One-Minute Book Reviews

February 13, 2012

Emma Darwin to Charles – Valentine’s Day Quote of the Day

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“I should be most unhappy if I thought we did not belong to each other forever.”
Emma Darwin to her husband, Charles, c. February 1839, as quoted in Deborah Heiligman’s Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Holt, 2009), a National Book Award finalist

May 12, 2010

Jonathan Dee’s Novel ‘The Privileges’ — Looking at ‘Moral Invertebrates’ Through the Glass Walls of a Diorama

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:53 pm
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Will a New York couple’s marriage suffer when the husband veers into insider trading?

The Privileges: A Novel. By Jonathan Dee. Random House, 258 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

Adam and Cynthia Morey – young, rich New Yorkers with two beautiful children – are the marital equivalent of a highly profitable but closely held company: two chillingly self-sufficient people who show little need for the family, friends, and faith of their youth. They are also, in the fine phrase of James Wood of The New Yorker, “moral invertebrates.” You can read their marriage as a metaphor for Wall Street in the age of deregulation – it makes its own rules. So you can’t assume that the Moreys or their children will suffer after Adam becomes the prime mover of an insider-trading scheme that exploits information picked up at his private-equity firm.

This uncertainly lends a modicum of suspense to this tale of the first 23 years of the couple’s marriage. But The Privileges is a low-energy and somewhat exposition-heavy novel that has an appeal more intellectual than emotional. The Moreys resemble figures in the carpet of a certain New York social world instead of fully realized characters. And many of their actions are unearned, including some of Cynthia’s cruelties to others and Adam’s abrupt tossing of a Patek Philippe watch into the Hudson River during a charity benefit on a ship.

Jonathan Dee is an intelligent and graceful writer who never trivializes his subjects. And he shows you what this novel might have been in a climatic scene in a hospice that brings in two characters from the sidelines who finally make you feel all you ought to feel for the Moreys’ victims. Elsewhere, if Adam and Cynthia are moral invertebrates, Dee leaves you looking at them through the glass walls of a diorama and not, as you would like to be, standing inside it with them.

Best line: No. 1: “After four years at Morgan Stanley, an operation so vast that Adam’s true bosses existed mostly on the level of gossip and rumor, a feeling of toxic stasis had begun to provoke him in the mornings when he arrived at work.” No. 2: “‘If you’re ever hard up for money, just fly the family to LA, and both kids will have agents before they’re out of baggage claim,’ Conrad said.”

Worst line: “Unconsciously she pulls at the neckline of her bridesmaid’s dress to try to keep her tattoo covered.”If she’s trying to keep her tattoo covered, is the movement really “unconscious”?

Published: January 2010. The paperback edition of The Privileges is due out in October.

Consider reading instead of or in addition to this book: Michael Dahlie’s award-winning novel, A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living,which deals more effectively with monied New Yorkers.

About the author: Dee is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

November 16, 2009

Not by Zweibach Alone – Rhoda Janzen’s Memoir, ‘Mennonite in a Little Black Dress’

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A daughter of “the Mennonite equivalent of the pope” goes home

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home. Holt, 241 pp., $22.

By Janice Harayda

A librarian here in New Jersey found recently that books about the Amish now outnumber Amish people.* If the attention this memoir is getting is an indication, Mennonites are the new Amish — a paradox given that Mennonites are, in fact, the old Amish: The Amish tradition arose in the late 17th century as an offshoot of the more liberal Mennonite faith.

Rhoda Janzen is a daughter of “the Mennonite equivalent of the pope” who returned in middle age to the religious community of her youth. She had left it first for “studded black minis, enormous hair, fuchsia lipstick, and preposterously high Manolos” and then for a career as a poet and English professor. But several events drove her back to California, including a serious car accident and a divorce from her husband of 15 years, who left her for a man he met on Gay.com. She describes her sojourn in Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, a slangy and often amusing report on her experiences in a land of soft two-tiered buns called Zwiebach, served with homemade rhubarb jam. One experience involved the Mennonite equivalent of a pick-up line. Janzen says that a male rocker once approached her in a supermarket parking lot with: “If you’re a single woman of God, I surely wish you’d e-mail me.”

