Monday, June 16, 2014

Read it and laugh: Where'd You Go Bernadette

     If you are, or were, a Microsoft employee or in the high tech industry, if you have ever been in a parent pickup line at your child's school, if you know, or are, a neurotic parent, if you have lived in or fantasized about living in Seattle, then you will chuckle while reading Where'd You Go Bernadette book. And if you fall into more than one of the above categories then you will likely laugh out loud.

     Where'd You Go Bernadette is ideal for a palette cleanser, in other words, a great book to read when you've finished a heft historical novel and just want to delve into someone else's life, laugh and not have to think too much.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

People of the Book Discussion Guide

Book:     People of the Book
Author:  Geraldine Brooks

You can purchase People of the Book online at Hugo Bookstores.

Online Resources

For this novel I found it helpful and interesting to have each participant in the discussion do some specific research prior to the discussion. I asked each person to pick one of the time and place periods in the books (e.g. Vienna 1940), and do some basic online research to present to the group. While the author presents some context for each, getting a broader historical view of the Spanish Inquisition, for instance, helped us to have a richer discussion. 

Second, I brought in my computer with online images of the Haggadah. You can see photographs of many of the illuminations.  The Seder dinner with the black woman at the table and the creation illumination are both shown on Temple Israel of Westport Library blog. I was not able to find the illumination showing the dark shapes painted over each child’s mouth representing death of the first born. 

Third, I recommend reading The Book of Exodus, an archived article written by Geraldine Brooks from the December 3, New Yorker magazine, which explains the history of the Korkuts and the Haggadah. 

Major Characters

Dr. Hanna Heath, 30 year old conservator, from Australia
Dr. Ozren Karaman, the librarian in Sarajevo—saved Haggadah
Alia, Ozren’s toddler in a coma from gunshot during Bosnian war
Amalie Sutter, entomologist in Vienna, studies butterfly wing
Werner Heinrich, Viennese specialist in Hebrew manuscripts, speculates about losts clasps
Razmus Kanaha, chief conservation scientist at the Fogg museum, studies wine and blood stains
Delilah Sharansky, Hanna’s jewish grandmother
Clarissa Montague-Morgan, forensic specialist who examines hair

Vienna 1940
Lola, jew, laundresses’ and janitor’s daughter, hidden by Kamal’s after her family is taken by Nazis
Dora, Lola’s little sister
Rashelo and Lugo, Lola’s parents
Stela and Serif Kamal, wealthy Muslims who hide Lola and save Haggadah
Ina, Isak’s little sister, escapes with Lola
Josip Boscovic, museum director

Vienna 1894
Franz Hirschfeldt, jewish doctor serving Viennese aristocrats
David, Franz’ fencing brother
Herr Florien Mittl, book binder with syphilis (or other STD), steals sterling clasps to pay for medical treatment
Rosalind, Franz’ mistress
Anna, Franz’ wife

Venice 1609
Giovanni Domenico Vistorini, parish priest and book censor. Kept book from being burned.
Rabbi Judah Aryeh Dona reyna de Serena, fled Portugal as a Jew, ostensibly converted to Christianity. Wealthy, supporter of the Geto community. Received Haggadah from family manservant in Portugal

Tarragona 1492
David Ben Shoushan, Hebrew scribe who wrote the haggadah intended as a gift for his nephew; beaten to death by Spanish soldiers
Miriam, David’s wife
Ruti, Miriam and David’s daughter. Takes Rosa’s son and converts him into a Jew by immersion; saltwater gets on the Haggadah
Rueben, Miriam and David’s son who converted and is tortured by inquisition
Rosa, Rueben’s wife who believes her son is still born

Sevile 1480
Hooman, slave owner
Zahra, unnamed girl slave painter
Kebira, old woman in emir’s palace
Nura/Isabella, Emir’s wife
Pedro, Isabella’s brother
Netane haLevi, Jewish doctor
Benjamin, deaf son of doctor


Hanna Sarajevo, Spring 1996
An Insect’s Wing Sarajevo, 1940; Haggadah is hidden in mountains
Hanna Vienna, Spring 1996
Feathers and a Rose Vienna, 1894; silver clasps etched with feathers enclosing a rose are traded for medical treatment
Hanna Vienna, Spring 1996
Wine Stains Venice, 1609
Hanna Boston, Spring 1996
Saltwater Tarragona, 1492
Hanna London, Spring 1996
A White Hair Seville, 1480
Hanna Sarajevo, Spring 1996
Lola Jerusalem, 2002
Hanna Arnhem Land, Gunumeleng, 2002

