House Rules [NOOK Book]

Overview

A memoir of a father obsessed with control and the daughter who fights his suffocating grasp, House Rules explores the complexities of their compelling and destructive relationship as Rachel fights to escape, and, later, to make sense of what remains of her family.

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House Rules

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Overview

A memoir of a father obsessed with control and the daughter who fights his suffocating grasp, House Rules explores the complexities of their compelling and destructive relationship as Rachel fights to escape, and, later, to make sense of what remains of her family.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Sontag, a doctor's daughter, grew up in a family that seemed every bit the normal, suburban ideal. She and her sister were raised to value book smarts as well as worldly experience. What those outside of the family didn't know was that the reason Sontag was so accomplished and committed to her extracurricular activities was that she would've done anything to get away from her father, Stephen. By enforcing a peculiar system of rules and consequences, he micromanaged every moment of her life, tape-recording her conversations, measuring the length of her fingernails and locking all the phones in a safe when he left the house. When Sontag broke the rules, regardless of circumstance, he would verbally abuse her for hours, dictating letters of apology from her to him ("I am a selfish, rotten, worthless brat," etc.). Sontag's mother, Ellen, reneged on plans to divorce him for years, perhaps partly because Stephen prescribed her into complacency with lithium. In adulthood, Sontag found herself caught in self-defeating patterns that smacked of her father's thrall. Struggling to break free, she even resorted to homelessness before finally severing her relationship with Stephen. Sontag's is a brave account, not only of what it's like to take the brunt of an abusive parent's wrath, but of what it means to have the courage to leave. (Apr.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

A painful childhood is grist for the mill in contemporary memoirs, and this one has all the necessary components: a controlling, mentally ill father and distant mother, stints in group homes, and experimentation with drugs. Yet somehow, Sontag rises above the predictable in this gripping, quirky, unusual look back at a childhood that would have ruined adulthood for most people. Sontag's father was a respected physician who insisted on keeping track of every area of his two daughters' lives, down to the growth of their hair and the length of their fingernails. Her mother, a social worker, stood helplessly by, watching, for example, as her husband locked Sontag out of the house on a cold Chicago night to "teach a lesson" about forgetting one's house keys. Ultimately, Sontag's mother shoulders most of the blame for this family gone haywire because of what Sontag sees as her inability to leave the marriage or to put her daughters and their welfare before the demented standards of her spouse. Sontag's voice remains clear, authentic, and humorous throughout. Recommended for public libraries.
—Jan Brue Enright

School Library Journal

Adult/High School

Viewed from the outside, Sontag's Illinois childhood was stereotypically American upper middle class-a physician father, social-worker mother, two girls, a house with a yard and a dog. Behind that facade, Sontag says, was a dysfunctional family ruled by a man who consistently berated, humiliated, and bullied his children and his wife. Particularly onerous were the "middle of the night" sessions, wherein Rachel was summoned downstairs for yet another recitation of her failings that ended only when she admitted to being a selfish, negligent rule-breaker. She rails against her father's obsessive and "sick" conduct, yet seems especially angry with her mother, whose weakness she finds repellent. Only by physically removing herself from the household could she begin to achieve independence, repair her self-image, and, eventually, come to terms with parents she could neither live with nor change. Some may find her self-pitying and will question her precise quotation of conversations that occurred years ago. Yet her book is a memoir; it does not pretend to be anything other than what it is: one daughter's perspective of life under a man who, in her eyes, chose to play the role of despot rather than that of loving and forgiving husband and father. Readers in similar circumstances may gain comfort from seeing the author's eventual independence.-Dori DeSpain, Fairfax County Public Library, VA

