Review: The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar

This has been on my wishlist for ages because the promise of representing practicing Jewish characters in the graphic novel format (by an #ownvoices author!!!) sounded just like my kind of thing.

Set in Algeria in the 1930s, a cat belonging to a widowed rabbi and his beautiful daughter, Zlabya, eats the family parrot and gains the ability to speak. To his master’s consternation, the cat immediately begins to tell lies (the first being that he didn’t eat the parrot). The rabbi vows to educate him in the ways of the Torah, while the cat insists on studying the kabbalah and having a Bar Mitzvah. They consult the rabbi’s rabbi, who maintains that a cat can’t be Jewish — but the cat, as always, knows better.

Zlabya falls in love with a dashing young rabbi from Paris, and soon master and cat, having overcome their shared self-pity and jealousy, are accompanying the newlyweds to France to meet Zlabya’s cosmopolitan in-laws. Full of drama and adventure, their trip invites countless opportunities for the rabbi and his cat to grapple with all the important — and trivial — details of life.

There’s so much I crave to discuss, so let’s start at the beginning:

The Rabbi's Cat 2-- bookspoilsThese topics are ones I see and talk about in my daily life, but unfortunately rarely in the books I read… So I’ll never stop thanking Joann Sfar for giving Jews this major platform. The Rabbi's Cat 4-- bookspoilsAnd I loved the concept of the cat wanting to study the Kabbalah, since I recently got myself a book on the same topic.The Rabbi's Cat 1-- bookspoils

The Rabbi's Cat 5-- bookspoilsI was expecting this book to focus heavily on Zlabya and the cat (since they’re on the book cover), but that wasn’t the case. The Rabbi’s Cat, like the title suggest, is more about the bickering between the Rabbi and his cat, which I gradually grew fond of.The Rabbi's Cat 8-- bookspoilsOn that note, I laughed uncontrollably a number of times at some of the more crude remarks made by the cat, such as:

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The Rabbi's Cat 7-- bookspoilsI still feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude to see these kinds of conversations in a book!!!The Rabbi's Cat 9-- bookspoilsHa! Family is everything…

But with all that I loved, once the family traveled to Paris – to meet with the family of Zlabya’s husband – the narrative became a bit unclear. Plus, the emphasis on Jewish traditions being slowly dropped to make place for Western culture made the graphic novel deteriorate in quality for me. I cherished The Rabbi’s Cat for solely focusing on Jews in Algeria and their customs and traditions. So when halfway through the storyline shifted to make space for Western culture, I was let down. The author had such a great opportunity to educate and enlighten people on Sephardi Jews – which he did greatly for the first half – but then in the last part decides to give the spotlight once again to the Westerns…
The Rabbi's Cat 12-- bookspoilsI wish this moment would’ve been expanded to talk more about how messed up some white people are…

The Rabbi's Cat 13-- bookspoils


All in all: The Rabbi’s Cat is something I’ll cherish for a long time to come; it’s not everyday that you find something so close to home. And thankfully there’s a movie adaptation that I plan on watching next!

4.5/5 stars

Note: I’m an Amazon Affiliate. If you’re interested in buying The Rabbi’s Cat, just click on the image below to go through my link. I’ll make a small commission!

Review: Maus II by Art Spiegelman

maus-ii-6-bookspoilsSince I’d read Maus I about a year ago and Nadja Spiegelman’s enticing memoir in the summertime, I was beyond ecstatic to find this second volume on the shelves of my local library.

And since it’s been quite a while, I was grateful that this volume had a quick recap at the start of what occurred before:

Art Spiegelman, a cartoonist born after WW II, is working on a book about what happened to his parents as Jews in wartime Poland. He has made a series of visits to his childhood home in Rego Park, N.Y., to record his father’s memories. Art’s mother, Anja, committed suicide in 1968. Art becomes furious when he learns that his gather, Vladek, has burned Anja’s wartime memoirs. Vladek is remarried to Mala, another survivor. She complains often of his stinginess and lack of concern for her. Vladek, a diabetic who has suffered two heart attacks, is in poor health.

In Poland, Vladek had been a small-time textile salesman. In 1937 he married Anja Zylberberg, the youngest daughter of a wealthy Sosnowiec hosiery family. They had a son, Richieu, who died during the war.
Forced first into ghettos, then into hiding, Vladek and Anja tried to escape to Hungary with their prewar acquaintances, the Mandelbaums, whose nephew, Abraham, had attested in a letter that the escape rout was safe. They were caught and, in March, 1944, they were brought to the gates of Auschwitz.

Once again this graphic novel left me at a loss for words, so I think it’s for the best if I’ll just share those scenes that evoked certain strong emotions in me:maus-ii-1-bookspoils

It was fascinating getting to see Françoise depicted through the eyes of her husband, instead of her daughter’s (as in I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This). But that’s also what bothered me in here: I didn’t like the way she was portrayed. I kept feeling like Françoise was inserting herself in the wrong conversation. Like, this wasn’t a conversation for her to participate in. maus-ii-8-bookspoilsI mean, that comment didn’t sit well with me at all..

maus-ii-9-bookspoilsAnd this just… really??

So I was more than willing to let the focus shift from the present day. Until I realized just how utterly heart-wrecking Vladek’s past is.

maus-ii-2-bookspoilsThe scenes at the camp were one of the most hard-hitting.

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maus-ii-5-bookspoilsIt’s sad, but the above three images gave me a glimmer of hope in this world full of cruel and inhuman suffering (that is to say: before I’d read the last panel, but still).

This graphic novel also educated me a lot, which I wasn’t expecting. I thought I’d heard it all – or at least most – of what there was to know about Auschwitz, but my history lessons weren’t even close. The horrors Vladek and Anja and many others had to go through were jarring.maus-ii-7-bookspoils

 

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maus-ii-13-bookspoilsThe amount of suffering… My heart aches.

maus-ii-14-bookspoilsMy mouth is still wide open at that. THREE OR FOUR WEEKS.


All in all:  I came in unprepared with Maus II. The amount of suffering and anguish and heartbreak left me emotionally spent. (I’ll no doubt end up thinking about them for a while to come.) And it goes without saying that this remains one of the most poignant and harrowing graphic novels I’ve read to date.

4.5/5 stars

Note: I’m an Amazon Affiliate. If you’re interested in buying Maus II, just click on the image below to go through my link. I’ll make a small commission!

Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

“What sort of woman kills men?”

In northern Iceland, 1829, Agnes Magnúsdóttir is condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder of two men.

Agnes is sent to wait out the time leading to her execution on the farm of District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife and their two daughters. Horrified to have a convicted murderess in their midst, the family avoids speaking with Agnes. Only Tóti, the young assistant reverend appointed as Agnes’ spiritual guardian, is compelled to try to understand her, as he attempts to salvage her soul. As the summer months fall away to winter and the hardships of rural life force the household to work side by side, Agnes’ ill-fated tale of longing and betrayal begins to emerge. And as the days to her execution draw closer, the question burns: did she or didn’t she?

Based on a true story, Burial Rites is a deeply moving novel about personal freedom: who we are seen to be versus who we believe ourselves to be, and the ways in which we will risk everything for love. In beautiful, cut-glass prose, Hannah Kent portrays Iceland’s formidable landscape, where every day is a battle for survival, and asks, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?

That synopsis alone had me enchanted, so you can imagine how much I ended up loving the actual story written by Kent and narrated by the phenomenal Morven Christie. Speaking of, deciding to listen to the audiobook was one of the best ones decisions I made. It helped tremendously in learning how to correctly pronounce Icelandic names and places. And Christie’s narration only added to the eerie and gloomy atmosphere of this book. She’s purely brilliant in giving the characters their fitting voice, especially the one for Agnes Magnúsdóttir. I would come to anticipate her chapters purely for the fact that Morven Christie’s gave her such a richly measured and distinctly calm voice. Plus, when I tried to pick up the book and read it by myself, it just didn’t have the same haunting effect.

And if you’re not convinced after reading this next passage…

“I remain quiet. I am determined to close myself to the world, to tighten my heart and hold on to what has not yet been stolen from me. I cannot let myself slip away. I will hold what I am inside, and keep my hands tight around all the things I have seen and heard, and felt. The poems composed as I washed and scythed and cooked until my hands were raw. The sagas I know by heart. I am sinking all I have left and going underwater. If I speak, it will be in bubbles of air. They will not be able to keep my words for themselves. They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt. They will say ‘Agnes’ and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.”

This piece, written with such haunting and hypnotizing detail, completely seized my heart. Which I quickly came to realize would occur more than once throughout Burial Rites. The imagery behind certain pieces in Kent’s writing were so evocative, raw and hauntingly powerful, I was left in awe more than once.tumblr_okn1w1vcum1tuehrqo3_250And I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, when I grew fond of Agnes Magnúsdóttir with each passing page. It was the little things I noticed that left me under her spell, such as:

  • Her obsession with foresights, superstitions, omens and ravens. I loved this because it reminded me of my favorite magical realism story, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton:

“And creatures should be loved for their wisdom if they cannot be loved for kindness. As a child, I watched the ravens gather on the roof of Undirfell church, hoping to learn who was going to die. I sat on the wall, waiting for one to shake out his feathers, waiting to see which direction his beak turned. It happened once. A raven settled upon the wooden gable and jerked his beak towards the farm of Bakki, and a little boy drowned later that week, found swollen and grey downriver. The raven had known.”

  • Speaking of magical realism, I was over the moon when I saw how seriously some characters took their dreams in here, because same!!

