Literacy and Longing in L. A.

Literacy and Longing in L. A.

3.9 13
by Jennifer Kaufman, Karen Mack

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Some women shop. Some eat. Dora cures the blues by bingeing on books—reading one after another, from Flaubert to bodice rippers, for hours and days on end. In this wickedly funny and sexy literary debut, we meet the beguiling, beautiful Dora, whose unique voice combines a wry wit and vulnerability as she navigates the road between reality and…  See more details below


Some women shop. Some eat. Dora cures the blues by bingeing on books—reading one after another, from Flaubert to bodice rippers, for hours and days on end. In this wickedly funny and sexy literary debut, we meet the beguiling, beautiful Dora, whose unique voice combines a wry wit and vulnerability as she navigates the road between reality and fiction.

Dora, named after Eudora Welty, is an indiscriminate book junkie whose life has fallen apart—her career, her marriage, and finally her self-esteem. All she has left is her love of literature, and the book benders she relied on as a child. Ever since her larger-than-life father wandered away and her book-loving, alcoholic mother was left with two young daughters, Dora and her sister, Virginia, have clung to each other, enduring a childhood filled with literary pilgrimages instead of summer vacations. Somewhere along the way Virginia made the leap into the real world. But Dora isn’t quite there yet. Now she’s coping with a painful separation from her husband, scraping the bottom of a dwindling inheritance, and attracted to a seductive book-seller who seems to embody all that literature has to offer—intelligent ideas, romance, and an escape from her problems.

Joining Dora in her odyssey is an elderly society hair-brusher, a heartbroken young girl, a hilarious off-the-wall female teamster, and Dora’s mother, now on the wagon, trying to make amends. Along the way Dora faces some powerful choices. Between two irresistible men. Between idleness and work. And most of all between the joy of well-chosen words and the untidiness of real people and real life.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Kaufman, a former L.A. Times staff writer, and Mack, a former attorney and Golden Globe Award- winning film and TV producer, check in with this solid, thoughtful chick lit debut. Dora, at 35, is a twice-divorced former young reporter on the rise at the L.A. Times. Second ex-husband Palmer is now head of Sony Pictures, and still supporting her. Dora's depressed, and she only leaves the house to stalk Palmer and buy more books. At the bookstore, she meets elegantly scraggly comp lit Ph.D. Fred, and they begin an unlikely courtship. Dora is soon surprised by Fred's invitation to meet his mother, Bea, whom Dora likes instantly, all the more so when she learns Bea is also raising Harper, the six-year-old daughter of Fred's troubled sister. The bond between Bea and Dora gives Dora something she never had with her own, alcoholic mother, and helps her make decisions that bring her life back into focus. Dora is the kind of deadpan and imperfect heroine with whom readers can easily identify. Kaufman and Mack mishandle the abrupt ending and epilogue, but are most likely setting up a welcome sequel. (June 6) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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.-Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Univ. of Minnesota Libs., Minneapolis Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

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Master of the Universe

"All the best stories in the world are but one story in reality, the story of escape. It is the only thing which interests us all and at all times, how to escape."
—Arthur Christopher Benson (1862-1925)—

Women do different things when they're depressed. Some smoke, others drink, some call their therapists, some eat. My mother used to go ballistic when she and my father had a fight, then she'd booze for days on end and vanish into her bedroom. My sister was more into the global chill mode; give 'em the silent treatment and, in the meantime, gorge on frozen Sara Lee banana cake. And I do what I have always done—go off on a book bender that can last for days.

I fall into this state for different reasons. Sometimes it's after an "I hate your fucking guts" fight. Other times it's symptomatic of my state of mind, ennui up to my ears, my life gone awry, and that feeling of dread whenever I'm asked what I'm doing. How can anyone sort all this out? All things considered, I'd rather read. It's the perfect escape.

I have a whole mantra for my book binges. First of all, I open a bottle of good red wine. Then I turn off my cell phone, turn on my answering machine, and gather all the books I've been meaning to read or reread and haven't. Finally, I fill up the tub with thirty-dollar bubble bath, fold a little towel at the end of the tub so it just fits in the crick of my neck, and turn on my music. I have an old powder-blue plastic Deco radio near the tub that I bought at a garage sale in Hollywood a few years ago. The oddest thing: the radio only receives one AM radio station, which plays jazz standards from the forties and fifties, and it suits me just fine.

Within my bathroom walls is a self-contained field of dreams and I am in total control, the master of my own elegantly devised universe. The outside world disappears and here, there is only peace and a profound sense of well-being.

