The Black Veil: A Memoir with Digressions

Overview

In this searing, brilliantly acclaimed memoir, one of the most admired writers of his generation reveals how a decade of alcohol, drugs, and other indulgences led him not to the palace of wisdom but to a psychiatric hospital in one of New York's less exalted boroughs.

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Overview

In this searing, brilliantly acclaimed memoir, one of the most admired writers of his generation reveals how a decade of alcohol, drugs, and other indulgences led him not to the palace of wisdom but to a psychiatric hospital in one of New York's less exalted boroughs.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
To an interviewer's question about the confessional nature of his writing, Rick Moody responded simply: "I think openness is an important spiritual activity." In The Black Veil, he takes that openness to its most painful limits. In wrenching, yet reflective ways, he writes about an early breakdown, a psychological crisis so devastating that he feared for his life. After his recovery, Moody probed for reasons for his profound depression. Was he perhaps doomed by his family lineage? In his research, he focused particularly on Reverend Joseph Moody, a forebear who, according to Rick's grandfather, was the real-life model for Nathaniel Hawthorne's grim tale "The Minister's Black Veil." This foray into dark family closets ends with surprising revelations. It's no wonder that Thomas Pynchon asserted, "Rick Moody…takes the art of the memoir an important step into its future."
From The Critics
It is not clear whether Moody has written a memoir or an anti-memoir. As the author of The Ice Storm and Purple America warns, "Readers in search of a tidy well-organized life in these pages, a life of kisses bestowed or of novels written, may be surprised. My book and my life are written in fits, more like epilepsy than like a narrative." Despite the disclaimer, the writing here seems more distanced than revelatory, with Moody treating himself as a literary construct. A five-day trip to Maine that Moody takes with his father provides the primary narrative thread, as they explore the family's possible connection with the Nathaniel Hawthorne parable "The Minister's Black Veil," which Moody was told was based on a distant relative. Though his reminiscences encompass a pilgrimage to California and a subsequent cycle of substance abuse, nervous breakdown and psychiatric therapy, the reader is not likely to feel close to Moody. A memoirist who maintains that "my past didn't exist except in interpretations of the past" and admits that "language obfuscates as much as it reveals" is more interested in the veil than in what's behind it.
—Don McLeese

