The Hilltop, by Assaf Gavron

The HilltopI picked this book up in the same swoop that brought me I Did Not Kill My Husband, and for much the same reasons. Foreign book, in translation, looks intriguing, and this one even let me know in advance that it was going to have some political satire, which was good to know because otherwise the beginning would have made absolutely no sense.

As with I Did Not Kill My Husband, let’s take it as given that I know very little about the culture and cultural references of Israel, so please forgive me when I inevitably get something wrong here.

Okay, so, the book starts with the formation of a settlement called Ma’aleh Hermesh C, which is built on a hilltop to be a sort of farm and then slowly and with an odd combination of permission and subterfuge becomes a little community with people living in shipping containers and fighting with the Palestinians who live next door. As you do?

This settlement is kind of the main character of the book; the story goes off to talk about other people but it always comes back to the settlement and the fact of its precarious position in the world and its resilience in the face of evacuation orders and miffed government officials and angry Palestinian neighbors and a strange Wall Street Journal story. These were the parts I didn’t really understand, but it’s not terribly difficult to find amusement in the very weird misfortune of others, so that’s still cool with me.

The parts of the book that fascinated me were the backstories of the two main person characters, Gabi and Roni. Their story starts when Roni shows up at Ma’aleh Hermesh C to stay with his brother, Gabi, the former in a spiffy suit and the latter in religious garments. Roni has left America for vague reasons and Gabi has taken up residence in this odd settlement for equally vague reasons, and as the book goes along we get glimpses of their childhood and young adulthood and come to understand how the both of them ended up where they are now.

Gavron does this in the way that I love best, where the characters talk to each other about past events as normal people would, e.g. “What about Mickey?” “-muttergrumble-” “Sucks to be you, dude” (these are… paraphrases), and then sometime later we get a scene where we find out just why it sucks to be that dude. It’s frustrating not knowing what the heck is going on at first, but it’s so awesome once you figure out what’s going on and see how the author played off of that withheld knowledge.

I also like that Gavron gives all of his characters at least a little backstory; Gabi and Roni get most of the spotlight but several of the other settlement residents get a chapter about their lives that helps explain how this crazy place has survived. He also keeps the characters as real as they can be, with no one ever getting exactly what they want or deserve but everyone doing what they can to make themselves happy. It’s a good contrast to the confusing satirical parts!

After this and I Did Not Kill My Husband, I am itching to get my hands on a translated book that has nothing to do with political satire. Ideas?

Recommendation: For fans of sly satire and those who know a bit more about Israel than I do.

Rating: 7/10

People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks (20 May — 27 May)

People of the Book is the fake story of the Sarajevo Haggadah, an illuminated seder text that baffles historians to this day. Brooks took some of the facts of the haggadah’s discovery and created fictional characters and situations to explain how these things came to be.

Our protagonist, Hanna Heath, is a young but excellent book conservator who is tapped to handle the restoration of the book. While examining it, she discovers an insect wing, some wine stains, and a few salt crystals that pique her interest and get her asking questions. Although Hanna doesn’t get all the answers, we do — Brooks writes scenarios for all of these that give a sense of the “people of the book” and why it is so important and revered.

I quite enjoyed this book, though it was a bit of a slow go as the narrative jumps back and forth between Hanna in the present and the other characters in their respective times. I found these journeys into the past to be more exciting than the present narrative, in which we discover that Hanna hates her mother and doesn’t form lasting relationships and works with far too many young but excellent professionals. In the past, we discover the tyranny of religion, the compassion of individuals, and all of the discrete steps that had to be taken to make the Sarajevo Haggadah the complete book it is today. I can only hope that the haggadah’s true story is as excellent as its fake one.

Rating: 8/10
(Support Your Local Library Challenge)