Carrie Newcomer: September 2023 Artist of the Month




From the edges of the prairie comes a beautiful new album from Indiana’s Carrie Newcomer. A Great Wild Mercy officially drops on October 13, but there’s plenty of reason to order now. This is the project about which I spoke with her recently. [Link here] It’s also the strongest salve you can buy without a prescription.


The song “A Great Wild Mercy” is folk rock at its best. It began life as poem from Newcomer’s own collection. It opens with the image of a woman in a rainstorm huddled under a blue umbrella. She abruptly decides to fold it and let the waters wash over her. But the refrain embodies what the song/poem is really about: There’s a big wide sky filled with stars/That feels so close but feels so far/I'm tired of all the rage, tired of all the worry/I'm ready for a great wild mercy… In other words, it’s about letting go of despair, getting back to basics, and embracing our authentic selves. Bell-like backing within an energetic mix are clarion calls to be true to that path. Indigo Girls percussionist Jim Brock is an understated but steady presence in this and numerous other tracks and is emblematic of how the album’s production–with Newcomer and David Weber at the helm–frames the lyrics but never gets in the way. (You might think that’s what all producers do, but you’d be wrong!)


Newcomer’s voice has been described as “rich as Godiva chocolate.” I’m a Cadbury guy, but I get the metaphor. In a world of little girl voices, Newcomer’s mature, smooth, and deeper tones are perfect for coating the world’s woes and whines. Not that Newcomer sugarcoats such things; she’s interested in positive and constructive ways to deal with them and there’s nothing wide-eyed utopian about her approach. A song she wrote with John McCutcheon, “Start With A Stone,” reminds us that nothing worthwhile is born from nothing: Start with a stone/The humblest of things/From this relic of bedrock/Eternity springs. In an indirect but palpable way, this song is a companion to “In the Shape of a Perfect Arc,” which also speaks of how to stay upbeat. It is one of several offerings in which Newcomer’s folk sensibilities are infused with touches of bluegrass. That makes sense as Hawktail musicians such as Jordan Tice (guitar),  Brittany Haas (fiddle), and Paul Kolwert (bass) lend their talents throughout the album.


I’m always a sucker for a lovely waltz, so I give a ringing endorsement to “Questions Before Dark,” which focuses on small, seemingly trivial things that suggest bigger questions. “Another Day,” a lullaby, is one of several songs that spotlight Gary Walters’ gentle and dancing piano notes and it might be my favorite track. Who among us would not yearn for enough inner tranquility to sing: I’ve been looking for beauty/In these broken times/By making some beauty/In the world that I find/ Some say it’s no use/It’s too much to brave/But I believe there’s still/So much worth being saved. (The link is to a homemade demo.)


Newcomer is upfront about those who inspire her, including Thomas Merton on “Take More Time, Cover Less Ground,” and a monk who finds grace and service in silence (“Singing in the Dark”), but the album’s change of pace song–and the only other one with a pre-release video–is “Potluck,” which she co-wrote with Siri Undlin of Humbird. In the simple act of sharing food, Newcomer and Undlin unveil the “quiet mercy” of community and gratitude. And it doesn’t hurt a bit that the arrangement is tightly constructed but casts the illusion of an impromptu jam.


If you want to get a sense of how Newcomer sounds in a rehearsed live setting, “You Can Do the Hard Thing” isn’t on the new album, but it gives a flavor of how Newcomer turns a concert into a living room. It also shows why I’m one of Carrie’s biggest fans. Maybe someday I’ll be as well-adjusted as she!


You can watch more Carrie Newcomer videos here.


Rob Weir



Birnam Wood: Eleanor Catton Astonishes Anew


By Eleanor Catton

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 432 pages.





New Zealand’s Eleanor Catton has become one of my favorite authors. I adored The Luminaries (2013), for which she won the Booker Prize when was just 28. Catton took her time writing Birnam Wood and patience paid off; many critics have touted it as the best book of 2023.


Shakespeare fans will recognize Birnam Wood as a hubris device from Macbeth. In Catton’s novel it’s the name of a group of eco warriors who, in their own minds at least, fancy themselves anarchists whose tactics parallel those of 17th century English Diggers. That is, they are not violent; they appropriate unused lands, cultivate the soil, and raise food for themselves and others. The New York Times called Birnam Wood a “generational (anti-baby boomer) cri de coeur.” That’s catchy, but simplistic.


Birnam Wood is smart, loaded with hubris, and is, at turns, horrifying and amusing. Much of the humor is directed at the 20-somethings in the Birnam Wood collective. Their naiveté is on full display, not the least of which resides in founder Mira Bunting. She is resilient, but a wide-eyed romantic who imagines that a network of vegetable-planters will shake both middle-class complacency and the foundations of capitalism. Even her closest Birnam Wood friend, Shelley Noakes, who attends to organizational nuts-and-bolts that the charismatic Mira overlooks, feels herself aging out of the group and is about to bolt like wild spearmint. Shelley sees Mira as a hippie wannabe and she’s not wrong.


Mira definitely has a bee in her bonnet when she learns that Owen Darvish owns thousands of acres on New Zealand’s South Island and is passing himself off as a philanthropic steward of the land. When a landslide kills five people in the Korowai Pass near his estate, she’s off in her van to engage in veggie trespassing. (The pass is real; the nearby town of “Thorndike” is fictional but analogous to several farming towns west of Christchurch.) Imagine her surprise when the Darvishes are off  enjoying their knighthoods and Robert Lemoine, an American, is in residence. What’s a late-middle-aged high tech billionaire doing in New Zealand? Especially the owner of Autonomo, a drone manufacturer? It takes Robert a nano second to expose Mira’s pseudonym attempts, yet he claims to admire her spirit. Unbeknown to Mira, he despises the pretentious Darvishes and plans to buy them out. (Catton’s intent is to lampoon status-conscious title chasers.) Is Robert on the level about wanting such a remote property to decompress?   


