Literacy and Longing in L.A. Book Review

“Outside of a dog,  a book is Man’s best friend.

And inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”

— Groucho Marx (1890-1977)

There’s got to be a name for this genre of work, modern novels written by women authors, savvy, hip, like scripts for romantic comedies, featuring self-deprecating heroines at the crossroads, but alas, with a large dose of literary or scholastic flare.  Simply “Chick Lit” won’t do,  they are not giddy enough; “Intellectual Chick Lit” may sound like an oxymoron.

Well this one is a wild ride, with literary figures and quotes streaming by your window.  Authors Jennifer Kaufman, a staff writer at L.A. Times and Karen Mack, a former attorney and a Golden Globe Award winning TV and Film producer, have performed cleverly the feat of embedding over 200 authors, artists, and works in their story, from Marcel Proust to Andy Warhol, Matthew Arnold to Kurt Vonnegut. To be helpful, a 9-page Book List is included at the back.

This is the story of a bibliomaniac who uses book binges to escape from her problems, and just a little too much wine to de-stress.  As Freud would have put it, it all started with our protagonist as a child.  The fateful incident when Dora (named after Eudora Welty) and her sister Virginia (who else…) were riding in the car with their alcoholic, and literary, mother behind the wheel.  They ended up in the river.  That’s the last straw for their dad, who deserted them a few weeks later.  Ever since that accident, Dora has been using binge reading to cope with life’s disappointments and ennui.  Now as an adult, she “collects new books the way [her] girlfriends buy designer handbags.”

While separated from her second husband, Dora, a former L. A. Times writer, meets Fred in an indie bookstore in L.A.  She is attracted to his intellectual side, and just knowing he’s writing a play is appeal enough for her to fall for him.  As she gets to know more about Fred and some of his family ties, Dora is swirled into problems that her safe, upper middle class life would never come into contact with.  Here the plot thickens.

I’m ambivalent about this one.  First of all, I don’t like the book cover.  The cover directly or subliminally leads to the impression that has given “Chick Lit” its bad rap.  I know, I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.  I’m attracted by the title, however, and am glad I’ve explored further than the cover.

I often wonder how exactly do two authors write a book together.  Do they each write different chapters?  Well, here in LALILA, it certainly reads like it.  Just as you thought it’s all about a self-deprecating female trying to stay afloat, the story peels off a few layers and reveals the courage and heart underneath the surface.  In contrast to the lighter shade, the darker chapters depict a more complex and thinking individual who is not afraid to care and embrace the pathos in life.

What I enjoy most is the clever inclusion of literary quotes and figures in the story.  Each chapter starts with one that’s pertinent to the content.  Some are funny, some thought provoking, but all smart and relevant.  And for the Janeites among us, I’m afraid the authors have taken side with Mark Twain regarding Jane Austen.  Now those parts you might just want to skim over.

I can also see the debates the book and its many literary quotes could spark in a book discussion group.  LALILA makes one enjoyable title for those looking for light, fun, and contemporary women’s writing.  The ambiguous ending may also spur lively speculations.  And for the bibliomaniacs among us, whether you agree or not with the protagonist’s decisions in life or values in love, you’re bound to empathize with the notion of book binging.  It may not be the solution to life’s problems, but reading is definitely one appealing and enjoyable thing to do in our very stressful modern day living.

The book has a website which includes book discussion questions and a lit quiz, well worth exploring.  Just Click Here to go.

Literacy and Longing in L.A. is written by Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack, published by Delacorte Press, 2006, 325 pages.