Finding the Trapdoor: Essays, Portraits, Travels

Overview

Adam Hochschild was born in New York City in 1942. His first book, Half The Way Home: A Memoir Of Father And Son, was published in 1986. It was followed by The Mirror At Midnight: A South African Journey, and The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin. The Unquiet Ghost won the Madeline Dane Ross Award of the Overseas Press Club of America, given to "the best foreign correspondent in any medium showing concern for the human condition. Hochschild's work has also won prizes from the World Affairs Council, the ...
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Overview

Adam Hochschild was born in New York City in 1942. His first book, Half The Way Home: A Memoir Of Father And Son, was published in 1986. It was followed by The Mirror At Midnight: A South African Journey, and The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin. The Unquiet Ghost won the Madeline Dane Ross Award of the Overseas Press Club of America, given to "the best foreign correspondent in any medium showing concern for the human condition. Hochschild's work has also won prizes from the World Affairs Council, the Eugene V. Debs Foundation and the Society of American Travel Writers. An anthology of his shorter pieces, Finding The Trapdoor: Essays, Portraits, Travels, won the 1998 PEN/Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award for the Art of the Essay.

Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost: A Story Of Greed, Terror And Heroism. In Colonial Africa was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. It, Half The Way Home, and The Unquiet Ghost were all named Notable Books of the Year by the New York Times Book Review. His books have been translated into six languages.

Besides his books, Hochschild has also written for The New Yorker, Harper's, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones, The Nation, and many other newspapers and magazines. He is a former commentator on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."

Hochschild teaches writing at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, and has been a guest teacher at other campuses in the U.S. and abroad. In 1997-98, he was a Fulbright Lecturer in India. He lives in San Francisco with his wife Arlie, the sociologist and author. They have two sons.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In an impressive broadloom of subjects, Hochschild (Half the Way Home) offers 21 of his magazine-length reports on the world. Writer for Ramparts, co-founder of Mother Jones, he follows a passion for people likewise aflame for the detoured way of life for an intense political or a social justice. His wonderful lead profile of Jan Yoors, a Gypsy in New York, typifies Hochschild's affinity for the intriguing oblique. He writes trenchantly on Ernest Hemingway, Malcolm Lowry and Walter R. Brooks who wrote about Freddy the Pig for children. Of his uncle Boris Vasilievich Sergievski, captain in the Imperial Russian Air Force and later test pilot for Pam Am, he writes, "He was a Tom Jones parachuted by accident into a Henry James novel." In "From Hitler to Human Rights," his depiction of Goebbels-like Floyd Cochran of the racist Aryan Nation becomes a stunning portrayal of the power of the human spirit for a sea change in values. He's no less incisive when the subject is a place. Clearly fascinated by the world beyond himself, Hochschild extracts the essences of Russia, El Salvador, South Africa, Senegal, Colombia and Mississippi 30 years after Freedom Summer. The single deep immersion into his own background ("World on a Hilltop"), about his four girl-less, money-heavy prep-school years at Pomfret in Connecticut, leads him to realize "how bizarre and unjust is the entire world of prep schools." Abruptly he confesses his addiction to reading battle books, defending himself with "no study has shown that we lovers of war books are more likely to go out and start wars." Despite the mandatory chapter on John F. Kennedy and "Camelotry," readers will find this wide-ranging, well-crafted collection an enthralling excursion around the world and into the heart. (June)
Kirkus Reviews
A collection of magazine articles and time-bound reportage by the estimable Hochschild (The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin, 1994, etc.), cofounder of Mother Jones magazine.

Hochschild is a thoughtful, discerning reporter and a solid writer, but some of this material may seem a little stale, like picking up a decade-old newsmagazine and reading about life in the Soviet Union. Still, he's quite good in pieces such as "Aristocratic Revolutionary," a 1985 profile of Patrick Duncan, a white South African who was editor of an anti-apartheid paper in the early 1960s. One of his best pieces is a 1978 profile of Jan Yoors, a Belgian youth who ran away with the gypsies in 1934; Hochschild found the renowned author of The Gypsies and Crossing residing near Washington Square, a double amputee who made his living designing and weaving tapestries. Another visit finds the author in the French Alps with novelist and art critic John Berger, whom he liked "because he was the first writer I've run across who could explain why so much fine art is boring." Hochschild traveled extensively for these pieces: Mississippi, the Soviet Union, Senegal, El Salvador, South Africa, the Amazon. One 1995 article finds him in Colombia to witness the Indians' "startling migration in reverse": They were leaving the towns and missions and "rebuilding their traditional dwellings deep in the forest." A few literary essays are included, most notably a penetrating search for the young, sensitive Hemingway who existed before the myth, the "Papa" persona, the compulsive braggart, took over. And charmingly, this redoubtable peacenik of the '60s and '70s confesses to a lifelong addiction to war novels and books about combat.

These pieces speak clearly to the times in which they were written, but not to the ages.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780815605942
  • Publisher: Syracuse University Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/1999
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Adam Hochschild
Adam Hochschild
Born the son of a mining company executive, Adam Hochschild visited apartheid-era South Africa during his teens and observed the injustices of racism. He subsequently became active politically, joining the civil rights movement, demonstrating against the Vietnam War, and co-founding the activist magazine Mother Jones. His National Book Award-nominated Bury the Chains is a fascinating look at the British abolitionist movement of the late 1700s.

Biography

Adam Hochschild was born in New York City in 1942. His first book, Half the Way Home: A Memoir of Father and Son, was published in 1986. It was followed by The Mirror at Midnight: A South African Journey (1990) and The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin (1994). Finding the Trapdoor: Essays, Portraits, Travels won the 1998 PEN/Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award for the Art of the Essay.

Hochschild's books have been translated into five languages and have won prizes from the Overseas Press Club of America, the World Affairs Council, the Eugene V. Debs Foundation, and the Society of American Travel Writers. Three of his books -- includingKing Leopold's Ghost -- have been named Notable Books of the Year by The New York Times Book Review and Library Journal. King Leopold's Ghost was also awarded the 1998 California Book Awards gold medal for nonfiction.

Hochschild has also written for The New Yorker, Harper's magazine, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones (which he co-founded), The Nation, and many other magazines and newspapers. A former commentator on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," he teaches writing at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1997-98 he was a Fulbright Lecturer in India.

He lives in San Francisco with his wife, Arlie, the sociologist and author. They have two sons.

Author biography courtesy of Houghton Mifflin.

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    1. Hometown:
      San Francisco, California
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 5, 1942
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      A.B., Harvard College, 1963

Read an Excerpt

Unlike other mammals, writers are not born into the world knowing how to make their own particular noise. Almost from the beginning, wolves howl, hogs grunt, bears growl. They need no MFA programs in growling, or summer workshops in discovering the grunt within. Even if separated from their families at birth and raised by some other species, they still know the right sound. But writers are different: all too easily they mistake someone else's sound for their own. For many years, that's what happened with me.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction
Prologue
Finding the Trapdoor 3
A Gypsy for Our Time 15
Aristocratic Revolutionary 31
Broad Jumper in the Alps 50
Two Russians 65
From Hitler to Human Rights 88
Keep Up Pressure in All Directions 101
World on a Hilltop 123
Summer of Violence 140
We Are Not in Switzerland 151
Isle of Flowers, House of Slaves 168
Empire's End: A Moscow Journal 175
The Grand Bargain in South Africa 196
Fishhooks and Chickens 209
Paragon of Porkers: Freddy the Pig 235
Magic Journalism 241
The Pleasures of War 251
Hemingway: Hunter and Victim 259
The Private Volcano of Malcolm Lowry 265
JFK: Ever-Changing Hero 274
Remembrance of Africas Past 280
Sex Books, Then and Now 286
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First Chapter

However, my parents were out of sight, on the other side of the country. I seldom talked about them with my friends, and would not have dreamed, in what I wrote, of revealing much about the world I had come from. One of the few people who knew was my wife, Arlie, then a graduate student, later to become a professor at Berkeley and a superb writer of social science with an artist's eye. She and I lived, if not in Chekhovi- an poverty, at least in conspicuous simplicity. We drove a VW Beetle, and our threadbare furniture came from the Salvation Armystore.

At home, I was not doing my fiction-writing in a proper Paris garret, above a brothel or sawmill (like Hemingway's apart- ment), but I had almost the equivalent. Our two-room apartment was in a pleasant, slightly dilapidated brown-shingle building in Berkeley, and underneath the glassed-in sun porch in back, where I wrote, the ground had subsided. The floor slanted, and pencils rolled away from me on the top of my Salvation Army desk. I had to saw an inch and a half off the two near legs to make the desktop level.

After some two years of newspaper work, I moved on to a job writing for Ramparts magazine. But my articles there, like my unpublished short stories, were in my mind only small steps toward the big breakthrough, my first novel. I planned one out, and wrote several chapters and an outline of what was to come. Miraculously, in 1969 a New York publisher gave me a contract and a $5,000 advance (more than $20,000 in today's money). I was deliriously happy. Still in my mid-20s, I was on my way. My career--my real career--was launched.

By now I was no longer working at Ramparts. When people asked me what I did, I loved saying that I was writing a novel. This gave me an identity, and in a strange way I think I cared about that most of all. The actual novel felt important, of course, but as I look back at it now, I think it mattered so much to me mainly because it let me think of myself as being a writer. I got occasional offers of free-lance magazine assignments, but I turned most down: I was doing my novel, and almost anything else, I felt, would be something lesser. Would Proust or Tolstoy have paused to write a profile or a book review?

When anyone asked what my novel was about, I said, enigmatically, that I preferred not to talk about it. I knew, from reading Paris Review interviews, that we real writers seldom described works-in-progress. The creative process was complex and delicate, and could easily be disturbed by insensitive ques- tions from ordinary mortals. For the same reason, as I worked, I showed my manuscript to almost no one.

I imagined my own Paris Review interview to come. I would talk about the major literary influences on me, about my adven- turous newspaper days, and about the breakthrough with my first novel, after which it was all smooth sailing. I would have some wise words of advice for younger writers. And then I would wait for the interviewer to notice the slanting floor and the sawed-off desk legs.

* * *

I worked on the novel steadily. One of the few times I wrote something else was to spend a couple of days jotting down some childhood memories that bubbled up with uncommon insist- ence when an uncle of mine died. A swashbuckling Russian who had been a fighter pilot in the First World War, he had worked his way through Europe as a cabaret singer, flown explorers around Africa, and then shocked everyone in the family by marrying my father's shy, staid sister. But however vibrant a presence he had been to me as a boy, he was a figure from another era, who seemed to have nothing to do with the American rebels of the Sixties whose literary voice I hoped to be. I filed those pages away at the back of a drawer and forgot about them.

After several years, I finished the novel and mailed it off. I waited expectantly for the great praise I was sure my manu- script would get. Then came a terrible blow. My editor told me he had decided not to publish it. It had never occurred to me that this might happen. Didn't I have a contract, an advance already paid? More important still, hadn't I been telling people for several years now that I was a novelist? I felt like a groom abandoned at the altar when the wedding guests are already seated, the organ- ist is already playing. I was crushed. My editor, I was sure, had committed a major felony against American literature.

I showed the manuscript to many other publishers. No luck. I tried sending it around in England--hadn't Joyce also been spurned by publishers in his own country? No luck there, either. There was a recession in the publishing industry, I told friends; there were mergers, acquisitions, dark forces at work; it's harder than ever to get a decent book published these days . . .

Worst of all, after a gap of many despairing months, I reread my manuscript once again and began to see why no one wanted to print it. I had followed all the rules--the prose sparkled, the generations clashed, the stream-of-consciousness passages were all in lower-case italics, the symbols coyly awaited discovery by alert critics--but the characters were stiff and one- dimensional. The novel lacked the sound of a human voice.

* * *

Chastened, with a sense of having wasted several years, I went back to what I then thought of as my lower-ranking trade, journalism. In the mid-1970s, some friends and I started Mother Jones magazine. We were lucky in our timing, for it was in the wake of the Watergate scandal, where two journalists had forced a President to resign, and the country was ready for a new maga- zine with an anti-Establishment, investigative edge. And I was lucky personally: I had talented colleagues, meaningful work, and the excitement of being part of a magazine that caught on.

Unexpectedly, I found myself learning something enormously useful from being one of the magazine's editors. When editing, what you have to do all day long is what writers find hardest: cutting. You cut passages out of stories to make them fit on the available pages; you reject other pieces because they are not good enough; you say no to an unending stream of queries. The job demystifies words. It reminds you, as you look at letters to the editor and reader surveys and listen to what subscribers tell you, that readers are impatient and busy. You have to compete for their attention. Is this article going to keep someone reading for 6000 words? Or is it only worth 2000? Or should we drop it entirely--even if it was written by an old friend, by a famous writer, or by one of us? You learn that no piece of writing is sacred. The reader, not the writer, comes first. And nothing has value just because you wrote it.

During those years as an editor I wrote very little, still nagged by a lingering sense of my earlier failure. Every once in a while, I would skim through the manuscript of my old novel, and a feeling of humiliation would wash over me once more. Eventually I began writing occasional pieces again. At first these were, like most of what we ran in Mother Jones, political commen- tary or investigative reporting. I was dimly aware, though, that others could do this better than me. Then one day quite a differ- ent sort of idea came to me.

For several years I had been admiring the books of Victor Serge, an anarchist who fought with the Bolsheviks in the Rus- sian Civil War. He spoke out for free speech and democracy, and was harassed and jailed by Stalin. Suddenly, reading Serge's memoirs, I realized that on one day in October 1919, at the site of an old observatory just outside Petrograd, Victor Serge and my beloved Russian uncle, Boris Sergievsky, had fought on opposite sides of the very same battle. In 1978 I decided to go to Russia, find the battlefield, and write about these two men I admired, who each stood for something so different. I did so; it's the piece that appears on page 00 of thisbook.

Once I had written the article, I found myself feeling something I had not experienced before. It was not a sense that I had written anything great or lasting. I merely felt that for the first time in my life, I had written something fully in my own voice. Almost everything else--the other magazine and newspaper articles, the unpublished novel and short stories--were, I now saw, in one way or another in someone else's voice.

My voice, curiously, was not what I had expected. It seemed like a long-lost identical twin, who turned out not to look like what I thought I looked like. For one thing, it had none of the rhetorical flourishes or instantly recognizable style of some of my favorite novelists. For another, this voice of mine was not writing novels at all, but non-fiction. Furthermore, my voice was still in part that of a reporter: traveling about, interviewing people, describing people and places I had seen. What I'd learned in my first trade still had some use after all. Perhaps the distinc- tion I hadalways made between Journalism and Writing was an illusory one.

* * *

Not long after this, as I was nearing my 40th birthday, my father died. Much of my life, and my very becoming a writer, which had at first upset him greatly, had been a sort of quiet rebellion against his hopes and plans for me. And now he was no longer there. It's as if you spend all your life with one hand braced against a wall that threatens to topple over on you. Then suddenly one day the wall vanishes. It is hard to find your balance.

I still had that persistent dream that my real work was as a novelist. And so in 1981 I left my job as an editor and spent some months working on a new novel. But like the first, it felt wooden and lifeless. At least I was now self-aware enough to see this. I felt all roads blocked. As a last resort, I decided to work on a memoir. Writing one was something I had long thought about, but had been sure I wouldn't do for years. The memoir I had sometimes imagined, finally revealing some information about my private life to a surprised world, was supposed to be a late, minor appendage to my career as a novelist, as Conrad's memoirs are to his. It felt all wrong to be doing it first. I figured I would write the book, then put the manuscript away for some years. I would try to publish it only after I had produced those novels which, I hoped, were still somewhere inside me.

Most unexpectly, the memoir came tumbling out quickly. Telling myself that I wouldn't try to publish it right away had mysteriously opened a lock. Writing the book barely felt like work, more like writing a letter to a friend. To my further sur- prise, I realized that I had long ago written the opening pages: those childhood memories of my uncle Boris, quickly jotted down and filed away a decade earlier, then used more recently in that article from Russia. I finished a rough draft of the book in two and a half months.

I revised the manuscript, and showed it to friends. They generously gave me much useful criticism for which I will be forever grateful. In the preceding fifteen years I had learned this: forget all that coy concealment about work-in-progress in those Paris Review interviews. Talking about your writing, trying it out on people, watching closely to see where they get interest- ed and where they get bored, is the most precious tool a writer has. If a piece of work doesn't accomplish the job you want it to, then you can go back and try again. That's a luxury that an aircraft designer or a bridge engineer doesn't have.

One day I realized I had abandoned another earlier belief: that a writer must toil ceaselessly on the Great Book and not waste any time on lesser work. While working on my memoir I was, I noticed with some surprise, doing more other kinds of writing than ever: op-ed pieces, a book review column for Mother Jones, a regular commentary for National Public Radio, and more magazine articles that felt to me to be in that new voice I had found. At bedtime, I found I was telling stories to my 5-year-old younger son, with a regular stable of oddball characters. Sometimes we would take turns, each carrying the story a lap farther.

Insteadof distracting me from work on the memoir, all these things seemed to help, as if limbering up some additional literary muscles I hadn't known about before. By accident, I had learned an important secret: that each of us does not have just one voice, but many, and that speaking in one of them can help bring the others to life. "Any proper writer ought to be able to write anything," Kingsley Amis once said, "from an Easter Day sermon to a sheep-dip handout."

