Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Saint Mazie: What Does It Mean To Be Good?

Jami Attenberg's fantastic new novel Saint Mazie is about a hard-partying maneater named Mazie Phillips-Gordon. Mazie's a real person — a subject of a New Yorker profile in 1940 about how she opened the Manhattan theater she owned to down-on-their-luck dudes during the Great Depression. But Attenberg's novel uses a fictitious diary, as well as "interviews" with some people whose relatives knew Mazie, or who knew Mazie themselves, to construct a portrait of this larger-than-life woman.

The result is just an exuberant, fun-to-read story. Mazie moves from Boston to the lower East Side of Manhattan as a young girl to escape her abusive father. She and her younger sister Jeanie live with their older sister Rosie and Rosie's husband, Louis. Mazie, in her late teenage years, takes quickly to the Manhattan life, staying out all night, flirting with fellas, and generally living for the moment. But Mazie harbors a soft spot for helping people — the paradox of her character.

Rosie and Louis — her parent figures — decide they've had a enough with her wild ways, and plead with her to take over as the ticket-taker for the theater Louis owns. She can't say no to Louis, who she loves for saving her and for taking care of her and sisters. So she agrees — spending her days in the "cage" of the ticket booth, and watching New York City slide by without her. She does manage to step out once in awhile, including with a dashing and World War I hero named the Captain, who becomes her life-long love interest, as he flits in and out of her life.

So the central question of the novel, which really rises to the surface as the Great Depression hits and Mazie spends more and more time helping the homeless: What does it mean to be a good person? Mazie assumes she's bad — she has sex with married men, she flirts, she drinks and smokes, and stays out all night. But her heart's in the right place, isn't it? Her younger sister, by contrast, is a sweetheart who never gave anyone any trouble. Bu she suddenly takes off across the country to make it as a dancer, jilting the man who loves her. She gets in trouble in Chicago and has to return to New York somewhat disgraced. Is Jeanie a good person? And then Louis — Louis may or may not be a criminal. Mazie constantly sees him meeting with shady figures, and he always seems to have money to burn. But he's a big 'ole sweetheart of a man, who loves the sisters, and treats Mazie with nothing but compassion and respect. Is Louis good?

I really loved this novel. It's a great character study and a wonderful depiction of early 20th century New York City. And there aren't too many more fun-to-read writers out there than Attenberg (I loved The Middlesteins, as well.) She's funny, witty, smart-as-hell, and just generally a writer who really seems to enjoy writing every sentence as much as you enjoy reading them. This is highly recommended. Very highly.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Euphoria: Anthropologists in Love

An anthropologist love triangle in 1930s New Guinea? Lily King's novel Euphoria sounded a bit too soap-opera-ey for me — not exactly a novel in my reading wheelhouse. And so it took me a lot to talk myself into trying it. But the avalanche of accolades (NBCC finalist, NY Times Top 10 book of 2014, bestseller in paperback) and finding a super-cheap, new-condition paperback in a used bookstore finally tilted me over the edge. 

It's a fascinating read loosely based on the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead. In the novel, the Mead character is named Nell — she's recently married to an Australian anthropologist named Fen, who we slowly learn feels threatened in his masculinity by her success. She's published a much-read, if somewhat controversial book, and has become something of a science celebrity. He, however, is an unknown. And while the two seem to work well together, they often come to very different conclusions regarding what they're studying. And this begins to become bothersome for Nell.

When the novel opens, we see them leaving the tribe they'd been studying to attend a Christmas Eve party. There, they meet another somewhat famous anthropologist named Bankson, who has just tried to kill himself by walking into the river with rocks in his pocket. But he was fished out by the natives, and now has a new lease on life. He's desperately lonely, and so he talks Nell and Fen into staying in New Guinea, even recommending a new tribe along the same river for them to study. Nell and Fen again throw themselves into their work, but when Bankson comes to visit to check on their progress, he realizes he's already starting to have strong feelings for Nell. And Nell is becoming more and more disillusioned with her husband and his work ethic. How will the three deal with their difficult feelings for each other, their work, and the tribes they're studying?

