Sunday, May 17, 2009

People of the Book - Book Review

People of the Book
By Geraldine Brooks
Viking Penguin 2008
Author Website

I have been wanting to read this book for some time, and finally was able to borrow it from the library. I enjoyed it very much.

I love reading stories about books through time and the history of their travels - no matter if its fictional or real. Normally I dont read books about Jewish scrolls and manuscripts. but this book had an Australian as the lead character. Having grown up with Aussies as neighbours, I chose to read it.

As a lot of other reviews have said, there has obviously been a LOT of research done for this book. This is the story of the history of one jewish haggadah. A haggadah is a book of prayers usually said at the passover celebration. This haggadah had illustrations in it. Back in the 1400s when this haggadah was made, Jews did not allow illustrations in their books becasue making a graven image was against the Torah. (What we now call the 10 commandments).

Dr Hanna Heath is a manscript conservator. [If I had known that this job existed when I left school over 20 years ago, I would have gone to university to study how to do this]

Hanna's job is to repair and preserve the ancient books that still survive today. She has a Ph.D. Her mother has an MD and a Ph.D. Hanna's mother is a neurosurgeon. Hanna grew up with no father and every time she asked her mother who he was, her mother refused to answer.

In 1996 the faous Sarajevo Haggadah was finally permitted to be on display. It had last been seen in Sarajavo during the war (WW2). Noone knoew what happened to it, and finally after 50 years it has resurfaced.

Hanna was chosen for this job becasue she was an Australian, more or less neutral. She was not American, she was not German and she was not a Jew.

In 1996, Sarajevo, Bosnia, Croatia and Yugoslavia were all in the middle of a civil war. Hanna flew to Sarajevo under the auspices of the UN and spent s few weeks studying and doing what she could to preserve the Haggadah.

There were clues to be found in the book - a small piece of a butterfly wing in the binding, a wine stained page with blood mixed in, and some salt crystals. Hana used all these to discover the history of the book, where it was made and where it had travelled to, before finally arriving in Sarajevo.

During this journey, Hanna's mother is involved in a car accident and is rushed to hospital. Hanna's mother finally tells Hanna who her father was. Her father died when her mother was 4 months pregnant with Hanna. The mother was a neurosurgeon and she allowed her lover to bleed to death, because she knew her lover would be blind if they saved his life. The father was an artist. He needed his eyes to paint. Not only that, he was a Russian Jew.

The story ends with the haggadah being stolen and a fake haggdah being installed in the mueseum. Hanna's career is ruined when she says it is fake, and noone believes her. Hanna goes home to Australia and finds a new job recording and preserving the aboriginal petroglyphs scattered through the Australian desert.

Hanna also changed her name from Heath to Sharansky (her father's name). Six years later Hanna finally gets closure and has her career restored when the real haggadah is once again returned to its rightful place in the Sarajevo Museum. Hanna also makes up with the muslim lover she had met in Sarajevo and who helped to ruin Hanna's career. He apologises, she forgives him and together they make one final discovery about the Haggadah.

I fashioned these pictures for Binyamin ben Netanal ha-Levi. Zahra bint Ibrahim ak-Tarek, known in Seville as al-Mora

I have just one complaint about this book. Ms Brooks has certainly done a lot of research regarding the history and lives of the jews in Europe after they were expelled from Spain in 1492. But there is ONE line in the book which she has NOT researched. She seems to have made no attempt to find out the truth for herself.

The line says this - I think also about the person whose skin is stretched across the lampshade.

It has been proven that the lampshdes made at Buchenwald Camp in WW2 were made of GOAT skin and NOT human skin.

In April 1947, Ilse Koch was brought before an American military tribunal in Dachau, where she was convicted and sentenced to life in prison....During the review process, her sentence was reduced to time served, or four years, and she was released in 1949 by General Lucius D. Clay who said that the lamp shades in her home had been made from goat skin.

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