Book Review: Love is a Mix Tape-Life and Loss, One Song at a Time

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Just what is love? Philosophers, poets and song writers have been asking that question since the beginning of time. To music journalist Rob Sheffield, love is a mix tape. The author has chronicled the cross section of music and love in debut book called Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time.

Long before people downloaded music into their smart phones or other hand-held listening devices with their favorite music, they made mix tapes. Mix tapes were very personal. Not only did they reveal some of our favorite songs, they also revealed our hopes, desires and thoughts. Mix tapes were therapy on a magnetic strip.

Rob Sheffield is no different from every music obsessed Generation X-er. A total music geek, he found solace and a reason for being through his love of music. Starting as a young child, he DJ-ed at school dances, collected albums and tapes like baseball cards and debated the merits of different bands with his friends.

In the late 1980s, Sheffield met Renee. Renee couldn’t have been more different from Rob. He was tall; she was short. He was a shy geek from Boston. Renee was an extroverted Southerner. The only thing these two seemed to have in common was an intense love of music, and it seemed music was all they needed. The two soon fell in love and were married until Renee’s untimely death from a pulmonary embolism at the age of 31.

Sheffield deftly writes about his all too brief marriage to Renee and he does this with a catalog of different mix tapes he made. Each chapter starts with a different mix tape, complete with the names of songs and artists. Some tapes are for making out, some for dancing and some for falling asleep. Sheffield proves to be no music snob, mixing top-40 guilty pleasure pop with the alternative music of the 1980s and 1990s. Each lovingly crafted mix tape conveys an intricate detail of the sometimes loving, sometimes rocky, and all-too-human relationship between two very interesting and complex souls.

Love is a Mix Tape had me riveted. Sheffield is an amazing writer, handling his love of music and his love of Renee with tender loving care. He gives an intimate glimpse into his marriage without revealing too many intimate details. The marriage of Rob and Renee is never conveyed in a way that is too saccharine or maudlin. These are two very real people who seemed to leap off the page. Often when men write about the women in their lives they do it more as a reflection of their own egos rather than writing about these women as three-dimensional human beings. Sheffield does not fall into this trap. I really felt I knew Renee. In fact, I wish I knew Renee. She was an Appalachian Auntie Mame who told her husband to “Live, live, live!” and tells the reader to do the same.

And even though I began reading Love is a Mix Tape knowing of Renee’s death, I was still very shocked when it happened. How could this ebullient soul not be cavorting somewhere on the planet? And Sheffield’s grief was so palpable I felt a dull ache in my heart as he described existing as a young widower.

I highly recommend Love is Mix Tape to anyone who considers music as vital as breathing and knows only too well the ecstasy and heartbreak true love can bring. Rob Sheffield has written an amazing book. I hope he has more books in him.

To learn more about Rob’s affiliation to write about love and music please check out my review of his book Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke.

Book Review: We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement by Andi Zeisler

we were feminists onceI’ve always considered myself a feminist, ever since I was a little girl. I’ve seen feminism evolve over time, having most of my feminism honed by the third wave of feminism when my fellow Generation X-ers began to make their mark in the early 1990s. This was a time of Riot Grrrl, ‘zines, girls picking up instruments and kicking out the jams in bands like Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy and Bikini Kill. Young women read books like Backlash and The Beauty Myth, and realized when it came to feminism, we still had a lot of work to do. A new teen magazine called Sassy celebrated feminism and soon two other magazines, both which can be found at any major bookstore in 2016, emerged. One magazine named Bust and the other named Bitch: A Feminist Response to Pop Culture.

And that brings us to Andi Zeisler’s latest book We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. Zeisler is a founding member of Bitch. And boy (um, grrrrl) does she have a lot to say about the current state of feminism, and how it has evolved and devolved in the last twenty-odd years.

Yes, women today definitely have more rights than they had as little as a hundred years ago. We can vote, run for office, get an education, run a company, compete in a sport, get credit in our own names, make reproductive choices and so many other things our foremothers couldn’t even comprehend. But for all the rights feminism has gained, these hard won rights are being contested and chipped away on a daily basis, one being our access to proper reproductive health services. And still others scoff over our concerns regarding rape, sexual harassment, equal pay for equal work, and domestic violence. To make sure we don’t lose these rights we have a lot of nitty-gritty work to do, which includes everything from contacting our political representatives to raising funds for our favorite female-friendly causes.

