One-Minute Book Reviews

August 3, 2009

Clara Kramer’s ‘Clara’s War: One Girl’s Story of Survival’ – A Teenager’s Holocaust

Filed under: Biography,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:25 pm
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A first-person account of hiding in a bunker during the Nazi occupation of Poland

Clara’s War: One Girl’s Story of Survival. By Clara Kramer. With Stephen Glantz. Harper/Ecco, 339 pp., $25.99.

By Janice Harayda

Clara Kramer tells us early in this book that when Nazis arrested Jewish leaders in her town in Poland in 1941, her mother donated “her wedding band” to help ransom them. More than 150 pages later, she says that her family had to pay a monthly fee to the Christians who were hiding them in a bunker, and when her parents ran out of money in 1944, her mother gave “her wedding ring”: “We didn’t sell it until now.”

This first quote comes from the story told in Clara’s War with the aid of screenwriter Stephen Glantz. The second comes from one of its excerpts from the teenage diary said to have inspired the narrative. The inconsistency between the two quotes – one of a number involving substantive facts – shows a problem with this book: Its publisher bills it as a “biography,” but it reads more like a novelization of a life.

As Clara’s War has it, five thousand Jews lived in Zolkiew, Poland, at the start of World War II, and about 50 survived. Clara Kramer was one of the lucky ones. She survived the Holocaust because an ethnic German named Valentin Beck hid her family and others for more than a year in a bunker under his house, “a space no larger than a horse stall.” Beck had a reputation as an anti-Semite, a drunk and a philanderer, and he appears to have had complex reasons, not all of them noble, for sheltering Jews during the Nazi occupation of Zolkiew. He often summoned one of the women in the bunker to his living quarters for trysts, and the affair may have begun before she arrived. His infidelity enraged his wife and, when it came to light, imperiled everyone under his roof.

If Clara’s War is accurate, the Becks were nonethess heroic, saving 18 Jews, and have been honored by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial. Valentin’s acts of kindness included bringing the teenage Clara composition books and a blue pencil that she used to keep a diary, now in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

But it is hard to know how accurate the book is. With Glantz’s help, Kramer describes many scenes in a detail few people could recall even with the help of a diary, such as line-by-line conversations complete with gestures and facial expressions. Some events serve literary purposes that seem too neat. One occurs in the prologue when the author is 12 years old and her sister leaves the shelter of an apple tree to look at bombers overhead – a foreshadowing of a disaster that will occur later. You never really see how 18 people could have survived in a crypt-like space the size of “a horse stall,” though the book has a diagram and says that the bunker still exists and the author and others have returned to it.

Kramer kept in touch with others saved by the Becks, and they and their descendants presumably have confirmed much of the story in Clara’s War. Even so, you wish the book had fewer inconsistencies and cinematic flourishes. The excerpts from the diary in the Holocaust Museum are fascinating in their own right, and you hope that readers someday will have a chance to read the entire journal in straight-up form.

Best line: “My father, like every Jewish business owner in town, had his business confiscated by the Nazis. We had to wear the white armband with the blue Jewish star above the right elbow. Any offense was punishable by death. The day the order for the armbands came down, none of us could leave the house until my mother had embroidered them. It took Mama over two hours to do one armband.”

Worst line: “My father’s family was so religious that they had had considered it irrelevant to have their weddings recorded by the state. So even though we went by the name of Schwartz in our day-to-day life, all of our official papers, including my birth certificate, bore the name of Gottlieb.” Why Gottlieb? Was Gottlieb carried over from previous generations not mentioned in the book? Or did ultra-religious Jews choose it because it means “God love”?

Published: 2009 (first American edition), 2008 (British edition from Ebury Press, part of Random House).

Watch a video of Clara Kramer talking about the Holocaust and her book.

Consider reading instead of or in addition to Clara’s War: All But My Life, a beautifully written memoir by Gerda Weissmann Klein and a pillar of Holocaust literature.

