Wednesday, April 15, 2009

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

NYC Pear Trees during Passover
(Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day )

Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book is a novel about a real 500-year-old Haggadah. The Haggadah is a Hebrew text used during Passover. Haggadah means “the telling.” It tells how Moses freed the Jews from slavery in Egypt and led them towards Israel. The beauty of a Haggadah is that every family has their own and passes their particular traditions on to future generations.

Although my paternal grandparents were raised in kosher homes, they were not very religious. My grandfather, Harold Lamport, was a scientist who avoided temple but respected his Jewish heritage. He was a blood circulation specialist who developed the precursor to the space suit and was on the faculty of Yale School of Medicine. We gathered at my grandparent’s house in Westport, Connecticut for Passover because it was a holiday that is observed in the home. We chose the night for our Seder by convenience. A Seder is traditionally held on the first night of the eight days of Passover.

After my grandparents died, my parents started hosting Passover in NYC for our extended family. Our Haggadah (below) features the wonderful art of Ben Shahn. The artist is Lithuanian-American like my father. Shahn published an illustrated Haggadah for his family in 1947. My mother assembled ours from assorted material at Temple Emanu-El. Our ceremony is short enough for the youngest child to sit through easily. It has a few prayers in Hebrew with the rest in English. Only my children have been to Hebrew School and not long enough to read it well.

The purpose of a Seder is to pass on the story of Passover to the next generation. The youngest child at the table asks four questions about the meaning of Pesach (Passover.) The leader answers the questions by holding up symbolic objects (pictured below.)

lamb shank: for God freeing the slaves
moror (bitter herbs): bitter lot of enslaved Jews
parsley dipped in salt water: tears of the slaves
roasted egg: Temple sacrifice
matzo: fleeing the Egyptians, there was not time to let the bread rise
haroses (chopped fruits, nut and wine): mortar used by the slaves

Everyone takes a turn reading a praise to God for the many miracles that led the Jews to freedom and to Israel. All respond “dayanu.” This translates roughly from the Hebrew as “that was enough.”

The highlight of the evening for the kids is letting in Elijah through the front door and racing back to see if the invisible angel drank his wine. My father brought back our silver chalice from Israel. Afterwards the children search for the afikomen (a piece of hidden matzo) and win a prize of money (or chocolate coins.)

I wonder if this is the origin of the Easter egg hunt? The Last Supper was Passover. I search for these common lines between Judaism and Christianity because my mother, my uncle and my husband are Christian. Our children are being raised with dual faiths as I was too.

What I especially loved about Geraldine Brook’s People of the Book was its inclusion of many religions. The Haggadah survived during times of persecution against Jews and their artifacts thanks in part to the help of Christians and Muslims as well as Jews. This may be a story about a Jewish book, but it is a tale that will appeal to people of all faiths.

People of the Book would also appeal to anyone who loves old books because the Sarajevo Haggadah in the novel truly exists (pictured below on the BBC.) The illustrations/illuminations, unusual for a Hebrew text of that time, make it special. The fictional protagonist is a rare book restorer. Hanna is called to Sarajevo when the Haggadah miraculously resurfaces after the Bosnian War. The novel is rich in detail about old book restoration.

Hanna uncovers five clues in the Haggadah. These traces from the past tell us about the Haggadah’s journey from Africa, to Spain, to Venice, to Vienna and then to Bosnia. For example there is a salt water drip on one page – is it from a Seder or a sea voyage? The fictional stories go back in time, each one better than the last until we witness the Haggadah’s imagined conception.

The five historical stories could have easily been expanded into separate books. I wish that this novel had been a series of five books because we only get fragments of fabulous stories. Brooks makes us fall in love with her characters and inhabit their ancient settings. Other than the gruesome torture scenes, we are reluctant to leave them behind.

Excerpt in Hanna’s voice: “I wanted to give a sense of the people of the book, the different hands that had made it, used it, protected it.”

People of the Book reminded me of an excellent movie, The Red Violin, which followed a violin through its 300 years. One minor criticism I have of the People of the Book is that the Haggadah is never used in a Seder. The reader wants to hear the violin make music. An Haggadah isn’t just a book or a precious artifact; it gains character through its use. This is why I began my book review with a description of my family’s Seder and our Haggadah.

A bigger flaw in the People of the Book is that the contemporary story, which holds all the historical stories together, is weak. This narrative device would have worked better if the central story had been as well crafted as the others in the collection. Hanna and her librarian-hero-lover are compelling characters, but Hanna’s mother is a silly caricature of a selfish brain surgeon.

The antagonistic mother-daughter plotline feels trite and melodramatic and does not belong in this subtly nuanced book. The writing loses its poetry and resorts to women’s fiction clichés. There are weak similes: a crocus full of snow does not look like cappuccino.

Even worse, the Hanna story suddenly changes pace and genre in the last chapter to become a Da Vinci Code suspense thriller. None of this was necessary and only detracts from an otherwise near perfect book.

Brooks shines as a writer of historical fiction. She won a Pulitzer Prize for March, which tells the fictional story of the father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women during the Civil War. I’m interested in reading that earlier novel and more from this brilliant author. I’m also interested in hearing your take on the People of the Book as several of you mentioned that you’ve read it.

Blog Watch: DoveGreyReader Scribbles and A Book A Week also reviewed People of the Book. If you want to learn more about Passover and how to design your own Seder, visit Jennifer Mirsky's Interactive Haggadah. Today is Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day hosted at May Dreams Garden. Nothing(!) is blooming in my northern garden, but I shot some spring action around my old NYC home. Happy Spring!


troutbirder said...

Very interesting. My son and his multi ethnic family recently participated in a seder at their church in Colorado. We will be visiting them in a few weeks and I look forward to hearing all about it.

Elizabeth said...

Yes, I'm always fascinated by how the symbols of different faiths are reflected /refracted/echoed in other ones.
A lovely explanation of the seder plate.
Your last photo stuns.

Sarah Laurence said...

Troutbirder, some churches do have Passover Seders. A Catholic friend of mine goes to one hosted by her parents. I always think it’s a good thing for house of worship to introduce other religions to their congregation.

Elizabeth, Passover is rich in symbolism. The last photo was my favorite too – so nice to have a bright blue sky in NYC especially after the torrential rain on Saturday.

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

Thanks for the great post! I started reading the book about a week ago and I am finding myself taking in by all that is happening in the book. I don't understand that much about Jewish history, but what I have read so far does help the reader to understand the pain the Jews have felt for so many centuries. Yes, I do love old books,libraries and history and I feel that's why the book is so interesting to me.

Sarah Laurence said...

Tracy, that’s a really good point – Brooks has done a lot of research about Jews in history and does a wonderful job of weaving historical fact into the narrative.

Hana Njau-Okolo said...

Thank you for sharing this. It is beautiful that you are passing on to your children, this rich heritage. I love the four questions at dinner. And the responses with their symbols.

Reading this post brought to mind what my parents spoke about often at the dinner table, growing up on East Africa. Utu (your soul, that intangible strength within you that must be fed). The transmission of oral history, religious practices and culture, the bedrock of a solid important it is.

Your photographs are all amazing.

A wonderful post.

Deb said...

Our Maundy Thursday service at our church focuses on the Passover feast and the connections between that and Christian Communion. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and beautiful photos.

Tessa said...

Fascinating post, Sarah, thank you for sharing the traditions of the Seder and the history of the Haggadah. I've learned a great deal today.

Your concise and interesting review of Geraldine Brooks' People of the Book is excellent and has persuaded me to order the book. I've not yet read any of her work.

Oh, and the glorious photographs to accompany your post are a delight.

D.A. Riser said...

Great review and pictures as always, Sarah. I've got this one targeted on my reading list.

Sarah Laurence said...

Mama Shujaa, thanks for sharing Utu with us. I like the image of a hungry soul.

Deb, that must have been a special service. How good to hear!

Tessa, I think you’ll really enjoy People of the Book too. Thank you!

D.A., I’ll be interested in hearing your reaction. You’ll appreciate the historical fiction.

tina said...

I like the pictures of NYC and the blooms. Hey-better than nothing but soon you should have lots blooming there. My mother said her crocuses have passed by, but daffodils on their way in. She can't wait for the lupines. For me, I can't wait for peonies! You have a very good day Sarah!

Sarah Laurence said...

Tina, I did see some crocuses out today if not in my garden. Your mother must get more sun. I’m determined to plant more bulbs in the fall. I can’t wait for lupines either. I missed them last summer.

LINDA from Each Little World said...

Thanks so much for sharing the meaning and rituals of the seder.

Frances said...

Hi Sarah, what an interesting bloom day post! I loved learning about the book and your family's traditions as well as passover, something I know very little about. Thanks to you, I now know quite a bit more. :-)

Sarah Laurence said...

Ms. Wis and Frances, I enjoyed your bloom day posts too. When I started this blog, I would never have guessed that I'd be a spokesperson for Passover.

TBM said...

How lovely that your parents continue this tradition. I missed celebrating Easter with our families back in Texas.

I enjoyed seeing your old NYC neighbourhood. It looks like it must have been a beautiful day :-)

Sarah Laurence said...

JAPRA, I’m sure your family missed you too over Easter. I missed Passover last year when we were on sabbatical. Even if you celebrate it abroad, it is hard to find what you need.

Our NYC visit was shorter than expected when our Friday evening flight was cancelled so we got in late that night. Saturday was stormy, but Sunday was perfect except we had to fly back at lunchtime. It was still worth it.

