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Brenda Barrie


Reviewed by Brenda Barrie, For the Winnipeg Jewish Review

[Editor’s Note: It is with great pleasure that I welcome Brenda Barrie to the pages of the Winnipeg Jewish Review, all the way from the golden State. Brenda Barrie, a native of Winnipeg, now living in Southern California, is a poet and novelist. Her Novel, The Binding is available on Amazon—type in ‘‘The Binding by Brenda Barrie’. Her book of poetry Full Speed, full stop will be reprinted this summer and her second novel, The Rabbi’s Husband, will soon be available.]

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks is a natural for discussion in any book club. But, as the reviewer of this book for my synagogue book club I have to table a minority report. With eight people present, I was one of the two who were not impressed. The other six all said “I loved it,” one way or another.
Our synagogue book club is much like any other, except we always eat first –some of the best pot luck dinners I've ever seen, (and tasted). Because our book choosing system is relentlessly democratic, with each person having a turn –even if they don't want one—we have read some very strange books.   Some of the choices have led us to insist that the selected book be available in paperback and, that someone from the group has actually read it before. Romances particularly, while they can be fun to read,  don't give the group much to talk about.  As it happens my group doesn't limit itself to Jewish books.  The group feeling is that since we are all Jewish, that's our primary filter, so we can read anything.  However, as I said, People of The Book is a logical choice for any book club, Jewish or non.

Now, let me tell you why I didn't love People of the Book.

The book is ‘based on a true story’ of the Sarajevo Haggadah, which, in modern times, was saved by the combined efforts of many people including the book conservator, who is the featured character (Dr. Hanna Heath).  It's also very important to the author that we realize that the rescuers are of different religions, especially historically. In  modern times, one of the major rescuers is Islamic.  Since he is a book lover and a museum curator, I don't see this as a major statement about inter-faith cooperation.  Rather, it seems to me that educated people find it easier to find common cause.  And in this case, historically important books are the common cause.

Readers also learn that this Sarajevo Haggadah endured much wandering and major dangers in its past history. But the novelist provides us with this information in a disconcertingly ‘episodic’ style which keeps People of The Book from ever becoming a fully realized novel.

I admit to a bias here.  I do not like books constructed in this manner.  (The Girl in Hyacinth Blue was another of this type detailing the history of a painting owned by a Jewish family deeply affected by the Holocaust.) The style makes for some species of a lengthy book, but linked episodes do not make a novel.   James Michener did this kind of thing, but, especially when writing of ancient times, he did a better job, probably because he worked on a larger canvas.

I thought many of the plot devices, the various characters introduced, the problems the lead character has with her mother, were very ‘creaky’ and very obvious.  In this, one other person in our book club agreed with me. In fact she was the one who called the plot devices just that, devices, not natural-seeming story telling.

Also, the two of us (the minority report I referred to) found the title, People of the Book,  to be a prime example of chutzpah.  And, misleading.  The book here is not THE BOOK and I therefore I find the title presumptuous.

There was more, but, I think these points are sufficient-- I will say that much of what was real information was fascinating, although I’d just as soon have seen it presented as a documentary on the Discovery Channel or the History Channel…

Remember, this is a minority report.  If you like Judaica in its many forms, you’ll probably enjoy reading People of the Book. You will find though, on checking major reviews,  that several of them make the same points I do.

Geraldine Brooks, who won a Pulitzer for March (which I thought was the most sadly predictable “Civil War” novel ever written) also wrote Year of Wonders, a really fine novel.

Brenda Barrie served as Director of Community Relations for the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg from 1983 to 1991. She has two children and  nine grandchildren currently living in Winnipeg. 

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.