Jan 18, 2010

Love is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield

Love is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield

I have built my entire life around loving music, and I surround myself with it. I’m always racing to catch up on my next favorite song. But I never stop playing my mixes- Every fan makes them. The times you lived through, the people you shared those times with—nothing brings it all to life like an old mix tape. It does a better job of storing up memories than actual brain tissue can do. Every mix tape tells a story. Put them together, and they add up to the story of a life.
Love is a Mix Tape (a book in which each chapter is named after and preceded by the tracklist of a mix tape) is a memoir about Rob Sheffield’s experience as a lifelong music fan and as a young widower. Sheffield’s wife, Renée, suddenly dies in front of him one Sunday morning when they were both relaxing at home. She was in her earlier thirties, and they had been married for five years. Using his many mix tapes to guide him, he writes about how they first met, about their short time together, and about how he coped with her passing.

Yes, Love is a Mix Tape is as heartbreaking as you're imagining. The suddenness and the circumstances of Renée’s passing make it something out of the most unimaginable and unbelievable nightmare—as evidenced by Sheffield’s reaction after it happened. He didn’t want to leave the house, so that he could be there to pick up the phone when she called saying there had been a mistake, and she was coming home. He didn't want to call their family or friends, because later he'd have to call them again and apologise for alarming them unnecessarily. All this after she had already been pronounced dead.

But the thing is, this book is not just sad. It’s also passionate, enthusiastic, full of life. Though Sheffield eventually does find a way to move on with his life, there is no faux-cheerful conclusion or anything of the sort. The passion and the excitement are there all along, mixed with the most acute grief. “Moving on” is actually entirely the wrong expression, as he does not want to leave his love or his memories of Renée behind. The grief, the loss, the joy of ever having had her in his life, become a part of his very love for music, which is in its turn a crucial part of who he is.

But none of that means that he can’t, after time, find room in his heart for other loves. If Love is a Mix Tape is hopeful, it’s exactly because the pain feels all too real. I don’t like to even imagine being in Rob Sheffield’s shoes – who does? – but it does seem to me that the only way to cope with this sort of loss would be to accept that no, it will not be okay. It will always hurt. Only, there is life beyond the pain.

As I was saying, there’s more than just grief in Love is a Mix Tape, so let me tell you about the music: the book is very 90’s in its cultural landscape. The 90’s were not my decade; the 00’s were. In the 90’s I was a child or a young teen who was only starting to discover music. But I did listen to the radio, and recorded songs from it, and I had an older brother who bought CDs and swapped tapes with his friends…So I do remember some of it very well. I remember the excitement around Nirvana, and I remember when Kurt died. And I’ve read enough about music online to have sort of absorbed other people’s memories of When Pavement Came Along.

Most of all, though, I have made countless mixed CDs, and I know very well what it’s like to have a particular sequence of songs bring you back to a certain moment in your life. Sheffield is great at exploring the close connection between memory and music, as well as the latter’s ability to… not heal us, because that probably sounds forced and trite, but to make us face our emotions, reclaim them, integrate them in our lives. This is a beautiful, funny, passionate and heartbreaking book.

Favourite passages:
I now get scared of forgetting anything about Renée, even the tiniest detail, even the bands on this tape I can’t stand—if she touched them, I want to hear her fingertips. Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night, my heart pounding, trying to remember: what was Renée’s shoe size? What color were her eyes? What was her birthday, her grandparents’ first names, that Willie Nelson song we heard on the radio in Atlanta? The memory comes back, hours or days later. It always comes back. But in the moment, I panic. I’m positive it’s gone for good. I’m shaking from that sensation now, trying to remember some of this music. Nothing connects to the moment like music. I count on the music to bring me back—or, more precisely, to bring her forward.

