Friday, January 22, 2010

Guilty Pleasures

A co-worker just stopped by my desk to ask me if I really had read Valley of the Dolls, and if I really did recommend it (she didn't believe my 5-star review on goodreads). This was our second conversation about the book as I apparently hadn’t persuaded her the first go-round, although I had interested her. Personally I only had heard of it as an eye-roller, but when the book was rereleased in 1997, a (different) co-worker read it, loved it, highly recommended it. I found this very strange because this same co-worker has read Moby Dick for fun, and he participates in Bloomsday most years. Now I may have been an English major and I’ve read my share of forced literary canon unpleasantness (Portrait of the Artist, Grapes of Wrath, Light in August), and when I managed to get out of my top-rated liberal arts college without the torture of those two bricks, I counted myself lucky. Someone who would choose to read them, I found a bit odd. But certainly very, very literary. To have this same person read and recommend Valley of the Dolls kind of blew my mind. While I was intrigued, I was also a bit scared. So it stayed in my mind, but I didn’t go anywhere near it.

Years later, my sister who doesn’t read (she is slightly dyslexic) except for fashion magazines was raving about how phenomenal this book is. (And since then she has been reading a lot, so this book is awesome even if just for that.) And that made me even more baffled, as my sister, and my co-worker couldn’t possibly have more diverse literary tastes, yet they crossed with Valley of the Dolls. That did it, I agreed to read it (admittedly, after a little harassment from sister.) And it was fantastic. Yes it’s a beach read, lightweight, fast, like candy. But such a great story! To me it was quite shocking. I had seen the movie, sure, and I knew all about the pills (you just have to look at the front cover to know about that!) but I was even more surprised about the one woman who lived with a man before marriage in the 1940s and one who had an abortion (which wasn’t even legal by the time the book was published in 1966, but the book covers more than 20 years so this was decades prior) and the nonchalant way these things were dealt with! I enjoyed every minute of that book and couldn’t put it down. (My sister has gone on to read all of Ms. Susann’s novels and her biography.)

Guilty pleasures are a wonderful thing! Like literary chocolate, sometimes we need a palate-cleanser. In high school while studying my butt off and getting straight A’s, I was reading The Flowers in the Attic series. In college in the summers, I downshifted with Jaws, The Shining, Coma, and Congo. During the last week of school, when I was done with your exams but before graduation, I read the whole North and South Trilogy. While at the bookstore, I read the Mitford books. Those are the most embarrassing for me to admit, seeing as how they aren’t action-packed thrillers but instead are quiet, sweet stories about an elderly priest in a small town. The Mitford books all reminded me of the time when I was 12 and I swiped a canister of icing from the pantry. I ate the whole thing. I couldn’t stop, even though it made me feel slightly ill. And it was a year or more before I could stomach any icing again (to this day, I try to get interior pieces of a cake.) But I couldn’t resist. Mitford is the same way. They were too sweet, I felt slightly sick, afterwards I didn’t want to see one of them for a long, long time, but when a new one came out I had to devour it immediately.

In New York I finally read Clan of the Cave Bear which my step-mother had been pushing on me for years. And an ex-boyfriend said the main female character of Youngblood Hawke reminded him of me so I had to read that of course (she’s an editor.) The Two Mrs. Grenvilles was one of the best in this category, up there with Valley of the Dolls. Even better since it's based on a real story.

Lately I haven’t been reading as many of these. Perhaps because my life has gotten more pleasant, I need less of an escape? Or simply the normal ebbs and waves of preferences and availability. Last year I read three: No Angel, The Forgotten Garden, and Exodus, all in the winter. I don’t read my “beach reads” at the beach! I am not fond of winter in the least, and so it’s when I need a mental break. We shouldn’t feel guilty about our “guilty pleasures.” All reading is good.

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