Coal to Diamonds

By Beth Ditto with Michelle Tea

Book CoverSigh. One would think that I would eventually learn my lesson, and not go off completely half-cocked, but I never do learn and I actually do this far more often than one would think.

So, when I first saw the Dior perfume commercial with Charlize Theron juxtaposed with Marlene Dietrich, Grace Kelly, and Marilyn Monroe, I was promptly hugely offended because I vaguely remembered that Theron had once said something derogatory about Monroe’s size years ago, and didn’t think that she should then profit by the juxtaposition. But, of course, once I actually double-checked before writing this review (at the very least, I have learned to do that, on occasion), it was actually Elizabeth Hurley who said that (in my defense, I had forgotten that Elizabeth Hurley was even a thing).

Anyway, in this one case, my own misinformation actually worked in my favor, because it made me pay more attention to the commercial, which made me realize how very catchy the song is. I downloaded* the song and added it to my current mix of music, and then didn’t think much more about it.

A couple months later, I read Buzzfeed’s Best YA Books of 2013, and decided that I wanted to read Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea. My library system doesn’t have that book (I requested that they buy it), but they did have a memoir she helped Ditto write. I wasn’t sold right away because I don’t really like memoirs to begin with, and Ditto seems awfully young to have one anyway, but my curiosity got the best of me.

It is quite short, only about 150 pages, which makes sense given that Ditto is only now in her early 30s. But, what I was kind of banking on, her life has been chock full of crazy. Her childhood in rural Arkansas is so retrograde that I have trouble wrapping my mind around it. It was a truly terrible place to grow up and truly terrible things happened to her, but Ditto (and Tea) has such an incorrigibly upbeat voice that the story never gets bogged down in the grimness.

So, that was pretty much the first half, and I was quite pleased with both Ditto and Tea as authors, feeling that this was a surprisingly lighthearted memoir about an upbringing of poverty, neglect and abuse. However, the second half surprised me by being quite educational. I like listening to music a lot, but I don’t really know anything about it, and I don’t really like punk music at all. I have always been a little in awe of the punk movement, though: I would have loved to be a punk sort of person, but I’m really not, and I don’t even really understand the movement. Ditto does understand it, however, or at the very least, has her own strong interpretation of what punk means. She does an excellent job of describing what drew her to the late-90s punk scene coming out of Washington in the aftermath of the grunge movement.

I was fascinated and also a little embarrassed at my ignorance. Ditto and the band Gossip had a fairly meteoric rise for an indie punk group, and I only hear about them from a television commercial. One doesn’t get much less punk than that, I think. They even toured with Sleater-Kinney, which I had heard of, but only through an interview with Carrie Brownstein about Portlandia.

The vast majority of the short book takes place before Ditto’s big success, with the last few pages zipping through her gold, and then platinum, records, her television appearances, and her clothing line. The pacing seems to reflect her own experience of everything suddenly coming together at once, but after reading so much about the titular “coal,” I would have liked to spend some more time on the “diamonds.”

—Anna

* Downloaded legally, though I also didn’t pay anything. Rebecca introduced me to Freegal Music, a music downloading service through a network of libraries. They have a kind of random selection of music, but someone there is a apparently a big Gossip fan.

3 comments on “Coal to Diamonds

  1. Rebecca says:

    Ooh, I think I might need to read this too, because, yeah, to the extent that I know anything at all about the punk movement (which is not much) I approve, but I don’t really care for punk music and I can’t really carry off punk fashion.

  2. Kinsey says:

    Yeah, I am finally catching up and might need to read this myself! I am sort of lukewarm on Michelle Tea (the stuff I’ve read by her, I wanted to like more than I actually liked) but I do love a memoir. And I feel sort of the same way about punk–it always sounds cool and I like reading about the movement, but I would have lasted about 2 minutes. (I would be your dad in the punk scene: stop talking about your art and do your chores.)

  3. Anna says:

    I should have mentioned this in the review above, but one of the things I found most interesting was how Ditto talked about the original punk scene of the 80s, and how it tried to highlight disenfranchised and counter-culture groups, and yet still somehow made women feel left out. The late-90s, early-00s included a lot more female groups making their voices heard, which was really inspirational (even though I’m still not sold on a lot of the music itself).

    (And, yeah, I’m not saying that my dad doesn’t have a strong stream of subversiveness running through him, but he is a very practical man, as well.)

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