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May 11, 2011

Book Notes - Rachel DeWoskin ("Big Girl Small")

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

In her novel Big Girl Small, Rachel DeWoskin captured the voice of her teen protagonist so well, I was transported back to high school myself with all its anxieties and glories. Judy Lohden is a little person with a golden voice who gets caught in scandal. Even given this subject matter, DeWoskin never resorts to sensationalism, and Judy's experience and resiliency always rings true.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"DeWoskin's daring third book takes on sexual politics, physical beauty, pity, and violence, and succeeds in giving readers a nuanced and provocative treatment without descending into pedantics or hysteria."

In her own words, here is Rachel DeWoskin's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, Big Girl Small:

My new novel Big Girl Small is about a teenage dwarf who gets involved in a sex scandal at her performing arts high school in the mid-west. She falls in love with a boy, a beautiful actor and videographer who wants to be a director and who, in a moment of bad judgment (by both of them), videotapes her with himself and some of his friends. Her name is Judy Lohden, and she's three feet nine inches tall and spectacularly musical. I thought of her because I watched The Wizard of Oz a hundred times with my four year old, and felt tremendous empathy for the Little People in that movie. I wondered what it would feel like for my daughter if she were a dwarf. What if she wanted to be Judy Garland, but involuntarily identified with the Little People? This thought plagued me, and I wrote a book about a girl who is small, wildly talented, different from everyone else, and brave. After a genuinely horrific experience, Judy Lohden is a resilient warrior, which I think lots of teenagers manage to be. The music she listens to, loves, and sings, contributes to her ability to soldier through what might have been a debilitating experience. The book is set right now, and I wanted it to have eclectic taste, to include music Judy and her friends consider cool; some they call "classic;" hip songs (which her little brother loves); and "horrible oldies" beloved by her parents and the retirees who eat in their diner (and me). I have to confess here that I listened to Def Leppard's "Hysteria" no fewer than 300 times while I wrote Big Girl Small (some days, just that, on an endless loop). And even though Judy Lohden would probably be too cool to admit she loves an 80's song, I'm turning it on right now while I write this. And putting it first on the list.

Def Leppard, "Hysteria"

This song is high school. It makes everyone feel sixteen, regardless of whether you're six or sixty, and the words? Yes! Hard to get more urgent, more full of pathos, more "can't stop this, can't stop that," more hysterical. The drums are all throaty and panicked; they have the pace of a heartbeat in teenage love. This song kills me. It has no irony, and I love it.

Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong, "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off"

Judy's dad loves Ella and Louis, and on his most hip days, Cassandra Wilson, who he found out about by watching a PBS documentary about jazz. When Judy is in a pathologically awkward moment with the love and heartbreak of her life, a boy named Kyle, he puts on this song, to her amusement: "He settled on Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, plugged some speakers in, and music flared into the room. Darcy Arts kids were always like this—showing off that they have classic taste. Kyle would never have been the type to put on anything trendy. Tomato, tomato, potato, potato. We were quiet for a minute. "Do you want to sit down here?" Kyle asked. Now he patted the bed next to him."

This song was my favorite choice for that scene because it reminds Judy of her dad and makes her feel safer than she should, and because it sets into relief Kyle and Judy's painful innocence – against the sophistication of Ella and Louis' amused and grown-up way of regarding love.

Dion and the Belmonts, "Why Must I be a Teen-ager in Love"

This will take almost no explanation. When I was a junior in high-school, a beautiful, older boy I loved asked me to prom. When he came to pick me up, pin a lovely cluster of flowers on my dress and sweep me out the door, my parents were laughing and playing "Why Must I Be A Teenager in Love." On reel-to-reel. Has anything ever been more uncool that that? But now that I have my own tiny kids, a tingling sensation of hilarity has begun to rise up in me about this as well as other similar episodes. So this is included (in the book and on this list) as an homage. I forgive you, Mom and Dad. And I see why that was funny. This is the moment you've been waiting for!

Kanye West, "Stronger"

This is for Judy Lohden's little brother, Sam, who loves hip-hop and is trying (very hard) to be hip. He dances all over the house (in his Levis and retainer), and loves this song. When Judy's beautiful friend Ginger comes over, 12-year-old Sam is wearing "a Kanye West t-shirt, so absurd and big and aspirational on him that I [Judy] wanted to wrap him up and protect him from whatever Ginger was about to think. But she was smiling. Sam began jogging in place and then threw himself down on the rug in my room and tried to spin himself up into a headstand of some sort. It didn't work out very well, but, perhaps in an effort to save face, he vaulted himself from a triangle kind of yoga pose into a regular headstand and then came crashing down, leapt up, and did some more jogging. I applauded. He stood there, blushing. "It doesn't really work on the carpet," he said, picking up his jacket."

This is the song playing in his head both then, when he dances in front of his older sister and her friend, and later, when he hopes terribly hard that Judy will recover and come home. . .

