May 11, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Diamond Ruby may be Joe Wallace's first novel, but his years of writing experience are evident in this masterful debut. Wallace draws a vivid yet realistic picture of 1920s New York, and his story of young Ruby Thomas and her baseball pitching prowess is always smartly told and filled with suspense. Diamond Ruby is the rare book that will appeal to readers of all ages, men and women, even people who are not fans of baseball, the book is a lyrical tale of a bygone era.
In an essay for Wonders and Marvels about the book, Wallace wrote that with historical fiction, "You don’t fictionalize the history. You bring the fiction to life." He has definitely achieved this with Diamond Ruby.
Library Journal wrote of the book:
"Ruby is a keeper—a believable heroine living in a fully re-created New York world of baseball and Prohibition. There are echoes of Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but this story holds its own, allowing Diamond Ruby her place as a literary gem. "
My novel Diamond Ruby is set in a New York City that is like a vast, freezing ocean, filled with treacherous currents and unseen predators. If you slip beneath the surface, if you drown, no one will even notice or care. No one will even mourn you. You'll be lucky if you end up in an unmarked grave in Potter's Field.
Making her way through this dangerous city in this cold world is Ruby Lee Thomas, who from age thirteen finds herself forced to care for herself, her two younger nieces, and her damaged, unpredictable brother. She has an unbounded talent for survival, but only one true skill: The ability to throw a baseball as hard as even the best pitchers in a baseball-mad town. First in Coney Island, then on a men's baseball team in Brooklyn, this unusual skill allows her to feed and protect her family. But it also draws the attention of those who think a girl shouldn't be playing a man's game…and those who see only the money they could make by exploiting her talent.
I set Diamond Ruby in 1920s New York because it was an amazing time in one of the most tumultuous places on earth. A time when an avid tabloid press might notice a girl with a powerful throwing arm, when Babe Ruth ruled the city (and might also take notice), when millions of people flooded the brand new Yankee Stadium and Coney Island Boardwalk, when Prohibition agents and rum-runners engaged in gun battles in Long Island Sound.
A time when someone like Ruby, smart and determined and always working things out, might be able to survive on her wits and talent.
It's also a time and place that doesn't lead to an obvious playlist. I immersed myself in New York in the 1920s till that world seemed real, three-dimensional, to me…but I'd be lying if I said that I spent much time listening to ragtime, Broadway tunes, or the jazz of the time. (My taste in jazz begins in the 1940s, with bebop.)
So instead I'm going to talk about the songs that I found myself listening to repeatedly as I wrote Diamond Ruby. Only when I was asked to write this column did I realize how I returned again and again to songs that illustrated the themes I was writing about…or that gave me a respite from the painful trials my characters were enduring. Who knew?
1) "Littlewing" by Tanya Donelly
Donelly is best known for her stints in the 1980s and 1990s with Throwing Muses, The Breeders, and Belly ("Feed the Tree"). But my favorite work of hers is This Hungry Life, a live album recorded a few years ago at a closed-down Vermont hotel in Donelly's beloved New England. "Littlewing" is a beautiful, haunting song that is all about a parent's love, and what we will sacrifice to give our children a better life than we have. If there is one song that represents the heart of Diamond Ruby, it's this one.
2) "Seven Little Indians" by John Hiatt
I love John Hiatt's songs, especially the ones from Bring the Family, Slow Turning, and Crossing Muddy Waters. But I think the most remarkable song he ever wrote is the little-known "Seven Little Indians," which appears on Stolen Moments. Only an extraordinary lyricist could write a family's autobiography in four minutes, and Hiatt pulls it off. It's a story of familial love—and also about the power of storytelling. "Well he stamped and he hollered/But he could not stay warm in that living room/And even the seven little Indians could feel the chill."
3) "Red Dirt Girl" by Emmylou Harris
I had a crush on Emmylou way back in the 1970s, and I know I wasn't the only one. I've followed her varied, generous career with great interest and affection ever since then, and have enjoyed her solo projects of recent years, especially as she's started writing her own songs. The heartbreaking "Red Dirt Girl," from the album of the same name, is a song about the choices young women make…or are forced to make. It's a "road not traveled" song for Ruby.