For a self-declared “grammarian,” Janzen shows a oddly shaking command of the nuances of English usage. She uses “shoe-in” for shoo-in, “timber” for timbre and has a weakness for the cute, which shows up when she tries to explain Mennonite views on sex. “Keep your pervy pecker in your pants, mister,” she writes. “Mennonite gals do not put out, no matter how alluring we are in our bonnets and aprons.” Janzen also seems unwilling or unable to reflect deeply on how her strict upbringing might have fed her decision to stay for so long with an emotionally abusive husband. She says she remained in her marriage because her parents never fought during her childhood and getting divorced “was something other people did” — a explanation that isn’t fully persuasive when she had broken by then with many other Mennonite traditions.

But the tone of the book so breezy, you waft though it. And occasionally Janzen lets you see how perceptive she can be when she drops the shtick and describes her life straight up. One such moment occurs when she reconnects with a friend who, though much like her, had stayed within the Mennonite fold and lived a more conventional life within it:

“Here was Eva, who could have made such different choices with her education and career path. Here was I, with my decades of restless travel, my brilliant but tortured ex-husband. And how sad it suddenly seemed to be buffeted by the powerful currents to which we had yielded our lives. So many years had passed. My childhood, my early friendships, my long marriage, all seemed to hang from an invisible thread, like the papery wasps’ nests outside my study window.”

*I couldn’t confirm this, and it may refer to number of copies in print, not titles. There are about 225,000 Amish in the U.S. and more than 170,000 books printed.

Best line: No. 1: Janzen on her mother: “This was a woman who had once departed for Hawaii with a frozen fryer in her suitcase, on the theory that the chicken would be thawed by the time her flight landed in Honolulu.” No. 2: The last lines of the review above.

Worst lines: No. 1: “—she patted her heinie significantly.” No. 2: “Al’s enrollment at St. Veronica’s had not been a shoe-in, but Phil and Hannah had decided that Christian guilt was better than bad math.” No. 3: “ With a pattern of dodgy behavior already established, I was a shoe-in for further scrutiny.” No. 4: “Aaron sang close harmonies in a madrigal group, his rich-timbered baritone blending like butter.” No: 5: “Keep your pervy pecker in your pants, mister. Mennonite gals do not put out, no matter how alluring we are in our bonnets and aprons.” No. 6: “I am woman, hear me pee!” No. 7: “Fresh out of grad school, I agreed to be the faculty adviser to a sorority whose members were commonly referred to as ‘the Campus Hotties’ or ‘the Ones in Deep Doo-Doo for Trashing Four Hotel Rooms Again.”

Furthermore: The Wall Street Journal article “They’re No Bodice-rippers, but Amish Romances Are Hot” has more on the boomlet in books about the Amish. Third Way Café has an answer to: “What’s the difference between Mennonites and Amish?”.

Read an excerpt from Mennonite in a Little Black Dress or find the publisher’s reading group guide.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, where she will be tweeting this week about topics that will include the National Book Awards to be announced Nov. 18. Comments about those prizes will also be posted on One-Minute Book Reviews.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 15, 2009

‘Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith’ – Quotes of the Day From a 2009 Finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

“A novel … does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if it be a pretty woman, all the better.”
— Charles Darwin, as quoted in Charles and Emma

The winners of the 2009 National Book Awards will be announced Wednesday, and the finalists in the category of young people’s literature include Deborah Heiligman’s captivating Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Holt, 268 pp., $18.95). This dual biography is a portrait of the loving marriage of the author of The Origin of Species and his spirited and intelligent wife, who held religious views he did not share.

