Book Review: You Play the Girl-On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks & Other Mixed Messages by Carina Chocano

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Is there a book you wish you had written? Is there a book you would have written if you had the ambition? Well, thank goodness Carina Chocano had both the desire and motivation to write a book and that book is her collection of essays, You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks & Other Mixed Messages.

I love pop culture, and I’ve been studying and writing about pop culture since I was in high school. But despite my mad love for film, TV shows, music, and obviously books, I’ve often been dismayed (if not downright pissed off) by how girls and women are portrayed in these various works, and how they affect society and those we care about.

Chocano shares this loathing,  wonders these same issues, and writes about them in this dazzling collection of essays (which also acts as a caring and concerned love letter to her daughter, Kira).

After a brief introduction, You Play the Girl is divided into four distinctive parts:

Part One: Down the Rabbit Hole covers topics like Playboy bunnies, the classic Good Housekeeping column, “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” and MTV-inspired movie Flashdance.

Part Two: The Pool of Tears muses on the concepts such topics like ingénues and bad girls.

Part Three: In You Wouldn’t Have Come Here, Chocano writes about the surrealism of the “Real Housewives,” awkward men who choose “Real Girls” over real-live women, and the singular, life-changing journey of redemption of eating, praying and loving.

Part Four: In Mad Tea Party, Chocano acknowledges that girls love math even if Barbie claims, “Math is hard,” women as a trainwreck, the phenomenon of the Disney movie Frozen, and wraps up things with her desire for a feminist dance number (personally, I suggest bellydancing).

There are several reasons why I Iove You Play the Girl. First, Chocano is an excellent writer. Sure, she’s technically proficient but most importantly she has a distinctive voice, down to earth, wise, but also funny and charming. Plus, she just makes you think. Her essays are deeply researched and make you reflect on how pop culture affects you in ways you never thought possible, whether it comes to classic sitcoms like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie to the current day of reality television with its collection of real housewives, bachelors and bachelorettes.

Chocano also has interesting opinions when it comes to classic movies like The Philadelphia Story and a movie I hope is never considered a classic, Pretty Woman. And when it comes to how boys and girls are portrayed coming-of-age books, films and TV shows, Chocano sums things up with this passage:

“In the male coming-of-age story, the boy creates himself. In the female coming-of-age story, the girl is created by forces around her.”

She questions why in an age of diversity and women making strides in business, academia, politics, technology, activism, arts and entertainment, and business our definition of what makes a woman attractive and sexy grows more and more narrow.

Chocano likewise has a very interesting take on women’s magazines and how they prey upon women’s insecurities and perceived failings as wives, mothers, workers, and just human beings as a whole even in this age of “You go, girl!”

Throughout You Play the Girl, Chocano looks at the details but also gives us the big picture on so many attention-grabbing topics. Simply put, You Play the Girl is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

 

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Book Review: Perfect From Now On-How Indie Music Saved My Life’ by John Sellers

I have to admit I held a few reservations when I picked up music journalist John Sellers’ musical memoir Perfect From Now On: How Indie Music Saved My Life. I was afraid Sellers would be one of those hipster douchebro types bragging about eschewing mainstream pop for bands so obscure that even they don’t realize they exist. I was afraid Sellers would be a dry, humorless music fan who looks down his nose at people who watch The Voice or own a Madonna CD. But after reading Perfect From Now On, I realize that I had nothing to fear.

Sellers, a card carrying member of Generation X, chronicles his musical fandom from being forced to listen to Bob Dylan by his father to his almost religious following of the indie band Guided by Voices. And he does this with some good-natured humor, a conversational tone and exhausting lists on his musical musings.

By the time Sellers is a young teen, he is obsessed with music. And he’s not too cool to share some of the more embarrassing musical choices he made as a kid coming of age in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The first album he bought was by Sammy Hagar. He made up some dance moves to Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration.” And he admits to scissor-kicking to Duran Duran’s “The Reflex.” I can relate to these embarrassing moments only too well. You think scissor-kicking to a Duran Duran song is bad? I once wrote a very long and tedious letter to Duran Duran bassist John Taylor where I told him my deepest secrets and feelings. Fortunately, I had enough sense never to send Mr. Taylor my teenage angst in written form.