Phillip Oliver said...

Fascinating! I just read a review of this book a few weeks ago. I'm presently reading a biography of Flannery O'Connor. She has always been one of my favorite writers.

Sarah Laurence said...

Phillip, I read a review of that biography in the NYT – it sounds amazing. I hope you blog about it. I like her writing too.

Rose said...

A fascinating and informative post, Sarah. This book sounds very appealing to me, and I appreciate all the information about the traditions surrounding the Seder. The Easter egg hunt may very well have had its roots here. I've always thought there are so many parallels between different cultures and religions.

Gail said...

Sarah, We spend Passover Seder with dear friends every year...We are honored to be thought of as part of their family. It's a wonderful symbol rich holiday....

Thank you for the review of Book of the sounds like a wonderful book. Happy GBBD. gail

Jennifer said...


A great synthesis of the Seder and your photographs are just beautiful.

One of the many cool things about Passover is that it's a Jewish holiday but really is open to all faiths when it comes to a celebration and a reflection on freedom.


Interactive Haggadah said...

For example, I love this excerpt below from The Family Seder, Prepared by Rabbi Alfred J. Kolatch:

"The spirit of Passover, although created of the flesh and sinew of Judaism, belongs to all mankind. "since the Exodus," said Heinrich Heine, "freedom has spoken with a Hebrew accent." Today it speaks in the language of all men."

More of the text can be found here:

A Cuban In London said...

Another fascinating post. I was going to comment last night but was too tired and I'd rather leave it for later than post a below-par comment.

Your history is as interesting or even more interesting (sorry, Geraldine) than the book your described. I have always found it ironic that Jews seem to be more passive towards their religion than the followers of the two other Abrahamic faiths. Even with a more secular approach to it. I have met other Jewish families who will gather together during Passover and other highlights of the Jewsih calendar but will eschew the actual worshipping. I wonder if it's the effect of living in such a big melting pot like the US. Same situation here in the UK, I think. The book as such sounds faboulous and I'm not surprised about your comments regarding the plot. If you have a novel running through so many different themes, something will have to give. It is hard to hold all these various strands together, don't you think?

Many thanks for another beautifully written review. And keep enjoying Coldplay. I quite like their new record :-).

Greetings from London.

Mary Ellen said...

Sarah, I really enjoyed your review. I read this book at the urging of a friend who loved the rich Jewish history, but I must confess that I was as much attracted by the lavish descriptions of the book as it began to reveal its secrets. I find something fascinating about old books, and always wonder what path they took before I held them in my hands.

I appreciated your insight about the book's small shortcomings, and realized that I agreed, although I didn't quite articulate such, even to myself. I think you should add book reviewer to your already crowded and impressive resume!

I took a long walk yesterday (at 60 degrees) and thought of you and Stella. Hope you're enjoying spring.

Dave King said...

That was a wonderfully enjoyable read. Thank you so much for posting it. I do find Jewish culture eternally fascinating. I become quite envious of them at times. That would have been great even without the fabulous pictures.

Secret Aging Man (SAM) said...

A beautiful story about celebrating Passover in your family. God's mercy is truly amazing!

Stacy Nyikos said...

I agree with you about the modern day story. It sort of detracted from the amazing historical stories surrounding the Haggadah. I still loved falling into this book and getting lost in so many different cultures. Didn't the author also write, A Year of Wonders? It's a good piece as well, but People of the Book is, in my opinion, denser and more enthralling.

I wonder if the "thrill" ending was there to make the modern day story as enticing as the history of the Haggadah. To do its history justice with a fireworks sort of ending.

David Cranmer said...

Wonderful history, traditions, and photos. Thanks for sharing this with us.

Donna said...

I enjoyed this post very much. It was interesting to read about how your family has conducted Passover and Seder, as well as the story of your Haggadah, and I like how you connected this with the book.
I agree with what you wrote in your review. The plotline with Hanna's mother didn't seem necessary and it felt rather out-of-place, like it belonged in some other novel. I didn't mind the suspenseful plot twist at the end too much because I thought it gave a good resolution to the story. I most liked the historical parts of the story involving the Haggadah's journey and creation. You're right--people of all religions would appreciate it. I want to read March, and anything else Geraldine Brooks writes.
This was a great review!

Sarah Laurence said...

Rose, I think you’d like this book very much.

Gail, inviting others to a Seder is often a Passover tradition. I fondly remember going to my art teacher’s Seder in college. Her family had lived in Israel, and her husband and daughter got in an argument on how to pronounce the Hebrew – with a classic or contemporary Israeli accent. Another part of the Hebrew tradition is to question and to argue.

Jennifer/Interactive Haggadah, great quotation and very helpful website. Thanks!

