People of the Book, by Gwendolyn Brooks

People of the Book
People of the Book
And now back to our regularly scheduled blogging...

This weekend, I finished reading Geraldine Brooks' People of the Book. This book follows the history (sort of) of the Sarajevo Haggadah. Basically, Brooks created a history for the book based on what was known and what she invented for the purposes of plot. The story is narrated, for the most part, by a fictional book conservator, who is called in to assess and conserve the Haggadah after it was removed from a bank vault where it had been kept since the Bosnian wars of the early 1990s. The conservator, Hanna, examines the book and finds a few trace elements of where the book has been since its creation: a butterfly wing, a white hair, wine and salt water stains. Hanna's narrative is interrupted with chapters that show a part of the imagined history of the book, through World War II, fin de siècle Vienna, seventeenth century Venice, and fifteenth century Spain and North Africa.

Throughout this book, the Haggadah is threatened with destruction. What really moved me about this book, though, is the lengths that people--especially librarians--went to to save the book. Twice, in the twentieth century, Muslim librarians hid the Haggadah to save it. One of the characters summarized the book the best:
Well, from what you've told me, the book has survived the same human disaster over and over again. Think about it. You've got a society where people tolerate difference, like Spain in the Convivencia, and everything's humming along: creative, prosperous. Then somehow this fear, this hate, this need to demonize 'the other'--it just sort of rears up and smashes the whole society. Inquisition, Nazis, extremist Serb nationalists...same old, same old. (195)
The real history of the Haggadah may not be as remarkable as the one that Brooks invented. During the Serbian/Bosnian wars, museums and libraries were targeted, because the combatants didn't just want to destroy their enemies, but also their enemies' cultural heritage. Tragic. But I am proud to be a librarian, because of the heroism of the librarians in this book and in the Haggadah's actual history. I work with books and texts all the time, but what if something happened to the library? What would I try to save of our books?


Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, Parts V-VIII

Yes, folks, I am done with Anna Karenina. Hurrah! I waited 'till now to post on the last half of the book because, damn, I just wanted to be done. It's not that the book is horrible, it's just that it's really, really long and there's enough action for about half of its length. On the whole, I prefer Dickens when I want to read a social epic. Which reminds me that I need to get around to actually reading Oliver Twist some day.

So, final thoughts...

Divorce and marriage and jealousy: As the book goes on, Anna grows increasingly jealous of Vronsky. It's not that he hangs out with other women, it's that Anna left her husband for another man and she's afraid that he's going to do the same to her. Vronsky, on the other hand, wants Anna to divorce her husband and marry him, so they they can stop living on the fringes of society, and so that their child (or future children) have legal rights of inheritance. I was a little surprised at how responsible Vronsky turned out, even though he has lingering problems of feeling suffocated by Anna and needing to assert his "freedom." I lost most of my sympathy for Anna before the end of Part VII, when I started to feel badly for her again. Anna's jealousy makes her clingy, and I'm not surprised the Vronsky needs his occupations.

Religion: Towards the end of the book, Levin has a crisis of faith. It's kind of a classic example of "no atheists in a foxhole." When his wife goes into labor, Levin gets very (justifiably) fearful of her surviving the experience. So, he starts praying very sincerely for Kitty to be okay. And from there until he has an epiphany at the end, Levin starts to question his rather blasé agnosticism. He starts asking the big questions of "Why are we here?" and "What is our purpose here?" His agnosticism, of course, doesn't have any answers. So he starts reading philosophies, and isn't satisfied. At the end, I think he realizes that his soul craves the comfort of religion. If that sounds a little over dramatic, serious spiritual questioners will understand what I mean.

As I read this, though, I kind of felt that Tolstoy didn't really explore this very interesting topic. It seemed--probably in comparison to a lot of depth on the subject of marriage and adultery--to be a superficial skimming over a potentially deep topic. I've thought that Anna Karenina feels like two novels crammed together, one about a woman named Anna Karenina and the other about a guy named Konstantin Levin. In the beginning, the juxtaposition makes sense. Anna's plot threads show what happens when a marriage goes wrong; Levin's shows what happens when it goes right. But by the end, the plots are no longer counter-balancing each other; they've gone off on their own tangents.

Tolstoy's agenda: What really started to kill the book for me was Tolstoy's increasingly obvious attempts to use the novel and its characters to make his points about contemporary art, academia, and music. I have an annotated edition of Anna Karenina, and a lot of the references to art, etc., had endnotes that described Tolstoy's opinion. The man had a lot of opinions, and it seemed like there wasn't much he liked about contemporary trends. He either thought they were unnatural failures (music), frivolous (art), or solipsistic and comical (academia).  Tolstoy kept having his characters do meet artists or attend concerts or interact with scholars, and then using the characters as mouthpieces for whatever he had to say. I've never seen this done well, which for me means that the characters' monologues don't interrupt the narrative and/or are out of character.

Even though this book doesn't really work for me as a novel, I can see that it would be a goldmine for literary critics and scholars.

I think I might donate my copy to the library, since I don't see myself ever reading this again. It's a good translation though. I think if the translators hadn't done such a good job, this book would have been an even big chore to read that it was.