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First pages

Superlative?

It was rare for Jane to pick up a book that didn’t have dragons on the cover. Or maybe a futuristic city engulfed in flames, or a runway-ready set of telepathic twin warriors. As she was a high school librarian sometimes a new translation of The Odyssey caught her eye; Fahrenheit 451; another version of Romeo and Juliet: you probably remember the reading list from your own tenth grade year. Jane had read those in the (increasingly-distant) past, and didn’t feel the need for a repeat read. Young Adult fantasy, though, was the text equivalent of her drug of choice. You know the kinds of books: cyborgs and space-travelers; teenage mummies and vampire spies; Persephone goes to Hollywood, etcetera. While most kids only came to the library when they had to print a last-minute paper, or to find a resource when a hidebound teacher required an actual, real book reference, Jane still had a handful of die-hard, can’t-wait-for-the-next-book-to-come-out readers, and she wanted to be able to recommend books and series. At least that was her excuse for reading the fourth in a quintilogy about zombie pirates and the princesses (and occasional princes) who loved them.

So usually she wouldn’t even have given a second’s worth of a glance at an adult title that popped onto her computer. Let other people meet in their book clubs (*cough* wine clubs) to fawn over glowingly-reviewed literary fiction; let them skulk out of the library or bookstore with—or, more likely, have delivered in a discrete brown box right to their doorsteps—the latest celebrity gossip-ography or Reawaken the Svelte Goddess Within or whatever. Jane Keller had no time for that. Please don’t interrupt her; she’s busy reading about mutant sorceresses who travel on winged dogs to save the world.

Usually, that is. But it was a damp and gray fall morning. The first of November—a notoriously dreary day, when you’re nursing a Halloween candy hangover and just far enough into the school year that you’ve started facing the fact that no, this year wasn’t going to be different after all. Jane bopped the trackpad to wake up her laptop and check the recent book lists, as she did every morning before the first bell rang. Her pumpkin caramel macchiato was still warm, and she swished the cup around and breathed deeply. The cinnamon-nutmeg-cardamom lusciousness didn’t shoot right up to the pleasure centers of her brain, though. Instead, her dopamine receptors yawned and rolled over, going right back to sleep. The library was warm; the leaves outside the window a bright mosaic of red, orange, and gold peeping out of the misty gray haze; her colleagues, Leonard and Rupal, were in early, too, and puttering about the back office discussing what Jane assumed was last night’s reality TV or sportsball games. She was even wearing her favorite festive autumn sweater, the one with the big pumpkin appliqué, and the cornucopia spilling fruits and nuts across her torso, and the clever buttons shaped like pears. It was like any other morning at work and Jane should have felt, if not happy, at least content. Comfortable and satisfied with her lot in life.

You might ask, Why was it all falling flat on that day? What made this morning different from all other mornings? Maybe it was the reality of the empty nest taking hold, her boys both settled into college now, and just her and Will at home with their horrible cat. Maybe it was the lines she noticed on her face when she bothered with more than an indifferent morning glance in the mirror, or the pounds starting to creep on (damn you, pumpkin cream cheese muffins!), or the annual cycle of repetition involved in her job, with new students coming in every year, looking perpetually younger and yet asking the same questions ad infinitum (Why is this site blocked? What are some good espionage/romance/mystery books? Dr. Sheridan assigned this stupid vocabulary project that’s going to take all night and she said we need to use a real dictionary, as if Google isn’t good enough, can I take this one home? I found this book online but my parents won’t let me get it, can you order it for me? Why is this site blocked?).

Or maybe it was just the gloom of November 1st.

Whatever it was, the melancholy was an unfamiliar weight settling around Jane’s shoulders. She slumped in her creaky office chair, listlessly sliding her fingers along the trackpad and barely looking at the screen. Suddenly a bright spark of a cover scrolling past grabbed her glum attention and shook it by the scruff of its neck. What was that?

