The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories

( 6 )

Overview

From one of the greatest writers of our time, his first collection of short stories, written between 1979 and 2011, chronicling—and foretelling—three decades of American life

Set in Greece, the Caribbean, Manhattan, a white-collar prison and outer space, these nine stories are a mesmerizing introduction to Don DeLillo’s iconic voice, from the rich, startling, jazz-infused rhythms of his early work to the spare, distilled, monastic language of ...

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Overview

From one of the greatest writers of our time, his first collection of short stories, written between 1979 and 2011, chronicling—and foretelling—three decades of American life

Set in Greece, the Caribbean, Manhattan, a white-collar prison and outer space, these nine stories are a mesmerizing introduction to Don DeLillo’s iconic voice, from the rich, startling, jazz-infused rhythms of his early work to the spare, distilled, monastic language of the later stories.

In “Creation,” a couple at the end of a cruise somewhere in the West Indies can’t get off the island—flights canceled, unconfirmed reservations, a dysfunctional economy. In “Human Moments in World War III,” two men orbiting the earth, charged with gathering intelligence and reporting to Colorado Command, hear the voices of American radio, from a half century earlier. In the title story, Sisters Edgar and Grace, nuns working the violent streets of the South Bronx, confirm the neighborhood’s miracle, the apparition of a dead child, Esmeralda.

Nuns, astronauts, athletes, terrorists and travelers, the characters in The Angel Esmeralda propel themselves into the world and define it. DeLillo’s sentences are instantly recognizable, as original as the splatter of Jackson Pollock or the luminous rectangles of Mark Rothko. These nine stories describe an extraordinary journey of one great writer whose prescience about world events and ear for American language changed the literary landscape.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A beautiful book for all time”—San Francisco Chronicle

“A vital addition to DeLillo’s corpus…expertly realized…The gods have equipped DeLillo with the antennae of a visionary. There is right field, and there is left field. He comes from third field—aslant, athwart. And I love The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories.”—Martin Amis, The New Yorker

“A terrific overview of [DeLillo’s] many strengths, from pitch-perfect character descriptions to surprising humor to soaring lyricism...The literary fireworks of the title piece alone are a stunning example of how the ordinary can become extraordinary in a gifted artist’s hands…Behold and be dazzled.”—Josh Emmons, People

“Many of [DeLillo’s] deceptively simple sentences will leave you awestruck…This slim volume is a marvel—a masterpiece of short fiction.”—Carmela Ciuraru, USA Today

“I was dazzled…Reading this collection confirms DeLillo as one of our very best short story writers…The richness of his work, the pleasures on offer—intellectual, visceral, poetic, comic—are unrivalled.”—Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask

“Magnificent.”—Richard Eder, The Boston Globe

“[DeLillo’s] prose is masterly and austere…Even the most fragmentary of [the stories] provides the pleasure of reading the inimitably elegant sentences that DeLillo has been fashioning for four decades.”—Troy Jollimore, The Washington Post

“The typical DeLillo tale reads like a diagnosis of a zeitgeist malady we never knew we had, and in these stories the malady is one of spellbound fixation. DeLillo has achieved a very particular kind of greatness…and his gifts…are, for a contemporary American writer, unsurpassed.”—Charles Baxter, The New York Review of Books

