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.