Panel Mania: ‘The Forbidden Harbor’

Teresa Radice and Stefano Turconi’s beautifully illustrated graphic novel Forbidden Harbor combines high adventure, betrayal, and mystery on the open sea with a deeply moving love story in a richly imagined literary tribute to the ships, sailors, and mythologies of 19th-century tall ship sailing.
In this nine-page excerpt, the crew of the Explorer discovers a mysterious stowaway and takes him to the ship’s captain, Nathan MacLeod. The captain quickly realizes that he and the young man share an unexplainable connection to a woman MacLeod has fallen deeply in love with. Forbidden Harbor will be published in September by NBM.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

‘The Trojan War Museum’: Featured Fiction from Ayse Papatya Bucak

In our latest installment of featured fiction—curated by our own Carolyn Quimby—we present an excerpt from O. Henry and Pushcart Prize winner Ayse Papatya Bucak’s debut collection, The Trojan War Museum: And Other Stories, out today from W.W. Norton.

Kirkus called the book “cerebral yet high-spirited,” while Publishers Weekly, in its starred review, praised Bucak’s “remarkable, inventive, and humane debut.”
“The Gathering of Desire”
It was the age of automatons and already there was a fly made of brass, a mechanical tiger, an eight foot elephant, and a duck that swallowed a piece of grain and excreted a small pellet.  There was a dancing woman and a trumpet playing man. A miniature Moscow that burned and collapsed and sprang up again.  
And once there was, and once there wasn’t, 
in the time when magic was mystery and science was fact,
in the time when God’s hand could arm man’s puppet, 
when miracles were seen to be believed, and schemes were believed to be seen, 
there was the Ottoman Turk, the chess-playing mechanical man.  

Philadelphia, 1827

Outside the Turk’s cabinet is the stage, the audience, and an opponent coaxed out of the crowd by Maelzel the showman.  Inside the Turk’s cabinet is the dim light of the candle, its smoke which does not ventilate as quickly as it burns, the magnets and mechanics that allow S. to control the automaton’s movements, the small chessboard that allows him to control the larger game.  Outside of the cabinet is all of the mystery and wonder and suspicions that he alone should be free of, the one person who does not have to ponder how it works—inside is a man, him. He is the Turk’s beating heart, he is its brain. Its skill is his, its first move, its reactions, the many wins and few losses, all his. And yet.  

Outside the cabinet, the Turk is a champion. Inside the cabinet there are only endless moves, no trickier than the moves S. makes to slide his mechanized seat from left to right, from front to back as Maelzel the showman opens the various doors of the cabinet to prove to the audience that nobody is inside.  Maelzel is a master of proving what is not true.  

Still there are rumors.  A boy, a dwarf, a man without legs.  Some have even guessed the truth, mentioning S. by name.  And yet the crowds arrive. They will not relinquish their amazement.

They have been performing in Philadelphia a month already when she comes to the stage, the last match of the night.  “Never a woman before,” Maelzel announces to the crowd. “Finally a woman. Can she beat the Turk? Can she?”

In the café in Paris, S. sometimes played women, sometimes they flirted with him, but rarely.  His appearance was not one to draw women in, nor was his manner. It is no matter: he will play whomever.  

Gone are the days of playing masters.

“What is your name, Madam?” Maelzel asks, but S. does not hear her answer.  

She takes the stage surprised.  She did not mean to volunteer. Her children willed her to, she believes.  The power of them together, wishing, with the same force that caused her to take them to the performance in the first place, the first time any of them have gone out since the disappearance (death, she tells herself) of her husband, their father, Thomas, eight months ago.  

There have been whispers: another family, a secret debt, a sudden madness.  But she does not believe them. Given a mystery, people, she finds, force startling narratives on the unlikeliest characters.  Thomas was a Quaker, a teacher and reformer, a person of family; and now people want to believe him less than he was. But she does not care what they want to believe.  After all her time in the faith, after all her efforts to hold their community together–it astonishes her to realize it–but she does not care if she sees any of them again.  Instead all of her work goes to accepting the most logical truth: she will never know what happened, and Thomas will always be gone. Every day she must convince herself of this or else she will merely pass the time waiting for his return.

