In which I am insulted by a crap book.

Disclaimer: I know that the book posts are not the most popular posts here, and I know that this is a little long. I just needed to get it out of my system.

Literacy and Longing in L.A. by Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack is described on the back as, “Chick lit for bookworms.” If that’s the case, then why would the author go out of her way to offend the very people who are supposedly the target audience?

Let me start at the beginning – the library bought this book back in May, I noticed that Library Journal gave it a terrible review, and then Katie told me that she saw the authors on TV, and that it sounded like something I might like. I like Katie more than Library Journal, so I decided to read it. And, you know, I can definitely see how it could have been something I would like. It could have been discussed in a way that made me think, “I need to check that out!” So, Katie did a good sweet thing. I wish the book had been better, for her sake. As it was, I only finished it so that I could write a scathing blog entry about it.

My first problem with the book was that it seemed to want to be chick lit, but it also seemed to look down on readers of chick lit. I am not going to quote the whole passage, but let me give you some parts of the section on different kinds of readers:

“When Palmer and I first started dating we used to joke about the unspoken hierarchy of readers and the private way in which they tackle a book. At the top of the heap are the purists-people who read to soak up the elegantly constructed literary style and savor the brilliant metaphors, inventive characters, breathtaking imagery, and sparkling dialogue. The story is beside the point. I had a lit prof once who preached that one should always read the end of a novel first so the plot won’t be a distraction.

“Not far behind are the academics’readers who never quite got over how they read a book in their freshman English class, underlining or highlighting, turning down pages, looking up words they’re not familiar with , and scribbling pithy comments in the margins.

“The book worshipers come next. They keep their books covered . . . use bookmarks, and absolutely never let the book touch the floor . . .

“Then there are the readers who just want a good old-fashioned story and make no bones about it. They skip over long descriptive passages, skim through digressions, and zero in on who, what, and where to the nth degree . . .

“Or how about the multitask readers, those who read while cooking, cleaning, talking on the phone, or driving. Which is stupid-not that I haven’t done it.

“The bottom-feeders come next and include the status readers, a group of wannabees who don’t really want to read the book at all but want to be seen with it . . . Even worse are the people who listen to audio books, the new version of condensed books, or read novelizations of current movies. These people consider themselves readers, but they’re not . . . I group the narcoleptic readers in this nonreader category. People who use books as Ambien and have had the same book sitting on their bedside table for the last six months. Also the bathroom readers . . . I have never personally engaged in this activity because my mother insists that it gives you hemorrhoids . . .

“Then there are the readers who like to hang out in bookstore cafes nursing tepid cappuccinos, hogging the table for hours while they leisurely read unpurchased books, leaving them in piles on the table for the sales people to put away.

“And let’s not forget the hopeless unfinishers-people who like choosing books, buying books, starting books, but the one thing they can’t seem to do is finish books . . .

“The most frustrating category of all includes people who read a book and just don’t get it. I know, I’m a snob. I admit it.”

Maybe I “just didn’t get” this book, but, sorry, I don’t think that’s the case. Now, tell me, is someone at the “top of the literary heap” going to pick up a book like this? No. So everyone who’s reading the book is going to come into one of the lower categories. I am a reader who likes a good old-fashioned story (I don’t skip descriptive passages like I used to, though), a multitasker, and, yeah, I’ll admit it, a bathroom reader. Sometimes I read books at Barnes and Noble if the library doesn’t have them. I’ve even listened to audiobooks. I found this whole thing incredibly offensive because this character in a crap book is saying that there are right and wrong ways to enjoy books, and that I’m not a high-class reader. (You’d better believe I checked to see whether there was an audio version of this book. Unfortunately there isn’t, because I was so ready to lay the smackdown.) As someone who works with books every single day, I am here to tell you that book snobbery is ridiculous. People read for different reasons – to learn, to escape, for entertainment. They read different things when they are in different moods. No matter what, I firmly believe that somebody who is reading a literary tome isn’t better than someone reading the latest Nora Roberts. Reading fills different needs in their lives. No, I don’t think that Left Behind is a great book, but there are certainly worse things you could be reading or watching or doing. And I respect your right to read what you enjoy.

