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Displaying 1 - 30 of 12,859 reviews
Profile Image for Amanda.
282 reviews313 followers
April 21, 2012
A Review of People of the Book
(or, Why I Hate the Kindle)

Brooks's novel is a fictionalized account of the real Sarajevo Haggadah, a Jewish religious text noteworthy for its inclusion of an illuminated manuscript and for its survival through turmoil and the hostility towards Jews that has erupted time and again over the centuries in Europe and Eastern Europe. The novel is told from the perspective of Hanna Heath, an expert in book restoration, who is called in to restore the text for display. While working on the book, Hanna finds a few curiosities that she keeps and carefully labels: a butterfly wing, a small sample of some wine stained pages, salt crystals, a white hair, and the notation of some missing decorative clasps. As Hanna investigates each of these items and their origins to gain insight into the Haggadah's past, the reader is presented with the story of each noteworthy item in its own stand alone chapter (stories that Hanna herself can never learn as the evidence she finds only provides her with a basis for conjecture and hypothesis). Each story is unique and not necessarily connected to the others. While the novel has been compared to The Da Vinci Code, it's a far cry from Robert Langdon's action-adventure chase through Europe in pursuit of an explosive secret that might change religion as we know it. Instead, the pacing is slower--the pacing of a scholar motivated by the desire to simply know, even if definitive answers aren't available. And, though the novel explores the nature of Jewish/Muslim/Christian relationships throughout the ages, it doesn't seek to lecture about morality or about what one should (or should not) believe.

Despite enjoying it, I will admit that People of the Book has some flaws. The story of Hanna Heath and her strained relationship with her ultra-feminist, professional mother is cliched and not given enough room to become a realistic exploration of a such a complicated relationship. In addition, a few plot points are contrived, but I can forgive that simply because the book appealed to the book lover in me, which is a nice segue way into . . . WHY I HATE THE KINDLE (and all other eReader devices).

First off, don't lecture me about how this is the future and I need to embrace it. If you own a Kindle, fine. Enjoy. I'm not suggesting that the privilege be taken away from you. However, I'll not be tempted by the siren song of fashionable technology. I love books. I love the way they feel. I like physically seeing the progress I've made as I turn page after page. I love the cover art. I love how books look on a shelf (in home decorating magazines, I delight in trying to identify the books on the shelves of well-appointed dens and studies). I like to select which books are going on vacation with me, agonizing over which ones might suit my mood. And, when I see someone reading a book, I will often become a creepy Peeping Tom of sorts as I try to catch a glimpse of the book cover so I can see what they're reading. I judge you by what book you're reading--if you're reading Neil Gaiman, I want to know you; conversely, if you're reading Twilight, I may be silently hoping that you get to join the undead (but in a more permanent dead sort of way). So much of that is lost with an eReader. And, after reading People of the Book, I'm aware of how much history can be lost. Not just the tiny fragments that get wedged into the bindings and between the pages, but the history of the people who owned and cherished the book. A world where physical books become obsolete and everyone has an entire library on one portable reading device is also a frightening possibility. How easy then for the next dictator to destroy our beloved texts. Smash one eReader and hundreds, thousands of books are permanently lost--far more efficient than book burnings. It's the impermanence of it all that scares me. Not only that, I think that obsession with books, recognizing and identifying with others because you notice the Christopher Moore font on the book cover or the tell-tell cover art of a Tim O'Brien paperback, helps create a reading community that we're connected to and a part of. How many chance encounters, spontaneous conversations, or just the simple nod of respect to complete strangers with whom we briefly feel connected when we realize we're reading the same author on the same bus--how many of those moments are lost when we're all carrying around the same reading device that indicates no individuality or reading preference to those around us? Will we feel as open to asking a complete stranger, "What are you reading?" Obviously, not all books are as important as the Haggadah, but I like to think that we all cherish our own quaint libraries and someday perhaps they will tell the world about who we were.

Cross posted at This Insignificant Cinder
Profile Image for Catherine.
354 reviews
January 25, 2009
This is an awful book.

I expected great things from Brooks - March is a book I treasure - but this novel is a third-rate Da Vinci code, written with about the same amount of skill.

The premise is captivating - a 500-year-old haggadah is found in Sarajevo in 1996, and the novel sets out to explore the book's journey across Europe in those intervening years. Along the way, the haggadah acts as an entry point into the tumult, crisis, and unspeakable violence experienced by Jewish communities across Europe.

Yet the novel does not live up to the premise. The focus is not upon the haggadah or the people who have handled it between 1480 and 1996, but rather upon the Australian conservator called in to restore it in Sarajevo. The details of where the haggadah has been are important because Hanna, the conservator, is writing an essay about its journey, and she'll gain academic and professional prestige from doing so. Hello, cultural appropriation! For example: "why had an illuminator working in Spain, for a Jewish client, in the manner of a European Christian, have used an Iranian paintbrush? Clarissa's identification of this anomaly had been great for my essay. It had given me an excuse to riff on the way knowledge had traveled amazing distances during the Conveivencia, over well-established routes linking the artists and intellectuals of Spain with their counterparts in Baghdad, Cairo, and Isphahan." (321) (We are actually supposed to clap our hands with glee on Hanna's behalf at that point, I think.) Once Hanna's expertise about the haggadah is questioned, she gives up her work as a conservator of old, European and Middle Eastern texts, and instead starts saving Australian Aboriginal art from being destroyed by mining companies. She has an assistant - he's Aboriginal, but it's Hanna who we're supposed to identify and sympathize with, feeling pleased that she's a white superwoman, saving people from themselves.

There are other truly problematic issues of race in the text. The first character of color we encounter is a Rasta cab driver who smokes ganja and who won't drop her at Scotland Yard in case he gets caught for using drugs. We meet a man - Raz - who is part African-American and part Hawaiian, and whom the protagonist observes "was one of those vanguard beings of indeterminate ethnicity, the magnificent mutts I hope we are all destined to become given another millennium of intermixing." (141). Yep, that's right, she just called him a mongrel. The depictions of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faith are so broad-brushed i don't know what to think - it's like a child's paint-by-numbers for major world religions.

