‘The Divines’: Featured Fiction from Ellie Eaton

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In our latest edition of featured fiction—curated by our own Carolyn Quimby—we’re happy to present an excerpt from Ellie Eaton’s debut novel, The Divines.
The book, which Publishers Weekly says “will keep readers riveted,” follows freelance writer Josephine as she reflects on her time at the (now defunct) St John the Divine—an elite English boarding school for girls—and the scandal that changed their community forever. Booklist writes, “At times both sharp and haunting, this novel embodies the awkwardness and regret of adolescence.”
***

I am Divine.

My mother was Divine and her mother before that, which isn’t uncommon. Though that was at a time when being Divine meant something; it had cachet, as my mother still likes to brag; it opened doors, got you places. Though it’s hard to see specifically where being Divine ever got her, other than married. Perhaps I’m missing the point.

I haven’t spoken to another Divine for fourteen years, maybe more, despite there being ample online opportunities these days to reconnect with my former peers should I so wish. I don’t. Every Christmas and Easter I fly back to England to visit my mother, who, in her sixties now, keeps backdated copies of our Old Girls’ newsletter for me in her downstairs loo, next to Country Living. Births, deaths, marriages, the rare athletic achievement, horses for sale, and, of course, reunions. Endless reunions. Not one of which I have attended. Until, as a newlywed, I take my husband on an impromptu detour from our honeymoon destination, veering off the dual carriageway so unexpectedly at the road sign that he thinks for a heart-stopping moment I might have morning sickness.

“Just to have a look,” I say. “It won’t take long.”

A trip down memory lane, then we’ll be on our way.

I crawl our rental car round the Oxfordshire town, circling closer to where I remember my former school once stood, folding forward over the steering wheel, trying to get my bearings. This is harder than I think it will be. Nothing is as I remember it. Most of the grounds have been flattened. The gym is gone, the maths block, the redbrick science labs, everything except those buildings deemed to hold significant historic value—the Old Hall and a couple of boarding houses, subdivided into flats for young professionals. I park outside the chapel, which is now, by the looks of things, a private dental practice. My husband of two days is bemused. Keen to get some miles under our belt on the long drive to Scotland, he hadn’t factored this pit stop into his calculations.

“This is it?”

“Give me half an hour,” I say, squeezing his hand.

I point him in the direction of the White Horse. When he is gone, I walk into the dentist’s, slipping past a young receptionist into the sanctuary-cum-waiting room, repainted a minty orthodontic green. I sit for some time listening to the ominous clinks and skirls and high metallic whines of the hygienist at work. Along the nave, cubicles have been fashioned from low movable walls decorated with huge toothy faces of smiling children. The wooden bench I am sitting on looks like, perhaps even is, the ex act pew that the robed altar servers slumped on during our Sun day service, obscured by puffs of incense. The organ pipes are still in situ, way back up in the balcony behind the choir stalls, which seem quite small, barely room for a handful of girls. On the immovable stone pulpit where Fat Fran, my headmistress of six years, made her daily proclamations, a series of dental brochures, women’s magazines, food and lifestyle glossies have been stacked, some of which, at one time or another over my career, I have contributed to. I rest my head against stone and look up at the arched ceiling. It is very surreal, the dental nurses padding in and out of the vestry in their soft-soled shoes like nuns. Everything so familiar yet nothing quite as it was.

Behind my head is a sequence of very narrow and long stained glass windows reaching all the way to the beams. What shocks me as I sit there is that—unless I actually sit up and twist my neck to look-I can’t remember what they depict, not even if you put a gun to my head. I spent the entirety of my adolescence facing those windows, staring at them every single morning for close to five years, Saturdays excepted, and don’t remember a single detail, not one saint or disciple or even the big man himself, which only goes to show the astonishing depths of teenage self-obsession. Or maybe, more accurately, it says something about me back then. Or my memory of my school days, selective at best.

As I am sitting on the pew a patient comes out of a booth, her jaw clamped down on wadding, her hand holding her cheek. Unsteady on her high heels, dazed, she is guided to a spot next to me. A dental assistant goes to retrieve something important, a prescription perhaps, and the patient’s eyes roam around the arched ceiling and the fluted ironwork. It is an unnerving set ting for a dental practice—the angels and the pulpit and stained glass-perhaps she thinks she is hallucinating. Blood catenates slowly from her empty socket down the gauze in her hand. We are probably the same age. She could have been a King Edmund. She stares vacantly at the neon exit sign as if she is waiting to be collected. Above the vestry door is the Divine school motto carved into a rectangle of wood.
MEMOR AMICI
Remember friends.

“Ha,” I snort out loud.

The patient slowly turns towards me, medicated, her hand still firmly pressed against her cheek. She blinks.

I try to swallow it down, doubling over, in the grip of the kind of stifled laughter that catches you off guard, leaping up your throat during somber moments: funerals, sermons, your fiancé’s art show opening.

My shoulders shake and the pew judders. The patient stands up suddenly, her handbag falling to the floor, its contents spilling.

“Shit, I’m terribly sorry.” I see her lipstick rolling towards the lectern. “Sorry, sorry.”

I put a fist to my chest and thump it. Swallow.

“Sorry.”

I scramble to pick up her bag, holding it out to her.

“This used to be a school,” I blurt, just to say something. “St. John the Divine.”

The poor woman’s numbed head nods slightly, taking her purse. She looks down at a message illuminated on her phone and then over her shoulder at the door, checking for her lift. I assume she isn’t allowed to drive.

“The private school,” I keep going. “The one that shut down; it was in the papers a long time ago, remember? There was a scandal.”

She stares at my face as if I am slowly coming into focus. Enough years have passed for me not to sound completely Divine. I have lived abroad on and off, my accent is sometimes hard to identify, but still, she looks me up and down and her eyes flash. She knows.

“Yeah,” she says. As she talks her wadding unplugs momentarily, exposing ghoulish bloody gums. “And? My mum worked in the kitchen.” She thumbs behind us in the direction of the old refectory. “Sixteen years scrubbing fucking pans, if you must know.”

The right side of the woman’s lip is drooping; her speech has a drunken slur.

“Bunch of stuck-up fucking toffs.”

She plugs the gauze back in, clamps back down on it, waiting to see what I’ll say next. She’s right, of course. But what does she expect me to do, defend my honor, wrestle her to the floor?

I think about my husband, Jürgen, waiting for me in the pub. Jürgen knows how to let moments like this roll over him. He is a pacifist, not someone who can be easily provoked. Despite the fact he’s the artist in our relationship, things that make me flare up with rage don’t bother him at all. When we met I had just come out of a turbulent, itinerant period of life and, exhausted, I suppose you could say that I found his particular brand of considered quietude seductive. That was what I had fallen in love with. Lately I have been trying hard to adopt some of Jürgen’s sangfroid. Plus we are newlyweds. On our honeymoon. I don’t take the bait.