Furthermore: Kramer lives in Elizabeth, NJ. She helped found the Holocaust Resource Center at Kean University in Union, NJ. Glantz is a screenwriter. The inconsistencies cited in the first paragraph of this review appear on pages 43 and 219 of the book and can be confirmed by using the “Browse Inside” tool on the HarperCollins Web site to search for “her wedding band” and “her wedding ring.”

© Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 21, 2009

How to Get Teenagers Into Libraries – Late Night With Jan Harayda

Filed under: Late Night With Jan Harayda,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:25 pm
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One way to get teenagers into libraries: Have a party and invite the kids to come as their favorite character in the bestselling “Twilight” series of vampire romance novels. You might show the movie “Twilight” and play trivia games, as the Fairhope Public Library in Fairhope, Alabama, did.

July 15, 2009

Telling Kids ‘You’re Special’ Fosters Narcissism, Not Self-Esteem, Prof Says

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:02 am
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You know all those parenting manuals that say that you can build children’s self-esteem by piling on praise like, “You’re special”? And how a lot of schools apply the advice by assigning essays on topics like, “I’m special because …” If U.S. News & World Report is right, some people might want to ask for refunds from the boards of education that have used tax dollars to pay for such projects. Telling kids “You’re special” fosters narcissism, not self esteem, Jean Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State and the author of Generation Me (Free Press, 2007), says in the magazine. U.S. News also says that you’re squandering your praise if you keeping telling the kids, “Good job!” If the magazine is right on that one, many parents deserve additional refunds from the publishers of the waves of books on child-rearing that have been promoting that phrase for years.

June 18, 2009

Nicotine Patches Encourage Teenagers to Smoke – Late Night With Jan Harayda

Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational World (Random House, 272 pp., $15, paperback) came out in paperback recently, and if the Food and Drug Administration gains power to regulate tobacco products as seems likely, regulators might learn from it.  William Grimes wrote in a New York Times review of the book:

“Nicotine patches and nicotine gum, intended to wean smokers from their dangerous habit, actually seem to encourage teenagers to take the first puff, for reasons that any economist might have predicted. Since there are now products to help smokers quit, it becomes less risky, as a purely rational proposition, to pick up the habit.”

Steven E. Landsburg makes a related point his entertainingly contrarian The Armchair Economist (Free Press, 1995), a book that with a catchier title might have become the Freakonomics of its day. In a chapter semi-facetiously called “How Seat Belts Kill,” Landsburg describes what happened in the 1960s when federal legislation for the first time required Americans to wear seat belts:

“The number of auto accidents increased. The reason is that the threat of being killed in an accident is a powerful incentive to drive carefully. But a driver with a seat belt and a padded dashboard faces less of a threat. Because people respond to incentives, drivers are less careful. The result is more accidents.”

Landsburg goes on:

“An interesting question remains. How big is the effect in question? How many additional accidents were caused by the safety regulations of the 1960s: The regulations tend to reduce the number of driver deaths by making it easier to survive an accident. At the same time, the regulations tend to increase the number of driver deaths by encouraging reckless behavior. Which effect is greater?”

In the mid-1970s, University of Chicago researcher Sam Peltzman studied the question and found that two effects were of about the same size and cancelled each other out, Landsburg says:

“There were more accidents and fewer diver deaths per accident, but the total number of deaths remained essentially unchanged. An interesting side effect appear to have been an increase in the number of pedestrian deaths; pedestrians, after all, gain no benefit from padded dashboards.”

“Late Night With Jan Harayda” is an occasional series of posts about books that appear after 10 a.m. Eastern time that may include commentary but do not include reviews, which typically appear earlier in the day.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

May 9, 2009

Tom Disch’s ‘The Genocides’ – One of the ‘100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels’ Involves an Ecological Catastrophe

Filed under: Fantasy,Science Fiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:28 am
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Where are the science-fiction novels for sophisticated teenagers? You might wonder after reading Stephenie Meyer’s bestseller about aliens, The Host, which is written at a fourth-grade reading level. You’ll find answers in 100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels (A&C Black, 2006), written by Stephen E. Andrews and Nick Rennison with foreword by Christopher Priest.

