June 20, 2009

People of the Book

First the fun one: Outrageous Fortune, recommmended by LadyFi. I'll let you read her review, which has enough detail to tell you if this is the right book for you. Suffice it to say that I really enjoyed it and thought the writing was a cross between Douglas Adams and Haruki Murakami (who is kind of a Japanese Douglas Adams).

There isn't a German Douglas Adams that I'm aware of.

Now the other one, the one I had to force myself to read: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. It was excellent but heavy going, although she writes with a skilled light touch. I don't usually read books like this because they're gloomy, not to mention informative, but it was a book club book. So I exerted myself.

What a good but sad book. The heroine's difficult life didn't move me much as her personal challenges were microscopic in the face of the historical background of the book she restored (an exquisitely illustrated Jewish Haggadah). The writer did a very clever job describing clues in the Haggadah, such as salt or wine traces, then telling a story about how they got there. The reader gets a front row seat at particularly ugly episodes of human history: the bombing of Sarajevo, the coldly merciless Nazi hunt for both Jews and Jewish books, the Spanish Inquisition, the ancient wars between the Spanish Christians and the Moors.

People of the Book offers some fascinating insights into history, although I'm not a history buff and don't swear to have all my facts straight so please don't be too nit picky. For example, if the Jews hadn't bankrolled the ancient Christian war against the Moors, might the Jews and Muslims have avoided their age-long enmity? And would the Jews still have been expelled from Spain when Torquemada - evil, evil, evil, I didn't even like Googling him in case his evil spirit somehow lives on in the Internet - claimed that the victory made possible by Jewish gold came from God?

Plus I'm thinking Ferdinand and Isabella weren't so crazy about owing all that money with interest and were probably already pretty open to the idea of exiling the Jews in order to avoid paying it back. So I guess the lesson here is that it's never wise to put extremely powerful people too much in your debt, even if funding a brutal war doesn't give you any qualms.

And perhaps if this same victory hadn't put so much power into the fanatic and unscrupulous hands of the Christian church they wouldn't have gotten away with the Inquisition, which was a fascinating study in pure premeditated evil. Watching the priests calmly burning books - and people - that so much as hinted at the goodness or holiness of anything non-Christian and deliberately suppressing knowledge that conflicted with the silly mumbo jumbo taught by the Church in those days (like the earth is flat) was absolutely horrific. I needed a shower.

And you can actually witness the stage being set as early as the 14th century by the architects of the Spanish Inquisition for the later anti-Jewish sentiment in (disgusting, venereal disease-ridden) Vienna that was the warning bell for the horrors of WWII.

I finished the book feeling more repulsed than usual by the history of Christianity. But wait, the Christians weren't the only bad guys in People of the Book, although they do stand out a bit thanks to Torquemada and his disciples. Because everyone pretty much everyone else sucked, too.

The Jews are depicted as matter-of-factly mercenary when it came to looking out for their own interests, and one weak rabbi used the money he received to help his impoverished flock to feed his own gambling addiction, which was illegal and put his entire family at risk of horrible death. That was the hardest chapter for me - which is saying a lot - because I kept worrying about his children sleeping at home, unnecessarily put into deadly danger by his actions.

Tito callously abandons his underage army to their fate.

The Serbs are bloodthirsty murderers with no real agenda beyond killing their peaceful Muslim neighbors.

The UN peacekeeping force is a pathetic joke.

The rest of us are apathetic losers that won't lift a finger to help dying children.

Land developers destroy natural resources and historical works of art such as cave paintings with a greedy eye to personal profit.

The heroine's own mother, a WASP I believe, turns out to be unbelievably cold-blooded and self-centered.

Although it's supposed to be about individual heroism and sacrifice to save a beautful book, this is not a book about nice people. Then again, I guess if it were, the Haggadah wouldn't have needed to be saved so many times.

Interestingly, the real heros of the book tend to be young girls of both Jewish and Muslim faith. And the Muslims also come out of it pretty well, risking their lives to save a young girl from Nazis, not to mention saving the Haggadah several times throughout history.

Anyway, although it was a very well-written book it was hard, hard going and I felt extremely sad about the human condition and all its victims by the end of it. This is going to sound trite, but can't we all just get along? And if we can't, could we at least leave the children out of it???

Now I'm reading Lily White by Susan Isaacs, recommended by Jessica. Way different genre. Very intelligent and witty. Plenty of insights but no uncomfortable soul searching. No gratuitous millionaire love interests. Just what the doctor ordered.


  1. I have the 50 page rule. If I don't like it after 50 pages, I'm done. Life's too short and there are so many good reads out there. Sorry you had to endure just for your book club. :(

  2. I loved The People of the Book - I thought it was a brilliant read and so deftly written. I agree with you that the history of the last thousand years is pretty awful in terms of human inhumanity, but, hey, kudos to Brooks for facing up to it. Glad to hear you have something lighter to follow.

  3. I haven't heard of any of these books. I like The Dental Maven's rule. Sometimes I feel like I have to finish a book I started. That's what happened with the Twilight series. And then I got over it.

  4. Wow! Sounds quite a book (The People of the Book)... definitely something I would like... THanks for the tip.

  5. Just, for what it's worth, I think that Goethe was the German Douglas Adams. I mean, "Sorrows of Young Werther"? Hi-larious!

  6. i loved that book. i sort of felt the point was that the people we cast as the good guys these days aren't always good just as the people we cast as bad guys aren't always bad. and that the casting varies by era.

  7. At first I thought your title was a play on words, after "People of the Lie."

    I like Dental Maven's rule, too, but mine's a little shorter: if I'm not engaged in five pages, it's a put-downer.

    Lily White sounds good. I'm stocking up on books for a summer trip and it's on my list.

  8. Does your book club have a rule that at least one person in the group has to have read the book and liked it before recommending it to read??

  9. What a weird coincidence... a friend of mine just called me about the People of the Book and told me I should read it!


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