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Archive for the ‘Jews’ Category

It’s unfortunate that I love to read but can rarely remember the details for very long afterwards. I really should have blogged about this book as soon as I finished it. Perhaps that’s because I didn’t enjoy this title as much as Year of Wonders by the same author. That’s not to say that this wasn’t a good read.

The subject of the People of the Book is a Hebrew codex called the Sarajevo Haggadah, an elaborately illustrated work dating back to medieval Spain. Hanna is a book conservator who gets the opportunity of a lifetime. She is asked to restore the book when it is discovered in post-war Bosnia. As she examines the book she finds clues about the provenance of the Haggadah – a blood stain, a white hair, an insect part. We follow Hanna’s story as she tries to untangle the path that the book has taken, falls in love with the keeper of the book and struggles with her harshly critical mother. Interspersed with Hanna’s story is the tale of the book, beginning with its origins in medieval Spain and following it through major events in European history. The Haggadah inspires heroic acts of protection as well as greed.

I do love a story with a mystery to be unraveled – all the better if the mystery requires someone to spend some hours in a library searching through old archives and papers. Add the evocative place descriptions and the stories about how each character is affected by the Haggadah, and you have a pretty good package. There was something about the protagonist that was little off-putting though. For someone who travels the world and works in a demanding and sanctified field, she seems a little… I guess I want to use the word jejune. Her relationship with her mother in particular reminded me of something from a teen novel. But that may be unfair. After all, I know plenty of 30 and 40 somethings who still struggle with their family relationships, myself included!

Still, it was well worth the wait for this book. Those who enjoy the literary themes, historical mysteries and descriptive settings in this book might also like The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova and The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. These might even hold some appeal for Da Vinci Code fans.

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My partner and I visited New York City in the spring, to celebrate his 40th birthday. We stayed in a ‘bed and coffee’ in Alphabet city. Apparently this was a prettyorchard.jpg rough area not that long ago, but has undergone a – is it revitalization, renewal, or gentrification? – I’m not sure. It was great to be in an area of the city where you could actually imagine yourself living, rather than the more touristed Manhattan destinations. We visited the Lower Eastside Tenement Museum and heard about the masses of immigrants who lived cheek by jowl in these tiny apartments. Often this was their first experience of America – straight from the docks into and dingy, crowded room in a tenement. I can’t really explain why I find this little part of history so fascinating, but ever since the visit I have been reading about the lower eastside.

A subject heading search with “lower east side” and fiction lead me to Eleanor Widmer’s book Up From Orchard Street. This is the story of a Jewish family, living in the tenements in the 20’s and 30’s. Bubby is the matriarch of the story. She’s really the only adult who has any sense, so she acts as a parent to her grandchildren, while her son and his wife, Jack and Lil, carry on like a couple of kids in love. Jack and Lil make a spotty living in the fashion industry. They are fond of fine clothes and spend their evenings dressing up like a couple of swells and going to the theatre to spend money they don’t have. Bubby runs a restaurant out of the tiny living room. Her food is famous, but increasingly, she has to compete with the shiny new delicatessans moving into the neighborhood. The story is told from the perspective of Elka, the ugly duckling, and the brightest member of the family. She’s a reader and writer, and learns her craft recounting the stories of her childhood.

This is an autobiographical novel. Either that fact, or the fine writing makes you feel like you know what it would have been like to live on Orchard Street.

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