated to end up in the same story again and again. JM: Did you originally conceive of People of the Book as the tapestry of stories it became? GB: I wasn't sure what to do. I was interested in the stories from the past, because they were the ones that we couldn't know anything about, or only very little. We just had a sort of skeleton of fact, and that's what I like -- it opens great big voids in which your imagination can work. But I was a little bit baffled about how to do it, because my other two novels happen in a very tight time frame. Year of Wonders is a single year in a plague village, and March covers the same amount of time, the period during which Mr. March is away at war. Even though they both have flashbacks and what-have-you, it's not like the five centuries and four separate cultures I wanted to encompass in People of the Book. So I wasn't sure what would be the connective tissue. Then I heard, quite by chance, that the U.N. was funding a restoration of the actual codex, and I got on the phone and talked my way into the room while the conservator was working on the book. JM: What was that like? GB: Oh, it was wonderful. Very few people at that time had actually seen this book. It had been locked away in safes for a couple of centuries. So to be able to actually spend time in the room with it was marvelous. But it was very dramatic -- it wasn't like any other book conservation job, because the Haggadah was under intense guard. Things were still very unstable in the city; the room was full of Bosnian police and Secret Service guys as well as U.N. soldiers. It was kind of a crazy scene, with this woman at the center of it who was the conservator. I got to watch her do her very painstaking work, and as she was working I noticed that she was punctilious about looking in the binding for any speck of matter. When she did find something -- she thought it might be a breadcrumb -- she was very excited. She said, "A chemical analysis of this could tell us so much," and she put it in a little envelope. That gave me the structure for the novel. I thought that my fictional conservator would find artifacts in the binding, and that those would be the vehicles to enable me to jump the reader back in time. And I knew that the reader would find out how that thing got there, while the conservator might or might not. JM: The book is filled with fascinating details of the arts of manuscript illumination and preservation, including how pigments were made in different periods, how brushes were made from animal fur, how books were bound. Is most of that information accurate? GB: Almost all of it. I've taken maybe one liberty for dramatic purposes. [laughs] JM: It's astonishing to realize how ingenious illuminators were in developing the tools they used to create their manuscripts. GB: It was dangerous, too, because the pigments they made could be very toxic, and mixing them was quite hazardous. I don't think that these illuminators made out too well on their retirement programs! [laughs] JM: I want to talk to you a bit about the way inventing a story based on facts enhances our appreciation of the facts -- the history -- involved. At least, the stories you imagined about the Haggadah did that for me. When I interviewed Philip Pullman a couple of months ago, he spoke about story as its own mode of apprehending truth, rather than as an un-truth. GB: Yes. JM: And there is certainly plenty in aspects of the Haggadah's recent history that benefits from straight reporting. The piece you had in The New Yorker in December, for instance, the true story of what happened to the codex during World War Two, was incredibly gripping. [Editor's note: "The Book of Exodus," The New Yorker, December 3, 2007. Also available on the People of the Book page at] GB: If I had put that whole story in the book, nobody would have believed me. [laughs] JM: As you were writing People of the Book, given your training as a journalist, was there any conflict in your own mind? Did you ever say to yourself, "I'm inventing too much" or "Maybe I should just tell the story directly"? GB: Yes, I did. When I started writing the World War II sections, I was very worried about dealing with people whose lives are in living memory, as I thought. Then I found out that one woman involved in the tale was not only in living memory, but still alive! I was quite concerned because I do have a very strong view about the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. I'm very, very leery of nonfiction books where they change timeframes and use -- what do they call those things? -- composite characters. I don't think that's right. So I had to do a lot of thinking about this. I decided that what I would do in those sections was use the real events as inspiration, but create the characters myself. JM: The chain of episodes, each with its own characters, allows you to treat what one might call the human dimension of the Haggadah's story in a way that you couldn't in nonfiction. GB: Well, there's not enough solid information to do it as nonfiction. Just getting that World War II thing sorted was an immense research challenge, and there are still voids -- despite all the trips I took and all the interviews I did. And that's recent. So if you jump back to the next thing -- why did the binding get screwed up in Vienna? -- we have no idea. Beyond that, it gets even harder. So you couldn't write a really meaningful nonfiction version of this story. You have to imagine how it was, based on research. JM: In doing so, the material gives you a marvelous