Book: People of the Book

The book: People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

The edition: Harper Perennial paperback, 372 pages, plus added material (interviews and information about the author, reading suggestions and more)

The story: Australian conservator Hannah is called to work on the suddenly resurfacing Sarajevo Haggadah in 1996. Through the samples she finds within the book, a fictionalized account of its story is reconstructed, each chapter bringing us further and further back in time and across Europe.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: I first read this book a couple of years ago, and while I did not write down my thoughts, I can tell you exactly how I felt: I loved the historical fiction, and I had little patience for the general frame, the story of Hannah in modern times.
And on rereading, I still feel the same way. The historical parts are well done, each a whole world in the same way that each page of a miniatured manuscript encloses a whole world. In the few pages dedicated to each of this stories, the author was able to recreate a full world, a reality with its intrigues, passions, powers, and characters who each had a full and well-rounded story behind them.
Too bad that the same ability is not evident in the frame story, which seemed to be there just to grasp for an easy happy end. I had even less patience for Hannah’s chapters on this second reading — everything was either too predictable or too deus-ex-machina, and there is so much intrigue and things happening, but none of it rings true. Still, I would love to go back and enjoy the small stories any time, so it’s still a good book!

In the author’s own words: I loved the parts on conservation work, such as this on colors:

The snow light flared on brightness. Blue: intense as a midsummer sky, obtained from grinding precious lapis lazuli carried by camel caravan all the way from the mountains of Afghanistan. White: pure, creamy, opaque. Less glamorous, more complicated than the blue. At that time it would still have been made according to the method discovered by ancient Egyptians. You cover lead bars with the dregs of old wine and seal them up in a shed full of animal dung. I’d done it once, in my mother’s greenhouse in Bellevue Hill. She’d had a load of manure delivered, and I couldn’t resist. The acid in the vinegary wine converts lead to its acetate, which in turn combines with the carbon dioxide released by the dung to make basic white lead carbonate, PbCO3. My mother pitched a fit about it, of course. Said she couldn’t stand to go near her bloody prize orchids for weeks.

I turned a page. More dazzle. The illuminations were beautiful, but I didn’t allow myself to look at them as art. Not yet. First I had to understand them as chemicals. There was yellow, made of saffron. That beautiful autumn flower, Crocus sativus Linnaeus, each with just three tiny precious stigmas, had been a prized luxury then and remained one, still. Even if we now know that the rich color comes from a carotene, crocin, with a molecular structure of 44 carbon, 64 hydrogen, and 24 oxygen, we still haven’t synthesized a substitute as complex and as beautiful. There was malachite green, and red; the intense red known as worm scarlet — tola’at shani in Hebrew — extracted from tree-dwelling insects, crushed up and boiled in lye. Later, when alchemists learned how to make a similar red from sulfur and mercury, they still named the color “little worm” — vermiculum. Some things don’t change: we call it vermilion even today.

Links to better understand this book:

Random thought: I’d like to understand more about the concept of kosher.

Read this if: if you like historical fiction. Also, if you like novels that insert smaller stories into a general frame-story, in the way of The Gargoyle or even The Joy Luck Club

Counts as: Travel with Books – Vienna

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Book: A Hundred Thousand Ice-Filled Mess Kits

The book: A Hundred Thousand Ice-Filled Mess Kits (Centomila gavette di ghiacchio), by Giulio Bedeschi

The edition:  Italian (original) softcover edition by Mursia, 430 pages

The story: about the brave and disastrous campaign of the 3rd Alpine Division Julia in Russia during World War II, as seen from a military doctor perspective. It draws from the author’s own experience as a military doctor in Albania and Russia.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: I have been struggling with this review for some time now, mostly for two reasons: one, that I both liked and disliked it a lot; and two, that I don’t know how to convey the good of it to non-Italian readers.