Thankfully a bald man sticks his head around the chapel door, whistles, and gestures at the woman with his thumb. She departs, her high heels clicking sharply on the tiled floor, marching down the nave, past the vestry, and through the arched door.
MEMOR AMICI
I wait a decent amount of time, hovering on a Communion step, then I leave as well. My husband—that word feels so exotic is waiting for me outside, hands in his pockets, resting on the hood of the rental car, chewing slowly. I feel a burst of relief to see him standing there, solid looking and straightforward, not in the least Divine. On our first date he rolled up his sleeves at the sight of the leaking pipe in my kitchen, requesting a wrench. He is a pragmatist, a maker of lists.

“All good?” he checks.

I nod. I turn my back and lean against Jürgen’s chest; he loops his arms around my waist, his chin on my head, and I try to put the incident in the chapel behind me. I should never have come back. I’m embarrassed to have brought him here, to have wasted even an hour of our honeymoon on something so inconsequential. A moment of nostalgia, now gone. We gaze up at the stone statue of King Edmund in the center of the town, close to the bus stop. Five pigeons spar for space on top of his helmet, bobbing and ducking, feather elbows. They flick their shabby gray tails and shit down Edmund’s cloak. An elderly woman tugging a tartan shopping trolley shuffles past us into the market square. Traders hold bananas aloft on hooked fingers, hollering deals. Three old boys in tweed jackets stand outside the bookies smoking. I am acutely aware of how particularly English all this must seem to him, my husband, an Austrian.

Jürgen pulls a piece of fudge from a paper bag and puts it into my mouth.

“Okay. Big drive. Let’s go.”

He checks the fastenings on his bike that is tethered to the boot of our rental car, and as he tugs the frame tight a bald man driving a red Mazda swerves across the road towards us and stops abruptly, blocking traffic. A window hums down, and the woman from the dentist’s leans across the bald man, actually crawling across his lap, the lower half of her face distorted, stiff with pain.

“Hallo there,” my husband says jovially, squatting slightly, “can we help?”

Austrians, particularly country bumpkins like him, are pathologically nice. I’ve seen him dig a car out of the snow for a stranger and drag each of our neighbor’s bins out every week without a word of thanks.

The woman in the Mazda gives him the finger.

She glares at me, her real target, and pokes her swollen head farther out of the window as if there is something urgent she for got to tell me back there in the chapel, her tongue fat and lisping.

“Cunth.”

“Ha.” I laugh nervously. “Ha ha ha.”

Then she spits at me, her gob landing at my feet, and they speed off.

So, this is the way it is. Fourteen years and nothing has changed. She is a townie. I am Divine.

“My god,” my husband says, “Sephine, who was that?”

Hands on his hips, he looks up the road after the Mazda.

“Was that some kind of joke, my god?”

“Forget it,” I say, humiliated, “let’s go.”

I give him a gentle shove towards the car in case the banshee decides to come back. I don’t want her to jinx our honeymoon Two days ago we were exchanging vows at the town hall, grin ning at each other like imbeciles, euphoric

“But I don’t understand; do you know her?”

“No, nothing like that.”

I slip my hands down his hip, taking the keys from his pocket. I unlock the rental car quickly and get behind the wheel. Jürgen sits in the passenger seat, shaking his head.

“Was she from your school then, an old friend?”

I start the car.

“I don’t have any school friends.”

He frowns, as if he’s only just found this out about me.

“You don’t? Why not?”

I have friends, of course, but the oldest and truest friendships I have are the ones I forged at university or soon after, when an element of choice was introduced to the selection process. Plus my husband’s friends, such as they are, though generally not their wives for some reason. Thanks to his extreme niceness, genial blue Austrian eyes, his obvious likability, Jürgen has always been the social one in our relationship. Though these days he’s just as happy to spend an evening at home, working in his studio or tinkering with his bikes. Occasionally we go to a gallery opening or drive visitors around whatever city we are living in, or meet an old editor of mine for brunch. I can count nearly all these friends on one hand. But not one of them is Divine.

“I don’t know,” I tell him with a shrug and turn the key in the ignition. “I just don’t.”

We break the journey in Yorkshire, spending the night in a bed-and-breakfast where we barely leave our four-poster bed. In the morning we scramble into clothes, unwashed, stumbling into the dining room moments before the end of service. The land lady, a stern matronly looking woman, reminiscent of a former housemistress of mine, stands with her hands on her hips, scowl ing at the clock. We slip sheepishly into our seats, trying not to laugh. Across the room two women, dressed in shorts and walk ing boots, barely glance up from their maps. A middle-aged man butters his mother’s toast. Next to us an elderly couple smile and raise their glasses of orange juice.

“Congratulations,” the wife says, leaning over and patting Jürgen on the back of his hand.

“Is it that obvious?”

The couple smile knowingly at each other.

Jürgen’s T-shirt is inside out, my hair unkempt. As we brush against each other under the table, there’s a stench between my thighs, musky and sour, like overripe fruit. I cringe, thinking of our attic room, the paper-thin walls and creaking bed frame, and bury my head in Jürgen’s shoulder. The landlady slams a teapot on the table in front of us.

Jürgen asks the couple how long they’ve been married.

“Forever,” the old man groans

His wife flaps her napkin at him.

“Fifty-four years this September,” she says.

I can feel Jürgen’s fingers as they weave through mine, how his wedding band grates over my knuckles as he squeezes, causing me to wince.

“Any advice?” Jürgen asks.

The elderly pair gather their room key and newspaper and spectacles from the table. The husband gets up and pulls back his wife’s chair so she can stand.

“Be kind,” the wife says.

They nod at us.

“Good luck.”

During checkout Jürgen stops in front of the landlady and kisses me, a hand slipping down the back of my trousers, and then we pack up the car and are back on the road. I begin to think that the unpleasant incident at St. John’s is forgotten, that the whole ugly scene is behind us. But then, unexpectedly…

“No school friends,” Jürgen says, sliding his hand up and down my thigh as I join the motorway. “That’s interesting, you know?”

I can see that my new husband finds this baffling. I wish I’d never mentioned the word Divine. He can’t let it alone. He taps one finger against the glass as we cross the border into Scotland, staring out at the uneventful landscape, green fields with yellow pocket handkerchiefs of oilseed rape, culs-de-sac, warehouses and roadside cafés, food trucks parked in rest stops. We have another four hours of driving ahead of us to get to Skye, not to mention the ferry.

“Not one?” Jürgen checks, uncharacteristically pushy.

“No.”

“How come?”

The four men that are his best friends all come from the same Salzburg village where he grew up. Andreas, Hansi, Thomas B, Thomas F. Two of them were christened together, they went to the same school, shared their first cigarette in Hansi’s woodshed, stole their grandparents’ schnapps, chased their first girlfriends on Krampusnacht, pretending to be the Christmas devil, masked and growling, nipping their sweethearts’ ankles with leather whips, threatening to carry them to the underworld. They have shed blood together, hunted together, drunk wept at each other’s weddings, actually staggering around the dance floor like bears. They are his family, closer than his actual brothers (one older, one younger, who I have to remind Jürgen to call on their respective birthdays). He is loyal to the core and would do anything for these four men, including jumping on a plane at the drop of a hat, or loaning them money without any expectation of return. A private annoyance of mine.