You lose a certain kind of innocence when you experience this type of kindness. You lose your right to be a jaded cynic. You can no longer go back through the looking glass and pretend not to know what you know about kindness. It’s a defeat, in a way. One afternoon, I sat by Tonsler Park in Charlottesville and watched a Little League game and remembered my own days as a right fielder in the tall grass. I thought, None of these kids knows yet how much a coffin costs. None of these kids knows anything about funeral bills or the word “decedent.” But there’s a lot I know I wouldn’t give up. People kept showing me unreasonable kindness, inexplicable kindness, indefensible kindness. People were kind when they knew nobody would ever notice, much less praise them for it. People were even kind when they knew I wouldn’t appreciate it.

Some nights I would drive up Route 29 to the all-night WalMart. I’d push a cart around with some paper towels inside to look like a real shopper, just to spy on married people. I just wanted to be near them, to listen to them argue. This one is $2.99! But this one is $1.49 for just one! But $2.99 is cheaper per roll! But $1.49 is cheaper than $2.99! But we can store the other one! We live in a house, not a spare-towel storage unit, and we’ll pay more than $1.49 rent for the space it takes to store it! But you can never have too much of it! And so on. Married people fight over some dumb shit when they think there aren’t any widowers eavesdropping. And they never think there are widowers eavesdropping.
Reviewed at:
The Book Lady’s Blog
The Literate Housewife Review
The 3R's Blog

(Did I miss yours?)


  1. That first of the passages you shared just hurt. It's so easy to see myself reacting in exactly that way.

    You know, it really sounds like a beautiful book of love and loss. But maybe too painful. It's one of those few places that I can't bring myself to imagine going, if you know what I mean.

  2. Where did you find such a wonderful book. I really really want to read this one.

    I remember making mixed tapes when I was kid, by taping the songs off the radio. Technology has gone beyond me a little in recent years and I haven't quite fathomed 'burning CD's'. I am just so old school.

    My hubby's mum passed away in similar circumstances to the character in the book and I know how hard it is for someone to pick up the pieces when it is totally unexpected. He still struggles with finding his mum nearly twenty years on.

  3. To this day there is music I can't listen too, even though I love it, because it brings back sad memories. It is an interesting phenomenon, isn't it? (And certain foods I can't eat as well!) And I know just what he means, about panicking when you can't remember things that used to be second nature to you. Sounds really good but I know I couldn't read it because it would be too close to home for me!

  4. I like the passages you shared, especially the top of this post. You've written a lovely review, and the mention of tapes make me nostalgic as I think of those days. :) I'll check out this book. Thanks, Nymeth!

  5. I know I told you this already, but this sounds SO good.

  6. I read this a few years ago and I really enjoyed it, finding it moving and passionate, just as you did. I loved the idea of chronicling their relationship in terms of music, as well as how music helped him both grieve and find comfort. It was a sad but beautiful book!

  7. Gosh, I thought this was a teeny bopper love story from the title & cover, but CLEARLY I am completely wrong. It sounds heart-rending.

  8. This sounds like a beautiful book. I think we all fear forgetting a loved one when we love them.

  9. This does sound wonderful: beautiful and wise. It takes a strong person to admit that "it will always hurt." I think I'd like to read this one. Thank you!

  10. This sounds lovely; I'd heard the title before, but I don't think I ever really knew what it was about. Since I absolutely categorize periods in my life by the mix tape/CD that I made during that time, it also sounds very relatable.

    ...hmmm, now I'm realizing that I have not made a mix CD in too long a while. Something I shall have to remedy!

  11. This does sound sad and beautiful as well.
    Wonderful passages you quoted, great review as usual!

  12. I lreviewed this about a year and a half ago. I liked it, but not as much as I'd hoped I would. I like your review a lot, though :-).

  13. This book sounds amazing. Music is one of my biggest passions and I took making mix tapes very seriously. I love anything having to do with music, but this books sounds like it includes so much more than that. This is definitely going in my TBR pile! Thanks for the great review!

  14. This sounds sooo good. I've had it on the list of books to read for such a long, long time.

  15. This book sounds beautiful. Romantic but not in a sappy kind of way? And I love music so so much, I think I'm going to look for this book at the library.