Kirkus Reviews
Self-absorbed debut memoir about growing up in a dysfunctional family ruled by a father adept at inflicting psychological pain. Sontag presents this as a book on family dynamics, but its scope is actually much narrower. She focuses primarily on the controlling behavior of her father, a physician in a VA hospital who set and enforced his own unreasonable rules for what the author, her mother and sometimes her younger sister could and could not say and do. His wife, a school social worker, was singularly unable or unwilling to protect her daughters or herself from his bizarre strictures and harsh, tormenting harangues. In Sontag's sharply reconstructed scenes, her father comes across as a name-calling monster, her mother as a cringing wimp. There was no physical abuse (unless being locked out of the house in winter counts), but at one point during her high-school years, the department of social services apparently recognized the psychological harm being done to Sontag and temporarily removed her from the family home. Her weak, fearful mother promised to get a divorce, but it became clear that she never would, that her ties with her husband were stronger than those with her children. When the author finally left home, her struggle to become independent became arduous. Family relations were strained, lies seemed necessary, apologies and reconciliations were not forthcoming. In the final chapters, almost as an afterthought, Sontag briefly explores her relationship with her younger sister, whom their father tended to ignore as they were growing up. A depressing account, lacking the warmth and power of Jeannette Walls's The Glass Castle (2005), to which it will inevitably be compared. Agent:Amanda Urban/ICM
San Francisco Chronicle
"As Rachel Sontag makes clear in her searing memoir, "House Rules," emotional abuse can be as devastating, as cruel, as the most severe physical and sexual maltreatment….What is remarkable and inspiring is that Sontag emerged from the situation a stronger person."
Los Angeles Times
"Sontag’s lean writing captures the tension — the feeling of family as prison. Each time an outside observer recognizes her father’s manipulative cruelty, the reader feels a little surge of hope. Get out of there, Rachel! Get out!"
Gotham
"[Sontag’s] story shows just how resilient the human spirit can be."
Phillip Lopate
"As riveting, passionate and powerful a memoir as any I have read in recent years, it is also noteworthy for the balance and scrupulous self-scrutiny the writer brings to her younger self. The result—harrowing as the story may be—is a literary delight."
Dani Shapiro
"In this brave, hard-won, and gorgeously written memoir, Rachel Sontag lays out the story of her family in prose as tautly strung and delicate as a high-wire. . . . A remarkable book."
Danielle Trussoni
"...a fresh and utterly engrossing memoir...a father/daughter story full of candor, truth, betrayal and, ultimately, love."
Alicia Erian
"Sontag recollects in vivid detail what it is to die a slow emotional death then somehow manage to resuscitate herself."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061864711
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/13/2009
  • Sold by: HARPERCOLLINS
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 352,140
  • File size: 594 KB

Meet the Author

Rachel Sontag was born and raised in Evanston, Illinois. She received her MFA in creative writing from the New School. She lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

House Rules
A Memoir

Chapter One

There was a time before. There is always a time before. It was a time we can all look back on with a certain nostalgic affection. Not because things were easy, but because we all knew our place in relation to Dad.

It was before I turned ten. Jenny was seven. We slept in the same bed. We bathed together. Dad referred to us as "the children," and because we were "the children," because there was nothing distinguishing us from each other, we fought on the same team.

Dad appeared to us as stubborn and erratic, but he was our dad and each of us was desperately trying to feel our way to his heart. Mom was her own person. She had a laugh that filled a room. She set up watercolor paints on the kitchen table, clay on the floor, mixed newspaper with water and paste so we could make papier-mâché masks.

We lived in a house with a yard. We had a dog. We traveled frequently. We saw our parents above us, our protectors, the people who turned our lights on in the morning and off again at night so we could sleep. Jenny and I hurt to hear them fighting, to think there might be something wrong with the foundation upon which we built our images. It was normal stuff that concerned us all back then. But things were beginning to change. Mom was losing her footing.

When I was eleven and Jenny was eight, we attempted to smuggle our Barbie dolls across the Mexican border, to vacation with us in Cancún, where they could sunbathe and swim in the bathtub.

Jenny's Barbies were in better condition. She didn't stick their heads in bowls of blue food coloring like I did. She didn't chew theirfeet off. We married some, divorced others, baptized their babies and threw bat mitzvahs. We traded their clothing and the high-heeled plastic shoes that never quite fit their overly arched feet. We pulled their arms off and taped them back on with Dad's duct tape. We broke their legs so we could build wheelchairs. We gave them names that we'd wanted for ourselves: Brigitte, Kimberly, Tina.

The dolls got as far as O'Hare. In the baggage-check line, Dad caught sight of the circular cookie tin under Jenny's arm. His face soured.

"Ellen. What's in the tin?"

Mom looked at it as if it was an alien object she'd never seen before.

We were standing behind a family of four with a boy and a girl around our age. Bratty-looking, I thought. The girl's fingers were wrapped around the neck of a pink stuffed animal. The boy wore a Hard Rock Cafe shirt that came down to his knees. The dad toted golf clubs. The mom wore heels.

The ticket agent motioned us toward the counter. "How y'all doing?" she asked. No one answered.

"How many bags y'all checking today?" she asked, smiling at Dad.

I watched her thin, frosted lips move automatically. Not very good at reading people, I decided. She didn't seem to realize that something was the matter.

"Sir, how many bags y'all have?"

Probably she wasn't from the South but had flown there several times and enjoyed the sound of the accent.

Dad gestured for the ticket agent to hold on as he waved the three of us out of line. We moved off to the side. Mom stood with her mouth agape, hands on her hips.

