Tag Archives: Joseph Mitchell

Paperbacks to Look Out For in February 2016: Part 1

Cover imageSpoilt for choice this month: two posts for new titles, and now two for paperbacks. I’ll start the first selection with one of my books of 2015. I have to confess that I didn’t get on with Emily Woof’s first novel, The Whole Wide Beauty. It was lauded to the skies by all and sundry but I gave it up. The premise of The Lightning Tree was so appealing, though, that I decided to give her a second try and I’m very glad I did. The bare bones are this: girl from one side of the tracks – comfy, middle-class, lefty activist parents – meets boy from the other side – council estate, working-class, Thatcherite mum and dad – they fall in love, the girl heads off to India, the boy to Oxford and then we see what happens, following them into their thirties. I find this structure a particularly attractive one: lots of lovely space for character development.

A. D. Miller’s The Faithful Couple also follows a relationship over many years. That name may ring a few bells for some readers – he’s the author of Snowdrops a hugely successful literary thriller set in Moscow in the 1990s, published back in 2010. His new novel begins in 1993 with two young British men, Neil and Adam, who meet on holiday in California. They instantly click then both become involved in a dubious moral act which dogs Adam, in particular. The book charts their friendship over nearly twenty years, picking out the tensions between them – Neil’s resentment of Adam’s casual privilege, career ups and downs, marriage and children with their attendant worries. Miller’s novel was an enjoyable piece of holiday reading for me last year which may explain why I remember it so well.

I think Jami Attenberg’s Saint Mazie would have stayed with me wherever I read it. As with Cover imageEmily Woof, I wasn’t particularly keen on Attenberg’s much praised The Middlesteins but the background to her new novel was so intriguing that it piqued my interest. The eponymous Mazie was the subject of a short essay by Joseph Mitchell first published in The New Yorker and included in his excellent collection Up in the Old Hotel. Like many of Mitchell’s subjects Mazie’s story is a fascinating one – an ordinary working-class New York woman who did something extraordinary. Attenberg has taken Mitchell’s essay and re-imagined Mazie’s life using fictionalised interviews and autobiography extracts with her diary as the novel’s backbone. Mazie is an unforgettable character, and Joseph Mitchell’s story is almost as interesting as hers.

Still in New York but fast forwarding several decades, Richard Bausch’s Before, During, After is an unusual take on the events of September 11th, 2001. As its title suggests, Bausch’s novel is set in the months before, during and after the terrorist attacks, exploring what happened very effectively by drawing parallels between the personal and the political. Michael and Natasha are newly in love, soon to be married. On the day of the attacks she’s in Jamaica with a friend, he’s in New York for a wedding. What follows is devastating for them both. It’s a profoundly involving novel – quite cerebral at times, but also emotionally engaging

Cover imageNow to one I haven’t read but am very much looking forward to: Mark Henshaw’s The Snow Kimono. On the same day a retired Parisian police inspector receives a letter from a woman who claims to be his daughter, he finds a stranger waiting for him at his apartment. Professor Tadashi Omura tells Inspector Jovert his extraordinary life story which has surprising parallels with Jovert’s own. It sounds intriguing and comes from Tinder Press who seem to have developed a sharp eye for talent.

That’s it for the first batch of February paperbacks. A click on the title will take you to my review for the first four while The Snow Kimono will take you to Waterstones website for a fuller synopsis. If you’d like to catch up with February’s new novels they’re here and here.

Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg: ‘Queen of the Bowery’

Cover imageI wasn’t particularly keen on Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins so you may wonder why Saint Mazie caught my attention: Mazie was the subject of a short essay by Joseph Mitchell first published in The New Yorker and included in his excellent collection Up in the Old Hotel. Like many of Mitchell’s subjects Mazie’s story is a fascinating one – an ordinary working-class New York woman who did something extraordinary. Attenberg has taken Mitchell’s essay and re-imagined Mazie’s life using fictionalised interviews and autobiography extracts with her diary as the novel’s backbone.

Mazie and Jeanie come to live in New York with their sister Rosie and her husband Louis when Mazie is ten. She’s a girl who likes a bit of excitement, wandering off whenever she can, staying out late into the small hours as soon as she’s old enough. Jeanie loves to dance and sets her sights on a career on the stage. All this is a source of terrible anxiety to Rosie, desperate for a child and consumed by obsessive cleaning. At Rosie’s behest, Louis sets Mazie up in the ticket booth of his movie theatre, safely tucked away from trouble. Mazie calls it her cage but it’s where she will spend her working life, sating her lust for adventure by walking the streets at night, visiting the local speakeasy in the Prohibition years and enjoying passionate encounters. She’s always noticed the down-and-outs, moved to lend a hand when children are involved, but as the Depression bites, her nightly wanders gain more purpose. Handing out change and soap, Mazie listens to the stories of the men on the street. Thoroughly acquainted with the humanity and inhumanity, she’s not a woman to be conned but she’s deeply compassionate and sees no difference between many of these men and herself.

Attenberg’s re-imagining brings Mazie vividly to life. She’s a passionate woman who’s seen enough of her parents’ dysfunctional marriage not to want it for herself. She’s bright, clear-eyed and sharp but she won’t turn her back on anyone in need. In the words of one of the interviewees she ‘led a very big life for someone who barely left a twenty-block radius’. By interspersing interviews with the diary entries Attenberg fleshes out a picture of Mazie’s family and neighbourhood, careful to have her characters tell us that their memories are unreliable or that they’re reporting rumours and suppositions. Fictionalisations can often seem clunky, weighed down by meticulous research, but Attenberg’s is executed with a light touch. It made me reach for my copy of Up in the Old Hotel, and I’m pleased to report that she’s remained trueCover image to the spirit of her source although, despite her interest in Catholicism,  I’m not sure Mazie would have liked being dubbed a saint. No doubt she’d have had something sassy to say about that: ‘Queen of the Bowery’ would have been much more up her street.

Mitchell’s own story is an interesting one. He had a talent for seeking out eccentric characters and getting them to tell him about themselves but, sadly, he was struck by writer’s block. Hired by The New Yorker in 1938 he remained employed by them until his death in 1996 but never wrote anything of note after 1964. His last book was Joe Gould’s Secret about the eponymous author’s own writer’s block. He continued to attend The New Yorker office where they kept a desk for him until his death. Almost worthy of inclusion in his own book, which is highly recommended.