Manifesto for a Superlative YOU! the page shouted at her. The cover showed a woman with an umbrella (Why an umbrella? It didn’t seem to be raining) cavorting—there was no other word for it—practically frolicking, on a beach at dawn, or maybe dusk…whenever, wherever, whyever, she looked jubilant. Free. Ready to take on the world. Not like an I’m turning fifty soon but my friends all swear I can still pass for forty-seven year old school librarian with a husband she’d known for more than half her life and two grown kids who hardly ever text, let alone call, and a fine-but-not-anything-to-get-excited-about house, and a cat who refused to acknowledge her existence.

Manifesto for a Superlative YOU! By C. Evans Pendleton: Eight Weeks to an Exceptional Life!

 

Is there something missing from your life? Has your personal or professional persona become drab and dejected? Have you lost your pep, the spring in your step, your joie de vivre? Let C. Evans Pendleton, world-renowned expert on reclaiming your mojo, guide you through the simple steps necessary to make your life MORE: more meaningful, more joyful, MORE the life you’ve always wanted to live!

 

Before she was even conscious of her fingers moving, Jane had clicked over to her personal book-buying account and ordered Manifesto for a Superlative YOU! Same-day delivery. Superlative? It couldn’t wait another day.

***

Jane told Rupal and Leonard about it at lunch. They ate, as usual, in the back room, surrounded by stacks of books both new and old: bright books just ordered, with the lurid colors Jane loved; musty older books on their way to storage, the piles of picked-over and rejected titles that looked—if one were the fanciful type to personify books—like elderly Eskimos being sent off on their ice floes, unwanted and having outlived their usefulness. Jane sat with her back to the boxes marked For Storage; they just made her too sad.

“I ordered a self-help book today,” said Jane, a little self-conscious. “I don’t know what came over me. I just saw the title and had to order it. November, I guess.”
“November,” the other two echoed in agreement. Every teacher knows about November, which is surpassed only by February for bleakness and an increase in alcohol consumption.

“What kind of self-help?” asked Rupal. “Diet?” She had some kind of watery, scummy, mushroom- and scallion-laden broth in a mason jar that she’d intermittently sip at, make a face, and push farther away on the brown laminate table. Rupal was vegan, and so skinny you could see not only her radius, but her ulna, too, on the rare occasion she wore short sleeves. Today she wore a heavy knit fisherman’s sweater layered over a turtleneck shirt, wide-wale corduroys, and boots that had their fleece lining peeking over the top. The library’s thermostat was set to seventy degrees Fahrenheit from October 15th through March 15th, regardless of the weather, but Jane had never, ever known Rupal to say she was hot, not even when it was 97 degrees out and the air-conditioner wasn’t turned on yet, because they only got air from May 15 through the end of the school year. Younger than Leonard and much younger than Jane, Rupal was prematurely dull, as if she’d taken the world’s beliefs about librarians and made them her mission statement. “I have some meat-substitute cookbooks if you need one. I bet you’d lose a lot of weight.”

Jane chose not to take offense. “Oh. Okay, thanks. I don’t think it’s specifically diet-related, though.”

“Style?” suggested Leonard. In contrast to Rupal, Leonard was always very tucked in. Pressed shirt, sharp creases in his chinos, cuffs buttoned and every i dotted, every t crossed. Jane assumed he was gay, but as they never talked about anything personal it hadn’t come up. Somehow. Not in the eight years they’d worked together. “A makeover?”

Jane ignored that one, too. Before she’d always pictured herself as the happy medium between Rupal’s slovenly layers and Leonard’s compact, bespectacled version of Mr. Clean. In that moment, though, she wasn’t so sure. “I’ll let you know. It’s supposed to come by nine tonight. It’s called Manifesto for a Superlative YOU!” It really wasn’t much more embarrassing to say than Teenage Mummy Politicos Return, was it?

“Wow, Superlative. That’s impressive,” said Rupal.

“You had me at Manifesto,” said Leonard. “So, a complete lifestyle change?”

“I guess. I don’t usually read this kind of book.” When friends raved about The Zone or The Secret or How to Marry the Rich, Jane had somehow resisted. “But something about it spoke to me. There’s a woman on the cover. On the beach, with an umbrella…not a beach umbrella, a regular one…here, let me show you on my phone.” Jane pulled up a picture of the book, but they didn’t look any more impressed than when she’d been talking about it. Uncertainty crept up Jane’s spine. Maybe she’d just thrown away $13.99.

