Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Cannonball Read #17: People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

I have been thinking more and more about teaching, and I have to say, this little gem has done a great deal to promote the idea. Before, I just wanted to teach because I enjoy being smart and because I feel like my chances at improving the world will be better if I have the opportunity to foster curiousity and social and political engagement in many students, rather than working with a small passel of politicos to keep saying the same shit year in and year out. Now, I want to teach because apparently even the dustiest academic disciplines are full of wild sex, international adventures, and high drama. I mean, academics are supposed to be dingy-looking, cantankerous, wrinkled, suede-elbow-patched asthmatics, right? But Geraldine Brooks' rare book expert, Hanna Heath, is tumbling into bed with a studly and heroic librarian by PAGE FORTY! The hell with political science, I'm going into book restoration.

Here's the deal. Hanna Heath is an expert in her field, and is called to Sarajevo to study and preserve a remarkable piece of history, the Sarajevo Haggadah. She travels to Sarajevo, and begins to parse out the history of the book through small remnants of civilization left between and on its pages. Had Geraldine Brooks stopped at that storyline, this would be a terrific book. Brooks flips between modern-day Hanna and historical vignettes that revolve around each of the fragments Hanna finds in the Haggadah...a butterfly wing, a white hair, a wine stain. The historical sections are beautifully rendered, with a rich religious tone and well drawn characters. These parts roughly trace the path of the Haggadah through centuries of conflict, and I found them to be quite thought provoking as well. It certainly raises the question of whether the importance of some objects supercedes religious and social boundaries, to say nothing of the questions about fate that are presented by the chance survival of the Haggadah.

However, Brooks did serious damage to her book by getting absolutely ridiculous with Hanna Heath's personal life. Not only is she getting it on with the Hunky Librarian after being in town for about 30 seconds, not only did this encounter begin with her licking "grease" off his finger that he'd just wiped off her face (um...ew? Grease? Really?), but she then goes against his wishes in regard to the medical care of his vegetative and maimed young son and takes nefariously obtained copies of the son's medical records to another city for a second opinion. Give me a break. Oh, and by the way, Hanna goes on at length about how tough and emotionall detached she is with men, only to have made a complete reversal by the end of the book for no clear reason. This is all before you get to the handwringing over her Emotionally Distant, Disapproving Doctor Mom, who looks down on Hanna's chosen profession. I probably don't even need to say that Hanna's father's identity is being kept a secret by her mother and it all comes out in a completely implausible way.

The modern-day portions of People of the Book are simply overdone. Had Brooks stuck with the historical narrative, this would be a unique and fascinating read, but as it is, I spent half of every present day chapter rolling my eyes in incredulity. Brooks tried to do too much, and as a result, the whole thing is excessively soapy and cliched. Regrettably, this quality made it extremely difficult to really immerse myself entirely in the vastly superior historical chapters. I also found the dialogue forced and the colloquialisms awkward. Again, this may be a consequence of trying to do too much...well written Australian is hard enough to pull off without trying to incorporate Bostonianism into the mix. Australian and Bostonian caricatures are some of the most overused and poorly handled in literature and film, and Brooks fumbles on both counts. As I understand it, she IS Australian, so I have no idea why she's so horrible at portraying her native citizenry. This is all to say nothing of the "twists," which I won't spoil here because this book is worth your time for the historical chapters, but they', and poorly executed.

I bought this book because I thought the idea of drawing history from a book's pages sounded fascinating. I love documetaries on forensic science, and I love religious and social history, and the idea of blending the two sounded great. The sections of this book that actually followed the historical and forensic plotlines absolutely lived up to my optimism. It's just unfortunate that the more romance novelly bits were allowed in.

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