I’m finally starting to make a “dent” in my to-be-read shelves! YAY! On the downside, due to work events and the seasonal time change affecting me more than usual this book took two weeks to read, which is sad because it was so beautifully written.
I’m going to start by saying take my review with a grain of salt because this is a book about books and writing and conservation so of course I loved it. It also coincided with our visit to the 39th Annual Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair (a blog post about it on The New Antiquarian as the BIABF’s website appears to be down), which was great because we saw many religious texts which reminded me that I needed to finish reading this wonderful book! I’ll talk more about the fair later in a special Culture Corner post, hopefully, or at the very least in my November recap in early December.
This was an incredibly moving and elaborate fictionalized account of the Sarajevo Haggadah (Wikipedia Link). Brooks takes what is known about the book and then expounds upon it expertly. She gives a brief overview of what is actually known in the afterward, but I honestly could believe everything she wrote in the novel was the truth! I wanted it to be true. The harrowing journey of such a historical piece of literature/art/culture and it’s survival has to be as fantastical as what Brooks wrote, even if we will never know the actual story.
There were a couple of things I really enjoyed about the novel. I wasn’t sure at first, but ultimately I really enjoyed the evolution of Hannah Heath, the main character. I thought it was a bit of a distraction to include her mother’s story, but as the book progressed I truly appreciated the mirroring of her own journey and that of the fictional Sarajevo Haggadah. I felt the ending fit perfectly if it was a bit gushy.
The other thing that stood out to me was Brooks’ sense of place. I’m not sure if she visited everywhere she wrote about but you could definitely tell she’s Australian, she’s been to Sarajevo and DEFINITELY spent time in Boston. I nearly died reading her two page description of the horrors of commuting in Boston because 1) they were spot on; 2) I’ve had the same thoughts; and 3) who doesn’t love their home being described in excruciatingly accurate detail, you may defend it to the death, but it’s still true. Seriously, come for a visit and we can go in the creepy-as tunnels:
“I took the T from Logan airport to Harvard Square. I hate driving in Boston. It’s the traffic that drives me spare, and the absolutely terrible manners of the motorists. Other New Englanders refer to Massachusetts drivers as “Massholes.” But there’s a whole other reason not to drive there: the tunnels. My cowardice doesn’t extend that far. I don’t have trouble with the Sydney Harbour Tunnel, for instance. It’s bright down there, clean and shiny, confidence inspiring. But when you go into Boston tunnels, they’re really creepy. They’re dim, and the tiles are leak stained, as if Boston Harbor is oozing its way through flaws in substandard concrete that some Irish mafia conned the city into buying. They look like they’re going to crack open any minute, like something in a Spielberg movie, and the last thing you hear will be the roar of freezing water. My imagination can’t handle it.” (134)
I also thoroughly enjoyed Brooks’ description of book conservation and how it works and what could potentially go into identifying the history and provenance of a book. I’m even thinking that would be an excellent career choice if I ever get too bored with what I’m doing for work. She also had great insight into world affairs and the idea that history repeats itself, especially if we don’t learn from our past. I’m thinking of the burning and looting of the museums in Iraq in the early 2000s and the current fiasco and destruction of invaluable artifacts by Islamic State.
“‘I’m thinking that if I could have one wish, this would be the last book eer to be burned in my city.’ It was the cold hour, just before sunrise. I stared at the flames thinking of blackening parchments in a medieval auto-da-fé; of youthful Nazi faces, lit by bonfires of burning books; of the shelled and gutted ruin, just a few blocks away, of Sarajevo’s library. Book burnings. Always the forerunners. heralds of the stake, the ovens, the mass graves.” (367)
Recommendation: Overall, this is another wonderful book by Brooks. I think this and Year of Wonders are better than March because they’re historical fiction and not fan-fiction based on historical fact. There’s just something so believable about her writing and research that it reminds me of Skloot’s comment to a student about making presumptions on historical fact and how she researches every minuscule detail! Maybe I should’ve gone into journalism or consider that instead of book conservation!? Oh to grow up one day 😀
Opening Line: “I might as well say, right from the jump: it wasn’t my usual kind of job.”
Closing Line: “This time, I didn’t pull away.” (Whited out to avoid spoilers, highlight to read.)