The Way of the Vegan changed my life,” Rupal said very seriously. Jane didn’t doubt it. Although admittedly she would kill for a mere hint of the cheekbones Rupal had, she fervently hoped that Manifesto for a Superlative YOU! wouldn’t leave her with wrists that looked like a bundle of dry sticks held together with tape.

Taking a contemplative bite of her sandwich, Jane nodded as she chewed. Ham and cheese was just the best, wasn’t it? She really, really hoped veganism wasn’t required for a meaningful and joy-filled life. “I guess I’ll see,” she said at last, hoping the book came before nine.

***

You’d think it would be a good thing, having more time. Not having to bolt out at the end of the school day to pick up one of the kids from a practice/game/rehearsal/club. Not having to delay dinner because Jordan was late at some track or field or wherever, or rush dinner so Bryant could get to jazz band or marching band or just regular old band. Jane had looked forward to the time, to afternoons to herself. To new hobbies, to seeing friends. She hadn’t expected free time to feel so empty.

On that particular day, the first of November, Jane, Leonard, and Rupal cleaned up from the last-period Library class—ninth grade History working on validating Internet sources, an increasingly-fraught subject—and the rush of students who scurried in frantically for some urgent material or other just as the final bell rang. The librarians had a complicated rotation of whose turn it was to do what, sharing after-hours duties with some of the part-time staff and occasional parent volunteers. On the days it wasn’t her turn to stay late, Jane ran her errands. Grocery shopping, of course. The township library for the occasional book she couldn’t get at school. In olden times (just a few years ago) she’d traversed the familiar sequence of drugstore, hardware store, shoe repair shop, stationery store; now, increasingly, it was one stop at the mega-store or just going home and ordering online: easier but also blander. Impersonal. She used to know the guy at the hardware store, ask about his wife and twins. She knew the woman who owned the stationery store, who’d designed the birth announcements for both of Jane’s boys, and always remembered them by name and sent her regards even though she hadn’t seen them since they were little enough to come into the store holding Jane’s hands. Now the hardware guy had closed up shop and retired to South Carolina, where his grandkids were, and the space had been turned into yet another indoor cycling studio. At least Jane had gotten to say goodbye to him, thank him for his advice over the years on caulking and spider infestations. Not so for the woman at the stationery store. The last time Jane went, intending to pick out Will’s birthday card, there was a big CLOSED sign on the door, the woman gone, with all her lovely notecards and wrapping papers and pens. Jane didn’t even know her last name. Now when Jane needed a card she bought it at the We-Have-Everything! mega-store. Sometimes she skipped the card altogether and texted people on their birthdays, putting in celebration emojis, little pixilated cakes and glasses of wine. That made it really special, right? It was easier, at least. Less expensive in money terms, certainly—but it also felt cheap. Proof you didn’t care enough to send the very best. But hey, here’s the party popper emoji!

All right. Enough gloom. Throwing a pack of Oreos into her cart for comfort, Jane shook herself mentally. Pushing a squeaky-wheeled cart through the florescent-lit aisles of the supermarket, she tracked the ups and downs of her thoughts: There’s less food to buy! I’ll spend less on groceries! But it’s because the boys are away! And do you know what we’re spending on their room and board, let alone on tuition?! Even though they’re both at state schools, we’ll be in debt until we die! But on the plus side, we can eat things that the kids didn’t like! If only I could remember what we like!

She ended up with pasta. Again. At least she bought some shrimp, which Bryant was mildly allergic to. So there, she said to the cosmos. I’m getting on with my life. And there’s a book coming tonight that’s going to help me not just move on, but move on to something SUPERLATIVE…

“Did you need something, Miss?” asked the guy shelving diet root beer.