And believe me, none of this is easy, fun or pretty. It’s a lot of hard work and can be very frustrating. So why worry about doing any of hard work of feminism when we can justify our feminist street cred by using market place feminism to become empowered women? And we become empowered not by voting or writing an op-ed in favor of feminism, but by purchasing the right yogurt, underpants or following celebrities via social media, many who seem to use feminism as a way to further publicize their “brand.”

We Were Feminists Once is divided into two wonderfully written and well-researched parts. Part One, The New Embrace, focuses on how feminism is seen through the lens of Hollywood, celebrity worship, the products we buy, and various forms of pop culture. Part Two, The Same Old Normal, revisits the waves of feminism and how all this market place empowerment is harming women in the long run even though it’s supposed to make feminism look fun and cool because apparently wearing a pair of panties with the word Feminist on them is more empowering than maintaining my access to birth control.

Still, Zeisler is quick to point out, marketplace feminism isn’t exactly something new. It’s been around since the advent of Madison Avenue and furthered sharpened by unfettered capitalism and neo-liberal thinking. Several decades ago market place feminism was expressed by Virginia Slim cigarettes telling us “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” and perfume ads for Charlie and Enjoli. Today we have Dove soap’s “Real Beauty” ad campaigns, Sheryl Sandberg’s admonishments to “Lean-In” and Beyoncé, Emma Watson and Lena Dunham’s embracing feminism as the thing all the cool girls are doing,. Yea, it’s great so many celebrities identify as feminists, but feminism goes much deeper than the fame, wealth and privilege these ladies all share. Feminism also encompasses the intricacies of race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation none of which market place feminism examines.

Zeisler writes in a way that is audience-friendly, but not dumbed down. She writes in a way that is never preachy but explains in depth the harm of market place feminism and how it impedes the actual hard work of feminism. Zeisler doesn’t offer any clear cut solutions but recognizing there is a problem is a first step, and I’m sure I’m not the only person who read this book and said, “I thought I was the only one bothered by market place feminism!”

In the end We Were Feminists Once fully exposes how marketplace feminism is nothing but “you go, girl” advertisements, a collection of hashtags and sound bites, celebrity worship, pop culture slim pickings and more power at the cash register than at the voting booth. Feminism, women and society as a whole deserve so much more.

Shelf Discovery-The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading by Lizzie Skurnick

shelf discovery“We Must, We Must, We Must Increase Our Bust”

In her “Fine Lines” column on the website Jezebel, Lizzie Skurnick re-read many of the novels she loved as a young girl, looking at them through the eyes of an adult. Now many of these (somewhat altered) essays are in book form in Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading. Ms. Skurnick is no stranger to young adult books. Not only is she a reader but she’s also a writer of some of the Sweet Valley High books. She also brings along writers like Meg Cabot, Jennifer Weiner and Cecily von Ziegesar for the ride down memory lane.

Shelf Discovery does not cover the books we had to read for school, books by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eyre and Austen. No, this book covers the books that weren’t on any teacher-approved reading list. These are the books that kept us up long after our bed time or the books we hid behind our text books during social studies. These are the books we loaned to our friends only to get them back with tattered covers and dog-eared pages. Well, at least this happened to me when I loaned my copy of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by uber-goddess Judy Blume to all my friends in Miss Wilson’s fifth grade class.

Not surprisingly, Judy Blume’s books are reviewed in Shelf Discovery as are the Little House books. Skurnick also takes a look back at books like A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene, The Cat Ate My Gym Suit by Paula Danziger and I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier. Shelf Discovery covers books that were considered too old for us but we read them anyway like Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear and VC Andrew’s My Sweet Audrina. And books that I thought only I had read like To All My Fans With Love, From Sylvie by Ellen Conford and To Take a Dare by Paul Zindel and Crescent Dragonwagon are also covered.

These essays are thoughtful, reflective and funny, and brought back a lot of memories. Not only of reading these books, but also how they made me feel and how they inspired talk among my gaggle of girlfriends. I loved reading the Little House books, feeling some cheesehead pride because Laura Ingalls Wilder was born in Wisconsin. And I was quite comforted to know I wasn’t only the one who found Laura’s sister Mary an insufferable prissy-pants though I never went as far as to call her a “fucking bitch” like Skurnick does.

