Panel Mania: ‘The Oracle Code’

The Oracle Code—by bestselling author Marieke Nijkamp, with art by Manuel Preitano—updates the Batman story of Barbara Gordon, daughter of Gotham City police commissioner James Gordon, who is paralyzed after a gunshot wound.

Reimagined by Nijkamp, an autistic YA author and advocate for the people with disabilities, Babs Gordon is now a teenager using a wheelchair, struggling emotionally with her disability. But she’s also a world class hacker who turns sleuth after she realizes something’s not quite right at Gotham City’s Arkham Center for Independence.

In this 13-page excerpt, Babs slowly comes out of her shell, trains using her wheelchair, and teams with a patient whose brother is missing in an effort figure out what’s going happening at the Arkham Center for Independence.

The Oracle Code published this month by DC Graphic Novels for Young Readers.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Panel Mania: ‘Everything Is Beautiful, and I’m Not Afraid’

Everything Is Beautiful, and I’m Not Afraid: A Baopu Collection by Yao Xiao is a delightful graphic memoir that collects comics from Baopu, Xiao’s monthly serialized webcomic, as well as new material.

An illustrator and cartoonist, Xiao was born in Tianjin, China, and has lived in the U.S. since 2006. Her comics capture her experiences as a young, queer immigrant striving to understand the complexities of her new life, while also grappling with her personal history.

In this 16-page excerpt, Xiao offers a series of thoughtful moments—sometimes comic, often poignant and inspirational—that visually distill the power of empathetic human connection. Everything Is Beautiful, and I’m Not Afraid is out now from Andrews McMeel Publishing.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

‘Too Much’: Featured Nonfiction from Rachel Vorona Cote

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In our latest installment of featured nonfiction—also curated by our own Carolyn Quimby—we present an excerpt from Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today by Rachel Vorona Cote.

Cote looks at how the “unspoken rules” that govern the expression of women’s emotional and physical desires date back to the 19th century, in a book Publishers Weekly called “vigorous” and “wide-ranging.”
Feminine youth, as it is conventionally understood—blushing adolescence through one’s early twenties—is a potent and tenacious fetish. I am happier now than I’ve ever been, and yet, when I am confronted with various incarnations of early adulthood, whether in a film, or in the image of a musician, or in a television show’s rosily stilted manifestation of it, my reaction is a fickle one, a mélange of relief and covetousness. I’m grateful to have dispensed with years of agitated uncertainty and the eager willingness to rearrange myself according to others’ predilections. Ultimately, I have benefited from the toil and tangle of living with myself. And yet, I’m susceptible to depictions of young adulthood that place exhilaration and beauty alongside the angst. I try, in spite of myself, to recollect juvenile missteps: perhaps euphoria, or even the unremarkable lull of contentment might have been possible had I behaved with more abandon and not dodged the risks. Maybe—probably—I was too ensconced in my own head.

According to a common lament, we can only discern the best parts of ourselves long after we’ve shed that skin. The most marvelous exploits glisten brightest once they’ve plunged into the cache of our personal histories. But moments cannot be so intoxicating and delicious if we are aware of them, if we appoint ourselves as characters in narratives of our own devising: either we retread these shimmering spaces by the grace of memory or they flee to a vast, unknowable archive littered with relics of time. Despite the reliable intensity of my feelings, I was pinned by an urgent impulse to editorialize every moment, not because I was especially profound, although I fancied myself so, but because I was terrified. If I had been more self-sure, I might have received murky obscurity as possibility. Instead, I tasked myself with rooting out meaning in every catalogued experience, as if dogged interpretation could harness my prodigious fear and pave a path to a life that suited me. These were the consequences of being young and Too Much: upon self-diagnosis, I looked at the world and saw peril at every turn, in romance and in creative aspirations and in my every small and colossal hope. If I was going to survive in this inhospitable place, I required discipline.

Now, at thirty-four—not aged, surely, but not especially young—I consider my Too Much youth with a flickering melancholy. In fearing myself, what did I miss? At my most vulnerable, I whip up recuperative fantasies: I imagine myself eighteen, unbound by the belief that I owe the world a more muted and stoic version of myself. I consider my future not with the timorous sense that I am unfit, but instead with exhilaration at my good fortune. I appreciate and honor both my body and my face rather than scowling at them with self-loathing. I come out as queer decades earlier. I have more sex. I spin this tale of an idealized and evolved girlhood because, in the thick of it, I’m fretting—about being too old and, still, Too Much.

