Laurie Notaro: Toss the Book You Have in Your Purse and Read These Instead

Laurie Notaro is an author, crafter, and expert at finding a good cocktail. She grew up in Phoenix, but is currently based in Eugene, Oregon. Each week, she'll be joining us to share a crafting adventure, draw a flowchart, or remember a few of her favorite things about Phoenix. Today, she shares a few of her favorite old books that could easily (and should be) substituted for your book club book.

I was recently privy to some first hand information about a woman who was seemingly happily married to a nice fellow until she read "Fifty Shades of Grey." She became so engrossed in the story that when she finished the book, she promptly asked for a divorce and was determined to buy some fancy panties at JC Penneys and then find a young, sadomasochistic gazillionaire of her own.

I choked on a home fry when I heard this, and turned around to see the woman in question, a plump, rosy-cheeked woman with long, stringy hair and bangs wearing a stretched out-sweater woven with clumps of cat hair.

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While I am not a fan of this "adult" genre, I am always happy when people are reading a book, although I do wish it wasn't simply the script of a bad porn movie set to somewhat complete sentences.

Reading is becoming a lost art, and the book industry is suffering awfully. So if a truly terrible book, or, as it seems to happen, a series of them, is able to stop the crumbling of the institution with gigantic sales, so be it. Let the trash reign. But in the meantime, before more portly women leave their bewildered husbands and lace themselves into Lane Bryant corsets, shall we stop the madness for a moment? Let's remember propriety, ladies. A little bit of modesty, I promise, goes a long way.

Fifty Shades of whatever are the hottest books on the bestseller lists right now, so hot that they've become the norm. Which is bland. And bland is boring. Who is more interesting, the person at the coffee shop reading the same book as everyone else at the coffee shop, or the person who pulls a beaten, weathered hardback out of their satchel and reads something that you've never heard of?

History, used bookstores, and of course, the Internet are teeming with incredible old books begging to be read again. Below is a list of current book club favorites and top sellers that everyone is reading, and their aged counterparts, which are not only better written, more interesting reads, but will let you actually answer--with dignity--the next time someone asks you what you are reading.

Instead of reading The Help, read Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks. Brooks was the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Annie Allen, a book of poetry, in 1949. Brooks used the basis of her Annie Allen poems to write Maud Martha, a semi-autobiographical novel about the hopes, dreams and ultimate reality of the life a black woman in that time frame. Brooks saw Maud Martha as her "Old Man and the Sea," and hoped to duplicate Hemingway's success, if not just to earn enough money to buy a house. While her hopes were not realized at the time, Maud Martha lives on, still a strikingly written testament to all women of color in during the mid-century and pre-Civil Rights era. One of the best books you'll ever read, I promise.

To find: You probably won't find this in a bookstore, since the publishing house Brooks left her rights to is a very small one. Best bets would be to get it on special order at Changing Hands, on,, or

Instead of reading Fifty Shades of Grey, read Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons. Finally re-published after 70 years, this hilarious romance by the author of Cold Comfort Farm won't make you blush, but it will make you laugh. Brimming with unlikely romances between the rich and the servants, the rich and their pets, and a pretty widow and a rich, slightly slimy heir to a fortune, the book has everything to offer in the romance department except episodes of heaving and throbbing which it doesn't need.

There's also a bi-polar fiancé, a drunk, homeless hermit who lives in the woods, blackmail and common acts of bastadry.

To find: Hopefully any bookstore, but definitely by special order or online.

Instead of Casual Vacancy, read Miss Buncle's Book by D.E. Stevenson. In what may be one of the first examples of meta storylines (take that, Japer Fforde), Miss Buncle's Book is a book within a book within a book. A huge blockbuster in 1934, the story centers around the hapless Barbara Buncle and the politics of the tiny English village she lives in--and how she completely upends it. When her dividends begin to dwindle, Miss Buncle finds herself without income and few choices. So she writes a book. About her neighbors. Under a pseudonym.

It becomes a massive best seller, causing the village to erupt in panic, suspicions and allegations. Again, no filth! But there is romance, kidnapping, and scandal as the real life characters begin to take on the lives of their fictional versions.

To find: Again, special order, or online; was recently republished by Persephone Books and Sourcebooks Landmark, so it is definitely in print.

Instead of Hunger Games, read Mad Puppetstown by MJ Farrell, AKA Molly Keane. Think kids fighting kids in a dystopian society gets your mouth water? Try kids running wild over the countryside in Ireland in the 1900's as war breaks out. In between their roving, hunts and explorations, Easter and her cousins Evelyn and Basil dodge Irish rebels and English officers while continuing with their idyllic privileged childhoods as the estates and manors of their Anglo-Irish neighbors and friends are burned to the ground.

Although their family mansion, Puppetstown, still stands, Easter's family--san one stubborn aunt--are forced to leave for England under threat of violence, unsure if their ancestral home will survive or burn.

To find: This book might take some patience. To locate in hardcover is nearly impossible, unless you're willing to shell out collector's prices, but Virago Modern Classics republished it more recently, so on the used online market, it is amply available, oftentimes for a penny plus shipping.

Instead of reading Bringing Up Bebe, read Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis. I don't care if you've already seen the classic comedy in movie form staring the glorious Rosalind Russell, this book is funnier. I swear. It is a delightful read, and should serve as the handbook for any parent who wants to raise a balanced, thoughtful, intelligent child who knows how to make a mixed drink by the age of 10.

Your children will be much more enjoyable to be around if they know how to attend to a parent with a hangover and can easily have an affable conversation with an Asian drag queen. Naked preschool, I agree, is a bad idea, but just like any parenting book, you pick and choose what you like. I believe this to be one of the funniest books ever written and that will ever be written. Simply genius on any level.

To find: Any bookstore worth its salt should have this on the shelves already. Scold them if they don't.

Instead of reading Twilight, read The Brontes Go to Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson. I was hoping this train would run out of gas or coal or whatever it is that trains run on these days, but now that the last installment is in theatres, it will be a while before the Twilight flames are done licking the brains of our young. In any case, I suggest a book that is filled with imagination, weirdness, what is real vs. unreal, and the undead in the form of the ghosts of the Bronte sisters. And the mother is in on it, too!

It is the tale of a widowed mother and her three daughters who live their lives as they spin wildly fantastic imaginative ones. But wait! There's also a mean nanny, a dead circus clown, séances, and while there are imaginary friends, including a judge, there is not one simple vampire. Published in 1931, it will probably be one of the strangest books you've ever read, but if you just relax and go with it, it's one of the most delightful and charming. Not a laugh a minute, but a wonderful example of fantasy crisscrossing over to reality.

To Find: Easy. Bloomsbury recently published the title with a pretty blue cover and is easily available online; in bookstores, it may pose more of a challenge. Well worth it.

Stay tuned for new adventures with Laurie Notaro, and catch up on a few classics in any of her books including The Idiot Girls' Action-Adventure Club: True Tales from a Magnificent and Clumsy Life,It Looked Different on the Model, I Love Everybody (and Other Atrocious Lies), There's a Slight Chance I Might Be Going to Hell, and An Idiot Girl's Christmas at Changing Hands, on Amazon, or through her website.

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Laurie Notaro