And where would we be without Judy Blume? Sure, some people want to ban her books, but to most of us, we loved Judy Blume because she introduced us to characters we could actually relate to. These were characters who experienced divorce or the death of a parent. They dealt with sexism, favored siblings and peer pressue. They questioned religion. They also dealt with the difficulties of growing up, physically, mentally and emotionally. Blume did not hesitate to make her main characters somewhat unlikable such as the protagonist in Blubber, Jill, who bullies Linda for being fat. And then there was Tony from Then Again, Maybe I Won’t who spied on his friend’s hot sister with his binoculars. What a perv!!!

Long before Gossip Girl, the books covered in Shelf Discovery introduced us to the world of S.E.X! Forever proved a girl could have sex and not get pregnant the first time or become a raving lunatic. It also kept generations of women from naming their male offspring Ralph. Wifey totally had a dirty mind. Flowers in the Attic introduced us the idea of brother/sister sex long before the Jerry Springer Show. And Katy Perry may have thought she was so lesbian chic when she sang, “I Kissed a Girl” but Jaret and Peggy were getting it on thirty years earlier in Sandra Scoppetone’s Happy Endings Are All Alike.

I’m not familiar with all of the books featured in Shelf-Discovery, but many of you might be. And I’m also not a fan of some of the books I did read. I wanted to fling Go Ask Alice across my teen-age bedroom. Even back then I knew it was a load of shite, and Go Ask Alice, which was allegedly based on the real diary of a teen girl messed up on drugs, was debunked several years ago.

I was also amazed to find out that many of the books we enjoyed as kids are now being enjoyed by today’s kids. Sure, kids have their Harry Potter and their Twilight books, but Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret also resonates with them. While visiting Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, Meg Cabot sheepishly tells the girls she is re-reading the Judy Blume classic. She expected blank stares from the students, but instead she got thunderous applause and cheers. Even though these girls live half a world away from suburban New Jersey, they totally adore Margaret. I still adore Margaret.

Reading Shelf Discovery reminded me why books always meant so much to me growing up (and still do). How fun was Sally J Freedman? And was I the only one who though Rosemary from Sister of the Bride was way too young to get married? But at least my mom and dad never sent me off to boarding school to die like the awful parents in The Grounding of Group 6. If you’re looking for a literary walk down memory lane and more than “seven minutes in heaven” you can’t go wrong with Shelf Discovery.

Book Review: Girls to the Front-The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus

girls to the frontMention the term “riot grrrl” and you’ll probably get a lot of different responses. ‘Zines, Doc Martens, punk bands, feminism, baby barrettes, Kathleen Hanna, and writing “slut” on one’s stomach are just a few words that may come to mind. But to write a history of the riot grrrl movement and how it shaped a generation is one hell of an intimidating task. Thankfully, writer Sara Marcus has the ovaries to do just that in her book Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution.

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s young women and girls were sick and tired of the sexism they found in their beloved punk music scene. Girls were to be seen, not heard. They were also furious about a country that seemed to be eroding the rights their feminist foremothers fought for. But instead of withdrawing, these brave women and girls decided to fight back through music, activism, ‘zines and support groups. And they called themselves riot grrrls.

In Girls to the Front, Marcus writes how the riot grrrl movement got its start in the Pacific Northwest and the Washington, DC area and soon grew throughout the country uniting like-minded girls (and some guys, too). Some of them of these riot grrrls became well-known names and were considered the leaders of the riot grrrl movement.

But many were just young girls who finally found something they could believe in, themselves.

Marcus doesn’t solely focus on riot grrls as a whole movement; she focuses mostly on the grrrls themselves the most famous probably being Kathleen Hanna, Tobi Vail and Erin Smith. She describes in vivid detail how a lot of young women formed their own bands and many produced their own zines. And there were riot grrrl meetings where budding young feminists discussed abusive families, rape and the sexism they dealt with on a daily basis, often for the very first time.

Though the riot grrrl movement turned out to be a positive thing for most involved, it did have its share of problems, and Marcus isn’t afraid to discuss them. The riot grrrl movement was often looked upon as too white and middle-class. The sexism the bands had to deal with at shows was beyond appalling. When the mainstream press finally decided to examine the riot grrrl movement, it simplified it to a bunch of silly girls in vintage frocks and Doc Martens, writing slogans on their bellies and boobs.

