Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Gauche and Unsophisticated List Part 5: The Shelves of Shame - "Literary" Guilty Pleasures

I have always loved to read. When my sister wanted to play outside, I wanted to read. In sixth grade I rebelled by reading lots of books instead of doing "pointless, tedious, annoying, busywork" (you know actual homework that was counted toward my final grade). I was lucky that my sixth grade teacher realized my potential and recommended me for all the advanced classes in middle school, even though I spent sixth grade being whiny and sanctimonious instead of actually doing productive work. I stayed up past my bedtime finishing engrossing stories. I still go on reading binges frequently, checking out ten library books at a time, and reading most of them in one weekend (instead of actually going out and being social like most normal law students). The people in the library and the T alway look at me oddly as I schlep my big bag of
books home. I still stay up late at night to finish these books.

Sadly, however, most of these books are not what you would consider fine literature. I still have not finished Prep (because Lee Fiora is a twit), The History of Love, or Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (I only have 200 pages to go on this one, I need to suck it up and finish. It is actually interesting and the social commentary is witty. Why oh why can't I just finish the book?), yet I stayed up until 4 am finishing cheesy "cozy" mystery novels. This is a confession of the fickle fiction that I love, that teaches me nothing, and that I could never confess to liking during times where I have to look intelligent.

The Early Years:
My love for predictable, shallow fiction that was well below my reading level started when I was young. Here's are some of the books that had me engrossed throughout my youth and frustrated my parents and teachers because I was not reading at my potential.

The Baby Sitters' Club series: This was my first series that I was addicted to. I discovered this series about seven middle schoolers who babysit and learn about life and friendship when I was in second grade, and sadly I continued to read this series through sixth grade. For being middle schoolers from Connecticut, Kristy, Claudia, Dawn, Stacey, Mary Ann, Mallory and Jessi always had the most exciting adventures - they got stranded on islands from going on sailing trips, they took exciting vacations to the Jersey Shore, New York City, Disney World, and California (where everyone is super laid back and eats tofu); they went to super exciting dances and many of them found boyfriends and love interests (well at least for a book), they solved mysteries, they had fun meetings and slumber parties where they got to eat lots of junk food hidden in Vice President Claudia's room (except for Stacey because she was diabetic). They also were the most admired people in their town and also learned life lessons. Some of them wore really cool clothes (I wanted to have my hair spiral permed like Stacey and to be able to pull of Claudia's wacky outfits). They made being thirteen sound so exciting (I was so disappointed when I discovered that being thirteen really sucks). Because I read those books however, I was once paranoid that I had diabetes like Stacey because I was always thirsty, and I still am annoyed by most sanctimonious, environmentalist hippies because California tofu eater, environmentalist Dawn Schaefer may have been the bitchiest person ever (she was so whiny and so mean to Mary Ann after their parents got married).

Sweet Valley High series: I read a few of the Sweet Valley Twins books, and then I discovered Sweet Valley High. Oh the drama of going to high school. This series was about the adventures of Elizabeth (good twin) and Jessica (bad twin) Wakefield. Being a total suck up when I was younger, I wanted to be Elizabeth, even though looking back she was totally annoying and hypocritical. Through this series I learned that I never wanted to try cocaine because it would make my nose burn, my heart race, and then I would die, not to ride motorcycles because I could get into an accident that would fundamentally change my personality and would cause me to make out with bad boys (seriously I was a lame child), not to get drastic makeovers because it would hurt my family's feelings, and that most rich people were EVIL. This series also did a special edition about Elizabeth and Jessica's family history, The Sweet Valley Saga, and I thought it was so amazing and engrossing that their parents's ancestors kept finding love with each other and then losing each other for 200 years, and that many of Elizabeth and Jessica's ancestors were twins that looked just like them.

Lurlene McDaniel novels: No author made dying of a deadly disease look more glamorous than Lurlene McDaniel. Her protagonists would always suffer from some tragic illness or medical crisis (this ranged from Leukemia to Cystic Fibrosis to needing organ transplants). Of course the illness would leave her protagonists beautifully thin, pale, and waif like. Then these sick girls would find love with some tortured soul, and then they would share some meaningful relationship, and then the beautifully ill girl would die, but at least she taught the tortured soul how to love. I always bawled my eyes out at the end of these books. When I was younger I thought that meant these books were amazingly deep since they caused such an emotional reaction. At the time, I did not understand the concept of emotional manipulation, and I failed to realize that I am the biggest crybaby in the world (still am - I cry at the end of every episode of Cold Case, during certain Hallmark Commercials, and at the end of Babe).

Then throughout middle school, I read a lot of bad romance novels (including those epic novels by Danielle Steele), and that is all I am going to say about that. I'm just amazed that I got through middle school without being sucked into incestuous drama of V.C. Andrews.