opportunity to speak about different religious groups living together and falling apart throughout history. The specter of tolerance haunts the book across all the periods depicted; it comes and goes. But there must have been some inspiration in the fact that some form of cross-cultural harmony is made palpable in the mix of people depicted in the images in the real Haggadah. GB: Yes. JM: The vast canvas is so different from the concentrated time frames of your first two novels. Did that pose a special challenge? GB: Yes. Well, I was very comfortable back in the invented past. I wrote "A White Hair" and "Salt Water" -- I had drafts of those done before I did anything else -- and I was tooling along, telling myself, "I know how to do this." Then I get to the character in the near-present, the book conservator, and I just couldn't get her voice right. She was originally going to be Bosnian, and I imagined her story would be only a bookend to the rest -- she was going to open the narrative and set it up, and then she would come back at the end and wrap the whole thing. She wasn't supposed to be a main character of the book. But in any case, I couldn't hear her voice. She didn't sound convincingly Sarajevan to me. The Sarajevans have a very particular world view -- a mordant wit coupled with this unbearable sadness and . . . truckloads of guts, you know. I just wasn't getting her. So I had to throw out about 50 pages. Then I thought, "Why am I beating myself up? What's a voice I can hear?" And I thought, "Ah, g'day!" [laughs] As soon as I made her Australian, Hanna just kind of burst into the room, and then demanded her own story line, and a much bigger role. She's the character that wouldn't go away. So the book was very different once that voice started playing in my head. The other really gnarly bit was the World War II part. Initially, I didn't want to come too close to the facts there. I was going to do a whole other thing, not about the librarian at all but about another figure, who was going to be on trial for war crimes in Belgrade after WWII. But I just couldn't get it off the ground. It was clunking along the runway, with no lift. That's when I got the idea for March. The Haggadah story went into the drawer, and while it was in the drawer, I began to see the story more clearly, as often happens when you turn your attention away. So by the time I was ready to bring it out again, I knew what I had to do with it. JM: One of the things that the way you're structured the book allows us to do is to witness the way the book survives the same disaster over and over again -- the violent clash of cultures in the aftermath of a period of tolerance. GB: Yes. JM: While I was reading People of the Book, I was also reading Rebecca West's account of her journeys through Yugoslavia in the 1930s, Black Lamb and Gray Falcon. There's a passage that seemed to echo the theme of the relentlessness of violence in that part of the world. I wanted to share it with you. She's not in Sarajevo in this section; she's somewhere in Croatia. But she says: "Were I to go down into the market-place, armed with the powers of witchcraft, and take a peasant by the shoulders and whisper to him, 'In your lifetime, have you known peace?', wait for his answer, shake his shoulders and transform him in his turn into his father, and ask him the same question, and transform him, in turn, to his father, I would never hear the word 'Yes,' if I carried my questioning of the dead back for a thousand years." GB: Wow. She could write! Whoa! JM: The passage seemed to crystallize something I felt as I was reading your book -- that most of us are distanced from history in a way that warps our understanding of it. The "people of the book" you write about must confront history -- the violence of history -- in such an immediate way. As Hanna thinks at one point, "the people who had owned this book had known unbearable stress: pogrom, Inquisition, exile, genocide, war." GB: Right. JM: The same is true of the characters in March and Year of Wonders. It leads me to wonder if your experiences as a journalist have made you conscious of the force of history in a way that allows you to approach that theme more powerfully than other writers can. GB: Certainly I'm still mining my experiences as a journalist. I think it's no coincidence that all three of my novels basically are about how people act in a time of catastrophe. Do they go to their best self or their worst self? That's a question that hasn't stopped intriguing me, exploring how people are when they're confronted with the choice of who to be in a hard time. Regarding the Rebecca West passage, perhaps if she'd asked that question in Sarajevo, she might have had a very different answer. What's not in People of the Book, but is the sort of underpinning of it, is the Convivencia in Spain that lasted for several centuries. There was a long time when everybody seemed to recognize that their society was better and stronger if they all just got along. Incredible exchanges of information happened in the pavilions of the book: people would be translating Hebrew into Latin, and then the Latin into Arabic, and back the other way around -- linguists and scribes working together across their cultural differences to share knowledge. Without a doubt, that Spain was a much richer and better place than the horrible arid thing that Ferdinand and Isabel created when they expelled Muslims and Jews in pursuit of a monoculture. Monocultures are not natural, not for plants and not for human culture. The