My feeling of not wanting to publish the memoir for a long time evaporated, replaced by the simple vanity of wanting people to read it now. It would not, after all, be the life story of a famous novelist, only of a human being. Half the Way Home: a Memoir of Father and Son was published in 1986. I've written several more books since then, but this first one was a turning point that made it possible for me to go forward.

Two unexpected things happened after the book appeared. The first occurred a year or so later. One day I pulled out the manuscript of that early unpublished novel, expecting to feel a failure once again for having wasted all that time. But as I now read through it something struck me like a thunderclap. The manuscript was, I saw, a first version of Half the Way Home. True, it was a novel, not a memoir. The main character was a young woman, not me. Her parents were largely not my parents. She grew up in a different part of the country. But the underly- ing feelings I was trying to evoke--clumsily and unsuccessfully this first time round--were the same. Like some biographer poking through his subject's attic, I had discovered my own first draft. So: all that time and effort had not been wasted after all. I felt as if an enormous burden had been lifted from me.

The other thing that has happened since Half the Way Home came out is this: When I run into people who have read the book, or get letters from them, sometimes they begin by saying, "I read your novel . . . " At first, my impulse was always to correct people, to say that the book is clearly labeled a memoir, that I didn't make anything up, that it's all true. Today I am more bemused. Slips of the memory reveal something, like slips of the tongue. What I think the "I read your novel" shows is that we are accustomed to turning to nonfiction for information, and to novels for character and emotion. After all, isn't this exactly what I had believed for years--thinking that if I wanted to por- tray a character, to make a reader feel, I could only do so by writing novels?

Now, I feel much more relaxed about all this. The important thing is to convey what you care about, to evoke those feelings in others, and to make your characters live and breathe and walk off the page, whether you're writing fiction, nonfiction, or something in between. Often the right form turns out to be something entirely different than what you had once imagined. My own, it appears, often seems to be some mixture of history and first-person reportage, and the more leaps between them the better. After all, is there anything more exhilarating than time- traveling? And characters are everything. Searching for good ones and for the meanings embodied in their lives has taken me, physically or intellectually, to some times and places I wouldn't have missed for anything: to remote corners of Siberia in the Stalin years and today; to the Congo in the time of Joseph Conrad and King Leopold II; to Andrei Sakharov's apartment in Moscow; to coal miners' shacks in Appalachia; to being on the campaign trail with Nelson Mandela. Amazingly, I actually get paid for doing this. The people I have encountered, both in person and in the revealing paper trails left behind in history, are far more interesting than any it would be in my power tomake up.

Novelists write, in part, by imagining alternative selves, living in different places and circumstances. We nonfiction writers actually get to go out and meet those selves. I think we have more fun.

* * *

A writer's search for a voice probably goes on for a life- time. Sometimes I think of that searcher as being like a would-be singer, ready to give a concert, who is trapped in a pitch-black house. This may sound like a bizarre image, but it is always the one in my mind. The lights in the house are off; the doors are closed; mysterious screens and barriers stand everywhere; floor- length blackout curtains cover all the windows. You stumble around in the dark, banging into things, shouting but not heard. You have only a limited amount of time--that's what life is, after all--to find the magical opening, the window or door through which you can stick out your head and sing, so that those out- side can hear you at last.

Bumping about in the darkness, most of us tend to grope toward the traditional grand aperture: those French windows of the novel. Find them, fling them open, and there you are on the balcony, ready to sing your song. There are other traditional openings, too: the smaller window of the short story, the door- way of the poem.

But now, I am beginning to see, there are all sorts of other ways out of the darkened house, and each of them lets your voice out: dormer windows, a little wicket for the meter- reader, skylights that swing open, chimneys you can poke your head up, the secret trapdoor hidden under the rug. Some day, perhaps, I'll stumble upon those French windows and write a novel. But if not, I won't be disappointed. Recently, and certain- ly unimagined in my Paris Review-reading days, I have found myself writing very short stories for very small children. My kids have now grown up, and those stories simply need somewhere to go. What passage out of the house is this analogous to? Maybe to that little flap the cat pushes through to get in and out of the back yard. In any case, it's something that won't be found by someone looking only for the French windows. But to me it feels like a real opening out of the house nonetheless. I plan to keep looking for more.

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