Michiko Kakutani
…offer[s] telling insights into Mr. DeLillo's themes and preoccupations as a writer…The stories in this volume should be read by anyone who misses the early DeLillo…
—The New York Times
Martin Amis
As a package, the book feels both pointed and secretive, both airy and airtight. The arrangement holds the promise of a kind of unity, or a kind of cumulative artistic force; and the promise is honored. These nine pieces add up to something considerable, and form a vital addition to the corpus…There is right field, and there is left field. [DeLillo] comes from third field—aslant, athwart…I love The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories.
—The New Yorker
Liesl Schillinger
Each of the stories collected in The Angel Esmeralda addresses a different kind of unease. It's almost a pity that the reader knows from the start that they were written over five decades—because each one feels like a coded contemporary allegory. DeLillo's doomy brainteasing reveals the enduring adaptability of human insecurities…DeLillo packs fertile ruminations and potent consolation into each of these rich, dense, concentrated stories.
—The New York Times Book Review
Troy Jollimore
Nothing I can say about DeLillo on the basis of The Angel Esmeralda will come as news to anyone familiar with his novels: His prose is masterly and austere, he has a deconstructionist's obsession with the arbitrariness of language, and his interest in human beings often seems less a matter of passionate engagement than of clinical detachment…while The Angel Esmeralda is probably not the ideal place for a neophyte to start…this collection nonetheless offers some real pleasures…and even the most fragmentary [story] provides the pleasure of reading the inimitably elegant sentences that DeLillo has been fashioning for four decades.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
The nine short stories of DeLillo’s first-ever collection span 30 years. Grouped around three historical moments and ranging in subject and setting from an earthquake in Athens to a snowbound college town, they offer both a compact way to observe the evolution of DeLillo’s writing and a highly palatable entrée into the work of the National Book Award winner (for White Noise) for the uninitiated. “Human Moments in World War III” features two Americans manning an orbital intelligence-gathering craft who begin receiving old-time radio signals while considering humanity at war; “war, among other things, is a form of longing.” In the title story, two nuns in the South Bronx encounter the near-feral Esmeralda Lopez, who, for a brief time, is transfigured into a rallying symbol for the impoverished community. And in “Hammer and Sickle,” a white-collar criminal in a minimum-security facility watches his two young daughters deliver financial news on a children’s program. DeLillo’s keen interest in the human experience of American historical and cultural moments is on clear display, and his full expressive range—from steady spareness (sometimes verging on disorienting frigidity) to roguish attitude and tender intimacy—is showcased well. While there aren’t any surprises, this is a welcome addition to DeLillo’s oeuvre for fans and newcomers alike. (Nov.)
Kirkus Reviews
The renowned author's first story collection presents a chronological progression of nine narratives, organized into three parts, challenging readers to make connections. Though DeLillo's legacy rests with his longer work, building to the epic scope and scale of Underworld (1997), this collection feels more like his more recent novels--short, elliptical, suggestive, provocative. He originally published the opening story, "Creation," in 1979, but hasn't published a whole lot of stories since. Some of what were originally published as stories, such as the one that gives this volume its title, have subsequently been reworked into novels (as "Angel" was into Underworld), while other published stories have not been selected for inclusion here. So the reader starts with questions, as always with DeLillo. Why these stories, grouped into these three parts? Is the organizing principle thematic, or stylistic, or is it possible to separate the two within the writing of America's premier post-modernist? Often the characters are unnamed, as in "Baader-Meinhof" (2002), in which a chance encounter between two unemployed people at an art exhibition--with politically charged images of imprisonment, torture, corpses--leads to an unusual connection that one of them finds disturbing. Somewhat similarly, though this time the protagonist has a name, "The Starveling" (2011) finds two people making an unlikely, tenuous connection through their obsessive routines of seeing a series of movies at multiple theaters daily, though the relationship between the two only seems to exist in the mind of one of them. The title story (1994) provides the book's centerpiece, with its glimpses of the holy amid the ubiquity of the profane, within a ravaged Bronx detailed in prose of terrible beauty. In "The Runner" (1988), the unnamed protagonist muses, after witnessing an accident, "The car, the man, the mother, the child. Those are the parts. But how do the parts fit together?" Readers often might find themselves wondering the same, but part of what distinguishes DeLillo's work is the way in which he engages the world rather than settling for the literary parlor tricks of some virtuoso experimentalists. Completists will search for clues in this slight but rich volume to the maturation of DeLillo's artistry.
The Barnes & Noble Review

Don DeLillo's electric Underworld, published in 1997, was always going to be a tough act to follow, given that its 800-plus pages surveyed an entire half century of life in America, from the 1951 baseball playoffs to the Internet age. But since it arrived, DeLillo has, perhaps wisely, not really tried to match it. He has produced mostly short books, two of them barely novella length, and even Falling Man, his contribution to the shelf of post- 9/11 fiction, was relatively brief and written in muted tones. A writer who built his reputation on swinging for the fences, DeLillo is firmly entrenched in a phase of modest gestures; and now comes The Angel Esmeralda, a collection of nine previously published short stories that originally appeared as far back as 1979.

The necessities of the story form — compression of character and incident — are often at odds with the strengths and even the interests of DeLillo, whose great preoccupation is an expansive sense of dread. His novels rise or fall on the execution of his tone, which can sometimes devolve into what B. R. Myers, in an infamous essay condemning contemporary fiction, referred to as "the safe, catchall vagueness of astrologists and palm readers." DeLillo's fiction has often been hailed as prescient, but it's fair to ask whether his "catchall" approach simply makes it easy to retrofit his vision to whatever grand tragedy or moment of social dysfunction comes along.