Enduringly, I am tantalized by the talismanic power of a good story, the notion that everything is solvable and salvageable if I plot it out, even in retrospect. A good story led me to marry the wrong man, to deny my sexuality, to wound others and myself. To seek out a good story as both an organizing principle and an emotional bridle is, at best, a red herring, and at worst, a powder keg. Nowadays, I resist the impulse of contemplating more pleasing origin stories, with  the recognition that they hardly soothe, but rather reinforce the great falsehood lobbed at us by a culture dazzled by youth: that with every passing year, a slice of something quintessential and cherished is, necessarily, lost.
On June 21, 1887, Queen Victoria celebrated her Golden Jubilee; she had reigned for fifty years on Great Britain’s throne. She was glad, mostly. At sixty-eight years old, twenty-five years after the death of her beloved Prince Albert, she remained staunchly in mourning—on this occasion,  as always, she donned a simple black dress—determined to glorify the husband she had lost and who, by then, many of her subjects had never known. The previous day, she had commemorated the occasion by documenting it in her diary. Her words are bald and forlorn: “The day has come and I am alone.” She had, by then, also outlived two children and five grandchildren, as well as John Brown, her dear and devoted companion.

And yet she found satisfaction in the day. Over fifty years, she had cultivated a sensational legacy as monarch of the world’s most august empire. But despite Britain’s grandiosity, Victoria dressed with a plainness that evoked middle-class English domesticity. She was avid in her efforts to oversee the kingdom, but positioned herself foremost as wife, mother, and then a bonnet-clad widow. This maternal iconography was pervasive. At the time of her Jubilee, the queen was hailed as the “Grandmother of Europe”: numbered among her passel of descendants are the odious Wilhelm II, the German emperor who would declare war on England, and Princess Alix of Hesse, who would marry Czar Nicholas of Russia and, later, be killed in the Russian Revolution (she is perhaps best remembered as mother to Princess Anastasia). Among Britons, the queen was worshipped as a motherly goddess. “You go it, old girl! You done it well! You done it well!” applauded a crowd of working-class men as they met Victoria’s carriage. She acknowledged them with a customary nod, but laughed too, and her eyes welled.

If a woman must grow old, she might as well be the queen of an imperialist juggernaut. To be sure, status did not safeguard Victoria from woe and travails, but as she aged, she attained the luster of immortality (indeed, some thought she would be queen forever). From the British public’s vantage point, the queen could never be Too Much; she was, after all, larger than life.

But Victoria, I suspect, did not share this opinion. While Albert lived, she was assiduous in her efforts not to puncture his ego, even when this meant diminishing herself. She knew her husband could not abide a power imbalance—in fact, he did not believe in women ruling kingdoms on their own—and so even attempted, unsuccessfully, to bestow him with the title King Consort (he was styled as Prince Consort). Although women seeking the right to vote would later point to Victoria as an argument for universal suffrage—had she not ruled wisely?—the queen did not support it. When, during the Boer War, women sailed to South Africa to care for the beleaguered troops as well as prisoners suffering in British concentration camps, the elderly Victoria voiced her disapproval, remarking that these “hysterical” women would only be a bother. While she was known for being racially progressive, at least compared to many of her contemporaries, the queen never indicated concern for the indigenous women of India, China, Canada, Argentina, and the inhabitants of many other lands, millions of whom suffered brutalities in her name.