And of course, in the tradition of Dan Brown, it's a love story. Within a few pages of beginning the book Hanna's sleeping with the Muslim curator of Sarajevo's major museum, and by the end she's overcome her aversion to the idea of a long-term relationship and is ready to be with him. Whoop-dee-doo.

In conclusion: UGH.

Profile Image for Brina.
933 reviews4 followers
July 17, 2023
For centuries we Jews have been known as the people of the book. I joke to my husband when I mention a Jewish athlete in passing that we are not exactly known for our athletic prowess. Where I can count gifted, Jewish athletes on my two hands and feet, the number of scholarly scribes, rabbis, and authors over the millennia can fill countless libraries. When I originally heard of People of the Book eight years ago, I was intrigued by the title more so than anything. At the time, I either read mysteries or nonfiction. Not much has changed since, but, at the time I was skeptical that a non-Jewish author would write a moving account about a Haggadah, a book of Jewish heritage so personal that most Jewish families throughout history have owned one in order to take part in the Passover Seder in their own home. Not knowing Brooks’ background, I decided to read her memoir Foreign Correspondence before plunging into what I was sure to be a quality historical fiction that, when done well, I can learn as much about history as I do when reading nonfiction. These years later, the tale of recovering the Sarajevo Haggadah still stands out, so much so that I recommended it to both my father’s book group and one of my own, necessitating a reread. What ensued was a history of identity interwoven on a myriad of levels over time.

According to recent history, sofer David Ben Shoushan penned the text of what is now known as the Sarajevo Haggadah in 1492, the year that the Jews were expelled from Spain. The book underwent many journeys until it was recovered after the 1992 Balkan conflict and landed in its current home in the Sarajevo, Bosnia national museum. In 1996, the museum was to celebrate a grand reopening to celebrate Bosnia’s independence after the war, the five hundred year old Haggadah the museum’s centerpiece. At the time the United Nations necessitated that an expert be called upon to verify the book’s authenticity. This expert in book conservatory could not be an American- too controversial- or an Israeli- over fear that the country would want to claim ownership of the book. Brooks made her main protagonist Hanna Heath an Australian, from a young nation a twenty four flight from anywhere else of importance in the world. Even though Brooks has lived her entire adult life in Massachusetts, Australia is her homeland, and one can tell that Hanna Heath is the character she has developed that is closest to herself. Perhaps, this is why when I attempt Brooks’ other award winning books, I find them to be initially dull, whereas with Hanna Heath, due to the personalization of the character, I am drawn in from the book’s opening sentences, setting the stage for a page turning story.

Hanna Heath is a person of the book in her own right. Raised by a housekeeper because her single mother cared more about her profession than her daughter, Hanna was everything her mother was not. Like another famous protagonist, she has too much of her mystery father in her. Sarah Heath is an internationally renowned neurosurgeon who became the first woman to chair the department in Sydney’s hospital and paved the way for generations of women who had a future in medicine. This came at the expense of a loving relationship with her only child, who was drawn to excavations and history rather than following her mother to a career in medicine. Following a stormy adolescence, Hanna left Sydney to pursue a doctorate at Harvard and then to Vienna to work under the expert book conservationist Werner Heinrich. This man could never be a replacement father to Hanna but by the time her internship ended, this internationally acclaimed professor referred to her as Hanna, Liebchen. He seemed more like family to her than her mother ever would. Initially, Hanna’s identity is as much as a mystery as the Haggadah’s, which is why she appears as the perfect person to verify its history. Learning the identity of either protagonist- historian or book- would have made this a memorable book on its own. Interspersing the two tales puts Brooks’ story over the top.

The Haggadah made it out of Spain in 1492 and arrived with the Jews in Venice. Rabbi Judah Aryeh (Yehuda the Lion) is based off of historical figure Rabbi Leon Moderna of the 17th century. His goal in 1609 Venice was to save the now century old Haggadah from the hands of the papal inquisition. The illuminations on each page at the time was considered the desecration of G-d’s name, and many papists sent such books to the flames. Somehow the Haggadah survived and ended up in 1894 Vienna. By this point, it has changed hands many times throughout the centuries and was utilized yet again as a payment to a doctor who needed to finance expensive treatments for number of his patients. Austria was not destined to be the Haggadah’s final stop in time, although it is the home of Werner Heinrich who made finding and preserving the book as his life’s ambition. From Vienna, the Haggadah made it to the Bosnian national museum whereas it was rescued from the Holocaust by its Muslim Kustos Effendi Kemal, a renown scholar in his own right. The Kemals are based off the Kurtuk family who as righteous gentiles saved Jews and their books during the Holocaust. For every step of the Haggadah’s history, one can see that Brooks underwent painstaking research to ensure that she did justice to its history. The characters are made up, but are facsimile of true historic figures who throughout the centuries guarded this Haggadah with their lives as Jews were forced out of country after country in their diasporic existence. Ironically, the Haggadah’s final stop is in a predominately muslim country which is not lost on me, as Brooks tries to stress humanity’s similarities rather than its differences.

Even though I found the Haggadah’s long history to be compelling, some of the stops seemed rushed, including those in Venice and Vienna, although perhaps that is because it resides in those countries for less time than elsewhere. What I did find moving, and most likely personal for Brooks, was the story of Hanna Heath and her identity. One can see through characterization that although Sarah Heath is a pioneering woman in her field, she did not exhibit a motherly instinct or enjoy a loving relationship with her daughter. She noted in one scene that she did not want the baby but her husband did so out of love for him, Sarah was willing to carry the baby to term. Ironically, she mentions offhandedly that she does not operate on bodies but on souls, on what makes people who they are; yet, she withholds the identity of Hanna’s father until she is in her thirties. From character development, it is clear that Hanna is like her father, who one finds out is a famous Australian of Jewish descent. This Australian shares the name with an actual Israeli politician, but, for the book’s purpose, he was killed off before Hanna was born, setting the stage for conflict later on. Perhaps this is why Hanna could not bring herself to form a serious relationship even as she moved toward her mid thirties. Her internship lasted but a few years, so she never had a father figure in her life, and her mother, devoid of love, never remarried much less dated. This slightly mirrors Brooks’ upbringing, which is why it was not difficult for both author and protagonist to move to the other side of the world. Hanna Heath gives her love over to her profession although she wonders who she is, just like the Haggadah she is entrusted to study. Over the course of the book both these questions will be answered, resulting in a moving, fast page turning story.