Most of the people in my life take a dim view of this . . . what would you call it? Monomania? Eccentricity? My sister is perhaps the most diplomatic. We both know that I have a tendency to lose my tether to reality when I close myself off like this. But then she'll joke that I'm really just another boring bibliomaniac and what I really need is a little fresh air. She always was a whiz with words. She actually informed me that a book she read by Nicholas Basbanes (appropriately called Among the Gently Mad) states that the first documented use of the word bibliomania came in 1750 when the fourth earl of Chesterfield sent a letter to his illegitimate son warning him that this consuming diversion with books should be avoided like "the bubonic plague." Ho hum.

I peel off my clothes and throw them on the floor. As I'm walking to the tub, I glance at the floor-to-ceiling mirror that covers the south wall of my bathroom. Oh god. Wait a minute. You know how you look in the mirror and you look the same and you look the same and all of a sudden you look ten years older? It's fitting that at age thirty-five I should notice this. My waist is thicker, my breasts saggier, the beginnings of--shit, is that cellulite on the backs of my thighs? Why is it that you think this age thing won't happen to you? Oh, and look at the backs of my elbows! They look like old-lady wrinkled elbows with a sharp, bony protrusion.

I've never been able to figure out my looks. I've been told I'm striking. But what does that mean? It's something people say when they can't give you the usual compliments, like "you're beautiful." It could be my height that puts them off. I'm almost five foot ten, which has only recently become fashionable. I also have enormous feet. Size 10 on a good day.

When I was young, I hated my tall, too-thin, sticklike figure, which my mother described as willowy. She'd argue that my looks were special and would be appreciated when I got older. Just give yourself time, she'd say. You'll see. You'll outshine all those other girls with hourglass figures. I felt like Frankie in The Member of the Wedding: "a big freak . . . legs too long . . . shoulders too narrow . . . belonging to no club and a member of nothing in the world."

It wasn't just my appearance. I always felt like an oddball, the exception in a world where I imagined other families were normal and happy. Virginia and I endured the secrets and shame of an absent father and an alcoholic mother, and the few friends I had, I kept at a distance, always relieved when they didn't come over. The fact of the matter was that I was embarrassed that my mother couldn't cope, and in some ways, she passed that on to me.

I shut my eyes as I get into the tub. I have purposely made the water scalding hot and when I dip my foot in, my toes turn red and start to sting. Too hot. I add a little cold, letting the water run through my fingers as I listen to a tinny version of Coltrane blasting out "Love Supreme." Paul Desmond once said that listening to late-night jazz is like having a very dry martini. I think he's right.

I stick my foot back in and then ease my body into the water. Still too hot. I twist the spigot with my toes, adding more cold. There. Perfect. I pick up The Transit of Venus, an obscure novel by Shirley Hazzard, whose newest book, The Great Fire, has become a favorite among book clubs. The premise is fascinating. It's about two beautiful orphaned sisters whose lives are as predestined as the rotation of the planets. I try to concentrate. The prose is dense and complex; I have to keep rereading paragraphs. I start to daydream and lose my place. This isn't working for me. Basically, I'm still depressed.

Maybe it's just the time of year. It's Christmas, I'm alone, and my social prospects are nonexistent. This is the season to be somewhere else, and for the majority of my friends, that means packing up the kids and maybe a few of their best friends and migrating to second homes in Maui, Aspen, Cabo, Sun Valley, and the second tier, Palm Springs and Las Vegas.

Being in West L.A. in December is like being banished to an isolated retreat or even a rehab center where parties and other forms of merriment are verboten. Not that I'm complaining. If you come from the east, the weather here in December is glorious. Right up until the El Ni–o rains in late January and February, the world is temperate, mild, and forgiving. Natural disasters like fires, floods, landslides, and earthquakes don't happen in West L.A.

This year I have no plans to go anywhere and I am occasionally nagged by that insidious feeling of "missing out." When I was with Palmer, we used to go to the Four Seasons on Maui every year. We'd get the corner suite and even bribe a beachboy to reserve our lounges every day to avoid getting up at five a.m. like everyone else. (In truth, most of our friends just had their nannies do it.) Now I hear Palmer is going to St. Barts. He thinks it's "younger, hipper, and more fun," unlike being with me. I used to sit by the pool in the shade and read all day.

The phone rings. It's my sister, Virginia. She sounds worried. "I know you're there, Dora. Why haven't you returned my calls? If you don't pick up I'm coming over . . ." I pick up.

"I'm okay," I say.

"You don't sound okay. Are you doing another one of your book-hermit things?" Nobody knows me like Virginia.

"I've been a little upset."

"A little, like twenty-four hours little or a little, like three days little?"

"Like three days little."

"Doesn't sound little to me. Do you want me to come over?"

I look around. My place is a shambles. "No. Really. I'm fine. I was just going out."