When, on January 22, 1901, Queen Victoria’s long life at last expired, the era that is her namesake came to a formal, if not ideological, close. Over eight decades, women in Great Britain had seen considerable social advancements. Victorian men might still demand an “angel in the house,” the docile and chastely helpmeet, but women had begun to buck this expectation. Some chose not to marry, living alone, or together with other single women. A husband could no longer assume his wife’s wealth; finally, she existed as an individual in the eyes of the law. The 1891 case Regina vs. Jackson, wherein a Mr. Jackson kidnapped his wife, enlisted guards to hold her prisoner at home, and took her to court for “restitution of conjugal rights,” ruled, blessedly, in favor of the wife. Neither the ghoulish Mr. Jackson, nor any man, could claim legal proprietorship of his wife’s body; this was unquestionably a landmark court decision. These are marks of trenchant but circumscribed progress—the British colonies were not afforded the aforementioned liberties—and, because progress fundamentally suggests a process of evolution, it was also, without question, not enough. (For instance, it was 1991 before either England or Wales recognized “marital rape,” and just two years before Regina vs. Jackson a judge ruled that a man afflicted with gonorrhea  could rape his wife.) But  then it  would be altogether oxymoronic, the concept of enough progress.

On her deathbed, it’s unlikely that Victoria was dwelling on the legal and socioeconomic achievements of her female subjects. The monarch was no protofeminist, and she had always, even in widowhood, conceived of herself as Albert’s wife with strident adhesion. However, as she prepared for their reunion beyond the grave, she did, it seems, muse upon herself. Inscribed in her funeral instructions was the following note to her children: “I die in peace with all fully aware of my many faults.” She was at peace. She was not enough—or she was too much: who is to say?

Excerpted from Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today. Copyright © 2020 by Rachel Vorona Cote. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.

Panel Mania: ‘Banned Book Club’

Banned Book Club by Kim Hyun Sook, Ko Hyung-Ju, and Ryan Estrada is the true story of Hyun Sook’s years as a South Korean college student under the brutal military regime of the early 1980s.
Although the campus has erupted with violent student protests against the government, Hyun Sook, an apolitical freshman enthralled with literature and books, is uninvolved and fearful of her mother who disapproves of the protests and is dubious about her being in college at all. Hyun Sook is thrilled when she meets the handsome editor of the school’s student newspaper, who invites her to join his book club. But instead of discussing Moby Dick in a cafe, Hyun Sook finds herself, and her fearless pro-democracy book club classmates, forced into hiding under threat of arrest (or worse) by a repressive government.
Hyun Sook’s irresistible memoir conveys her political and social awakening with equal measures of hilarity and terror, as her eyes are opened to the brutal nature of the military regime. In this 11-page excerpt, Hyun Sook meets the members of the Banned Book Club who will transform her life as a student and as a citizen.
Banned Book Club will be published in April by Iron Circus Comics.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Panel Mania: ‘Big Black: Stand at Attica’

Big Black: Stand at Attica is the memoir of Frank “Big Black” Smith, a prisoner-negotiator during the Attica prison revolt, and a grim history of one of the bloodiest rebellions in the history American prisons.
More than 1,200 Attica inmates took control of the prison in September 1971, captured 42 guards as hostages, denounced the facility’s brutal conditions, and called for more humane treatment of prisoners. On Sept. 13, 1971, New York governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered hundreds of armed state troopers to retake the facility by force in a brutal invasion that resulted in the deaths of 29 prisoners and 10 guards. Over the course of the assault, state troopers killed unarmed prisoners and hostages alike, and in the immediate aftermath, prisoners, among them Frank Smith, were viciously beaten for days on end.
Although the events at Attica forced the state to change prison practices, the uprising has come to represent the legacy of mass incarceration, a scourge that has devastated communities of color.
A man of intelligence and character, Smith (who died in 2004) was respected by inmates and guards. He survived sadistic reprisals at the hands of state troopers—though he suffered the effects of his torture for years afterwards—was released, and went on to serve as an advocate and counselor for prisoners and former inmates.
What follows is a 15-page excerpt from Big Black: Stand at Attica, out this month from Archaia.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

‘Children of the Land’: Featured Fiction from Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

In our latest edition of featured fiction—curated by our own Carolyn Quimby—we present an excerpt from Children of the Land by poet Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, out now from Harper.

Publishers Weekly, in its starred review, called the book an “impressionistic memoir of growing up as an undocumented immigrant,” adding that “Castillo writes with disturbing candor, depicting the all-too-common plight of undocumented immigrants to the U.S.”
[Fourth Movement as Language] 
I got used to the roaches, I got used to the milk crates we used as chairs as we ate a pot of boiled beans and washed them down with black coffee for dinner. I was five, and we had just moved into our first apartment in the U.S., and though it was small, it still felt larger than our house back in Mexico. It certainly felt larger than the room we all crammed into at our uncle’s house when we first arrived, care- ful not to be too much of a burden, though it was hard not to be when a family of seven suddenly moves in. Amá’s belly was large, and she was due to give birth any day. Although our new apartment wasn’t much to look at, we could scream, we could jump, and no one could say anything to us because it was ours. 

We had one spoon. Or maybe it was one spoon for each person, so it still felt like one spoon. Amá rubbed her large belly and spread her legs as she crouched down to eat off an old bedside table. Everyone argued over what the new baby would be named. “It’s my baby, I’m going to name him whatever I want,” said Amá. Apá had named ev- ery child up until then, but Amá knew this would be her last, and she was determined to name him herself. When she gave birth, she kept the onesie the hospital put on the baby even though she was supposed to give it back because she didn’t have a lot of clothes for him yet. She had a joke that the baby was made in Mexico but shipped, assembled, and delivered in the U.S. She came home with her baby in her arms and told us his name was Gilberto.

Every night was the same. I didn’t like the taste of coffee, but Amá held the cup to my mouth and said to drink, that it would help. Help with what? We each cleaned our respective bowl, cup, and spoon.  I took the drying cloth and made small circles with my hand until my bowl was dry and shiny. We were poor, but we were clean. The dishes were placed upside down over a towel so “nothing” would touch them at night. 

“Beans again?” I said to Amá as we gathered around our bed- side table, sitting on our milk crates in the middle of our small living room. 

“Yes, now, don’t complain,” she said. She wasn’t speaking in En- glish, and although I didn’t know English at the time, my memories of those days are peppered in English now. My mother handed me a taza, not a cup; she poured café, not “coffee.” Amá’s loud call to come in from playing outside was Ya vente, not “Come in now.” But in my head, I see a “cup,” I see her handing me a “cup,” and the “cup” is now in English even though no one is speaking. 

I have to work to put the Spanish words inside my memories— I have to think hard about each syllable inside them. To this day my mother still does not know English, though she is trying to learn it. Apá understands a little but can’t speak it. 

It was around this time, in kindergarten, when I first became aware of another language, a language I didn’t know. There was something twisting in someone’s mouth, not the kinds of words I was familiar with. A distance started to grow between me and the world, and I gladly walked toward the torpid shores of its strangeness. As we sat crisscross apple sauce, the music teacher at my first American school sat on a chair in front of us, rattling a steady rhythm with two spoons between his fingers. I understood the music because I clapped, we were all clapping along to his beat, some of us singing, others not. 

The spoons vibrated like a rattlesnake’s tail in front of me. I knew what music was and I liked it, bobbing the small frame of my body from side to side. But the strangest and most arresting sound of all was coming out of his mouth, which was nothing that I had ever heard before. I knew the sounds, I knew the rhythms, and even the gestures on his face that accompanied them as he nodded his head up and down. I could tell all of those things together were meant to produce some kind of happiness. I could make those sounds, but not in that order. I thought he sounded funny, so I let out a small giggle in the middle of his song, which prompted a stern look from the teacher keeping watch over us on the side. She must have thought I was mocking the song or the teacher, but I loved them both be- cause despite not understanding them, I understood them differently. I liked the way that rattler kept shaking right above me, saying what most rattlers say with their thrashing tails, “Don’t come near me, I am dangerous, I will bite you.” 

Maybe one day English would be dangerous for me, but not in that moment, tapping my small palms on my lap, looking at the song behind the children’s song, the flurry of sounds looming above the spoons saying something that must have been happy, given the ex- pressions on the teacher’s face, a kind of joy that felt like home to me, a kind of joy that made sense, that reminded me of home. 

I ran home elated, carrying that small pocket of joy like a wild mongoose whose belly was full of snake, whose teeth were smeared with blood. 

“Amá, I want to be a musician when I grow up,” I said. “That’s wonderful, mijo, now go take off your shirt so I can cut your hair,” she said. I wondered if she had heard me. She cut our hair often because she said her children would not go around looking ragged. 

