“Leah fell asleep outside the night after her brother disappeared, outside to get away from the sounds inside, and she saw two little girls in brilliant calico dresses walk from the garage and climb up the maple tree. They didn’t come down, not that she saw. The night was silent. The stars were silent. The grass was silent. The world was empty.” – Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky
Once in a while you come across a wild, profound, terrifying, beautiful book that reminds you of the ways in which literature is such a beautiful art form. Then, sometimes, you look up the author and find that once upon a time they dropped a book like this and it’s also their only work to date, which makes the mind reel. Did creating this story with its intricate narrative consume all the literary energy they had to give? Was it the work of years, and maybe they’re crafting another such book right now? Or did they just wake up one day with an idea for a completely devastating novel, release it into the world, and decide they were done? David Connerly Nahm wrote his only full-length novel Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky in 2014, and he has a minimal online presence excepting an interview or podcast guest spot, a rarity in the social media age. This was a disappointment to me only in the sense that it didn’t take long into my reading to realize this novel was a work of art, and once I’d finished the rollercoaster of dramatic intrigue stretching through the course of Ancient Oceans, I immediately wanted another ride.
Nahm employs suspense incredibly well to keep readers hooked throughout a very poetic novel that, lacking sufficient levels of ghostly intrigue, may have gone over a lot of peoples’ heads. (Honestly, if you prefer a straight-to-the-point storytelling style with no additional commentary or complex themes, this still might not be the book for you.) But Nahm knits together a stream of consciousness style and third person perspective in his book that creates an eerie, almost out-of-body narrative voice to tell the story of Leah, a woman whose entire life as it exists in the present of the book was defined by a traumatic event in her childhood, the disappearance of her little brother Jacob. It is through Leah’s perspective that we’re shown the rural Kentucky town of Crow Station (heavily influenced by Danville, Kentucky) and the people who live there, many of whom Leah has known her entire life. This cast of personalities fills out Crow Station’s tableau of those who, in the course of the book’s two acts, live, alternately carve out joy or succumb to cruelty, struggle for survival financially and philosophically and leave their mark on the ever-shrinking pocket of Kentucky in which they are fated to live and die and leave behind their stories to haunt generations to come, and even the land itself.
A deep understanding of folkloric themes is obvious in Nahm’s narrative as he employs both the suspense of gradually uncovering the truth of Jacob’s loss and elements of ghost stories throughout the book to engage readers and to suggest the possibility of the supernatural as a running theme. From Leah’s childhood remembrances of local ghost stories to the way the actions of one generation can define not just their life but linger in the experiences of their children, heritage and memory are explored by Nahm as he gradually strips away layers of forgotten or misremembered events in the rural, underfunded and fading town to bring some of the threads of the plot to light, while raising even more questions about others.
Ancients Oceans parallels ghost stories – and specifically, regionally, the concept of haints – with themes of being haunted by the past, the choices and events that constitute a life. As the novel progresses, early references to random snapshots of events that initially felt poetic in purpose are revealed as moments in the lives of the orbiting side characters. And throughout, courtesy of the guilty memories of a very unreliable narrator, readers find themselves trying to solve the unsolved mystery of what really happened to seven-year-old Jacob Shepherd, but also, in what form and for what purpose has he perhaps returned?
Nahm drew from his own life experiences for his portrayal of rural Kentucky, as well as different scenes and snippets of dialogue throughout the book. In an interview leading up to its release he said “While I remember myself as a kind older brother—though maybe a touch dictatorial—to this day I am sometimes filled with an ill-feeling when I abruptly remember some long past misdeed: A time I wrestled my brother and hurt him on purpose because I was mad or when I failed to stand up for my sisters when they were teased in a playground. It is this inability to let these things go that informed Leah and Jacob’s relationship—or, more accurately, her memory of their relationship.” These added layers make the novel deeply personal and honestly, more than a little vulnerable in a way that I as a reader physically sensed. As an older sister who, being a child herself, occasionally picked at her younger sibling and resented being followed around, Leah’s guilty memories of her childhood relationship with her brother – including her occasional bullying – definitely stung. Readers are often presented with unflattering anecdotes of ways she was unkind to him prior to his disappearance, what some would call typical sibling behavior that became magnified in her memory once he was gone. In a climactic scene, Leah, the quintessential unreliable narrator, discloses a new and crucial piece of information to readers who have spent the last couple of hundred pages learning every detail about her life and may have assumed that, having been inside her mind, there was nothing left for her to hide.
