Mini Reviews: Saint Mazie and Land Where I Flee

Something must be in the air, because I’ve been in a major reviewing slump for the last month. I’ll read a book, have many thoughts about it, and then move on to something else, unable to find the motivation to sit down and write. Today, I’m going to try to get back into the groove, little by little, starting with mini reviews of two books that came out this week: Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg and Land Where I Flee by Prajwal Parajuly.

Book Review: Saint Mazie by Jami AttenbergSaint Mazie by Jami Attenberg

Plucked from an abusive household by her married older sister, Mazie Phillips grows up under the roof of a man who always has plenty of money — even if he can’t reveal how he obtained it. One thing that is for sure, though, is that he owns the Venice, a movie theater in the Bowery neighborhood of New York City. When Mazie is old enough to work, she is sent to work the ticket booth, where she spends her days people-watching and chatting with the colorful characters who pass by her window. But spending her days trapped in a tiny cage isn’t enough; she longs for a big life, and she spends her nights galavanting through Jazz Age New York with a number of men, with one of whom she forms a life-long entanglement.

But the revelry can’t last forever, and when the Great Depression hits, Mazie dedicates herself to helping those who have lost everything, opening the doors of the Venice to people who can’t pay and feeding the homeless whatever she can. Based on the life of a real woman, this novel tells the compelling story of Saint Mazie, Queen of the Bowery. Big-hearted and full of moxie, she is an easy character to fall in love with, and her story, with all of its heartbreak, yearning, and kindness is going to stick with me for quite a while.

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Book Review: Land Where I Flee by Prajwal ParajulyLand Where I Flee by Prajwal Parajuly

To celebrate Chitralekha’s landmark 84th birthday, her three Westernized grandchildren travel to Gangtok to be reunited for the first time in decades. Flying in from New York is Agastaya, a successful oncologist dreading the inquiries into why he isn’t married — and terrified that people will find out the real reason. Manasa is coming from London, where despite living a life of wealth, she is the miserable caretaker of her wheelchair-bound father-in-law. And Bhagwati, fearful of her reception nearly twenty years after eloping with a man from a much lower caste, is joining them from Colorado. Adding to this cast of characters are Chitralekha’s servant Prasanti (a female eunuch or “hijra”) and two unexpected guests who turn the party upside down.

I really loved the cultural perspective of this book; it is set in a Indian town nestled between the borders of Nepal and Bhutan, and it deals with everything from caste and social status, to gender and sexuality, to national identity and refugee life. Prasanti’s story, in particular, sent me down a Wikipedia black hole — and I love it when a book sparks that kind of curiosity. I also can’t resist a good dysfunctional family reunion novel, and this family has long-simmering grudges and misconceptions out the wazoo. However, I had a hard time really caring about or feeling interested in most of the characters, and the lack of development made Land Where I Flee fall a bit flat.

Book Review: Every Day is For the Thief by Teju Cole

A young Nigerian man living in New York returns home to Lagos for a visit. While there, he wanders the city and reflects on what has changed and what has stayed the same. He experiences the systematic corruption of consulate workers taking bribes, the internet cafes full of young men carrying out email scams, the everyday aggression and constant threat of violence, and the slow upswing in culture and education.

The format of this book is difficult to define; although it is technically a novel, it reads like a memoir and a travelogue. Instead of telling a cohesive story with a plot arc, Cole muses on different episodes of his narrator’s visit to Lagos. Each chapter is accompanied by a black-and-white photograph, and it is easy to imagine that many of the vignettes are drawn directly from Cole’s experience of Nigeria’s capital city.

Cole’s writing is exquisite, and I loved his portrayal of life in a city that I am so unfamiliar with. Every Day is for the Thief felt much more like a novel about a place than about a character; the narrator doesn’t even have a name, but Lagos and its people are described in detail. Although this might bother me in some books, I liked this approach with this particular novel. On the other hand, it does make me question Cole’s choice to write this book as a novel. Because it seems to be more about Lagos than the narrator’s personal journey, it might have made more sense to write this as a non-fiction book. Perhaps Cole wrote Every Day is for the Thief as a novel to tell the true story of a place without being restricted to his own, specific experiences. Instead of writing about real people he knows, he is able to create characters who combine their traits to tell a better story.

Whatever the format of this book, it’s a fascinating look at Lagos: the huge home of his aunt and uncle, where the power goes out every night, the muezzin’s call to prayer that wakes the narrator every morning, the shops selling bootleg CDs the small record store that sells jazz records, and the school that teaches children how to play music.

There has been a huge movement lately read more diversely, and this is an excellent book for readers wishing to expand their understanding of the world. Every Day is for the Thief offers a beautifully written glimpse into life in a corner of the world most of us haven’t experienced. Cole portrays Lagos in all of its vibrance and corruption as his narrator revisits the city of his youth, describing it from the perspective of someone who grew up in Lagos but later made the US his home.