This slim, deceptively complex novel takes on some weighty issues in regards to gender relations, cultural relativism, and the balances of "power" in any relationship. The title refers to Nell's moment when she feels like she truly understands the culture of the people she's studying. But she realizes her euphoria is false, because much like in her own relationships, you never really reach an end-point of total understanding. Relationships are constantly evolving.

King handles the complexities and themes of this great novel with a subtle, deft hand, trusting her reader to puzzle them out for him or herself. And that's ultimately why I enjoyed it — it's a really smart book that challenges its readers to give it more than just cursory thought. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Two Great Recent Chicago-Set Novels

Chicago-set novels are a bone fide literary Kryptonite for me — I can't resist 'em. Here are two great recent ones.

The Making Of Zombie Wars, by Aleksander Hemon
Have you ever read a Jonathan Tropper or other dude-lit novel, and thought, "Hmm, this is pretty good, but what it needs is more graphic sex and violence"? Well, here you go! Chicagoan Hemon gives us this goofy tale of a 33-year-old struggling screenwriter named Joshua Levin. Our boy Josh gets himself into hot water with his beautiful, kinky, way-out-of-his league lady Kimmy when he can't resist the charms of a beautiful Bosnian woman named Ana, a student in the English as a Second Language night class he teaches.

Joshua participates in a screenwriting workshop, and though he has many ideas for screenplays, he never finishes any of them ... that is until a great idea for a movie about zombies occurs to him. It's spring 2003, we've just invaded Iraq, and war is fresh in the hearts and minds of everyone. Part of the idea of the novel is to draw a silly parallel between art and life by showing that we dumb humans are more or less like zombies, only responding to our urges of the flesh (like sex and violence). And for Joshua, the irony here is that the only thing that can elevate him above his current zombie-esque urges is his art about zombies who can't resist their own urges.

It's a deceptively funny novel that includes a samurai-sword-wielding, Guns'N'Roses-listening, post-smoking, Desert Storm veteran named Stagger, cock rings and handcuffs, and Bosnian toughs named Esko and Bega who are constant thorns in Joshua's side.

Don't take this novel too seriously, and I think you'll dig it. It's a quick, light read with plenty of laugh-out-loud absurdity.

The Ghost Network, by Catie Disabato
This intricate debut thriller is a mixture of conspiracy theory, esoteric history and philosophy (both of Chicago and in general), and commentary on celebrity and pop culture. 

The set-up here is that a writer named Catie Disabato is publishing (with her own notes) a previously completed manuscript by another journalist name Cyrus Archer. Archer's manuscript is about the disappearance of a pop star named Molly Metropolis and one of her biggest fans' efforts to find her. But only a few months into the search, the fan, whose name is Cait Taer, also disappears — we learn this in the prologue. So what the heck has happened?

Taer's efforts to find Molly Metropolis before her own disappearance involve hooking up (figuratively, and romantically) with Molly's assistant Regina Nix and one of her confidants, Nick Berliner (great names, right?!). She has to delve into the history of the Chicago El, the faux-profound ramblings she finds in Molly Metropolis's journal, and a mysterious (and real) philosophical movement called Situationism

The cool thing about this novel is Chicago is very prominent — Cait and Regina spend tons of time just walking the streets, and we get to see a lot of great Chicago landmarks and neighborhoods. But the strength of this novel is its inventiveness, and how it manages to pull so many disparate elements into a what turns into a pretty taut thriller.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

How To Tell Toledo From The Night Sky: Tricking Fate

Childhood friends Sally and Bernice have the most noble intentions — they endeavor to raise their children, George and Irene, so that when they will grow up, meet randomly, fall in love, and live happily ever after. It'll be as if they were fated to be together, like two halves of a whole, like symmetrical souls. Of course, when you're trying to trick fate and arrange a marriage over the course of a few decades, even the best laid plans can go awry.