Publishers Weekly
Moody's first foray into nonfiction is a curious amalgam of family history, literary criticism and recovery memoir. The title refers to Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Minister's Black Veil," which, according to Moody, is based on the true tale of a Moody ancestor who wore a veil throughout his adult life as penance for accidentally killing his boyhood friend. Having this familial connection, Moody (The Ice Storm; Demonology; etc.) also links it to the sadness he experienced as an underpaid, overeducated 20-something searching for himself, first in San Francisco and later as a publishing assistant in New York. He alternates between explaining Hawthorne's story, describing trips to research his colonial-era paternal heritage and depicting how its legacy of apparent freakishness lives in him. In one bizarre episode, Moody confesses having had throughout much of his mid-20s a fear of being raped, an anxiety that eventually led to an alcoholic breakdown. Much of what Moody discovers in Maine graveyards, in old, coded diaries and in his delusions reinforces his own suspicions about a melancholic family inheritance. He's rarely straightforward, interweaving much of the book with occasionally cryptic passages by other authors, along with his own italicized commentary. This hybrid composition will surely enhance Moody's reputation as a thoughtful prose stylist, though he fends off the temptation of self indulging in the intense demands of self-scrutiny with an occasionally dry and strident tone. By the end of this daring experiment, it's clear that, even as the discoveries mount, forcing the veil of the past to fall away and revealing a sympathetic and sensitive man, Moody still hasn't managed to lose his angst. (May 6) Forecast: A 12-city tour to highlight the author's photogenic face and edgy image will help bump sales, but mostly to established fans. New readers will likely be left scratching their heads. Look for an interview with Moody in an upcoming issue. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Moody (The Ice Storm, Demonology) has artfully crafted a genre-breaking standout that interweaves literary criticism and family myths with his own recovery from addiction and depression. After years of abusing drugs and alcohol, a twentysomething Moody checked himself into a psychiatric hospital in Queens, NY. When he reemerged, he realized that he didn't know himself and began to scratch the surface of his identity. Spurred by the hand-me-down tales that his grandfather told about a possible ancestor, Handkerchief Moody (the supposed basis for Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Minister's Black Veil), Moody traveled the roads of New England with his father to piece together their patrilineal genealogy. This engaging quest covers many miles and has myriad detours. With the same passion that he uses to explore his family history, Moody delves into linguistics, devoting whole chapters to the origins of words such as moody and veil. His lyrical phrases and wry sense of humor masterfully tie together unconventional observations and disparate threads about family history, headline news, and etymology. Though he communicates much about his life, Moody, like Hawthorne's character, shrouds his existence with a filmy veil. The characters in his life (including his father) are painted with quirky details but remain in the shadows, never fully drawn, and it is up to the reader to decide whether the author is at all related to Handkerchief Moody. Yet by using myth and truth, Moody sheds light on what lies beyond the black veil we all wear. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/02.] Jeanne Larkins, New York Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Novelist Moody (Demonology) reveals an inspired but not pretty picture of his life. Circumstances didn't make a sweet spring of youth for Moody: He was shy and awkward, he stammered, was the beneficiary of a mean divorce, and seemingly had no fixed address. The one constant was reading, along with a link to his father (while his grandfather, if not as ever-present, was another blessed trouble-free zone). The grandfather told stories, and one of the true ones concerned a relation named Joseph "Handkerchief" Moody, who wore a black veil, likely in shame and sorrow after accidentally killing a friend in childhood. The veil becomes central to the memoir—with its sad mysteries, dark implications, and the simple yet not so simple act of hiding who you are if "concealment is essential to identity." Moody's language wells over; italicized words reverberate as emphatically as bassoons; images and feelings throng as he describes days-days and days-down and out to booze, followed by the shift into melancholia, when he expects every encounter to end in his rape: in short, the "hopelessness" that resulted in his admittance into a New York City asylum. A genuine and surprisingly sympathetic character emerges-the jacket copy reads that Moody worked in publishing at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, while he himself says that "I was now a postgraduate, M.F.A.-holding typist and filer of memos"—a mess and a screw-up. He explains how he once turned off the bell on his phone and as a result only later heard a frantic and accusatory series of old messages from his father, trying to reach him after his sister had died from a seizure. With that same father, Moody quests into the family lineage, looking forthemes, myths, and poignancy. Where he got the focus to write through all this is a wonder, though he sure had plenty of material on death, defeat, and dehumanization to work with.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780316739016
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • Publication date: 5/12/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.37 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Rick Moody
Rick Moody, a child of the 1970s and the privileged middle class of the Northeast, has become a specialist in dissecting both in his novels and short stories, which tend to focus on the troubled state of the nuclear family.

Biography

A bitter wind blows through the suburban landscapes created by novelist Rick Moody. Consider the elements of his second -- and most famous -- creation, The Ice Storm: Watergate hearings, marital infidelity, spouse-swapping key parties, familial disenfranchisement, and one teenager's chance meeting with an errant power line. All over Thanksgiving weekend.

"Rick Moody's The Ice Storm," wrote the Chicago Tribune's Adam Begley in 1994, "a bitter and loving and damning tribute to the American family, belongs to a subgenre I think of as suburban Gothic-tidy lawns and two-car garages, all the vulgar complacencies of affluence, mixed with brooding horror, melodramatic violence, extreme psychological states."

These Gothic-tidy lawns are the stuff of Moody's childhood. Though born in New York City, he grew up in various suburbs, including New Caanan, Connecticut, the home of the Hood family, his hapless, disconnected brood in The Ice Storm. A child of the 1970s, he apparently took copious notes, because his novels are filled with the detail of the period: the books, the articles, Masters & Johnson, Creem.

"[The Ice Storm] is not so much a novel as an excavation -- of that nearly but not quite extinct entity the nuclear family as it was in those dark ages, the 1970s," the Los Angeles Times noted. "The argot, the foibles, the fads and the artifacts: They're all here, meticulously catalogued and historically framed with discussions of the design, politics and groping psychology of the period."