But most disheartening was the infighting among the women in the riot grrrl movement. I must admit I cringed when Marcus described how Bratmobile broke up at a gig while playing on stage. And sadly, by the mid -1990s the riot grrrl movement as it was known splintered and imploded.

However, in a follow-up, Marcus tells us what the women profiled in the book are doing with their lives. Some continue to play music. Some are professors, writers and artists. Many are activists. As short-lived as the riot grrrl movement may have been, it turned out to have a long lasting effect on countless women.

Girls to the Front is tirelessly researched, empathetic to its core and brutally honest. At times it can be a daunting read, but it’s also empowering and enlightening whether you were a riot grrrl or not.

How To Build Girl by Caitlin Moran

How to Build a GirlBeing a teenage girl can really suck, and doesn’t Johanna Morrigan know it. In the opening of British columnist Caitlin Moran’s debut novel How to Build a Girl, it is 1990 and Johanna Morrigan is 14-years-old and living in a council estate (what Americans might call public housing) in Wolverhampton, England. Her family includes her would-be rock star dad who’s on disability, a mother who is suffering from post-partum depression after giving birth to twins, and her brothers, older brother Krissi and younger brother Lupin. The Morrigans struggle to survive on benefits and face a bleak future in an economically depressed England.

And if these issues aren’t enough, young Johanna has to also deal with being a fat, horny and insecure teenager with few friends and zilch romantic possibilities. A chance interview on a TV show causes Johanna to conduct herself in a rather embarrassing manner, and she is humiliated and mortified. Johanna is now desperate to change her life, but how?

By giving herself a make-over and renaming herself Dolly Wilde after Oscar Wilde’s lesbian niece, of course! She doffs a top hat, heavy eyeliner and cultivates an edgy and provocative alter ego. She starts taking out CDs from the local library, reads the best in rock and roll journalism, and fully immerses herself in a new-found musical education. Knowing she needs to make some money to help her struggling family, Johanna/Dolly somehow talks herself into writing record reviews for the rock magazine Disc & Music Echo despite having limited writing experience. However, what she lacks experience she makes up in talent and ambition.

Johanna/Dolly’s magazine colleagues sometimes treat her as an irritating kid sister, but she soon proves herself to be quite formidable as a music journalist. She attends rock concerts, gigs and parties, and ingratiates herself to musicians hoping to get the big scoop and write attention-getting features. Her record reviews are filled with witty observations and cutting opinions. Throughout How to Build a Girl Johanna/Dolly names all the top musicians of the 1990s—U2, Nirvana, Blur, Teenage Fan Club, the Stone Roses, Lush, Happy Mondays, Blur and James.

Soon Johanna/Dolly is fully immersed in the world of rock and roll. She hastily drops out of high school so she can fully focus on her budding journalistic career. Professionally, Johanna/Dolly impresses her colleagues and gets more assignments. Personally, Johanna/Dolly goes a bit crazy. She starts smoking, drinking and experimenting with drugs. She also cozies up a bit too much to some of her colleagues and the musicians she interviews in a desperate attempt to lose her virginity. Finally, Johanna/Dolly’s “V-Card” is punched and she is utterly elated. Somebody wants to have sex with her!

And soon lots of “somebodies” want to have sex with Johanna/Dolly, and she’s all-to-willing to comply. It seems she just recently had her first kiss, and now she’s compiling quite a huge list of lovers.

It is t this point of How to Build a Girl, Moran could have become a moralizing shrew and had Johanna/Dolly suffer some horrible tragedy for conducting herself like the town trollop. She could have had Johanna/Dolly suffer a brutal rape, get a rather annoying STD (or even worse, AIDS) or gotten knocked up. To my delight, Moran eschews these literary clichés, and allows Johanna/Dolly to embrace her sexuality, make mistakes that nobody would judge if she were a guy, and keeps on going while trying to mature in a world that often looks down on young women who don’t quite live up to middle class respectability.