By the time Sellers gets to the University of Michigan his musical tastes have evolved. He becomes a huge Smiths fan. And he also worships the short-lived band Joy Division and the band New Order, which formed in the wake of the suicide death of Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis. Sellers is such a fan of New Order that he travels to England to see them in concert. And on the 25th anniversary of Ian Curtis’ death, he pays homage by getting really drunk and listening to Joy Division all day. For anyone who views music as something more than an enjoyable time-waster these moments will be a very relatable.

However, it is the Ohio band Guided by Voices that Sellers gets freakishly obsessed with. Sellers describes how casual fandom of Guided by Voices grew into a near addiction, and then actually being invited into the band’s inner circle. Sellers’ neurotic worry over what he was going to say and do when he finally met Guided by Voices front man Mark Pollard really made me nod my head. Yep, I’ve worried about those things too when confronted with meeting some of my favorites.

Sellers expands certain points of Perfect From Now On with footnotes that almost make up another book, and with a trio of appendices featuring exhaustive musical lists. I had to giggle when I read these because I’ve also made musical lists. However, I doubt Sellers ever wrote a list of rock and roll boys he would totally have sex with.

Reading Perfect From Now On is like sitting down with a fellow music fan and discussing the good, bad and ugly of being a fan. Sellers is both self-aware and self-deprecating, and truly hilarious. A casual music fan will gain insight into indie bands that don’t get the recognition they deserve, and music obsessives will be able to tell themselves, “I am not alone.”

Book Review:Record Collecting for Girls by Courtney E Smith

Sometimes I have to remind myself not to take things so literally. When picked up Ms. Smith’s book, I truly thought it would be about collecting records (or musical downloads considering it’s the 21st century), with intelligent and knowledgeable essays about various musical genres, musicians, singers, songwriters and how they can affect you as a woman and a lover of music.

After reading Record Collecting for girls, I now realize why we are told “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

On paper Smith seems like the coolest girl in the universe. She honed her love of music while in college. For nearly a decade she was the music programmer and manager of label relations at MTV. She chose videos for 20 of MTV’s musical platforms. Reading about her tenure and her multitude of accomplishments truly excited me as a reader…and to be honest, kind of intimidated me.

But Smith’s time with MTV was the only thing that impressed me as I kept on reading and discovered her experience with music has all of the depth of a 12 inch extended re-mix of Duran Duran’s classic song “Hungry Like the Wolf.” I was hoping for a younger version of one of my favorite music journalists Lisa Robinson. Sadly, Smith is just another “Becky,” more boy crazy than a true connoisseur of music.

Record Collecting for Girls is more of a memoir of Smith’s various boyfriends; for the most part music is secondary. After a while, I started thinking, “Okay, I get it, Courtney. Guys think you’re hot. Now will you please write more on why music is such an important part of your life?”

For someone who spends a lot of time discussing her boyfriends, Smith has all the charm of a constantly skipping vinyl record while teaching us on the difference between “groupies” and “wives.” And she wastes no time ripping apart one of the most famous groupies of all time, the lovely Pamela Des Barres (who was married to rocker Michael Des Barres for quite a long time). To Smith, Des Barres is nothing but an airheaded twit who allowed herself be exploited by rock and roll greats. To Miss Pamela’s credit, she is quite forthcoming when it comes to the good, the bad and ugly of being a woman and a fan in the world of rock and roll. She doesn’t sugarcoat anything. She’s also a vastly superior writer to Smith. Smith’s derision towards other female rock fans is truly “mean girl.”

When it comes to women who play music, most of her wasted ink is on both the Bangles and the Go-Gos. There is nearly zilch on other lady music luminaries like Debbie Harry, Patty Smith, Stevie Nicks, Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell, Carol King, Annie Lennox, Joan Jett, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Diana Ross, Nina Simone or Janis Joplin. Other bands with a strong female presence like Heart, Sonic Youth, The Talking Heads, The Runaways, The Velvet Underground or The Breeders also don’t get much of a mention. Also pretty much ignored? Tori Amos, Liz Phair, Jewel, Ani DiFranco, Sarah McLachlan, Alanis Morrisette and any band related to the Riot Grrrl era.

Smith also ignores the positive female icons of hip hop like Queen Latifah, Monie Love, Missy Elliott, Salt n’ Pepa, and TLC.