Dad examined her as if she were a piece of art he found only slightly interesting.

"What's in the tin, Ellen?"

Mom fumbled with her purse.

The next family stepped up. Kids with yellow headphones stuck on their ears. "The girls' stuff," Mom said.

"Stuff?" he said. "What kind of stuff?"

Jenny and I knew when it was going to get bad. We could always feel it. Dad was about to launch an attack that Mom could not deflect, and we waited, anxious and excited that it was Mom he was mad at and not us.

"What's in the tin?" he asked.

Mom looked hard at it, as if meditating on the matter could turn the dolls into a stack of National Geographic magazines.

"Barbies," Mom said.

"Barbies?" Dad took a step back. "Are you kidding me, Ellen?"

His face went white. His lips curled upward, and if one didn't know his many degrees of anger, it would be easy to mistake his face for amused, which he was not.

The ticket agent looked at us. "Sir, you guys ready for check-in?"

"No," Dad said.

We each took a few more steps away from the counter. Jenny sat down on her duffel.

"I can't believe you've done this. We've talked about this, Ellen."

His words hung heavy in the air, like the powerful stench of a skunk's spray.

Mom dropped her head, defeated, as if she, too, could not believe what she'd done.

No one was actually sure what she'd done, but Dad wasn't going to let it go. Whatever storm was rolling in would knock out at least the next two days of our vacation.

"Steve, this is ridiculous," Mom said.

Ridiculous was something Mom often accused Dad of being, but it was exactly the ridiculousness that kept Mom intrinsically connected to Dad. It made her, momentarily, the object of his attention, albeit through anger, at a time when he was losing interest in her. She got used to Dad's ridiculousness. This was just the way her husband was. And we got used to Dad pulling us out of lines and making scenes.

"Jenny? Rachel? Which one of you couldn't leave the house without your dolls?"

We got nervous. We looked at each other, silently blamed the other.

"We're locking them up," he said, staring at the tin.

"Steve, it's going to cost a lot more money to lock the dolls up at the airport for ten days."

"I don't care. It's the principle."

He looked at his watch and raised his eyebrows. "We've got half an hour. You better find a place to lock those things up."

House Rules
A Memoir
. Copyright © by Rachel Sontag. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Read More Show Less

First Chapter

House Rules
A Memoir

Chapter One

There was a time before. There is always a time before. It was a time we can all look back on with a certain nostalgic affection. Not because things were easy, but because we all knew our place in relation to Dad.

It was before I turned ten. Jenny was seven. We slept in the same bed. We bathed together. Dad referred to us as "the children," and because we were "the children," because there was nothing distinguishing us from each other, we fought on the same team.

Dad appeared to us as stubborn and erratic, but he was our dad and each of us was desperately trying to feel our way to his heart. Mom was her own person. She had a laugh that filled a room. She set up watercolor paints on the kitchen table, clay on the floor, mixed newspaper with water and paste so we could make papier-mâché masks.

We lived in a house with a yard. We had a dog. We traveled frequently. We saw our parents above us, our protectors, the people who turned our lights on in the morning and off again at night so we could sleep. Jenny and I hurt to hear them fighting, to think there might be something wrong with the foundation upon which we built our images. It was normal stuff that concerned us all back then. But things were beginning to change. Mom was losing her footing.

When I was eleven and Jenny was eight, we attempted to smuggle our Barbie dolls across the Mexican border, to vacation with us in Cancún, where they could sunbathe and swim in the bathtub.

Jenny's Barbies were in better condition. She didn't stick their heads in bowls of blue food coloring like I did. She didn't chewtheir feet off. We married some, divorced others, baptized their babies and threw bat mitzvahs. We traded their clothing and the high-heeled plastic shoes that never quite fit their overly arched feet. We pulled their arms off and taped them back on with Dad's duct tape. We broke their legs so we could build wheelchairs. We gave them names that we'd wanted for ourselves: Brigitte, Kimberly, Tina.

The dolls got as far as O'Hare. In the baggage-check line, Dad caught sight of the circular cookie tin under Jenny's arm. His face soured.

"Ellen. What's in the tin?"

Mom looked at it as if it was an alien object she'd never seen before.

We were standing behind a family of four with a boy and a girl around our age. Bratty-looking, I thought. The girl's fingers were wrapped around the neck of a pink stuffed animal. The boy wore a Hard Rock Cafe shirt that came down to his knees. The dad toted golf clubs. The mom wore heels.

The ticket agent motioned us toward the counter. "How y'all doing?" she asked. No one answered.

"How many bags y'all checking today?" she asked, smiling at Dad.

I watched her thin, frosted lips move automatically. Not very good at reading people, I decided. She didn't seem to realize that something was the matter.

"Sir, how many bags y'all have?"

Probably she wasn't from the South but had flown there several times and enjoyed the sound of the accent.

Dad gestured for the ticket agent to hold on as he waved the three of us out of line. We moved off to the side. Mom stood with her mouth agape, hands on her hips.

Dad examined her as if she were a piece of art he found only slightly interesting.

"What's in the tin, Ellen?"

Mom fumbled with her purse.

The next family stepped up. Kids with yellow headphones stuck on their ears. "The girls' stuff," Mom said.

"Stuff?" he said. "What kind of stuff?"

Jenny and I knew when it was going to get bad. We could always feel it. Dad was about to launch an attack that Mom could not deflect, and we waited, anxious and excited that it was Mom he was mad at and not us.

"What's in the tin?" he asked.

Mom looked hard at it, as if meditating on the matter could turn the dolls into a stack of National Geographic magazines.

"Barbies," Mom said.

"Barbies?" Dad took a step back. "Are you kidding me, Ellen?"

His face went white. His lips curled upward, and if one didn't know his many degrees of anger, it would be easy to mistake his face for amused, which he was not.

The ticket agent looked at us. "Sir, you guys ready for check-in?"

"No," Dad said.

We each took a few more steps away from the counter. Jenny sat down on her duffel.

"I can't believe you've done this. We've talked about this, Ellen."

His words hung heavy in the air, like the powerful stench of a skunk's spray.

Mom dropped her head, defeated, as if she, too, could not believe what she'd done.

No one was actually sure what she'd done, but Dad wasn't going to let it go. Whatever storm was rolling in would knock out at least the next two days of our vacation.

"Steve, this is ridiculous," Mom said.

Ridiculous was something Mom often accused Dad of being, but it was exactly the ridiculousness that kept Mom intrinsically connected to Dad. It made her, momentarily, the object of his attention, albeit through anger, at a time when he was losing interest in her. She got used to Dad's ridiculousness. This was just the way her husband was. And we got used to Dad pulling us out of lines and making scenes.

"Jenny? Rachel? Which one of you couldn't leave the house without your dolls?"

We got nervous. We looked at each other, silently blamed the other.

"We're locking them up," he said, staring at the tin.

"Steve, it's going to cost a lot more money to lock the dolls up at the airport for ten days."

"I don't care. It's the principle."

He looked at his watch and raised his eyebrows. "We've got half an hour. You better find a place to lock those things up."

House Rules
A Memoir
. Copyright © by Rachel Sontag. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 27 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(12)

4 Star

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 27 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 28, 2012

    Not recommended

    This book was very depressing.What I learned through reading this book: I couldn't imagine having a father like that. I like more uplifting stories. I can't really write anything positive about it.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted April 26, 2011

    good

    good book i kiked it but parts of it were eh

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  • Posted January 21, 2009

    blah

    this book was hard to get through. i felt bad for the situations the author had to go through with her father however i didnt see where she was going the whole book. the ending didnt satisfy me enough. but this is her first book so i will give her a little credit.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2008

    Easy Reading

    I found the book easy reading and fairly engrossing. I got a little weary towards the end with the author trying to deal with her mother and father issues, but overall it was a good book and would recommend to others. I hope she's in therapy. With parents like that, she'll need it for the rest of her life.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 8, 2008

    A must read!

    Like many others who have reviewed here, I couldn't put this book down. A beautifully written account of one family's hidden darkness that manages to transcend into the universal by virtue of the author's vivid descriptions and emotional honesty. This isn't a book that looks to place blame or analyze the actions of the people in it until they fit into a neat little box -- it's a living, breathing account of what it means not only to survive, but to live, with grace and tenacity. Ms. Sontag's memoir, while at times painful to read, is also one full of humor and hope. I recommend this book to everyone!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 15, 2008

    Outstanding work

    This is a haunting tale, yet the manner in which Sontag tells her story brings the reader close and personal. It compels the reader to make it through each chapter, and become an actor in Sontag¿s life through the witnessing of her story. Just as the author managed to temper the horror of her circumstances through humor, so too does the reader ¿ and the hilarity that it evokes is as fierce at times as the anger. This makes the book enlivening even in its most tragic moments. Her account of her life is unique in its purity and honesty - not only with the reader, but with herself. Sontag beautifully manages the delicate balance between concrete, visceral descriptions and reflective analysis on her situation. For those who can identify closely with the harsh details of her life, it brings on a difficult yet cathartic moment of truth. For everyone else, it remains entirely relevant in its inspiring message of strength and bravery in the face of mistreatment.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 16, 2008

    Absorbing!