“Were you bullied?” Jürgen wants to know as we pull over to fill up with petrol.

“No. I don’t think so.”

“Unpopular then?” He pokes me. “Eine Streberin. How do you say, a geek?”

“No.”

I grip the pump handle, my knuckles blanching.

“So you loved school?”

“Who loves school? It was fine,” I snap, instantly regretting my tone. “I mean, I don’t remember. Can we just drop it?”

Back behind the wheel he curls his hand around the nape of my neck to soothe me, rubbing his thumb up and down below my ear. He has calluses, little circular pads on the base of each finger from cycling that are rough as pumice.

“You don’t know if you liked school or not? You must remember something.”

“Not really,” I say, wriggling out of Jürgen’s grip, flustered, trying to concentrate on the road.

“Try,” he says.

I don’t answer.

Why won’t I talk to him? Is it just that I’m embarrassed? The boarding school education, the implication of wealth and privilege, the Old Girls’ network. When I met Jürgen (a sculptor I was sent to interview for a Sunday supplement, a rising star), he was still sleeping in a tent in his studio, washing in a sink, subsisting on grants and sporadic commissions. A self-made man, the de scendant of mountain people, literal peasants-cattle herders and cheese makers—he described to me during the course of that first meeting how he’d paid his way through art school felling trees and slaughtering goats.

Jürgen turns his whole body to face me.

“Seriously, you’re kidding, right? You won’t tell me this?”

Ashamed, I say nothing.

He can see that I’m not going to budge.

This does it. Silently thunderous, Jürgen takes out his guide book and reads the history of Skye. His stare bores down into one page then the next. We’re not the kind of couple who bicker. I sit behind the wheel, gnawing on the inside of my cheek, trying not to cry.

On the ferry to Armadale we stand apart, his hood up, my scarf wrapped around my head against the spray. He has his cam era around his neck but doesn’t take one photo. When we get to the island, there are midges, huge biblical clouds of gnats. We cover our mouths with our T-shirts and run into the croft house we have rented, cornered together inside the tiny kitchen.

“Oh my god,” I say, looking out at the bugs creeping all over the window frame, trying to find a way in. I try to make a joke about it but it falls flat. Jürgen is still furious with me, his new wife, for keeping secrets. He sits with the map spread on the floor, his precious road bike propped up against the wall. I open the bottle of single malt I bought on the mainland. I may have taken a few swigs already on the crossing. Dutch courage.

My throat warm, I place the whisky dead in the middle of his map. Jürgen barely looks up. I take off my clothes—it is our honeymoon, after all—and straddle Loch Hourn. Legs spread shamelessly. Afterwards, we lie on the floor and drink the rest of the bottle, picking midges from each other’s skin.

“Please, Sephine,” Jürgen begs. “Remember something. For me.”

“Why are you so interested all of a sudden?”

“That woman, she hated you. She called you a cunt.”

“So?”

“I want to know. I want to know about you back then.”

“No, you don’t.”

I curl under his armpit, press against his warm ribs.

“Liebchen”—he circles the birthmark on my shoulder “please.”

I think of the elderly couple at the bed-and-breakfast. Be kind.

“Fine,” I mutter. I believe, or so I tell myself, in the apotropaic power of marriage. That witch hasn’t jinxed us, we are invincible. Golden even. What harm can it do?

“Memor amici,” I begin.

Remember friends.

Excerpted from the book THE DIVINES: A Novel by Ellie Eaton. Copyright © 2021 by Ellie Eaton. From William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

‘The Orchard’: Featured Fiction from David Hopen

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In our latest edition of featured fiction—curated by our own  Carolyn Quimby—we’re happy to present an excerpt from David Hopen’s debut novel, The Orchard.

The book—a coming-of-age tale about a devout Jewish high school student—received praise from the likes of Susan Choi and Shteyngart, as well as starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist, with the latter calling the novel “brilliantly conceived and crafted” and “Unforgettable.”
***
We were sitting in our living room that evening, after a makeshift dinner of scrambled eggs and several hours unloading boxes, moving furniture, transferring miscellaneous items from one side of the room to the other and back. I was reviewing a page of Talmud with my father when our landline rang. My mother answered; I heard her give loud, exaggerated laughs. Foreign sounds to me.

“Our neighbors,” my mother said, bustling in from the kitchen. “From the house across the street. Cynthia and Eddie Harris—they sound lovely.”

My father stared blankly. “What’d they want?”

“They’ve invited us to a barbecue tomorrow.”

My father’s finger held our place in the Gemara. Damages caused by oxen or by mav’eh are caused by a living spirit. Fire has no living spirit. “And what’d you tell them?”

She looked rosy-cheeked. “That we’d be delighted, of course.”

He nodded slightly, returning his attention to the Talmud. Without another word, we resumed learning.

The barbecue was on a sun-dazzled afternoon. Even in the oppressive Florida heat we dressed as we always did: my father and I in black and white, my mother tzniut in her long sleeves, though I noticed she donned a new floral dress for the occasion.

Timidly, we rang the doorbell and waited for several minutes, admiring the flagstone steps and double-hinged oak doors, my mother elated at the prospect of a social life, my father looking as if he’d prefer to be anywhere else. Eventually, when no one answered, we made our way around the side of the mansion, following the sound of laughter. We opened an iron gate and let ourselves into the party. 

Horror washed over my father’s face as he surveyed the backyard. Wives in short, colorful sundresses, Chardonnay in hand. Men in Burberry polos, gripping beers. Teenage boys and girls thrashing together in the pool, a cardinal sin in our former lives. Dazzlingly alien sights: wealth, charm, hysteria. My stomach turned uneasily.

“Hello, there,” a hearty voice boomed behind us. A thick man in a crisp white polo clapped my father on the back, startling him. “You must be the Edens!” Ever so slightly, my father stole a look at the top of the man’s gelled hair. No yarmulke. The man extended a beefy hand. “Our new neighbors! You guys know how excited we’ve been to meet you? Wasn’t too much love lost with the people who used to own your house. I mean, nice people, I guess, but kept to themselves too

much. We needed new friends.” He squinted, his eyes sweeping the backyard—incidentally the most impressive backyard I’d ever seen: an enormous pool, a marble bathhouse, a Jacuzzi and bar, a fence bordering a picturesque golf course—and shrugged. “I don’t know where Cynthia went off, she must be inside. Come, I’ll bring you in to meet her. Eddie Harris, by the way. Real pleasure.”

My father gave a thin smile, his hand comically small in Eddie’s. “Yaakov Eden.”

“Thanks for coming, Yaakov,” Eddie said, before offering his hand to my mother.

An awful moment followed, my mother staring blankly, caught between the social necessity of extending her hand and our strict custom of refraining from touching non-family members of the opposite gender. I winced, but Eddie realized his mistake quickly and holstered his handshake. “Shit, my apologies!” he barked. “I didn’t realize, excuse my idiocy . . .”

