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Geraldine Brooks: People of the Book

I love the way Geraldine Brooks writes. I got hooked when I read Nine Parts of Desire and then again when I read Year of Wonders. You can read my review on her award winning March here. So I could hardly wait for People of the Book to come out in paperback, so I could read it. (Those hard cover books hurt too much when they fall over if I fall asleep, and are too heavy and bulky to carry on airplanes.)


Here is what I like about Geraldine Brooks. Her books are not easy to read. They make you uncomfortable. They make you think. They give you another perspective, and that perspective challenges your assumptions.

The heroine, Hannah, is not very likable. She is cold, she makes poor decisions, and she has a very uneasy relationship with her mother. She is, on the other hand, a master of her craft, which is stabilizing and restoration of old books. She is the specialist called in by museums to help preserve masterful works, and to identify forces at work which can cause grave damage to these books.

While this is a work of fiction, it is based on an actual book and some of the history surrounding it. The Sarajevo Haggadah, a Jewish holy book, is a real book. Some of its history is known – including the fact that it was twice saved from destruction by Moslems, one a very brave librarian in Sarajevo who rescued and preserved it risking his own life, the fact that it was saved from destruction during the Italian inquisition by a Catholic priest. From tiny bits of physical evidence, Geraldine Brooks weaves an entire book creating a story how all the individuals and forces that might have been involved in the creation and preservation of this one special book.

People of the Book is a mystery – Hanna goes in and in the process of evaluating and analyzing the book, gathers tiny bits of “evidence” – a tiny grain of salt, a hair, wine stains. As she investigates, lab results come back, filling in missing pieces of how this book might have travelled from Spain of the convivencia (Medieval Spain) to modern day Sarajevo. Slowly, slowly, Brooks reveals to the readers the real (fictional!) people behind the tiny pieces of evidence.

The plot is interesting. What grabbed me from the beginning, however, is that this is a real book-lovers book, written by a woman who loves books. We learn about how books are created, how book conservators know, from looking at the origin of a sheet of paper, where a book was created and about what time period it was created. We learn about different treatments of paper, we learn about inks, we learn how pigments are created, and we learn about illustrations.

I was captivated by all the love of book-creation present in this book. Most of all, I love it that she dedicated this book to the librarians of the world, those unsung heros who devote their lives to the preservation of information. It was definitely worth a read – and, as an exception to most of my rules, it will probably be worth a re-read.

A friend recommended a video of Geraldine Brooks discussing this book at a book-talk at Northeastern University. It is a little long – you will need about 38 minutes of your time if you want to listen to this amazing woman:

March 29, 2009 Posted by | Adventure, Books, Community, Cross Cultural, Family Issues, Fiction, Financial Issues, Living Conditions, Relationships, Technical Issue, Women's Issues | 3 Comments

Geraldine Brooks: March

Geraldine Brooks knocks my socks off. If she writes a book, fiction or non-fiction, I will buy it and read it. The first one I read by her was Nine Parts Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, and the second most memorable book was her Year of Wonders, a book about how the plague comes to a 17th century English village and how the villagers cope with it – how some survive. She has a knack for keen observations, and for writing so as to place you squarely in the scene she is describing.

So when she came out with a new book extrapolating from the experiences protrayed in Louisa May Alcott’s classic favorite Little Women, why didn’t I rush to buy it? March is described by Publisher’s Weekly as “the Civil War experiences of Mr. March, the absent father in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.”

Didn’t you love Little Women when you read it? What’s not to love? Those wonderful sisters, their saintly mother, working together, suffering together, prevailing through sheer grit and determination – we can read that book over and over again, loving it every time.

Geraldine Brooks takes us with Mr. March into the grim realities of the American Civil War, the “war to free the slaves,” the war to keep the United States united, or the war between the states. This is not the idealized world of Little Women, this is not the memory we have of the nice letters he writes home from the field, this is the reality of war and all it’s ugliness. As the book opens, Mr. March is fleeing a massacre, struggling to survive, he is surrounded by the dead and seriously wounded, bullets are flying past him and he has to cross a deep, rushing river. A man grabs him who can’t swim, and he has to push him away to gasp for air. The man drowns, March survives, feeling deep guilt. When he finally finds a group of his men, drying out by the side of the river, he sits down and writes to his girls about the sweet breeze in the air. Not a word about the horrors he has witnessed, not his personal despair about having failed a wounded comrade.

As we experience the horrors of this war with Mr. March, we experience with him the brutality, cruelty, and crudity of all conflict. There are no good guys. There is no “just cause,” just winners and losers, and it’s very hard to tell what they are fighting for. Seeing this war from the point of view of the combatants, we realize that no-one will remain untouched; that this experience will resonate through the rest of their lives.

Geraldine Brooks knows how to grab us and keep us gripped. Every chapter reveals a new facet – how March and Marnee met and married, how they built a life together, how, in their idealism, they lost everything. Most discouraging of all is how, below the surface, they understand themselves and one another and their relationship so little.

I dare you to read this book. It isn’t an easy book, and at the same time, it is a book with timeless qualities, and a book that will get you thinking and keep you thinking for a long time. Isn’t that the definition of a good book?

August 13, 2008 Posted by | Books, Bureaucracy, Character, Community, Family Issues, Fiction, Living Conditions, Marriage, Mating Behavior, Political Issues, Relationships, Social Issues | , | 4 Comments