Among the novels tapped by the authors: The Genocides (Vintage, 160 pp.,$12.95) by the late Tom Disch. Andrews and Rennison write:

“When unseen aliens decide to claim Earth for themselves, they sow the planet with seeds that grow into massive plants which begin to destroy the ecosystem. The plants adapt swiftly whenever new toxins are used against them and civilization itself begins to crumble. Then huge spherical incinerating machines descend to raze the cities, clearing the way for the extraterrestrial crop’s full bloom. Following the struggles of a small American community as they try to survive the onslaught of the alien agriculturalists by burrowing into the roots of the monstrous vegetables, The Genocides is an invasion story with a difference: what chance can human beings have against beings who consider us nothing more than garden pests? Using John W. Campbell’s approach to pursuing an idea to its inescapable conclusion while refusing to conform to the psychologically dissatisfying conclusion invasion stories have suffered from since The War of the Worlds, Tom Disch had the audacity to defy decades of convention, consequently producing a marvelous debut that both broke new ground and upset traditionalist SF fans.”

Andrews and Rennison add that despite his occasional “remoteness of tone,” Disch is “a humane author whose highly accomplished and often very funny work marks him as one of the finest writers of literary SF ever to emerge from America.”

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda,com

May 4, 2009

Pulitzer Prize Reality Check – Christine Schutt’s ‘All Souls’ — A Prep-School Student Gets Cancer in a 2009 Fiction Finalist

A New York City teenager’s overprivileged friends respond to her life-threatening illness

All Souls. By Christine Schutt. Harcourt, 223 pp., $22.

By Janice Harayda

Did the judges for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction intentionally set the bar low this year? Or did their tastes simply run to lightweight books with improbable feel-good endings?

Christine Schutt’s All Souls, a runner-up for the 2009 fiction prize, has odd similarities to the winner, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. The publishers of both books bill them as “novels.” But Olive Kitteridge is a cycle of short stories, a group of linked tales could stand alone.

All Souls, too, reads more like a collection of stories than a novel. But its tales are so short, they’re closer to vignettes. All Souls has nine sections, each divided into so many sub-units that you keep darting into and out of the minds of different characters. One of the micro-sections has fewer than 50 words. Many others aren’t much longer and read as though written for an iPhone screen. The problem isn’t the use of vignettes to tell a story: Evan Connell used a similar technique to brilliant effect in Mrs. Bridge, a minor classic of American literature. The problem is that the entries in All Souls are so short that – as John Updike said of Bruce Chatwin — Schutt sounds as though she’s always interrupting herself. Her technique makes for choppy reading and limits her ability to develop a rich and sustained narrative.

Like a high school yearbook, All Souls gives snapshots of its characters instead of fully realized portraits. In a sense this befits its subject. Pretty and well-liked, Astra Dell develops “anaplastic high-grade fibrosarcoma,” a rare connective-tissue cancer, at the start of her senior year of high school. How rare is her illness? If you paste “anaplastic high-grade fibrosarcoma” into a browser window, Google returns only one result, which involves the Unitarian minister Alison Miller, whom Schutt credits with inspiring this book.

Schutt shows the effect of the cancer on Class of 1997 at the fictional Siddons, an elite Manhattan prep school for girls, that she follows through an academic year. As Astra gets high-risk treatments such as having a radioactive rod sewn into her arm, her classmates and others tend to respond inadequately or use her illness for their own ends.

At times Schutt captures well the mix of naïveté and overconfidence that tends to characterize teenagers. A senior can’t believe Astra got cancer: “She’s been a vegetarian for three years!” Schutt also offers occasional telling glimpses of Siddons parents and teachers: The adults discuss rumors that the pipes at rival schools are rusting from “the acidic effects of throwing up” by girls with eating disorders.

