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237 of 251 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars No spoilers here
Id been waiting for this book since I read the excerpt in the New Yorker last month. It didn't disappoint. The vignettes of each time period were expertly done, all of the characters well drawn, the history as timely as today. The love of books, history, art come through very well through the entire book. The horrors of the past and how they keep repeating themselves was...
Published on January 6, 2008 by ash

versus
240 of 276 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Lack of Feeling
I was disappointed in this book. It had all the elements I love: an ancient book, the Sarajevo Haggadah, history and a bit of mystery. The format was very promising. A book restorer is commissioned to restore the Sarajevo haggadah, an ancient book with fantastic illustrations used by Jewish families during the seder that tells the story of the exodus from Eqypt...
Published on February 16, 2008 by Richard A. Mitchell


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237 of 251 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars No spoilers here, January 6, 2008
By 
This review is from: People of the Book (Hardcover)
Id been waiting for this book since I read the excerpt in the New Yorker last month. It didn't disappoint. The vignettes of each time period were expertly done, all of the characters well drawn, the history as timely as today. The love of books, history, art come through very well through the entire book. The horrors of the past and how they keep repeating themselves was very well expressed without being hammered into the reader. Given my track record with this author (I didn't care for her other two fiction books, tho I do love her non fiction), I was very very impressed.

Two things that are keeping this from being a five star for me. There was too much about Hanna. Her character obviously is important, but the whole love affair, her problems with her mother, all of that could easily have been taken out. And that last chapter sounded like something from a Mission Impossible movie, and was totally unnecessary.

The other thing was the ommission of Leila's meeting with Sula's son, in Israel. This is described in the article but for some reason was left out of the book. Its a beautiful and moving moment, and needed to be there.

That being said, I'd recommend this book to anyone looking for an excellent read.
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448 of 480 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Book burnings. Always the forerunners. Heralds of the stake, the ovens, the mass graves.", January 1, 2008
This review is from: People of the Book (Hardcover)
In 1996, as rare book expert Dr. Hanna Heath examines the Sarajevo Haggadah, an illuminated Hebrew manuscript from 15th century Spain, she carefully removes a series of artifacts that, under laboratory examination, will offer insight into the remarkable journey of this unusual text. Having survived the Serb-Bosnian war, the haggadah yields precious clues that allow Hanna to reconstruct the attrition of time: the fragment of an insect wing, an apparent wine stain, a white hair, salt crystals. It requires all of Heath's considerable skills to trace the evidence through the centuries to the book's origin. One of the earliest illuminated Hebrew books to feature figurative art, this haggadah has been repressed by medieval Jews for religious concerns. Perhaps made in mid-4th century Spain, when Jews, Christian and Muslims peacefully coexisted, the manuscript begins its troubled journey in the Spanish Inquisition and expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.

An Australian, Dr. Heath embraces the acerbic wit of her culture, clumsy at the communication skills so easily wielded by others; of a more contemplative nature, she is devoted to the historic value of the volumes she restores. Troubled by a chronic antagonism with her neurosurgeon mother, the young woman has built a life around her work in compensation. Meanwhile, Hannah's romantic curiosity is piqued by the enigmatic man assisting her at the museum in Sarajevo, widower Dr. Ozrem Karaman, his infant son profoundly brain-injured and wife killed in the war's crossfire. Her emotions in turmoil, Hanna's natural impulse is to soothe Ozrem's pain; unfortunately, she cannot forestall the inevitable or alter fate. Hannah turns to her work- for Hanna, books speak to objectifiable history, while feelings are impossible to confine.

The human component of the book's journey brings a particular poignancy to this novel, Hanna's obsession with ancient texts, Ozrem's tragic loss, the passage of the haggadah from hand to hand through years of religious strife, the thoughtful preservation of history's great treasures. The actions of years past speak to the present, a haunting reminder of man's inclination to destroy that which he does not understand.