I convince her that I'm simply marvelous and she buys it. She just doesn't get it. She has a husband and a baby. Who can blame her?

I pick up the Hazzard book and try again. This is so depressing. I have just finished an early chapter about Ted Tice, Paul Ivory, and Caro, and I can already tell they are all eventually doomed to lives of unspeakable loss and tragedy. For one thing, Paul is gay, or at the very least bisexual, and for another--oh forget it.

I get out of the tub, grab a robe, and go back to the bookshelf, leaving wet footprints in my wake. It's not really intentional, but generally speaking I gravitate toward a certain theme for these lost weekends and, at the moment, I am set on choosing books about relationships that don't work out. Since most of the world's greatest classics deal with this subject, I have lots of options. Also, for some strange reason, my books are loosely organized into categories so it's easy to make a selection based on my mood. Let's see, do I want to steep myself in obsessive love . . . something like Wuthering Heights, where Heathcliff never did get it on with Cathy . . . unrequited love, dysfunctional love, adulterous love . . . Oh, here's Dorothy Parker . . . the brilliant cynic with deadpan wit alternating with fits of spiteful alcoholic rage (hmmmm) and Austen, the optimist. Her love affairs always work out. Not interested. Over here are the dysfunctional family books, including my mother's dog-eared copy of The Optimist's Daughter, and on the shelf below, the functional family books, mostly fantasies, sci-fi, or adventure classics that I have treasured since my childhood. I finally gather up the following: Sentimental Education by Flaubert (I lent Virginia my copy of Madame Bovary, which should be right beside it, and she never returned it. You see? That's why I don't lend books. It fucks up my whole library.), Anna Karenina, The End of the Affair (miracles and horrid disfigurements), Wuthering Heights (all right, I feel like wallowing), and A Farewell to Arms. God, what a dreary bunch of bathmates. Perfect for my grim, listless state of mind. That'll do for now. Oh well, I'll throw in Parker too. What the hell, a little comic relief.

I pad back into the bathroom with an armful of books and sink back into the tub. I add more hot water. Okay. I'm ready for my period of forlorn contemplation and occasional outbursts of exhilaration prompted by a particularly brilliant passage. What an insufferable lunatic I have become.

Over the next few days I read and I read. Days blur into nights. I snack on anything in my cupboard that doesn't require cooking. The Domino's guy and I have become close friends. He thinks I have agoraphobia. My red wine runs out and I start on the dessert wine. But I don't start before five. Even in my pathetic condition, I do have my standards.

My god, it's Wednesday afternoon already. I've got to get out of here. Where's my robe? Geez, this place is a mess. Should I clean up first? No. It'll kill the rest of the day. Maybe I'll buy a book. My mother would be appalled to learn that none of my friends go to the library anymore. If you want a book, you just go to the bookstore that's closest to your house and buy it. Hardcover, trade paperback, mass market, it doesn't make any difference. People who pay twenty dollars for parking don't quibble over the price of a book.

I live four blocks from McKenzie's, a small local bookstore on San Vicente, one of those dinosaurs that doesn't exist anymore except in affluent neighborhoods. It's a place where the salespeople actually read and can tell you where you can locate books by Evelyn Waugh or Michael Frayn. They'll also give you a list of other books by the same author, quote some of their favorite passages, and then add some completely random piece of information, such as the fact that Mark Twain's brilliant The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn went through seventeen hundred revisions, and the most recent draft was unearthed in a Hollywood attic some years ago.

There isn't a reason in the world for me to hit that damn bookstore again this week. I have four brand-new books by my bedside and two more on the kitchen counter. Then there are the three Booker Prize winners that are still in the bag in the trunk of my car and one new nonfiction literary history of Henry James in my purse, which I plan to start when I go to the hairdresser's next week.

I collect new books the way my girlfriends buy designer handbags. Sometimes, I just like to know I have them and actually reading them is beside the point. Not that I don't eventually end up reading them one by one. I do. But the mere act of buying them makes me happy--the world is more promising, more fulfilling. It's hard to explain, but I feel, somehow, more optimistic. The whole act just cheers me up.

I pull into the parking lot, turn off the motor, and rummage through my purse for lip gloss and concealer. I flip down the mirror and take a good look at my bare, unmade-up face. Terrible, just terrible. Even worse than I thought. That's it for me. No more book binges.

My hair is nice, though. It used to be "dirty blonde," but Franck, my brilliant Belgian hairdresser, has fixed all that. I now have that natural, sun-kissed California look that no one can get without a lot of money and a cauldron of chemicals.