Today Geraldine Brooks is renown as a gifted author of her generation having won the Pulitzer Prize for March and Horse. These novels also take historical figures and attempt to answer the who and why behind the person, or in the second case, race horse. Both of these award winning books started slow for me, to the point of me putting them down; at some point, I will attempt one or both of them again. I believe that where People of the Book excels is where these other Pulitzer “surprises” do not is that this earlier book is personal and attempts to answer the question of one’s own identity. Today the actual Sarajevo Haggadah is on display in the Bosnian National Museum. My parents, after reading this for their own book club, saw the actual book while traveling. Some might argue as people of the book, that the Haggadah belongs to the people of Israel. Brooks states her position through the course of the novel as the Haggadah underwent its final historical journeys. Brooks’ research into the history of this now more than five hundred year old work of art gives the Sarajevo Haggadah justice. One can tell that she took a personal journey of her own to write this, as it would have merited a reread on my part, with or without the necessity to moderate a discussion.

4.5 stars
Profile Image for Jim Fonseca.
1,101 reviews7,196 followers
May 26, 2022
[Revised, spoilers hidden, shelves added 5/26/22]

Most people who like books will enjoy a story about a “book detective” – a female Australian book curator/restorer who discovers many cultural and microscopic mysteries when she is hired to restore a Haggadah, a book of prayers used during the Jewish Passover Seder. The author takes us back in history to see explanations for these details that the restorer can only guess at.


As you might expect, it’s a tale of both beauty and horror ranging from the 1400s to the present. The book restoration is taking place in Sarajevo and the protagonist gets involved with a Bosnian man who is taking care of his son who was wounded during conflicts in the Balkans. We learn some about that area’s recent grim history.

We follow the book restorer’s bitter, embattled relationship with her mother. (I think I saw them on Jerry Springer.) This leads to a startling revelation for the young woman.

So we have four story themes: book detective, mother-daughter feud, happenings in modern Bosnia, and the bulk of the book: the Jewish diaspora starting with the Spanish Inquisition. It is quite well knit together.

We also get a very insightful reading of the landscapes where the action takes place: Bosnia, Boston, London and Australia. (I say this as a retired geography professor.)


The author (b. 1955 in Australia) covered the Balkan war as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. She has written a half-dozen novels, some best-sellers. Her most widely read book on GR is Year of Wonders, which follows a young woman in England during the plague year of 1666.

Photo of a Haggadah from
Photo of the author from
Profile Image for Annet.
570 reviews735 followers
December 8, 2019
What I do is me, for that I came...

This is grand book. Impressive. Intriguing. Tragic. Beautiful. From beginning to the end.
I don't usually like books on war situations but this book received so many good comments and ratings from Goodreads I decided to go for it. I did not regret it.

Each chapter is a time jump, to and fro in time. And starts with a quote, like this one, page 329 in my book:
A white hair
Seville, 1480
My eyes seep sorrow; water skins with holes
- Abid bin al-Abras

Part of a review (Miami Herald): "Stellar - compelling story. Brooks seamlessly moves from the miniscule - the tiny specks - to examine in human terms the larger events from the thirteenth century and into the twenty-first: the inquisition, the rise of anti-semitism, nazism and the holocaust, religious wars and forces exiles, in Bosnia, Venice, Barcelona and Seville."

Big five star. A sensitive story, crossing borders, crossing time lines....Realistic and poetic at the same time.
Will be back with more, probably in the weekend.
Highly recommended!

I wanted to give a sense of the people of the book, the different hands that had made it, used it, protected it....
Profile Image for Lyn.
1,882 reviews16.6k followers
February 5, 2018
An exceptional novel about a rare book conservator from Australia who researches the Sarajevo Haggadda, an ancient Jewish prayer book.

Brooks uses the protagonist's research to tell the story of the book backwards from WWII to 1600s Venice to Moorish Spain. The modern conservators narrative binds the vignettes together.

A none too subtle vehicle to highlight the interwoven histories of Christians, Jews and Muslims - the People of the Book - the novel is also an allegory about learning itself and people's struggles to keep the flame of wisdom alight.

Original, well researched and provocative, a reader will enjoy the textured characterizations and the personality brimming in each historical sketch.

Profile Image for Hannah Greendale.
701 reviews3,354 followers
January 9, 2017
A Hebrew manuscript created in fifteenth-century Spain has been saved from the ruins of a bombed library. Hanna Heath, who specializes in the conservation of medieval documents, is hired to repair and preserve the ancient manuscript. Tiny artifacts found inside the manuscript lead Hanna on a quest to discover how the rare manuscript was created and who risked everything to ensure its safety for five hundred years.

The author capitalizes on Hanna's passion for her profession. Her work on the manuscript is described with such alluring detail that the reader cannot help but experience the same hushed reverence as she does. When Hanna looks at the manuscript, she sees more than paper and ink. She sees the story behind the book's creation; she senses the hands of every person who made it, held it, cherished it. What others see as blemishes or trash - a red stain, a salt crystal, a white hair lost in the folds of the binding - Hanna sees as clues to the people of the book.

Hanna's story alone is strong enough to carry the reader through a captivating journey, but what makes this book so beguiling is the integration of multiple stories from various other characters spanning from 1480 to 2002. All of the varied narratives are masterfully woven together for optimal plot pacing. In a way, the book reads like a collection of short stories, but a common thread - the ancient manuscript - ties everything together into one beautiful tapestry.

While People of the Book doesn't offer the same richness of prose as the author's other novels, there are moments where dazzling language emerges. Often this language is employed to give an intimate, artful description of the manuscript itself, such that People of the Book sometimes feels like a love letter to the act of slowly crafting a masterpiece:

Blue: intense as a midsummer sky, obtained from grinding precious lapis lazuli carried by camel caravan all the way from the mountains of Afghanistan. White: pure, creamy, opaque. [. . . ] There was yellow made of saffron. That beautiful autumnal flower, Crocus sativus Linnaeous, each with just three tiny precious sigmas, had been a prized luxury then and remained one, still.

