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Book Report: People of the Book

A Gentle Reader handed me a copy of People of the Book a couple of months ago or so; I don’t actually remember when it was, but I do remember thinking that looks good and then setting it on the shelf. And not on the shelf-of-books-I-want-to-read-next shelf, either, just on the near-where-I-was-standing-when-I-put-the-book-down shelf. Which is just as well, I suppose; I very rarely pick books up off the books-I-want-to-read-next shelf. It’s sad, really. I also rarely remember to get books off the library-books shelf, which is worse, but when I can manage to restrict myself to only one or two books from the local library at one time, it’s not too bad. One of them goes directly from the library-books satchel to the nightstand or the daily-use satchel, and when I finish that one and put it on the library-books shelf, I may see another that I want and pick that up. There’s more of a problem with books from the library that employs me, as I have term privileges, which is both good (I have three months to read the book, and can renew it to myself!) and less good (I’ve had those books out for five months already and haven’t opened any of them?). Ah, well.

Fortunately, I managed to remember People of the Book, and when I finished, um, what was it, I really should have somewhere to look this up, oh, that’s right, The Story is True and wanted something else that had some thump to it, if you know what I mean, I located it and picked it up. I should add that this Tohu Bohu did play a part in my remembering, as when Gentle Readers give or lend me books (which is awfully nice, when it happens), they know if I read them or not. This is on top of the general fishbowl effect that if I pick up a Vorkosigan book, y’all will know about it. Ah, well. In this case, it worked to my advantage, because this was a lovely book.

I hadn’t read Geraldine Brooks’ March, despite some recommendations, because I’m a lazy sod, and it looked like a heavy sort of book, one that had too much thump. Also, as much as I like Little Women (which is not anywhere near as much as I like Little Men), and as much as I enjoyed Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches, and as much as I like Walt Whitman, I am not particularly drawn to books about the Civil War and its aftermath. I don’t know that I would have been particularly drawn to this one, either; it’s about a medieval book, and I like medieval books; but it’s also about the war in the Balkans, and I wouldn’t necessarily grab a book about war in the Balkans. Having started it, though, I found myself wanting to keep reading in it, even up to the end.

This seems odd to me, as the book is essentially a modern framework holding together short stories (or novellas, or whatever) of historical fiction connected in some way to the Sarajevo Haggadah. There are five or so of these, each in a different setting, with different characters, each contributing something to the history of the book. To explain the poor rebinding and the missing clasps, for instance, she invents a fin de siècle Viennese bookbinder in the late stages of syphilis, and a Jewish doctor who specializes in venereal disease. But it works!

One reason, I think, is that the frame story is full of surprises and conflicts. Our Hero, a specialist in conservation of old books, gets involved in far more than just the hunt for the history of this book. She does make some great discoveries, some of which seem forced, for the purposes of the story, but she also makes and loses alliances with actual characters. Combining it with the short stories works surprisingly well.

Running through the whole book is an examination of feminism and its possible meanings. In the frame stories, Hannah (Our Hero) and her mother come to two very different understandings of feminism. In each of the stories, women are faced with expectations that narrow their options or force them to deceive their loved ones; in each of the stories, women transcend those options, but are still lessened by them. Well, almost all the stories. The Venetian renaissance one, not coincidentally the weakest of them, reduces the transgressive female character to a minor one with a single scene and no character development. The characters that are portrayed deeply, a gambling-addicted rabbi and an alcoholic Inquisitor, match each other too nearly and come to their necessary development too neatly for my taste.

I don’t want to focus on the negatives, though. One of the achievements of the book is that Ms. Brooks puts what really ought to be preposterously artificial characters (the neurosurgeon single mother, the Moslem girl who happens to have been trained in figurative illustration, the girl who runs away to join the partisans) into stories that make them devices for illuminating places and moments, and the ideas that those places and moments instill in their people and in us. And, in the end, the way in which we surprise ourselves by how fiercely we cling to the remnants of those places and moments, whether we understand them or not.

OK, I was going to focus on the positives, because I really like the book, but I have to point this out, as it’s one of those things about reading that I think y’all probably experience as well: when Our Hero comes to Boston, she mentions (a) the incredibly tight security at the Fogg, and (2) going to Widener to look up some general biographical information on a contemporary artist. No! No, no, no! First of all, the Fogg (and I was there often in 1996, when Our Hero visits) has no more security than the average university museum, which is to say, barely any at all. Not for looking at the art, not for going back through to the offices, and very little for visiting the Fine Arts library which is in the building. And more important, if you had trouble getting into the Fogg, which you wouldn’t, you would never, ever get your nose into Widener. I’m sorry, you just wouldn’t. And that, by the way, is leaving aside that in between the two, she visits both Longwood (where Mass General is mistakenly placed) and Brookline. If she is staying on that side of the river, she would be much better off going to either BU or the BPL for her quick research. Or, if you were staying in Cambridge you might go to the Fine Arts Library, because—remember?—the Fine Arts library is in the Fogg building, and it would be very easy to look up some biographical information about a contemporary artist in that library, and very difficult indeed to look that information up in Widener. Even if, as an independent scholar working on a project for the UN, you could get in to the stacks, which you couldn’t. It’s an incredibly minor point, and yet it kicked me right out of the book, and is one of the things I will remember most clearly. What’s up with that?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,