Wednesday, March 31, 2010

People of the Book (copy)

Back in 2005, when I started writing book talks for The Southern Reporter, I was conservative when suggesting books. If the book contained excessive foul language or a questionable sex scene I usually enjoyed the book but found another one to talk about. That year I read some excellent books that were left un-suggested including Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire, A Million Little Pieces by James Frey and Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks.

I regret not introducing new readers to Geraldine Brooks. She won a Pulitzer Prize a few years later with her book March, and has written another stellar book titled People of the Book. Really, when I think about Year of Wonders, I have to wonder why I thought it questionable. A woman in her late 70s at the time suggested it to me and I hold her taste in high regard, but still something held me back.

With two thumbs wildly wiggling up, I whole-heartedly suggest People of the Book. A little something for everyone, the novel is based on a true story that combines history, family relationships, religion, travel, and mystery.

In 1996, Hanna Heath is summoned to the remnants of war torn Bosnia to conserve an ancient haggadah. A religious book, the haggadah is read by Jewish families during Seder in which the story of Exodus is related. She is met at the airport by United Nations guards and three armor-plated vans which escort her to the museum holding the book.

Obviously, this isn't any old book but the Sarajevo Haggadah that was appraised in 1991 at $700 million. It is thought to be the oldest illuminated Jewish codex with images and Hanna handles the calf-skin parchment with kid gloves. While turning the pages slowly she finds three things foreign to the manuscript: a butterfly wing, a blonde hair and a small grain of salt.

In this story the plot is driven by the protection of the book through the years. One follows the persecution of Jews and the peril of the book starting with the Bosnian War and then moving to Nazi run Vienna in a reverse chronological order. This is an excellent history lesson as they travel to Venice, Italy of 1609 and then the forced expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.

It is the small objects left in the book that reminds the reader of a fine mystery. Hanna also leaves a little gift for the next 500 years.

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