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August 12, 2014

Book Notes - David Connerley Nahm "Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky"

Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky

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.

David Connerley Nahm's Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky is a quietly profound and lyrical novel, one of the year's strongest debuts.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"It's the prose that makes this suspenseful first novel unforgettable. Like a pointillist painting, Nahm's writing daubs image upon image to construct an impressionistic view of life in a small town. A powerful first novel, the kind that makes you want to stop people in the street to tell them about it."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In his own words, here is David Connerley Nahm's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky:


During the last five years of work on Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky, I went to the mall to write. Our mall is old and small and mostly empty and I enjoy being able to get out of the house and spend hours sitting somewhere with other people, somewhere I can listen to their conversations or see the slump of their shoulders as they look at cell phone cases at a kiosk. I have a regular seat where I lurk with my laptop and listen to music as I watch everyone and occasionally delete words I don't like from a Word Document that sometimes sits untouched for hours. I need to listen to music while I write—to help me focus or to foster a certain mood—but only certain kinds of music work. Here are some of the things that I listen to, over and over, for hours at a time while I write:

Donald Rubenstein, "Theme from Tales from the Darkside": In the small town where I grew up, after a certain hour, the world is empty. In middle school, when I was old enough to stay up late by myself, it would send a shiver down my spine to slip out into the dark yard, to look down the empty street and to listen to a silence disturbed only by the faint saw of crickets. Everyone feels alone at that age, but it was frightening to see the whole town turned into a reflection of that feeling.

I would stay up late and watch television. My father introduced me at an early age to the pleasure of being scared. The Twilight Zone and Psycho were early family favorites. Even though I was one of six people living in our house, being the only one awake in such an empty world made me even more aware of my loneliness. It was during this time that I was also experiencing my first serious crisis of religious faith. Not only was this world empty of people and cars and light, but of the very foundation of creation and meaning as well.

On those nights, I found companionship in television shows like Tales from the Darkside. It was creepy and strange, but rather than making me feel worse, it gave me hope. The very premise of the show, as with all horror and supernatural stories, is that there is something more to life than we realize. As the narrator ominously intones over the theme's synth-chord clusters, there is another world out there, only one not as brightly lit as ours. We are not so alone.

The Ornette Coleman Quartet, "Beauty Is a Rare Thing": In high school, when I began writing seriously, I envied music's ability to create feeling without necessarily always creating meaning. With music, we are more open to being in the moment, to enjoying the beauty of a harmony or rhythm, and not wondering where it is all leading or if something is important or not. Of course, this is a bit naïve—most of us still expect at least melody, a harmonic progression that adheres to some system, that triggers some recognition in us, even if we know nothing about music. But still, it seemed to me at the time that music had more opportunity for spontaneous beauty without reason.

Coleman was the first jazz musician I loved. Having spent my youth in basements playing in bands, frittering boring weekend nights away with my friends by turning every amplifier on and up as loud as it would go and seeing what would happen, his music made sense to me. That joyous riot of sound. Haden's bass and Blackwell's drums sounds like the Earth waking up after a long wet, winter; Coleman and Cherry, beams of morning sun.

Writing should seek to exceed the boundaries we place on it. Sometimes that exceeding is obvious—a strange parade of words without respect for grammar and style. Sometimes that exceeding is more subtle—a sharper edge to a character or a prose-style stripped bare. But we should always try to shake off the old ice.

Neneh Cherry, "Buffalo Stance": That there is something in music that is beyond the ability of words is proven by the fact that I am incapable of explaining the deep emotional reaction I have every time I hear "Buffalo Stance." There is something about the plinky, ultra-compressed and chorused guitar on the pre-chorus and the cadence of Cherry's vocals on the chorus that strums something strange and sad in me.

The summer I first heard the song, I went to London, England, on a school trip. One afternoon, we were waiting for a bus to take us to a theater for a play and I overheard two of the other students on the trip talking about a girl who'd not been able to come with us. It was a girl I'd known from church when I was very younger, but hadn't seen for years because she went to the Kentucky School for the Deaf and my family started going to a different church after my parents divorced.

"You know why she didn't come," a boy said. "She didn't come because her parents just found out she's going blind. Soon, she won't be able to hear or see anything." Then the bus came and we got on it, everyone laughing and screaming. We started singing "Buffalo Stance" because it was everyone's new favorite song and the teachers couldn't get us to quiet down.

But I don't think this memory has anything to do with how I feel about the song.

Sunn O))), "Alice": I sit in the mall and I edit what I've written. Several full pages reduced down to a few lines I like, a few phrases worth keeping, returning most of the page to a blank again. I delete a character complete and then a pause for a few minutes to watch the languid flutter of folks back and forth, slowly swinging plastic bags of new goods, and I listen to Sunn O))), over and over and over.

When I was a young man and first began listening to music in the late 1980s, I didn't much care for heavy metal. The metal of that era holds a certain charm for me now, but at the time it was what the older boys who liked to ask me nasty questions to make me feel embarrassed listened to. Not having any older siblings, or many friends, I didn't really know what metal even sounded like, but I drew detailed conclusions about it from the patches on their jean jackets and the doodles in the margins of their notebooks. When I grew a little older, and was able to listen to whatever I wanted, I found that the music which seemed so terrifying in my imagination was often thin and surprisingly weak sounding, so I never investigated further.

Around the time I finished law school, and my wife and I moved from North Carolina to the mountains of Virginia, I grew deeply tired of all of the music I listened to, and music in general, and on a whim, possibly after seeing a picture of their impossible wall of amplifiers, shrouded in fog and shadow, I decided to listen to Sunn O))) for the first time, and everything changed. Such strange frequencies. The physical nature of sound suddenly obvious and understandable. Is this what it sounded like when G-d drew itself aside long enough to let the universe flicker into existence? When the Tower of Babel fell? When the Red Sea closed up again?

In the final years of the composition of Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky, Sunn O)))'s work was the star by which I guided my tiny, battered craft. Their work is gorgeous music even though it is so often not gorgeous and not necessarily music. They create something that is at first cold and impenetrable, but which gives way, suddenly, to surprising warmth, like children stumbling upon the mouth of a cave under a bush at the far end of a field in the winter. Beautiful and terrible, serious and silly, endless and the end itself all at once.

I sit in the mall and write and watch the crowd as, smiling, they talk and tarry, and I worry less about writing a novel and let myself be drawn aside and in that void, just try to love everything I see.


David Connerley Nahm and Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky links:

the author's website
video trailer for the book

Chasing Ray review
Library Journal review
Publishers Weekly review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review


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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