There are hazy notions of foreboding and emptiness in several of these stories, one character sensing "the thundering approach of something unimaginable," another "searching for something he could not identify." A few of the stories — including "Baader- Meinhof," about strangers who meet at an art gallery, and "The Runner," in which two strangers share conjecture about a brazen crime they witness — come off as sketches of thought experiments rather than full-bodied, complete products. After the book is finished, its people are less memorable than what they fear: earthquakes, germs, random violence, lack of other intelligent life in the universe. Characters aren't everything, but DeLillo's frequently feel like reductive conduits for his morbid and paranoid worldview.

When he pays just enough attention to people, his larger concerns benefit. In "Human Moments in World War III," first published in 1983, the narrator-astronaut and his colleague Vollmer monitor the titular conflict from space:

It is not too early in the war to discern nostalgic references to earlier wars. All wars refer back. Ships, planes, entire operations are named after ancient battles, simpler weapons, what we perceive as conflicts of nobler intent. This recon-interceptor is called Tomahawk II. When I sit at the firing panel I look at a photograph of Vollmer's granddad when he was a young man in sagging khakis and a shallow helmet, standing in a bare field, a rifle strapped to his shoulder. This is a human moment, and it reminds me that war, among other things, is a form of longing.
"The Angel Esmeralda" appeared in Esquire in 1994 and was expanded to become two memorable sections of Underworld, one of them appearing very near the end of the novel. It follows two nuns, one old and one young, who help the needy in the South Bronx and become particularly concerned about an elusive girl who appears untethered to family of any sort. It bustles with life more than any other story here, but given that DeLillo fans have likely already read Underworld, republication of this original iteration is not much of an event. And revisiting it in the novel after reading it here, one finds out how it was improved before being sewn into the larger work, with one key character developed and several sentences sharpened.

One of the best stories here is "Midnight in Dostoevsky," in which two student friends try to agree on the details they imagine about the life of an old man in their college town: "Does he have to be Russian to read Dostoevsky?" one asks, and the other responds, "That's not the point. The point is that it all fits together. It's a formulation, it's artful, it's structured." They end up falling out over whether actually talking to the man would be worthwhile.

In so overtly expressing his interest in the stories people invent for themselves and others, DeLillo allows for a subtle sense of play that's missing elsewhere — like in "Hammer and Sickle," the worst story in this book by a good stretch. Originally published in Harper's in late 2010, it's set in a minimum-security prison for white-collar criminals, and its timely themes are overwhelmed by a ridiculous conceit earnestly presented: the two young daughters of one of the prisoners broadcast a financial markets report that the incarcerated watch on TV. The girls, evidently provided a script by their mother, rattle off reams of quintessentially wooly DeLillo utterances:
The word is Dubai.

This is the word crossing continents and oceans at the shocking speed of light.

Markets are sinking quickly.

Paris, Frankfurt, London.
The children's show is a premise beyond saving, but the other stories are sufficiently representative of DeLillo's usual themes and strategies that his fiercely devoted fans will welcome the opportunity to have this scattered work in one place. The less devoted will be reminded that DeLillo's incantatory style works best when it has ample room to gather heft, and when his worry has a specific object — the JFK assassination in Libra, the specter of nuclear war in Underworld — and they will wait for his next substantial obsession.

John Williams is the founder and editor of the literary website The Second Pass (www.thesecondPass.com). His work as a freelance writer has appeared in Slate, McSweeney?s, Stop Smiling, The Austin American-Statesman, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Sun, and other publications.

Reviewer: John Williams

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781451659092
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 10/2/2012
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 290,829
  • Product dimensions: 5.36 (w) x 7.82 (h) x 0.48 (d)

Meet the Author

Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo, the author of fifteen novels, has won the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the Jerusalem Prize for his complete body of work and the William Dean Howells Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for his novel Underworld. In 2010, he was awarded the PEN/Saul Bellow Prize. These stories appeared in Esquire, Harper’s, Granta, and The New Yorker.

Biography

Growing up in his working class Bronx neighborhood in the 1940s and '50s, Don De Lillo was far more interested in sports than in books. A listless student, he did not develop an interest in reading until he was 18 and working a summer job as a parking attendant. Desperate to fill in the long, boring hours of downtime, he discovered the literature of Faulkner, Joyce, and Hemingway. He attended Fordham University and worked in advertising for several years before seriously pursuing a writing career.

When De Lillo's first novel, Americana, was published in 1971, it received modest reviews. Seven books followed over the next 14 years, steadily generating more critical praise but few sales. Then, in 1985, he hit pay dirt with White Noise, a brooding postmodern masterpiece about a Midwestern college professor and his family in the aftermath of an airborne toxic accident. It proved to be De Lillo's breakthrough, earning him both a National Book Award and an avid cult following.