As for well-known female millennial artists like Taylor Swift, Kesha, Katy Perry, Rihanna, or Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj or Janelle Monae? Forget about it.

Smith does go on forever when it comes to Madonna, but who hasn’t? And she does have a love for the Pussycat Dolls. I won’t hold that against her; for there is a place in my heart for both Bananarama and the Spice Girls.

Now what about the men of rock and roll? Smith has a particular dislike for the Smiths because guys who like the Smiths also are fans of serial killers. Gee, I’m not exactly a fan of someone who spells Morrissey’s first name wrong. It’s Steven, not Stephen.

And FYI Courtney. It’s Berry Gordy, not Barry Gordy and it’s “Jennifer Juniper,” not “Jennifer Jupiter.”

Now that I’ve written that sentence I am several IQ points stupider. Or should I say “stupiter?”

Her chapter on The Beatles vs. The Stones hardly breaks new ground. And her chapter on the various songs couples choose as “our song,” break up songs, and songs for making out won’t keep Rob Sheffield up at night.

There are some highlights. She provides lists of songs at the end of each chapter that might help you pick out new music to listen to and she writes well when writing about some of her favorite artists, which include REM, Fiona Apple, Elvis Costello, Stevie Nicks, and Sleater-Kinney.

But other than those few crumbs, Record Collecting for Girls is a waste of time. Smith’s writing is both hollow and pretentious. You’re better off reading High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, or at least renting the John Cusack movie of the same name.

Book Review: Little Book of Hygge-Danish Secrets to Happy Living by Meik Wiking

2016 was an immensely difficult year for me and so many others. And as 2017 rolls along I still feel a certain sadness personally, professionally and politically. And I’m not the only one. So it was truly a blessing to find Meik Wiking’s book The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living.

Hygge (pronounced “hue-guh”) is the concept of happiness, fulfillment, well-being, and contentment. Denmark is considered one of the happiest countries in the world, and Wiking is the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen so needless to say, he knows what he is talking about.

And just what is hygge to Wiking and many of his fellow Danes? Well, a lot of it has to do with warmth and light, which is not surprising considering it can get pretty cold and dark in Denmark. Danes love their fireplaces and wearing comfy bulky sweaters. They also have a love of soft lighting from well-placed lamps and burning candles. Only the candles Danes prefer are unscented.

Danes also find hygge in togetherness, whether it’s with their families, friends or just their communities as a whole. Just connecting with a loving soul via actual human contact (not social media) can fill a Dane with contentment and joy.

One way Danes connect with through food and drink. Having tea or coffee with a cherished loved one is a great way to inspire hygge, and so is throwing a dinner party or having a potluck with friends. In The Little Book of Hygge Wiking generously shares some beloved recipes, which as a total foodie I can’t wait to try out. And I now for myself, one way I connect with others is through my love of baking (my sugar mint cookies should be declared a national treasure).

Here are few thing the Danes feel are hygge:

  • Holidays like Christmas
  • Board Games
  • Music
  • Books
  • Sundays
  • Pets
  • Television
  • Parties
  • Plants
  • Sports

I must say I agree with a lot of things on that list. I love to listen to music, and I often use it as a healing balm when I’m feeling a bit down. It’s no secret I love books (or else I wouldn’t have this blog). I love Sundays. I start off my Sundays watching one of my favorite TV programs CBS Sunday Morning, and then I head off to my church First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee, where I am not only treated to a wonderful service, I also connect with a like-minded community. I adore my fur baby, Pokey Jones whose purrs and unconditional love fill me with hygge.

Other countries have their own concepts and words for hygge. Canadians call it hominess. In Norway it is called koselig. German’s call their concept of hygge (yes, Germans want to be happy, too) gemutlichkeit. What would I call hygge as an American? Well, I call it niceties.

Hygge is practiced all year around and Wiking mentions hygge for each Month. January is a great month for having movie nights. In March, you can have theme nights; my theme for the month of March? My birthday, of course! May is a great time for a week-end getaway to a cabin or maybe a lovely bed and breakfast place. Summer picnics are ideal in the month of July. Wiking inspires us to have soup cook-offs in November.