“No, no,” my mother soothed, red-cheeked with embarrassment. “Please, not to worry.” My father assumed the face one might adopt when passing a kidney stone, but Eddie and my mother both gave awkward smiles. “I’m Leah.”

This would have been considerably more painful, perhaps unsalvageable, with someone else. Yet Eddie released a sonic laugh, diffusing any tension. “Don’t mind me, I’m just a shmuck. Most people here aren’t terribly strict about, er, what do you call it? Shomer negiah, right, that kind of thing. Between us, maybe they ought to be, I’ll show you one couple in particular over there, plenty of rumors, though who am I to judge? So, yeah, that whole no-touching thing isn’t really on my radar. But Cynthia’ll kill me when she hears.” After his laughter, Eddie rested his eyes on me. “And your name, sport?” He had quite the handshake.

“Aryeh.”

“No kidding. That was my old man’s name.”

“Oh yeah?”

“A bona fide tzadik.” He paused, sending thoughts heavenward. “I think you would’ve liked him,” he mumbled to my father.

My father nodded courteously, unconvinced.

He turned back to me. “And how old are you, bud?”

“Seventeen.”

“Seventeen? So you’re a junior or senior?”

“Senior.”

“Nice. And you’ll be at the yeshiva in Sunny Isles, I assume? They’re pretty serious folks, let me tell you. I hear they hold mishmar three times a week.”

“I’ll be at Kol Neshama, actually.”

“That other place was much too far of a drive,” my mother said. “Plus, we’re told Kol Neshama is, well, a superior education.”

“Wow, you’re going to the old Voice of the Soul Academy? Who would’ve thought?” He grinned boyishly. “You’ve really got to meet my son, you’re in the same class.” He turned animatedly to my parents. “How great is this?”

They returned his grin politely.

“Noah Harris!” he hollered toward the pool. “Where the heck are you, kid?”

From the water emerged a tall boy with green eyes, long blond locks, an exact replica of his father’s smile and an almost excessive collection of shoulder and abdominal muscles. It was obvious he was an athlete. “Nice to meet you all,” he said, slinging a towel over his shoulders. “I’d shake your hands but I’m sopping.”

“Easy on the shaking,” Eddie said, winking at my mother. “Noah, Ari here will be in your grade at the Academy.”

“No kidding.”

“Yaakov, Leah, what do you say we fix you both stiff drinks, yes? These two don’t need us breathing down their necks.” Eddie slapped my back playfully. “Yaak, you like cigars? No? Well, you do kind of look like a man I could turn into a lover of single malt. I’ve got the perfect thing for you to try. Noah, grab Ari a beer, will you, or a hot dog if he wants? Don’t worry, everything’s kosher.” With that, his large hands took hold of my father, while carefully avoiding contact with my mother, and steered them away.

Noah watched them leave. His arms appeared to flex involuntarily, despite the fact that they hung at ease at his sides. I wondered what it would be like to have such a problem. “Say your name was Ari?”

“Aryeh,” I said. Then, kicking myself: “Ari for short.”

“And you moved from—?”

“Brooklyn.”

“Dope. I have friends on Long Island. Know anybody there?”

“Some,” I said noncommittally, certain we’d have zero mutual friends.

“I went to camp with Benji Wertheimer. Know him?” he asked, hopeful for conversation. “No? Fantastic point guard.”

I shook my head.

“What about Efrem Stern? Okay, Naomi Spitz? Shira Haar? She’s from Kings Point. Everyone knows her, throws Hamptons parties, she’s super pretty?” He laughed. “Don’t tell my girlfriend I said that,” he said confidentially, pointing back toward the pool.

“No, I, uh—I won’t.”

“Where’d you go to school?”

“Torah Temimah.”

“Torah Temimah?”

“Yeah,” I said, feeling small.

“Never heard of it. New school?”

“No. Not really.”

“One of those frum places, then. The shtetl. We talking black hats?”

Just how out of place I was dawned on me. To Noah, whose life, I suspected, involved athletic glory, beach houses, summer parties, I was some staid rabbinical student who had wandered comically into the wrong world, or at least the wrong backyard. And I was not unaccustomed to living as a stranger. I was a stranger in my previous existence, but one who understood that the rules governing each detail of life—how to marry, how to think, how to tie my shoes—were prescribed, always, by an aspirational morality. Standing before Noah, I was a different breed of stranger, someone attempting to hide in plain sight without any understanding of the overarching rules. Camouflaging here, I realized then, would be harder even than in Brooklyn. “Yes,” I said, itching to leave. “Pretty much.”

From The Orchard by David Hopen. Copyright ©2020 by David Hopen. Reprinted courtesy of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. 

Panel Mania: ‘Dune: The Graphic Novel’

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Frank Herbert’s epic science-fiction novel Dune has been adapted into a graphic novel by a creative team that includes Brian Herbert, the author’s son and an acclaimed science-fiction author in his own right, and novelist and comics writer Kevin J. Anderson, with art by Raúl Allén and Patricia Martín. The cover art comes from legendary comics artist Bill Sienkiewicz.
In this nine-page excerpt, Paul Atreides and members of the royal family prepare to travel to—and take control of—the planet Arrakis, the only source of “The Spice,” a rare and valuable substance that extends life and human capabilities.
Dune: The Graphic Novel will be published by Abrams ComicArts in November.

Bonus Link:
Objects of Fear and Worship: The Evolution of Aliens in Literature

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Panel Mania: ‘Naturalist: A Graphic Adaptation’

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Acclaimed science-comics writer Jim Ottaviani and artist C.M. Butzer team with the celebrated biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson to turn Naturalist, his 1994 memoir, into an equally delightful and engrossing graphic work that documents his life and highlights the importance of his career as a biologist.

In this 13-page excerpt, Wilson, in love and recently engaged, heads to New Guinea in 1954 to study his specialty, ants, alone and without high-tech devices, in an intriguing look at how a scientific field investigations were once conducted.

Edward O. Wilson’s Naturalist: A Graphic Adaptation by Jim Ottaviani and C.M. Butzer will be published in November by Island Press.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

‘The End of the Day’: Featured Fiction from Bill Clegg

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In today’s edition of featured fiction—curated by our own Carolyn Quimby—we present an excerpt from Bill Clegg’s second novel, The End of the Day.

The book was called “a thoughtful, well-observed story of a patrician New York City family and its Mexican servants” by Publishers Weekly in a starred review that hailed Clegg’s “splendid prose and orchestrated maneuvering.” And Kirkus dubbed the novel “A moody, atmospheric domestic drama with a mystery novel somewhere in its family tree.

This is not the house she knew. While it still stands exactly where it always has—between the steep pine woods and the top of the short, wide lawn that slopes to the river’s edge—there is something different about Edgeweather. Something missing or altered, something significant, but from the lowered car window it’s nothing Dana can identify.

