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January 23, 2014

Book Notes - Christine Benvenuto "Sex Changes"

Sex Changes

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Christine Benvenuto tells the complex story of the end of her marriage and life afterward in her refreshingly honest and thought provoking memoir Sex Changes: A Memoir of Marriage, Gender, and Moving On.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"A refreshingly gutsy narrative that offers a compelling view of sexual maturity and a sexual coming-of-age at midlife."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In her own words, here is Christine Benvenuto's Book Notes music playlist for her memoir, Sex Changes:

My most recent book, Sex Changes: A Memoir of Marriage, Gender, and Moving On, is a story about transformation. It charts my course, and my family's, from the night my husband of twenty-odd years announced that he was going to start exploring his gender, through his decision to live as a woman, the unravelling of our marriage, our separation and divorce, and ultimately, the new life I created and the person I discovered myself to be.

Music was an amazing presence during the process of rebuilding my life and writing my story. I had stopped listening to music, giving up on that pleasure along with so much else. Rediscovering myself, I turned the radio back on - often at home or on the road with my children. They introduced me to new artists and songs, I shared the soundtrack of my past. Sometimes the songs provided an emotional outlet for grief, other times a means to explore and express the romantic possibilities of my new sense of myself as a woman. Often they were a catalyst for the wacky sense of humor that is a mainstay in our family's survival toolkit.

"I'm Looking Through You," The Beatles

I don't listen to The Beatles, but when I tried to think of a song that captures the experience of thinking you know someone well and then finding yourself staring into the face of a stranger - or into empty space - I immediately found myself humming this. The experience described is potentially devastating, not just the loss of the other, but the doubt thrown on your ability to trust your own judgement. Yet the tune, like all those early Beatles' tunes, is so snappy and upbeat, it makes it all seem manageable.

"Thin Line," Macklemore

This song was suggested by one of my teenagers, because he thought it might resonate for me. Wow. It narrates the death of a love that's made so much worse by being dragged out long past its natural end. It's also brutally honest, which I've sometimes been accused of being. A fitting ballad for the first part of my book.

"I Will Survive," Gloria Gaynor

I'm sorry. It's beyond cliche to include this breakup anthem, but I gotta do it, in dedication to the friends who saw me through. Twisting in the final agonies of the divorce from hell, I promised myself an after-party with my gang in which we would play this song. When the party finally happened, we took a walk and sang it together while we strolled instead, which was even better.

"Mysterious Ways," U2

This song has been criticized as deifying women. But I've never heard it as being about flesh and blood women. Untroubled by the fact that U2 is a Christian band, I've always listened to the lyrics as an evocation of the Shekhinah, the Jewish concept of a feminine divine presence that dwells among us, that shelters us. One strand in my memoir traces the religious grappling I went through over all the things I experienced and with the choices I made. For me this song is about reckoning with the mysterious nature of life. About trying to regain trust in life after it's been shattered. It's also a kind of spiritual wake-up call to get with it and live.

"Because of You," Kelly Clarkson

The singer confronts a person who once ignored her terrible vulnerability and used her to address his own needs. One of my children responded strongly to this song because it spoke to her experience of some of the events of the breakup of our family. It spoke to things that shouldn't have happened, and even more to her fear of being forever damaged by them. This is a theme-song for the parts of my book that deal with my children's experiences, their trauma and their healing process.

"Make No Mistake," Keith Richards

When I heard Keith Richards's first solo album this sexy song jumped out at me. It described a situation I thought I would never know first-hand, the slow realization that you are falling for someone you aren't supposed to fall for - and that someone is falling for you. The story of such a love is a key element in my book. In Richards' gravelly rasp the song nails it - the secret terror and thrill of a gradual unfolding, from first suspicions to the certainty that you can't - or won't - stop this thing from happening.

"Fallin'," Alicia Keys

The previous song takes you to the brink of love and leaves you tantalizingly there. This pick explores a later stage of intense erotic love, being in the midst of the highs and the lows, the mad leaping in alternating with a sober pulling back. The wondering, What am I doing and why am I doing it? Keys's voice, full, powerful and beautiful, is the inverse of Richards's, and it's interesting to imagine this song as a woman's response to, or slant on, his. A track for the part of my memoir devoted to the knotty nature of romance.

"Nobody's Fault But Mine," Traditional Gospel Song

There are many covers of this song, from Nina Simone to Led Zeppelin. But the full-throated interpretation my heart beats to is sung specially for me by a young singer who has yet to record. Ever since she introduced me to her version I've asked for private renditions, often while driving her home from school. The lyrics encapsulate the most important things I learned while living my story and writing it, everything I believe about embracing life. The song says: You've been taught so much by the people who love you. You have what you need to live. Now do it.

"Glitter in the Air," Pink

If I had to make a playlist of just one song, this would probably be it. I love this song and I love Pink's raw, breathy immediacy singing it. My book is about coming through tough times and feeling more alive in the end than long before the tough times began. It's about discovering that getting to the beauty in life involves accepting the whole package - good, bad and ugly, the agonies and ecstasies, and above all, the risks. This song grabs hold of the exquisite, excruciating moments of being truly alive. It says, You might just have a chance - take it.

Christine Benvenuto and Sex Changes: A Memoir of Marriage, Gender, and Moving On links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book (at the Guardian)
excerpt from the book (at the Huffington Post)

Kirkus review

Daily Hampshire Gazette profile of the author
enGender interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

Online "Best of 2013" Book Lists
2013 Year-End Online Music Lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists

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