Hygge doesn’t have to be costly. Often they are free or very inexpensive. Wiking suggests making your own “Hygge Emergency Kit.” His suggestions for such a kit include candles, chocolate, your favorite tea, books, a collection of treasured hand-written letters, warm woolen sweaters, a notebook and pen, and music.

In the past few days I have been feeling sad with the state of our world and some personal issues I’m dealing with. But reading about hygge reminded me to think of good things that filled me with happiness and joy. The eclipse filled me with hygge, reminding how inspiring the galaxy can be and how one moment can fill the world with joy and wonderment. This morning I woke up to find a text and an IM from two friends, which lifted my spirits. I’m currently reading some good books. I made a fabulous meal last night. Heck, even a decent night’s sleep helped me feel hygge.

I truly loved The little Book of Hygge and am so grateful for Meik Wiking. This book and its ideas will inspire me for quite a long time. We should all feel and practice hygge.

 

 

 

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 Reviews: One Step Closer-Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God by Christian Scharen

There’s cathedrals and the alleyways in our music. I think the alleyway is usually on the way to the cathedral, where you can hear your own footsteps and you’re slightly nervous and looking over your shoulder and wondering if there’s somebody following you. And then you get there and you realize there was somebody following you: it’s God.”— Bono

Rock ‘n’ roll has long been called the “devil’s music.” But for many U2 fans, it’s also been known to uplift and awaken our spirituality. Christian Scharen, currently Vice President of Applied Research and the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn (he also taught at Yale), examines how U2′s music not only makes our feet move, but also moves our hearts, minds and souls in his thought-provoking book “One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God.”

Scharen is a long-time U2 fan who knows both the band’s music and how the teachings of Biblical scripture is infused into nearly every one of U2′s songs, not only in the obvious like “40” from 1983′s War album, a song taken from Psalm 40 and refrain from Psalm 6, but less apparent songs like “Discotheque” from 1997′s Pop.

One Step Closer is divided into three parts, which Scharen calls steps. The first part is called “Singing Scripture,” in which Scharen points to the ways scripture speaks of God’s work, using various voices of scripture like psalms, prophecies, parables and the apocalypse. Scharen takes these aspects of the scriptures and shows how these elements are evident in U2′s music.

In the second part of the book, “Singing the Cross,” Scharen uses such themes as faith, hope and love and explains how these themes are evident within U2′s music. He also discusses how these themes have tension with less lofty themes that we found ourselves struggling with like despair and selfishness.

In the final section, Scharen introduces the idea “Singing the Truth,” a way to live the cross. This section takes in account on how U2 lives out their faith. Most of us aren’t unfamiliar on how the members of U2 live out their faith beyond the boundaries of their music, especially regarding Bono’s tireless work on behalf of the African continent.

Throughout the book, Scharen gives examples of U2 songs and how they relate to different scriptures and themes found in the Bible. For songs embodying themes of faith and doubt, Scharen offers songs like “I Will Follow” from U2′s 1980 debut Boy and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” from 1987′s The Joshua Tree. In songs with themes of the saint and the sinner, Scharen mentions songs like “Bad” from 1984′s The Unforgettable Fire and “Acrobat” from 1991′s Achtung Baby. Scharen quotes lyrics from these songs to make the reader understand the themes and also asks the reader to think of other U2 songs that follow various Biblical ideas. I can imagine this inspiring U2 fans everywhere to run to their CD collections or grab their digital devices to find U2 songs that follow these themes. I also wonder if Christian U2 fans will open up their Bibles to find different scriptures that relate to U2′s music.

Though a Lutheran pastor and a professor of divinity, Scharen takes a critical look at the modern church and asks it to take a good, hard look at itself. Religious institutions have to ask themselves why so many U2 fans feel no connection to the church or religion as a whole, but find God’s word or a “higher power” in U2′s music. Scharen isn’t afraid to tell the modern church to get over “religion” to get over its obsession of piety and judgment of everyone and everything. The goal of the modern church, instead, should be to inspire, forgive, uplift and do good work in the world around us. I know as a lapsed Roman Catholic turned Unitarian Universalist full committed to my faith, I have more often felt the spirit of something greater than I at a U2 concert than I ever did in all my years of going to Mass (but service at my UU church comes pretty close.

