Tag Archives: Kentucky Authors

Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky by David Connerly Nahm

Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky
by David Connerly Nahm
Two Dollar Radio (2014)
201 pages
Link to Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky in LFPL’s collection
Link to titles by David Connerly Nahm in LFPL’s collection

“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.

– Review by SarahMain Library

The Birds of Opulence by Crystal Wilkinson

Crystal Wilkinson, founding member of the Affrilachian Poets and Kentucky’s current Poet Laureate, is an outstanding author even among our state’s especially rich history of lyrical storytellers. Set in the fictional rural, black township of Opulence, Kentucky, this 2016 novel gives voice to the lives of generations of women of the Goode and Brown families in the twentieth century. The reader floats through the hidden lives of these characters, suffering along with them the abuses and losses they experience and the pressure of living up to community moral expectations (or at least avoiding becoming the subject of local gossip and scorn). But there are also the joyful experiences – the public celebrations, family reunions. And above all there is love: the intensity of the romantic loves and the complexity of the love that binds the families.

Wilkinson brings to life for us a much different time when magic was much more real and connections to the land, to family, and to the community were uninterrupted by our current pace of life, industrialization, digitalization, and urbanization.

– Review by Scott, Main Library

Ultima Thule by Davis McCombs

From the Yale Series of Younger Poets, Ultima Thule is a lovely and worthy read penned by Kentuckian Davis McCombs, especially recommended now during African-American History Month.

The hero of the first sequence of poems is the enslaved Stephen Bishop, the early explorer and cartographer of Mammoth Cave. A trusted guide, indeed the master of an underground world, his skill meant he was relied upon completely by educated, wealthy, powerful, white men and women who visited the Cave in its early years as a tourist attraction, yet Bishop was always aware of his station as property of another. The imagined voice McCombs summons in these beautiful, quietly musical, unrhymed sonnets allows us to appreciate the man as more than what was recognized in his own time. Here he is philosopher and naturalist, observer, entertainer, lover…a complete human denied that recognition of his humanity during his lifetime, his voice unheard by the world that benefited from his talents. The credit for his exploits and his fame was co-opted by his master, the Doctor.

Click here to read more about Stephen Bishop.

In the second and third cycle, McCombs pivots to verse inspired by his own life, including his own time spent as a ranger at Mammoth Cave. No less lyrical, these poems are deeply rooted in the importance of place. The natural beauty of the Commonwealth pours from the pages and invites city-dwellers, confined by routine, a pandemic, and winter storms to plan our own small explorations.

Here’s a taste:

Stephen Bishop’s Grave

“It took four summers here for me to realize

the cave looped back under the Old Guide

Cemetery, that what was mortal floated

in a crust of brittle sandstone or leaked

into the darkest rivers and was caving still.

I went that drizzling night to stand

where the paper-trail he left had vanished:

woodsmoke, mist, a mossed-over name.

I knew enough by then to know that he,

of all people, would prefer the company of rain

to my own, but I went anyway, thinking

of my pale inventions, and stood a long time,

vigilant for his shadow in my own,

his voice as it differed from the wind.”

– Review by Scott, Main Library

Where Fiction May Lead

parchementoleavesI recently had the opportunity to facilitate a group discussion of A Parchment of Leaves by the great Kentucky author, Silas House. While I enjoyed the book tremendously, there was another aspect of this novel that I came across during my research in preparation for the book discussion that I found equally wonderful: the poetry of Kentuckian James Still.

You see, it is a poem by Mr. Still from which Mr. House derives the title of this book. The poem, entitled I Was Born Humble, is a truly awe-inspiring contemplation, in my mind, of life in general, life not necessarily rooted in the place of Kentucky.

The following is the full text:

I was born humble. At the foot of mountains
My face was set upon the immensity of earth
And stone; and upon oaks full-bodied and old.
There is so much writ upon the parchment of leaves,
So much of beauty blown upon the winds,
I can but fold my hands and sink my knees
In the leaf-pages. Under the mute trees
I have cried with this scattering of knowledge,
Beneath the flight of birds shaken with this waste
Of wings.
I was born humble. My heart grieves
Beneath this wealth of wisdom perished with the leaves.

My reaction is the same each and every time I read or recite these lines: an overwhelming sense of both joy and sorrow. But isn’t life, after all, both joy and sorrow?

It is here that I must admit that I oftentimes find poetry somewhat inaccessible. While I admire and am familiar with the household names in this genre, such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, and Robert Frost, it is when I branch out to lesser-known poets that I find myself a bit befuddled.

This, I hope and believe, will no longer be the case, as I find a renewed interest in such structured musings and now possess the resolve to venture further. Hitherto, I have always turned to fiction to better understand history, tragedy and triumph, the human condition, etc., but it seems to me now that there is an additional literary vehicle available to me by which I can come to a better understanding of the world. They say that a thing is better late than never, an expression that I take solace in on this new, and somewhat belated, journey into the realm of that most objective of aesthetic art – poetry.

Two collections of Mr. Still’s poems that I would recommend, in addition to A Parchment of Leaves by Silas House, are:

Formats Available:  Book (Regular and Large Type), Audiobook, eBook

Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill