People of the Book is, for me as a reader, the perfect union of an author I love with subject matter I love. The author is, of course, Geraldine Brooks, famous for her Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel March, but even more admired (by me) for the haunting Year of Wonders, about a woman who survives the bubonic plague while a village dies around her. Her subject matter this time around is the sub-genre I like to call “Adventures in Research” — a genre made most popular in the unjustly famous Da Vinci Code, though far better exemplified, for my money, in Wilton Barnhardt’s underrated Gospel and a score of other books about dedicated researchers chasing elusive old manuscripts around the world.
People of the Book centres not around a fictional manuscript but a real one — the Sarajevo Haggadah, a beautifully and unusually illuminated medieval Jewish manuscript that has survived all kinds of historical threats to make it to the twenty-first century intact. Brooks takes the known facts of the manuscript’s survival in twentieth-century Bosnia — where this Jewish manuscript was twice saved by Muslim museum curators, once during World War Two and once during the 1990s civil war — and fictionalizes them. But the novelist’s imagination allows her to go farther than historical fact or even scholarly speculation — based on a handful of clues that Brooks’ narrator, fictional manuscript conservator Hanna Heath, finds in the Haggadah, she reconstructs the story of its long journey from fifteenth-century Seville to twenty-first century Sarajevo, creating stories and characters for each stage of the manuscript’s journey.
In a lot of ways, this book reminded me of Around the World in 80 Dates by Jennifer Cox. British thirty-something single journalist becomes disillusioned with single life, dreams of meeting That Special Someone, and gets a magazine or book deal to try out an exciting new way to meet people. Wacky hijinks ensue, interspersed with thoughtful reflections on Finding True Love, and of course true love is in fact found by book’s end.
Unlike Jennifer Cox, Sean Thomas didn’t travel around the world — in fact, he barely left his computer chair (except for the actual dates, of course). Confirmed bachelor Sean decided to check out the exciting world of internet dating, and yes, wacky hijinks did ensue.
The Bride of Science (subtitled: Romance, Reason, and Byron’s Daughter) is a biography of Ada Lovelace, an early 19th-century woman renowned for her mathematical ability and her friendship with Charles Babbage, creator of a very early version of the computer. She was, of course, even better known as the daughter of the infamous Lord Byron — although Ada never knew her father, because her mother left him shortly after she was born and allowed no contact between Ada and Byron for the few short years between then and his death.
Author Woolley structures his biography of Ada around the nineteenth-century tension between “Romance” and “Reason,” which he sees as being embodied in Ada’s parents and, to some degree, within two sides of Ada’s own personality. This overriding concept sometimes strains the fabric of the story, as Woolley seems to be trying too hard to bring out the Romance/Reason parallels.
Generally, this is a competent though not terrible exciting biography of an intriguing woman. Like so many biographies of women in earlier centuries, the main emotion The Bride of
Science leaves the reader with is regret — regret for another woman’s exceptional talents wasted by the narrow-minded society patriarchal society in which she lived, which never gave her the education or opportunity to develop those talents to the fullest.
Awhile back I reviewed Alison Weir’s Innocent Traitor, the first product of a noted biographer who has made the leap to historical fiction. Having written nonfiction about the Tudors for many years, Weir now allows her imagination free play as she roams about inside the minds and lives of the members of that famous and mostly ill-fated family.
Elizabeth, of course, was the least ill-fated of them all — she eventually succeeded her father, brother and sister to the throne and ruled England wisely and well for many years. The Lady Elizabeth is a scrupulously accurate but also vividly fictionalized portrait of her early years, up to the moment of her accession to the throne. While there’s nothing new or startling here either from a literary or a historical viewpoint, this is a very readable and informative historical novel, and I will probably read everything else Alison Weir publishes if she continues in this vein.
Gilead is a completely strange and lovely book. It’s the sort of novel that shouldn’t work, on so many levels, and yet it does. Brilliantly. Which just goes to show that a truly gifted author can break every rule and create something utterly compelling.
It’s a slow story. There’s no strong plotline to pull you along, only the gentle, rambling voice of a sick old man, writing down a memoir of his life for the young son he won’t see grow to manhood. The old man is John Ames, a Congregationalist minister in a small Iowa town in the 1950s. He is the namesake of a much better-known preacher, his fiery and sometimes violent abolitionist grandfather. As Ames’ life story unfolds in a stream-of-consciousness, not-always-chronological series of stories, we discover that the legacy of the first John Ames has been both a blessing and a burden to the narrator as well as to his own father.