As she scans the surfaces of the house—the copper drains, the mullioned windows, the vast expanse of old brick—she considers the possibility that it is simply the decades that have passed since she was last here that have made the house seem so unfamiliar. The main entrance, with its old oak door, shallow portico, and white columns, had since college reminded Dana of the boys’ dorms at Penn where she and her friends from Bryn Mawr snuck in on weekends. But it now seems more like the front door to an abandoned asylum.

Here?, Philip asks as he slows the car near the bottom of the portico stairs. Dana is still staring up at the house, surprised to see that much of the glass above and alongside the door has splintered, the paint on the sills fissured and split. Philip tentatively asks where they are. Edgeweather, she says, more to herself than in response to the question, imagining what her great-great-grandfather would think to see the place looking so shabby and neglected. George Willing had built the house for his bride, Olivia, just after they married. From their portrait, which hung above the dining room fireplace, Dana had decided when she was twelve that the people were horribly mismatched—an intelligent beauty from a lesser family and a wimpy rich kid. They had a son not long after they married and then the young husband left to fight in the Civil War. He died at the Battle of Hoke’s Run, in Virginia. Of course he did, Dana thought when she first heard the story. Despite learning in high school that Hoke’s Run was considered by historians more of a tactical blunder that led to terrible defeats weeks later, she’d heard her mother tell people that George Willing had died in the first battle of the Civil War. A battle the Union won, she’d noted in the same proud tone she used when describing the house’s grandeur—the six columns that lined the river side of the house, the too-large ballroom, the ceiling which was the house’s greatest extravagance, a loose replica of one designed by Robert Adam that George’s mother had seen in an English country house and described to her son as the most beautiful in the world. It was an enormous production of meticulous plasterwork, detailed with ribbons, urns, and rosettes decorating ovals and octagons painted in pastel pink and green and blue. Many of the ovals and roundels framed paintings—all classical depictions of wedding celebrations. 

The ballroom furniture and mirrors were either original Chippendale pieces designed by Adam or the closest possible approximation. The four large oval mirrors had been salvaged from a destroyed castle in Wales and repaired in London before being carried by boat to Connecticut. These were apparently a point of dispute between the architect and George, who insisted they appear at each end of the ballroom, on either side of the great fireplaces. George, of course, won. But to Dana’s eye, the house lost. Highly ornamented with carved swags and festoons, the mirrors had always struck Dana, like the rest of the room where they hung and indeed the whole house, as gilded evidence of an insecure husband’s fears of inadequacy. Even its name, Edgeweather, seemed off to her—a straining, willful amalgam of the names of more celebrated houses.

And still it stands, she thinks, looking at it now, both annoyed and relieved. Filled with most of the same furniture and decorations, covered in sheets, in rooms darkened by closed interior shutters and drawn curtains. All of it, along with the house in Palm Beach, the apartment in New York and nearly two centuries of cautiously invested family windfalls, became Dana’s when her mother died in the mid-eighties. She sold everything but Edgeweather, which she had not visited since she was thirty-six years old. Real estate agents and even the wife of a famous Wall Street billionaire had reached out to Dana to see if she were interested in selling. As easy as it was to get rid of everything else, it had surprised her to realize that she couldn’t let go of the old house. It still did.

Edgeweather’s only resident now was a local named Kenny who occupied the apartment where the Lopezes had once lived. He kept the pipes from freezing in the winter, the lawn mowed in the summer, and hauled away the giant pines when they collapsed across the driveway. Or at least this is what his emails, that Marcella printed up and placed on Dana’s desk once a month, described. Eyeing the roofline where it meets the top of the nearest column, it occurs to Dana that Kenny could have made everything up and for all she knew turned the place into a casino, which, as she imagines the locals getting drunk and spinning roulette wheels in the ridiculous ballroom, only the smallest, pettiest part of her is bothered by. The part that hates being taken for a fool, or worse, being left out. But mainly the idea amuses her, especially when she imagines how her mother would react. The possibilities so engross Dana that when Philip turns the car engine off and politely excuses himself to find somewhere to go to the bathroom, she does not notice. When he returns, she snaps out of her trance and tells him to drive the car around to the side of the house that faces the river. He hesitates. Don’t worry about the lawn, she says and as the words leave her an old caution enters, slows her breath. Joe Lopez, whose dominion included the grounds around the house, spent many hours seeding, mowing, and weeding the lawn. Dana had seen him explode more than a few times when service trucks backed up onto the grass or when Lupita played there. She once saw him yank her so hard by the arm it looked like it would come right off of her body. Lupita had been holding one of Dana’s bicycles in the middle of the back lawn, eyes closed and counting because Jackie and Dana had told her that once she reached one hundred she should come find them. They never planned on being found. The point was to ditch Lupita, run to Jackie’s, and play in her bedroom where she could not find them. Dana remembers telling herself, and Jackie, that her mother was strict about her not playing with the children of people who worked for them. And she was. But she also remembers calling out to Lupita to ask her to play hide and seek, rolling the bicycle toward her and instructing her to hold on to it while they hid. What surprises her now is that there had been so little motive involved, the cruel impulse so fleeting and arbitrary, so strangely impersonal. She can’t remember if she felt guilty or upset when she watched Joe Lopez drag his daughter back to the garage, but she remembers being struck by how totally compliant Lupita was, how silent.

On the lawn? Are you sure it’s ok? Philip asks nervously, as if he, too, knew the wrath of Edgeweather’s former, now long-dead, caretaker.

Yes, she says plainly, trying to stifle her need to use the bathroom by focusing on the house as Philip steers the car onto the grass. From this angle, parts of the house match her memory—the six preposterously large white columns still evoking the Antebellum South; the slate roof the same high cold lid it always was— but the effect is altogether different, less convincing. Mainly, she has the impression, which she’d never had before, that the house does not belong where it is. That it’s no longer in harmony with the woods, river, and hills around it, and as a result appears less inevitable. And it was that inevitability, its hulking permanence— seeming to have forever been right where it was—which had always been its power.

Late morning sun flames every window it faces. At first the light animates the house with what looks like life, an amused shimmer that could almost be mistaken for a warm welcome. But Dana knows that even before the sun inches past three o’clock and begins to hide behind the hills, the friendly glow will vanish and the house will return to its most enduring air: indifference.

Dana gets out of the car and walks several tentative steps toward the river. Unlike the house, which seems altogether less than she remembered, the river appears wider and more robust. She closes her eyes and listens to the sound of rushing water. She imagines where it goes after it passes Edgeweather, along Undermountain Road, down past Cornwall and Kent toward one of those terrible lakes choked with vacation houses and motorboats. How she knows about these lakes she cannot remember, but she shakes the vision of oil-slicked water and sunburned families and opens her eyes.