I smear on some Nars cherry lip gloss, decide to bag the rest of the makeup, and head in. McKenzie's is like no other bookstore. It is a complex of three white, cottage-like buildings situated around a small tree-lined plaza with benches for customers to sit and read, nurse a cappuccino, or just hang out. There is a small cafe that sells newspapers and magazines, and a big sign over the cash register reads "No Cell Phones." Other buildings house history, psychology, fiction, and nonfiction. I always start off in the fiction building, where there are long tables laden with the latest hardbacks. And occasionally, when I have time, I'll wander briefly through the other buildings. Each one has the same basic feel of being in someone's messy library or living room, an ambiance that appeals to someone who is obviously a bookworm or an intellectual and who compulsively owns and collects countless numbers of books. Even though there is some semblance of order, books are always stacked high in every corner, on the brick floor, on window ledges, even on the cash register table, where one has to literally shove them on the floor before making a purchase.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Literacy and Longing in L. A. 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
Barbara45 More than 1 year ago
Exactly !!! Reading Literacy and Longing in L.A. is like looking in a mirror. Oh yes, Dora, I understand. There's nothing wrong with you. You, Dora, are just like so many of us. We need - absolutely need - our books! All kinds of books. We need to hold them, touch them, smell them, know they are ours, and even read most of them. Husbands come and go. Children grow up, and through it all, wherever life takes us, our books must follow, and even sometimes lead us. We are addicted, and what a wonderful addiction it is. We don't want help! No anonymous group meetings for us. Just books. Glorious books !!
PipME More than 1 year ago
I read everything by these authors. Never disappointed.
AmyD65 More than 1 year ago
Took this to the beach for the weekend. Just the right length - fininshed it just before we left. Good plot but not hard to follow.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A book about someone who is really into books, sounds like something that I could sink my teeth into. Howwever, despite the constant referrals to great authors and great books, I found the main characters and the whole story to be rather shallow. A woman who goes on weekend long bookbenders needs to have botox? Maybe I just don't get it since I don't live in LA.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book for what it is- a carefree romp. I felt like I knew the characters and laughed at a lot of the mishaps and events. No it's not deep reading, but it is a lot of fun.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Not only does this book go into great detail as to how the mind of a reader works but also defines life in Los Angeles. Most books dealing with living in Los Angeles concentrate on the negative and lost dreams of those who hoped to become stars but failed. Living in LA is more than just Hollywood and the industry it's about the whole county. The book takes us with Dora on her different experiences from the northern county to down to Torrance, Hermosa Beach, Downtown and farther. It does make the reader feel self conscience about not having read all those wonderful books mentioned but it does make you want to pick them up. I recommend this book to anyone who has trouble finding who they are and where they are going next.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really wanted to like this book, as I can relate to Dora losing herself in books and going on binges, but she just wasn't sympathetic. I mean really...she didn't have to worry about money, was skinny and beautiful, and shopped like there was no tomorrow! How can you relate to a woman like that? Plus, I got the impression that if you didn't agree with Dora's choice of titles, you weren't a 'real' bibliophile. I can't stand book snobs, and Dora started to annoy me after awhile. So while I liked the premise, I didn't like Dora or the author's attitude. Borrow it from your library if you must, or wait for the paperback. Not worth the price of a hardcover.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you are a book lover like me, you'll love this fresh debut. A lot of references to books are footnoted though and it can be a little bit distracting. I fell in love with Dora (named after Eudora Welty of course), and how she would go on book binges for 3 days after a crisis and then jump right back into life again.
harstan More than 1 year ago
Dora grew up in a Philadelphia household with her sister Virginia in which her mom was a drunk who destroyed two cars in less than a year with one landing in the Schuylkill River mud. Dad, knowing his clubs were ruined, began his odyssey to stay away from home until finally he never returned. When things were bad, which seemed the normal, Dora and Virginia leaped into the world of literature, binging on the written word.------------- Years later, both siblings remain extremely close to one another, but Virginia has her feet solidly planted in reality while Dora still runs away to literature when the going gets rough. She has been married twice and at one time after Columbia was a rising journalistic star in Los Angeles, but that was a decade ago. Her second husband Palmer supports her financially especially her book binges, but he always wondered whether she cared as he is no longer wastes his emotions on depressing Dora the non-explorer. Dora meets comparative literature professor Fred at a bookstore and soon afterward his mother, Bea, who is raising her granddaughter six years old (Fred's niece) yet ¿adopts¿ Dora.--------------- Though the ending seems off kilter from the deep look at a person in mental trouble, fans will appreciate this strong character study. Dora is a great person who faces problems by hiding in books. The cast is fully developed to bring out Dora¿s only means of coping book binging. Fans will relate to the thirtyish protagonist as she struggles in life but receives a boost from Bea, who acts like a surrogate mother as she not the two men in Dora¿s life help her. This terrific tale has the audience rooting for Dora.------------- Harriet Klausner