ACIL, I always appreciate your thoughtful comments. Jews can feel very strongly about their faith even if they don’t attend temple regularly. Observance in the home, personal interpretations and questioning everything is all part of the Hebrew tradition. There are secular Jews as well as deeply religious Jews in the USA. I’m certainly a product of the melting pot. As for People of Book, Brooks was very ambitious in her scope, and you make a good point about the difficulty of holding onto all the plot strands. She did an admirable job as is. With kids in the house, Coldplay will rock on - I enjoyed your thought on that group on your blog.

Mary Ellen, I was very drawn into the lush book descriptions too. My husband collects old books. One of his rules is to use them. I still feel like a kid sneaking into an adult cocktail party when I flip through our complete works of Shakespeare bound in leather. I love it. Being a book reviewer would be a dream job, although I have the luxury of reviewing only books I like. Your comment reminded me to get out and walk Stella this evening before responding. It was lovely, thank you!

Dave, there is something awe inspiring about being part of a tradition that goes back so far in time.

SAM and David, thank you!

Stacy, that’s interesting that we had a similar reaction to Hanna’s story. Your comment highlights how difficult it would be to create a contemporary story that could bracket those historical gems. Brooks did write A Year of Wonders, but I haven’t read it. I like your interpretation of the ending. I know as a writer, endings are tricky, and hers does go out with a bang.

Donna, you reaction to the ending agrees with Stacy’s which is making me rethink what it was about the ending that rubbed me the wrong way (without giving it away!) I think it was a pace issue. A Book A Week made a good point that it was like the author wasn’t sure if the novel was the Haggadah’s story or Hanna’s story. My thought is that Brooks would have been able to develop the contemporary story around the Haggadah better without the distraction of Hanna’s family. The Haggadah itself should be the protagonist. Thanks so much for your input.

All, what a stimulating book discussion this has been especially since a bunch of your have read it. I feel like I’ve just left a stimulating college seminar. After a long day of solitary novel writing, it is wonderful to have these interactions. Thank you!

♥ Boomer ♥ said...

Very interesting! And happy spring to you, as well. Always love visiting your blog, Sarah. I learn something every single time. Thank you.

Rosaria Williams said...

Thank you for reviewing the book and giving us a bit of history and update of a most important occasion. Did you know that our new president hosted a
Seder at the White House?

Barrie said...

Great review and post. I loved all the details. Our church (Anglican) hosted a seder supper when I was growing up.

Sarah Laurence said...

Mimi, thanks!

Lakeviewer, it was wonderful to hear that Obama hosted the White House’s first Seder.

Barrie, that’s good to hear. My husband is Anglican and my mother is Episcopalian.

walk2write said...

For some reason, Sarah, your book reviews cut to the heart of the matter. They're such a help to me as a writer as well as a reader to see a work's weaknesses as well as its strengths. You do such a good job of helping us understand them. I love the personal touches you add to every review. It reminds us that literature is meant to be savored and shared like a well-prepared feast.

Cid said...

I read Brooks "Nine Parts of Desire" and found it a fascinating exploration of Islam and the role of women in it. Brooks wrote it while she was a correspondant in the Middle East and it captures the day to day lives of women and how and why their religion affects it. I will pick up a copy of "People of the Book", thank you for your review.

Sarah Laurence said...

W2W, that’s so nice to hear. It’s tough love: I only review books I love, but I still look at them critically. I learn as much from a writer’s mistakes as from her victories. Reading is very personal, and all the more fun for being able to share “the feast” with other readers like you.

Cid, welcome to my blog. Thanks for sharing Nine Parts of Desire – it sounds like a fascinating read. I’ll be curious to hear what you think of Brooks’s fiction.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

I would like to read this. I enjoyed March very much, and think you might as well.

I loved your description and explanation of the Seder. The rituals of one's faith are often so very meaningful. There is the temptation sometimes to be on autopilot with something so familiar that it is nice to remember the true meanings behind what we do.

Lovely post, and review.

Sarah Laurence said...

Pamela, good to get a personal recommendation for March. Thanks!

Michelle said...

I really enjoyed "People of the Book" and I found your review shares many of my feelings about this book. I am Jewish, but always enjoy learning more about Judaism and I really enjoyed diving into different periods of history and learning more about what it was like to be Jewish then. I too found the modern story a bit weak. I have passed this book on to my mother, but worry that she might read too much into the mother/daughter conflict. I did actually enjoy the Da Vinci Code and have been telling people that this book is a bit like a Da Vinci Code for chicks. I am looking forward to reading Brooks' other novels.

Sarah Laurence said...

Michelle, welcome to my blog! Thanks for sharing your impressions. I learned from this book too. I think if Brooks had cut the mother-daughter story, she could have developed the Da Vinci Code book plot so that it fit the narrative better. I enjoyed The Da Vinci Code too, but I liked People of the Book better.