I whipped through a couple of books this past week that I thought were really good reads, and easy reads to boot, which is nice when the thermostat is hitting 100 every day. (I promise I’ll get used to the heat soon—but it takes a couple of weeks.) They touched on some of my favorite themes, so I thought I’d review/recommend them here.
I tore through All We Ever Wanted Was Everything by Janelle Brown faster than I thought I would—it took me about a day and a half to read. What can I say? Books where the plot moves forward because everyone is keeping secrets get me, because you just have to know what’s going to happen when the secrets come tumbling out. This novel is a satire of the Silicon Valley economic explosion, where new money remade the landscape in apparently record time. The three main characters are a middle-aged housewife whose husband leaves her the day his company goes public and turns him from a merely rich to an insanely rich man, their daughter in her late 20s who dedicated her life to an actor boyfriend and a failing feminist magazine and has to move back home after that falls to shit, and their 14-year-old daughter who has turned into the school slut.
What really holds this book together is the characterization. I dread to see what Hollywood would do to such a book, since it’s built around three fully fleshed out female characters who are deeply flawed but still likeable human beings. What would they make of the older daughter Margaret, for instance, who comes across as both a sympathetic character and a know-it-all whose own inability to admit weakness leads her to digging herself into $100,000 worth of debt? In a better world, this book would lend itself nicely to being turned into a darkish comedy from a feminist perspective that avoids pedantry, but in our world, I don’t imagine there’s much money in such a thing. Too bad, but you can still read it.
I think what I liked best about it was that Brown kept setting up certain cliches only to undermine them. The pool boy toy stereotype is evoked and then undermined. The sad fat girl doesn’t find that losing a bunch of weight solves all her problems. The feminist scold doesn’t let her hair down because a man shows her the meaning of love. So, that was fun, though it did mean that my one biggest disappointment with the book was when Brown set up one of the oldest cliches around….and then followed through with it. But I don’t want to spoil it. On the whole, a fun read.
The other book I just finished is one I’ve been meaning to read for awhile: Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time by Rob Sheffield, who is a writer for the Rolling Stone. It’s a memoir of his 5-year marriage to another rock critic, Renée Crist, a marriage that sadly ended when Crist died in 1997 suddenly of a pulmonary embolism in her very early 30s. Despite the depressing inevitability of what happens in this book, I wouldn’t be afraid of it. We should all hope to memorialized as lovingly as Sheffield memorializes his late wife, and it’s nice to take a break from the more cynical world and read such a touching account of love.
And music. Every chapter of this book starts off with a mix tape, one that Rob made for Renée or Renée for Rob or Renée for both of them or Rob for himself. Their relationship starts off because of music—they discover that they’re both huge fans of Big Star—survives because of music, and sadly ends during one of their many epic sessions where Renée sewed her own clothes and Rob DJed for her. I wished I’d read it earlier, because it’s the anti-High Fidelity. That novel, while a fun read that totally nails music snobs, is one of my minor obsessions because I just object strongly to the main character’s “realization” that growing up means giving up on the dream of a woman to love who could actually do things like relish music, a realization we’re supposed to find satisfying, but is in fact sexist bullshit. In Sheffield’s memoir, his life-loving wife’s enthusiasm for music is equal to his, and a marriage based around that seems like the most natural thing in the world. In fact, he wonders if it’s possible to hold a relationship together without that kind of shared enthusiasm.
Renée is fun-loving and eccentric, but she’s no Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Sheffield portrays their relationship as feeling inevitable, but he doesn’t try to imply that the world isn’t full of smart, fun, music-loving women—in fact, he comes across as one of those guys who has more female friends than male friends. The book is as much a rebuke to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl fantasy as it is a (probably unintentional) rebuke to the sad world of High Fidelity. In the MPDG fantasy, the fun-loving woman sweeps into a man’s life to make him learn to live, and then graciously exits stage left so he gets the lessons without having to puncture the fantasy. But in reality, of course, Sheffield shakes with an untargetable anger and grief at the loss of this woman that he built his life around, to the degree that he actually (and happily) viewed himself as the supporting character in her life story, which means that when she died and he was left alone, he was that much more unable to know what to do with himself. He describes beautifully what it actually means to not want to let go.
Sheffield mourns the loss of his wife in this book, and he attaches this to his mourning for the loss of the 90s, which he sees as a brief moment when feminism was fashionable and women like Renée flourished. He links his personal loss to this larger loss in American pop culture as the 90s slipped into the Bush era, and what few slots existed for outrageous women diminished alongside the flesh on female movie stars. The loss of a time when indie rock was mainstream rock, and thus the indie culture that’s a little less restrictive of women was, for a brief moment, the mainstream culture. I’m not invested enough in mainstream pop culture to gauge how correct he is on this point—it seemed feminists who rock have had an unbroken line of succession from Bikini Kill and L7 to Sleater Kinney to Le Tigre and the Gossip to me—but then I think about how someone like Sarah Palin who sells herself on the grounds of her hostility to rebellion against feminine restriction, and I think he may have a point.
And it made me miss the art of making a mix tape, sitting on the floor surrounded by CDs and LPs, and letting the choices come to you over a couple of hours instead of planning them out and hitting “burn”.