Other times, the writing is vivid and immediate:

[He] continued speaking quietly, in short, undramatic sentences. No light. A fractured pipe. Rising water. Shells hitting the walls. It was left for me to fill in the blanks. I'd been in enough museum basements to imagine how it was; how every shell burst that shook the building must have sent a rain of plaster falling over the precious things, and over him, too, into his eyes as he crouched in the dark, hands shaking, striking match after match to see what he was doing.

Fundamental themes woven throughout the book are as provocative and meaningful today as they were five hundred years ago:

"I have spent many nights, lying awake here in this room, thinking that the [manuscript] came to Sarajevo for a reason. It was here to test us, to see if there were people who could see that what unites us was more than what divided us. That to be a human being matters more than to be a Jew or a Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox."

With rich character narratives and a deep veneration for artifacts, People of the Book sweeps readers away on a grand, emotional adventure that crosses the globe and spans centuries.
246 reviews18 followers
February 6, 2008
I try to avoid all things popular (e.g., I’ve never seen Star Wars or Titanic) because I know, after all the hype, I can only be disappointed. When it comes to books, though, I feel obligated to read what’s popular so I can participate somewhat intelligently in the conversation.

That being said, although I hoped Geraldine Brook’s People of the Book would live up to the buzz, I wasn’t too surprised when it did not. The book is good, but it is not call-up-all-my-friends-(or readers)-and-recommend-it good.

People has been compared to The Da Vinci Code, but I find that comparison erroneous. Although better written than Da Vinci (but, come on, a phonebook is better written than Da Vinci), People lacks the plot, mystery, and pizzazz that made Da Vinci a blockbuster.

Instead, People is much more reminiscent of Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue . Hyacinth follows the provenance of a Vermeer painting. People follows the provenance of the Sarajevo Haggadah.

As such, the book is divided into several sections. Five sections follow the Haggadah back in history—to Bosnia, to Austria-Hungary, to Italy, to Spain. As the title suggests, it is not the book that is interesting so much as what happens in the lives of those people attached to it.

These sections are the strongest and most interesting in the book. However, for some reason I cannot fathom, some parts are written in first person and some in third. This twist seems to serve little purpose other than to distract and annoy the reader.

The book’s greatest weakness is the contemporary storyline that cushions each section. Hanna Heath is a book conservator hired to work on the Haggadah. She finds clues in the book—an insect, a stain, a hair—that reveal its history.

Unfortunately, I found Hanna’s story to be downright irritating. Hanna is 30 years old, has a double bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and a PhD. She has apprenticed around the globe, is well published and highly regarded in her field. Perhaps I am just jealous, since Hanna and I share the same age and similar academic credentials (okay, hers are much better than mine), but Hanna’s experience and success is simply not plausible for someone so young.

Similarly, everyone Hanna meets—from Vienna’s chief archivist to Sarajevo’s head museum librarian—is 30 or under. Really? How did Hanna and her cohorts pack in so much and become so successful in so few years?

I could continue my nitpickiness (Ozren, the head librarian, speaks flawless English but stumbles over the word “hoof”?), but the point is that Hanna is so unbelievable she becomes a rather unsympathetic character. I was far more interested in what happens when she is out of the picture.

People of the Book is an okay read, but I see no need to trample your friends and neighbors to secure a copy. Read it if you have the time and inclination. If not . . .
Profile Image for Heidi The Reader.
1,389 reviews1,469 followers
March 24, 2018
The story of an extraordinary book and the people who surround it.

And I did not enjoy it.

My reaction to this one was a huge surprise. I adored Geraldine Brook's Year of Wonders and I thought this would be an easy hit for me.

I think the problem is fairly simple- never connected with the main character. I loved Anna from Year of Wonders. I couldn't stand Hanna.

The small details of her work that she found so absorbing, I didn't enjoy.

I didn't like how she treated people sometimes. I thought she seemed rather arrogant.

I also didn't like how the timelines bounced around from character to character. I was listening to People of the Book as an audiobook. Without being able to look back and check, I found myself getting confused when I stopped in the middle of a passage and picked it up again after a work day.

Brook's writing is just fine. Again, I can't believe I didn't like this.

Highly recommend Year of Wonders. I give this a solid pass.
Profile Image for Katie.
277 reviews357 followers
November 10, 2018
There's nothing bad about this but there's nothing exciting about it either. I'd describe it as assembly line fiction. A novel that is designed to be a crowd pleaser. It never strays from formulaic commercial boundaries. The story is well-plotted and researched. The prose is professional but never inspired. The characters are on the bland side, each one with a predictable problematical relationship. The author has won the Pulitzer prize so I was expecting something much braver and more literary. I reached page 120 and realised I would much rather be reading Cormac McCarthy.
Profile Image for PattyMacDotComma.
1,487 reviews842 followers
September 29, 2020
A new favourite! I love it when old stories sound right for their time, and Geraldine Brooks does that so well. This novel was inspired by the discovery of the real Sarajevo Haggadah, a book more than 700 years old, so Brooks had a lot of ground to cover and a lot of voices to invent.

Her central character (Hanna Heath, a rare book expert) says about herself:

“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. It’s what I love best about what I do.”

That describes exactly what I enjoy about what Brooks does--imagines plausible, informative, entertaining scenarios.

Who might have penned the text of the haggadah (the Jewish ritual which is read during the Passover Seder meal)? Who might have painted the illustrations? Who is the black woman in a painting, and why is she there? Who managed to save this Jewish treasure from the Spanish Inquisition, the Nazis, and the numerous attempts to eradicate all traces of Jewish culture?

Hanna says about the paper she plans to write:

“I wanted this one to be different. I wanted to give a sense of the people of the book, the different hands that had made it, used it, protected it. I wanted it to be a gripping narrative, even suspenseful.”

This novel is all of those things. We hold our breath as this small book changes hands on its precarious journey through the centuries. Sometimes it’s a Muslim, sometimes a Christian, sometimes a Polish orphan fleeing Nazis in the winter snow. All are in desperately dangerous situations.

This has everything--childbirth, torture, intrigue, power, war, greed, compassion--and Hanna’s own story as well.