Hm. Jane guessed she’d been talking out loud, not just to the cosmos. It was happening more frequently these days. “No, sorry,” she said, grabbing two ginormous bottles of Diet Coke and rolling out of the soda aisle as quickly as her screechy cart could take her. She’d become “Miss” again, after a number of “Ma’am” years, in particular those sleepless early days of early motherhood, two little boys either stuck to her like barnacles or careening down the aisles knocking cereal off the low shelves and screaming for candy at the checkout. Years when she’d wanted an Olympic medal for making it through the shopping and not enacting any harm on herself, her boys, or random strangers who offered her unwanted advice. When she became Miss again Jane initially smiled and preened. It must be the healthy glow of sleeping again! Or her new moisturizing routine! But then the woman in front of her—ninety years old if she was a day, white-haired and stooped over her cart—was addressed as Miss, too: “Did you find everything you needed, Miss?” the teenage cashier had chirped, and Jane realized it was probably store policy so as not to insult the customers. No one wanted to be Ma’am anymore.

“Did you find everything you needed, Miss,” the cashier mumbled as he began to ring up Jane’s groceries and send them down the conveyer belt.

It wasn’t even a question. He might as well have been a robot for all the interest he put into the scripted words. Actually, a robot would probably be programmed to sound a little peppier. There were cyborgs in some of Jane’s favorite books—sexy half-human hybrids with robotic parts and awe-inspiring powers. In real life, she’d heard about prototypes of completely automated grocery stores run by computers and AI bots. Would anyone bother creating a blank-faced, lank-haired, pasty cyborg with a nametag that said DERREK on its rumpled green polo shirt? She didn’t think so. Or maybe they were being really sneaky about it. No one would ever guess he was a robot.

“No,” Jane answered as she carefully packed her groceries. She hadn’t let anyone else load her shopping bags since the infamous strawberries-underneath-the-15-pound-bag-of-kitty-litter incident of 2012. “I’m looking for my mojo, and some joie de vivre. But I didn’t find it here.”

“Did you try the ethnic foods aisle,” said Derrek.

What a perfect answer for an incognito cyborg, Jane thought. “I didn’t,” she admitted. “I just ordered it online.”

At home, she unpacked the meager bags of groceries (who’d have thought she’d lament the days of teenagers-like-locusts devouring every scrap of food in the house?), changed out of her lovely pumpkin-cornucopia sweater and skirt, and sorted through the mail. Ads: more exercise studios opening, another college-centric pizza and wings place, the flyer from the supermarket with coupons she’d already got through her phone. A letter from her senator, a card from her congressman, a notice about school board elections, and fundraising requests from half a dozen charities she might support again when guilt tipped the scales to outweigh frugality. In the meantime, she bundled the whole lot into recycling and started cooking.

Dinner was weird. Not the food—a sort of quasi-scampi with the shrimp and pasta, with a green salad and a supermarket baguette on the side. The food was good, if Jane could say so herself. No, it was the fact that it was just her and Will. Twenty years of family dinners scrolled through her memory like a time-lapse film: screaming babies turning into food-flinging toddlers morphing into inquisitive elementary-age kids evolving into sullen, monosyllabic tweens and finally smelly, ravenous, talkative teens; the whole progression unfolded in seconds, leaving just Jane and her husband with too much food and too little to say. It was weird.

“How was your day?” Jane asked.

“Fine. Yours?”

“It was fine, too.”

You could hear them chewing their lettuce.

Oh, where was Jordan with his incessant, frenzied recaps of games and meets? Where was Bryant, who—with the exception of a few I’m-not-talking-to-grownups-because-it-might-break-my-face middle school years—so often had them in stitches relaying stories from band and Improv Club? Why hadn’t she enjoyed the mess and cacophony more, instead of wishing for a quiet dinner with Will?

“Anything new at work?” Jane tried again. Will worked at SportsCast, the cable provider, in Program Management. She literally had no idea what he did all day.

Will brightened immediately. “Well. College basketball season is starting! The first games are next Friday and we’re trying to bundle as many channels as we can to show all the games, not just the high-ranking teams like Duke and Arizona, but every single one! Even…Arkansas Pine Bluff! Even Grambling State University! I mean, you’ve heard of some of these schools but we want everyone in the tri-state area to have access to all the games, even where the teams are ranked, like, 325th! People will be able to see all the Ivy League games, too! You know I love both Big Red and the Quakers, but the Bearcats! To watch them blah blah blah, blah blah blah blah blah! Blah blah, blah blah blah a small Catholic college from New Rochelle, blah blah blah blah blah! Blah blah blah, blah blah blah blah blah, blah blah Steve Razinsky said, “You haven’t really watched basketball until you’ve seen the Fighting Okra from Delta State!” and blah blah blah blah blah blah…”

