As noted, I’ve started listening to audiobooks on my way home from work – the nice thing about working for a company that deals in books is that there are a bunch of them lying around for us employees to grab. In the case of Love Is A Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time, it was a book I’d had on my wishlist, albeit in paper form.
Read by the author Rob Sheffield, the book is a memoir – a painful one. Sheffield tells the reader quickly that this is a story about meeting and marrying the woman of his dreams, only to suddenly find himself alone when she died from a pulmonary embolism at the awful young age of 31. Sheffield and his wife, Renee Crist, are music writers and fanatical about their tunes. They were completely different people – he an Irish Catholic from Boston, she an Appalachian girl from West Virginia – but they were both passionate about music and fell in love through that connection.
On the positive side, Sheffield recalls the late 1980s and early 1990s, a time I feel very personally connected to musically. The two discovered Pavement together, and numerous other bands I cared and care about are part of this book, which is framed by the songs on a given mix tape. Sheffield writes for SPIN and Rolling Stone, and any reader (or, in my case, listener) should be aware that he has no shame in talking about the beautiful pop sensibility of George Michael or Hanson, while still talking about Pavement and Superchunk. And there’s a disconnect for me there in some ways – Sheffield talks about Yaz in a reverential way that I didn’t think a straight man could. (Yes, I’m a dick. But for that matter, he also talks about being obsessed with Jackie Kennedy and Liz Taylor, and I’d put them in that same category as Yaz.)
Sheffield’s loss when Renee suddenly dies is sharp and brutal, and the book does a very good job of making that clear and painful without being melodramatic or sappy. Sheffield not only obviously misses her, but he feels guilty for not protecting her, or for not dying before her. He is afraid to leave the house for fear she’ll suddenly return and get lost without his presence.
The book is about this loss, and how after Renee’s death, nothing stayed the same. Some songs they’d shared became unplayable; new songs he loved became somehow sad because he couldn’t share them with her. Sheffield shares his experience in relating to a line from a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson:
I always had to butt my head up against that sentence: 'I grieve that grief can teach me nothing.' I was hoping that this was a lie. But it wasn't. Whatever I learn from this grief, none of it will take me any closer to what I want, which is Renée, who is gone forever. None of my tears will bring her closer to me. I can fit other things into the space she used to occupy, but whether I choose to do that, her absence from that space is permanent. No matter how good I get at being Renée's widower, I won't get promoted to being her husband again. The loss doesn't go away - it just gets bigger the longer you look at it."
There’s no denying that there are parts of this book that are awfully sad, and poignant, and it is a talented writer that can successfully evoke those emotions. But in other places, Sheffield misses. For one, as noted, this was an audiobook read by Sheffield himself. It IS a memoir – it would be awkward to hear these words read by, say, Willem DaFoe. But Sheffield’s voice is not altogether lovely – it is jerky and awkward at times, to the point that it is actually odd to hear him refer to a radio show he DJ’ed. Going more into the book itself, Sheffield flat out ignores some things any reader would want to know. What was dating like after Renee died? He never mentions this at all, despite talking about at least five years after the fact. If he didn’t date once, that’s worth mentioning – and if he did, how awkward was it? Instead, he talks about staying at home for a long time and watching awful movies on TV like Caged Heat (which he describes the plot of for far too long), or a news item about a nacho dwarf. These are amusing anecdotes, but they seem to mask a real pain with pop culture whimsy…which feels very out of place.
The homage to the actual mix tape is quite welcome, and I can’t imagine that I’m the first reader to start making a mix for his significant other as a result of the book. (Though, Abby will be getting a playlist for her iPod, a significant difference from an actual tape, which Sheffield does discuss.)
In the end, the book was interesting and I’m glad I had a chance to experience it. (I suspect that had I read the book itself, I would have liked it more because of my issues with Sheffield’s voice, which is worth noting.) But I do wish Sheffield had really opened up – in a book where he shares so much personal pain, it’s bizarre that I was left wanting more – but I was.