In 1996, Dr Hanna Heath (PhD doctor), an expert Australian conservator of rare books, is invited to Sarajevo to inspect a recently discovered haggadah [Brooks does not capitalise it, incidentally]. It just turned up in the museum, and the unusual illustrations have roused particular interest, as images were generally forbidden in Jewish tradition.

Hanna spots the tiniest clues, hoping to be “lucky enough to find any debris in the binding—it’s amazing what you can learn about a book by studying the chemistry of a bread crumb.”

Rather than a crumb, she finds a hair and some stains and some missing clasps.

Hanna’s methods are as fascinating as the results of her investigation. And there is humour, too.

“The art world in England is an absolute magnet for the second sons of threadbare lords, or women named Annabelle Something-hyphen-Something who dress in black leggings and burnt orange cashmeres and smell faintly of wet Labrador. I always find myself lapsing into Paleolithic Strine when I’m around them, using words I’d never dream of using in real life, like ‘cobber’ and ‘bonza’. "

Meanwhile, her mother, not only a ‘real’ doctor, but a neurosurgeon (“I don’t just save lives, Hanna. I save the very thing that makes us human”) is dismissive of Hanna’s cultural conservation expertise. She is a driven, single-minded woman, whose child was a puzzling nuisance.

Hanna stands up to mum and uncovers her own history—where she came from and how—and she finds a whole new world of support and respect.

But professionally, the rug is pulled out from under her when her expertise about the Sarajevo Haggadah is questioned, so she retreats back home to explore the world’s oldest culture instead. She’s embarrassed to discover how ignorant she (and everyone else) is.

“So I set myself a crash course and became a pioneer in a new field: desperation conservation.”

Great term, and we need more of it. Desperation Conservation.

She tries to put the haggadah story behind her and sets out to catalogue and preserve Aboriginal rock art in situ (diverting dripping water away from it, that sort of thing), working as fast as possible in the tropical heat in Arnhem Land, with little communication and limited time before The Wet turns the dirt tracks to impassable mud.

So little is known, so little is protected. When she’s called to the Foreign Affairs office in Canberra from the Arnhem Land cave she’s working in, an official mentions he’s never been to the Top End.

“Typical, I thought. Probably been to every museum in Florence and yet never seen the Lightning Man at Nourlangie Rock.”

Still, the Sarajevo Haggadah intrigues her, and she feels compelled to agree to the request to go back and face some unanswered questions. As her colleague says:

“I have spent many nights, lying awake here in this room, thinking that the haggadah came to Sarajevo for a reason. It was here to test us, to see if there were people who could see that what united us was more than what divided us. That to be a human being matters more than to be a Jew or a Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox.”

What wonderful stories Brooks weaves around the facts. All believable, all fascinating.

Takeaway message?

That to be a human being matters more than to be a Jew or a Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox.”

The real book:
March 3, 2019
Oh how I love Geraldine Brooks! This book is I think her masterpiece, so incredibly well researched and detailed.

In 1996, Hanna Heath, an Australian rare book expert is offered the job of a lifetime: analysis and conservation of the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, which has been rescued from Serb shelling during the Bosnian war. Priceless and Beautiful, the book is one of the earliest Jewish volumes ever to be illuminated with images. When Hanna, a caustic loner with a passion for her work, discovers a series of tiny artifacts in the book's ancient binding--an insect wing fragment, wine stains, salt crystals, a white hair--she begins to unlock the book's mysteries. The reader is ushered into an exquisitely detailed and atmospheric past, tracing the book's journey from it's salvation back to it's creation.

In Bosnia during WWII, a Muslim risks his life to protect the book from the Nazis. In the hedonistic salons of fin-de-siecle Vienna, the book becomes a pawn in the struggle against the city's rising anti-Semitism. In inquisition-era Venice, a Catholic priest saves it from burning.

In Barcelona in 1492, the scribe who wrote the text sees his family destroyed by the agonies of enforced exile. In Seville in 1480, the reason for the Haggadah's extraordinary illuminations is finally disclosed. Hanna's investigation unexpectedly plunges her into the intrigues of fine art forgers and ultra-nationalist fanatics. Her experiences will test her belief in herself and the man she has come to love.

Inspired by a true story, "People of the Book" is at once a novel of sweeping historical grandeur and an intimate emotional intensity, an ambitious, electrifying work by an acclaimed and beloved author.

I loved "Year of Wonders" but I now think that this book is Brook's masterpiece. I loved all of it and am glad that I started out writing down all of the names, it helped greatly throughout the novel.

Highly recommend for any lover of fine literature and historical fiction.
10 reviews4 followers
May 7, 2008
What a fantastic story. Don't be put off by the first bit when you meet Hanna, the main character: she is supposed to be kind of annoying. You end up loving her with a compassion that this author can magically instill in you for all of her characters, of which there are many. The book also spans many centuries and traverses many continents, so it's a bit complex. But wow: This account of the history of a little book takes you through the darkest hours of human history, including the Inquisition and the Holocaust, but you end up feeling somehow so uplifted by the story. Brooks has a way of taking dire, nasty topics (the bubonic plague and civil war are the settings of her other two novels)and turning them into parables that portray our deep goodness and strength and grace in the face of unimaginable horror and hardhship. I just think she is an amazingly gifted writer. Highly recommend. But not for the faint-hearted.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews603 followers
January 17, 2016
I could have sworn I wrote a review. I read this book the first week it was released....
Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,977 reviews1,988 followers
January 24, 2022
Rating: 3* of five

This is the very first book about books I've ever read that left me hating people more than when I started it.

Hanna, what a terrible waste of a person. Sarah, her mother, my GOD what a cold, stoney bas-relief of a human being she was. Orzen, Werner, yechptui on all of 'em and the parts set in the past...! The Nazis, well, it's shootin' tuna in a 55-gallon oil drum (aka the Gulf of Mexico) to hate THEM, but the collaborators! On and on, back through the Western World's horrible, cruel, hagridden-by-Gawd history...!

The Sarajevo Haggadah is to be pitied that it was created by human hands. Books can bear evil (eg The Turner Diaries) but few become the focus of such concentrated evil as Brooks paints this poor thing.