In Purple America, Moody again visits the neighborhoods of privileged Connecticut, exploring the disappointments and debauchery of the American middle class. Set over a 24-hour period, the novel follows late-30s alcoholic Hex Raitliffe, who comes home to care for his invalid mother, abandoned by his stepfather, who manages a nearby nuclear power plant.

The Chicago Tribune pronounced the novel "dazzling" and even drew comparisons to Shakespeare: "While it might seem a blasphemous assertion, readers also may sense Moody's kinship to the young bard in his exuberance at the possibilities of language. Self-consciously artful but rarely obtrusive, Moody's prose dazzles with labyrinthine sentences of Faulknerian length. Its opening passage rings with biblical cadences, into the middle of which he tosses a Zen koan, all describing Hex giving his mother a bath. So rich, in fact, is this book that it demands to be read at least twice."

Following his studies at Brown University and the master of fine arts program at Columbia University, Moody worked as an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux -- a position that, one interviewer noted, made Moody wince upon recollection -- before releasing his first novel, Garden State, in 1992. He has also released two collections of short fiction, as well as a memoir, The Black Veil, in which he talks of the substance abuse that threw him into a life-threatening depression and recalls a relative who wore a black veil for much of his adult life, as atonement for accidentally killing a childhood friend.

"I'm naturally drawn to stuff you're not supposed to talk about," he told the The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1998. "I think literature is best when it's voicing what we would prefer not to talk about.... Literature is about interior states and emotional states, about what people think that they don't always say to their neighbors. I'm drawn magnetically with my tangled long sentences to those spots people don't want to talk about."

Good To Know

Moody wore a veil during his stint at the Yaddo artists' colony, where he worked on his memoir and family history, The Black Veil.

His father used to read from Moby-Dick at the dinner table each Thanksgiving.

Moody likes to write on the road on his laptop, listening to experimental music -- as a way to avoid distraction.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Hiram F. Moody, III
    2. Hometown:
      New York, NY
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 18, 1961
    1. Education:
      B.A., Brown University, 1983; M.F.A., Columbia University, 1986

Read an Excerpt

The Black Veil

A Memoir with Digressions
By Rick Moody

Little, Brown and Company

Copyright © 2002 Rick Moody
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0316578991


Chapter One

Children, with bright faces, tript merrily beside their parents, or mimicked a graver gait ...

Fathers make fetishes of their cars. Mustang convertibles, sport-utility vehicles, Jaguars, Corvettes (fathers receding into their middle years), Audis, Saabs, the restored Nash Rambler, the MG, the Ferrari, Lexus, Lotus, Lincoln Town Car; there are souped-up motorcycles and fathers are out in the driveway, on their backs, fumbling for wrenches.

I'm concerned here with patrimony, with all the characteristics attendant thereupon, with self and the vain reiteration of self implicit in fathers and sons, with national pride, national psychology, national tradition, with inheritance, with all the eccentricities that run in families, so you will have no choice but to get to know my dad (to the almost complete exclusion of my mom, unfortunately), as you will also have to wrestle with certain long-standing rules of dads. My particular dad, Hiram Frederick Moody Jr., didn't appear in my life until I was nine. He was in residence before that, sure, throughout the early years, but in a way more capricious than fatherly. He made his way around the premises. He had thinning dark hair and glasses (worn with embarrassment sinceearly childhood). He was slim, His most frequent expression was one of furrowed skepticism. He dressed casually but never sloppily. My dad wore Top-Siders and cable-knit sweaters and tweed jackets with patches on the elbows. And tortoiseshell glasses. He was, compared to me, very large. He was a behemoth. My childhood interest in dinosaurs, in the T. rex or the pterodactyl, was really a metaphorical interest in dads. He dispensed incontrovertible orders. We executed these orders. But my father was also a cipher to me, a mystery, an enigma - at least until my parents were divorced in 1970. This was all in Connecticut, in the suburbs. In Darien, mainly. Sun-dappled lawns, sprinklers, station wagons. My parents had to go as far as Mexico to secure their divorce. My mom had to go. That I hadn't been aware of any difficulties between them says more about what awareness is to a child than it says about their difficulties. My parents didn't talk to each other very often; they would pass through the kitchen or the front hall or on the way to the bar in the den and acknowledge each other in a miserly way. They didn't yell or bicker. They mostly agreed in public. But they managed to avoid being in a room at the same time, and we (my brother and sister and I) were rarely with the two of them in the family constellation, that I remember, except occasionally on our sailboat. I have the pictures of their wedding to attest to the fact that they were married at the same location and moment, but that is the only evidence. Dad turned up late, most nights, after my bedtime. Or, if earlier, he secluded himself in front of the network news, in a recliner, with a cocktail (vodka martini very dry with twist) and dry-roasted peanuts. Occasionally, I fitted myself into a small crevice beside him on the vinyl recliner, my head upon his shoulder, and watched the news with him, not understanding a word - Vietnamese body counts, riots at the convention - not talking to my dad, as my dad didn't talk to me. I absorbed the warmth of his sweaters and enjoyed the irrefutability of the head of household. When he took us out on weekends to play games, to engage in athletic contests, to school us in competition, he seemed distracted. Especially when baseball was involved. Baseball was too slow. Baseball was a game of the past, a nineteenth-century game, an Indian game. A game from the old America. The pitcher is the only important player, he observed. Why was anyone interested in it? My father watched football on the television in the den; he watched the New York Giants and grumbled at their performances, at Frank Gilford. We tried to excel at football as a result, even my sister, because we wanted to rouse him from distraction. Out on the lawn. In the space between crab apple trees and dogwoods. The neighbors came by and played too. Somebody's feelings were always hurt. The rules had not been effectively stated! Someone was cheating! I often tried to declaim facts about football in order to impress my dad, like that the Los Angeles Rams were very good, but my heart was not in it. I wasn't even in possession of genuine facts.

Fathers use acronyms. Fathers refold maps; fathers like to appear as though they have infallible knowledge of direct routes between any two points, Fathers are purveyors of ethics.

My brother is hard of hearing on one side because of chicken pox contracted as an infant. Because of his deafness, he never much trafficked in single words. There was no dada or mama or doggy or kitty period in his language development. When he learned to speak at all - in sentences - it was late, and he had a lot to say. Before language, he had a sentient glow but was unnaturally silent. Of course, silence is an incredibly powerful conversational gambit. He understood everything but reserved judgment. One day he was sequestered in the nursery, in his crib, and I was visiting him there while he passed time coloring, scribbling webs of color onto a pad in the tones of the old Crayola box. As I watched and offered commentary, he impulsively selected a certain yellow crayon and began to draw on the wall of his room. An eggshell wall, or perhaps a very pale linen-hued wall, Flat finish. Soon Dwight had made some compelling galaxies there. On the wall. The Crab Nebula. The Milky Way. Here were some really large-scale wall murals of a color-field sort. Like Motherwells or Rothkos. I watched this. It was fascinating because I knew intuitively that these designs did not belong on the wall of his room, and yet when no retribution was forthcoming (Mom was down the hall), I began to think that maybe I was wrong, maybe there were no parental regulations on the subject of coloring on the wall. Maybe everything was permitted. Maybe pandemonium was allowed. Why hadn't we ever thought of this before? The wall offered many inviting planes onto which to fashion our creations! It's a family trait to court trouble with authority, to incline toward trouble as though trouble were the sweetest grog. We were just coming into our inheritance.

My brother, however, having made a yellow scribble almost a crib length in diameter on the wall of his nursery, having filled in this scribble with swooping arcs of yellow sun-worshipping icons, petroglyphs, became bored with the exercise. He went back to his pad or went back to playing with his mostly decayed blanket, his transitional object, which accompanied all his peregrinations. I was not bored, however. I was just getting interested. I climbed up into the crib, stepped around my brother's diapered body, chose a purple crayon (the opposite of yellow), and made a small palm-sized quadrilateral smudge on the wall. The two drawings, it seemed to me, went well together. They were complementary.