same thing happened with Nazism and the same thing happened with the ethnic cleansers in Bosnia. But before the ethnic cleansers, Sarajevo had several centuries -- before the Nazis anyway -- of being a city that was open and tolerant, and was a lovely place because of that. JM: It's very moving when Ozren, the librarian who, in the novel, saves the Haggadah during the siege of Sarajevo, talks about the surprise that the Sarajevans feel about the fact that this horrific violence has come to their city. "Years ago," he tells Hanna, "we watched Lebanon fall apart and said, 'That's the Middle East, they're primitive over there.' Then we saw Dubrovnik in flames, and we said, "We're different in Sarajevo.' That's what we all thought. How could you possibly have an ethnic war here, when every second person is the product of a mixed marriage?" GB: Yes. I was actually quoting several Sarajevan friends in that. JM: Did you find any of the historical periods you imagined in composing the novel more congenial than others? GB: Well, I love Venice. Now, how many times in your life are you going to have a legitimate excuse to go to work in Venice? I loved researching there, and I found it necessary to research the angel hair pasta with freshly shaved truffles extensively. [laughs] It's kind of hard for me now to divide what I knew and what I didn't know starting out -- but I didn't know a lot. I didn't know what Venice in 1609 was like. But that year was a given, because we know the book was actually there that year, and was saved by the ecclesiastical censor. So that set me off on trying to find out what was going on in Venice in 1609. Fantastic. Wonderful. Then I'd finished the whole first draft of the book, and actually I'd even sent it to Molly Stern, my editor. But I just felt that there was a big piece missing -- a great big hole in the narrative. I thought, I need something between Venice and World War II. What happened with the Haggadah in those three centuries, what can I do there? I knew that it had been in Vienna in the 1890s and that the binding was badly restored there, so I needed to find out what was going on in Vienna then. I picked up Frederic Morton's unbelievably wonderful narrative history, A Nervous Splendor, which treats a year in Vienna as the 20th century approached -- the year that the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne pops himself and his mistress in their hunting lodge in Mayerling. Morton goes from the top of the society to the bottom; he talks about the street performers, and Freud and Mahler, and Klimt. There was so much happening there. JM: Is that where you got the marvelously ornate etiquette of the telephone operators? [Editor's note: see the chapter of People of the Book entitled "Feathers and a Rose."] GB: Yes. I have a huge debt to Frederic Morton for sort of setting the scene. That section seemed to write itself almost effortlessly, because the characters were very clear to me once I thought, "Yeah, they bungled the book-binding in Vienna. Why?" JM: I was especially taken with "The White Hair," the section that imagines the inspiration for the creation of the Haggadah in 15th-century Spain. Not to reveal too much, but when one discovers the reason for the figurative illustrations, the explanation for the presence of the mysterious Islamic figure in the picture of the gathering around the seder table, and the specific eyes for which the manuscript was made -- it's a marvelous expression of the theme of human outreach across cultures that ties the novel together. GB: Well, the big mystery about this book is why was it illustrated at a time when there was so much feeling against illustration in the Jewish tradition. Scholars say if you're going to illustrate anything, it's going to be a Haggadah, because the idea of that celebration is the instruction of your children. The Bible says, "Teach it to your sons on that day." So that was my inspiration in that section. If you're going to try to get to something across to a kid, what better way to do it than with really wonderful, pretty pictures? But also, I think that the truth was probably that a wealthy Jewish family saw the books of the Christians, and they were so gorgeous they wanted illuminated books of their own. If you look at an illuminated manuscript, even today, it just blows your mind. For them, without all the clutter and inputs that we have, it must have been even more extraordinary. So I can just see somebody saying, "Why not?" [laughs] JM: One more question: what's next? Do you have another project in the works? GB: I do. It's still in the early days. I was lucky when I finished March because I had this in my drawer. Now I'm in that scary, cobwebby, "Is this going to work?" phase. But I've got a good idea, I think, and it's again people in crisis and what happens to faith in crisis. I don't know what it is with me and vicars, but all of my books are about these religious figures. There was the vicar of the plague village in Year of Wonders, then there was Mr. March, the Transcendentalist minister. People would ask me about that even before People of the Book: "Why vicars?" And I'd say, "Just wait. My next book sounds like a bad joke: it's got a rabbi and a priest and an imam." So I'm almost embarrassed to say there's yet another minister in the next, and it's set back in a year that I'm particularly fond of, 1666. But it's in this country.January 30, 2008
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 282 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    A reviewer