Brooks isn't any kind of an exciting writer, and her structure here...skippity-lurch, tilty-whirl...never got down into anything like the *good* parts of the people who puke, fuck, and torture their way through the book. Too much to do, too much to tell, and I was left at the end of it all...blackly depressed. This may very well be the only time anyone will ever see me type this: Shoulda been longer. Or a short story. As it is, it's just a frustrating overachiever of a story, and that is annoying as all hell.
Profile Image for Sue.
1,272 reviews549 followers
February 7, 2011
This is a wonderful story of a magical book, an illuminated manuscript begun in the 15th century and found in Sarajevo after the Bosnian War, a Jewish manuscript rescued by a Muslim librarian who could not bear to see such a treasure be destroyed.

Based on some fact and the author's talented recreation, we see the history of this religious piece over the years as some seek to destroy it and others work to save or embellish it. We move backward in time from the modern time to the Nazi era, to 19th century Europe, to the days of the Inquisition. I found I learned some history here while following the book. For this I thank Ms Brooks. I definitely will have to try others of her books.
Profile Image for Diane.
1,081 reviews2,718 followers
March 4, 2019
This is a sweeping work of historical fiction, with characters starting in Sarajevo in 1996 and then slowly going back 500 years into the past.

The story is framed around Hanna, a rare book expert from Australia who is called in to analyze a precious Jewish text that was recovered during the Bosnian war. As Hanna studies the ancient book, she finds clues about its history, such as wine stains, a white hair, and part of an insect's wing. Each chapter takes the reader farther back in time, and we see how many miracles it took to preserve the book for so long.

Being a librarian and a general lover of books, I was intrigued by this novel and expected to love it. It is a good story, but my enjoyment was dampened by the melodramatic dialogue — especially the overwrought relationship of Hanna with her mother — and some of the historical scenes were a bit too precious for my taste.

It is an interesting story and it's obvious that Geraldine Brooks did a tremendous amount of research to write it. I admire the work that went into creating this novel, and do plan to read more of Geraldine's work.

Opening Passage
"I might as well say, right from the jump: it wasn't my usual kind of job. I like to work alone, in my own clean, silent, well-lit laboratory, where the climate is controlled and everything I need is right at hand. It's true that I have developed a reputation as someone who can work effectively out of the lab, when I have to, when the museums don't want to pay the travel insurance on a piece, or when private collectors don't want anyone to know exactly what it is that they own. It's also true that I've flown halfway around the world, to do an interesting job. But never to a place like this: the boardroom of a bank in the middle of a city where they just stopped shooting at each other five minutes ago."
Profile Image for Lorna.
719 reviews419 followers
July 6, 2022
People of the Book was a magnificent work of historical fiction by Geraldine Brooks centering on the rare and beautifully illuminated priceless Hebrew manuscript, the Sarajevo Haggadah. Hannah Heath is an Australian expert on rare books who is tapped to fly to Sarajevo in 1996 to inspect the priceless Hebrew codex at a time when the peace in Sarajevo is new and tenous but she doesn't want to pass up the opportunity to inspect the famous Sarajevo Haggadah at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. As Ms. Brooks writes in the Introduction: "A lavishly illuminated medieval Hebrew text, this haggadah is an anomaly that has fascinated scholars for generations and its survival in war-torn Bosnia is hailed as a symbol of the survival of Sarajevo's multiethnic ideal."

"The Sarajevo Haggadah, created in medieval Spain, was a famous rarity, a lavishly illuminated Hebrew manuscipt made at a time when Jewish belief was firmly against illustrations of any kind. It was thought that the commandment in Exodus 'Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or likeness of any thing' had suppressed figurative art by medieval Jews. When the book came to light in Sarajevo in 1894, its pages of painted miniatures had turned this idea on its head and caused art history texts to be rewritten."

In what could only be described as a series of miracles, we follow the journey of this rare illuminated manuscript containing the illustrated traditional text of the Passover Haggadah which accompanies the Passover Seder. It is thought to have originated in Barceloa in the twelfth century and it is in this history of that we hopscotch around the world as we begin to get a sense of the people of the book and all of the different hands involved in its inception as well as those who used it and protected it over the centuries. This is historical fiction at its finest if you love history, art, books, mysteries, and different religions and beliefs. There is also a deep personal story told on many levels throughout this book, particularly that of Hannah Heath and Ozren Karaman, chief librarian of the National Museum. This is just as much their story as the story of Sarajevo Haggadah.
Profile Image for Lisa Vegan.
2,802 reviews1,234 followers
February 8, 2017
This is a marvelous book. I really enjoyed this author’s Year of Wonders and I think I liked this book at least as much. This is skillful and enthralling storytelling that’s also thought provoking.

This book is one of the most skillful renderings of a book that goes back and forth in time that I’ve ever read. Ditto for the writing of a historical fiction account, especially one that has part of its history in the very recent past.

This is a historical fiction story about the Sarajevo Haggadah. (A Haggadah is a Jewish religious text that sets out the order of the Passover Seder. During Pesach, it is read every year on the first night, and in some traditions on the second night as well, for the Seder service.)

The story goes from present to past, back to present, to farther and farther in the past several times, each time returning to present day, and ending back again in the present.

I was afraid this storytelling technique wouldn’t appeal to me or that I’d have a difficult time remembering everything and everyone, but the author manages to tell each story flawlessly and she’s able to perfectly connect all the stories. I cared about so many of the characters in each historical period and place. I enjoyed every single sub-story, and I became emotionally involved with each one.

Right away, as soon as I opened the book, I was happy because there’s a map. A map is on the inside front and back covers. Oh, how I love maps in books! This one is wonderful because it follows the route the Hagggadah in the story took: from Seville in 1480 to Sarajevo in the twentieth century. There are a few drawings on the map of how things would have looked in these places/times too.

I particularly enjoyed the story of present day Hanna’s relationship with her mother, but I hate to single out that one because there were so many wonderful characters and relationships. I was extremely touched by one of the main characters from the 1480 portion of the story.

On page 320 of the book this quote: “The point – that diverse cultures influence and enrich one another…” sums up a lot of what happens during the course of the 500 years of the story. While this influence was shown not always to be from benign relationships, I found it particularly interesting and heartwarming that positive relationships between Jews and Muslims were shown throughout these 500 years. If there are any villains at all, it is the Christian inquisitors and rulers during the late 1400s to the early 1600s, but Christian, Muslim, and Jewish characters from all periods are shown as admirable, and often as having friendly and mutually beneficial relationships with one another.