This excerpt describes how Charles and Emma Darwin spent their first days in their new home in London after their wedding at a Staffordshire church on January 29, 1839:

“In their first few days together, they mostly stayed in – it was snowing. But they also did some shopping for furniture, dishes, and clothes, including a morning gown for Emma. It was ‘a sort of clarety-brown satin,’ she wrote to [her sister] Elizabeth, and she felt it was ‘very unobjectionable.’ They borrowed some novels from the library, starting a lifelong tradition of reading together – usually Emma read to Charles while he rested from his work. Charles liked novels with happy endings, and he once wrote, ‘I often bless all novelists. A surprising number have been read aloud to me … and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily – against which a law ought to be passed. A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if it be a pretty woman all the better.”

An earlier post on Charles and Emma has links to more information about the book.

The publisher recommends Charles and Emma for ages 13 and up — perhaps because of occasional mature content, such as the passing use of the word “erection” — but it may also appeal to younger children who are strong readers.

October 21, 2009

Heather Armstrong’s Memoir of Pregnancy, Childbirth and Motherhood — ‘It Sucked and Then I Cried’ – Shrieking All the Way to the Psych Ward


The creator of a popular blog tells how she found her way to a mental hospital and back

It Sucked and Then I Cried: How I Had a Baby, a Breakdown, and a Much Needed Margarita. By Heather B. Armstrong. Simon Spotlight, 258 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Heather Armstrong warns on her blog, Dooce, that she “CANNOT RESIST THE CAPS-LOCK KEY.” The same caution applies to her unabashedly self-indulgent memoir of pregnancy, childbirth, and the infancy of her first child, which made her so anxious that she checked herself into a mental hospital after she got no relief from psychotherapy and drugs that included Risperdal, Ativan, Trazodone, Lamictal, Effexor, Abilify, Strattera, Klonopin, and Seroquel.

How did Armstrong like breastfeeding? “Everything I’d ever read about breastfeeding had to have been written by a man with no tits, because everything said that as long as the baby was in the right position it wouldn’t hurt to breast feed. THAT WAS A LIE.” What did she think when her daughter woke up at 2 a.m.? “Leta knew how to poop, she knew how to eat, SHE HAD TO KNOW WHAT TIME IT WAS, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD.” Would Armstrong consider having  another child? “‘HA! ANOTHER BABY? The logistics of more than one TOTALLY BOGGLED MY MIND.”

It Sucked and Then I Cried is intermittently funny but has a lot of bathroom humor and sometimes a nasty edge. Armstrong writes unkindly that when her stepfather raises his voice, she thinks: “Maybe if you SCREAMED A LITTLE LOUDER THE WINDOWS WOULD EXPLODE.” If she hates it when people shout at her, why does she spend so much time in this book doing what she calls “S.H.R.I.E.K.I.N.G.”?

Best line: No. 1: Utah stores sell soaps “in the shape of Joseph Smith’s head.” No. 2: “A few days after Leta turned four months old we took away Leta’s pacifier and it felt like we were running a division of the Betty Ford Clinic.”

Worst line: “But this time we couldn’t park in the special parking space because I was no longer pregnant (THANK THE LORD GOD JESUS!) and we had to park in the non-pregnant parking space and walk an extra twenty feet to the door. We found this inconvenience totally unacceptable as we were living in America and shouldn’t have to walk an extra twenty feet for anything. AM I RIGHT? AM I RIGHT? This is the best country on Earth! WE DON’T WALK NOWHERE FOR NUTHING. Damn straight.”

Editor: Patrick Price

Published: January 2009

About the author: Armstrong lives in Utah with her husband, Jon, and has had a second child since finishing It Sucked and Then I Cried. She has more than a million followers on Twitter at www.twitter.com/dooce.

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

October 15, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda – The World’s Best Acknowledgments in a Book

Yesterday Deborah Heiligman made the shortlist for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature for her captivating dual biography, Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Holt, 268 pp., $18.95, ages 9 and up). And she might win in a walk if the judges gave the prize for the acknowledgments section of a book alone. Heiligman amusingly tweaks the clichés of the genre in her thanks to her husband, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jonathan Weiner:

“You put up with a lot as I wrote this book. You owed me, sure, but you have paid me back in spades. I’m ready for your next one. Jon read the book front to back in many drafts, and if there are any mistakes, blame him.”