  16. I have heard good things about this book but I had no idea it was so heartbreaking. I can't imagine what it must have been like for the author to lose his wife in that way, and it sounds like his grief really came through in the writing. I think I am going to have to look for this book, as I am not only curious about the story, but the music as well. Great review!

  17. Aww, what a sad but lovely sounding story. : ( Like you, I am much more of a child of the 00s. Did you find that since most of the songs were 90s throwbacks, it was a bit. . . lost on you?

  18. I think I heard most of the 90s music I know on the bus to and from school - not much of it though as I was mainly reading on the bus. :P This sounds wonderful - I think I've read about it before. I love the idea for the structure!

  19. Ooooh, I ALMOST bought this one like a month ago!! I wish I would have now. I didn't really know what it was about, I didn't know it focused on his relationship with his wife. It sounds so beautiful now. My music taste is mostly like yours. I mean I was a huge fan of bands like Tool and Radiohead and Smashing Pumpkins and NIN and Bjork and on and on in the 90's but my music tastes really became big in the late 90's and 00's..so I didn't know how much I'd enjoy this one. But after reading this review, I really think I'd love this one now!

  20. Wow, reading your review of this book completely brought back all my memories of reading it two Christmases ago (along with it, some tears). I spend a lot of time in the author's hometown, so this really might be something I reread soon. Wonderful review, as usual.

  21. You had me at each chapter is the title of a song...

  22. Debi: I know what you mean. For example, even though we have a pretty dark sense of humour, Mathie and I have a NO DEATH JOKES KTHXBAI rule.

    Vivienne: I think Joanne at The Boom Zombie was the first to recommend this to me, when I asked about books about music a while ago. I remember taping songs off the radio too! And I'm so sorry about your husband :(

    Jill: Yes! Same here. There's also music I don't listen to often because it has good memories attached, and I worry that if I do I'll "spend" it and it'll cease to belong to that moment.

    Melody: You're welcome! I hope you enjoy it.

    Amanda: It was great - my kind of memoir, and I'm not a fan of memoirs in general :P

    Steph: I loved that about it too!

    Aarti: lol, nope, no teeny bopper story :P

    Kathy: I think so too. I worry a lot about memory in general - the idea of losing memories terrifies me.

    ds: It does, doesn't it? But it probably takes admitting that to ever be happy again.

    Fyrefly: I do as well! And I actually also haven't done one for myself in quite some time.

    Naida, thank you! It was very sad, but it made me laugh too.

    Florinda, thanks! Added your link :)

    Julie: I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! Sheffield definitely also takes his mix tapes very seriously!

    Kim, I think it's your kind of book indeed!

    Michelle: Yes, exactly! It wasn't one bit sappy.

    Zibilee: I actually hadn't realised it was going to be so sad either :( I remembered hearing about it, but more the music than the grief.

    She: Not really, but that's because I'm partially a 90's child still. I started listening to music seriously in 97/98, and a lot of the bands that marked me in my teens were from the 90's...The Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, Pearl Jam, Tori Amos, etc.

    Jenny: The structure was just brilliant! I loved reading the track lists of all those mixes.

    Chris: You should so get it next time! And I know what you mean...other than hating NIN (sorry!) and only having discovered Tool with Lateralus, those were my bands too :P That was when I started really paying attention to music as well. But even if the cultural references are not completely aligned with ours, there's so much to love!

    Lu: Thank you! And I'm glad you warned me to keep tissues at hand...I cried a lot :(

    Christina: Of a mixed tape, with tracklist included! Which is even better, imo :P

  23. That sounds so good. The 90s were my "era" (if by "era" you mean your young adult-hood) so this sounds very lovely and melancholy... I hope I can find it!

    I love mix tapes, especially old ones, made by friends long ago.

  24. This one has been on my vague "will read one day" list (not to be confused with my actual stacks at home). Your review makes me want to rush out and add it to the stacks right now!

  25. Daphne: Aren't old mixed tapes the best? So many memories attached...

    Ali: Do, do!


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