Her first look at the Turk is no more than a glance. But when she looks more steadily at him, she wants to laugh—at his height, his fur-lined robes, his ridiculous turban. There is an air of the absurd to the whole occasion, playing chess on stage against an oversized toy–but she finds she feels sorry for him.  His dark downcast eyes, painted on of course, make her think of a serious man forced to attend a costume party. He’s sad, she thinks, before she can chase the idea away. He reminds her of Thomas on the occasions when he was forced into society and she was the one to comfort him with the thought of coming home again.

She settles in her seat, arranges her skirts, focuses on the ivory pieces in their familiar formation in front of her.  She looks out into the audience, tries to see her children, but all is darkness and shadow.  

Thomas Jr. is fourteen, while Margaret is eleven, but in recent months they have twinned themselves.  During meals they stare across the table, one at the other, refusing any longer to eat meat and pretending—yes, pretending, she is certain—they are able to communicate without speech.  They take long walks by themselves, and force her to wait through long silences before they will answer any question. They all live now in her father’s house; she herself sleeps in the room she had as a child, a strange comfort, and the children have two small rooms adjacent to each other, with a door in between.  At night she can hear them talking across the divide, though as much as she strains she cannot make out what they say. During the days they frequently close themselves in one room or the other, and though she stands often outside the door, it is so quiet that she feels forbidden to enter or even knock. 

She has thought sometimes of sending Thomas Jr. away to school.  

Perhaps she is jealous.  They have each other.  

But she is their mother; it is grounded in love, her concern.

She herself has stopped going to meetings, no longer calls on anyone, rarely receives calls from anyone; she has refused all invitations for missions and cancelled those that were already scheduled.  Perhaps her children’s strangeness is merely a reflection of her own. She cannot seem to move forward in her old life, nor determine how to begin anew.

“Madam will have the first move,” Maelzel says, though she knows that is not the Turk’s custom.  It is because she is a woman, she assumes, but she does not argue.

It was Thomas who taught the children chess, and after his disappearance (death, she tells herself) it was her father who taught her, when she and the children moved into his house, when it became clear Thomas was not returning and that she needed both shelter and a job, and her father had, so gently, offered both.  Now the four of them play long tournaments, the only thing to reliably keep the children in her presence. 

She had thought she was a good mother.  Before.  

She studies the pieces, imagines the game ahead.  She wants very much to win. For them, she thinks, so they will be proud of her.  She should find it wrong she knows, to want so much, to be on this stage even, but it is hard to believe now that God would concern himself with such things. 

She is embarrassed to see her hand quiver as she raises it over the board, but thankfully only Maelzel is close enough to notice.  She glances up at him, and he smiles.  

“Do not worry, Madam, he has not leapt at anyone yet,” he announces loudly and the crowd laughs.

How angry people make her lately.  She constantly wishes for more grace, but finds herself failing daily at the task of merely being kind.  Only her father is still patient with her.

It has been a surprise to her, how grief has changed her.

 She takes a breath.  Makes her first move.  Waits for the Turk to make his.

Excerpted from The Trojan War Museum: And Other Stories. Copyright (c) 2019 by copyright holder. Used with permission of the publisher W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Holy in the Hands of Old Oak: Featured Poetry by Alexandra Teague

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from Or What We’ll Call Desire by Alexandra Teague. Her book is full of richly-textured pieces like “Driving After Rain,” a poem whose rhythm begins with its first line—a single sentence, dressed with complementing s and f sounds, appended with a final, single word that moves us forward. She’s as skilled moving among phrases and sounds as she is portraying bodies—our ineffable drift through this world: “we were always driving nowhere // and it didn’t matter then.”

