If you’ve been a Cannonballer or a Pajiban for a while you probably know my wife. Her name was Jennie Baxla, and she reviewed books under the username baxlala. Jennie died of cancer back in July. To say that Jennie was an avid reader would be an understatement. She was always reading. Books were like oxygen to her. I can’t remember a time in all the years that we were together when she wasn’t reading at least two or three books at once.
I’ve never been a great reader. Well, I should clarify: I’ve never been a great prose reader. I’ve been reading comics since I was a kid and I’ve read I don’t know how many of those, but the list of prose books, fiction or non-fiction, that I’ve read since I got out of an academic setting is pretty short. I have an English degree, so I did plenty of reading in school; maybe I just burned myself out on it.
I’ve spent the past six months trying to find ways to get More Jennie. The idea that there is a finite amount of Jennie in the world is still really hard to deal with. I want to stay connected to her in a tangible way. I’m still surrounded by so much of her in this apartment, and a majority of it is books. Books that she read or books that she intended to read and never got the chance to. What better way to connect then to read books that she loved? I signed up for this year’s Cannonball Read as a means to getting to know Jennie better. I’m pretty pleased to be doing it.
A few days after Jennie died, Mswas shared a tribute to her on Facebook that included links to some of Jennie’s past CBR reviews. One of those reviews was for Love is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield. I remembered Jennie reading it and telling me how good it was, but I hadn’t read her review of it. Reading her review made me want to read the book myself, so I thought that would be a good place to start.
Published in 2007, Love is a Mix Tape is ostensibly a tour of Sheffield’s life through the lens of mixtapes he’s made over the years. The majority of the book is about his relationship with his wife, Renée. What drew me to want to read this book first is that Renée died suddenly when Sheffield was in his thirties. At that point the book becomes about how he dealt with her death, and what his life looked like in the months and years that followed. Relatable content, unfortunately.
I thought reading Sheffield’s story might help me make sense of what’s going on in my life. That was maybe foolish – how do you make sense of something like this – but I can say that it helped immensely to know that what I’m feeling and experiencing has been felt and experienced by someone else. Sheffield writes about the loneliness of the young widower, and how finding another one in the wild feels special because who else can really understand what you’re going through. Sheffield went through this in the ‘90s, before the internet allowed anyone to connect with everyone for better or worse, but the heart of what he wrote still feels true to me today. Sheffield’s writing is conversational and friendly, even during the times of his life when he’s at his lowest, and reading his account certainly made me feel less alone.
Mostly, as I was reading Love is a Mix Tape, I thought about the courage it must have taken Sheffield to write it. I could talk about Jennie and our relationship all day, but I can’t imagine sitting down to write a whole book about it – at least, not yet. The mental and emotional toll feels insurmountable at times. I’m not going to lie to you, just writing the first paragraph of this review was incredibly difficult and more than a little painful. It hurts to talk about Jennie in the past tense. I know it’ll get easier with time. Or I hope it will. I hope that some day I have the strength to write a book as beautiful as Sheffield’s.
And beautiful is really what it is. Even in the pages before she’s there and after she’s gone, Love is a Mix Tape is a love letter to Renée. Sheffield writes about her so fondly that it’s hard not to feel like you know her and to fall in love with her a little bit. And sure, Sheffield focuses primarily on the good things about their relationship, but he’s also forthright about the less-than-ideal aspects of it as well. It’s the type of honest assessment one can only develop with time and distance.
If I was looking for a map through my grief, Love is a Mix Tape didn’t have one. This is not a straightforward process, regardless of what the five stages would have you believe. But reading an account from someone who has been through something similar, and who has made it to the other side and is living a full, happy life was maybe all I really needed from it. Mostly, though, reading this book made me wish I’d read it sooner so Jennie and I could’ve talked about it. I don’t imagine that feeling will ever really go away, but I’m grateful to be able to read her review again, and that it led me to this book in the first place. She’s still making my life better.