“‘Reverend,’ she said quietly. ‘If I tell you something, will you promise to believe me?’
Tóti felt his heart leap in his chest. ‘What is it you want to tell me, Agnes?’
‘Remember when you first visited me here, and you asked me why I had chosen you to be my priest, and I told you that it was because of an act of kindness, because you had helped me across the river?’ Agnes cast a wary glance out to the group of people on the edge of the field. ‘I wasn’t lying,’ she continued. ‘We did meet then. But what I didn’t tell you was that we had met before.’
Tóti raised his eyebrows. ‘I’m sorry, Agnes. I don’t remember.’
‘You wouldn’t have. We met in a dream.’”

I said it once and I’ll say it again: This is how you win over my heart in a flash.

  • Also loved how Agnes didn’t give a flying fuck:

“‘You called me a child,’ Tóti said.
‘I offended you.’ She seemed disinterested.
‘I wasn’t offended,’ Tóti said, lying. ‘But you’re wrong, Agnes. Yes, I’m a young man, but I have spent three long years at the school of Bessastadir in the south, I speak Latin and Greek and Danish, and God has chosen me to shepherd you to redemption.’
Agnes looked at him, unblinking. ‘No. I chose you, Reverend.’”

Kelis ft Too $hort – Bossy plays in the background, just like when Noora shredded William into absolute pieces with her words in Skam. *
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  • And quickly circling back to the writing, some passages simply left my mind reeling with how seamlessly perfect, dark, and brutally honest they were.

Exhibit A:

“‘And do you remember her death very well?’
Agnes stopped knitting and looked around at the women again. They had fallen silent and were listening. ‘Do I remember?’ she repeated, a little louder. ‘I wish I could forget it.’ She unhooked her index finger from the thread of wool and brought it to her forehead. ‘In here,’ she said, ‘I can turn to that day as though it were a page in a book. It’s written so deeply upon my mind I can almost taste the ink.”

Exhibit B:

“‘But, Agnes, actions speak louder than words.’
‘Actions lie,’ Agnes retorted quickly. ‘Sometimes people never stood a chance in the beginning, or they might have made a mistake. When people start saying things like she must be a bad mother because of that mistake . . .’
When Tóti said nothing in response she went on.
‘It’s not fair. People claim to know you through the things you’ve done, and not by sitting down and listening to you speak for yourself. No matter how much you try to live a godly life, if you make a mistake in this valley, it’s never forgotten. No matter if you tried to do what was best. No matter if your innermost self whispers, “I am not as you say!” – how other people think of you determines who you are.’”

If there’s one thing that I’m sure of, it’s that Hannah Kent can write like nobody’s business.

  • On that note, I have to mention the memory Agnes was talking about in the first exhibit, because I cannot stop thinking about it ever since I read it. Agnes describing the death of her foster-mother during birth… it was painful and tragic and vivid, and I’m still speechless that it all occurred during a storm.

“‘It’s strange,’ Agnes said, using her little finger to wind the wool about the needle head. ‘Most of the time when I think of when I was younger, everything is unclear. As though I were looking at things through smoked glass. But Inga’s death, and everything that came after it . . . I almost feel that it was yesterday.’”

I had hardly breathed during Agnes recalling this memory. That whole chapter messed me up… AND NOW I CAN’T STOP THINKING ABOUT IT. Real talk, those were some masterful storytelling skills on the author’s part.

  • Side note: Iceland is one of my top places to visit, so I was beyond ecstatic to explore it through words. And the author did a beyond phenomenal job of bringing the place to life. Also, I loved getting to know a bit of history on the place and its customs. (P.S. this photo essay of the places Kent wrote about was great to look into after reading.)
  • And one last thing I want to discuss: that ending… I knew what was coming, but that didn’t help ease the pain in the least when what happened, happened. My heart ached even more when we got to see Agnes growing closer to the members of the family at the farm of Kornsá. Margrét in particular was like the mother figure she’d never had. And so their goodbyes consequently broke my heart into tiny little pieces.

“Margrét is reaching out to me and she takes my hand in hers, clasps my fingers so tightly that it hurts, it hurts.
‘You are not a monster,’ she says. Her face is flushed and she bites her lip, she bites down. Her fingers, entwined with my own, are hot and greasy.
‘They’re going to kill me.’ Who said that? Did I say that?
‘We’ll remember you, Agnes.’ She presses my fingers more tightly, until I almost cry out from the pain, and then I am crying. I don’t want to be remembered, I want to be here!
‘Margrét!’
‘I am right here, Agnes. You’ll be all right, my girl. My girl.”

MY GIRL. I had to stop myself from crying at this point. (Still, as I’m writing this.)21955051If one thing’s for sure, this beautiful, all-consuming novel about family, secrets, and murder won’t be leaving my mind for awhile.

Plus, listening to this emotional song really got me further into the story:

5/5 stars

Note: I’m an Amazon Affiliate. If you’re interested in buying Burial Rites, just click on the image below to go through my link. I’ll make a small commission!