Since then, De Lillo has gone on to produce a string of superb "literary" novels that fairly brim with big ideas yet also capture the essence of contemporary culture in all its infuriating banality. Cited by younger writers like Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace as a major influence, De Lillo remains a reserved and private, albeit gracious and genteel man who seems a bit uncomfortable with fame.

Among the many honors De Lillo has received are the Irish Times/Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize for Libra (1989); the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for Mao II (1991); and the Jerusalem Prize, William Dean Howells Medal, and the Riccardo Bacchelli International Award for his magnum opus Underworld (1997). In addition, three of his novels received high marks on a 2006 survey sponsored by The New York Times to name the single best work of American fiction of the last 25 years.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Cleo Birdwell
    2. Hometown:
      Westchester County, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 20, 1936
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York City
    1. Education:
      Fordham University, 1958

Read an Excerpt

HUMAN MOMENTS IN WORLD WAR I I I

A note about Vollmer. He no longer describes the earth as a library globe or a map that has come alive, as a cosmic eye staring into deep space. This last was his most ambitious fling at imagery. The war has changed the way he sees the earth. The earth is land and water, the dwelling place of mortal men, in elevated dictionary terms. He doesn’t see it anymore (storm-spiraled, sea-bright, breathing heat and haze and color) as an occasion for picturesque language, for easeful play or speculation.

At two hundred and twenty kilometers we see ship wakes and the larger airports. Icebergs, lightning bolts, sand dunes. I point out lava flows and cold-core eddies. That silver ribbon off the Irish coast, I tell him, is an oil slick.

This is my third orbital mission, Vollmer’s first. He is an engineering genius, a communications and weapons genius, and maybe other kinds of genius as well. As mission specialist I’m content to be in charge. (The word specialist, in the standard usage of Colorado Command, refers here to someone who does not specialize.) Our spacecraft is designed primarily to gather intelligence. The refinement of the quantum-burn technique enables us to make frequent adjustments of orbit without firing rockets every time. We swing out into high wide trajectories, the whole earth as our psychic light, to inspect unmanned and possibly hostile satellites. We orbit tightly, snugly, take intimate looks at surface activities in untraveled places.

The banning of nuclear weapons has made the world safe for war.

I try not to think big thoughts or submit to rambling abstractions. But the urge sometimes comes over me. Earth orbit puts men into philosophical temper. How can we help it? We see the planet complete, we have a privileged vista. In our attempts to be equal to the experience, we tend to meditate importantly on subjects like the human condition. It makes a man feel universal, floating over the continents, seeing the rim of the world, a line as clear as a compass arc, knowing it is just a turning of the bend to Atlantic twilight, to sediment plumes and kelp beds, an island chain glowing in the dusky sea.

I tell myself it is only scenery. I want to think of our life here as ordinary, as a housekeeping arrangement, an unlikely but workable setup caused by a housing shortage or spring floods in the valley.

Vollmer does the systems checklist and goes to his hammock to rest. He is twenty-three years old, a boy with a longish head and close-cropped hair. He talks about northern Minnesota as he removes the objects in his personal-preference kit, placing them on an adjacent Velcro surface for tender inspection. I have a 1901 silver dollar in my personal-preference it. Little else of note. Vollmer has graduation pictures, bottle caps, small stones from his backyard. I don’t know whether he chose these items himself or whether they were pressed on him by parents who feared that his life in space would be lacking in human moments.

Our hammocks are human moments, I suppose, although I don’t know whether Colorado Command planned it that way. We eat hot dogs and almond crunch bars and apply lip balm as part of the pre-sleep checklist. We wear slippers at the firing panel. Vollmer’s football jersey is a human moment. Outsize, purple and white, of polyester mesh, bearing the number 79, a big man’s number, a prime of no particular distinction, it makes him look stoop-shouldered, abnormally long-framed.

“I still get depressed on Sundays,” he says.

“Do we have Sundays here?”

“No, but they have them there and I still feel them. I always know when it’s Sunday.”

“Why do you get depressed?”

“The slowness of Sundays. Something about the glare, the smell of warm grass, the church service, the relatives visiting in nice clothes. The whole day kind of lasts forever.”

“I didn’t like Sundays either.”

“They were slow but not lazy-slow. They were long and hot, or long and cold. In summer my grandmother made lemonade. There was a routine. The whole day was kind of set up beforehand and the routine almost never changed. Orbital routine is different. It’s satisfying. It gives our time a shape and substance. Those Sundays were shapeless despite the fact you knew what was coming, who was coming, what we’d all say. You knew the first words out of the mouth of each person before anyone spoke. I was the only kid in the group. People were happy to see me. I used to want to hide.”