Back at Birnam Wood, Tony Gallo has returned from Mexico after several years abroad. He’s a hunk who once slept with Mira and still fancies her, but he’s also a rogue, so maybe Shelley or Rosie Demarney would do in a pinch. Tony is highly intelligent but, in different ways, is as intractable and quixotic as Mira. For example, he views himself a crusading journalist based on a few blog posts and essays in unread places. Unlike others, though, he has considered revolutionary ideals (semi-) grounded in theory. But when he calls out Birnam’s dreamy idealism with mansplaining aggravation, it serves mainly to contribute to old saw that the Left eats its young. Imagine Birnam Wood debates when Mira shows up with Lemoine’s offer of $100,000 of literal seed money for a Birnam Wood demonstration project at Thorndike. Is this real, or Mira’s Devil at the crossroads temptation?


Tony decides to investigate. So should you! You will pick up hints about Lemoine’s motives, but the novel shifts to one about circumstances and choices.  Several crisis points force hands, but Birnam Wood cuts like a surgical knife when dissecting questions of idealism versus realism and the myriad dangers in trying to thread the needle between them. “Bonding” scenes between Robert and Birnam Wood are both droll and cringeworthy.


Mira has been compared to Jane Austen’s Emma, which is apt if you can picture Emma Woodhouse in Wellington boots, covered in mud, and sporting a foul mouth. Mira certainly yields no ground as a meddler. There’s an old labor song titled “Which Side Are You On?” To revisit the Times comment assumed anti-baby boomer frame, the brilliance of Catton’s careful plotting and penetrating prose forces us to answer the song’s question, “Exactly.” To the degree Catton tips her hand, it’s in her suggestion that to whom we turn to save the world has potentially apocalyptic consequences.


Rob Weir



This Time Tomorrow: Time Travels with Alice


This Time Tomorrow

By Emma Straub

Riverhead Books, 320 pages





If you like time travel books, This Time Tomorrow has intriguing moments. Alice Stern had a happy childhood, even though her mother left the family early on. Alice was raised by her father, Leonard, whose children's book, Time Brothers, was made into a TV show so successful that he never had to write again. He sent Alice to a competitive New York City private school, indulged her, adored her friends, and treated her as an equal. (He even calls her “Al-pal.”) Their life at Pomander Walk–a real-life Manhattan cooperative apartment complex–was part salon and part extended childhood.


Now 40, Alice has a relatively new boyfriend and is an administrator at Belvedere, the progressive school she attended. She worries that she's being pushed aside for promotion, is depressed that her father’s impending death, and is freaked out from an admissions interview with the child of Tommy Joffey, a guy after whom she lusted when she was younger. To top it off, her lifelong best friend “Sam” (Samantha) is moving to New Jersey with her younger husband and their three children. Sam assures Alice they'll continue to meet just like old times but... New Jersey… Holland Tunnel?!!


Then time shifts. Author Emma Straub tells Alice's story in six parts. Part One is the present, but in Part Two she's celebrating her 16th birthday, Leonard is vibrant, and Sam is by her side. Alice isn't sure how she got there. She left the hospital, drank too much, couldn’t find her keys, and fell asleep in the Pomander Walk guard tower. She awakes, the year was 1992, but she knows that she's from the future. Try convincing your BFF of that; yet oddly she does. She and Sam attend Comic-Con where she picks her father’s brain about time travel. Strangely, he too believes her story.


Unlike novels such as The Time Traveler's Wife, Alice seldom finds herself in grandiose situations; more like perplexing ones. All Alice can discern is that her time travels seem to be connected to her birthday, her father, and Pomander Walk. Straub enlivens the novel by dropping in time travel references such as her father's Time Brothers book and movies like Back to the Future and Peggy Sue Got Married. Alice’s small shifts, though, make This Time Tomorrow more akin to Groundhog Day than to a dramatic tale such Time and Again. In Alice’s mind, she has never done anything unexpected and “was just floating. Like a seahorse.”  


Each time she shifts back to the present–­2016 in her case­–her father is still dying. But in Part Three, it’s 2006 and she is married to Tommy. He is apparently a big shot of some sort, but instead of the three children he had with Ursula in 2016, he has two with Alice: Leo and Dorothy. (A sly Wizard of Oz reference?) This time she’s at Pomander Walk celebrating her 30th birthday, Leonard has a second book, a new wife, and Alice visits a psychic.


Part Four is a series of time jumps attached to life decisions such as whether she should quit her job. Perhaps, though, she's figured something out. Although each jump has a new set of externals, she begins to wonder if the purpose of the birthday shifts is to keep her father alive: “Leonard is immortal, if only for the day.” Imagine what Sigmund Freud could do with a line like that!


In Part Five, she’s 40 again, but a different 40. By this point in the book, Alice is feeling lost and perhaps we, the readers, can relate. I’ll leave it to you to decide if Part Six is satisfying. From one perspective it makes sense in terms of novel logic; in another, it strays deeply into pop psychology territory. I will say that after a while it feels as if Straub has overplayed metaphors of emptiness, regret, and being frozen in time.


It is, however, the kind of book that invites the description “charming.” It’s also fun to flash back with her to see what things appear in one time period and disappear in another. A dominant message is that time is precious, and who can argue with that? For the record, she’s the daughter of writer Peter Straub, whose work delved heavily into the supernatural. Like father, like daughter. On a sadder note, Peter died four months after Emma’s This Time Tomorrow was published. Now that’s creepy.


Rob Weir