“Driving After Rain”
The self like silverware laid out finally for a feast. Brightlanes of light along the gorge this morning, that watery rush
like the waterwheel I used to love to go see at the mill:the War Eagle gushing brown Southern babble
over sunspots of stone, dark flecks of childhoodlifted into swinging buckets, rain pockmarks of failure
or giver or grief churning not in transubstantiation but in waterrising up as water, holy in the hands of old oak;
Oh God, make them like a wheel, not a curse, but a wayto ride the whole way around our bodies
and back—like once in the front seat by an L.A. highway,I’d pull over with a man, a storm
so blinding rain blinding no one saw my skirt liftingagainst steering wheel; we were always driving nowhere
and it didn’t matter then, suspendedlike water I don’t quite understand, how it falls fast enough
to carry itself up and over and still be wholethe way I pretended I wasn’t—knowing he was lying
that he’d ever love me, throwing myself anywaylike this river was everything. As stubble before the wind.  
Inside that mill, flour dusts every skin. So whatif I’m dammed and damned and driven; some days
I’m also shining like spoons milled by water, breadmy mother kneaded as I set knife beside fork—hunger
taught to be orderly as wheels at fairs, that sky-swinging dangerwith its sturdy spokes like psalms splitting the word of God
from the water of every other word.

“Driving after the Rain” by Alexandra Teague from Or What We’ll Call Desire by Alexandra Teague. Copyright © 2019 by Alexandra Teague. Posted by permission of Persea Books, Inc. (New York). All rights reserved.

This Is Our Intimacy Now: Featured Poetry by Carmen Giménez Smith

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from Be Recorder by Carmen Giménez Smith. Her poems often reflect a narrator’s childhood memory or perspective—and these glimpses into the past help sharpen the present.

In this poem, Smith shows the pain of seeing a parent struggle, someone who was once “remedy and anchor” but is now disoriented, unsure. It’s a moving poem of loss, love, and how both are “beautiful and sad and strange.”

“I Will Be My Mother’s Apprentice”

as if I were a hunger becauseit is our bleak and common futureto reverse the sphinx. I study the meanderof her logic for context. Sometimes it islike a poem that is not quite realizedfilled with hollows and bursts,a stranger’s grief and rage. She asksfor home when she’s home. She screamsfor the purse we haven’t hidden from her.Sometimes we circle the same spots,and I try to be as I know she was with meonce: remedy and anchor. I’m a fairto poor replica, yet still her proxy.

That you didn’t know her is yourmisfortune: a hot planet’s core,late summer’s best light. As metaphorI evoke a pink, vulnerable jelly,translucent and containing the past.I hold it in my hand and against a lamp.This is our intimacy now. My nails tracethe brown spots that mark her losses.Beautiful and sad and strange, I say,because I’ve made her into something else.

“I Will Be My Mother’s Apprentice,” from Be Recorder. Copyright © 2019 by Carmen Giménez Smith. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.

Panel Mania: ‘Drawing Power: Women’s Stories of Sexual Violence, Harassment, and Survival’

Legendary underground comics artist, editor, and feminist Diane Noomin served as the editor for Drawing Power: Women’s Stories of Sexual Violence, Harassment, and Survival, a comics anthology that features a foreword by Roxane Gay.
The book is a powerful and instructive collection of short stories by 60 female artists—each of them offering personal accounts of sexual abuse, using art to reclaim individual power, and challenging a culture of pervasive sexual predation.
This excerpt includes three stories: Lee Mars’s “Got Over It”; Carol Lay’s “A Sampler of Misdeeds”; and Ajuan Mance’s “Delusion of Safety.”
Drawing Power will be published by Abrams ComicArts in September.
TRIGGER WARNING: This excerpt contains information about and images of sexual assault and/or violence that may be triggering to readers.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

‘Goodnight Stranger’: Featured Fiction from Miciah Bay Gault

In today’s installment of featured fiction—curated by our own Carolyn Quimby—we present an excerpt from Miciah Bay Gault’s novel, Goodnight Stranger, out today from Park Row—and recently longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize.

