Mermaid in Chelsea Creek

By Michelle Tea

Book CoverWhew, this is a good book. This is how good it is – I actually started reading slower at the end to stretch it out longer.

Mermaid in Chelsea Creek is basically my favorite kind of book: metaphorical fairytale. And it is a fairy tale, but kind of a grimy one, if that makes sense. Thirteen-year-old Sophie starts getting visions of a mermaid who tells her that she is destined to save the world. Sophie, however, is your average young teenager, cranky, stubborn, and self-centered, trying to figure out her place in the world and her relationship with the people around her. She lives with her overwhelmed single mother in the economically struggling city of Chelsea, MA, where everyone seems to be hanging on by a thread.

It truly is this real-ness where the book really shines. The titular mermaid just puts a mystical filter over the growth every teenager must go through, and how difficult it can be even if you don’t have a grand prophesy to fulfill. Even the various magical creatures are trying to find their places in a decreasingly magical world. The themes of how full of pain and anger and sadness the world is, and how easy it can be to give up in the face of it all, but also how important it is to fight it with kindness and understanding, in whatever small ways are available to you — well, those struck a cord with me right now.

The mermaid is the most fantastical character, for sure, but the pigeons are the best, which is why they are on the cover. I hate to even mention anything that might make someone hesitate to read this, but I do feel that I have to extend a couple of warnings: there is some animal harm, which is pretty devastating, of course, and the book ends on an utter and complete cliff hanger.

The one problem with metaphorical fairy tales, if it can even be considered a problem, is that with things like cliff hangers, you never know whether it means there will be a sequel or if it just serves to show that there are no true endings where everything gets wrapped up. I’m okay with that, actually, but I’m rooting for a sequel because I would love to read it. (Edited to add: there is a sequel – Girl at the Bottom of the Sea comes out next year!)

Incidentally, the hardcover edition is published by McSweeney’s, and is a gorgeous volume, with an embossed cover, thick paper, and lovely line illustrations.

— Anna

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.