    In 1996, Sydney, Australian resident Hanna Heath receives a call from the UN as they want to use her rare book conservator expertise. Apparently the renowned Sarajevo Haggadah, thought destroyed during the Bosnian War, has been found. Harriet is euphoric as she knows the value of this incredible ancient Hebrew tome with its images.-------------- Although a loner whose only love is rare books, when Hanna meets the ¿savior¿ Muslim librarian Karaman, they are attracted to one another. Still it is the book that holds her enthralled as she begins to uncover other artifacts of the past buried inside the pages (white hair, insect wing, salt, and a wine stain) and items missing (lost fasteners). Each tells a unique story about who held the precious Sarajevo Haggadah.-------------------- PEOPLE OF THE BOOK is an interesting tale that uses the discoveries by Hannah to take the reader back in time to meet those who handled the ancient tome in various eras like 1940 Bosnia, 1480 Seville, and 1492 Barcelona, etc. Each entry provides a historical conflict between a person protecting the book and those wanting to defile the book. Throughout this superb fiction tale is the underlying message that the time for the Jews, Muslims and Christians to unite in peace is now not tomorrow as all have more in common than the differences that divide them.------------ Harriet Klausner

    21 out of 23 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 27, 2009

    The book cover was beautiful. After that the story was lacking

    A beatiful cover. No discerible plot and terrible storyline structure. First we are in a museum studying books then all of a sudden in Nazi Germany the story then evolved to a troubled family member. The storyline is all over the place without an organization towards a plot. Since I am a person that enjoys reading, I cannot remember the last time I did not finish a book. The storyline was so erratic and unfufilling, I earnestly tried to keep reading and reached the middle of the book. At that time I came to the realization it was no longer worth my time or effort to continue. I closed the book and do not intend upon picking it up again.

    8 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 20, 2010

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    History and Fiction Blended to Perfection

    I love it when a book is able to seamlessly & 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 & 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 does just that. This is a treat beyond all compare, beauty of history & 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, & 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, & 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, & 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 & moving, & 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 & scene in such a fluid manner, moments depicted with such heartbreak, such horror, and yet with hope. It moved quickly for me & 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.

    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.

    6 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 25, 2008

    Edwina Wren is a disaster as reader

    of this book. Her Aussie accent is extremely grating, which makes the hard-nosed narrator of the book even less appealing than she is in print. Edwina's attempts at mimicing German/Jewish/Middle Eastern accents would be laughable if they weren't so stereotypical/painfully bad. The book was written in English, so there is no excuse for having the characters speak in accented English. That is an affectation of the reader, who also mispronounces many words.