The Sad State of Affairs Now:
Like my 8 - 13 year old self, I still read cheesy series with pat endings and certain stock characters and I love them. Usually these are cozy murder mysteries that take place in small towns with wacky, nosy characters, but I also am a sucker for some chick lit and there is still one romance novel that I continue to reread. I'm afraid that all my readers will think much less of me and have great blackmail material after they finish reading this list. Or they will think I am at least a middle aged woman, seriously my grandma and I have gotten into discussions about some of the books that we both read. She also buys me Stephanie Plum hardcovers at Costco whenever I am home visiting.

Stephanie Plum series: This series is about a Jersey girl who decides to be a bounty hunter after she gets laid off, and she blackmails her sleezy cousin into giving her the job. Then she gets into wacky hijinks trying to apprehend these criminals. She has a zany grandmother, a former prostitute sidekick, two love intereststhat she has been torn between for thirteen books, a hovering mother, and every car she drives gets explodes except for her Uncle Sandor's 1963 Buick. To be fair, the first six books or so of this series actually got very good reviews and were rather entertaining in their own right and the characterization was actually fairly nuanced. However, since book 8 this series has mainly been going through the motions. Stephanie's car burns down, her Grandma Mazur says something wacky and frustrates Stephanie's mother, Stephanie's mother cooks a lot of food, Stephanie "banters" with her love interests, Stephanie still acts a complete buffoon trying to apprehend criminals even though she has been a bounty hunter for a very long time (13 books, seriously, no signs of improvement), and then she almost dies and usually gets shot when she finally solves the huge mystery. Yet I'm addicted, and I will read this series to the bitter end.

The Southern Sisters series: I try to justify my love for this series because heck it was written by Alabama Poet Laureate Anne George (but then I read her only novel and it was god awful and treacly, hopefully her poetry is better). This series involves grandmotherly sisters Patricia Ann and Mary Alice who get involved in murders in Birmingham, Alabama. Patricia Ann and Mary Alice are your typical opposites - Patricia Ann is tiny, Mary Alice is huge; Patricia Ann has been married for forty years, Mary Alice has been married three times to wealthy men; Patricia Ann is calm and reserved, Mary Alice is loud and boisterous; and so on and so forth. Also while they are solving these mysteries they usually interact with your typical wacky cast of characters - trashy inlaws, former students (Patricia Ann taught high school English) with issues, Mary Alice's many boyfriends, Elvis impersonators. They also kvetch about the lack of grandchildren, the trials of their children who are in their 30s and 40s, and argue a lot. But they are such sweet books and I love them. Sadly Anne George died in 2001, so the series ended with Murder Boogies With Elvis, but I have reread these books quite often, and then discussed them with my grandma.

Benni Harper mysteries: Benni Harper is the most irritating, practically perfect protagonist ever, but I can't stop reading each new Benni Harper book. Everyone is in love with Benni, she has a lesson to teach everyone, she is always right. Yet she never stands up to her meddlesome Grandma Dove even though she whines about her each book, she never tells annoying Texan detective Hud to go shove it and leave her alone and stop flirting with her because she is married even though she bitches about that in every book, and she never tells Gabe, her handsome, latino husband with perfect tan skin and thick head of salt and pepper hair and mustache (seriously she brings up these details every book), to quit acting like a patronizing, macho prick (it is not endearing, it is obnoxious). Yet I've read every damn book, and I know if a new one comes out I will read it too. There is no progression with this series - it always the same drama besides the new mystery, Gabe and her argue about her involvement in the case, Hud tries to be obnoxious and flirt, Grandma Dove meddles, dear lord!

These are just a few mystery series that I read on a frequent basis - there is also the series about a judge in North Carolina with eleven brothers and sisters, the PI in Miami who is overly dependent on her wealthy father and has way too many dysfunctional relationships, the Virginian ironworker who has a wacky family and is trying to navigate a new relationship while trying to solve crime, and I've even read a mystery series where a fairly legitimate author, Rita Mae Browne, claims the books were written by her cat - Sneaky Pie.

Now the final book...the one that I am almost too scared to admit to rereading because it is just so bad and embarrassing, and that book is....
The MacGregor Brides by Nora Roberts: I first read this when I was 15, and I loved it, but this does not explain why I keep rereading it and getting invested in the storylines even though I know it's absurd. This is a three story collection that Nora Roberts wrote for the Silhouette line of romance novels. I love it, and I reread it over the summer instead of actually finishing Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I no longer read romance novels, I finally got over that habit in high school. But I love this one even though it is totally unrealistic and a bit sexist - there's a charmingly meddlesome, matchmaking grandfather, three girls who are twenty four (therefore they need to get married now - they are practically old maids!) yet unbelievably successful already a lawyer, a genius surgical resident, and a real estate mogul, a loving, wealthy multi generational family, and at the end weddings and babies. This books makes me roll my eyes about what being 24 years old is all about, but I still sigh romantically when Bran gives Gwen gifts that represent the 12 days of Christmas, when Laura and Royce get into a snowball fight, and when Cullum and Julia play games trying to get the other to say "I love you" first. Dear lord, what is wrong with me?

So there it is, anyone who reads this blog will never take me seriously again, and hopefully I'll eventually finish Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Maybe I can call my grandma and she'll buy me a hardcover of book 13 of the Stephanie Plum series and send it to Boston.

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