Booklist called Goodnight Stranger “Quietly chilling…A suspenseful meditation on the many ways in which the past, consciously or not, shapes the present.” And George Saunders hailed the book as a “taut, keenly intelligent, and provocative debut…Deeply compelling and enjoyable, suffused with a genuinely thrilling new mode of literary energy.”
Goodnight Stranger
I left work early. I walked quickly as if chased. I wasn’t sure what I was running from, or to. All I knew was that I couldn’t go home. It hurt my chest in a complicated way to think that somewhere in the house I loved so much was the stranger. I felt a knot of fear inside my ribs, a tough bud threatening to blossom open. Instead of going home, I went to Island Pie and ate two slices with tomatoes and broccoli. It began to rain and I stood under an awning on the street. The drops started fat and distinct, making satisfying plunking sounds on the gutters, drumming on the leaves. Then more rain, and more, one long blur, a murmur. The nails holding shingles in place gleamed. The masts of boats flashed out in the harbor.

Eddie, a kind of blur through the rain, waved me over to One Eyed Jack’s.

“Get out of the rain!” he said. “I think I just heard thunder.” 

“I guess I’ll have one drink,” I told him. 

“Totally on me,” he said.

“You’re a real gentleman.”

“Where are the two musketeers?” he said.

“Home.” I felt the muscles of my jaw tighten as I said the word, imagining Cole and Lucas, eating dinner together in a circle of light at the kitchen table, maybe drinking wine out of mason jars. Home certainly didn’t feel like the haven it had always been for me; I was putting off returning to all that was waiting for me there.

Eliot Moniz brought me a scotch and soda. Beside me were the old fishermen. I couldn’t hear their conversation, just comforting cackles of laughter. Over near the back porch, Elijah West was having a beer with his dad and brother. At nine, a band called Gin and Soda started strumming guitars in the corner near the porch. Eddie helped plug in their amp and microphone. Gin was the name of the bass player, an angular girl with thick dark hair. She’d grown up on the Vineyard and she still lived there, but she had a sense of otherness about her somehow.

The whole place was full of people I knew, plus the heartiest of the lingering tourists, artists probably. I liked the late lingering tourists. They typically had a we’re-in-this-together attitude. At the table next to me, the tourists were yelling out the names of towns in New York. New Paltz! Ossining! Poughkeepsie! Redding!

I was lonely. I was envious of the people talking about New York towns. “Saratoga. Ticonderoga. Utica!” They all cheered. The band was playing weepy songs, drawing out the guitar.

Elijah West stopped to say hello on his way out. Elijah had grown up on Wolf Island, but after high school he’d stayed away for fifteen years. He’d become an art photographer. He’d published a book of photographs of bridges that half the islanders now had on their coffee tables.

“You’ve been busy lately,” I said. “I’ve seen you everywhere, snapping away.”

“You saw me, huh? I’m doing another book. On islands. The islands of the world, the charming, forgotten, undiscovered islands. The best islands.”

“Are we one of the best islands in the world?” I asked.

“I think so,” he said. “But I don’t know which ones my editor will pick.”

“What other islands have you done?”

“Remember when I went to Europe last year? There are a lot out there. One of my favorites is St. Michael’s Mount in England. It’s—”

“Oh, I know that one,” I said, “with the little causeway, at low tide.”

“And how it rises out of the, you know, stone. The castle. You’ve been there?”

“I’ve seen pictures.”

“An island is the best place on earth,” Sebastian, the old fisherman, said from nearby. I looked up at him, and he took off his hat. His hair was thick and wavy and white as the dawn.

“I agree,” I said.

“I’ve been all over this earth,” he said, “and no place feels like an island. It’s where you leave your heart. Every time.”

“That’s exactly what I’m trying to capture in this book,” Elijah said.

I beamed at them both. They understood. I loved the island so much I wished I could find some means of expression for my love, but I couldn’t. I was envious of Elijah and his camera, trying to understand the island that way. If I’d been an artist, I would have painted it. If I could have eaten pieces of the island I would have, slabs of rock and sand. If I could have had sex with it, I would definitely have had sex with it. I felt a sudden conviction that the island was in danger, that Cole would do it harm, and it was up to me to protect it. 

“I’ve always lived here,” I said.

“I know,” Elijah said. “Me, too.”

“No,” I said. “You left.”

