Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Queen of the Bowery: Jami Attenberg's Saint Mazie

Jami Attenberg's The Middlesteins was a big hit a couple of years ago and like many others I powered through this family screwball comedy about life, food, love and whatever other crazy joke Attenberg used to make us fall for the dysfunctional family feeling the pull of economic and social displacement in modern America. So when it was announced that she was coming out with a new book this year I was excited and tried many times to win myself a copy on Goodreads giveaways. Sadly, my efforts were for naught.

Nonetheless, I got my hands on the audiobook version of Saint Mazie and took the plunge and what I got was something completely different! Inspired by a 1940s profile of Mazie Phillips Gordon from The New Yorker, Attenberg takes us through Mazie's life from the turn of the century until the beginning of the Second World War.

Mazie is the middle sister of a Jewish New England family. She and her younger sister, Genie, are rescued from an abusive household by their elder sister Rosie and her husband Lewis and taken to live in Manhattan. Mazie is a bit rebellious and sexually liberated, eager to live New York. Soon though she is forced to work at Lewis's movie theatre in the ticket booth, quickly becoming an icon to those filling up the theatre every day. Over the next three decades, Mazie tries to hold her family together through ups and downs, successes and tragedies, while also getting drawn into the cultural and historical events that Manhattan live through. Through all of this Mazie goes through an immense personal transformation, going from a flighty but ambitious young woman to stateswoman of the Bowery district who refused to close her theatre during the Great Depression and instead focused all her energies to provide financial and emotional solace to the homeless devestated by the economic collapse during the 1930s.

Structurally the story is told through Mazie's fictionalized diary entries, documentary style interviews of those who had known Mazie, and expert accounts from historians who were experts of the time period. Even though there are multiple story tellers, it is Mazie's voice that looms over this story. Her diary entries are filled with wit and attitude and when tragedy hits the emotion conveyed by her voice is intense and devastating.

I didn't "enjoy" Saint Mazie as much as The Middlesteins, the latter being much lighter and laugh-outloud material. While Attenberg's writing is still fresh with a tinge of humour, Mazie is a more serious and poignant story. Partly this may be Attenberg being more sensitive about writing about a real historical person, but it means that a reader has a very different experience than they did with her last book.

Nonetheless, Attenberg has given us an important work, one that touches on important themes and issues about women fighting through the ever changing urban experience in the first forty years of the 20th Century. It is also a novel that recognizes a figure that the historical record has largely ignored. It has also provide a visceral description of New York city life that potentially could let this book fit well into the pantheon of great New York novels.

All that said, this was an excellent book and I look forward to continuing to read the many books Attenberg certainly has left in her.

Here are some good interviews with Attenberg about Saint Mazie, including a hilarious conversation with Judy Blume.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Mist and the Memory: Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant

I first discovered Kazuo Ishiguro not from his writing but from watching Remains of the Day, which was Anthony Hopkins first film post Silence of the Lambs. After watching his tour de force as Hannibal Lecter, it was shocking to see Hopkins put on such a different and muted performance as a butler struggling to keep his place in a rigidly hierarchal social order.  Both Hopkins and Emma Thompson were amazing in this tragic and painful film and I carried the memory of the film for many years after.

A few years ago, as I started to get into my reading groove, I picked up the book and discovered the hauntingly quiet style of Ishiguro's prose. Shortly after I dived into what has now become the universally adored Never Let Me Go. On the one hand these two works are incomparable. The former a period piece following the lives of the servants working on the estate of an English lord. The latter a  story that delves into the world of science fiction and clones who have been harvested as organ donators. Despite these contrasting settings, both novels grapple with themes of companionship and love that cannot overcome predetermined fates.

While I enjoyed Remains, it was Never Let Me Go that overwhelmed me. Although Ishiguro's style is  calm and gentle, the emotional punch that he delivered is what made me excited to hear about his newest book, The Buried Giant. Even more interesting was Ishiguro's decision to situate this story deep in the realm of fantasy, in a Medieval England filled with ogres, ferries, and dragons. His choice of setting and some comments he made about it drew some unjust ire from legendary SFF author Ursula K. Le Guin and has provoked some valuable discussions about genre and the unnecessary walls it sometimes imposes. With all the chatter surrounding this book, I definitely had high expectations.

The story itself follows an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, who live in a time where everyone's memories are clouded by mist that hangs over the land. They decide that with time running out in their lives it was time to venture out to visit their son who lives in a nearby village. As they embark on their journey they encounter wise monks and talisman, a saxon warrior, a knight who had served under King Arthur, and a young Saxon boy who has become possessed with special powers. Each player is in some way connected to the mist  and  all in some way are trying to preserve or rid the land of the mist's fogging of the past. As Axl and Beatrice follow along with the others, fragments of their pasts slowly seep back into their minds and they must decide whether it is for the best that the mist continues to pervade rather than have painful and angering memories storm back and permanently disturb the quiet tranquillity of the land.

In many ways the themes Ishiguro has touched upon are fascinating. Is it better that hateful feelings that emerged from war be washed away and masked to preserve peace? How do a people, both perpetrators and victims of brutal crimes, overcome the guilt and anger that is felt after a conflict? How precious and powerful is the love of two loyal companions when confronted with their own back story, which may be unpleasant and put into question the strength of their feelings for one another? Does the value of possessing ones memories displace all other things?

Despite the intriguing issues raised,, I found much of the book slow going. The plot and mystery was not as captivating as Never Let Me Go and it took much longer to get into this book, which took away from some of the enjoyability it had. Ishiguro is not a writer who you turn to for fast paced action, but there was a sharpness and tragic empathy that carried the narrators voice in Never Let Me Go that just wasn't replicated in The Buried Giant.

I'd say it is worth picking up but it won't be one of those novels you go around shouting about after completion.  Instead a reader will be left to quietly mull over the ideas and issues Ishiguro has sought to explore, which isn't necessarily such a bad thing.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Catching Up with Miriam Toews

So it has been a while since my last post so lots to catch up with. As mentioned in my last post, we had our first book club meeting, with some really smart and wonderful folks. The first book we chose was by Canadian author Miriam Toews, specifically her newest fictionalized account of her sister's suicide All My Puny Sorrows. This was my first Toews book and it was as lovely and tragically funny as the many accolades the novel received when it was released in 2014.

The story is told through the eyes of Yoli, a semi successful Toronto author and single mother, who is trying desperately to convince her sister Elf not to take her life as she struggles through severe depression. Yoli struggles to offer Elf solace yet try to persuade her to keep living, while also comforting her own mother and trying to manage a personal life that is filled with failure and disappointment.

Toews intertwines so many thematic elements in her story telling, from depression and suicide, to growing up in an intensely religious Mennonite community that looks down at a family's eccentricities, and to how a family copes with such profound loss. Toews writing is witty and funny, which provided a levity to an otherwise gloomy story. There are laugh out loud moments (one in particular where a defiant teen piano prodigy Elf infuriatingly plays away her piano to drive out the Mennonite elders who had visited to chastise her father) and other parts filled with endless tragedy that leave the reader grasping for air.

Despite this, I felt wanting more from this book. There was so much to be told that was left unsaid. I wanted to hear more about the sisters' upbringing and what happened between those early years and the concluding moments of Elf's life. That said, some of my book club members seemed to prefer the silence on these subjects, left room for our imaginations to fill in the gaps and construct our own ideas about how Elf and Yoli ended up here.

Nonetheless, Toews has written a very powerful yet intimate novel. You could feel the personal catharsis that Toews must have felt writing about such a difficult moment in her life. The reader is left feeling a sense of connection with her and you definitely don't get that in most works of fiction.

I look forward to exploring Toews' backlist and maybe getting deeper insight into those themes Toews teased us with in All My Puny Sorrows.