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"People of the Book"

I'm blessed to have a number of good friends who are skilled at the keyboard and pound out wonderful books. But I think my friend Geraldine Brooks writes with something other than a keyboard, some instrument that predates even the quill pen -- perhaps a stout brush made from the bristles of a boar, using ink from crushed lapis lazuli or the shell of a Tyrian mollusk.

She writes historical novels. Her writing is so full of the textures and smells and sounds of daily life that when you look up from the page the modern world has become unfamiliar. In her honor I am writing this blog item with a sharpened reed and a clay tablet.

Geraldine_Brooks.jpg

When I saw Geraldine last summer, she gave me a galley of her new novel, "People of the Book." Obviously I am not an unbiased observer; G's one of my heroes. I loved her underappreciated book "Foreign Correspondence," about growing up with a pen pal. And anything I write here won't make a difference in her success, given that her new book is already rocketing toward the very top of the NYT bestseller list. Did I mention that he last book, "March," won the, um, Pulitzer Prize for Fiction?

The scary thing is, she's getting better.

Here's the thing about "People of the Book": It is surely best book-group book ever written. If you are in a book group you pretty much have to read "People of the Book." If I had written this book I'd have called it "People of the Book Group," but then my judgment is terrible when it comes to titles.

I'm sure I'm not the first person to say that it's kind of like "The Da Vinci Code" meets "The Name of the Rose." It's about a book, an illuminated medieval text called a Haggadah, passed down through the centuries, witness to all manner of tragedies and heartbreak and human cruelty, surviving only because there were individuals who perceived its special beauty and sacredness.

The protagonist is an Australian book curator (Geraldine's an Aussie) who is dedicated to understanding precisely how people in bygone eras created books. I'll quote a long paragraph from the opening chapter that gives you a sense of both the author and her protagonist and the underlying theme that the physical materials of our lives are embedded with information -- and stories:

"In the bright snow light, my hands looked even worse than usual, all ruddy and peeling from scouring the fat off cow gut with a pumice stone. When you live in Sydney, it's not the simplest thing in the world to get a meter of calf's intestine. Ever since they moved the abattoir out of Homebush and started to spruce the place up for the 2000 Olympics, you have to drive, basically, to woop woop, and then when you finally get there, there's so much security in place because of the animal libbers you can barely get in the gate. It's not that I blame them for thinking I was a bit sketchy. It's hard to grasp right off the bat why someone might need a meter of calf's appendix. But if you are going to work with five-hundred-year-old materials, you have to know how they were made five hundred years ago. Thta's what my teacher, Werner Heinrich, believed. He said you could read about grinding pigments and mixing gesso all you like, but the only way to understand is to actually do it. If I wanted to know what words like cutch and schoder really described, I had to make gold leaf myself: beat it and fold it and beat it again, on something it won't stick to, like the soft ground of scoured calf intestine. Eventually, you'll have a little packet of leaves each less than a thousandth of a millimeter thick. And you'll also have horrible-looking hands."

Here's the Jonathan Yardley review in The Post.

The Susan Kelly review in USA Today, which says Viking has shipped a gazillion copies.

By Joel Achenbach  |  January 18, 2008; 8:24 AM ET
 
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Comments

Sounds like a book we will all love.

Posted by: Slyness | January 18, 2008 10:42 AM | Report abuse

A sandwich kit. Yum!

Posted by: TBG | January 18, 2008 10:48 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for bring it to my attention Joel, hope it doesn't get lost in your double kit post.

Posted by: dmd | January 18, 2008 10:48 AM | Report abuse

Sheesh, I just finished reading "Focault's Pendulum," and now this?

*Sigh*
I've always liked historical mysteries, I expect this to be a good one.

Thanks for the tip, Joel.

bc

Posted by: bc | January 18, 2008 10:51 AM | Report abuse

I was tempted by the book until I heard a woman review the book on NPR and really rip it. Wonder if I can find the link. Judge for yourself, I think.