“I came back,” Elijah said, offended. “Same as you.”

Elijah walked out, and I was alone again, listening to the music: sad, dreamy stuff. I felt displaced, floating, as if my vision and sense of direction were suddenly impaired. I thought, I don’t understand anything. Only what existed in that room. The sounds of the band. The sounds of bottles. The sounds of New York towns being spoken aloud like spells. The smell of salt, beer, and fried fish. The smell of damp wood. The dim light. The sense of companionship between me and Gin and Soda and the bartender and the tourists from New York and Sebastian and the other fishermen.

The scotch went straight to my hands, weighed them down, turned them heavy and tingly. I felt out of touch with them, with my whole real corporeal self.

“There are three types of people in this world,” I told Eliot Moniz when he brought me one more Glenmorangie. “The ones who are dangerous. The ones who love the ones who are dangerous. And the ones who protect the ones who love the ones who are dangerous.” 

“True enough,” Eliot said.

I was a little drunk.

“But which one am I?” I asked.

“I guess that’s the question,” Eliot said.
Excerpted from Goodnight Stranger © 2019 by Miciah Bay Gault, used with permission by Park Row Books/HarperCollins. 

My Poem Will Not Save You: Featured Poetry by Dunya Mikhail

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from In Her Feminine Sign, the new book by Dunya Mikhail. Full of gently-delivered lines that rumble with resonance, Mikhail’s poems are worth pondering—and they will often leave readers with much to carry forward. “My Poem Will Not Save You” begins with an arresting viral image, gracefully delivered—an elegy for this child whose body and soul has taken on another, digital life. Mikhail’s poem reminds us of difficult truths: her poem “will not turn him onto his back / and lift him up / to his feet.” Her poem will not defuse a bomb or block a shell from falling. Poetry might not save us—at least in the way we desire. The poem’s refrain—”I am sorry”—feels so authentic, so necessary.

“My Poem Will Not Save You”
Remember the toddler lying face downon the sand, and the waves gently recedingfrom his body as if a forgotten dream?
My poem will not turn him onto his backand lift him upto his feetso he can runinto a familiar laplike before.I am sorrymy poem will notblock the shellswhen they fallonto a sleeping town,will not stop the buildingsfrom collapsingaround their residents,will not pick up the broken-leg flowerfrom under the shrapnel,will not raise the dead.My poem will not defusethe bombin the public square.It will soon explodewhere the girl insiststhat her father buy her gum.My poem will not rush themto leave the placeand ride the carthat will just miss the explosion.Many mistakes in lifewill not be corrected by my poem.Questions will not be answered.I am sorrymy poem will not save you.My poem cannot returnall of your losses,not even some of them,and those who went far awaymy poem won’t know how to bring them backto their lovers.I am sorry.I don’t know why the birdssingduring their crossingsover our ruins.Their songs will not save us,although, in the chilliest times,they keep us warm,and when we need to touch the soulto know it’s not deadtheir songsgive us that touch.

By Dunya Mikhail, from In Her Feminine Sign, copyright © 2019 by Dunya Mikhail. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

‘Lady in the Lake’: Featured Fiction from Laura Lippman

In this latest installment of featured fiction—curated by our own Carolyn Quimby—we present readers with an excerpt from Laura Lippman’s latest novel, Lady in the Lake, out today from William Morrow.

In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called the book a “smoldering standalone,” adding that readers “will devour this sophisticated crime novel, which captures the era’s zeitgeist while painting a striking portrait of unapologetic female ambition.”
Lady in the Lake 
I saw you once. I saw you and you noticed me because you caught me looking at you, seeing you. Back and forth, back and forth. Good-looking women do that. Lock eyes, then look one another up and down. I could tell at a glance you’ve never doubted you’re good-looking and you still had the habit of checking a room to make sure you were the best-looking. You scanned the crowd of people on the sidewalk and your eyes caught mine, if only for a moment, then dropped away. You saw me, you tallied up the points. Who won? My hunch is that you gave yourself the crown because you saw a Negro woman, a poor one at that. In the animal kingdom, the male performs for the woman, woos her with his beautiful feathers or flowing mane, is always trying to out-strut the other men. Why do humans do it the other way? It doesn’t make sense. Men need us more than we need them.