The unavoidable point of tension and confrontation in that scene and an ending that can be interpreted any number of ways almost require the reader to sit in judgment on Leah and decide whether or not to absolve her of her childhood sins. I personally found myself poring over different aspects of Leah’s story and I still have no concrete answers, but while I’m sure Nahm knows the truth of what was factual or imagined in his narrative, the potential for conversation and dissection of the events of the story make this the perfect book club book, in my opinion. I could discuss it for ages, and unfortunately for the people in my life who don’t enjoy speculative fiction, I will most likely be doing so for the foreseeable future.
I would recommend Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky to fans of Kentucky authors, Southern Gothic themes, family-centric dramas, and books you’re still thinking about in the car on the way to work the next day.
There are so many great comics with women as creators and as protagonists. I have chosen twelve titles (listed in alphabetical order below) that I think are worth checking out no matter what time of the year. Along the way, I have tried to pick a diverse set of tales for you to enjoy. If you’d like, you can read one every month (especially as most of these are series, you’ll have plenty of time to complete the list by next March).
The extraordinary true story of Odette Sansom, the British spy who operated in occupied France and fell in love with her commanding officer during World War II–perfect for fans of Unbroken, The Boys in the Boat, and Code Girls
It is 1953. Thomas Wazhushk is the night watchman at the first factory to open near the Turtle Mountain Reservation in rural North Dakota. He is also a prominent Chippewa Council member, trying to understand a new bill that is soon to be put before Congress. The US Government calls it an ’emancipation’ bill; but it isn’t about freedom – it threatens the rights of Native Americans to their land, their very identity. How can he fight this betrayal? Unlike most of the girls on the reservation, Pixie – ‘Patrice’ – Paranteau has no desire to wear herself down on a husband and kids. She works at the factory, earning barely enough to support her mother and brother, let alone her alcoholic father who sometimes returns home to bully her for money. But Patrice needs every penny to get if she’s ever going to get to Minnesota to find her missing sister Vera. In The Night Watchman multi-award winning author Louise Erdrich weaves together a story of past and future generations, of preservation and progress. She grapples with the worst and best impulses of human nature, illuminating the loves and lives, desires and ambitions of her characters with compassion, wit and intelligence.
Most Kentuckians are familiar with Daniel Boone and many have even been to Boonesborough, the fort Daniel and other settlers built on the outskirts of what is now Harrodsburg. The stories and legends about Daniel Boone are numerous, especially in regards to his dealings with the indigenous settlers who already called Kentucky home. One story that gets less attention, but is no less important is the kidnapping of Boone’s daughter Jemima.
On July 14th, 1776 Jemima Boone and her friends, sisters Elizabeth and Frances Callaway were enjoying a rare break from chores and canoeing along the Kentucky River. They were attacked and abducted by a party of Shawnee and Cherokee Indians (a quick note: Pearl uses the term Indians over Native Americans on guidance from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian). Attacks and abductions like this were not uncommon. European settlers encroached on valuable hunting ground that sustained several tribes and indigenous settlements, and attempts at treaties and peaceful coexistence were unsuccessful, so in an effort to deter permanent settlement Cherokee and Shawnee tribes began policies of attacks and kidnapping. To a certain extent this was working, and by 1776 there were fewer than 200 settlers in Kentucky, comprised of white Europeans, slaves, and free Blacks.
After their abduction girls were quickly marched north through various Shawnee towns in an effort to throw off rescue parties. Not content to be passive captives the girls began using subtle non-compliance to leave clues for rescuers. Jemima began tearing her dress and leaving scraps behind. They dug in their heels and left footprints whenever possible. The plan worked and a rescue party made up of Daniel Boone and other men from Boonesborough caught up to the girls and their captors. What followed was a fast skirmish that left two Native men dead, including the son of prominent leader Blackfish.