Extraordinary people drive the story, from Sarajevo to Vienna to Boston, an intense investigation via scientific methods of chaotic times, religious and political unrest. Each era is revealed through the actions of characters circa 1940, 1894 and 1609, the journey of the haggadah and its protectors, the book hidden from those who would obliterate an invaluable artifact: "To be a human being matters more than to be a Jew, a Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox." Time's guardians reach through the years to pass the haggadah from one century to another. Hannah's task is to overcome personal defeats, trust her instincts and evaluate the evidence, so that a new generation may learn from the courage of the old. Luan Gaines/ 2007.
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226 of 250 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "A book is more than the sum of its materials. It is an artifact of the human mind and hand.", December 31, 2007
This review is from: People of the Book (Hardcover)
"The People of the Book," by Geraldine Brooks, opens in Sarajevo in 1996. Under the watchful eyes of bank security guards, Bosnian police officers, two United Nations peacekeepers, and an official UN observer, a thirty-year-old Aussie named Hanna Heath has been hired to perform an exacting task. She is about to examine a precious fifteenth century codex, the Sarajevo Haggadah, "one of the rarest and most mysterious volumes in the world." Hanna's impressive qualifications include honors degrees in chemistry and Near Eastern languages as well as a PhD in fine art conservation, which as she patiently explains, is very different from book restoration. She knows her materials intimately: calf's intestine, pigments, gold leaf, and parchment are some of the tools of her trade. The Haggadah, which was created in medieval Spain, is "a lavishly illuminated Hebrew manuscript made at a time when Jewish belief was firmly against illustrations of any kind."

The book first came to light in 1894. After passing through many hands, it disappeared in 1992, when the Sarajevo siege began. After four years, it suddenly reappears and an Israeli expert, Amitai Yomtov, awakens Hannah at two o'clock in the morning to tell her the exciting news. Most scholars believed that the book had been stolen or destroyed during the fighting. It turns out that the head of the museum library in Sarajevo, Ozren Karaman, placed the Haggadah in a safe-deposit box for safekeeping. "Can you imagine, Channah?" Amitai exclaims. "A Muslim, risking his neck to save a Jewish book." Now, UN officials want an expert to inspect the Haggadah for signs of damage.

Although she is technically proficient and has written many highly-regarded papers in her field, Hanna brings something extra to the table. "It has to do with an intuition about the past. By linking research and imagination, sometimes I can think myself into the heads of the people who made the book." Indeed that is exactly what Brooks does in this meticulously crafted work, with its beautifully realized, three-dimensional cast of characters and its compelling and richly textured plot. As Hanna delves into the history of a priceless text, the reader is transported to 1940 Sarajevo, 1894 Vienna, 1609 Venice, 1492 Tarragona, and 1480 Seville. Along the way, we gain insight into the political, religious, and social turmoil that has beset the Jewish people over the centuries.

The author alternates chapters set in 1996 with those that take place further back in the past. As the story progresses, we come ever closer to the secret of who created this magnificent work of art. The journey is all the more wonderful because of the people who accompany us: Lola is a Sarajevan Jew who joins the partisans during World War II; destiny brings her to an Albanian scholar who will protect both her and the Haggadah from the Nazis. In Venice, we meet a bitter and sick Austrian bookbinder, Herr Florien Mittl. Ironically, this virulent anti-Semite is entrusted with the painstaking job of rebinding the Haggadah. In Venice, an alcoholic priest named Giovanni Domenico Vistorini is a censor of the Inquisitor. He may allow the Haggadah to "pass" or declare it a work of heresy and consign it to the flames. David Ben Shoushan, a poor Hebrew scribe in Tarragona, Spain, fills his mind with holy letters as he prepares to make his own vital contribution to the Haggadah. The final pieces of the puzzle fall into place in Seville, Spain, at the time of the Jews' expulsion.

Against the backdrop of these tumultuous historical events, we observe the vitriolic Hanna soften, mature, and fall in love with Ozran Karaman, whose hidden grief after suffering a series of tragedies may prevent him from reciprocating her affection. An irritated Hanna repeatedly clashes with her aloof and disapproving mother, a highly respected neurosurgeon who has always belittled her daughter's work. In the book's one misstep, the author allows a bit of melodrama to taint her otherwise impeccable narrative when the protagonist uncovers some startling truths about her identity.