You were in the minority that day, you were in our neighborhood and almost everyone else there would have picked me. Younger, taller, shapelier me. Maybe even your husband, Milton. Part of the reason I first noticed you was because you were next to him. He now looked exactly like his father, a man I remembered with some affection. I can’t say the same about Milton. I guessed, from the way people gathered around him on the temple steps, patted his back, clasped his hands in theirs, that it must have been his father who had died. And I could tell from the way that people waited to comfort him that Milton was a big shot.

The temple was a block from the park. The park and the lake and the fountain. Isn’t that interesting? I was probably taking a roundabout way to Druid Hill that afternoon, a book in my purse. Not that I liked the outdoors that much, but there were eight people—my father and mother, my sister and two brothers, my two boys and me—living in our apartment and there was never a moment’s peace, to use my father’s phrase. I would slip a book into my purse—Jean Plaidy or Victoria Holt—and say, “I’m going to the library,” and Mama didn’t have the heart to say no. She never faulted me for picking two good-for-nothing men and turning up back home like a bad penny. I was her first and I was her favorite. But not so favored that I could get away with a third mistake. Mama was on me to go back to school, become a nurse. A nurse. I couldn’t imagine taking a job where you had to touch people you didn’t want to touch.

When things got too much at home, when there were too many bodies and voices, I’d go to the park and walk the paths, drink up the silence, drop to a bench, and lose myself in ye olden days of England. Later, people said I was a terrible person, moving out on my own, leaving my babies behind with their grandparents, but I was thinking of them. I needed a man, and not just any old man. My boys’ fathers had proved that much to me. I had to find the kind of man who would

provide for us, all of us. To do that, I needed to be on my own for a little while, even if it meant living with my friend Latetia, who basically ran a one-woman school on how to get men to pay for everything. My mama believed that when you put the cheese out for the mouse, you have to make it look at least a little appetizing. Cut the mold off or place it in the trap so the mold is on the side that doesn’t show. I had to look good and I had to look as if I didn’t have a care in the world, and I couldn’t manage that in my family’s crowded apartment on Auchentoroly Terrace.

Okay, so maybe I could imagine taking a job where you had to touch people you didn’t want to touch.

But what woman doesn’t do that? You did it yourself, I’m guessing, when you married Milton Schwartz. Because no one could fall in fairy-tale love with the Milton Schwartz I once knew.

It was—I can remember if I figure out how old my babies were—1964, late fall, the faintest chill in the air. You had a plain black pillbox hat, no veil. I bet people told you that you looked like Jackie Kennedy. I bet you liked it, even as you denied it with a Who, me? laugh. The wind ruffled your hair, but only a little; you had that ’do shellacked. You wore a black coat with fur at the throat and cuffs. Believe me, I remember that coat. And, boy, Milton looked so much like his father and it was only then that I realized that old Mr. Schwartz had been kinda young and kinda handsome when I was a kid. When I was a little girl, buying candy in his store, I thought he was old. He wasn’t even forty. Now I was twenty-six and Milton had to be almost forty and there you were next to him, and I could not get over what a fine woman he had gotten for himself. Maybe he was nicer now, I thought. People change, they do, they do. I did. It’s just that no one will ever know.

What did you see? I can’t remember what I was wearing, but I can guess. A coat, too thin even for that mild day. Probably came from a church box, so it was pilled and limp, saggy at the hem. Scuffed shoes, run-down heels. Your shoes were black and shiny. My legs were bare. You had the kind of stockings that almost shimmered.

Looking at you, I saw the trick to it: to get a man with money, I would need to look as if I didn’t need money. I was going to have to find a job in a place where the tips came in folding money, not change thrown on the table. Problem was, those kinds of places didn’t hire Negroes, not as waitresses. The one time I got a restaurant gig, I was a dishwasher, stuck in the back, cut off from the tips. The best restaurants didn’t hire women to wait tables even if they were white.