But you know what? To hell with middle class respectability! The more I read about Johanna/Dolly’s adventures and journey to adulthood the more I liked her. Sure, she has her obnoxious moments—what teen girl doesn’t? But I cheered her on as she immersed herself into the intoxicating world of rock and roll, got her writing gig with Disc & Music Echo, met up with her favorite musicians, didn’t shy from expressing her musical opinions, admitted to being as horny as any boy, and somehow stayed devoted to her messed up family. I also felt deep compassion for her when she admitted to moments of crushing low self-esteem, family strife, embarrassing encounters of all kinds, and her struggles to connect with others.

How to Build a Girl’s Johanna Morrigan/Dolly Wilde is a vividly drawn character, both over-the-top bon vivant and down-to-earth geek. I’ve long admired Caitlin Moran as a columnist, and now I admire her as a novelist. How to Build a Girl is a literary rock star!

Writer’s Block

Writer's Block PhotoWell, it’s been one crazy week. We started a new project at work and had a bunch of ducks to get in a row before we could proceed with the project. I had a meeting after work Monday night. And tomorrow I start my work as a teaching assistant for my church’s religious education classes (I’m going to be working with 3rd and 4th graders).

And beyond the personal, this past week we observed the 13th anniversary of 9/11 (seems like yesterday, yet longer than 13 years). President Obama gave a speech on ISIS. We discussed Ray and Janay Rice and the complex and thorny issue of domestic abuse.

Apple released several new technological products, including the Apple Watch. Guardians of the Galaxy continues to dominate the box office. And a little girl was bummed because President and Mrs. Obama visited her school, not Beyonce.

And because I hate Sarah Palin with the fiery intensity of ten thousand suns, I couldn’t help but laugh my ass off when I found out she and her family were involved in a huge brawl at a party. In fact this one of my reactions. And here is another:
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Once again, I want to congratulate Lisa Brown for winning the This Is Where I Leave You giveaway and thank my readers for their participation in the giveaway. Speaking of This Is Where I Leave You, the movie’s star Jason Bateman showed up on David Letterman this past week. Here is a clip of Mr. Bateman discussing how his Kristy McNichol hair got him some tail. Millennials, ask your parents about Kristy McNichol.

And though insomnia sucks, I was able to catch a rerun of Charlie Rose featuring Jonathan Tropper, the author of This Is Where I Leave You, the film’s director, Shawn Levy, and two members of the cast, Jason Bateman and Tina Fey. Sadly, at this moment Lord Google isn’t very helpful in finding me a clip. I’ll update once I find one.

Have a great week-end!

The Exes in My iPod-A Playlist of the Men Who Rocked Me to Wine Country by Lisa Mattson

The Exes in My iPodMusic just has a way to inspire feelings and moods in us, especially when it comes to love. There is a song you and your prom date danced to. You and your spouse have “your song.” There is a song that always gets you in the mood for some sexy time. There is a song you played on repeat when some jerk stomped all over your heart. There is a song that reminds you of Mr. Right or maybe just Mr. Right Now. And then there are songs that remind you of Mr. Wrong.

Harley Aberle has quite a few Mr. Wrongs in her past, 13 to be exact; she also has 13 songs for each one of these miscreants who make up a section of her iPod called the Exes. And she tells us about her rocky road to blissful romance and professional success in Lisa Mattson’s somewhat autobiographical novel The Exes in My iPod-A Playlist of the Men Who Rocked Me to Wine Country.

When we first meet Harley (yes, just like the iconic motorcycle) she is twenty-years-old and a recent Kansas transplant living in Florida with her slacker boyfriend Chris. Both are on a break from college, and though Harley wants to resume her education Chris is more suited to smoking weed and avoiding responsibility. Harley wants to make her relationship with Chris work, but she has her serious doubts. And after she and Chris break up, these doubts continue to hound Harley as she goes from one doomed relationship to another.

Harley’s 13 past loves are a collection of cheaters, secretly married men, mama’s boys, users, a less than exciting ex-husband and other assorted jerks. Some relationships barely last longer than a power ballad and others go on way after the concert lights go on and it’s time to go home. The songs that relate to certain men are a potpourri of musical acts like the Grateful Dead, Nine Inch Nails, Everything But the Girl, James Taylor and the Black-Eyed Peas.