Geraldine Brooks shows how the Haggadah's fate illuminates the prejudice and mindless persecution that have too often poisoned communities and nations throughout the world. Ozren wonders why more people do not realize "that to be a human being matters more than to be Jew or a Muslim, [or a] Catholic." This is an engrossing, poignant, and skillfully constructed novel. It is a marvel of storytelling at its best.
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45 of 47 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "A book is more than the sum of its materials. It is an artifact of the human mind and hand.", January 13, 2008
By 
Bookreporter (New York, New York) - See all my reviews
This review is from: People of the Book (Hardcover)
Every year at Passover, Jews around the world gather for a festive meal at which they are commanded to retell the epochal story of the Exodus from Egypt. The text for that retelling is known as the "haggadah," the root of which is the Hebrew verb "to tell." Today, it is estimated that there are more than 3,000 versions of this book, a compendium of biblical excerpts, rabbinic commentary, stories and poems. In her emotionally resonant new novel, Geraldine Brooks spins an intricate and moving tale of one of them, the Sarajevo Haggadah, and its stirring, almost miraculous, story of survival.

The true story of the haggadah's narrow escapes from destruction, chronicled in a December 3, 2007 New Yorker article by Brooks (featuring a color reproduction of one of the haggadah's striking illustrations), is so fantastic it seems almost impossible to fictionalize it. But what Brooks does so convincingly is what empathetic historical novelists do best --- offer us rich insights into the interior lives of both real and fictional characters that reveal the human drama behind a fact-based story. As one of the book's characters reminds us, "a book is more than the sum of its materials. It is an artifact of the human mind and hand."

The novel opens in the spring of 1996, after the Bosnia hostilities have ceased, leaving the city of Sarajevo a shattered remnant of its former self. Hanna Heath, a brash young conservator of medieval manuscripts from Australia, is summoned to the National Museum of Bosnia to restore the 15th century codex, featuring 34 pages of striking illuminations. Her discovery in the manuscript of a butterfly wing, a wine stain, a residue of sea salt and a fine white hair launch the novel's other narrative thread, as Brooks transports us in extended flashbacks to reveal the source of these items and thereby recount the haggadah's history.

Brooks's recreation of five historical epochs --- Sarajevo in 1940, Vienna in 1894, Venice in 1609 and Spain in 1492 and 1480 --- is so rich with period detail, lavishly and yet effectively displayed, that one stands in awe of the thoroughness of her research. In each era the existence of the haggadah is threatened. Most dramatic, and most grounded in historical fact, is the story of how the book --- only moments away from almost certain destruction by the Nazis --- was hidden by the chief librarian of the Bosnian National Museum and then stored for the balance of World War II among Korans and other Muslim religious books in a remote mosque.

The chapter recounting the haggadah's jeopardy in early 17th century Venice is almost as heart-stopping. There, Giovanni Domenic Vistorini, the censor of the Inquisitor whose job it was to consign heretical works to the bonfire, sits with his pen poised above the parchment before deciding to spare it from the flames. All of the novel's historical sections are so packed with vivid detail and complex characters --- princes, rabbis, artists, scribes and bookbinders --- that each time the narrative returns to its contemporary setting we're eager to be transported back in time and, once there, find ourselves longing to linger.

What also sets this novel apart from more conventional works of historical fiction are the sophisticated themes that suffuse the narrative: the persistence of religious persecution, issues of religious and personal identity, and the close relationship between Muslims and Jews among the most prominent. Those ties may seem particularly startling to those familiar only with the Middle East conflict, and offer perhaps a glimmer of hope that someday they can be revived.

Although it doesn't detract unduly from the impressiveness of the novel, the contemporary narrative suffers in comparison to the historical segments. There is a melodramatic subplot describing the fractured relationship between Hanna and her mother Sarah, an eminent but emotionally distant neurosurgeon, from whom Hanna ultimately learns a jealously guarded family secret. And Hanna's love affair with Ozren Karaman, the Bosnia librarian who protected the haggadah at the outset of the Bosnian hostilities, has a perfunctory feel to it.

Geraldine Brooks most likely had herself in mind when Hanna observes, "By linking research and imagination, sometimes I can think myself into the heads of the people who made the book. I can figure out who they were, or how they worked. That's how I add my few grains to the sandbox of human knowledge." Following on her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel MARCH, in PEOPLE OF THE BOOK she continues to raise the bar for practitioners of this literary genre.

--- Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (mwn52@aol.com)
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240 of 276 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Lack of Feeling, February 16, 2008
By 
Richard A. Mitchell "Rick Mitchell" (candia, new hampshire United States) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: People of the Book (Hardcover)
I was disappointed in this book. It had all the elements I love: an ancient book, the Sarajevo Haggadah, history and a bit of mystery. The format was very promising. A book restorer is commissioned to restore the Sarajevo haggadah, an ancient book with fantastic illustrations used by Jewish families during the seder that tells the story of the exodus from Eqypt.

After the promising format, unfortunately, it is downhill.

The restorer, Hanna, is a cold calculating young woman who elicits absolutely no sympathy. She hates her mother, and when the two meet, it is hard to tell who is worse. However, the restorer's role is only a lesser part of the novel.

As Hanna works on the book (covered in a scant few pages), she recovers bits of "evidence" about the books history - an insect's wing, a crystal, a wine stain among them. These then transport the novel into bits of historical fiction. For instance, the reader is brought to pre-WWII Bosnia where the book is taken by a young resistance fighter where it captures the wing. Like the others, the story is short and not long enough to get into any of the characters before the reader is transporter to another place in history and introduced to new stories and characters who play a role in life of the haggadah.

None of the stories are particularly captivating. Ms Brooks does not have the ability of a good short story writer to get the reader involved in a character right off the bat, so the stories do not draw the reader in. This made them a bit tedious. The best was the last which told the story of the fictitious illustrator.

There is some very good history contained within the stories and this is the redeeming quality of the novel. The stories capture the oppressed experience of the Jews from Spain to Bosnia from 1400 onward. I felt the stories fell short of captivating the reader and the common thread of the restorer was cold and unsympathetic. The "mystery" at the end is contrived and not very interesting.

The message is in the mixing of the Islamists, Christian and Jews. In each story there is some experience of tolerance and mingling among the three, so the ideal is set next to the attending prejudice.

Unfortunately, the very good historical aspects of the book elevate it to a merely mediocre novel.
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46 of 52 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A butterfly, a hair and some salt.........., January 12, 2008
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This review is from: People of the Book (Hardcover)
Dull? Boring? A few of the reviewers must have read a different book than I. I was captivated from the first page. Each person involved with the conception and life of the Sarajavo Haggadah is uniquely interesting. Hanna, the rare book expert charged with analyzing the manuscript, is endearing and vital. Her quest to unlock the mysteries she finds within the pages of the book is believable and expertly rendered by the author. I thoroughly enjoyed the journey from Bosnia to Venice to Spain, being entertained, educated and enlightened with every step. Read it...you won't be disappointed.
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34 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars `Too many books burned in the world', February 13, 2008
This review is from: People of the Book (Hardcover)
This novel is a weaving of lives and events around a ancient Hebrew book: the Sarajevo Haggadah. The novel moves between the present, where Dr Hanna Heath is researching and restoring the Sarajevo Haggadah, and events and people specific to the creation and journey of the manuscript in the past. Along the way, the reader learns something of the creation of such manuscripts and of their restoration.

For me, the story of the book and the people associated with it in the past is far more interesting than the contemporary story of Dr Heath. This is an issue of personal taste rather than any lack of balance in the writing and, if anything, reflects how drawn I was to the travels and travails of this document.

Ultimately, this novel is a triumph. Although it is a work of fiction, Ms Brooks tells us that it is inspired by the true story of the Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. The journeys undertaken by such books over the centuries, and their survival, is something to be marvelled at and thankful for.