She walks to the rocky edge of the lawn where there had once been a small beach made from bags of sand Dana’s mother had Joe haul from a delivery truck parked in the driveway. The beach is long gone and in its place a chaos of river rubble—sticks and beer cans, a sun-bleached grocery store circular, half-buried rocks. She and Jackie spent so many evenings here, obsessively curating collections of river stones, sorting them by color and shape, pretending they were rare jewels from a fairy’s treasure. They’d embellished an old story Dana’s grandmother had liked to tell them about an enchanted family who lived in the woods called the Knees who’d cast a spell that disguised their jewels as stones and hid them in the river for safekeeping. Dana cannot remember the origins of the treasure, nor how it had come to the Knees for protection. Neither can she remember what had happened to all those stones—if they’d stored them each year between summers or thrown them back into the river—only that she and Jackie had been committed to the project and it went on for years.

A smooth fist-sized rock bisected by a dull vein of quartz lies at her feet and she stoops to pick it up. It fits her palm perfectly, chilling her hand as she folds her fingers around its dark gray surface. She imagines her old friend stubbornly hiding behind her metal blinds. She wonders if she’s opened her front door yet, discovered what she’d left there.

Dana squeezes the rock in her hand. It feels good to hold something sturdy and real and from the natural world. With her free hand she rubs a spot of dirt from the quartz vein but it still does not shine. The failed effort makes her both long for and pity the two girls who used to toil at the river’s edge and make up stories about fairies and enchanted treasure. She turns back to the house, looks up at the wide pediment atop the columns. Here, on the third floor of the house, is where she and Jackie spent the most time. It was what Jackie referred to as the “normal” part of the house, because the floors were covered in simple carpets and decorated with soft couches and chairs with modern fabrics. The white-carpeted, periwinkle-curtained room they’d decorated and then slept in most Saturday nights looked like one they might see on a television show set in a middle-class suburb. There were no delicate antiques to tiptoe around as there were on the first two floors, including in Dana’s bedroom which had a canopy bed that her mother claimed had been the bed of George Washington’s daughter. Who died of epilepsy, her grandmother liked to add. Dana’s parents never went up to the normal part of the house.

Dana eyes the crescent window above the middle column.    A memory of being shoved hard against the glass there begins to surface, but before she allows herself to remember more she notices tiny bits of dead vine still clinging to the painted wood beneath the window sash. And then, finally, she sees what is not there. The ivy. The entire house had been stripped clean of its old garment, vines and leaves that once swarmed the gutters and windows, frocked the brick with green in summer and red in fall. How had she not noticed right away?

Of course it looked out of place. Of course it seemed less sure of itself. It’s naked!, she blurts out loudly and pictures an old Park Avenue matron stripped, hosed down, and sent into The Colony Club at tea time. Dana looks more closely at the house and sees many of the bricks are cracked and loose, chunks of mortar fallen to the lawn. She starts to laugh. The sound she makes is triumphant, cruel. She sees the house but at the same time she sees her mother without hair or jewelry or makeup. A vain woman without armor, three stories high. More than two hundred years old, powerless to hide her age or obscure her wrinkles, all the old tricks taken away or no longer effective.

She is breathless, cackling, and it feels exactly right. She has come back for the first time in more than thirty years to stand before this house that is hers but not home—all the brick and glass and wood that a smitten rich kid could assemble in the middle of the nineteenth century—and with the same contempt it had shown everyone who had ever looked at it, she laughs, with such abandon and force that Philip approaches to see if she is all right. She waves him off without being able to make words but catches his eye and points to the house as if its disgrace were obvious. Look, she finally manages, and when he gazes on the place with palpable awe she turns her back on him. His reverence momentarily breaks the spell and she begins to breathe normally. She crosses the lawn and climbs the steps to the long wide terrace behind the columns. In the summers when she was young, there had been white canvas awnings that stretched over wicker sofas and chairs covered with green cushions and arranged around glass-topped tables set with fresh cut flowers. Now there is nothing but paint peeling from the moldings, the columns, and the steps. She sees a thick curl jutting out from the center left column and, slowly, she pulls the long sheet back and down until it reaches the column’s base. She yanks it free and drops it at her feet. She thinks of Joe Lopez again, almost wishes he was still alive to see how Edgeweather had decayed on her watch.

She stifles a wicked giggle as she steps off the terrace and heads toward the side of the house furthest away from the car. She rounds the last column where a library had been added in the 1920s. It was built in the same late Georgian style of the main house and invisible on the approach from the road, but Dana’s mother always thought it looked ridiculous. Her complaint was that its proportions were wrong, suburban was her exact word.

It is here, in the middle of the short glass hallway that connects the house to the library, where she sees the paint. Red letters, outlined in black, covering dozens of small glass panes and the white wood that frames them. The paint streaks beyond the glass windows onto the old brick where the hallway meets the house. Dana stops walking. She remembers her mother in the hospital during her last weeks, Maria Lopez painting her nails with red polish that looked garish against the white sheets and bedclothes, the top of the heart monitor lined with tubes of lipstick and powder. It was a scene so ghoulish and macabre, so far from resembling any recollection involving her mother in her prime, it had, to Maria’s horror, caused Dana to laugh. She is laughing now, though not from the memory of her mother, but in response to the riot of spray-painted profanity. From the other side of the house it sounds like choking and Philip comes running.

When Dana sees him appear, she doubles over with what began as laughter but devolves to a soundless panting. She gestures at the vandalism behind her. But Philip does not look where she points, and it is not the graffiti that spells “assholes” that is responsible for the alarmed look on his face.

Ma’am . . . I . . .

Yet again he is spoiling her fun, but she cannot quite form the words to ask what is wrong. Dana follows his gaze which returns reluctantly somewhere in front of and below her. When she sees what is there she stops laughing. The entire crotch and front of her brown suede pants are dark, soaked through with the reason she had left Jackie’s driveway. In the abrupt vertigo of shock and embarrassment, she stumbles backward, her left heel lands hard on the toe-end of her right boot and in steadying herself she completely loses the thread of where she is, what is happening, who is standing in front of her. Overwhelmed, she squeezes her eyes shut, crosses her arms against her chest, and stands very still.

After a minute, Dana looks up and sees Philip, the shiny black car parked in the grass behind him, and as if she’d vacated her body and suddenly returned, she remembers where she is and how she got here. Philip . . . Jackie . . . Wells. She turns to the house. Edgeweather, she mumbles, recalling her laughter just moments before. Her other heretofore immobilized senses follow and suddenly she’s aware of the wet suede chilling miserably against her thighs, the faint but specific and awful smell there reaching her nose. She does not look back at the paint-splattered windows behind her, but she feels acutely that the house has done this to her, ingeniously retaliated for her heckling contempt. She starts moving toward the car. She keeps her face down as she passes Philip since the only thing that could make the situation worse would be to see the pitying look on his face again. He calls to her from behind, Ma’am, I . . . should we see if someone is home to help?

She stops abruptly. She doesn’t need help, she asserts childishly to herself, fleeing to the car now feeling like a declaration of failure. A cloud that had briefly obscured the sun moves on and light blazes again from every window. Even splattered with graffiti, the house suddenly looks pleased with itself, spectacular. Freshly provoked, Dana tightens her fists and in her right hand rediscovers the stone she had picked up before. Its cool surface, its weight, and the hard quartz crystals her fingers press into give it the feel of a divine weapon.