Bruce Springsteen, "Born to Run"

Judy's mom loves Bruce Springsteen. And so do I. And I imagine that when Judy runs away this song makes her feel brave and free and inspired, the way it makes me feel, still, even though I never ran away or had any reason to. "Born to run," absolutely - I can go anywhere, do anything, break free of this town (NYC in my case, hard to make a good case for leaving) move about the world, anyway. I like the collision in the lyrics between the idea and feeling of running away and running toward. I think in a way they become the same run in the song. And for Judy, who flees from her horror and then back into the arms of what's best in her life, there's a lesson in it.

"I'll love you with all the madness in my soul," sing it Bruce Springsteen– you are brilliant, romantic, profound.

Tom Waits, "Blue Valentines"

Judy loves this song but she won't admit it. As she puts it, privately, "Something about the texture of those songs ["Blue Valentines" and "Blue Velvet"] was so longing that they made me feel old, wise, deep. Every time I listened to Tom Waits sing "Blue Valentines," I cried. I never played it in front of anyone, because that way it was like my own private blues. Plus, I had found it in my parents' moldy record collection, so I hardly wanted to arrive at D'Arts all like, "I love my parents' old favorite, Tom Waits; don't you dig his records too?"

Confess, Judy! I love Tom Waits [and Rickie Lee Jones and Leonard Cohen] unabashedly because their music is incomparably soulful and their lyrics are more bizarre, intense, compressed and original than anyone else's.

Tony Bennett, "Blue Velvet"

I first found out about this song when I was a kid and my parents somehow accidentally let me watch the horrifying movie Blue Velvet. Mom, Dad, what were you thinking? That's the one where Dennis Hopper huffs gas and molests Isabella Rossellini, who looks more gorgeous and heartbroken than ever. I think I was 12, and my parents were out and it was on and I found it and it terrified me so entirely that I remembered it literally forever. When I was 17, in an effort to own it, I bought the sheet music to the song so I could learn to sing it myself. I remember that feeling – of having the song, in my own voice, not seem so scary anymore.

Bob Dylan, "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall"

Judy listens to this when cool and beautiful Ginger Mews comes over. And when the conversation takes a turn toward what's tough, Judy tunes out and listens to Dylan's line, "I've walked and I've crawled on six crooked highways." I've always found that line beautiful and wise, and I'm in the habit, when I'm uncomfortable, of either listening to lines that are actually playing in the background of conversations, or imagining them. This is one of my go-to favorites; it creates the sense that lots of time can pass, lots of things can happen, and we'll each wobble and stray and be many, many people. It's a brave, wise line. And Judy needs it in Big Girl Small. Because, not to be too literal but, a hard rain is going to fall for her – and she's going to walk out of it, drenched, but proud and intact.

Carmen McRae, "Take Five"

This is the jazz standard Judy's voice teacher, Ms. Vanderly, chooses to open the concert with. It's festive and young and old all at the same time. And such a template for the way I learned to sing jazz when I was a kid. I couldn't resist. All that old-fashioned snapping and bopping and jazzing. Hot!

Here's Judy's take: "We started the whole concert with the intro to "Take Five," and honestly, I was so nervous I felt like I might black out. But the audience was dark enough that I could pretend they weren't there, that the blazing above me was sunshine coming through my bedroom window, and I bolted that introduction out, all the boo boo shoo be doo bops, listening for Carrie's voice and trying to make sure we matched, that I wasn't drowning her out. I could hear her slight, high voice like a glittering string above mine, and I relaxed. We sang, "Still, I know our eyes often meet / I feel tingles down to my feet," and I could feel Ms. Vanderly's proud eyes on us from the wings."

Leonard Cohen, "Alexandra Leaving"

If you haven't heard this, Leonard Cohen might stop your heart with his two-tons of gravel voice, achingly beautiful lyrics, and slow-motion, I-have-forever-to-sing-this pace. Nothing has ever been so layered or lovely.

Rickie Lee Jones, "We Belong Together"

This is my favorite song of all-time, and the one Judy chooses to sing at her all-important "senior voice" concert. She listens to it over and over in the practice rooms downstairs in the school, until she can sing it out into perfect blankness, without even having to turn her mind on. She loves the lyrics so much she writes them down in her notebook, and in a moment of tremendous grief later, she looks back at what she wrote, and wonders why/how she knew to write it down: And now Johnny the king walks these streets without her in the rain//Lookin' for a leather jacket//And a girl who wrote her name forever//A promise that—//We belong together//We belong together.

I was ultra-nervous writing to Rickie Lee Jones to ask for permission to use her stunning words in my book, because I wanted to convey to her how much she and her music have meant to me – forever. When she said yes, I danced with joy. And bolted out this song (in the privacy of my house, with only my undiscerning, unconditionally-loving toddler on hand to hear it, thankfully) from start to glorious finish. Thank you for my adolescence, Rickie Lee Jones - it glittered with your lyrics and your voice.

Rachel DeWoskin and Big Girl Small links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

As the Crowe Flies (and Reads!) review
Babes in Bookland review
Bookforum review
Books Complete Me review
Bookslut review
Fresh Air review
More Magazine review
Readings review
School Library Journal review

Booktopia Blog interview with the author
That's Shanghai interview with the author

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 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)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists