Day 788: The Secret Chord

Cover for The Secret ChordBest Book of the Week!
The characters in Biblical stories have always provided fodder for fiction but are particularly popular since Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent. They can be interesting for me not because they’re telling something familiar but because they are not, since I have one of the spottiest Christian upbringings on the planet. This situation was caused by a combination of my parents’ lack of application and my own fundamental lack of interest from a very young age. I’ve always been fine with it except when I crashed and burned over Christian symbolism in graduate school. However, halfway through Brooks’ remarkable The Secret Chord, I was driven to Wikipedia and found I only knew two David stories, David and Goliath and David and Bathsheba.

The Secret Chord is about the life of David from the point of view of his prophet, Natan. When David asks Natan to write up his victories, Natan refuses, telling him that anyone can have their victories commemorated, but Natan wants to leave behind a true relation of David’s life, the good and the bad, so people in the future will understand him. David agrees and even gives Natan a list of people to interview.

Natan also remembers his own interactions with David, whom he met right after the rebel David murdered Natan’s entire family because his father refused aid to his men. It was then that Natan made his first prophetic utterance, the words of which he couldn’t even remember.

link to NetgalleyThis is truly a fascinating novel, beautifully written, that presents us with the complex man, including his glory and flaws. Brooks is wonderful at conveying his charisma and his faults, so that you feel for him in his sorrows even as he brings many of them on himself.

Brooks uses the names and place names of the time, lending authenticity to this colorful re-telling. The Secret Chord evokes a convincing time and place.

Related Posts

People of the Book

Caleb’s Crossing

The Testament of Mary

Day 358: People of the Book

Cover for People of the BookBest Book of the Week!

I read People of the Book several years ago and remembered that it was good, but when re-reading it for my book club, I enjoyed it even more. The novel is based on the history of a Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. Part of the novel is envisioned based on what is known of the book’s history, while the rest is invented.

In the immediate aftermath of the Bosnian war, Hanna Heath, an expert in the restoration of old books, is asked to restore the priceless Sarajevo Haggadah, a famous book believed twice to have been destroyed by war that was both times rescued by Moslem museum curators. The book is especially important because of its beautiful illustrations, as before it was discovered, scholars believed that old Hebrew books did not contain such illuminations.

While Hanna is working on the book, she makes observations and collects artifacts that will help trace its history. She notes that the book once had clasps that are now missing, collects an insect wing, and scrapes residue from staining.

Hanna also becomes involved with the man who rescued the book, Ozren Karaman, whose wife was killed during the war and whose baby son is in the hospital with a brain injury. As Hanna was raised by an aloof and competitive mother, though, she is poor at forming attachments.

When Hanna finishes restoring the book, she follows up with research into the clasp and the artifacts she collected. As she finds out about each item, the novel goes farther back in time, explaining what happened to the book and telling the stories of the people involved with it, until the creation of the book in 15th century Spain.

A poor Jewish girl named Lola works for the partisans in the forest outside Sarajevo during World War II after the Jews are expelled from the city by the Nazis and her family is shipped off to camps. Later she is helped to safety by the Moslem curator of the museum, who also has a book to hide. A 19th century Viennese bookbinder who is dying from syphilis steals the beautiful silver clasps from the book to exchange with his doctor for treatment. In 1609 Venice, a priest working for the Inquisition saves the book from burning but confiscates it from its owner. A young girl saves the book as the Jews are expelled from Spain in 1492.

These are just the bones of some of the absorbing stories that draw you along as Brooks imagines the history of the book. Each tale is vividly imagined and skillfully told, and they are all held together by Hanna’s experiences. People of the Book is a gracefully written and imaginative novel that emphasizes the contributions of multiple cultures and religions to the book’s creation and safety.

Day 184: Caleb’s Crossing

Cover for Caleb's CrossingBest Book of the Week!

Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks is a wonderful novel about life in 17th century Martha’s Vineyard and Cambridge. The novel is focused around Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, the first American Indian to take a degree at Harvard. It is narrated from the point of view of Bethia Mayfield, a girl whose thirst for knowledge is only slaked with great difficulty in Puritan New England.

Bethia meets Caleb when they are both twelve. She is wandering around the beaches of her home island, Noepe, later to be called Martha’s Vineyard, in a small act of rebellion because she is not supposed to be alone. She has already been halted in her education by her father, a minister and missionary to the Indians, who sees how her superior abilities humiliate her brother Makepeace.

Caleb is not one of the “praying Indians” who have adopted Christianity and moved closer to town. By all rights Bethia should avoid him. But she loves nature and is happy for Caleb to teach her about the island’s wildlife and learn his language while she teaches him English, reading, and writing. Although their relationship is perfectly innocent, it remains a secret and is naturally broken off as they grow older.

In learning more about English ways, and particularly about writing, Caleb decides he can best help his people by becoming more educated. His path continues together with Bethia’s, as a series of tragedies result in Bethia’s agreement to sacrifice herself for Makepeace’s tuition by working as an indentured servant for the teacher who is preparing Caleb, his friend Joel, and Makepeace to enter Harvard. As Caleb struggles with his adoption of the English culture, Bethia struggles with her own desires for an intellectual life in a culture that only recognizes one path for her–marriage and motherhood.

Although a few historical figures appear in the novel, little is known of Caleb and Joel–both historical figures–so the account is completely fictionalized. For example, Bethia’s father Thomas Mayfield is based on Thomas Mayhew, Jr., who did not have a daughter.

This is an enthralling novel, an evocative picture of the place and times, and Bethia and Caleb are memorable characters.