What are we to take away from all of this? If always intelligent, Schutt’s prose is so elliptical and antiseptic that you don’t know whether it’s intended as satire, social realism or something else. And like Olive Kitteridge, All Souls pulls an unexpectedly rosy ending out of a hat of darkness. The girls of Siddons, we learn, are conscientious enough that they don’t use CliffsNotes much. Schutt has stripped away so much from her book that she often leaves you with the sense that you haven’t read a novel so much the sort of condensation that her fictional students would avoid.

Best line: Siddons girls have been warned that CliffsNotes are “as nutritious as bread someone else has chewed and spit out.”

Worst line: A line of of dialogue by Astra’s father, who tells his daughter about a party: “The Johnsons were not in attendance.” Who speaks like this?

Published: April 2008 (Harcourt hardcover), Harcourt paperback due out June 8, 2009.

Consider reading instead: Black Ice (Knopf, 1991), Lorene Carey’s memoir of her experiences as the first black female student at St. Paul’s prep school in Concord, New Hampshire, or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark‘s classic about an Edinburgh girls’ school.

About the author: Schutt lives and teaches in New York City. She wrote the novel Florida (Triquarterly, 2003), a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award for fiction. All Souls was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer for fiction.

Furthermore: Schutt says the inspiration for All Souls came from the minister Alison Miller, especially from her sermon, “Leap of Faith.” In the sermon at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, Miller spoke about developing anaplastic high-grade fibrosarcoma at the age of 16.

Read an excerpt from All Souls.

This post is the latest in a series on the winners of or finalists for major literary prizes and whether they deserved their honors. A reality check for  Olive Kitteridge appeared on April 27, 2009.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book critic for the Plain Dealer and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

May 2, 2009

Christine Schutt’s Pulitzer Finalist and Novel About a Girls’ School, ‘All Souls’ — A Reality Check Coming Next Week

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:50 am
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A review  of Christine Schutt’s All Souls, a runner-up for the most recent Pulitzer Prize for fiction, will be the next post in the “Reality Check” series that explores whether the winners of or finalists for major prizes deserved their honors. All Souls involves a student at a girls’ prep school in Manhattan whose classmates learn that she has a grave illness, and the review will deal in part with whether the novel might also appeal to teenagers.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 25, 2009

Rich Wallace’s Tale of Young Chess Players, ‘Perpetual Check’

Teenage brothers face off in a novel about a chess tournament

Perpetual Check. By Rich Wallace. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 128 pp., $15.99. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

Perpetual Check has a warning for parents who overpraise their children’s modest talents, hoping to enhance self-esteem. The caution comes from Zeke Mansfield, a high school senior who is a good athlete but less than the star his father imagines. Zeke realizes at a chess tournament:

“Having his father telling him what a star he is for all those years hasn’t been a plus after all. Somehow it made him decide that an extra hour of working on his ball control was plenty, no need to make it two; that 50 sit-ups after practice were just as good as a hundred; that sometimes it wasn’t worth running hills in the pouring rain. He was great; he was unbelievable. His natural talent would carry him as far as he wanted to go. It was heady stuff at 12 or 13 or 15.”

That “heady stuff” gets tested at the Northeast Regional of the Pennsylvania High School Chess Championship, held during a snow-encrusted weekend at a hotel in Scranton. Zeke and his pudgy younger brother, Randy, a freshman, have both qualified for the event. Randy can beat his brother nine times out of ten and outranks him in other ways: He’s better student, has a girlfriend, and can guess the colors of M&Ms in his mouth with his eyes closed.

So when the two brothers meet in the semifinals, there’s a showdown, complicated by the presence of their father. Mr. Mansfield is a hypocritical, overcontrolling, sexist who tries live out his failed dreams through Zeke. His boorishness has fueled the natural rivalry between his sons, a reality that emerges in chapters told from the brothers’ alternating points of view.

Will one son outperform the other in the tournament? Or might both embarrass their father by losing to – oh, the horror! – a girl? Wallace controls the suspense well in a lightweight, fast-paced book that portrays Zeke and Randy with more subtlety than their father, who is a caricature. By the time the tournament ends, the brothers have had insights into more than chess strategy: They understand better the role their father has played in their relationship and in their parents’ shaky marriage. Zeke reflects early in Perpetual Check that “he never had a chance to be the big brother in the equation” with his sibling, because Randy had so many strengths. The equation may not be solved by the last page, but the boys have the formula.