Then my mother happened on the action. She darkened the threshold at the very moment when I, with crayon poised, was beginning to decorate my brother's decoration. This linen-colored paint job just was not right. It needed a little zing. A little something. Dwight was busy with some incredibly adorable three-year-old business that had nothing to do with defacing the house. Smiling his unforgettable smile, his snake charmer's smile. I was drawing on his wall. To my mother, fresh from another responsibility, it must have appeared as though I had myself made enormous yellow orbits on the wall and had now, in purple, begun to set off this yellow with some of my ideas about color harmony. There was a long, dramatic silence in which the enormity of the tableau sunk in. My mother slowly, incrementally, took note. Perhaps she fell tiredly against the door frame. But soon she seemed to regain her verve. In order to shout. She was not a person who expressed her rage easily (she was small and soft-spoken), but in this instance she made an indelible impact with words that had often been used before but until now only preemptively: Wait till your father gets home.

My parents were not committed to corporal punishment, to its theory or practice, to forms and styles of beatings, the belt, the open palm, etc. The threat was rare in our house, reserved only for really dreadful childhood crimes: maltreatment of our animal friends, theft, burglary, bodily harm of neighborhood children. In my brother's nursery, with my action paintings behind me, I suddenly knew, however, that I had placed myself on the list for such treatment. I was going to be spanked. My first thought was: How do I pin this on Dwight? It should have been easy. After all: my brother couldn't speak. I could say he had done anything. He's hiding behind his disability! He stole your savings passbook! He strangled the dog! He made me do it! He did it all and I seized the crayon from him, anxious to spare the room the terrible yellow and purple scribbles! I was trying to supervise! My brother's silence, however, had a sweetness that could have won over any jury. Look at that smile. Look at that blond mop. Look at those blue eyes.

And my mother believed him.

I spent the afternoon skulking around outdoors, playing alone with sticks and scraps of trash. (I was the middle child, I was left-handed, a brunet among blonds, I was covered with freckles, I was a mutant, a criminal, a foundling, a monstrosity. I was going to perish.) And then my father came home from the bank. He had barely loosed his tie, as I reconstruct it, before my mother, hands on hips, alerted him to the new interior decorating in my brother's nursery. Next, they stood in the doorway illumined by a dim ceiling light, silently inspecting the damage. Our circular artwork. This is how much it will cost to repaint or this is the weekend that will be lost to do it ourselves. My mother came to find me. I was guiltily attempting to hide in the family room, behind a Shaker chair. Your father wants to talk with you. My sister and brother avoided the whole contretemps. They knew what was up, and they were staying clear. Serious trouble was communicable. It might travel from one of us to another.

I refused to move. I screamed as my mother dragged me out into the hall. I grabbed on to furniture. The fullness of mortal terror emerged from me. I blamed Dwight. I blamed Meredith, my sister, who had been at school and had nothing to do with any of it. I blamed anyone who was at hand. I was misunderstood. I was unloved. I was a special case. I pleaded for my life, for mercy, for kindness. The whole neighborhood would know of my torture. Finally, my parents sequestered me in their bedroom. Pale gray walls. My father's suit pants were folded over the back of a chair designed to maintain their press. The closet in the bedroom was open, and inside cellophaned delicates shimmered. I remember the simplicity of Dad's hairbrush on the countertop. Tortoiseshell. Classic, masculine, functional. Was it plastic? Were plastics advanced enough for hairbrushes by the mid-sixties? The weapon had stiff brown bristles. Never before had it occurred to me to wonder which side of a hairbrush was used for a beating, bristle side or smooth surface, but now I knew. Bristles would have been too cruel. Or so I hoped. My father asked for no information on my wall-decoration project. This defendant was not encouraged to address the judiciary. In fact, my father didn't want to talk to me at all. He went through the business of taking down my trousers in silence. My skinny backside was exposed. And in some ways this was the worst part of the punishment, the Victorian spanking: the nakedness of it, the humiliation, the loss of self-determination. The spanking itself, one stroke only, was over instantly. Crimson indignity welled up in me alongside the sharp sting. I hopped around, gathering the complete text of my howl. I was left to hitch up my trousers myself.