I was going to have to be creative, find a job somewhere that I could meet the kind of men who bought a girl things, which would make me more desirable to the men who played for bigger stakes, allow me to trade up and up and up. I knew what that meant, what I would have to exchange for those things. I wasn’t a girl anymore. I had two sons to prove it.

So when you saw me—and you did, I’m sure of it, our eyes caught, held one another’s—you saw my ratty clothes, but you also saw my green eyes, my straight nose. The face that gave me my nickname, although later I would meet a man who said I reminded him of a duchess, not an empress, that I should be called Helen. He said it was because I was beautiful enough to start a war. And didn’t I just? I don’t know what else you would call it. Maybe not a big war, but a war all the same, in which men turned on one another, allies became enemies. All because of me.

From Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman, published by William Morrow. Copyright © 2019 by Laura Lippman. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollinsPublishers

Panel Mania: ‘Me, Mikko, and Annikki’ by Tiitu Takalo

In this deeply researched work of graphic nonfiction, Finnish comics artist Tiitu Takalo has created an inspiring history of a grass roots movement to save an historic neighborhood from demolition, as well as a love story.

Takalo tells the story Tammela, a deteriorating though richly historical neighborhood of wooden homes in the city of Annikki, Finland, slated to be demolished. That is, until the neighborhood organizes and manages to save it. This 11-page excerpt provides background on the Tammela neighborhood and on Takalo’s relationship to it.

Me, Mikko, and Annikki by Tiitu Takalo (translated by Michael Demson and Helena Halmari) will be published by North Atlantic Books in August.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

‘Let’s Hope for the Best’: Featured Fiction from Carolina Setterwall

In today’s featured fiction, we present our readers with an excerpt from Carolina Setterwall’s debut novel, Let’s Hope for the Best, out today from Little, Brown.

Publishers Weekly called the book—in which Setterwall recounts the intensity of falling in love with her partner and the shock of finding him dead one morning—”austere, quietly disturbing…a starkly unsentimental depiction of the difficulties of life after the death of a partner,” while Kirkus hailed it as “A moving and tender work of autofiction that depicts the obsessive interiority of grief.”
PROLOGUE 
May 2014

I’m nursing on the sofa when your email arrives. Nowadays this is all I do. I nurse, then sit as still as I possibly can while holding a sleeping baby, terrified to wake him, terrified he might start screaming again. Then I nurse again, sit very still again, attempt to put the now sleeping baby down so I can take a shower or eat, I fail, I go back to the sofa, I nurse. Day in, day out. Ivan is three months old on the day your email arrives. You’re back at work. I have no idea which freelance job you’re at since you rarely tell me about them. An advertising production company or some freelance commercial director has probably hired you for your technical skills. You say your job is so boring that I wouldn’t even want to hear how you spend your days. I used to insist you tell me anyway, but not anymore. I let you decide if you want to tell me about your job, or not.

As for me, I breastfeed. On your way home every day, you text me and ask what you should pick up for dinner. You take care of most things around the house now. You work, buy groceries, cook, clean, and play with our cat, who’s been neglected since Ivan arrived. You’ve stopped exercising for the time being. I nurse and nurse. And then, on a Thursday in early May, just after one o’clock in the afternoon, I receive an email from you.

From: Aksel
To: Carolina
May 8, 2014, 13:05
Subject: If I die

Good to know if I croak.

My computer password is: ivan2014
There’s a detailed list in Documents/If I die.rtf

Let’s hope for the best!

/Aksel

I read the email three times in a row. At first I can’t make sense of it, then I read it again and start to feel worried. After the third reading, my worry morphs into annoyance. This is so like you. No one is as blunt, as unsentimental, as compulsively realistic as you are. You, with your bone-dry emails and text messages. You, with your never-ending backups of your computer and phone. You, with your constantly changing passwords, combinations of upper- and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters. You, who don’t want to be buried when you die, just scattered to the wind somewhere no one would feel obliged to visit with flowers and candles. No one but you would send an email like this, in the middle of the day, from work, to his girlfriend at home nursing on the sofa. But you did.

