Book talk: “Love Is A Mix Tape,” by Rob Sheffield

Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time by Rob Sheffield
Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time
Rob Sheffield
Three Rivers Press, 2007 (paperback) (ISBN 1400083036 / 9781400083039)
Nonfiction/memoir, 240 pages

First Sentence: The playback: last night, Brooklyn, a pot of coffee, and a chair by the window. I’m listening to a mix tape from 1993.

Book Description: In the 1990s, when “alternative” was suddenly mainstream, bands like Pearl Jam and Pavement, Nirvana and R.E.M.—bands that a year before would have been too weird for MTV- were MTV. It was the decade of Kurt Cobain and Shania Twain and Taylor Dayne, a time that ended all too soon. The boundaries of American culture were exploding, and music was leading the way.

It was also when a shy music geek named Rob Sheffield met a hell-raising Appalachian punk-rock girl named Renée, who was way too cool for him but fell in love with him anyway. He was tall. She was short. He was shy. She was a social butterfly. She was the only one who laughed at his jokes when they were so bad, and they were always bad. They had nothing in common except that they both loved music. Music brought them together and kept them together. And it was music that would help Rob through a sudden, unfathomable loss.

In Love Is a Mix Tape, Rob, now a writer for Rolling Stone, uses the songs on fifteen mix tapes to tell the story of his brief time with Renée. From Elvis to Missy Elliott, the Rolling Stones to Yo La Tengo, the songs on these tapes make up the soundtrack to their lives.

Rob Sheffield isn’t a musician, he’s a writer, and Love Is a Mix Tape isn’t a love song- but it might as well be. This is Rob’s tribute to music, to the decade that shaped him, but most of all to one unforgettable woman.

Comments: I enjoyed this book, but not as much as I’d hoped to. Rob Sheffield has written a series of reminiscences about his life and his late wife, Renée, with each chapter tied to a particular mix tape of songs (in some cases, an actual cassette) that one or the other had put together.

Rob and Renee were in their mid-twenties when they met in Charlottesville, Virginia in the early 1990’s. They had been married for five years when Renée suddenly died of a pulmonary embolism, and much of the book concerns Rob’s coming to terms with unexpected widowhood in his early thirties. He conveys the grief and anger associated with that very clearly, and I felt for him. What I didn’t feel he did as well was give a real sense of who Renée was. It’s clear that he thought she was special, and seemed to keep a sense of wonderment about their relationship – “what’s a girl like her doing with a guy like me?” – that’s rather sweet, but I really didn’t come away from the book feeling like I knew her very well. The story really is mostly about him, and that’s fine, but I would have felt more connected with it emotionally if there had been more of her too. I think I would have liked more from the book overall.

Despite the premise, I didn’t find this book to be maudlin at all. In fact, parts of it were very funny. I love the concept of the mix tape – the idea that there’s a message, or a theme, in the particular combination of songs you choose for someone. It’s an appropriate metaphor for Rob and Renée’s relationship, in addition to a way of sampling their life together.

I read this immediately after I finished Jancee Dunn’s Don’t You Forget About Me, another story in which music plays a big part (although that one’s fictional), and it was a good pairing. Sheffield and Dunn were both writers for Rolling Stone, and he mentions her in his acknowledgements.

Rating: 3.25/5

Other bloggers’ reviews:
Literate Housewife (this one’s a great story with a personal connection)
Everyday I Write the Book Blog

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  1. Great review! I enjoyed this book, but I love books that throw in musical themes like this. This one made me remember Jr. High and how if you had a crush on someone the best gift was a mix tape 🙂

  2. Book Zombie – I have a weakness for those musical themes myself. In the way it uses the mix-tape device, I think this book is like a real-life version of High Fidelity by Nick Hornby.

  3. You read the most interesting books! Yesterday you said that you almost never tagged, I decided to remedy that. Tag, your it! Go over to my blog to get the instructions for 7 Random Things meme. I’m looking forward to your post :0)

  4. Okay, this is my third try. The iPod doesn’t want to play nice today.

    When I started reading the review I thought I was reading a re-post, then you pointed out the other book that I was thinking about. I guess the music thing stuck in my head.

    Sounds like a sad story. I can’t imagine losing a wife that young. Or at all for that matter.

  5. Mike – The book itself really wasn’t as sad as it sounds – he talked about a lot of good times they had. But her death was a huge shock, and he did have to deal with that – I’m sure that was very tough.

  6. Florinda, I can understand why you might not have liked this memoir as much as you hoped. Had I not had an “it’s a small world” experience reading it, I wouldn’t have liked it as much as I did. If you’re interested, I’d love for you to check out my review/experience reading this book. My husband new Rob’s wife and I have a picture of her posted. Best of all, her reference to Talk About the Clampett’s came from one of my husband’s concerts (he’s not famous, but he was once in a band). I had a lot of fun with this book as a result.

  7. I think of you now everytime I come across a book related to music. 🙂 The description of the book you review here does sound interesting. It’s too bad the author didn’t create a better sense of his wife.

    My husband and I used to make mixed tapes for each other during our summers apart during college. I remember trying to find the perfect songs to express how much I missed and cared for him. Corny looking back, I know, but it sure was fun. I wonder if we still have any lying around . . .

  8. Literary Feline – Did you check out the link to Literate Housewife’s review of this? I thought it was interesting that she would have felt the same way IF her husband hadn’t actually known Renee…but since he did, she didn’t really need for Rob to portray her more clearly.

    Let me know if you find any of those mix tapes!