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Book Review: He, She and It by Marge Piercy

February 19, 2017 2 comments

Book Review: He, She and It by Marge PiercySummary:
In the middle of the twenty-first century, life as we know it has changed for all time. Shira Shipman’s marriage has broken up, and her young son has been taken from her by the corporation that runs her zone, so she has returned to Tikva, the Jewish free town where she grew up. There, she is welcomed by Malkah, the brilliant grandmother who raised her, and meets an extraordinary man who is not a man at all, but a unique cyborg implanted with intelligence, emotions–and the ability to kill….

Review:
I picked this up because of how incredibly moved I was by Woman on the Edge of Time (review) by the same author. While I found this interesting and unique, it didn’t move me in quite the same way. I imagine it would probably move a reader more if they are Jewish or a mother.

The book is richly steeped in Jewish culture and history. All of Earth is either a slum or run by corporations in basically corporate states except for a few free towns which manage to exist due to their value in trade. Tikva is one of these, and it’s made clear this is partially so because the founders were concerned about maintaining Jewish culture in a world being overcome by just a few corporations. The corporation Shira works at before returning to Tikva judges her in her performance reviews for staying too attached to her home culture, including things like naming her son a traditionally Jewish name. So there is this very interesting thread about how minority cultures can maintain themselves in the face of economic threat and assimilation. When Shira gets a divorce, the corporation grants majority custody to her ex-husband and ultimately essentially full custody when he is sent to work off-world. Overcome with grief, Shira moves home to Tikva. Here we learn that Shira’s grandmother Malkah raised her and see how differently her own mother approaches motherhood than Shira does. This is one of the key threads of the book.

The other key thread is personhood and what makes us human. One of the residents of Tikva has succeeded in making an illegal cyborg. There are periodic chapters where Malkah is telling him the story of the Jewish myth of the Golem (a human-like beast made of clay to protect the Jewish people from persecution. More info). Very clear lines are drawn between the golem and the modern-day cyborg, who was made to protect Tikva and keep it free. Of course people start to have mixed feelings about the cyborg and asking not just what makes him human but also if he can be Jewish? (He himself identifies as Jewish and attends synagogue). I particularly enjoyed that Malkah isn’t just the story teller to the cyborb but she’s also one of the most important and most intelligent programmers in Tikva. The programmers essentially are what keep Tikva free, and an elderly woman is one of the most important ones.

Even though it’s a topic I’ve read a lot in scifi, I always enjoy the exploration of what makes us human and at what point does intelligent technology gain personhood, and the way it was explored here was different from what I’ve seen elsewhere. In particular, I thought the not just female but female Jewish lens was new and great. But I will admit that I had trouble relating to Shira and her struggle with motherhood and types of motherhood. I think motherhood can sometimes be overly thought about and held up on a pedestal in our culture and in feminism too. While mothers who choose to mother differently are acknowledged in the book, women who choose not to mother are not. It’s as if mothering is a natural part of womanhood, and that was not something I felt I could connect to in the book.

Overall, though, this was a wonderfully different take on the scifi exploration of cyborgs and artificial intelligence. Recommended to scifi readers, but particularly to those seeking a Jewish lens or an exploration of motherhood in addition to cyborgs.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Paperbackswap

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Book Review: Polly’s Wild Dance: A Life Serialized in Sporadic Spurts by Sydnee Elliot

Book Review: Polly's Wild Dance: A Life Serialized in Sporadic Spurts by Sydnee ElliotSummary:
Now that Polly’s daughter has left home, she finally decides to follow her long-time dream of living on the Greek islands and moves there. But she finds even moving to another country can’t help her escape the memories of her ex-lovers (or, in the case of her daughter’s father, their actual presence). As she ruminates on her life and deals with the difficulties of aging, she wonders if her life has brought her the fulfillment she was after.

Review:
I picked this up during one of Smashwords’ annual summer/winter sales because the premise vaguely reminded me of Under the Tuscan Sun, a movie I’ve always enjoyed. What I got was an older heroine with a more honest mouth and a dirtier past. It wasn’t exactly what I was expecting and I wouldn’t choose to live my life the way the main character lived hers, but I certainly enjoyed it.

The author clearly has either lived in Boston or has done a lot of research. Polly grows up in New England and then lives in either Cambridge or Boston for the early parts of her life. Everything written about Cambridge/Boston is quite accurate, although definitely not always flattering. Since this is the case for the setting of Cambridge/Boston, I came to trust the narrator regarding her experiences in California, Las Vegas, and finally the Greek islands.