Wouldn’t acknowledgements be more fun if everybody wrote like this?

October 13, 2009

Tori Spelling’s Hollywood Memoir, ‘Mommywood’ – ‘Dean and I Have Sex Three to Four Times a Week!’

Guests brought gay-themed gifts to a baby shower for her son, Liam

Mommywood. By Tori Spelling with Hilary Liftin. Simon Spotlight, 243 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

Tori Spelling once wore a Marie Antoinette Halloween costume custom-made by Nolan Miller, the designer for Dynasty and other televisions show produced by her father, Aaron Spelling. In a sense, the media have never allowed her to take it off.

Spelling has been guillotined by tabloids and others for a tumbrel of offenses — her nose job, her feud with her mother, her breast-augmentation surgery, her acting on Beverly Hills, 90210, her appearances with her husband on the reality show Tori & Dean: Home Sweet Hollywood. “I’m cocktail party joke material,” she says in Mommywood, the follow-up to her bestselling memoir, sTORI telling.

Spelling’s new book describes her efforts to give her two young children what she calls a more “normal” childhood than she had. An example of normal in Hollywood occurred when she became pregnant with her son, Liam, and her gay friends worried that her firstborn would be “too straight to hang out” with them.

“In hopes of being an early influence, lots of my friend gave me gay-themed gifts at my baby shower,” Spelling writes. “A pink onesie saying ‘My boyfriend’s out of town for the weekend.’ A rock T-shirt saying ‘Queen’ (as in the band).”

Another example of “normal”: Spelling worked her pregnancy into her reality show and took her son on an international media tour when he was two months old. Some of the stories that resulted are perversely entertaining. But Mommywood as a whole is a self-indulgent font of evidence of Spelling’s insecurities and questionable judgment. And that especially applies to its criticisms of her mother, Candy Spelling, who has given different versions of some of the events in this book to the media. If you want your children to grow up unwarped by Hollywood, will it help to write a book keeps taking swipes at their grandmother?

Best line: “I grew up in a house with a driveway that was so long I can’t remember ever walking to the bottom of it.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Now I have two children of my own and I want them to have a normal childhood.” This comes from someone who took her son on a media tour when he was two months old. No. 2: “Dean and I were sitting around a table with some producers from our show. We were talking about sex after babies, and one of the other married men at the table said, ‘What sex life after kids?’ Dean and I have sex three to four times a week!” No. 3: Spelling writes of the day her son had an accident at a pool: “Either you know this already or it’s too much information, but swim diapers aren’t rigged quite the same way as normal diapers are. Swim diapers have a tough job. They have to keep in whatever comes out. Without them, babies would put the ‘poo’ in ‘pool.’ So they don’t have convenient Velcro openings. You can’t just untape, wipe, and be done with it. Instead they’re like little pants. The load is kind of trapped in there. Good news for the other swimmers, but once I had Liam in my arms, I had no idea how to get that swim diaper off while adequately containing its contents. That is to say, I feared the poop. …
“I laid Liam down on his towel. I pulled off the swim diaper. Again, either you know this already or it’s too much information, but when poo is exposed to that environment (pool water, a sopping swim diaper, a hyper child – the trifecta), it loses its structural integrity. There was no … cohesion. Just crumbles of poo everywhere. A horror show.
“I went in for the kill, but a few swipes later I was out of wipes and still facing an insurmountable mess. I swear, there was actually more there than when I started.”

Published: February 2009

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

August 24, 2009

How Do You Know When to Leave a Marriage? — ‘The Honeymoon’s Over: True Stories of Love, Marriage, and Divorce’ by Well-Known Writers

Filed under: Essays and Reviews — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:39 pm
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This post first appeared in 2007.