Posted by: Loomis | January 18, 2008 10:58 AM | Report abuse

Heard Brooks interviews about the book on the Diane Rehm show (could have been another interviewer, just had it on in the background) sounded like a must read.

Love the graf Joel pulled to highlight.

Posted by: frostbitten | January 18, 2008 11:01 AM | Report abuse

Here's the NPR review of "People of the Book" by Maureen Corrigan:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18088926

From NPR: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She is the associate editor and contributor to Mystery & Suspense Writers (2 vol; Scribners), winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism presented by the Mystery Writers of America.

Corrigan's literary memoir, Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading! will be published by Random House in the fall of 2005. Corrigan is also a reviewer and columnist for Book World, The Washington Post. In addition to serving on the advisory panel of The American Heritage Dictionary, Corrigan has chaired the Mystery & Suspense judges' panel of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Posted by: Loomis | January 18, 2008 11:09 AM | Report abuse

I'm looking forward to putting this on my list.

And Joel, don't be too hard on yourself regarding titles. Most people understood that "Captured" was intended to be metaphorical.

Posted by: RD Padouk | January 18, 2008 11:17 AM | Report abuse

As it happens, this topic is in my wheelhouse. A little background, which all the above reviews are missing, and don't seem to quite understand. The Haggadah per se is not "medieval"; it was written no earlier than about 170 CE (or A.D., if you prefer), and probably no later than 360 CE.
It is *not* the "telling of the Exodus," per se; rather, it is simply the script, if you will, or the prayerbook that Jews use on the evening of the Passover seder. Of course, the Passover has a great deal to do with the Exodus, and yes, that is the framework of the text. But among other things, it contains the "four questions" that must be asked during the seder, which, traditionally are asked by the youngest family member present; the most important is "Why is this night different from all others?"

The seder itself is highly ritualistic, and is either a family event or a community event, or both, and it is geared toward teaching the kids about the Exodus and the meaning of Passover, etc. There are lots of rules about the kinds of food, number of cups of wine, ritual blessings for this and that, etc. All of this is laid out in the Haggadah. So think of it as a kind of rulebook for the event.

Haggadahs are not and were not necessarily "illuminated," like the one in Brooks novel; that just happens to be true of ceremonial Haggadahs during the medieval period, starting in about the 13th or 14th century. The first illuminated ones were produced in Spain, and that business about them being unusual because use of images was prohibited may have been an influence from Islam, which existed check by jowl with Judaism in Spain up until 1492, the year good ol' Ferdinand and Isabella of Columbus fame kicked all the Jews out of Spain.

The Sarajevo Haggadah in Brooks' novel was produced in Barcelona about 1350 and is the oldest as well as the most beautiful Haggadah in existence.

I'm a huge fan of the artist and typographer Ben Shahn (whose work may be familiar to some of you; he did the famous lithograph of Sacco and Venzetti). I have a copy of Shahn's illustrated version of the Haggadah, called a bit redundantly, "Haggadah for Passover" that is pretty cool (if you like that sort of thing). Here's his cover lithograph: http://www.georgekrevskygallery.com/dynamic/artwork_detail.asp?ArtworkID=188

I'd be interested in Tim's view of a seder. The funny thing about them, in my view, is the fact that I really don't like the ritual food at all: pretty yucky stuff. Matzah, bitter herbs, gefilte fish (ugh), a soup kind of like cold beet soup (double yuck). Much rather have a lox and bagel with cream cheese, a slice of bermuda onion, and some capers, and a nice bowl of chicken soup it couldn't hurt.

Posted by: Curmudgeon | January 18, 2008 11:51 AM | Report abuse

Oh, another FYI. The phrase, "People of the Book," (Brooks' title) has a curious twin origin. In Islam, Muslims believe it refers to themselves, and their relationship to the Koran. Jews, on the other hand, often use the phrase to describe themselves, with reference to *their* book, the Torah (a.k.a. the Old Testament, more or less).

One of the great ironies of the Sarajevo Haggadah is that it was hidden and preserved by a Muslim. So there is built into the story this double irony that although the title ostensibly refers to the Jews, there is also this Muslim component, that he, too was one of the "people of the book" in the other sense of his identity. Or was a "man of the book" in two different cultures/religions. Or whatever. But cool.