    5 out of 16 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 5, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    ugh social politics outlet

    I found this book to be a really interesting piece of historical fiction. However, all of the gratuitous sex and Ms. Brooks social politics made a potential good read a preachy outlet for her world view. I still give it three stars because the historical fiction pieces were well thought out.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 31, 2008

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    I Also Recommend:

    Another great book from a great modern writer

    I found this book so compelling that I could not put it down. The story is based on a real book -- the Sarajevo Haggadah. But it so much more than a story of the survival of a particular book. It is in essence the story of survival of people. Not just the Jews, who are popularly known as the "people of the book," but of humanity in general. It is a book of hope -- that as long as good people exist AND take a stand the world will endure.<BR/><BR/>I also must say that Geraldine Brooks continues to impress me as an author. This now make three of her novels that I have read and I did not realize until I was reading the author bio prior to book club that she had written the other two (Year of Wonder and March). This is a tribute to Ms. Brooks skill as a writer. She writes so well and is versatile as well. There are too few modern writers that I can say continue to surprise me with their works and the surprise is good. Even when I disagree with her approach (I hated March at first) she makes me think and consider my prejudices. Long may she write and continue to surprise and please with great plots and literate prose.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 15, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    What a wonderful book!

    What more could a book lover ask for but a history of a book and all the people that ever loved it, protected it, and created it. I highly recommend this book.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 27, 2010

    Highly recommend- you'll want to read it again at a later date

    A lot going on in this one- drama, mystery,surprises and an opportunity to learn about history,culture and human nature.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 21, 2010

    Well written, interesting but in the end not a thrill

    I want to start by saying I loved the Year of Wonders, it was one of the best stories I ever read. This was also well written but not as genuine as Wonders. I am tired of female characters who are just a little too cool, hate their mothers and don't need anyone.
    That said Hanna is interesting and the details of her work are explained in detail but I enjoyed learning about book conservation to a point. I found it a bit difficult to follow at times but loved the old stories and how it all tied in. This is a story of the injustices against the Jews throughout history and Brooks makes sure the Jewish characters are also the ones with character.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 9, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    The journey of a rare illuminated manuscript through centuries of exile and war

    Man, I love big, fat books in which I can totally get lost. And this book, spanning multiple countries over 500 years, is the ultimate saga covering art, religious persecution, book conservation, and more. I know that the length of the book can seem intimidating, but readers who are interested in these themes will not be sorry they read it.

    Interspersed throughout Hanna's narrative in 1996 Sarajevo are the stories of the various people throughout history who were in some way connected with the survival of the ancient Haggadah. Each period we visit in the book's history corresponds with a fragment or small object found by Hanna's conservation efforts of the ancient book. On the journey, readers will encounter war, discrimination, prejudice, and tradition that lasts for centuries.

    The Hagaddah in the book is in fact based on a real object, the Sarajevo Hagaddah, written around 1314 in Spain.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 15, 2009

    Great Locations!

    Did not like the main character. Seemed ambigous in her love life. History of the book is fascinating. But,plot was not carried along by weak characterization of the main person.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 27, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Excellent story. Great writing. Good read.

    People of the Book is a fascinating story about a beautiful, rare book which has survived centuries of threatened destruction only to be saved time and again by the people who have been captivated by it. The story's main character, Hanna, is a rare-book expert and conservationist who is called to Sarajevo to study the Sarajevo Haggadah and learn all she can about this brilliant masterpiece. In her examination of the book she finds several small, seemingly inconsequential clues as to where the book has been and whose lives it has touched. The author cleverly weaves together chapters dedicated to each clue, i.e. "The White Hair," with chapters of Hanna's modern-day struggles to unearth the stories associated with the clues all while discovering some of her own tragic family history.

    The characters of the book are well-developed and entirely believable. Hanna and her mother have a loveless, often caustic, relationship which becomes even more troubled when Hanna discovers secrets of her family history that her mother has kept from her all of her life. The mother-daughter dynamic is frustrating and sad, but realistic.

    The stories surrounding the clues Hanna finds in the Haggadah offer fascinating glimpses into the lives of those living in Italy, Bosnia and surrounding areas during various times of anti-Semitic waves of violence throughout the centuries from the late-1400s to World War II. For many readers, these brief glances into the past will open their eyes to a long, history of violence and hatred toward a people that is hard to understand, but necessary to remember.

