Review: People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

Dr. Hanna Heath is an Australian book conservator, sought after for her unique ability to preserve antique books.  When this book opens in 1996, Hanna has been called in to work on the Sarajevo Haggadah, a 500-year-old Jewish text, and one of the oldest of its kind.   The Haggadah originated in Spain, and traveled through Italy and Germany before arriving in Bosnia.  Tucked into the ancient pages are evidence of its long journey:  tiny fragments of butterfly wing, a strand of hair, etc.  Intrigued, Hanna decides to analyze these fragments and bring the Haggadah’s history to life.

Hanna’s modern-day analysis is interspersed with chapters working backwards to the Haggadah’s origins.  While Hanna can only make inferences based on chemical analysis, author Geraldine Brooks imagines characters and situations that explain the butterfly wing, the hair fiber, and creation of the Haggadah itself.  She takes us to Nazi Germany, 16th-century Venice, and 15th-century Spain, painting a vivid portrait of Jewish persecution.  Each act of oppression and violence takes the Haggadah to a new country and ultimately to its final home.   While this is based in fact, it is largely fiction (Brooks’ Afterword clearly explains all of this).

Meanwhile in the present time, Hanna has a contentious and complicated relationship with her mother, and develops feelings for a Bosnian man involved in the Haggadah conservation.  The romance was insufficiently developed, and didn’t seem credible, and the denouement was a bit rushed.  Still, I enjoyed reading the interconnected history of something I knew very little about.

Review: Salvation City, by Sigrid Nunez

After thirteen-year-old Cole Vining lost both parents in a flu pandemic, he was taken in by Wyatt and Tracy, a young evangelical couple living in Salvation City.  Cole’s family had only recently moved from Chicago to southern Indiana when the pandemic hit. Cole had been sick, but survived, although he suffered some memory loss.  Since he had no other family, he was placed in an orphanage with scores of children who suffered a similar fate.  Pastor Wyatt (PW) and Tracy, unable to have children of their own, felt called by God to provide for an orphan.

Salvation City is an evangelical community that sprung up around the church.  Their fundamentalist beliefs and values are foreign to Cole, whose family did not practice religion.  Prayer is a regular part of life, and he is home-schooled by Tracy whose own education did not adequately prepare her for this role.  But he is well cared for, even loved.  As Cole recovers, his memory also returns and the reader learns more about his parents, their awful deaths, and the social and economic havoc resulting from the pandemic.  Cole also begins to see PW and Tracy in a new light, as human beings with all the usual flaws.  He is then faced with situations that cause him to question the prevailing values in Salvation City, his own beliefs, and what he wants from life.

While Cole’s personal drama was interesting, I found descriptions of the pandemic most realistic and disturbing.  In the abstract, it’s easy to assume that if a real pandemic struck everything would work out.  But in this book, medical supplies ran out, food was scarce, and healthcare professionals simply couldn’t keep up.  Some people died because of the flu’s severity, but many more died simply because they were unable to receive care.  People who failed to take preventive measures early were most likely to suffer.  I was struck by just how probable it all was.  And one day while I was reading this book, my husband coughed and I nearly panicked, thinking he might be afflicted.  The book felt that real.

While something about Cole’s story fell a bit flat at the end, this was a chilling story that will stay with me for a while.

This book was also reviewed in Belletrista, Issue 7

Review: The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson

I couldn’t get into this book, no matter how hard I tried.  I’m not even sure what to say in a review!

The book opens with a middle-aged man, Julian Treslove, getting mugged one night after a dinner with his friends Sam Finkler and Libor Sevcik.  Sam and Libor are recently widowed; Julian has gone from one woman to the next, leaving the detritus of relationships — including two now-grown children — in his wake.  Sam and Libor are Jews, which fascinates Julian.  As he recovers from the shock of being mugged, his fascination turns into an obsession.  He attempts to “become Jewish,” although in more of a cultural than religious sense.

At first, I thought perhaps I just didn’t understand the Jewish cultural references.  And I really didn’t like the characters.  Then I read a review that gave me hope, saying the second half of the book was better.  I persevered.  And it was better, but not enough to salvage it for me.  It was a very “talky” book, with endless conversation about both big ideas and minutiae.  I found the chapters devoted to Libor the most moving, as he mourned the recent loss of his wife.  But Sam was a stuffy prat, and Julian was a selfish jerk.

I normally enjoy Booker Prize winners.  But not this one.

Review: The Bell, by Iris Murdoch

The Bell explores themes of sexuality and power, like most of Iris Murdoch’s novels, and this time it is set against a religious backdrop.  When Dora Greenfield leaves her domineering husband Paul, he escapes to Imber, a lay religious community in the countryside.  As a guest he receives food and lodging, and a place to focus on his academic research.  Dora later decides to attempt reconciliation, and joins Paul at Imber.  On her way she meets Toby, who plans to spend the summer at Imber before leaving for university.

The Imber community is small, mostly male, and adjoins a Benedictine abbey whose nuns are cloistered for life..  Imber’s leader is Michael Meade, whose family originally owned the estate.  The other members are mostly misfits who have withdrawn from mainstream society.  Together they tend the estate and the market garden, and organize daily worship activities.  The community as a whole is looking forward to two significant events:  the ceremonial installation of a new bell at the Abbey, and one Imber member’s planned installation as a cloistered nun.  Dora and Toby both assimilate into the community to varying degrees.  Dora, by association with Paul, is always a bit of an outsider and finds the group’s customs a bit awkward.  Toby is young and impressionable, finding spiritual fulfillment in Imber’s natural beauty.

I first thought The Bell would be about Dora and Paul’s relationship, but it is much more about Michael and his inner struggles with sexuality and faith.  It turns out Michael is gay, and suffered early in his career when his orientation became known to others.  He also knows that a faith community will not be sympathetic.  Murdoch, on the other hand, is sympathetic, which likely went against the grain of British society when this novel was published in 1958.  Michael tries desperately to keep his desires at bay even in the face of temptation, and conceal his true self from the rest of the Imber community.  Sometimes this is almost comic, but at the novel’s climax it becomes gut-wrenching, such that what happens to Dora and Paul is almost ancillary.

This novel was full of symbolism and imagery around the bell itself, and I felt as if Dora was meant to be the heroine, but for me Michael’s story was more central and had greater impact.