Best line: “Randy knows that Zeke will often make a seemingly careless move early in the game. The strategy is to leave the opponent with ‘He must know something I don’t’ bewilderment.”

Worst line: “Dina giggles again.” Wallace casts Mr. Mansfield as a sexist, without using the word, but isn’t it sexist to have only female characters giggling, as in this book? Perpetual Check also has many lines such as, “He’s a dick,” “This guy I’m playing against is a prick,” and “No way you’re sitting on your fat ass for another summer.”

Published: February 2009

Ages: The publisher recommends this book for ages 12 and up, a label that appears based largely on its use of words such as “dick” and “ass.” This seems prudish and misguided given that many children start hearing these words in preschool.  Apart from the “bad words,” this short novel — a novella, really — would better suit ages 9-12 and strong readers as young as 8.

Read an excerpt form Perpetual Check.

About the author: Rich Wallace also wrote Wrestling Sturbridge and Playing Without the Ball.

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear on Saturdays on One-Minute Book Reviews.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 22, 2009

Eco-Propaganda in Children’s Books by Carl Hiaasen and Others — It’s Always Earth Day in Recent Fiction for Young Readers

Meghan Cox Gurdon takes on eco-propaganda in children’s books in “Scary Green Monsters,” a Wall Street Journal essay that makes point similar to one I made more briefly back in January: A lot of trees are dying for books about rainforests. Gurdon writes in an article linked to Earth Day:

“The patriarch of the vogue for green-themed children’s books is surely Carl Hiaasen, the novelist and Miami Herald columnist who shot to eco-stardom in 2002 with Hoot, a novel for middle-schoolers about three children who foil a corporation’s attempt to build a pancake restaurant over a burrow of endangered miniature owls. Hoot won a Newbery Honor Award, and was followed in 2005 by Flush, a tale recounting the adventures of a different group of youthful oddball allies that is seeking to expose a casino-boat operator who’s been flushing raw sewage into harbor water….

“In all Mr. Hiaasen’s books for children, young readers are asked to sympathize with environmentalists who thwart businessmen, even when the good guys take destructive measures such as sinking boats or torching billboards. And the eco-tropes that have worked so well for Mr. Hiaasen — Good nature! Bad capitalist! — are steadily creeping into books across the age range.”

Gurdon also discusses Joan Bauer’s Newbery Honor book, Peeled (Putnam, 2008), Timothee de Fombelle’s Toby Alone (Candlewick, 2009), Katherine Hannigan’s “risibly didactic” Emmaline and Bunny (HarperCollins, 2009), and Joshua Doder’s popular “Grk” books, such as Operation Tortoise (Delacorte, 2009). She notes that children like routine:

“They’re not put off by predictability in stories. They’re accustomed to princesses being pretty, dragons being fearsome, and, it seems, alas, their fictional businessmen being corpulent and amoral. So it’s probably pointless to object to the eco-endlessness on the grounds of artistic feebleness.

“Yet there is something culturally impoverished about insisting that children join in the adult preoccupation with reducing, reusing and recycling. Can they not have a precious decade or so to soar in imaginative literature before we drag them back down to earth?”

Read all of “Scary Green Monsters” here.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

March 31, 2009

A Book About Menstruation That Only a Man Could Love — True Stories of Girls’ First Periods Collected in ‘My Little Red Book’

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:16 pm
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My Little Red Book. By Rachel Kauder Nalebuff. Hachette/Twelve Books, 217 pp., $14.99.

By Janice Harayda

This is a messy collection of 90 true stories about a messy subject, girls’ first periods.  There’s certainly a place for a book that might clear up some of the confusion about menstruation that lingers decades after the publication of Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Our Bodies, Ourselves. And Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, a student at Yale, tries to provide one in this anthology packaged like Mao’s Little Red Book (a device that, perhaps inadvertently, implies that women belong to a biological proletariat, a theme that most entries  don’t support).