So, the first thing the book did was make me feel like a second-class reader for even picking up the book. That was the moment when I decided I was going to finish it just so I could talk smack about it.

The second thing I noticed was that the main character was really really unlikable. I know it’s pretty standard in chick lit for women to throw money around like it’s nothing, but she kept talking about her dwindling inheritance and then buying $300 shoes. She lives in an expensive month-to-month fancy community. She’s considering getting a facelift. None of those things make me feel very much like sympathizing with her. One of the things that is supposed to show her more human side is that she had a bad experience on the freeway and therefore has to take the long way around to get everywhere. I understand that – I had a bad experience on I-40 in the mountains that put me off driving there. Driving can be scary. But, you know, I don’t have a driver or a car service to take me where I need to go. I have to ride with someone else or cowboy up. It was awfully hard to feel sorry for her.

One area where I did relate to her was that, when she got a little down, she liked to read. I do that, too. But even that was frustrating, because I’m not a divorcee with an inheritance (not even a “dwindling” one), so I don’t get to wallow for days and days in the bathtub reading. I have to go to my job. Life goes on.

It was also ridiculous the way that the characters would have a “steamy” sex scene involving handcuffs and then quote literature and poetry at each other. It’s an idealized version of life. It’s just not how things are. The boyfriend was . . . not a caricature, but not a well-developed character in his own right, either. If you want me to explain why he would have asked our unlikeable protagonist out, I would have no idea what to tell you. She came off as pretentious, and nothing that she said about herself made me think she was particularly attractive. But, sure, she can get the hot bookstore guy. No problem.

The backstory with the mother was not well-developed at all. We learn right away that the mother was an alcoholic, and the jacket says that she’s “trying to make amends,” but I spent the first 98% of the book wondering when that was going to happen. Was it when she helped her daughter with a crossword puzzle? Because that was the only action we got in that area for most of the book. And crossword puzzles don’t really equal “amends for being an alcoholic and doing things like driving cars off bridges.” Then mom makes an appearance with 15 pages to go, apologizes for past wrongs, and I”m supposed to feel warm and fuzzy about it?

Another problem with the alcoholism story is that we learn that the boyfriend’s sister has a drug problem, and as the main character tries to help out the family, the boyfriend, who is sick of cleaning up his sister’s messes, claims that she doesn’t understand what it’s like to constantly clean up after an addict. So, why wouldn’t the main character point out that, yes, as a matter of fact, she did know a thing or two about it? She didn’t even seem to make a connection in her mind.

I touched on the pretentiousness of the literary quoting and poetry reciting, but I didn’t mention that the pretentiousness carries over into all kinds of book-related things. I think we’re supposed to think the character’s mother is “literary” because she likes going to authors’ houses and she named her daughters Dora (short for Eudora, as in Eudora Welty) and Ginny (short for Virginia, as in Woolf). It seems to me that what she really gave her daughters was some sense of being better than other people because they could toss around literary names and ideas.

What I got from the book was not a sense that the main character read for pleasure, and in the end I think her growth during the book was about enjoying books and not using them to sedate her feelings. Her big breakthrough at the end was about learning to appreciate books in moderation, and not so she could say the right things, so she could impress people, so she could avoid real relationships, so she could say she had read a book. But by then, I had lost all interest.

I said all this, when, really, I could have just quoted Library Journal:

One might think that Kaufman and Mack’s first novel, about a Los Angeles woman who escapes life’s problems by binge-reading and featuring a ten-page list of books and authors mentioned within, might be a natural choice for book clubs. But when the same novel contains a diatribe against the book club phenomenon and rails against all readers who don’t like the same types of books the superficial and judgmental protagonist favors, one would reconsider. Caught between a new romance with bookstore owner Fred and her unresolved feelings for her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Palmer (who conveniently disappears from the novel until the plot needs him), Dora spends most of her time reading, drinking, and shopping, until Fred’s family problems force her to take responsibility. Though Dora’s life does come together by the book’s end, readers will be turned off by her snide and superior attitude earlier on. Not recommended.

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