Jane nodded and smiled. She wondered if she could pack some of the leftover scampi for lunch. It was kind of an unwritten rule that you didn’t heat up fish in a microwave at work. Maybe if she just heated the pasta and ate the shrimp cold? Would it still smell too much? She needed to do a cold wash, too, as she’d worn her last decent bra that day, and all that was clean was a limited selection of Stretched Beyond Usefulness bras and Just For Sex bras. Still nodding, she surreptitiously checked tomorrow’s weather on her phone. Sweater or shirt? she debated. Pants or skirt?

“Blah blah blah blah blah, the Terrapins, of all teams, blah blah blah…”

A faint thump on the porch saved her. “Oh!” Jane jumped up. “Maybe that’s my book!” The white delivery van was already screeching around the corner by the time Jane got to the door. Ripping open the side tab on the brown box, she tipped out the book and was delighted to see the woman, the beach, and the umbrella. “It is!” she said to Will, heading back into the kitchen while already flipping through pages. “My very first self-help book. Just a little embarrassing.”

“Wow. Not witches and the aliens who love them? Not trolls who tame talking dragons?”

“No. I surprised myself, even. Look.” She showed him the book.

Superlative. I’m impressed.”

“That’s what Rupal said! And Leonard said I had him at Manifesto.”

“Has he come out to you yet?”

“No,” Jane said. “We really don’t talk about anything personal.”

“And here I thought engineers were supposed to be introverted,” Will said. “But I know a hell of a lot more about my team than you know about yours.”

Jane shrugged, already immersed in her reading. “Do you mind if I just go…” she gestured vaguely toward the living room.

“Go. I’ll clean up. You clearly have some superlative fish to fry.”

On the couch, Jane plumped up some pillows behind her, propped her feet on the coffee table, wished—again—that she had a cat that would sit on her lap and purr, and started to read.

According to C. Evans Pendleton, in order to live one’s best life a person must self-actualize in eight different areas. It was best to start with the lower-order ones, related to your physical self, and work up to the intellectual and spiritual ones. C. Evans included many graphs, charts, diagrams, and quizzes; Jane got up to grab a pencil so she could rate herself on scales of 1 to 5 (In your relationships, are you an Adapter or a Disarranger? At work, do you Innovate or Stagnate? With diet and exercise, do you most resemble a Kangaroo, a Wombat, or a Platypus?) and again to get herself a glass of water. By the time she heard Will switching on the dishwasher and clanking pans back into cabinets, she’d finished the third chapter and needed a break.

“I’m doing everything wrong,” she said, half-joking and half-mournful.

“Of course. They wouldn’t sell any books if you weren’t.”

“When did you get so cynical? C. Evans Pendleton says I need to get you on board with the Manifesto. He tells a lot of stories about sabotaging spouses. I think you’ll need to Manifesto, too.”

Will looked up from the stats he was studying on his tablet. “Is manifesto a verb? Wouldn’t it be manifest instead? And how do you know that C. Evans Pendleton is a he? Is there a picture?”

Jane checked the back cover and looked at the front and back pages. There was no picture. “That’s such a good point. Maybe C. Evans is a she.”

“Or a they,” Will added. He was hip like that. “You could Google them.”

Jane made a face. “I don’t know. What if he’s…they’re…funny-looking? Or worse, completely gorgeous, and I’m intimidated and disheartened? Why are we so, so…” Jane struggled to remember the words some of her students used, the kids who went by they or ze, or—even more perplexing to Jane—changed from she to he and back again. The word came to her. “Binary! Why are we so binary and have to, to gender everyone? Why are we so looksist and need to find everyone’s picture online?” She took a deep breath. See! She was a better person already!

“Because what if they really are funny-looking?” Will said, already typing. “Wouldn’t you want to know? C. Evans Pen—oh here you go. It’s a he.”

A perfectly ordinary-looking he, it turned out, posed stiffly in front of a bookcase, quite distinguished with his graying hair and striped tie. “Is he Australian? I can’t read the text.”

Will zoomed in. “Mmm, no, it says he’s from New England. Why?”