Both laudable and monstrous human characteristics are shown. There are people who risk their lives to save people and books; there is torture, slavery, and other atrocities as well.

As someone who loves books, and who appreciates old books, I found this fictional history of a book fascinating. I was also absorbed both by the inside look at the craft of book conservation work and by the detective work that can be involved as part of it.

On a personal note: I’ve been an Olympics junkie since my teens and clearly remember the Sarajevo Olympics, including the interviews at the time about how everyone in the area was getting along so well together, and then what happened there in the years following, so those parts of the story seemed very familiar to me.

Historical fiction stories often torment me because I always want to know what’s real and what is fiction. As I was finishing up reading this, I planned to research what was history and what was fictional in this tale. What I very much appreciated about this book is that the author gives the reader all this information in the afterword; she does so in a very few pages but does so comprehensively.

An added note: My book club meeting to discuss this book isn't for over a month, but I'm not concerned about it remembering enough; this is a memorable book.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
Author 3 books189 followers
August 28, 2008
Geraldine Brook's latest is a treat for us librarians (as well as dedicated to us in the front!) as she traces the path of an ancient religious text that, although Jewish in origin, was saved and added to several times over by members of different religions and cultures throughout time. As usual, Brooks' prose is both incredibly readable and laudably literary, and her theme that the love of knowledge and books crosses all historical and cultural boundaries is well illustrated through her complex characterizations and real-life-inspired plot. In the end, all of us who love, teach, and support literacy and learning are "People of the Book."
Profile Image for Cherisa B.
521 reviews42 followers
November 14, 2022
Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book is the story of a rare illustrated manuscript, the (fictional) Sarajevo Haggadah, through the centuries. A modern book conservator is selected to rebind it, and as she carries out her assignment, she discovers its origins and how it has passed through history and the hands of those who have cared for it.

Beautifully done and remarkable in reminding us that books aren’t just things but can have true presence, beauty, and permanency, and that they can bear witness to human endeavor even as they carry our history within their pages.
Profile Image for Taury.
556 reviews125 followers
August 22, 2022
I really enjoy Geraldine Brooks books. People of the Book is no exception. Her books are rich in researched history. Great strong characters. Story line that immediately pulls in the reader. My only issue is there are so many different characters. You get into one story line and it switches. In this case it is a dual time line. Just as I was finding my way it switched again to new characters. This book was about is about finding a Rare Ancient Prayer Book, Sarajevo Haggadda. The story went backwards from WWII to to the 1600s. This went through various religious cultures that included Christians, Jews and Muslims. Wonderful plot line. Just have patience to keep everything straight.
Profile Image for Rachel.
1 review
May 7, 2008
I buy a lot of books. It's sort of sad, given that I am supposed to be budgeting and have completely (okay, almost completely) stopped buying clothes, but books call to me. I figure you can buy a paperback for $10, or you can go to a movie for $10 - one gets you a couple of hours of entertainment in a confined space, one gets you hours of entertainment wherever you want them. So, anyway, I went into this book planning to love it. I even caved and bought the hardbound, so anxious was I to start. I wanted this book to be "Pillars of the Earth," I wanted it to be "The Historian." I was expecting grand sweeps across the globe, across centuries, and rich images of life in those places and times. But it isn't that. Honestly, I was expecting more, and maybe expecting too much? I did not read Brooks' first book - the one that won the Pulitzer - "March." But I think I will. Instead of wrapping me up in a story that evolves over space and time, Brooks tries to wrap up each little story into too neat a package, which always left me wanting more. I suppose the fact that I never wanted the book to end, and, more specifically, mourned the end of each segment at the same time that I yearned for the next, should tell me something about how much I actually did like the book. Even so, I disappointed at the end. When Brooks is not tying very neat little bows, she is spinning stories around very neat little cliches, which will leave you feeling like you have read this book before. Others may find great enjoyment in the love stories and family dramas carefully interspersed by Brooks, but I craved to read more of filmy butterfly wings captured on a laboratory slide, of ancient ink-making techniques, or the mysteries that accompany preservation.
Profile Image for Joy D.
2,067 reviews239 followers
February 22, 2019
Multiple timeline historical fiction based upon the Sarajevo Haggadah, an elaborately illustrated ancient Judaic text that had been saved in the past by two Muslims and a Catholic priest. It is unusual in featuring artwork, which was not common in Jewish texts of the time period. The modern story follows Australian book conservator Hanna Heath who, in 1996, is called upon to evaluate and restore the book. During the evaluation, she finds small pieces of evidence of the book’s 500-year history. She travels the world to consult with experts to discover its secrets. The modern story is interspersed with chapters showing how the book passed through the hands of people who created it, used it in Passover rituals, safeguarded it, and rescued it from destruction. Hands are mentioned numerous times and are clearly symbolic of their various attributes such as skill, purpose, blessing, expression, protection, justice, and humanitarianism.

Brooks has obviously done extensive historical research, as the book includes episodes (and the associated brutality) of Spain in the 1400’s, the Spanish Inquisition, 19th century Vienna, World War II, and the Bosnian War. Sections of this book will appeal to bibliophiles, especially the detailed information about book-binding, preservation, old parchments, and the like. The past stories are filled with colorful well-drawn characters and vivid settings. Each historic vignette introduces new people and the reader should be prepared for multiple shifts in timeline and perspective. The book’s diverse backstories were more appealing to me than Hanna’s personal account, which at times ventured close to melodrama in the form of a rather unconvincing romance and a quarrelsome relationship with her insensitive mother.

In the Afterword, the author clarifies what parts of this book are based on fact and what she has invented. The Sarajevo Haggadah is a real text dating back to medieval Spain and was saved by a Muslim museum curator during the Bosnian War. Unfortunately, not enough of its history is known to write a non-fiction account. Instead, the known history forms a framework for the author’s imagination.

Overall, I think the author succeeds in exploring the emotional lives of her characters, showing human responses to traumatic events, and promoting tolerance among diverse faiths and ethnicities. If you appreciate books about books or the history of medieval artifacts, you will likely enjoy this book.

Memorable quotes:
“With a few keystrokes of the hand, we touch the minds of many.”