Yes, this is truly a `gripping and moving novel about war, art, love and survival.'

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A very atmospheric read ....., January 7, 2008
This review is from: People of the Book (Hardcover)
When Hannah Heath, a rare book dealer, begins her investigation into the Sarajevo Haggadah, an iluminated 15th century text, she has no idea of what the future holds for her. So goes Geraldines Brooks' newest book, People of the Book, a thrilling read that is sure to keep your fingers turning pages.

Written in Spain during the inquisition, the Sarajevo Haggadah has been passed down from one owner to the next. It has served a variety of masters in a variety of ways. Hannah Heath in studying the book discovers hints, a hair, an insect wing, salt crystals, that hint at the books story.

Geraldine Brooks is a marvelous author. I must say that she handles history and historical twists as well a James A. Michener. In fact, reading People of the Book reminded me a lot of Michener's The Source. Different stories in different times to be sure, but the feel of the two books is similar. Brooks' use of characters to enhance and drive her story also reminds me of Michener.

People of the Book is a very good read. I highly recommend it.
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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Dayenu, March 8, 2008
By 
kidsncatsndogs (Stamford, CT United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: People of the Book (Hardcover)
As one of the characters in People of the Book says, citing the classic Passover song: "Dayenu" (it would have been enough). It would have been enough if the author had constructed her story almost entirely out of the intriguing historical vignettes that purport to trace the history of the Sarajevo Haggadah, and linked them by a just a modest contemporary framework. Instead, an overwrought family drama, a Silhouette-style romance and an international thriller are thrown into the mix. It's all too much. I was drawn to the book for its historical aspects, but put off and distracted by much of the flimsy contemporary story line. The book isn't that long. Why was it necessary to jam in so much present-day plotting? Some of those pages would have been better used to serve up more of the Haggadah's fascinating story. I'm struck by how movie-ready the book is, especially the last pages (and I don't mean that in a good way)--perhaps that was the author's intent.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Journey of a Prayer Book, June 24, 2008
This review is from: People of the Book (Hardcover)
When do we consider loss in our own lives? What cost and what effect does loss have on our everyday existence? Is it traumatic only when a loved one passes or is there more of a sense of collective loss when looking at centuries of war, loss of life or needless destruction of towns and cities? How do we measure that loss compared to a loss of love or even when a beloved object goes missing? In reading Geraldine Brooks' novel, one comes away with a personal reflection of what loss means.

PEOPLE OF THE BOOK integrates all of the various and very dissimilar kinds of loss by telling the story of a journey of a beautiful rare meticulously engraved Haggadah.

Pulitzer prize winner Geraldine Brooks does a terrific job with this story. She was able to weave the true story of this missing prayer book into a well written historical fiction novel.

Hanna Heath is our protagonist who is an Australian book conservator summoned to investigate the authenticity of this newly surfaced gem of a prayer book which had been saved from a Bosnian museum by a librarian.

Hanna makes a series of discoveries while examining the find as any ancient book conservator would. She uncovers an insect wing, a thin strand of white hair, a stain that appears to be blood or wine, and some evidence that the prayer book had been near or around salt water. The investigation takes us back in time through centuries to the 1480's in Seville.

Brooks so competantly weaves a tale with intimate details and she introduces us to all of the PEOPLE who touched or were changed by this BOOK. The true story of the Haggadah is a beautiful and intimate study of the basic goodness of mankind through difficult and ominous events and Brooks is successful in capturing that quality in her literary art.

PROS:

Hanna's investigation leads us and her into the depths of intrigue, deception, and suspense. The journey of the book itself helps Hanna find out more about herself as well as truths she never knew existed. Fantastic weaving together of truth and fiction.

CONS:

Only one for me: the last chapter. It was just a little too pat and a bit incredulous. The main reason for this wonderful book not being a perfect five.

Recommended: B

People of the Book: A Novel

Bentley/2008
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People of the Book
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (Hardcover - January 1, 2008)
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