My Little Red Book collects reports from girls and women of many backgrounds — Korean and Comanche, feminist and traditionalist, and Christian and Muslim.  It also includes Gloria Steinem’s  essay “If Men Could Menstruate” and poems by Maxine Kumin, Jill Bialosky and others. But if its entries are at times interesting, the book as a whole is disorganized and perpetuates the kind of misinformation it seems intended to correct.

The lack of consistency shows up quickly. Kauder Nalebuff says in her first line, “Every woman remembers her first period — where and when it happened, who, if anyone, she told, and even what she was wearing.” This untruth soon takes a hit from novelist Michelle Jaffe, who writes, “I don’t remember my first period. At all.”

The most egregious misinformation comes from the novelist Jacquelyn Mitchard, who tells a daughter who asked if she could play sports when she had her period: “Best thing for it. That way you’ll never get the kind of cripple cramps girls used to get back in the day.” Menstruating girls can play sports, but the rest of that comment is scientifically inaccurate and contradicted in entries by women who describe getting cramps despite participating in vigorous sports. And in some cases Mitchard’s view would amount to blaming the victim. Take that, all you suffering teenagers who have made a priority of studying  for your AP English exam or babysitting to save money for college! If only you’d joined that travel soccer league, you’d never have those “cripple cramps.”

The causes of menstrual cramps have always been poorly understood in part because they have been little studied — that’s an implicit point of Steinem’s essay. But research suggests they are caused by contractions related to the release of prostaglandins and other substances when the uterus sheds its lining each month. Cramps  intensify when clots pass through the cervix. That’s especially true if the cervical canal is narrow or woman has a “tough cervix,” one that doesn’t dilate easily, which is why it’s an old wives’ tale that a woman who has severe cramps will have an easier childbirth. A tough cervix can make both periods and childbirth more difficult.

Some research suggests that sports may help to ease cramps for some women, but it is cruel and misleading to imply that they are a cure-all for a condition that can involve many factors. And My Little Red Book offers little hope to girls and women who suffer from them. It has  appendices such as a list of Web sites and a glossary of slang terms for menstruation — from warhorses like “falling off the roof” to the newer “rebooting the ovarian operating system” — but nothing on relief from pain or other physical symptoms. This book would have benefited from an afterword by a doctor or at least from the inclusion of a phrase such as “prescription-strength Advil.”

The sex of the editor of a book is usually irrelevant, but it’s perhaps worth noting that this one was edited by a man, the  respected Jonathan Karp, who writes in the foreword to the advance reader’s edition: “When literary agent Susan Ginsburg asked me if I wanted to read a book about first periods, I assumed the subject of the work was punctuation.”  Female editors may well have wanted to buy My Little Red Book and have been outbid by Karp.  Even so, you wonder if some  might have had the same reaction to this book that more than a few female readers may have: This is a book about menstruation that only a man could love. 

Best line: The entire poem “The Wrath of the Gods, 1970″ by the gifted poet and editor Jill Bialosky. And Gloria Steinem’s modern classic “If Men Could Menstruate,” first published in Ms. in 1978, which argues with tongue-in-cheek that if men could menstruate and women could not, menstruation would become “an enviable, boast-worthy” event: “Men would brag about how long and how much.”

Worst line: Mitchard’s line about how you’ll never have cramps if you play sports, quoted above.

Editor: Jonathan Karp

Published: February 2009

Furthermore: My Little Red Book comes from an adult division of Hachette but has, throughout the book, cutesy taglines for authors and other writing that appears pitched to adolescents, such as, “Is Jacquelyn Mitchard the chillest mom ever, or what?” 

Caveat lector:  This review was based on an advance reader’s copy. Some material may differ in the finished book. Kauder Nalebuff’s last name is not hyphenated on the ARC cover but is hyphenated in images of the cover of the finished book.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

http://www.janiceharayda.com/

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