“The point – that diverse cultures influence and enrich one another – was made with silent eloquence.”

“It [the Haggadah] was here to test us, to see if there were people who could see that what united us was more than what divided us.”
Profile Image for whimsicalmeerkat.
1,270 reviews57 followers
January 8, 2015
People of the Book is a stunningly beautiful book about another stunningly beautiful book. It fictionalizes the true story of the Sarajevo Haggadah, a unique, 500-year old version of a book read at Jewish Passover Seders. It illustrates the story of how and why Passover came to be. People of the Book looks at the fascinating story of the Haggadah's travels through the years and creates a story from them. All of the characters are fictional and some of the chapters are admittedly entirely fiction while others contain more factual information. While reading I did not care at all which was which and I am not certain I do now. Geraldine Brooks.ostensibly tells the story of a book, but as the title hints, what she really tells is the story of a people.
Profile Image for Julie.
Author 6 books1,856 followers
March 16, 2009
I adored this novel! It contained all the elements of my favorite contemporary fiction: impeccable historical research, geographic locales that are as strong as the characters, characters who are multi-dimensional & believable, a plot that weaves multiple threads and themes in good pace and with precision. With this, Brooks moves into my favorite authors column.
Profile Image for Dolors.
540 reviews2,280 followers
March 19, 2013
What is it that makes a book compelling?
This one, apparently, has all the necessary ingredients to make a novel difficult to forget.
I'd say it's historically well researched, it has masterly developed and believable characters and an interesting thread which holds all of them together.
"People of the book" is exactly that, the story of the different people who, through centuries and centuries, managed to create or to keep or to protect one of the most treasured books ever, an ancient Haggadah.
The protagonist of the story, Miss Hanna Heath, an Australian book expert, receives the job of her life: to examine this rare exemplar and to trace its story through different clues: wine stains, a single white hair, a broken wing of a butterfly, a drop of salted water...
Each chapter, starting from recent times and going backwards, gives the reader a real glimpse of what the lives of the people who had the book might have been like: Jews in modern Sarajevo, Inquisition in hypocritical Venice, Muslim and Christians in Spain... There's a great deal of history in this novel, and, in my humble opinion, a well researched one.

So, why only the two stars then?
I really don't know. It's not that I didn't like the story: an old precious book, and independent and smart heroine, the well thread characters... It seemed the book had it all.
I was actually quite hooked at the beginning, but when I kept reading, I started to feel disconnected from the different characters which appear along the novel. In a way, it seemed like a collection of short stories (which I generally don't enjoy much), and even though you learnt something about each one, it felt as if their stories were left unfinished, and some of them became even uninteresting.
And then, I ended up sort-of-not empathising with Hannah, especially regarding the story with her mother, it seemed a bit cheapened in the end. Not to talk about that supposed relationship with Ozren, completely unreal and fake.
It's like if the author didn't care much about the people in her novel, they go through horrible experiences and everything is explained like if it was a picnic. Yeah, I guess the true protagonist is the book, not the people...

Well, I can only say I didn't enjoy reading the novel, and although I recognise it's a well written book, I won't be searching for anything else by this author.
283 reviews
May 28, 2008
I only got through the first 50 pages on this one. I'll try her novel The Wonder Years, but I found the narrator just too whipsmart. Also, there was a line or two that made me groan outloud. When Hannah is sitting on a plane next to someone who removes mines, she says to herself something like: "I thought about making a borderline comment like, 'business booming, eh?'" Yuck! Also, she "seduces" a guy by licking his fingers at a restaurant. All I could think was, "Who really does that?" It made my toes curl (in a bad way).
Profile Image for Meredith Holley.
Author 2 books2,273 followers
May 11, 2013
I think an alternative title for this book could have been something like Women and Love or What Women Mean When They Talk About Love. Something like that. It was so beautiful in this delicate, fine-art way, and I was so surprised at this book’s beauty, that I feel totally inadequate in trying to describe my reaction to it. It is that type of beauty I feel when I think about the improbability of our bodies being alive or of Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel or of microscopic images of snowflakes. There is no way the universe could conspire so delicately for those things to work in such a way that their beauty is not so improbable as to be obscenely contrived, but somehow it does work. It is beautiful.

And now that I’ve compared this book to the Sistine Chapel, there is no way anyone could go into it liking it. It’s like that time this douchey guy told me that Bright Eyes is the new Bob Dylan. I mean, Bright Eyes is not great anyway – talk about being in love with your own mysterious allure – but, compared to Bob Dylan, Mr. Eyes is just embarrassing. So, here I am ruining this book for you like that.

At the same time, after reading this, I understood a lot more why someone would write a book like Olive Kitteridge, using multiple, somewhat unrelated, perspectives strung together by a common theme. While that one just seemed ridiculous, this one soared for me, and I can see how, as an author, you could want to aim for this kind of delicacy in weaving together stories.

I listened to this on audio, and it was like hearing someone describe every way a woman’s love can be beautiful and painful, harsh and delicate. Some books will make me cry, but this book brought me to tears, which is the same thing but more elegant because of this story’s elegance. The reader’s voice was lovely, and the only fault with listening to this on audio was that there was so much I wanted to hear and follow that I know I missed a lot. I usually choose audio books based on the idea that it won’t matter if I space out during the book (because I space out a lot while I’m walking to work and listening to them), so I normally choose a book that I’ve read before or something I don’t think I’ll love that much. I was surprised at how much I loved this one and how much I felt I missed by listening to the audio. It is not a difficult book, but it definitely contains subtlety and passages that I would probably have read over again if I were reading it on the page.

This is not a very exciting review, I think, because it doesn’t contain an exciting story. I have the most wonderful job in the world right now, at which the most amazing things happen, but I can’t talk about it on the internet. And, no, my job is not Fight Club. If I could, I would tell you about how this has probably been the best year of my life so far, and about all of its beauty and fullness, and about how pain is as much a part of the beauty as comfort or wonder are. And I would tell you about the women I have seen and the ways they are with the love in their lives. But, instead, I will just be vague, and say that this book resonated with me both in the year I have had and in the life I have had. It talked about the right things and in the right way.

And, of course, it was about a book, which I imagine is the universal symbol of love.
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