The fallout was swift, a few months later Boone and others were captured by the Shawnee. Boone was adopted into the tribe and given the name Big Turtle. For months he lived and worked among the Shawnee, assumed dead by those back in Boonesborough. His family left the state. Boone eventually escaped and made his way back to Boonesborough, pursued by the Shawnee (and also the British, who had a somewhat tepid alliance with the Shawnee and the Cherokee). A standoff ensued with the folks at Boonesborough narrowly persevering. Conflict was far from over, but this was a turning point for the settlers, confirming their grasp on this stretch of “wilderness”.
This was Matthew Pearl’s first foray into non-fiction, but it’s written much like a thriller. It’s an engaging read about a part of history little remembered. Jemima Boone’s kidnapping was well known in the 18th and 19th century, it inspired James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, as well as famous works of art, but her name is now more of a footnote than a plot point in our understanding of early America. The same can be said of Native leaders like Dragging Canoe and Hanging Maw, names we don’t often hear in history class, but whose decisions and interactions with European settlers shaped the frontier. Pearl does a great job at helping the reader understand the struggle between indigenous tribes like the Cherokee and the Shawnee and European settlers who moved in and threatened their livelihood. This is a great read for anyone who is interested in learning more about the early days of Kentucky.
For the past couple years, more and more books have been getting published that feature climate change as a core aspect of the plot, so much so that “climate fiction” or “cli-fi” is recognized as a genre. When I first started reading cli-fi, it definitely felt more real than my usual space opera fare, but still something in the distance, not an immediate possibility. I’m not sure if something changed, but Sim Kern’sDepart, Depart! felt so real I found myself wanting to Google news coverage of the hurricane in Texas that left the main character, Noah, a climate refugee.
Noah barely escapes the flood and finds himself in a shelter in the Dallas Maverick’s basketball arena, crammed in with countless others having the worst days of their lives. Noah is able to build a community there, but he has to make hard decisions about what might have to be sacrificed in order to survive. He remembers hearing stories of his Grandfather, who escaped the Holocaust only by making similar sacrifices, and wonders how much he should let his ancestor guide him.Depart, Depart!explores intersections of climate change and class, race, and gender, and finding community after feeling like everything you know has been washed away.
A quick and timely read, LFPL only has this novella available as an ebook, linked directly here.
View Sim Kern’s full list of published works on their website, here.
Welcome back, true believers and fellow travelers! I know it’s been a long time but your intrepid author is still on the case, dropping science on those four-color and/or black and white narratives you love so well.
First off, some definitions which will be useful to know for this installment’s conversation:
Canon, in comics, is the official body of stories that are considered to be the “true” history of a fictional character, team, or world.
Continuity is the accumulated history of a character or shared universe that is accepted by the publisher and the community of readers. It is often coherent in the way that a life story seems to be. This means that there may be odd stories or character quirks that exist but are explained or ignored in favor of consistency.
Copyright (defined by the U.S.P.T.O.) is “a form of protection provided by U.S. law to the authors of original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression.”
Legacy characters are ones who take on the identity of a previously established character. Often this is due to the age, disability, or death of the original character.
Reboot (or Continuity Reboot) is when previously established continuity is ignored in part or completely. Some feel that rather than the old continuity being destroyed, the current run simply recounts the tales of an alternate universe version of the same characters (however this interpretation is generally not accepted by the publisher as the new comic is now put forward as the “true” continuity with the older version ceasing to exist).
Rebrand (or Retool)is when a character changes without the rest of the continuity itself changing. It may be as simple as a costume change, more general as a new set of powers, or as complicated as a total change of the character’s identity. There may be no good reason for the change, other than for marketing purposes.
Retcon (or Retroactive Continuity)is the changing of some past event in a comic by a current plot line. It typically involves some kind of alteration or nullification of the previously understood continuity. However, a clever retcon will fit seamlessly with the past continuity though the understanding of events will change.
