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.

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