Archive for October, 2010

People of the Book – A Historical Account of a 15th Century Hebrew Text

People of the Book: A Novel

Geraldine Brooks
Paperback, 400 pages
Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
December 30, 2008

 

The Sarajevo Haggadah, a Hebrew prayer-book that miraculously survived centuries of warfare and uprisings, has surfaced once again and ancient text conservator Hanna Heath has been tasked with the job of restoring it before it goes on display at the National Museum.  Hanna is surprised and delighted when the honor could have gone to any number of experts in text conservation, namely her mentor Werner Heinrich who is considered to be the authority on Hebrew manuscripts.  But given the delicate political state of the area in the mid 1990’s, the Bosnian government had reservations about hiring a German, and Hanna  being a native Australian, fit perfectly.

 As soon as she steps onto the tarmac she’s whisked to the museum by a UN escort and gets to work on the haggadah.  This particular haggadah was made famous because of the beautiful illuminations that are unique to a text of this type because it was made at a time when traditional Jewish beliefs prohibited illustrations.  During her conservation work, Hanna discovers tiny clues amidst the pages and binding that could shed light not only of the history of the book itself but of the people who made and cared for it through the generations.

 What follows are the stories that explain these small treasures – an insect wing, a wine stain, salt, and a white hair – told by people of various religions, nationalities, and time periods that all played a part in the haggadah’s history.  These tales are interwoven with chapters of Hanna as she solicits the help of friends and colleagues to delve deeper into the mysteries of the book.  Along the way she’s distracted by a brief affair with Ozren Karaman, chief librarian of the museum – who risked his life to save the book – and his dying son, drama with her disapproving neurosurgeon mother (who dubs Hanna’s chosen profession as “Kindergarten work”), and the identity of the father she never knew.

 After wrapping up her research and concluding her report, Hanna returns to Sarajevo for the opening of the haggadah’s brand new exhibit only to discover to her horror that the vellum used for the book’s pages doesn’t match that of the one she studied.  She tries to convince Ozren that the book is a forgery and all her confidence is shattered when he doesn’t believe her.  Consumed with self-doubt about her life’s work, she swears off ancient texts and returns to Australia to study Aborigine cave paintings.  But was she really wrong about the haggadah or had it been found only to be lost again?

 People of the Book was an excellent read.  The artifacts that Hanna found brought the people involved with the book to life for me and illuminated the tragedies and struggles of so many years of religious persecution and conflict between Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  The historical aspect alone was wonderful, but I also enjoyed the 20th century chapters with Hanna, who is a great character.  I loved her personality, use of Aussie idioms, and how she bickered with her impossible mother. 

 The whole book was gripping and there weren’t any parts that I felt were slow or boring, even though I was introduced to a new character quite often.  Some of the scenes were so intense my heart was pounding as I read them (the torture scene in the salt chapter quickly comes to mind).  This was my first try at a Geraldine Brooks novel and I was definitely impressed enough to check out her other books.  If you’re interested in history you should give it a try!

Revolution: A YA Historical Fiction Novel

 Revolution

Jennifer Donnelly
Hardcover, 496 pages
Random House Children’s Books
October 12, 2010
*Thanks to Random House for the ARC!

Andi and Alexandrine live worlds apart, but the miles and centuries that separate them do nothing to lessen the connection that Andi feels when she discovers Alex’s secret journal written in the final days of the French Revolution.  As the daughter of a Nobel prize-winning geneticist, Andi is used to a life of privilege, attending a highly prestigious prep school where her classmates are the children of the rich and powerful. 

But ever since the tragic death of her little brother, Truman, Andi has all but given up on life.  She’s tormented by guilt and plagued with suicidal thoughts that the high dosage of antidepressants she pops like candy can’t dispel.  Her only remaining passion is music, but even that doesn’t seem to help anymore.  When her quasi-estranged father gets a call from her school informing him that she’s dangerously close to failing out, he insists that Andi accompany him on a business trip to her mother’s native Paris during Christmas break so he can make sure she finishes the outline for her senior thesis. 

More depressed than ever after her mother is checked into a psychiatric hospital back home, Andi throws herself into her thesis research on 18th century French composer Amadé Malherbeau and makes a deal with her dad that if she finishes her outline to his satisfaction she can hop on the first flight back to the U.S. 

Her dad is just as engrossed in his work as she is in her research and though she sees little of him during the day, he fills her in on what he’s working on.  G, a historian and old friend of his, has enlisted him to do DNA tests on a human heart believed to belong to Louis-Charles, the child of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette who was walled up alive during the Revolution.   While staying at G’s house Andi stumbles upon a journal hidden in a secret compartment of an old guitar case, along with a small portrait of the very same doomed prince her father and G spoke of.

Andi is filled with a sense of dread the instant she opens the weathered pages, but something compels her to discover their secrets.  She soon finds herself drawn into a world where the guillotine never rests, the streets of Paris are awash with blood, and its citizens live in constant fear.  The author of the diary is Alexandrine, a street performer employed by the king and queen to keep their morose son happy and entertained.  Alex can’t believe her luck when she catches the queen’s eye by making Louis-Charles laugh and she soon finds herself living at Versailles, surrounded by wealth and luxury.  Planning to use the boy as a means to rise to fame and fortune on the stage, she devotes all her skills to making him adore her. 

But now the king and queen are dead and Louis-Charles is locked away in the tower, being held captive in horrible conditions and left to die, alone and afraid.  Alex grew to love the young prince while he was in her care and refuses to stand aside and do nothing while he suffers.  Knowing his love for fireworks, she risks life and limb on the rooftops of Paris, shooting off rockets that light up the sky so Louis-Charles knows that he’s not forgotten. 

Andi feels an overwhelming connection with Alex and naturally equates the young prince’s death with her brother’s.  As she delves deeper into Alex’s story, the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur and she soon learns that the past is a lot closer than she thought.

I love reading books with parallel stories and Revolution was no exception.  It was exciting and mysterious while highlighting this tragic period in human history, when so many lives were lost in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity.  The historical aspect was fascinating and it really made me want to learn more about the French Revolution. 

I would have preferred more chapters devoted to Alex’s story in general.  As a character I found her much more engaging than Andi, who really irritated me at times.  I think she might appeal to a younger audience, since that’s who the book is directed toward in the first place.  It wasn’t just the teenage angst that got on my nerves (and I had to give her a break on that since she was mourning her brother after blaming herself for his death), but her personality and attitude as a whole.  She had a huge chip on her shoulder and there was an arrogance about her that rubbed me the wrong way.

But that was a minor blip in the grand scheme of things.  I loved all the connections and coincidences throughout the book, like how fate seemed to lead Andi to the diary (which was entwined in her father’s DNA case) or how she got to meet the subject of her thesis face to face and teach him the musical genius of Jimmy Page.  So many questions were left unanswered (Did Andi really see the dead like Alex?  Was her journey back in time real or a hallucination brought on by a drug overdose?), but in the end it didn’t really matter because ultimately the story was about learning to let go of grief and, despite all the cruelty and brutality in the world, finding a way to heal and get on with life.

Have you read Revolution?  What did you think?  I would love to get other French Revolution historical fiction recommendations!