I don’t respond. Instead, I ask you about it that evening at the dinner table. “What’s the deal with this?” I say, and you tell me, just as I knew you would, “It was a whim, and besides, a person can never be too careful.” It’s stuff I should know just in case something happens. We leave it at that. We never mention the email again.


2009-2014

October 2014

It’s a Sunday in October. We’re both tired and not particularly kind to each other. I’ve hardly slept; Ivan was at my breast for the whole of yet another night. I still haven’t mastered the trick of falling asleep between feedings, and now that Ivan is eight months old the future doesn’t look particularly bright on that front. So I’m always tired. Today I’m also annoyed and feeling sorry for myself. You’re stressed out and trying to finish some project. You still haven’t told your clients that next week you’re going on parental leave half-time. We argue about that a lot. I want you to lighten your workload so you’ll have the time—and energy—for our life, our child, our world. You don’t want to. Or you say that you want to but you can’t. Freelancing doesn’t work like that, you tell me. You’ve worked hard to build your clientele, and if you disappear for six months, they’ll find someone new. Replace you. You’re tired too. When you relax, your face looks sad. You don’t have the energy to even think about your imminent paternity leave, mornings with Ivan followed by a full day of work. I’m stressed too. Grumpy. Anxious. This isn’t what I imagined family life would be like. You tell me I knew what I was getting into when I chose to have a child with you. I tell you I was hoping things would be different. We don’t want to make each other sad, but lately that seems almost impossible. Still, we keep trying.

Three weeks ago we moved, a move we had no time for, but which we pushed through anyway. We packed at night during the brief periods when Ivan was sleeping by himself. We packed in silence, avoiding any conversations that might cause pain or end in an argument. We moved the same way. We’ve almost unpacked everything now. Today we have to take a break because our car has started acting up. We’re going to drive out to your parents’ house and have your dad take a look at it. We load Ivan into the car seat in the back, you climb in next to him, and I drive. I can’t help pointing out for the hundredth time in a cheery tone of voice that’s fooling nobody how handy it would be if you had a driver’s license too. You clench your jaw and tell me you’ll get to it soon. I don’t ask when because I don’t have the energy to argue today. I already feel guilty just mentioning it. We both fall silent. Ivan is in a good mood, and you keep him that way by distracting him with funny sounds and toys. I find it hard to drive when Ivan cries, and no one makes him laugh like you do. Listening to the two of you playing in the back as we get closer and closer to your parents’ house, I think: I love my little family. Things are just a bit tough for us right now.

At your parents’ place, you work on the car with your dad while I drink tea with your mom. She interrogates me, discreetly and respectfully, about how things are going for us. I answer, less discreetly but still respectfully, that life’s a lot to handle right now. We don’t get much sleep, and you’re stressed out. The move was rough, and Ivan’s having nightmares. He wants to breastfeed all night. “We don’t even have time to think about how we feel right now,” I say, which is a lie.

Your older brother pulls into the driveway. His visit is unexpected, and through the kitchen window I see how surprised you both are to see each other. You laugh as you hug each other. He thumps you on your back. You are engulfed by his arms. He’s always been much bigger than you. Shorter, but wider and stronger. You light up, laughing at something he says, as the two of you head into the house. Your step is quick on the stairs. You’re in a hurry to get to the kitchen and show off Ivan. Your big brother has met Ivan only once before. Not for lack of interest, but everyone’s just been so busy lately. Your brother coos over Ivan, says he’s gotten so big, that he looks just like you. He calls you “little bro.” He slurps down his coffee in large gulps. You drink a glass of Coke. Then you both go back out to the car, and I follow with Ivan strapped to my waist in his carrier. I take out my phone and snap a picture of all three of you standing by the car, trying to figure out what’s wrong with the wipers, not yet able to fix them. In the picture, your backs are toward the camera; one of you is scratching his head. You are two brothers and a father who will never again meet in this life, but nobody knows that yet.

Excerpted from Let’s Hope for the Best by Carolina Setterwall. Copyright © 2019. Available from Little, Brown and Company, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.