Throughout Harley’s decade of making bad romantic decisions, she is riddled with self-doubt and a serious lack of self-esteem. She bemoans her flat chest, her big hips and her scars. She constantly compares herself to other women. Harley is also haunted by her childhood. She grew up in a very dysfunctional family in small-town Kansas. She wants to escape her less than refined upbringing, and overcome her family’s lack of educational and professional achievement. She also wonders if her parents’ frayed marriage has negatively influenced her romantic choices.

Like a lot of other people, Harley often mistakes sex for love and falls into bed way too soon with her panties askew. However, Harley also acknowledges her own carnal desires, and certainly doesn’t mind indulging in them. I’m sure some uptight people would shake a scolding finger at Harley and sniff, “Well, why buy the cow when the milk is free?” to which I say, “Why buy the pig when all you want is a little sausage.”

Did I mention sex? Yes, sex plays a big part of Harley’s life and Mattson is not shy about writing somewhat explicit sex scenes. Sure many of them are quite steamy and raise the room’s temperature quite a bit. But Mattson also brings in elements of cringe-inducing humor during some of Harley’s mattress dancing. She compares one gentleman’s penis to a gummy bear. Hmm, Gummy Bear Penis would be a great name for a band.

However, whatever Harley lacks in the romantic department she definitely makes up when it comes to her education and career aspirations. Harley has a work ethic that would put Martha Stewart to shame. She busts her ass in college and also holds down a job at the Cheesecake Factory. It is while in college Harley takes a course on wine and finds her true passion. She makes having a career in the wine industry (especially one in California’s wine country) a top priority and is fortunate to have a professor who acts as a wise mentor.

So with her strong work ethic and a degree in communications, Harley starts her career working in wine marketing and PR going from strength to strength. Yet, her romantic life still remains shaky. However, as she grows as a professional and just grows up, Harley begins to realize she deserves better and perhaps it’s time to make some better decisions when it comes it comes to finding a fulfilling relationship. Okay, at times this includes having her mom do an astrological chart for one of her boyfriends, but at least she’s trying.

Will Harley find her one and only, her always and forever, her true Mr. Right? Will Harley finally make it to wine country? And will her romantic life reflect lyrics more like “It’s very clear/Our love is here to stay/Not for a year, but ever and a day.”* Or will it reflect, “Then love, love will tear us apart again/Love, love will tear us apart again.”**

The Exes in My iPod is both bittersweet and has good doses of humor. I often wanted to shake Harley and shout, “Stop being so stupid, girl!” But I also found myself nodding my head in recognition. There were times I felt I needed a spreadsheet to keep track of all of Harley’s past loves. I was surprised one of them didn’t include a gay guy on the down low. Or is that just me?

At times I did get confused by the wine jargon, probably because though I’m a wine drinker, I’m hardly an expert. I can barely pronounce sommelier. A simple Google search could help me with my wine confusion. And did you know if wine is too cold, the scents are too muted. And if the wine is too warm, the alcohol is accentuated. The more you know.

I related mostly to the musical aspects of the book, and I really thought using music as a tool to describe Harley’s past relationships was quite clever (and the digital form of The Exes in My iPod provides a link to the songs outlined in the book). I am also thrilled one of the songs chosen is “Troubled Mind” by the criminally under-rated Everything But the Girl. “Troubled Mind” played heavily on my psyche back in the 1990s.

The Exes in My iPod does have a few faults. It sometimes reads more like a memoir or a collection of essays than a novel, but perhaps that was Mattson’s intent. There are a few spelling and grammatical errors that could have benefited from some good editing but considering this book is self-published I’ll cut Mattson some slack.

The Exes in My iPod is a fun book, just right for summer beach reading and is a bit of an alternative to the chick lit genre. Enjoy it with your favorite glass of wine and get ready to make your own exes playlist.

* “Our Love is Here to Stay”-Music by George Gershwin and lyrics by Ira Gershwin
**”Love Will Tear Us Apart”-Music and lyrics by Ian Curtis, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris and Bernard Sumner

Colors Insulting to Nature by Cintra Wilson

Colors Insulting to Nature“Fame! I’m Gonna Live Forever!….Remember My Name! Fame!”—lyrics from the Oscar-winning song, “Fame” from the movie Fame (original recipe, of course), could be Liza Normal’s theme song. If she could grasp the gold ring of fame, her life would be perfect and everyone would love her.