“What’s wrong with lemonade?” I ask.

A battle-management satellite, unmanned, reports high-energy laser activity in orbital sector Dolores. We take out our laser kits and study them for half an hour. The beaming procedure is complex, and because the panel operates on joint control only, we must rehearse the sets of established measures with the utmost care.

A note about the earth. The earth is the preserve of day and night. It contains a sane and balanced variation, a natural waking and sleeping, or so it seems to someone deprived of this tidal effect.

This is why Vollmer’s remark about Sundays in Minnesota struck me as interesting. He still feels, or claims he feels, or thinks he feels, that inherently earthbound rhythm.

To men at this remove, it is as though things exist in their particular physical form in order to reveal the hidden simplicity of some powerful mathematical truth. The earth reveals to us the simple awesome beauty of day and night. It is there to contain and incorporate these conceptual events.

Vollmer in his shorts and suction clogs resembles a high school swimmer, all but hairless, an unfinished man not aware he is open to cruel scrutiny, not aware he is without devices, standing with arms folded in a place of echoing voices and chlorine fumes. There is something stupid in the sound of his voice. It is too direct, a deep voice from high in the mouth, slightly insistent, a little loud. Vollmer has never said a stupid thing in my presence. It is just his voice that is stupid, a grave and naked bass, a voice without inflection or breath.

We are not cramped here. The flight deck and crew quarters are thoughtfully designed. Food is fair to good. There are books, videocassettes, news and music. We do the manual checklists, the oral checklists, the simulated firings with no sign of boredom or carelessness. If anything, we are getting better at our tasks all the time. The only danger is conversation.

I try to keep our conversations on an everyday plane. I make it a point to talk about small things, routine things. This makes sense to me. It seems a sound tactic, under the circumstances, to restrict our talk to familiar topics, minor matters. I want to build a structure of the commonplace. But Vollmer has a tendency to bring up enormous subjects. He wants to talk about war and the weapons of war. He wants to discuss global strategies, global aggressions. I tell him now that he has stopped describing the earth as a cosmic eye he wants to see it as a game board or computer model. He looks at me plain-faced and tries to get me into a theoretical argument: selective space-based attacks versus long, drawn-out, well-modulated land-sea-air engagements. He quotes experts, mentions sources. What am I supposed to say? He will suggest that people are disappointed in the war. The war is dragging into its third week. There is a sense in which it is worn out, played out. He gathers this from the news broadcasts we periodically receive. Something in the announcer’s voice hints at a letdown, a fatigue, a faint bitterness about—something. Vollmer is probably right about this. I’ve heard it myself in the tone of the broadcaster’s voice, in the voice of Colorado Command, despite the fact that our news is censored, that they are not telling us things they feel we shouldn’t know, in our special situation, our exposed and sensitive position. In his direct and stupid-sounding and uncannily perceptive way, young Vollmer says that people are not enjoying this war to the same extent that people have always enjoyed and nourished themselves on war, as a heightening, a periodic intensity. What I object to in Vollmer is that he often shares my deep-reaching and most reluctantly held convictions. Coming from that mild face, in that earnest resonant run-on voice, these ideas unnerve and worry me as they never do when they remain unspoken. I want words to be secretive, to cling to a darkness in the deepest interior. Vollmer’s candor exposes something painful.

It is not too early in the war to discern nostalgic references to earlier wars. All wars refer back. Ships, planes, entire operations are named after ancient battles, simpler weapons, what we perceive as conflicts of nobler intent. This recon-interceptor is called Tomahawk II. When I sit at the firing panel I look at a photograph of Vollmer’s granddad when he was a young man in sagging khakis and a shallow helmet, standing in a bare field, a rifle strapped to his shoulder. This is a human moment, and it reminds me that war, among other things, is a form of longing.

We dock with the command station, take on food, exchange cassettes. The war is going well, they tell us, although it isn’t likely they know much more than we do.

Then we separate.

The maneuver is flawless and I am feeling happy and satisfied, having resumed human contact with the nearest form of the outside world, having traded quips and manly insults, traded voices, traded news and rumors—buzzes, rumbles, scuttlebutt. We stow our supplies of broccoli and apple cider and fruit cocktail and butterscotch pudding. I feel a homey emotion, putting away the colorfully packaged goods, a sensation of prosperous well-being, the consumer’s solid comfort.

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  • Posted October 12, 2011

    Need to Read It First

    The Book has not yet been published as far as I know. The ship date is 11/15. Can only anticipate it will be vintage Delillo

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