It is only luck, not strategy or accuracy, that sends the rock into the crescent window above the terrace. If it had landed where she’d aimed, it would have hit the center ballroom window between the columns. But Dana hasn’t thrown anything more than a towel or a crumpled receipt since she was a teenaged girl and so her hand unclenches long before her arm has completed its movement and the rock flies up instead of straight, but with enough momentum to shatter the surface it hits. The bright, cracking sound on impact and the after-clatter of glass falling to the porch steps below is glorious. That she has inadvertently smashed Edgeweather’s highest window is victory enough to restore Dana’s equilibrium, and with it the welcome feeling that she is once again strong and in control. 

Unlock the house, Philip, she says, looking directly at him now.

Or do I have to break more glass to get inside?

Copyright © 2020 by Bill Clegg. From The End of the Day by Bill Clegg, published by Scout Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.

Panel Mania: ‘My Broken Mariko’

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In manga artist Waka Hirako’s My Broken Mariko, Tomoyo, a young professional woman, is shocked to learn that Mariko, her closest friend, has committed suicide. But Tomoyo also knows Mariko was physically and psychologically abused by her father from a young age.
In this eight-page excerpt, Tomoyo decides to avenge the unnecessary death of her friend and honor her life by stealing Mariko’s ashes from her abusive father and taking her friend on a final journey to memorialize her life.
My Broken Mariko by Waka Hirako will be published by Yen Press in September.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

‘Pink Mountain on Locust Island’: Featured Fiction from Jamie Marina Lau

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In our latest edition of featured fiction—curated by our own Carolyn Quimby—we present an excerpt from Jamie Marina Lau’s debut novel, Pink Mountain on Locus Island.
Shortlisted for Australia’s Stella Prize, the novel was praised by Kirkus as “hallucinatory…impressionistic…Hypnotizing and inscrutable.”

SOLOMON’S SINK
An allowance is not the same as approval. When I was nine, my dad handed me five dollars every beginning of the week and then got mad at me at the other end of the week for spending it. This happened for four years until he quit his job at the university.
Nothing was gained under the sun, nothing was gained under the sun, nothing was gained under the sun. Nothing was gained under the sun, nothing was gained under the sun, nothing was gained under the sun. Nothing was gained under the sun, nothing was gained under the sun, nothing was gained under the sun. A beggar in front of the 7-Eleven repeats this, sitting on a cardboard mat.
Santa Coy gives me five dollars to buy some kind of drink for the party he’s taking us to later. In this shop, I buy a red sealed bottle. We’ve become princes and kings.
We take the train uptown to Santa Coy’s home and inside it’s unpigmented; smells like cotton or silk shirts. Air conditioner convention centre, black Rover Defender double garage, bedroom with ivy white walls. We don’t enter his bedroom, we go to his parents’. Big Pollock painting.
His parents’ wardrobe is ideal foot-space. He passes me his mother’s fur coat.
I’m looking at the blood stained on her surgeon’s uniform. Santa Coy watching me watch it.
It’s hard to get blood out, says Santa Coy.
Santa Coy opens a drawer, asks me to choose a lipstick colour.

I pick 466 Carmen of the Coco collection.
Behind it is black tang. Santa Coy watching me watch it.
He says this is a Glock 17 Gen 2. He pulls it out from behind the lipstick drawer. My parents get paranoid. He grins. He holds it unlike cowboys do in movies, he doesn’t touch the trigger. He puts it back quickly.
We sit on his parents’ bed, he does my make-up. I’m becoming a canvas but I want to be the body painted on top of it.
Do you know why your dad was beaten up for real? he asks.
I shake my head and tell him that I didn’t really question it for too long, that it’s not too far from making sense. Santa Coy screws his face up and says, that’s hurtful. I shrug. He draws thicker eyebrows for me.
He faked, Santa Coy murmurs.
What’d he fake?
Santa Coy concentrates on my eyebrows—he’s squinting, jelly for eyes.
I ask him again: what’d he fake?
He says: you know. The stuff we sell. He clears his throat.
I frown with new stiff eyebrows that are drying to the breath from Santa Coy’s lips.
I say: art?
Santa Coy sniffs and says: sure.
He traces my eyebrows, puts his black lint coat on.
He brings out beaten-up high-top 95s from a big cabinet of shiny fresh foot accessories, puts them on, wears a sport bag and we leave.

A red-lit home on the south side, near the docks. Where the houses are close together with green island trees outside. Apartments: building themselves to block the paradise views.
When we walk in, everything gets hotter. Everything is getting hotter, and people are cooling down.

A girl in a red one-piece swimsuit paints the walls red with a wide brush. Later she’s painting a man in coat and tails all red. Sharp rock sculptures around, which people view up close and from metres away, gathering around the artwork in snarky little clumps. An open viewing ceremony.
Around the room there are people naked and others in big coats. They are pink under the big coats and they carry paper bags of sexy bottles and glasses of champagne. Somebody’s filming this whole thing from the next floor up.
Santa Coy’s got a thousand concubines. Some of them young women, some of them young men, some of them old women, a small portion of them old men. They flood to him and he stands in the centre like a dome, and he’s got this grin on his face. He pulls me in so that I’m standing right up next to him. An archipelago. I drink my wine in four gulps and feel nothing. Then I’m in the bathroom and it slowly breaks my brain in half. It’s a slow sawing, friction strategy.
A man has turned up with a bunch of videotapes and puts one into a television in the upstairs section. There are people crowding around to see it and Santa Coy leans over to me. He whispers into my ear that this guy owns the house, that he’s known to do this every time people come over: brings out his old home videos and cries to them while everybody else stands around. And some people say that when he first started doing this he owned more furniture, but slowly got rid of it all so more people could stand inside and watch. That instead of furniture he installed all these rock sculptures, tall and thin and unable to break. That this is why it’s so hot in here: because this man spends all his electric billing on heating, so people will stay. I stare at the home video playing: it’s a video of a little boy watching television and his mother trying to get his attention. Then the scene changes to a family filming themselves singing happy birthday to some kind of grandmother. I ask Santa Coy why this man wants heaps of people watching his personal home videos. Santa Coy thinks for a bit. Somebody shrieks outside. The shrieking continues in spiky intervals. Santa Coy says: I guess it’s some kind of validation or something. That this man needs people to see that he exists, or existed, or some sad shit like that.
I ask Santa Coy: isn’t that exactly what you do? Isn’t your shit the same sad shit?
Santa Coy says, I never said it wasn’t.
Used by permission from Pink Mountain on Locust Island (Coffee House Press, 2020). Copyright © 2020 by Jamie Marina Lau.