    This story is heartbreaking and emotionally raw. The author's childhood was filled with unreachable parental expectations that, while extreme, I think many of us can relate to. Her writing style is free-flowing and hooks the reader from the first page. I highly recommend 'House Rules' for it's content and for the wonderful way in which the story is written. As with the other reviewers, I could not put this book down and rooted for the author in her journey of self-discovery.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 28, 2008

    Couldn't put it down read it in only two sittings

    Just loved this book. The story is so great that I couldn't put it down. Some people might think oh its a chick book, but Im a guy and loved it. Looking forward to more books from sontag she just writes and tells the story so well.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 31, 2008

    House Rules is the real deal.

    This book is a breath of refreshing air amidst the sea of cranky and whiny memoirs published in recent years whose writers seem to be trying to one-up each other to see who's endured the worst childhood or heartbreaks or ingested more drugs or drank more Blue Ribbons. I've had it up to here with these books that provide no insight to the human condition and leave me shaking my head, asking, Who the hell did they know to get this thing published? So thank the gods for House Rules. Sontag restores some much needed respect for the memoir genre. House Rules rules. As the previous reviewer wrote, you won't be able to put this book down. The line-by-line writing is fantastic. The prose is straightforward and beautiful, with none of that showboating that so many other MFA-educated writers seem to spend most of their time honing these days, at the expense of diving into the emotional center of their stories. Sontag writes the honest, and at times brutal truth here, about her family and about herself. Indeed, in addition to shedding light on those around her, she looks at herself and her own thought processes in more depth than just about every other memoir writer I've read in recent years. As a result, you 'the reader' emerge from this book wiser and enlightened and inspired, not merely thankful that you didn't grow up with X as parents, or didn't have to go through Y, or didn¿t get hooked on Z. The story the author tells here is one of survival and hope, and it's told in a very mature manner.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 31, 2008

    Captivating Account of Father and Daughter

    This was a book I could not put down till I was finished with it. Reading Rachel's account makes you feel as though you have known her all your life. Her story is intense and reflects the complicated relationship between father and daughter. My heart was striving with her and her strength is truly encouragement to others. Thank you, Rachel, for sharing the deepest part of yourself with the world.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 31, 2008

    A reviewer

    Wonderfully written. You really are transported into the mind of the author. Tragic yet beautiful,and ultimately uplifting. I highly recommend this read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 1, 2008

    Really quite inspiring.

    I'm not normally a reader of memoirs but a friend gave me this book and I have to say that once I started, it was very hard to put down. With grace, humor and courage the author vividly sweeps you up and into her rather harrowing and heartbreaking childhood. I found it to be moving and inspiring.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 31, 2008

    Page Turner

    I thought the book was incredible. It was such an intament picture into the life of a family where seemingly everything was normal. I think most people can relate to one degree or another how dysfunctional family interaction can be. She really brings the characters to life. Also the way it is written is very free flowing and easy to read. I really love this author and can't wait for what she does next. A real joy! Highly recommended.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 31, 2008

    Fantastic! A Must Read

    I absolutely loved this book. I could not put it down. Im sure come years end, it will populate many best of 2008. So far it is on the top of my 2008 and would have made my 2007 list as well. Its a moving account of one young lady's childhood, and how she overcomes what would cripple most of us. I wanted to re read it as soon as I was done. I agree with the previous poster, I could not put it down. I would recommend everyone to pick up the book read it. Sontag writes just enough never filling any pages with unwanted fluff, but enough of the details to make you feel like you are there living with it with her. Again this is one of the top books I have read in the last year.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 1, 2008

    Outstanding Debut Book

    Sontag takes us on a sometimes brutally painful, sometimes awe-inspiring journey of psychological abuse, perseverance and finally self-acceptance and reliance. In that journey we see an uncanny ability of the author to weather the storm of her parents mental problems, to use (most hysterically) the use of humor to deflect the pain of her parents attacks and dysfunction, and finally to find honesty as the real means to move on. Sontag never takes the role of a victim in a family full of victims and defies her father¿s insults and her mother¿s ineptitude to become a success despite them. She also clearly illustrates the complexity of her relationship with her parents and spends much time talking about instances of joy and accomplishment where she felt close to her father and sought out his approval. The pain in this seesaw of emotions is highly palpable to the reader. The book is written simply and takes you right into the author's life without pretexts or dogma. A highly recommended read!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 23, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 3, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 21, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted June 25, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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