    People of the Book was a thoroughly enjoyable read from beginning to end. It was very well written and incredibly intriguing. Often in books with more than one story line, one story will lack the ability to keep the reader just as enthralled as the parallel story. Such was not the case with People of the Book. Learning the stories of the people who unknowingly left clues in the Haggadah was just as engrossing as following Hanna as she discovered the mysteries of her own family history and what the Haggadah meant to her. People of the Book is recommended to anyone who enjoys being captivated by an excellent story and learning a bit of history at the same time.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 6, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    This was a great book for book clubs. It lead our bookclub into many different avenues of discussion.

    It was very interesting to see facts intertwined with fiction as Geraldine Brooks took us on a tour of the Sarajevo Haggadah. Her perspectives of the events during these different periods of history were intriguing.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 30, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Story of an Ancient Book

    I enjoyed this tale of a Hebrew sacred text dating back to the 15th century. The book is unique because not only did it survive the Inquisition, but it contains gorgeous illuminated illustrations more typical of those in Catholic devotional books. How did this happen? The mystery is slowly unraveled, starting with the book's more recent history and moving deeper into the past until its origins in Spain are revealed.<BR/>This can make it occasionally confusing, since most sagas of this type start at the beginning. But the reader is rewarded in the end! Alternating chapters tell the story of Hanna, a rare book conservator in the current era, who becomes involved with the ancient volume and finds both betrayal and love as a result.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 25, 2008

    more from this reviewer


    An interesting trip back through the centuries involving the creation and preservation of a Jewish haggadah. The critical point being that this precious book was saved time and time again by those of a different faith. The one word that I will take away from this book forever is "Convivencia" meaning "co-existence." A time in Spain when Catholics, Muslims and Jews lived in relative peace. I pray for Convivencia around the world today!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 1, 2008

    one of the best audio books ever!

    Excellent audio book! Great narrator! One of the best ever, right up there with The DaVinci Code and Shadow of the Wind! A must for unabridged listening devotees!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2008

    I couldn't put it down, but did not want to finish it!

    What a lovely read! The characters are beautifully drawn and the plot engaging. As I neared the end of the book, I found myself slowing down because I did not want to finish it! I have read Ms. Brooks' other forays into fiction. This is my favorite! Highly recommended!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 1, 2008

    Love Story of a People, a Book, a Woman

    Inspired by her experiences as a journalist in Sarajevo, Geraldine Brooks breathes life into the history of a rare illustrated Hebrew manuscript, the Sarajevo Haggadah. People of the Book spans centuries and continents to follow the guardians of the Haggadah as they flee war and persecution, often with little but the clothes on their back and their precious artifact. Muslims, Catholics, Jews and atheists take their turns defending the art, literature and culture encompassed in the small, fragile volume. The religions that set The People of the Book apart have their common roots in the pictures and stories in the Haggadah. Every event in the novel resonates with our news today, as cultural treasures, individuals and ethnic groups are being destroyed by the same ancient divisions and hatreds, and the same greed for power and wealth that endangered the book and its keepers over hundreds of years. A story of manuscript conservation and scientific inquiry which could easily be dry and boring vibrates with energy and life in this unforgettable novel. The people of the book are fascinating characters living in interesting times and their lives are relevant to ours, their choices and decisions speak to the greatest issues of our times.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2008

    An antidote to my fear of the proliferation of female authors!

    Wow, I just turned the last page and I'm digging way back to try and remember a more enjoyable read. Geraldine Brooks proves that illumination can be done with more than just brushes and ink. So very nice to have discovered and read dow this marvelous book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 14, 2008

    A beautiful book about a book

    I really enjoyed this book and the wonderful characters and stories that the author created to describe the history of 'the book'. I also loved the way the book brought out the possibility of societies in which Christians, Jews, and Muslims not only live together peacefully but share art and culture.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 282 Customer Reviews

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