Of course, the road to fame never runs smoothly and Cintra Wilson covers Liza’s haphazard quest to stardom her debut novel Colors Insulting to Nature, and it’s one hell of a roller coaster ride.

Like a lot of fame-hungry youngsters, Liza’s talent as a performer can best be called “negligible.” She often wears inappropriate clothing that rival Jodie Foster’s in “Taxi Driver.” And she’s saddled with a stage mother named Peppy who makes Mama Rose from “Gypsy” look low-key. Peppy is determined to make her children (Peppy has a brother named Ned) super stars. She believes one way she can do that is to enroll her offspring in New York’s High School of the Performing Arts.

But before she can do that, the Normal family moves to California (yep, a full continent away from New York City) where Peppy starts her very own dinner theater (which doesn’t serve dinner) called The Normal Family Dinner Theater. Not only are Liza and Ned roped into Peppy’s scheme so are some other more talented kids and their unsuspecting parents. Peppy’s idea of wholesome family fair is doing a bawdy and campy version of “The Sound of Music” featuring drag queen nuns. You can only imagine how well this rather unorthodox version of the stage and screen classic is received.

When not entertaining the masses with an alternative take on “The Sound of Music,” Liza makes her mark at her upper-crust high school. She trades insults with one of the A-listers and then later on trades in her virginity to him. Her classmates mark Liza as a slut and make fun of her glittery dreams of fame. Fortunately, Liza also befriends a kindred spirit in a girl named Lorna who gives her the support and encouragement Liza desperately needs. And yes, it did take me a while, but I do realize Liza and Lorna are the names of the late Judy Garland’s daughters, but I’m not sure if Ms. Wilson meant this.

But I digress…

Liza never does make it to the iconic “Fame” school, but she leaves high school with the same dogged dream to become a star. She entertains coffee shop customers with her unique renditions of Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam covers. She gets romantically involved with a washed-up former member of a boy band. And she even finds some success writing slash fiction featuring a fearless dominatrix named Venal de Minus.

Liza also faces other potholes; her shut-in, ski mask wearing brother finds some fame and success as a light-box artist, she gets involved with a drug dealer, she spends time battling drug addiction and a stint in rehab, she faces countless rejections, and Liza’s maniacal mother who goes from rampage to rampage.

As mentioned, Liza’s performing talent can best be described as “meh,” and she doesn’t exactly embrace her success as the creator of Venal de Minus. However, Liza does have one amazing skill—the skill to survive whatever obstacle is thrown in her way. She is scrappy and indestructible. And despite making some rather unfortunate decisions, she is fully human and very sympathetic. I found myself rooting for Liza time and time again even when she was in the gutter (especially when she was in the gutter). Liza is a survivor with a capital S! And I don’t mean a survivor in the weepy, “remember your spirit” Oprah-esque kind of way. I mean in the Gloria Gaynor anthem, “I Will Survive” sung by the most fierce drag queens on the planet.

Wilson is a fabulous writer, mercilessly skewering our obsession with celebrities and fame while also giving Liza an interesting story. I also enjoyed her creative asides to readers that reminded me of the talking heads seen in everything from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” to the TV show “House of Cards.”
Wilson is also well-versed in the pop culture that shaped Generation X (the book takes place from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s). As a card-carrying member of said generation I got misty-eyed over references to not only the 1980 version of “Fame” and Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam but also to such cinematic cheese as “Ice Castles” and “Breakin’.”

I must say the ending of Colors Insulting to Nature was a wee bit too pat, but I reminded myself that it was one hell of a roller coaster ride, with amazing twists and turns, heart pounding ascents and tummy turning descents. Colors Insulting to Nature is the literary rollercoaster that once it ends makes you want to shout, “Let’s ride this bad boy again!”

Cobain Unseen by Charles R. Cross

Cobain UnseenHard to believe but 20 years ago this month Nirvana’s front man, Kurt Cobain, died at 27-years-old from an apparent self-inflicted gun shot wound. A few years ago, a publisher contacted me about reviewing one its books on Cobain. I decided to dust it off and publish it here.

It seems anything that can be written about the late Kurt Cobain has been written. But with Charles R. Cross’ new book Cobain Unseen, readers get fascinating glimpse of Cobain not only as a rock star, but also as a child, artist, husband and father.