The Honeymoon’s Over: True Stories of Love, Marriage, and Divorce. Edited by Andrea Chapin and Sally Wofford-Girand. Warner, 350 pp., $24.99.

By Janice Harayda

Some publishers say that “anthologies are the new memoirs,” but The Honeymoon’s Over makes you wonder if the boom is running on empty.

This is third essay collection I’ve reviewed this year that includes work by Joyce Maynard, the prolific journalist, novelist and contributor to NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Maynard is a good essayist whose entries have been among the best in all three books, but she’s been cannibalizing her life for parts for so long that some of her stories are wearing thin. Another writer might have added more freshness to this lightweight book of essays by 24 women on turning points in their marriages.

Nothing in The Honeymoon’s Over has the sophistication of Jane Smiley’s reflections on her first marriage in the recent Mr. Wrong, or of the best work of essayists like Daphne Merkin or Phillip Lopate. And the worst entries are bad enough to put off the poeple who might appreciate this book the most – those who are trying to decide whether to leave a marriage. Terry McMillan’s writing goes further south in a bitter, profane and disorganized screed against her ex-husband. Daniela Kuper makes cloying use of second-person narration in an account of her efforts to get her son back from a guru. And Zelda Lockhart devotes 20 pages to her past without making you understand why she married a lesbian partner with whom she fought regularly and to whom she had “never been physically attracted.”

The best entries in The Honeymoon’s Over describe experiences strong enough to carry them despite any flaws in the writing. Perhaps the most memorable is Elissa Minor Rust’s essay on why she has stayed with her husband since leaving the Mormon faith they once shared, an unusually candid report on Latter Day Saints teachings on sex roles. Did you know that married Mormon women must wear “temple-issued undergarments”? This is the kind of information you rarely get from news shows on Mormonism, which tend to focus instead on the LDS tolerance for polygamy. Rust avoids writing about politics, but her essay indirectly suggests some of the problems Mitt Romney may face in his bid for the presidency. How long will it be before the tabloids – or Sixty Minutes – start asking where his wife gets her underwear?

Best line: Rust describes the Mormon rules that she and her boyfriend, now her husband, had to follow when he moved to New York to begin the two years of missionary work required of young Mormon men: “We weren’t allowed to speak, except on Christmas and Mother’s Day (and even that was stretching the rules; he was allowed to call his family on those two holidays, but he also called me). For two years, our only communication was through letters – and he was only allowed to write one a week. For a person like me who has always fought against rules and power structure, this was torture. I would have had more access to the man I loved were he in prison.”

Worst line (tie): No. 1: Terry McMillan’s rambling and vengeful list of “100 Questions” for her ex-husband. McMillan writes on page 97, “I’ve forgiven you,” and on page 98, “I haven’t exactly forgiven you.” Which is it? No. 2: Andrea Chapin and Sally Wofford-Girand write of the contributors to this book: “Women in their second marriages seemed to choose better mates and by then were better equipped themselves to make a marriage work.” Then why do second marriages have a higher divorce rate than first marriages?

Caveat lector: Some Web sites say, incorrectly, that this book includes an essay by Jane Smiley (making you wonder if she was scheduled to appear in it but bailed out in favor of the more flattering lighting of Mr. Wrong).

Consider reading instead: Mr. Wrong: Real-Life Stories of the Men We Used to Love (Ballantine, $24.95), edited by Harriet Brown.

Editor: Amy Einhorn

Published: February 2007

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

June 30, 2009

‘Our Poor Degraded Sex’ — Quote of the Day / Queen Victoria in ‘We Two’

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:01 am
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Gillian Gill’s new We Two has disarmingly blunt comments on womanhood by Queen Victoria, a mother of nine who hated pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum woes. A review of Gill’s biography of Victoria and Albert will appear this week.