Posted by: Curmudgeon | January 18, 2008 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Er.. Mudge... good stuff here... but we miss you over at the new kit, too..

Posted by: TBG | January 18, 2008 12:17 PM | Report abuse

I think we should keep both kits boodling. Books to the bookish kit. Its time for another good bookish disscussion.

JA, you recall my enjoyment of purchasing books at a discount (used, extreme sale etc). I don't buy a lot of books at full price. IIRC, the last book I paid full price for was yours. (The knitting books were gifts.) While this may be distressing to authors, it is less distressing to my pocketbook,and in the end my pocketbook wins over your poicket book. I do admit this with some shame, but well there it is.

However, please tell Ms Brooks that 'March' which I have been ardently awaiting at the used book store, has never shown up.

So, when the new book arrives at my local store, I will be buying March along with this one. This one I have to have. The only problem is that new book buying and old book buying will soon
impede yarn buying, a very huge quandry.

Her main character sounds like my mirror. It is the path I follow with my knitting and yarny things, and soon with learning to spin the yarn, and if mr dr ever lets me, I want some sheep. I must do it to know it, to understand it all. Without even reading the book, I am caught in the character.

Posted by: dr | January 18, 2008 1:14 PM | Report abuse

"Oh, another FYI. The phrase, "People of the Book," (Brooks' title) has a curious twin origin. In Islam, Muslims believe it refers to themselves, and their relationship to the Koran."

Not exactly (or not entirely) true. In the Qur'an, "people of the book" (ahl al-kitāb) was the term used to describe Jews and Christians, acknowledging their common roots with Islam. In lands conquered by Muslims, Jews and Christians were permitted, because of this special status, to continue practicing their own religion, so long as they did not proselytize (which was a capital offense).

Reza Aslan's excellent "No God but God" has a good and very readable description of the early history of Islam.

Posted by: Mike C | January 18, 2008 2:26 PM | Report abuse

People of the Book

Review: NYT

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/07/books/07maslin.html

Review: Los Angeles Times

http://www.latimes.com/features/books/la-bk-barton30dec30,0,1017628.story?coll=la-books-headlines

The last part of this graf made me laugh:

More troublesome is the way in which she introduces each historical interlude: Hanna ponders the fate of the missing manuscript clasps that a 19th century art historian described as "extraordinarily beautiful"; the next chapter crisply details what happened to them. Hanna learns that one of her wine stains is mixed with blood, and before she can even wonder about it, poof!, the drunken papal censor tightens his hand on his glass, which "shattered, and a shard pierced the fleshy part of his thumb. He barely felt it, though the blood dripped and mingled with the wine stain already blooming on the parchment." Hanna, who has only bare facts and speculation at her disposal, is not privy to these revelations, so there's some frisson in having knowledge you wish you might convey to her. On the other hand, it's disappointing to realize that whenever Hanna asks a burning question, you're just pages away from having it answered. It's like having your partner schedule an appointment for sex: not bad, but less thrilling than being beguiled.

Posted by: Loomis | January 18, 2008 2:42 PM | Report abuse

Sorry about the out-or-order kitting! Software quirk.

Posted by: Achenbach | January 18, 2008 2:58 PM | Report abuse

Howdy, double-Kitters. Books are good. Medieval stories are good. History is good. Mysteries are good. I guess I'll have to read this book.

Posted by: Ivansmom | January 18, 2008 3:17 PM | Report abuse

I loved March, then read everything by Geraldine Brooks that I could find at the library. Somehow I missed Foreign Correspondence. Year of Wonders is very good, about a woman during the plague. I've got her latest book on order. The review I read was mixed, but it sounds fascinating.

Posted by: mostlylurking | January 18, 2008 3:29 PM | Report abuse

Mike C, you are indeed correct sir, in that people of the Jewish faith are referred to in the Q'oran as "People of the Book."

Interesting stuff, all.

bc

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