My brother got off without a scratch.

Fathers may offer standard-issue praise, such as Attaboy! Stick with it! or Way to go! Fathers are able to dispense paternal wisdom even in a semiconscious or unconscious state. Fathers dispense advice that they spurned themselves.

He hated noise. The noise of kids, the footsteps of kids, herds of kids, mainly because he had gotten out of school, married immediately, spawned his first child ten months after marrying, two more by the time he was twenty-six. He had no idea how he was going to pay. How to get us through college, how to manage difficult teenage rebellions, how to play baseball with us (when he hated baseball), how to talk to children when they were clearly a separate species. The noise of kids made my father wild because he was not actually watching the New York Giants on television or the news or whatever he feigned watching. He was brooding about how he was going to pay. And plots must have abounded at the office. And there was the unhealthy quiet of his marriage. And there was the uncomfortable political ferment of the times. Up on the second floor of our house in Darien, the house where we lived while my parents were married, I would be throwing a pile of shoes, one by one, at my brother, trying to hit him in the head and knock him unconscious, and my brother would be crouched and screaming behind a desk, aiming a poison-tipped plastic spear at my face, when suddenly we would hear the sound of my father's voice in the stairwell, What the hell is going on up there? And we would fall into our shameful silence, an anxious silence so familiar as to have preceded our very births. Sometimes, intoxicated by the need to inflict bodily harm on each other, we ignored the initial warnings until we heard footsteps in the hall. Then at the door. And then the door would open.

Fathers speak in code. Fathers speak of equity or short positions or of the zero coupon or of the long bond; fathers speak of the need for a balanced portfolio; fathers shake their fists at the enduring misery of the bear market; fathers try to explain rate fluctuation, money supply, policy at the Fed. Fathers will have certain stirring anthems that they need to replay on the stereo again and again, such as anthems from Broadway shows or occasional hard-luck country ballads.

We were gathered around the fireplace, the kids, in Darien, one autumn evening when my mother explained that she and Dad couldn't get along anymore. His recliner, next to where we stood, was empty. To one side of the fireplace, the irons, the bellows. Wood smoke wreathed us. My mom was wearing plaid. I wasn't surprised by the direction of her remarks, though I had never seen any acrimony. There was a predictability about the whole discussion. A leaden disquiet to the scene. My brother was the only one who spoke up initially. By then he was a chatterbox. Don't get divorced! Don't get divorced! How did he know the word, since we were the first in the neighborhood to achieve that milestone? And though he stuttered much of the time, there was no stutter now. His plea was articulate and sad. My mother looked helpless. I tried to conceal myself behind my sister throughout the discussion, and this became my strategy later: Don't draw attention.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The Black Veil by Rick Moody Copyright © 2002 by Rick Moody
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Preface 3
Children, with bright faces, tript merrily beside their parents, or mimicked a graver gait 11
The old people of the village came stooping along the street 26
The topic, it might be supposed, was obvious enough 42
Customers came in, as the forenoon advanced, but rather slowly 54
Stooping somewhat and looking on the ground, as is customary with abstracted men 68
The deep pause of flagging spirits, that always follows mirth and wine 76
In his case, however, the symbol had a different import 89
It takes off its face like a mask, and shows the grinning bare skeleton underneath 104
Mr. Hooper, face to face with his congregation, except for the black veil 120
If I had ever once been happy, methinks I could contentedly be shot to-day 137
If it be a sign of mourning, I, perhaps, like most other mortals, have sorrows dark enough 151
What is this world good for now that we can never be jolly anymore 176
I have suffered woefully from low spirits for some time past 192
Every work, by an artist of celebrity, is hidden behind a veil 211
Had her eyes provoked, or assented to this deed? She had not known it. But, alas! 220
A veil may sometimes be needful, but never a masque 236
There being a heavy rain yesterday, a nest of swallows was washed down the chimney 250
Hither coasters &c. and fishing smacks run in, when a storm is anticipated 271
So far as I am a man of really individual traits, I veil my face 293
"The Minister's Black Veil," 305
Selected Bibliography 319
Acknowledgments 325
A Reading Group Guide 329
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