Polly is unapologetically crass. Given that this is a fiction book written in the style of an older person’s memoir, I can see how this may be jarring to some readers anticipating a more…grandmotherly style story.  Personally, I enjoy the brutal honesty Polly brings to everything. She paints neither herself nor her family nor her lovers in a positive light. She verges on the side of pessimism. But there’s something I like about that level of honesty.

The edge of his tallis, the prayer shawl worn by Jewish men [Polly is Jewish and raised in a religious home], was folded back over his shoulder, so it wouldn’t touch me. Women aren’t allowed to touch this sacred garment because we’re considered unclean. The folded eight inches of fabric reminded me of one of the reasons why I couldn’t believe in this religion, or any religion. I wanted to crush the tallis with my hands, rub it over my face, arms, along my naked body and against my genitals. (loc 970)

If that passage offends you, the book will most likely offend you. If you enjoy the visceral passion Polly shows in rejecting the religion of her childhood, you will most likely enjoy the book.

The plot mainly revolves around Polly adapting to life in Greece and being haunted by visions of her ex-lovers. Basically, she will think she sees one of her ex-lovers and then tell the story of her time with him. The overarching plot is she is wondering if seeing these hauntings means her life is almost over. Also scattered throughout this plot is Polly coming to terms with being older, her body failing her, the fact that she doesn’t have a constant true love, and accepting that she is nearing the end of her life. Polly has many lovers throughout her life, and it’s clear that sometimes she was seeking one out to use him. Similarly, she is the other woman at least once and not in an accidental way. In a I hope you’ll leave your wife for me way. Polly admits she was bad at love but is also unapologetic about it. She seems lost as to how she could have done better, even right up to choosing her most recent lover.

I wanted to love Andreas. I needed to love him; I needed to love someone, anyone, and he happened to be available. (loc 5985)

While I appreciated Polly’s voice and passion, I also felt extremely sad for her. She never seems to have figured out how to be both passionate about her beliefs and also willing to listen to others. She never seems to have grown beyond the first rebellion stage into self-actualization. In a way, then, while the book has amusing scenes, overall, I found it to be a sad, cautionary tale about how failing to work on yourself, simply letting yourself muddle along, can lead to a wasted life.

Overall, this is an interesting book that features a plot I haven’t seen before. Readers interested in reading something featuring an older person  who failed to actualize or even really realize their mistakes late in life should definitely pick this up. It is well-done.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Smashwords

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Book Review: The Rabbi’s Cat 2 by Joann Sfar (Series, #2) (Graphic Novel)

People sitting around a fire with a cat and a lion.Summary:
The talking cat with the big ears who offers insightful commentary on his rabbi master and life in Algeria in the early 20th century is back.  The rabbi’s daughter is fighting with her husband (also a rabbi), and the cat is quite happy with that.  It means more snuggles from his mistress, Zlabya.  Of course, the talking cat also has a couple of adventures.  First he and a snake tag along with the famous Malka and his lion on a trek around the desert.  Then, a stowaway Russian Jew shows up in Zlabya’s house, and he understands the cat!  Soon a rag-tag bunch are off looking for the mysterious lost city of Jerusalem.  We thus get to see a lot of Africa through the cat’s eyes.

Review:
I have to say, I didn’t enjoy this sequel quiiite as much as the original.  I suspect that the fact that I was less familiar with the topics the cat is offering snarky commentary on had something to do with this.  I really don’t know much about Northern Africa or the “lost city of Jerusalem,” so I’m sure I missed some of the inside jokes.  Whereas the previous book was mostly about Jews in Algeria and the French occupation, this book seems to talk a lot more about the relative merits of the various monotheistic religions and why can’t we all just be friends.

While on their various treks, the groups run across some Muslim tribes who state that Jews are their brothers who they respect, but it is still their duty to attempt to get them to convert.  The rabbi eloquently states that he is too old to learn a new language for prayer, and he is sure god will understand.  Similarly, the Russian Jew falls in love with an African woman (I am uncertain from which country), and they ask the rabbi to marry them.  He says he can only marry two Jews, and she states she is glad to take her husband’s god as her own.  Exasperated, the rabbi states it is not that simple, she must study for years, but then relents when seeing how in love they are and says that god will understand.  The cat too has learned when to hold his tongue around extremists, although he still offers commentary to the other animals, whether over an obsessive Muslim prince or a Kabbalistic elderly rabbi.  What is incited repeatedly in this book is extremism in favor of tolerance and love, which is certainly always a good message.