“Amá, I said I want to be a musician when I grow up.” I said again, that time louder. Still, she didn’t seem to pay much attention. Maybe I shouldn’t have stressed the music but what carried the music— I should have said I wanted to build violins. 

I stood on a chair near the window, watching the neighborhood kids playing outside without me as Amá moved the clipper up and down my head. I started rambling to them through the open window in what I thought was my newly acquired English. I wanted to repeat what I had just heard in music class, but I wanted to do it without the music— without the spoons. It wasn’t really anything coherent, but Amá says it had the effect of being discursive, as if I was standing at a podium addressing a throng of people below me. I waved my hands in the air, gesticulating, giving them instructions in this new language that I was certain they could understand but that they most certainly couldn’t. 

They laughed and I laughed with them because we were children and because that was what children did. We took refuge in our mis- understanding. I rambled on, trying to make any kind of sound that wasn’t a word that I recognized because anything that wasn’t Span- ish automatically meant that it was English. English was the “other.” Amá finished cutting my hair, not without protest that I was moving too much for her to steady her hand, and I finished my long speech, even though my friends had long since stopped paying attention. I felt like I had done something good. 

I bowed politely in my chair and went out to the yard again. 

In my head, I knew what I was saying, there was meaning be- hind my squawk. It was in that very short window of time, when I could speak in that primal language between languages, that I could understand things better— clearer. Perhaps I never really left and was always moving back and forth between languages, reaching for something I would never fully attain. 

The afternoon was warm, and the sun wouldn’t start making its eventual retreat over the mountains for another few hours. Amá went to the kitchen to put another pot of beans on to boil. Beans were still beans, there was nothing new about that, there was nothing that needed translation, I could move back and forth with relative ease. 

With time, that innocent wonder at my nonlanguage would slowly start to fade and be replaced by English, which would soon mostly replace Spanish. In no time I would find myself sitting crisscross apple sauce just like the other children, bored at yet another music lesson, sedated, singing along to words that were reduced to one thing and one thing only. Music would again just be music and words just words. I would never again reach that wandering calamity of sound, that cacophonous revelry. I’m sure that wasn’t the first time I ever heard English being spoken, but it was the first time I remember being aware of it in any meaningful way. 

I loved being bilingual, but there was something special in that moment of utter confusion. The short journey from Spanish to English was a revelry, a reverie that deflated like balloons shortly after the party has ended. It was a path on which I moved, another migration. My body had already reached the U.S., but my tongue was a bit slower getting there, taking its time, hopping from rock to rock like a small mountain cat. I stuck out my skinny tongue and hissed at everyone around me. 

The path to learning English wasn’t like a pig being taken to slaughter. Pigs know what’s at the other end of that long walk to the slaughterhouse, and they fight tooth and nail to escape. Their long and deep howls seem to come from somewhere beyond their body, from the very earth itself— almost demonic. I didn’t fight; I didn’t know what was at the other end, but I ran toward it with open arms nonetheless. 

Amá stirred the pot of beans one more time and announced that they were ready. We grabbed our spoon, and our bowl, and our coffee. How unbearably boring the world would soon be. In that moment, though, I was an oracle, I was enchanted, I was enchanting. The bean broth was hot as it slowly went down my throat, as it touched that part of me that had no name yet. 

From Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo. Used with the permission of Harper. Copyright © 2020 by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo.

Panel Mania: ‘The PLAIN Janes’

Originally published in 2007, The PLAIN Janes by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg is the story of teenage misfit artist Jane Beckels, who is forced to leave fictional Metro City—a clear stand-in for New York—after a terrorist attack.

Her parents move to the suburbs for safety. Jane hates her new suburban town until she meets a group of also not-so-popular high school girls also named Jane (Theater Jane, Brain Jayne, and Polly Jane, the girl jock). They band together to create an anonymous guerrilla art collective: People Loving Art In Neighborhoods—The PLAIN Janes.