“There’s a surprising number of references to marsupials. And I’m only three chapters in.”

“Marsupials?”

“You know, do you eat like a kangaroo or a platypus…never mind. I’d better get back to it.”

“Jane…honey, you know I love you the way you are, right? You won’t go all crazy vegan like Rupal and starve yourself? Or me?” he added, making a sad-eyed, mouth-turned-down kind of a Tragedy Mask face, the one Jane referred to as “I Am Woe.”

“Noooo. Not vegan. But after I conclude the Know Thyself chapters and the Self-Examination Exercises, I will need to make some changes. Not just what I eat, but also some house stuff, some things at work…and there’s a section about The Sensual Self I haven’t even taken the quiz for.” Jane made her own Tragedy Mask face back at him.

“I hope it’s about ‘self-care’” Will made heavy air quotes around the term. “Because I don’t know that I’m ready to follow some Australiaphiliac’s advice on sex.”

“It’s not until later in the book, in the chapter about Relationships. Let’s not worry about that now.”

“Somehow that’s not super-reassuring.”

“Sorry. But I’m going to do it,” Jane said. “I’m going to follow this book to the letter and see if I feel more, you know. Everything.”

“I think I already feel more everything,” Will said. “But I vow to support you in your Manifestation.”

Jane kissed his head. “I’m going to get ready for bed and read some more. Enjoy your sportsball stats.”

Will held up the tablet again to show her. “It’s hockey! There’s not even a ball involved.”

“Well, enjoy. Don’t stay up too late.”

“You neither. I wouldn’t want to get jealous of C. Evans Whatshisface.”

While Jane brushed her teeth, instead of wandering from bathroom to bedroom and back again as she usually did, she stared in the mirror. What did she really want? Why was she reading a book like this now? Could she really change?

Dutifully she flossed, washed her face, moisturized. Gripping the sink afterwards, she peered at herself, tipping her head a little so she saw her better side in the mirror. That’s what she wanted, Jane decided. Her better side—always. With a nod that looked more confident than she felt, she shut the light and climbed into bed with her Manifesto.

Week 1: Foods My Ancestors (Never) Ate

“Turns out I’m a Wombat,” Jane said morosely the next morning at work.

Leonard blinked at her behind his glasses. “Well, I was raised Episcopalian, but I’m not really practicing anything right now…”

“Yeah. Well, I’m talking about my book, the Manifesto one? The author categorizes you based on your eating and exercise habits. And it turns out I’m a Wombat, which seems like the worst one to be.”
“Oh. Right. Well if it’s any comfort, being Episcopalian wasn’t that great, either.”

“Thanks, Leonard. I’m not sure that helps, but I appreciate your trying. Oh—by any chance, did you know that platypuses aren’t marsupials?”

“Of course they’re not marsupials; they’re monotremes,” he huffed in an every-idiot-knows-that, maybe-if-you-didn’t-only-read-trash-you’d-know-it-too kind of way.

“Yes, well…” Jane held up Manifesto for a Superlative YOU! and said weakly, “Now I know.”

She hadn’t known before. Nor had she known that all the foods she loved most were pretty much the worst things for her to be consuming. If only she’d realized yesterday, she would have savored her pumpkin caramel macchiato with the loving attention it deserved. That most wonderful drink—only available in these bleak autumn months!—one of the few bright lights during cold, waning days, shouldn’t have been squandered with hurried gulps while checking email. No! She’d debased her precious pumpkin caramel macchiato, neglected it, took it for granted. And now it was gone, and she was desolated. If only she’d known…

“What’d you say, Ms. Keller?”

Consumed with self-pity, she hadn’t noticed the student hovering nearby. “What? Oh, sorry, Dylan. Just talking to myself, I guess.” Jane took a sip of her healthy green tea and then wished she hadn’t. Discretely she ducked and spat it out into the trash can under the desk. “Bleh. Sorry.” Eyes watering, she wiped them and her mouth and coughed a little. “How can I help you?”

“You okay?”

“Yeah, thanks. Just trying to switch to healthy green tea.” Instead of delectable pumpkin caramel macchiato…or December’s peppermint mocha frappuccino…or the cinnamon roll blended coffee confection that apparently contained the same amount of sugar as 300 Teddy Grahams…

“My mom drinks that sh— crap. It tastes like when you lick the Christmas tree.”