Panel Mania: ‘Blade Runner 2019’

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In Blade Runner 2019: Off World, the graphic novel sequel to Ridley Scott’s acclaimed 1982 dystopian sci-fi film, Ash Ashina, a blade runner or bounty hunter charged with tracking down and destroying bioengineered humanoids known as replicants, has separated from Cleo, the daughter of business tycoon Alexander Selwyn, whom she rescued and transported to the Off World colonies.
In this excerpt, it’s seven years later and Ash has been tracked by Hythe, a new and typically ruthless Blade Runner hired in the wake of a violent replicant uprising.
Blade Runner 2019 by Michael Green and Mike Johnson, with art by Andres Guinaldo, will be published this month by Titan Comics.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Panel Mania: ‘Chasin’ The Bird’

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Dave Chisholm’s graphic biography, Chasin’ the Bird: Charlie Parker in California, is a superbly crafted and imaginative record of a legendary two-year period beginning in 1945 during which bebop innovator Charlie Parker traveled to California as part of band put together by his close friend Dizzy Gillespie.

Organized around six “choruses” based on episodes in Parker’s life told by close associates, the book—a masterful celebration of a musical genius who continues to influence jazz today—offers vivid accounts of his life, his tragic addiction to drugs, and his extraordinary alto saxophone improvisations and timeless bebop compositions.

In this six-page excerpt, the great tenor saxophonist John Coltrane describes when he first met Parker and the transformative conversation that ensued between the two giants of modern jazz improvisation.

Chasin’ The Bird: Charlie Parker in California by Dave Chisholm will be published by Z2 Comics in September.

Bonus Link:
Ten Essential Music Biographies

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

‘Tomboyland’: Featured Nonfiction from Melissa Faliveno

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In today’s edition of featured nonfiction—curated by our own Carolyn Quimby—we present an excerpt from Melissa Faliveno’s Tomboyland, out now from TOPPLE Books.
The debut essay collection from the former senior editor of Poets & Writers earned praise from the likes of Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and Booklist, which described the book as “a full-dress portrait of a writer whom most readers will be intrigued to know.”
And in our most recent book preview, Quimby wrote:

BDSM. Gun culture. Gender identity. Motherhood (and non-motherhood). Tornadoes. Girlhood. These are just some of the topics that Faliveno explores in her wide-ranging, triumphant debut essay collection. With tenderness and honesty, Faliveno explores boundaries, intersections, and the overall blurriness of life. Melissa Febos says the book is “a gorgeously complex ode to the Midwest that is destined to be passed urgently from hand to hand, an anthem sung by all the misfits in those vast places who have not yet seen themselves written.” And I couldn’t agree more.

The summer after my senior year, I was invited to train at the home of the best softball coach in the state. My coach had arranged the visit, and we drove there together on a Saturday morning in June. The best coach in the state lived about an hour north of my hometown, in another small town just like it, where sports, and especially girls’ softball, carried a long and storied tradition. The coach lived out in the country and had built his own ball field and batting cage in his backyard in a clearing among a dense circle of tall pine trees. He invited only a few girls to train privately with him there.
In the fall, I was going to play softball at the University of Wisconsin, the top program in the state and one of the best in the country. This was the plan. I had interest from other schools, smaller programs in the state and across the Midwest, but I was holding out for UW. After national recruits were made, a handful of girls from throughout Wisconsin were formally invited to try out as walk-on freshmen. I was one of them. Only two or three players would get a spot.
In the backyard of the best coach in the state, I took swings. Cuts, they called them. The two men watched me from behind. I was calm in the cage, my fingers wrapped loosely around the black-tape grip of the bat. I dug my feet into the ground, pivoting into the pitch, finding the sweet spot, and connecting with the ball. I watched it fly up and away, then get swallowed in the black netting of the cage.
I felt their eyes on me. No matter how focused on the task at hand, I was always aware of my body, hoping my coach was watching. That he noticed the muscles in my arms as they twitched and flexed, my hips as they rotated left—as they drove forward, hard and quick, into the swing.
Each time I connected, the two men said, Atta girl. Or That’s it. Or There it is. Each time I missed, they said, You got this, kid. You got this. Or Follow through. Or Eyes on the ball, babe, eyes on the ball. On the infield, at shortstop, I crouched low, my glove just above the dirt. The best coach in the state stood at home plate with a five-gallon bucket of balls and a bat. He drove each ball up the middle, down the pipe, shot line drives at chest height. I stopped them all, scooping the balls from the dirt and firing them to first, where my coach stood to catch them. I launched each ball directly into the pocket of his glove with a loud snap that echoed through the trees around us.
“Thatta girl,” he shouted with each snap, grinning with pride, and I radiated with joy.
When they sent me to center field, the two men took turns taking hits from home plate. Bucket after bucket of balls, their big bodies grunting and sweating as they swung. I sprinted. I dove. I worked harder than I ever had. I caught every ball. I pushed my body to perform each task at the highest possible level. I was the strongest and the fastest and the best I’d ever been. From home plate, a hundred feet away, the men watched me. They shouted and yelled and cheered, their big deep voices like shots of adrenaline, filling up my throat and chest, keeping my body going.
Nothing about that day seemed strange to me then. I’m sure nothing about it seemed strange to my parents or my teammates or anyone else in the community. There’s nothing strange at all, particularly in a small town, about girl athletes and the men who coach them. It’s simply a way of life. I was simply an athlete, training with two coaches out in the country. I was a teenage girl, performing for two adult men in a circle of trees. I was a girl who would have done anything for their approval, to make them believe I was good. So that I might believe it too.
Afterward, soaked in sweat and slick with sand, my shirt and shorts stuck to my skin, my body hot from the high summer sun, I walked in from the field toward the men standing at home plate. The best coach in the state nodded and smiled.
“You’ll make it if you want it,” he said.

I didn’t make it. On the day of tryouts, a cool September morning on the University of Wisconsin field—where I’d arrived at sunrise, the huge silent beauty of the stadium like a chapel—I choked. The semester had yet to begin, but I’d moved into the dorms by then, continuing my training on campus—running the bike paths at dawn, sprinting up stadium stairs, lifting weights during the day, and hitting the cages at night. I was at the top of my game. But that morning, I missed balls in the outfield; I fumbled grounders in the dirt. At batting practice, I don’t remember if I hit a single ball. I ran the bases as hard as I could, but my legs felt like rubber, disconnected from my body. I didn’t make the cut. I still had an offer from a reputable Division III school a few hours north, but I turned it down. It was either the best or it was nothing at all.
For a long time, the words of the best high school coach in the state would haunt me: You’ll make it if you want it. I thought I had wanted nothing else. I couldn’t understand what could have possibly happened. I couldn’t believe what I had lost and couldn’t imagine my life without it. It took me years to understand that maybe, in the end, I hadn’t wanted it after all. So much of what I did—the training, the lifting, the practicing—had been about my coach. Maybe, I started to wonder, it had all been about him, more than it had ever been about the sport. This was the story I began to tell myself, and the one I eventually believed. At some point along the way, I forgot that I had once loved the game.
Excerpt from: Tomboyland. Copyright © 2020 by Melissa Faliveno. Published in August by TOPPLE Books.
Bonus Link:—Freedom in Telling the Truth: Melissa Faliveno Interviews Adrienne Brodeur