The other message is never to judge someone as less intelligent than you simply because they speak a different language or their ways are different.  I really like how this is carried over into the animal kingdom where the cat even seeks to understand the snake.  At first the cat thinks the snake just willy-nilly bites people and animals, but then he realizes that this is his only tool of friendship.  And yet although we should seek to understand, the cat also doesn’t hang around too long anyone who is extremist or annoying.  The Muslim prince and the English explorer (who thinks the Algerians don’t bathe) are both quickly dumped by the traveling group.

While these are all good messages, I must say I missed the no holding back talking cat of the first book.  I suppose he’s older and wiser, but I like him precisely because I can’t imagine a talking cat ever actually holding his tongue.  Seeing him do so in this book made me kind of sad.  Also, I feel like the story of Zlabya and her husband got dumped partway through and never picked back up.  We know they’re fighting a lot, but then we just leave them and go off on an adventure across Africa.  It felt like a final chapter was missing from the book.

Overall, this is an interesting look at the intersection of many cultures, religions, and races on the continent of Africa through the unique eyes of a rabbi’s cat, a wandering lion, and a friendly snake.  If you enjoyed the first book, you shouldn’t skip this one.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Public Library

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Previous Books in Series:
The Rabbi’s Cat (review)

Counts For:

Specific country? Algeria, primarily

 

Book Review: The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar (Series, #1) (Graphic Novel)

January 17, 2012 7 comments

Jewish girl holding a gray cat.Summary:
The rabbi’s cat gives us a glimpse inside the home world of an Orthodox Rabbi and his young adult daughter in Algeria in the 1930s.  The cat is who we could call the “questioning” member of the family, a fact that isn’t too bothersome until one day he gains the ability to speak.

Review:
I loooove animal perspective books, and the drawing of Zbalya holding the cat on the cover was so adorable that I just had to grab this off the library shelf.  I was not disappointed.

Although I think anyone could enjoy this book, it definitely helps to have a bit of an understanding of how Orthodox Judaism works in order to catch some of the inside jokes.  The first chapter sucks you right in when the cat eats the “forbidden fruit”–the family’s pet parrot.  This renders him with the ability to speak.  Since I don’t have the book right in front of me, I can’t quote, but allow me to paraphrase the first conversation the cat has with the rabbi:

Rabbi: You ate the parrot!

Cat: No, I did not.

Rabbi: You are lying!

Cat: I am not lying, I am questioning. Good Jews question.

Rabbi: You are not a Jew.

Cat: Why not? You’re a Jew, and you are my master.

Rabbi: You are not circumcised.

Cat: I’m a cat. Cats can’t be circumcised.

Rabbi: Fine, but you have not been bar mitzvahed.

Cat: I am only 7.

Rabbi: In cat years that is 49.

Cat: Fine, than bar mitzvah me.

The rabbi agrees to start teaching him the Torah, and the questioning and ridiculousness continues.  It’s completely hilarious.

The cat is everything you imagine a cat to be–snarky, questioning, judgmental, but ultimately wants nothing more than to be held by Zbalya while she studies or sleeps, which leads directly into the second conflict in chapter two–Zbalya gets married and leaves the cat behind in her father’s household.  The final chapter covers a family visit to Paris to meet Zbalya’s husband’s family.

The drawings are rich and quirky.  The cat is not a beautiful cat, but he with his big ears and funky body shape matches the tongue in cheek witticisms of the story.  Algeria and Paris are exquisitely drawn, albeit from a cat-eye perspective.

It’s obvious that Sfar respects Judaism yet questions some of the rigorous rules of Orthodox Judaism.  Among the things the cat questions are Shabbat rules, why he can no longer sleep in his mistress’s room after she is married, why humans are so secretive about sex, why questioning is supposedly welcomed yet it annoys the humans, and why the name of god must not be spoken aloud except in prayer.  Even if you’re not religious, the book does make you wonder just what your pets think about your own habits and belief systems when they’re not purring in your lap.

Overall, this was a fun book with a cool perspective on Orthodox Judaism, Algeria, and Paris.  Although the last chapter wasn’t as strong as the first two, it was still well-worth the read, and I am eagerly anticipating diving into the next entry.

I recommend this to cat lovers and those with a knowledge of Judaism.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Public Library

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