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: So We Read On by Maureen Corrigan (#JazzAgeJan)

Although most Americans read The Great Gatsby in high school, Maureen Corrigan argues that this is too young an age to fully appreciate what many people call the Great American Novel. How, at 18 (or even younger), can we relate to the themes of regret and desperation to relive the past? In the introduction to So We Read On, Corrigan describes her own history with Gastby and the value she sees in re-reading it as an adult. From there, she goes on to describe “how The Great Gatsby came to be and why it endures.” 

In the six chapters of So We Read On, Corrigan discusses the abundance and significance of references to water; Fitzgerald’s life and influences; Gatsby‘s surprising connection to hard-boiled crime novels and noir films; why it is such a peculiar book; and how the novel, which was released to so little fanfare in 1925, was resurrected decades later to become a staple in high school and college classrooms. 

Using a journalistic style that I really enjoy, Corrigan inserts herself into her subject matter, describing her personal relationship with Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, her opinions and how she formed them, and the overwhelming amount of research she conducted while writing this book. And in the final chapter, she questions her supposition that high school is too early to read Gatsby by returning to her own Queens, NY high school to interact with students who are reading the novel for the first time. What she finds surprises her, as she observes that the teenage students merely connect with different aspects of the book than adults do.

I seem to be one of the few people who never had to read The Great Gatsby for school. I read it for the first time during my freshmen or sophomore year of college, during my phase of exploring modern classics like The Catcher in the RyeThe Bell JarOn the RoadOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Slaughterhouse-Five. And, without any direction from teachers, I didn’t really “get” it. It was fine, but I didn’t understand why it was “great.” It wasn’t until my senior year, when I read Gatsby alongside the Fitzgerald short stories I was assigned for my Modern American Lit class that I fell in love with it and began to understand what makes it a masterpiece. Since then, I’ve been kind of obsessed.

Last year for Jazz Age January, I re-read Gatsby and devoured Sarah Churchwell’s Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby (which I loved), but my hunger to learn about this incredible little novel still wasn’t sated. I was excited to pick upa copy of So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures at BEA, knowing it would make a perfect JAJ read for 2015. It really delivered, and it’s definitely worth a read even for people who have already Churchwell’s book. Both works have a different emphasis, have different writing styles, and work well to help readers form a deeper understanding of this American classic.

I adored the style of this book and am glad Corrigan chose to write it in the first person. Objective, purely historic research is fine and good, but So We Read On reads like a love letter to The Great Gatsby. As a book person, I love to hear other book people talk about their favorite novels — how they came to love them, why they are so enamored, and how their perceptions have changed over time. This book does that wonderfully; it’s very personal, but it also speaks to why we are collectively so enamored with this slim, strange novel that is so easily misinterpreted.

So We Read On is an excellent book for anyone who has read The Great Gatsby — from those who have seen something different in each of their dozen re-reads to those who have read it once and just didn’t “get” it.

Disclosure: If you make a purchase through the link above, I will make a tiny commission.