It didn’t surprise Jane that Dylan would not only lick the Christmas tree, but also admit it so readily. Two years ago, on his first (mandated) visit to the library in ninth grade, he’d cheerfully told her that he’d never read a book for pleasure, and only occasionally read the texts assigned for class. He wasn’t boasting, not like some kids who came in and sneered at her about how little they liked to read; no, it was just a fact. He wasn’t a reader. And part of Jane’s job was to accept that and still be his librarian.

“Interesting. What can I do for you today?”

“American Lit,” Dylan said grimly. “It’s time for the Independent Project.” He said it like an adult would say Root Canal or Pap Smear.

“Ah, yes. The Dread Independent Project.” As she did many times throughout the school year, Jane wondered about the wisdom of forcing kids to read things that they’d hate. It was like making her ingest this (disgusting) healthy green tea: was it really good for her if it made her retch?

“Do you have Mr. Capello or Ms. Weick?” She guessed it wouldn’t be any of the Honors teachers.

“Capello.”

Jane nodded, and Dylan followed her into the stacks where she plucked two books from the Fiction and Literature section. “Either of these would work. The Red Badge of Courage is about war, but it was written a long time ago and some of the language is a little hard.” Seeing the Tragedy Mask on Dylan’s face, she held up the other book. “Okay, Logan’s Run. Short and more modern. Did you see Hunger Games? Well, it’s a little like that.” And so lightweight that, of all the teachers, only Mr. Capello would accept it as literary enough for the Dread Independent Project.

Dylan dropped Red Badge back on the shelf—clearly the greater of two evils—while still eyeing the meager number of pages in Logan’s Run with evident mistrust. “Is there SparkNotes for it?”

“Probably,” Jane said, returning to the circulation desk to check the book out for him. There wasn’t but she knew he’d find other online synopses. “Come and talk to me when you’re done.” No response. “Okay?”

“’K,” Dylan said, cramming the book into his already-stuffed backpack and wandering off to class (Jane hoped). If only she could assign Zombie Cannibals Eat the New World; he’d love that. She sighed, returning to the back room to dump out the remainder of her (repellant) healthy green tea, to label and check in the stack of new arrivals, and to ponder what she was going to eat for the rest of her life.

C. Evans Pendleton was really big on Food of the Ancestors, as well as Real Food, SuperFoods, Super Nutrients, and Micro Nutrients. (He was also really into Capitalizing Things, as if his first language had been German.) The initial steps of The Plan were all about how actualizing your full potential started with what you ate. Not only will you drop pounds and have glowing skin; you’ll also be filled with energy, positive thoughts, empathy, and heightened analytical skills. You’ll feel one with the Universe, you’ll sleep like a baby, and never be anxious or depressed again. Most amazingly, you’ll start to crave natural, healthy foods instead of the Double Stuf Oreos waiting temptingly for Jane at home. It was just like when Z’Lena from Sageblood uncovered the Mystic Orb and transformed into a High Priestess, achieving blinding beauty, total omniscience, and the herculean strength to smite the lizard-like Dmirga invaders single-handedly. Only with less tribal warfare and more kale.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Unlike her protagonist in MANIFESTO, Bret Harper does not eat like her ancestors, nor does she hate meditation. Bret dances, kickboxes, and reads an embarrassing number of books about dragons.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
During the dreary month of November, I hoped to cheer myself up - and maybe some readers too! Listening to podcasts on happiness, I was struck by some of the ridiculous language and the absurdity of dividing people into set personality types. In fact, I'm both a Wombat and a Kangaroo :)
Q. Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?
A.
Manifesto is a comic novel (novelini?). Underneath the silliness, however, my message is this: We're so lucky. Even in this terrible political climate, those of us who have homes, and enough to eat, and our health, and the luxury of enough time for existential angst - we're still so fortunate.
Q. What draws you to this genre?
A.
Satire is a new genre for me. I wanted to poke fun of the self-help movement while also exploring the kinds of things that really can make our lives better, like gratitude and personal connections. I hope you enjoy my MANIFESTO!

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