I’ll start from this second point. This book is an hymn to the bravery of soldiers who were fighting on the German side of the front, and the Russian army is described as a merciless hoard set to annihilate the enemy. But surely Italians were the “bad guys” during World War 2, right? In a way, yes. But one of the beauties of this book is that it shows how people were not fighting for the ideas that made Fascism and Nazism so infamous. They were fighting because that was their job. In a way, I’d say there is a relation between this book and one I read shortly after, The Book Thief, because both allow to see how opinion was not so uniform, and how there were so many layers into that war.

As for point one above, I could make a long, long list of the things I disliked: the gross descriptions, the sentimental digressions, the fact that the author takes no position on the reasons for war nor comments in any way about Fascism, and most of all the fact that all the characters, with no exception, are brave and patriotic — this last point almost made it unbelievable.

And still, I liked it. I liked the passion of the author’s love for his fellow soldiers. And I am happy I read this, because — well, because the Russian campaign is still relevant to Italy and it shaped many things to come; in the region I come from, each family has a relative lost or wounded in Russia, or knows one (at least, it was like that when I was a child, things may be changing as we are moving to the next generation). The story described here is still very alive to many, and it was good to read it first-hand.

What I liked: first-hand and very down-to-earth description of how a war is lived on the front.

What I didn’t like:  very detailed (and disgusting) descriptions of wounds and illnesses.

Language & writing: it feels dated, very different from the way Italian writers use language nowadays, but once you get the grip of it, it’s very well written.

In the author’s own words: see here (in Italian)

Links to better understand this book:

Random thought: I seem to be reading a lot about World War 2, recently, and I’m getting scared

Read this if: because it’s only available in Italian, you need to be able to read Italian, but anyway I think you need to be Italian to really appreciate this one. For Italians: do read it, because it’s good and important to remember how things were at the time.

Counts as: What’s in a name Challenge – Number

Book: The Book Thief

The book: The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

The edition: Knopf/Random House paperback, 552 pages, plus readers’ guide and author interview

The story: a teenage girl in Nazi Germany during World War II, Liesel Memminger can hardly read, but she develops a love and crave for books due to several random facts. Her stealing books (either from book burning stakes or from houses) is only part of a life that goes through the tragedy of war, which is nothing more than a setting for her everyday life.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: all in all, I enjoyed this book more than most of the other ones I read this year. The story is compelling, and its characters lovable. So: although I got distracted by the snippets of commentary on every page; although I feel that Liesel and Rudy were represented as younger than their stated age (at 14 you were adult, back then; I cannot believe they would get away with all they did if they were already teenagers); although I felt it was very partial to “the good Germans” and forgets all the other people that suffered in that war; still, I can say this was a very good read.

The part with spoilers: I felt let down by the ending, all the characters disappearing at once… Didn’t feel right to me.

What I liked: characters. I quite liked almost all of them, even those that only made a cameo appearance.

What I didn’t like: Death as a narrator. To me, either Death knows the story of each and everyone of us, or he doesn’t. That he would be interested in Liesel and not, say, in her mother… it’s not a nice thought for me.

Language & writing: a simple and straightforward style, not much to say about it… except that I hated all the snippets inserted here and there. I don’t like when an author uses typographical tricks to keep the reader interested. Also, I appreciated all the German expressions, but I wonder at how that was perceived by readers who have no knowledge of German.

In the author’s own words: although this is not a book for quotes, here is one I’d like to share (remember, it’s Death who’s talking):

It was a year for the ages, like 79, like 1346, to name just a few. Forget the scythe, damn it, I needed a broom or a mop. And I needed a vacation.
[…]
In all honesty (and I know I’m complaining excessively now), I was still getting over Stalin, in Russia. The so-called second revolution – the murder of his own people.
Then came Hitler.
They say war is death’s best friend, but I must offer you a different point of view on that one. To me, war is like the new boss who expects the impossible. He stands over your shoulder repeating one thing, incessantly. ‘Get it done, get it done’. So you work harder, You get the job done, The boss, however, does not thank you. He asks for more.

Links to better understand this book:

Random question: why is Death perceived as male in English-speaking countries? And as female in Southern, Romance-language ones?

Read this if: if you are looking for a different take on World War 2.

Counts as: Global Reading Challenge – Oceania