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Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg
Historical fiction

Saint Mazie

by Jami Attenberg
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Quick take

Live a little longer in the world of Mazie Phillips, the proprietor of New York's Venice movie theater, where ‘everyone's welcome… even the snobs.’

Why I love it

Be prepared to live in the past, to be immersed in the gritty, grimy, pulsating New York of the early twentieth century, for as long as it takes you to read this astonishing, delightful and heartbreaking new novel by Jami Attenberg. You'll read it quickly, but upon finishing, you'll wish that you'd read it more slowly, if only to live a little longer in the world of Mazie Phillips, the proprietor of New York's Venice movie theater, where "everyone's welcome… even the snobs." Mazie, a real person made famous by Joseph Mitchell's 1940 profile in The New Yorker, presided over the Lower East Side movie house — she was colorful, generous, and as much a fixture in her neighborhood as the theater she ran.

Coming of age in the Roaring Twenties, Mazie's adventures as a single woman in underground New York — her dance hall escapades and Prohibition-defying love of speakeasies — make her the kind of character that stands out among so many Jazz Age personalities.

Opening the theater to down-on-their luck men from the neighborhood as the Depression takes hold, she becomes the matriarch of a different kind of family, one whose disparate members Attenberg depicts with nuanced eccentricity. "I couldn't ignore them," Mazie says to Joseph Mitchell when he proposes writing her story. "I'm not so interesting. It's the bums that have the real story." He tells her, "No, the bums are interesting because of you."

Though based on a real woman, Saint Mazie is an imagined history compiled almost entirely through fictional documents. The book switches between entries from her "unpublished autobiography" and entries from her diary spanning from 1907–1939, which has been "discovered" decades later. That these made-up sources feel authentic and cohesive is a testament of the author's superior talent.

Through this unusual structure, Attenberg deploys a chorus of voices that together create an oral history of those who knew Mazie best, each of whom helps to bring her to life. The Red Hook man who finds Mazie's diary in a box near the Brooklyn Navy Yard is in awe of the Mazie he meets there: "I just heard her in my head so clearly and thought I know her… And I knew the quality of her character, which made me think I could spend the rest of my life with her." This is just how I felt reading Saint Mazie. The one happy weekend it took me to finish the book was not nearly enough.

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