The book’s new hardcover edition combines the original two volumes with a third previously unpublished volume. In this 11-page excerpt from the new section, the girls are distracted by their imminent graduation from high school. They’ve also been forced to trade their previously exciting, unsanctioned guerrilla art attacks for nice but lackluster city-approved projects in the park. The PLAIN Janes was published this month by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Father, I Found the Movies: Featured Poetry by Chad Bennett

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from Your New Feeling Is the Artifact of a Bygone Era, the new collection by Chad Bennett. Bennett begins his poem with lines from an unpublished interview from the early 1960s between Warhol and the art critic David Bourdon. The interview proper begins with a Warholian question for Bourdon: “Am I really doing anything new?” Bennett is able to channel that particular magic and mystery of Warhol as he inhabits his persona in this poem.

“Andy Warhol”[Unpublished interview, 1962]
I don’t want to know whothe father of this movementis. In those Shirley Templemovies, I was so disappointedwhenever Shirley found herfather. It ruined everything.She had been having such agood time, tap dancing withthe local Kiwanis Club orthe newspaper men in the cityroom. Those newspaper men,who want everything ruined,don’t want to know whoruined it. So in the city I wasa good Shirley Temple, dancingwith men in the club, or withthis local in a room in the city.
Who was it who was withthose men? Who had the time?The city? (Was I in the city?)It disappointed those in the knowwho so want to know who isor was or had been having who isor was or had been dancing.The city was a ruined temple, ora temple of ruined time,I don’t know. Whenever I hadthe time I know I was good, orfound I had been. In time,I ruined everything. Father,I found the movies.

Copyright 2019 Sarabande Books/Chad Bennett. All rights reserved. Posted here with permission of Sarabande Books. 

I Wake to Bury You Again: Featured Poetry by Cori A. Winrock

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from Little Envelope of Earth Conditions, the new collection by Cori A. Winrock. Her lines loll with the rhythm of grief: “I wake to bury / you again, stumbling // for the rotary receiver on its vine— / swinging from the wall of a house.” A synthesis of delight and delirium; memory and mourning.
+All By Myself I am a Huge Camellia +
Some days no one is my motherbut my mother. & my mother is no
longer a distance that cinches itself—the flush on flush of the new
fever, the baby’s first floral-heat nursed down—with a telephone
call. I could not gather, could notcollect your voice in fits
in tinder in sleep. So the flowerbeds:empty. The endless ringing: all hesitation,
no digging. I wake to buryyou again, stumbling
for the rotary receiver on its vine—swinging from the wall of a house
I left burning small: votivelight throwing off no sound.
In the yard the petals all flame& lantern. In the crib
my daughter moro-s herselfin heartbeat cycles, limbs sparked
apart with shock. The smoke of us bothrises: like a moon: like a pulse. & I am
alone in our surveillance, our time-lapsed fevering burst into a single bloom
: the resurrected echo-light of your ambulancedissolving through the walls.

“+ All By Myself I am a Huge Camellia +” from Little Envelope of Earth Conditions by Cori A. Winrock, Alice James Books, 2020. 

Not Even My People Recognize Me: Featured Poetry by Johanny Vázquez Paz

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from I Offer My Heart as a Target/Ofrezco mi corazón como una diana by Johanny Vázquez Paz, translated by Lawrence Schimel.

Paz offers a lament of identity and appearance; the recurring usage of “they”—both displaced and omnipresent—suggests the narrator’s feeling that her light skin and hair are seen as a curse. She is a “discordant note:” unwanted and unwelcome.

“Milkman’s Daughter”
They saythat I don’t look like what I ammy white skin                           lonely cloud in a shady skymy hair                           rays of a Nordic sunmy hips                           narrow lacking substance and sugar.
They saythat I pronounce words differentlymy diction is too properwithout changing my arr or dropping my essesvery Castilian and beyond mockery.
They saythat I don’t represent the folklore of the peoplethe patriotic symbols, the plátano stainnot even my people recognize me as a daughter;I’m the enigma of a badly conceived graft.
They call me milkman’s daughtergüera, gringa, polacaglass of milk, Casper the Ghostdiscordant note, alien beingthe white sheep in a coppery herd.

“Milkman’s Daughter” is excerpted from I Offer My Heart as a Target/Ofrezco mi corazón como una diana, copyright 2019 by Johanny Vázquez Paz, translated from Spanish by Lawrence Schimel. All rights reserved. Used with permission of the author and Akashic Books (