Saturday, March 29, 2008

The people of the book

There's something appealing about a story centred on books: hidden books, lost books, books that contain secrets or answers to ancient mysteries, books with the power to change lives.

Recent favourites of mine have included Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

Geraldine Brooks' latest novel, The people of the book, falls into that category. It is ambitious, well-intentioned and deftly told, and has been on top of best-seller lists almost since its release earlier this year.

Even though Brooks is a Pulitzer Prize winner (for March), her name and literary skill alone are not enough to generate the scale of sales needed to beat mass market pop fiction paperbacks and film tie-ins.

The answer, then, must lie in the story itself.

A synopsis
The people of the book traces the journey of a rare illuminated Hebrew manuscript from fifteenth century Spain, to the Silver Age of Venice and the ruins of a twentieth century war-torn Sarajevo.

It opens in 1996, when Australian rare-book expert Hannah is asked to analyse and conserve the famed Haggadah manuscript, which has been rescued once again from shelling during the Bosnian war. The book is one of the earliest Jewish volumes to be illuminated with figurative paintings.

When Hanna discovers a series of tiny artefacts in its ancient binding—an insect wing fragment, wine stains, salt crystals, a white hair—she becomes determined to unlock the book’s mysteries.


Throughout the story, the ancient book is the only constant character. The narrative is told through a series of vignettes featuring owners of the Haggadah and its artwork throughout history - cleverly provided in reverse chronological order.

In Bosnia during World War II, a Muslim risks his life to protect it from the Nazis. In the hedonistic salons of Vienna in 1894, the book becomes a pawn in an emerging contest between the city’s cultured cosmopolitanism and its rising anti-Semitism. In Venice in 1609, a Catholic priest saves it from Inquisition book burnings. In Tarragona in 1492, the scribe who wrote the text has his family destroyed amid the agonies of enforced exile. And in Seville in 1480, the reason for the Haggadah’s extraordinary illuminations is finally revealed.

Each vignette shows the universality of suffering, how every generation gains power and prestige by finding a group of people to make outcast.

If good intentions were everything, this novel would have the power to heal the rifts in the world created by religion, simply through the power of narrative.

Ultimately, the story highlights how diverse cultures can enrich and influence each other in wonderfully positive ways. Brooks' theme is hardly subtle, and while it is not original, it remains powerful: what unites us is more than what divides us.

(In between each vignette, we return to Hannah and her increasingly engaging personal story involving a strained relationship with her mother and a tense romance with the Serbian Muslim who rescued the Haggadah during the war).

The people of the book is rich in detail. It is full of meticulously researched information on language, art, history, science, book binding and religion. It needs to be read slowly, enjoyed like a fine meal. It has too many flavours to be devoured quickly.

Generally, I get the most out of a novel if I can read it intensively (either in a single sitting, or several long sittings). But I feel I may have robbed myself by doing that with this novel.

(The Haggadah is a real manuscript. In her author's note, Brooks details what parts of her story are based on fact and what parts are the author's imagining.)

Note: The First Tuesday Book Club on ABC is discussing The people of the book this week.

Here's my review of Geraldine Brooks' 2011 release: Caleb's Crossing

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Reading: does solitary mean lonely?

Those of us who read regularly are apparently in the minority.

According to Melinda Harvey in the most recent Australian Literary Review our society is looking to learn facts from sound bites and live footage, "not the universal truths found in fiction. Things solitary, slow or private are ceasing to matter."

Is that why people prefer the more communal entertainments of film, television and theatre? Not only can we absorb the story quicker, we can experience it simultaneously with others and instantly deconstruct it over a good espresso.

Is it now only books - which allow you the luxury to experience a story and its truths at your own measured pace - where deeper reflection, contemplation and revelation can truly take hold?

"Solitary, slow, private." Those words struck a chord with me. That's what reading is, isn't it?

When we read the same books as others - even at the same time - the experience remains solitary. How we absorb and inhabit a story is a deeply personal experience.

Does that make reading a lonely experience?

For the countless people around the world and throughout history who have escaped into books, the answer is definitely no. Yes, we may sit alone for hours with our nose buried in a book, but we are never alone. We have a narrator to keep us company, characters to mesmerise us, words to take us to another reality (or bring us closer to our own).

I heard a great quote recently (and apologies to its author but I didn't write down their name at the time): "We write books for the same reason builders build houses: for people to live in them."

As a reader, that resonates deeply with me. As a writer, it gives me another level to which to aspire.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Life of Brian: what makes it a classic?

It's 30 years this year since Brian's mother's declared "He's not the Messiah. He's a very naughty boy".

Three decades since The Life of Brian hit cinema screens, sparking controversy and almost instantly becoming a cult classic.

The story of Brian, an ordinary man mistaken by a group of religious zealots as the Messiah, is now (or soon to be) available in a new DVD package, The Life of Brian: The Immaculate Edition.

The Life of Brian is a film that regularly ranks in the top three of "greatest comedies of all time" lists.