Cobain Unseen is an illustrated book filled with new photographs of Cobain, his band mates, wife Courtney Love, and daughter Frances Bean. Also included are Cobain’s artwork, which often reveals his inner torment. Readers will also find reproductions of Nirvana stickers, early flyers of advertising Nirvana gigs, handwritten lyrics, a VIP backstage pass and a promotional postcard regarding Nirvana’s 1992 Saturday Night Live appearance.

More personally, there are reproductions of Cobain’s other effects, including a greeting card he made as a child, a school art award certificate, and a hand-written note to Michael Stipe. One of the most disturbing and heartbreaking aspects of Cobain Unseen is a “Dear Diary””excerpt written on loose-leaf paper. In a few paragraphs, Cobain expresses that he thinks he knows what’s wrong with him, his faults, his insecurities, his problems. He wonders if he continues to worry about his problems and his problems with others, they might get worse. This brief diary entry is a sad glimpse into Cobain’s inner torment.

Torment was a common theme in Cobain’s life. He was born months before the summer of love in 1967, in Aberdeen, Washington. His parents were very young, didn’t have much money and divorced when Cobain was a child. Throughout his life, Cobain was plagued by health problems, including stomach troubles and scoliosis. He was also put on Ritalin for his hyperactivity.

However, Cobain was a highly creative child. Art and music were forms of escape. As soon as he was able to hold a crayon or pencil, Cobain was drawing. He spent hours making his original works of art, and his parents thought he might study art in college. Cobain also experimented with putty and clay. His childhood room was covered with his art work, and his art work was also well-accepted by his peers.

Music was also important to Kurt, and his musical aspirations were supported by his aunt Mari, herself a singer. As a teen-ager, Cobain was given a guitar and discovered punk music. He started to write songs, and art continued to be positive force in his life. After high school, Cobain struggled, often living on food stamps and getting evicted from dumpy apartments. However, he also formed the band Nirvana and began to hone Nirvana’s distinctive grunge sound.

Despite the idea that Cobain was a slacker, not concerned with fame and fortune, he was hugely ambitious when it came to his music. He spent lots of time writing songs, sending demos to different record labels and playing endless gigs. “Overnight” success came in 1991, when the Gen X anthem, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” of Nirvana’s seminal release Nevermind became a huge hit. For far too long, music was total dreck, with the likes of Color Me Badd, MC Hammer and Paula Abdul topping the charts. Nirvana and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became manna from Heaven for many rock fans (including yours truly).

Along the way, Cobain met and married Hole frontwoman, Courtney Love, and they had a daughter, Frances Bean. The marriage was at times loving, and at other times tumultuous, but Cobain aspired to be a devoted father to little Frances. He also continued to be plagued by health troubles and soon became addicted to heroin.

Professionally, Nirvana reached the heights of fame. They released three studio albums and toured throughout the world. Cobain was called the voice of a disaffected generation. However, stardom did not sit well with him. Today, where even the most untalented celebrities try to extend their fifteen minutes of fame by appearing in movies or putting out their own fashion lines, Cobain considered himself an artist, not a rock star. He bit the hand that fed him, had squabbles with his record label and didn’t always care about pleasing his fans.

Ultimately, Cobain could no longer handle the physical, mental and emotional misery that plagued him, and he committed suicide in April of 1994, leaving fans devastated and people wondering what could have been.

But Nirvana fans know all of this already, and Cross covered Cobain’s life in his notable biography, Heavier Than Heaven. However, that doesn’t mean Cobain Unseen isn’t a fascinating read. Cobain Unseen is more than a biography of Cobain’s life. It’s also a biography of his art. Childhood photos feature a tow-headed Cobain in front of an art easel or playing a tambourine. His art work conveys his stomach and back problems with the use of raw meat, bones, skeletons and doll parts. The reader will see heart-shaped boxed Cobain collected, and photos of Cobain with daughter Frances show a very tender and sweet side of Cobain. Also included in Cobain Unseen is a CD of Cobain’s spoken-word material, and an interview with Cross about his research for the book.

Cobain Unseen is vanguard of biography. Not satisfied with text and photos, I believe readers today want tactile and tangible personal items of the famous people they admire and want to learn more about. Cobain Unseen is an intriguing inside look at the creativity and the madness of one of rock’s biggest icons. Cobain Unseen is one of the most definitive rock biographies I have ever seen…and felt.