Welcome to the book blog of writer and creative writing tutor, Diane Paul.

Thanks to the publishers and kind PR people who send me books and releases about their clients' books for review. Press releases and review copies of fiction and non-fiction are always welcome. (No sci-fi, fantasy or erotica please.)

Due to the barrage of requests from self-published authors for reviews, I'm unable to deal with them all, although I'm sometimes drawn to non-fiction for the subject matter. And because I love print books, the smell, the touch of the paper and the sight of the words, I don't have an electronic reader or review e-books.

E-mail to: bookblogforbookworms@keywordeditorial.com for the postal address.

My writing website: http://www.keywordeditorial.com/

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Mysterious past of the Sarajevo Haggadah

The Sarajevo Haggadah is a medieval Jewish prayer book and in her novel, People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks's brilliant history of its origins and survival through the upheavals of Jewish persecution through the ages is not all mythology, for there is such a Haggadah and some of her story is based on fact. Like all authors who possess a creative imagination, she weaves her own story from what she learned about the book during her research. In effect, this novel covers several genres - history, religion, mystery and detective work - and having read books before that attempt mixed genres, she succeeds where others fail. Having a background as a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal may have helped with her knowledge of the various countries where the action takes place but it certainly helped with her ability to research; no detail is left uncovered and we receive lessons in the minutiae of book conservation, the art of painting miniatures, wine analysis and much more. Most of it was fascinating and illuminating but I have to say that by the end of the book, the words 'too much  information' came to mind and I wondered why the author felt the need to air quite so much erudition. It happens sometimes. Apart from that, I devoured the book's 368 pages as though I'd just come off a fast.

Some people have compared this book to Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code and I wasn't surprised to hear that. The thought had already flashed across my mind while the protagonist was flitting from one continent to another without stopping for a loo break or a hamburger and chips and I wondered who was paying her airline bills; this was what I disliked most about Brown's book and what smacked it in the credibility face. That apart, I found People of the Book beyond comparison in that it had far more literary style and a more realistic and original plot and it's written by a seasoned journalist and Pulitzer Prizewinner. The main characters were well developed and had their own lives stranded around the plot until its resolution but there was a cutoff point at which I felt it was time to end and it didn't.

The Haggadah* in question is rescued from the ruins of war-torn Sarajevo - ironically by a muslim (not for the first time) - having originally come to light there in 1894. Ozren Karaman, head of the National Museum library saves it under intense shelling and stores it in a bank vault. In 1996 rare book restorer Hanna Heath is asked to work on the ancient book, which belongs to the Museum. The book, with its lavishly painted miniatures, has survived for 600 years on its journey through wars and persecutions and times of peace where people of all faiths have lived together in harmony. Hannah becomes fascinated by its history - I would even say obsessed - and the clues she picks up from objects she finds trapped within its pages - salt crystals, a hair, wine stains, a butterfly wing - provide the basis of its story as we backtrack in time through its adventures to its origins. It's a fascinating jigsaw of people through the ages, linked by the theme of persecution and how people survive or perish in times of terror.

*What is a Haggadah? It's a prayer book and instruction book for young people used during the home service of Passover and it tells the story of the Exodus from Egypt, when the Jews fled from bondage. It includes songs and psalms recited to celebrate the Festival. It was introduced nearly 2,500 years ago to comply with words from the Old Testament Exodus, first published as a book in the 13th century and there have been many alterations made over the years with each new version.

People of the Book is published by Harper Perennial, 2008. Geraldine's website is at http://www.geraldinebrooks.com/ and on it she gives the history of the Sarajevo Haggadah.

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