4) "Primrose Hill" by Loudon Wainwright
Loudon's songs are always smart. Sometimes they're too smart, hiding true emotion behind clever lyrics and mannered delivery. To me, this song hits deeper notes. The London in this song, like the New York of Ruby's time, is a place where you can get completely lost, where you can drown. It's also a place you can be what you want, where you don't have to live up to anyone else's expectations. There's a real freedom in that, along with all its dangers.
5) "Side of the Road" by Lucinda Williams
"If only for a minute or two, I want to see what it feels like to be without you." All these years later, this remains my favorite Lucinda Williams song, a song about the happiness of solitude, of having time for your own thoughts. If there is one thing Ruby craves, but doesn't have, is the chance to take a deep breath and just…exist. This song captures that desire better than any other I've heard.
6) "Afro Blue" by John Coltrane
This is admittedly a change of pace, and that's why I listened to it so often during the writing process. Originally released on his 1963 album Live at Birdland, it features Coltrane on soprano saxophone, not his more familiar tenor. The wailing freedom of his improvisations (his re-entry two minutes into the song still gives me goosebumps) reminded me not to worry about making everything perfect. You can take risks and maintain control at the same time. (Or at least Coltrane could.)
7) "A Man Needs a Maid/Heart of Gold Suite" by Neil Young
From his solo album Live at Massey Hall 1971, recently released from the archives, this exquisite medley strikes notes of mystery, sadness and hope in me. I'm not even sure why! Maybe because, like so many of the songs I've chosen for this playlist, it's about solitude and the consequences of the decisions we make. Amazingly, this performance comes from so long ago that when Young segues into "Heart of Gold," the audience is hearing it for the first time.
8) "Since I've Been Around" by the Waifs
I love the Waifs, the Australian band, mostly for the terrific singing and songwriting of sisters Vikki and Donna Simpson. This song, however, from the band's Up All Night, was written and sung by the band's third main member, Josh Cunningham. Like John Hiatt's "Seven Little Indians," it's clearly autobiographical, but Cunningham's tone is wry, accepting, even fond. He knows he's getting older, but he also understands that, if you're lucky, you can go home again—at least for a healing moment.
9) "Hard Luck Stories" by Richard and Linda Thompson
I think "Dimming of the Day," from the same masterpiece, Pour Down Like Silver, is the most beautiful pop song ever recorded, but this song is another favorite. In what's becoming a theme of my picks, what I love about "Hard Luck Stories" is that it seems specific, real. I think Richard had a person in mind when he wrote it, someone Linda knew too. "You don't like one thing, you don't like another/ You don't like anything that looks like bother/ Everyone don't like something, and we all don't like you."
10) "Maid of the Seas" by The Roches
I couldn't allow myself to get too comfortable with my listening choices: Much of Diamond Ruby isn't a comfortable book. I've been a fan of Maggie, Suzzy, and Terre Roche for nearly thirty years, and though many of their songs are plainly beautiful, they also have an edge and intelligence that makes you listen carefully. This song, written by Terre for the great album Speak, is one of the bravest songs I've ever heard, facing unsettling truths unflinchingly. "I wanted to take your face in my hands and kiss you on the mouth/At the funeral…"
11) "Behind the House" by Neko Case
"At night I woke up cryin' in the lane behind the house./Coals wet and steamin' by the time I figured it out./You didn't die in the fire./ 'Was the flood that carried you from me." Especially in the version from Live from Austin, TX, I find this song hard to get out of my head. Like so many of Case's songs, it's cryptic and filled with unresolved, unexplained emotions. It leaves me with exactly the kind of off-balance feelings that I needed to write about Ruby's trials.
12) "Jessica" by The Allman Brothers Band
Yes, "Jessica," Dickie Betts' instrumental from Brothers and Sisters, which is now more than thirty-five years old. Why? Because sometimes you just want to feel purely, uncomplicatedly cheerful, and listen to the happiest piano solo in rock-and-roll history. Again. And again.
Joe Wallace and Diamond Ruby links:
Aaron's Book Notes review
Adventures of a Gotham Gal review
Booking Mama review
The Happy Nappy Bookseller review
Huffington Post review
Journey of a Bookseller review
Library Journal review
New York Post review
Publishers Weekly review
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly highlights of comics & graphic novels)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly highlights of new books)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from this week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists