Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg

I *love* historical fiction involving NYC, biased I know, and when the time period is the early part of the twenty century it has the potential to be pure gold.  Jami Attenberg does an incredible job of bringing the readers into the realm of lower Manhattan; through the golden era of flappers and speakeasys, to the horror and despair of the depression.  I loved that she based this piece of historical fiction on a real can read about the real Mazie Phillips here:  and in an article by Joseph Mitchell in The New Yorker Magazine, December 21, 1940. 

An Amazon Best Book of June 2015: Jami Attenberg’s Saint Mazie couldn’t be more different from her popular The Middlesteins, in that it is a) historical not contemporary, b) loosely based on a real woman who lived in early 20th century New York City instead of on an all-too-real fictional character in suburban Chicago and c) told as an oral history instead of as a traditional narrative. Still, this novel exhibits the same kind of wit and depth and heart of the earlier one. Mazie Phillips was a depression-era movie-theater-owner in New York during the Depression; she was big-hearted and bawdy, enough of a neighborhood figure that she became the subject of a 1940 New Yorker profile by the journalist Joseph Mitchell. Starting with his observations—“Mazie has a genuine fondness for bums and undoubtedly knows more bums than any other person in the city”—Attenberg weaves an astonishingly heartfelt story of poverty and loss (one of Mazie’s beloved, orphaned sisters moves to California to become a dancer and is essentially lost to her forever), unconventionality (there’s a lot of socially “inappropriate” sex and love in this book) and, to use a word from that era, “moxie.” With all her tough talk and bootstrap-pulling, Mazie could grow into a cliché – the loose woman with a heart of gold – but Attenberg never lets her, preferring instead to take Mitchell’s sketch and draw all over it with fictional interviews and diaries until Mazie becomes a complex and irresistible real-life woman. She may have lived in a very specific era, but thanks to Attenberg, she has become a character for the ages. --Sara Nelson

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