Monty Python fans, of course, revere it with almost religious fervour. Most - my husband included - can pretty much quote the entire film line by line. But it also has plenty of fans who don't necessarily "get" the Python style of humour in other contexts, and yet love this film.

John Cleese (co-writer and co-star as a number of characters) himself admits it's the best and most coherent of all the comedy troupe's film efforts.

The reason it works so well is because all five Pythons (Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam and Eric Idle) had extensive knowledge of biblical and Roman history, and they combined that knowledge with a wonderful sense of the ridiculous.

Like all good comedies, the humour works on a number of levels. On the surface, it's a funny story about mistaken identity; on a deeper level it's a sharp satire about the nature of religion.

The attention to historical and theological detail is such that, the more you know about Roman history and religion (early church history in particular), the funnier the film gets.

In a recent interview by Michael Bodey in The Weekend Australian Review, Cleese says that, after the troupe's first film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the team wanted their follow-up effort to spoof religious epics. The initial idea was to lampoon Jesus Christ the way they had lampooned King Arthur in the earlier film.

But, as Bodey notes in his article, they quickly realised they couldn't touch Christ because "there was nothing funny about him".

Cleese says: "Essentially humour is about rigidity and the failure to adapt to circumstances. And the point of Christ's behaviour was of a very enlightened person. It would be like making fun of the Dali Lama; you couldn't do it because there's nothing ridiculous about him".

Instead, the troupe took aim at religion itself, and the herd mentality it has the potential to create.

As such, Jesus' only appears in the periphery of the story, and his appearances are quietly respectful; it's his followers who misunderstand and misrepresent his teachings:
"What was that?"
"I think it was 'Blessed are the cheese-makers'."
"What's so special about the cheese-makers?"
"Well, it's not meant to be taken literally. But it refers to any manufacturer of dairy products."

Naturally, any humour that targets religion walks a very fine line, and there were plenty of critics when the film first appeared (and many since), who believed The Life of Brian crossed the line repeatedly.

For me, it's an exercise in good storytelling; how intellectuals with an offbeat sense of humour and something interesting to say, created a story that still has people laughing, quoting it and talking about it 30 years on.

Even Cleese is still looking for answers the film raises about religion and Christianity: "It's (religion) nothing to do with what the founder of Christianity was talking about. I think what Christ was talking about is so much more difficult and demanding than anything you find in any organised version of his religion."

How many other comedies provoke that sort of thinking? (I mean, I know Scary Movie 4 comes close, but still…)

Thursday, March 6, 2008

How do you choose what to read?

With so many books in the world, how do you decide what to pick up next?

For me, it's a combination of recommendations by friends and media reviews (predominantly in The Courier Mail and The Australian), and on the ABC's First Tuesday Book Club (when I remember it's on).

Unfortunately, so much of what's offered up as review simply isn't: it's just a rehash of the plot with a few sweeping statements and/or clich├ęs (of course this isn't limited to book reviews).

I'll choose to read a book based on a review when:
- the plot, genre or subject matter appeals to me;
- the reviewer discusses the themes of the story and the questions it raises (and they appeal to me);
- the reviewer offers a broader context for the narrative that has meaning for me.

The details of the plot are almost irrelevant in a review: they should be discovered on reading the book itself. The importance of the review is to tell you what you might expect to think or feel during and after reading the story: will it make you question the political status quo; appreciate the simpler things in life; help you understand a different perspective; or laugh your backside off? Is it pure pop fiction escapism, or a journey of perfectly crafted prose? Is it a good example of either?

You can't trust the cover or the hyperbolic marketing blurb to help you decide whether not you want read something. And that's where the review comes in handy. It's not a sure fire promise of a good read, but you at least have a clue what you're in for.

Clearly, plenty of readers want someone to point them in the right direction. That's why Oprah's Book Club creates instant bestsellers. Life is too short to waste on books you might not like, especially if you're not a voracious reader. (Purists scoff at Oprah's Book Club, but if it's getting people reading and taking the fear out of book selection, then it can't be all bad. And who knows, maybe those readers will one day stray from the bestseller list to more challenging fiction.)

Some of my recent reads, and how I came to choose them:
- The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (currently reading) - numerous newspaper reviews
- The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini - desire to read book before seeing the film
- The Tomorrow series by John Marsden (I'm working my way through this series in between other books) - recommendation by family member
- The Year Nick McGowan Came to Stay by Rebecca Sparrow - heard author speak at local library
- The Patron Saint of Eels by Gregory Day - recommendation by friend (on this very blog!)
- The Broken Shore by Peter Temple - newspaper review and comment on First Tuesday Book Club
- Dead Point by Peter Temple - based on my enjoyment of The Broken Shore.

And so the list goes on…

I'd really love to hear how other people decide what to read. Are there particular reviewers you enjoy? What appeals to you in a review? Are you in a book club (if so, how to do you choose your books for the group)?

So many questions…