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March 10, 2014

Book Notes - Domenica Ruta "With or Without You"

With or Without You

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.

With or Without You is one of the most compelling and finely written memoirs on addiction and dysfunctional families I have ever read.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"The intensity of the clear-eyed manner in which Ruta conveys her abiding frustration with the parents who failed their child so casually and monumentally is exceedingly powerful stuff."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In her own words, here is Domenica Ruta's Book Notes music playlist for her memoir, With or Without You:


Roxy Music – "Take a Chance with Me"
I was such a drunk I had to move back home at the not so cute age of 29. Everything was fucked, my mistakes permanent, my flaws fatal, and every augur in the celestial world, whether real or imagined, was a prognostication of even more doom. And yet I regretted nothing. This song came on my iTunes random shuffle The intro is long, drawn-out, overdramatic and dark – my impulse is to fast forward through it, but this time I don't, or can't. Then everything changes. It's a like a new song starts when Bryan Ferry starts singing. His refrain catches me in the middle of my self-pitying reverie, grabs me by the shoulders, and gives me a good melodic shake. "All of the world – even you..." His voice is earnest, forgiving, so tender. I am transported back to my mother's stereo, the centerpiece of our kitchen, which was the heart of our house. And suddenly I'm inside this place I have been so afraid to write about, and I can start working again.

The Pretenders – the entire first eponymous album
Chrissie Hynde was a goddess in our house. My mother and I worshipped her. The first title of my memoir was "The Pretenders" in homage. She was skinny and homely but she owned her sexuality and wielded its power without apologies. Her lyricism can be aggressive or vulnerable or impatient or longing but above all it is brutally honest, and there lies its genius. There are few albums as perfect as this one. The opening chords of "Precious" work like a heart defibrillator on a cold drowsy day. "Tattooed Love Boys" has snapped me out of some lust-fueled delusions more than once. I still can't listen to "Kid" without crying.

Led Zeppelin – "Thank You"
Anger is so hungry it eats up all the good and the complicated pieces that make up the actual truth of an experience. But it's a lot better than helplessness, or that's what I concluded growing up. And so even though my stepfather was such a kind and funny and disappointing man, it was easier to rage at him and blame him – for my mother's switch from pills to intravenous heroin, for her mood swings, for our embarrassing squalid crack shack of a house, for everything that was wrong in our life. I couldn't admit that I liked the same music as my stepfather. It would be like admitting that I loved him, which I did, and I hated him for that. I couldn't admit, not for a long, long time, how much he influenced the adult I am today.

XTC - "Senses Working Overtime"
This needs to be said: I am not cool. I grew up in the culturally bankrupt suburbs in the age before the internet. My parents loved classic rock, and so did I, because I was lazy and aspired to be agreeable and compromising more than rebellious, independent or cool. So anything I know about music I learned passively while sitting shotgun in my mother's car where everything but the radio was broken. Before all those corporations came in and took over, there was a local Boston station called WFNX that played British new wave. I knew I loved it without knowing it was a genre or who any of the major players were or who their bastardized punk parents were or what they were doing with ironic optimism and synthesizers. I just know that my mother would blast this song and I would jump up and down at the "One-Two-Three-Four-Five" part, because I was so young counting to five was still a big accomplishment.

The Rolling Stones – "Factory Girl"
I was shocked when my dad offered to drive me home from Oberlin after exams my freshman year. Didn't he understand that we would be alone together in a car for like twelve hours? As far as I could remember, we hadn't spent twelve minutes together so intimately. So I got really stoned and burned a bunch of mix CDs. We hadn't reached the Ohio border before my father had the revelation that we liked the same music. He seemed bemused, like his expectations of me had been so much lower, and I had pleasantly surprised him. He had no idea who I was, and if I was being honest, I didn't know him, either. We didn't have any deep conversations on that drive. Thank God for the music, for the Stones in particular. We hardly talked at all. It would be a long time still before we knew what to say to each other, let alone had the courage to say it.

The entire discography of David Bowie
I grew up among lapsed Catholics. In place of prayers we have rock songs. I don't remember learning the words, only that I know them by heart. "Starman," "Panic in Detroit," "Ashes to Ashes." It's emotional mainlining, taking me to that sacred place beyond nostalgia and nightmares. I am sometimes cajoled by well-meaning friends in the sober community to write a daily gratitude list. Mine usually goes like this: 1. Life 2. Health 3. Safety 4. running water 5. Family and friends 6. my dog 7. David Bowie.

The Talking Heads – "Dream Operator"
If you didn't have happy childhood, invent yourself a new one. It's just a dream, but so what, so is everything else. In my reinvented childhood, my parents are healthy and sane and happy and they shut the TV off and do art projects with me and when it's time for bed they sing lullabies and this is the one that sends me perfectly, peacefully, to sleep.


Domenica Ruta and With or Without You links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

BookPage review
Boston Globe review
Entertainment Weekly review
Kirkus review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
Slate review

The Austin Review interview with the author
Books for Better Living interview with the author
Here and Now interview with the author
OUPblog interview with the author
PEN America interview with the author
Powell's Books interview with the author
Weekend Edition profile of 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

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)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
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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