Let’s look at continuity using the case of everyone’s favorite friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. The character has been either in high school, in college, in the adult world, married, unmarried, a journalist, a billionaire tech innovator, a clone (yes, a clone!), bonded with an alien symbiote, et cetera, all while remaining in copyright and under the control of one publisher, Marvel Comics. Spidey has stayed primarily in his late teens or early 20’s for most of that time, though in August it will have been 60 years since his first appearance (Amazing Fantasy #15). Spider-Man’s many changes are not that unusual for the comic business (for instance, the Barry Allen version of The Flash clocks in at 65 years since his debut, 23 years of which he was canonically dead).
OK, let’s talk about the function of narrative. Narrative is the pithy way to say, “how a story is told,” or “the way in which meaning is conveyed from author/publisher to audience/consumer.” In order to do so, narrative takes many possible pieces of information and compresses them in a way that can be (relatively) easily translated. Typically, there are five elements of narrative: setting, characters, plot, conflict, and result (some would say “resolution” but one possible outcome is just that something happens and nothing is truly wrapped up tidily).
Disjunctures in narrative are where the various issues surrounding continuity arise. These innovations, breaks, or interruptions may eventually be enfolded into the ongoing mythology of a series (oh, wait, there’s Pink Kryptonite, too) or may lead to larger adjustments (so, uh, Thor Odinson isn’t worthy to wield Mjolnir? But Jane Foster is? Ok, let’s roll). Or more drastically, there is no connection between two versions of a character in the same fictional universe (ex: Jack Kirby and Neil Gaiman’s versions of Death*). As well, another creative team may decide that they just need to start from scratch but use a cool name that is too good to pass up (I’m looking at you Kamala Khan). Many times, the characters will be linked in some manner (most common is a passing of the mantle) and so a legacy character is born.
Keep in the back of your mind that copyright often makes this complicated in the case of older comics. This is because once copyright protection expires (or if it was not appropriately established in the first place), a different publisher or creative team can swoop in and do what they want with the character. This sometimes means there are competing versions of the same character at the same time on the market. That’s not a problem when you are enjoying the stories (or collecting) contemporaneously but can make it a nightmare when trying to delve into the history of a long-standing property.
A perfect case in point would be British comic Marvel Man (alternately named Miracleman), made popular in later years by Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman stories. Originally, the title was published from 1954-1963 by L. Miller and Sons, a British producer of comics, magazines, and cheap paperbacks. Mick Anglo, the creator of the character, who left employment with L. Miller and Sons, also published some tales on his own in 1960-1961. L. Miller and Sons went out of business altogether in 1966 and the character languished for almost 20 years.
In 1982, Quality Publications put out a new version of Marvel Man with Alan Moore as writer and Garry Leach (and later Alan Davis) as artist. After two years and complaints from Marvel Comics, the character’s story ended abruptly without being resolved. Quality then licensed the character to two indie publishers in succession, Pacific Comics, who quickly went out of business, and Eclipse Comics. When Eclipse got ahold of the character, they changed the name to Miracleman to avoid legal action by Marvel Comics and hired Neil Gaiman to be the writer.
It gets pretty murky after that because Eclipse went out of business in 1986. Todd McFarland, a popular creator at the time (his most famous creation being Spawn), purchased the rights to the catalog of Pacific Comics in 1996. Neil Gaiman disputed McFarlane’s ownership, contending that as the name had changed and he had crafted a completely different version of the character, he was a co-owner of Miracleman and had not surrendered his interests at the time of Pacific Comic’s sale.
After years of legal action, the original creator, Mick Anglo, was deemed the true owner of the character in 2009. That same year, Marvel Comics purchased the rights from Anglo. Eventually, they released the entire series in an oversized trade paperback edition, retaining the title Miracleman. And finally, just this past year, Marvel decided to bring the character into the mainstream Marvel Comics continuity in their new Timeless series, the trade paperback of which is scheduled to be released this February.
Along the way, the character was distinctly different under each era of publication, though subsequent incarnations did incorporate elements from the previous iterations. The comic has had six publishers, some in the UK and some in the United States. It was its own independent universe for most of its run but now is a part of a larger multiverse. It has been released in multiple sizes, carried different numbering, and two separate names over the years.
As you can see, totally a nightmare but totally worth reading (*ahem* LFPL currently owns volume 1 of the Marvel reprints).
Reboots and rebrands are more controversial. They may well be the thing needed to give a shot in the arm to a flagging character or group. The new direction or new look can also come with new artists or authors, spinning exciting new stories. Sometimes it is a small thing, such as a character with a goofy or outdated costume gets upgraded into a much cooler outfit. But the changes involved often are met with resistance by the regular readers, who have a vested interested in the continuity they have come to know and love.
The modern issue with rebooting is that (in a market that has seen a noticeable downturn in sales for individual issues over the last decade or two) reboots are becoming very common. The reason for this is that — due to collectors’ habits — a new first issue for a title generates a big bump in sales. But the practice also leads to burnout on the part of regular readers and contributes to attrition of those readers over time as they drop titles or even whole publishers.
Despite all that, I do love new takes on old characters, especially a well-done retcon. One in particular that I enjoy is the Captain America storyline, The Winter Soldier, by Ed Brubaker. I don’t want to spoil it for you but I will tell you that this run is the basis for several of the MCU blockbusters that have come out and for The Falcon and Winter Soldiertelevision series.
*Both denizens of the DC universe, Kirby’s Death is known as the Black Racer, who, hilariously, is just a guy using skis to zoom through the air while Gaiman’s Death is the cute GGF (Goth girlfriend) that generations of fanboys have lusted after.
Huma Abedin is one of those people you’ve seen in the public eye for years, but know next to nothing about. She is best known for two things, being Hillary Clinton’s long-term personal assistant, and for being married to the scandal plagued Anthony Weiner. Her autobiography goes in depth about both of these, but also about her childhood and faith.
Abedin is a Muslim, and her faith has deep meaning for her. Abedin tells how the women of her family sought education beyond what was expected of girls — starting with her grandmother. Abedin also paints a vivid picture of her warm and charming father, who died far too young, and how the family struggled silently with the emotional pain of that loss.
We see how Abedin began to work for Hillary Clinton in what staffers called “Hillaryland,” a supportive workplace where staffers were encouraged to become leaders themselves.
Abedin also writes of how she met Anthony Weiner, and how his charm and humor swept her off her feet. She then relates how her marriage went wrong, and her pain at his deeply personal betrayals and the public humiliation from that.
A Psalm for the Wild-Built is a wholesome book about the friendship between a robot named Moss and a non-binary monk travelling the world, serving people tea, and listening to their problems in their journey to discover what it is that people need on the most basic level. Of course, there is some really interesting world-building that sets up the protagonists’ current situation, a history that includes robots becoming aware of their slave-like conditions, revolting, and disappearing into the wilderness, and lore surrounding the society that they created. My favorite of which is the tidbit that the robot’s name is Moss because moss was the first thing the robot saw when it woke up!
This is a perfect short read for those looking for an escape from a world where everything seems to be going wrong into a world where things went wrong, in the past, but in the current moment characters are allowed to explore themselves and their world peacefully. Although the subgenre of “cozy mysteries” is well-established, I can’t say there is an equivalent in the science fiction genre – that is, aside from any book written by Becky Chambers. A Psalm for the Wild-Built is simply Chambers’ most recent. I *still* think it would be my favorite even if it wasn’t the most recent book of hers, though! I even bought a hard copy of it for my personal collection when I finished it! I’m hopeful that Chambers’ books are the beginning of a larger pattern within the genre of comforting books that are somehow still exciting, that explore our world and philosophy in ways that enable escapism without increasing the reader’s heart rate too much.
And there are more adventures of Moss and Sibling Dex (the monk!) coming out in July of 2022, according to the rumors on the internet (by which I mean this incomplete Goodreads page).