I don’t think you have to be particularly religious or even a Christian to gain something from this book. Religion is a fascinating topic, especially in how it can relate to modern music. Furthermore, Scharen gives thorough explanations of different aspects of scripture for readers not quite up on their Bible studies. Fortunately, Scharen is respectful to those of all religious backgrounds. And though “One Step Closer” is a scholarly book, it isn’t dry and acts as a reference to both U2 fans and those looking to know the Bible more fully.

In a world where religion is often quite polarizing in these troubling times, Scharen offers U2′s music and its messages as a unifying force. In “One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God,” the secular and the sacred aren’t mutually exclusive.

Book Review: Mom, Have You Seen My Leather Pants? The Tale of a Teen Rock Wannabe Who Almost Was by Craig A. Williams

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Many a teen boy has dreamed of strapping on an electric guitar, joining a band, playing to cheering crowds, getting it on with groupies and achieving both fame and fortune. For most of them, this is just a dream. But for Craig A. Williams, this dream was nearly a reality, and he documents his experiences in his book, Mom, Have You Seen My Leather Pants?

While still in his teens, Williams played lead guitar in an LA-based heavy metal band, Onyxx (later, Onyxxx). Originally called Onyx, the band added the extra xx-s to avoid copyright infringement due to a hip-hop group also named Onyx. And perhaps because their band was just too much rock for one measly X. Managed by a Loni Anderson look-alike, Onyxxx journeyed from small school gigs to the hottest clubs on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip.

Williams first embraced his musical dreams when he wrote a song using his Casio keyboard. The seeds of musical greatness were sown, but Williams knew making music on a Casio keyboard was too dorky for words, so he picked up an electric guitar. Soon he joined forces with some high school chums — lead singer Tyler, bassist Sunil and drummer Kyle — and formed Onyxxx.

Laying the groundwork for rock and roll stardom, Onyxxx went from playing for their classmates in suburban LA to less than enthusiastic audiences at seedy dives. Despite these humble beginnings, Onyxxx’s manager believed they could make it big, and be the New Kids on the Block of glam heavy metal. It was the pre-grunge days where Guns ‘n Roses, Poison and Motley Crue were MTV staples. Before long Onyxxx were playing shows at such notable venues like the Troubadour and the Roxy. Their shows garnered them a sizable fan-base, including some very willing groupies. Williams thought he had reached the pinnacle of rock and roll paradise when he autographed a girl’s breast for the very first time.

But like lots of other rock bands on the verge of fame, Onyxxx had to deal with their share of problems. Tyler, though a charismatic frontman, was often a total jerk to those who crossed his path. Sunil was frequently bullied due to his East Indian heritage. And despite being a drummer, Kyle didn’t have the best sense of rhythm. Onyxxx also dealt with trials familiar to anyone who has seen at least one episode of VH-1′s “Behind the Music,” including rampant drug use, unsavory club managers, psycho fans and fighting among band members.

But Williams had other issues that probably weren’t bothering Axl Rose or Tommy Lee at the time: the life of a teenaged boy. When he wasn’t rockin’ out on-stage, Williams argued with his parents about doing his chores and his homework, studied for exams, and tried to maneuver the halls of his high school. Williams lived in two very different worlds, which kind of made him the Hannah Montana of glam heavy metal (egad, remember a time when Miley Cyrus was known as Hannah Montana and not a girl who uses a foam finger the way the inventor never intended?).

Sadly, Onyxxx was not meant to be. Even without the drug use, mismanagement and squabbles among the band members, glam heavy metal was about to be toppled by flannel-clad grunge bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots. By their senior year, Onyxxx was on the verge of breaking up. They were also on the verge of adulthood, which included college, jobs and other not exactly glamorous responsibilities.

Onyxxx’s loss is our gain. Williams proves himself to be an entertaining writer. He is able to look at his rock and roll past with both insight and humor. He’s self-deprecating and at the same time he is truly proud of almost grabbing the brass ring of stardom. Any rock fan who treasures his or her copy of Appetite for Destruction will get misty-eyed over days gone by. And kids who think of Bret Michaels as a reality TV star, not the lead singer of Poison, will be able to relate to a teenage Williams’ desire for freedom and fun. Williams is a fresh new voice, and has written a very honest book about the music industry. Mom, Have You Seen My Leather Pants? is a head bangin’ good time.