One memorable quote turns up in a letter from Queen Victoria to her daughter Vicky, who had married Prince Frederick William of Prussia. Vicky complained that Prussian men cared only for women who beautiful and fertile. Queen Victoria sent her daughter a letter that had something of the spirit of Carrie Bradshaw:

“That despising of our poor degraded sex … is a little in all clever men’s natures; dear Papa [Prince Albert] is not quite exempt though he would not admit it – but he laughs and sneers constantly at many of them and their inevitable inconveniences, etc. Though he hates the want of affection, of due attention and protection of them, says that all men who leave all home affairs – and the education of their children – to their wives, forget their first duties.”

May 5, 2009

You’re 40. He’s Left. Now What? Suzanne Finnamore’s ‘Split,’ a Memoir of Divorce, California-Style, With Chilean Merlot

Filed under: Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:29 am
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“A meteor of repressed anger” arose in the mother whose husband walked out

Split: A Memoir of Divorce. By Suzanne Finnamore. NAL, 272 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Suzanne Finnamore seems to have lost her way as a writer. A decade ago, she won deserved praise for the polished wit and taut plotting of her first novel, a romantic comedy about the impending wedding of a materialistic and self-absorbed 36-year-old bride in a part of northern California where the Chilean Merlot runs deep.

Can credit cards ease a divorce?

Otherwise Engaged made clear that Finnamore knew what was wrong with writing “as rich as Croesus,” “at this point in time,” “in the very final analysis,” and the many similar phrases that turn up in her latest book. Her new memoir of her divorce has the high-flying brand names and neuroses of her first novel, but the prose has turned cute and baggy.

Split suggests that Finnamore has begun to strip-mine her life for publication. At the age of 40, she may have gained new material when her husband walked out of their upscale northern-California home and began taking luxury vacations with a woman who soon became pregnant: The separation left her with a toddler, a mortgage, and “a meteor of repressed anger.”

But Finnamore skims over her pain in chapters so glib and short, she might have texted them to her publisher. In one scene, she goes a credit-card buying spree just when her income seems least certain. At warp speed, she spends $4,000 on more than a dozen frivolous items such as a “blond cardigan sweater with a detachable white mink collar” and a set of “blown-glass 14th-century French shoe reproduction Christmas ornaments.” She explains the binge by saying blithely that her purchases “have gotten me through this travesty” of a divorce. More alarmingly, she says that while smoking she set fire to “not one, not two, but five chenille throws”: “One mattress pad went down while I was on the phone to New York, as did two pillows and a luxury comforter.” Yes, divorce makes you crazy. But some of Finnamore’s behavior seems so reckless, you don’t know whether it results from the separation or from personality traits that were there all along.

Split is clearly not a how-to book, but what is it? Perhaps a coda to the “relationship autopsy” that a marriage counselor required Finnamore and her soon-to-be-ex husband to perform. The tone of Split resembles that of a breezy game of miniature golf the couple and their son played before the decree came through. “Even the pending divorce we just lightly reminisce over,” Finnamore writes, “as though it was a vacation to Fiji, where it rained.”

Best line: Finnamore’s son says while she is reading him a Christmas poem, “We’d better take Daddy’s stocking down, because he’s not going to be here tomorrow.” A rare poignant moment in a book long on wisecracks.

Worst line: Two categories here. Category No. 1: All of the clichés like those in the second paragraph of the review above. (“… it might, in the very final analysis, be some kind of elaborate prank.”) Category No. 2: All of the lines that make you wonder if Finnamore is exaggerating for comic effect or has a habit of self-destructive behavior that seems especially risky for someone who lives with a young child, such as her comment that she set fire to five chenille throws, apparently while smoking in bed.

Consider reading instead: Wendy Swallow’s Breaking Apart: A Memoir of Divorce (Hyperion, 2001), a beautifully written account of the impact of divorce a mother of two boys, ages 3 and 5. Otherwise Engaged better introduces Finnamore’s writing.

Published: April 2009 (NAL paperback), 2008 (Dutton hardcover).

Editor: Trena Keating

Caveat lector: Finnamore says she’s changed “plenty of details and events” in Split. She also wrote the novel The Zygote Chronicles (Grove, 2003).

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

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