So this attempt to engineer destiny is the set-up for Lydia Netzer's fun, quirky 2014 novel, How To Tell Toledo From The Night Sky. There's two ways to look at Sally and Bernice's plot: They're just looking out for and protecting their children. Both Bernice and Sally's parents got divorced when they were young, and so by arranging their kids' soulmates (albeit without the kids' knowledge), they're just trying to make sure they have happy lives. The other way, though, is that by trying to trick the fate of falling in love, they're actually ruining it. They're trying to have their fate and beat it too. So the question of the novel is, will it work?

So it's a novel about fate vs. free will, yes. But it's also about empirical evidence vs. blind faith,  myth vs. truth, and about overcoming what you are sure you know to be true about the world when new "evidence" is presented. Finally, it's about learning how to be happy.

Our two star-crossed lovers, George and Irene, are both wonderful characters — flawed and neurotic and maddening. And their mothers are even worse.

I really dug this book for both its premise and for Netzer's writing. There are some beautiful, poetic, profound passages as often as there are hilarious, goofy one-liners. It's a book not to take too seriously, but to take seriously enough to truly imagine the possibilities presented with this cool premise.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Five Best Books of 2015 (so far...)

(This post originally appeared on RoscoeBooks' blog.)

We’re 1/3 of the way through 2015. Amazing! But for my money, the best 2/3 of the year remain — not only because of street fests, barbeques, the World Series, leaves, Christmas, etc., but also because here come some pretty great books! So far this year, though, there have also been some pretty great books. At the 33.33333 percent mark of the year, here are my five favorites so far.

5. The Girl On The Train, by Paula Hawkins — The most popular book of the year so far is mostly worth the hype. It’s a riveting read, and even though I had a few minor issues with the novel, on balance, I liked it. It kept me up late reading, guessing, and feeling terrible for the poor hot mess of a protagonist.

4. The Kind Worth Killing, by Peter Swanson — Okay, but if you liked The Girl On The Train, you’ll LOVE this book. It’s populated with a bevy of unlikeable characters who plot horrible things for each other. At its root, it’s a dueling-narrative thriller about a failed marriage and a plot to kill the cheating wife — which, of course, doesn’t exactly go as planned. And the story gets pretty crazy from there. Give this one a shot — you may not have heard of it, but it’s really, really good.

3. Get In Trouble, by Kelly Link — Short stories: woohoo! These kooky, imaginative stories will certainly keep you on your toes. There are nudists, runaway teenagers, superheroes, sex dolls, astronauts, ghosts, and much more. But the idea here is that these fantastical (and fantastic!) stories allow Link to explore a theme of what is real, authentic, and genuine, and how can we know.

2. Glow, by Ned Beauman — This is the zaniest, most fun novel I’ve read in awhile. A nefarious American mining company operating in Burma is attempting to take over the drug trade in London. But why? And what’s the deal with the mysterious foxes popping up all over the city? This story is part Pynchon, with a mix of Murakami, and all good time. A guy who has something called non-24-sleep/wake syndrome has to try to solve the mystery of why this mining company is killing his friends. Along the way, he meets a beautiful woman named Cherish who may not be everything she seems.

1. A Little Life, by Hanya Yanigahara — It’s hard to imagine this won’t be my favorite of the full year eight months from now (even with a new Franzen and a To Kill a Mockingbird sequel!) — I was just blown away by this book. It’s as intense a read as you’ll find, but also incredibly engrossing and immensely rewarding. If you’re the kind of reader who misses the characters after you close the final page, well, that’ll be the case here too. I still miss them several months later.

(Honorable mention — Bonita Avenue, by Peter Buwalda. I just finished this massive tome about a dysfunctional Dutch family. And I really enjoyed it, but I need let it sink in a little more before I can assess its place on a “best of…” list.)