Discussion Topics 


"The book has survived the same human disaster over and over again. Think about it. You’ve got a society where people tolerate difference, like Spain in the Convivencia, and everything’s humming along: creative, prosperous. Then somehow this fear, this hate, this need to demonize ‘the other’ – it just sort of rears up and smashes the whole society. Inquisition, Nazis, extremist Serb nationalists… same old, same old. It seems to me the book, a this point, bears witness to all that,” page 195. 
How well did the novel present the Haggadah as being witness to ‘human disaster over and over again’? Historically who was being discriminated against in each of the time periods? What attributes created the discrimination? Who fought against discrimination? What parallels can you draw to discrimination in your own community? How do you believe discrimination best defeated?

Just a few quotes from the book that call out acts and results of discrimination toward Jews over the centuries:
"Waidhofen manifesto—a Jew is without honor from the day of his birth," page 114.
Jews were banned from the trade of publishing, page 151.
"Jews and Arabs had been fined, imprisoned, even put to death for lesser blasphemies than these," page 151.
“How many small humiliations had it taken to bow him over into that cringing stoop," page 151.
“Baiting the Jews had been a favorite sport for some of the youths,” page 158.
“[Jews] were allowed to pursue only three trades: pawnbrokers, providing inexpensive credit to poor Venetians’ strazzaria dealers, buying and selling used goods or foreign traders… they were permitted to live only in the small area that had once been the city’s iron foundry, or Geto,” page 15
“Aryeh was unsure how the gondolier would feel about being touched by a Jew,” page 160.
"Venice gives you a safe home, and you do not keep within the few rules she requires of you,” page 187.
During the Spanish inquisition in Tarragona “they have taken the capitulation of Granada as a sign of divine will that Spain be a Christian country," page 229.

Grief and Loss 

Every story is filled with grief and loss. Lola loses her whole family. Mittl’s wife died from syphilis. Hanna’s mother keeps her grief over Hanna’s father’s death a secret. Priest saw his Jewish parents taken away when he was a child. David’s son married a Christian. The girl in Seville was sold as a slave.  How do each of these characters each deal with grief?  Which of the characters were successful at continuing his or her own life beyond grief?  Who succumbed to grief?

Mother/Daughter Relationship 

How does Hanna’s relationship with her mother influence her work and the story? Consider Hannah meeting her mother in Boston from pages 137 to 140.
“When you have fought with someone all of your life, you know where the weaknesses are,” page 344.
“She had never understood me or why what I did mattered, and why I loved it,” page 345.
How has your relationship with your mother influenced your work and your life?  How have you seen others (your own children or friends) influenced by their mothers?  What do you see as the foundation of a successful mother/daughter relationship?  How are mother/daughter relationships unique from mother/son or father/child relationships?

Eleanor Barkhorn offered her perspective on why mothers fight with their daughters in .


Nearly every character is harboring a personal secret. Some share them with a confidant some hold their secret close.

Stela and Serif: Hide Haggadah and Jews including Lola
Mittl: Syphilis
Rabbi: Gambling compulsion
"The secret to Arye’s gambling compulsion was contained in that moment, when the dread began to spread through him like ink in a glass of clear water. For he welcomed the feeling, that dark, terrifying sensation of risk. To teeter on the edge of loss, or to win the hand, the point was the intensity of the sensation. He never felt so alive as he did in those moments,” page 173. 
Vistorini: Alcoholic and son of Jews who were put to death (page 188).
Dona de Serena: Jew posing as a Christian
Hanna's Mother: Keeps identity of Hanna's father a secret until her grandmother dies.
Ruti: Studying Jewish mysticism

How does each respond to keeping a secret?
“Forgiveness also must be sought from, and atonement made to, those who had been damaged by sinful acts,” page 178.

Writing Styl

What did you think of having the present interlaced with the past? Did the interwoven stories help you to better understand the Haggadah or did you find the time changes confusing? What did you think of how the making of the Haggadah went backward in time rather than forward? How did the choice of timeline influence the book?

Interestingly, Hanna chooses to write her narrative forward instead of in reverse, “I tried to give a sense of each of them by explaining the details of their crafts and what medieval pavilions of the book were like and where such artisans fitted into the social milieu. Then I wanted to build up a certain tension around the dramatic, terrible reversals of the Inquisition and the expulsion. I wanted to convey fire and shipwreck and fear,” page 265.


The priest describes the illuminations including concept of earth as round and revolving around sun on page 183.

Separation of light from dark, land from water, garden of eden with spotted leopards and fierce jawed lions is described on page 314.

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