I’ve been reading lots of wonderful books lately, and I want to show two new titles that I started recently. Both of them contain main characters attempting to avoid persecution by passing.
Let’s begin with something that’s definitely suited for my profession!
The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict (the pen name of Heather Terrell) and Victoria Christopher Murray explores the little-known story of Belle da Costa Greene – J.P. Morgan’s personal librarian – who became one of the most powerful women of New York despite keeping a dangerous secret that would prevent her dreams from coming true. In her twenties, Belle is hired by the legendary J.P. Morgan to curate a collection of rare manuscripts, books, and artwork for his newly built Pierpont Morgan Library. She becomes a staple in New York society and one of the most powerful people in the book and art world, known for her taste and negotiating skills as she helps to build a world-class collection. However, she has a secret, one she must protect at all costs. Her darker complexion is not because of her Portuguese grandmother, but it’s because she’s Belle Marion Greener, daughter of Richard Greener – the first Black graduate of Harvard and a well-known advocate for equality. This tells the story of a women known for her style, taste, and wit and the lengths to which she must go —for the protection of her family and her legacy—to preserve her carefully crafted white identity in the racist world in which she lives.
I’m half way through the audiobook, and I really like it. Belle is a savvy librarian and art collector, and I enjoy the sections where she displays her style and wit. At the same time, Murray and Benedict are not afraid to show Belle’s vulnerability, especially when she gets close to Mr. Berenson – one of Morgan’s rival art collectors. The authors blend these two aspects together seamlessly. In addition, the fact that Belle da Costa Greene was a real person only adds to the realism of the story.
My only complaint is that the plot of The Personal Librarian feels too similar to that of Carnegie’s Maid by Marie Benedict. I haven’t read the latter, but I couldn’t help but notice that their blurbs are almost identical. Both stories deal with women from a lower class who end up working for rich men. They display their business instincts so effectively that their bosses began to rely on them and even grow closer to them. However, they have to keep their guard up because of secrets that they harbor. For Belle, it’s that she’s a light-skinned black woman, and for Clara Kelley from Carnegie’s Maid, she’s a poor farmer’s daughter who assumes the identity of an Irish maid after the latter woman has vanished. It’s almost like Benedict has the same Mad Libs sheet, and she only changed the nouns.
The audiobook is narrated by Robin Miles. While Miles has acted on and off Broadway and in tv shows like Law and Order, she’s best known as an audiobook narrator. She has received accolades for titles like Just As I Am by Cecily Tyson and Michelle Burford, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents and The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson, and Charlotte’s Web. Miles has also recorded audiobooks for The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid, The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate, and Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly.
Miles provides the main character with the needed elegance, wit, and vulnerability to make the character believable. She also distinguishes other characters well. While her male characters tend to have a similar Mid-Atlantic accent (unless they are explicitly from another country besides the United States), she sprinkles some vocal differences in them. For example, Morgan himself has a stern tone, and Mr. Berenson displays a kinder one. I look forward to hearing the rest.
Now, let’s move on to second and final title of this chapter.
Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale – And Here My Troubles Began by Art Spiegelman recounts the horrors that the author’s father faced during the Holocaust and how he survived with the Jewish people portrayed as mice and the Nazis as menacing cats. It also weaves in the story of a fraught relationship between the two men and the legacy of generational trauma. At every level this is the ultimate survivor’s tale – and that too of the children who somehow survive even the survivors.
And if in case you’re wondering, yes, I’ve also read Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History, and I plan on reviewing both as a single entity. And yes, I’m reading this because of the controversy surrounding the acclaimed graphic novel. However, I’ve had a personal interest in it for a very long time, and I’ll go more in depth about that in the actual review.
Now, onto the book itself, it’s very powerful. The Jewish people as mice and the Germans as cats recalls a quote that Hilter once said, “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.”
Depicting these people as animals makes it devastatingly clear how the Nazis and other Germans saw the Jewish people and how race played a huge role in identity.
It also doesn’t hold back showing how Vladek – the author’s father – survived Auschwitz with every possible opportunity. The black and white images show hung dead mice and even them being burned alive. It’s definitely not for someone who is easily triggered by content like that. In addition, in one section of the book, the author is shown wearing a mouse mask at a desk that’s on top of a bunch of dead mice. Other reviewers have pointed out the symbolism, but it’s worth repeating that it’s a great depiction of one man’s burden to tell the tales of those who vanished in the Holocaust and how being Jewish doesn’t entirely define one’s identity.
Another aspect that I’ve enjoyed both in Maus I and II is that Vladek is portrayed as a flawed individual. He constantly tries to save money in extreme ways like returning already open cereal boxes and gets into constant arguments with his son about various things. Also, he barks at Art when the latter and his wife Francoise pick up a black dog (uh, I mean man) from the side of the road. Vladek feared that he would steal their groceries. His racism against black people is definitely seen as hypocritical given the persecution he faced as a Jewish person in 1930s and 1940s Europe. I can’t wait to see how it ends!
We have now come to the end of the twenty-nineth chapter of “What Am I Reading?”
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