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Discussion Questions: When Breath Becomes Air

February 8th, 2016

When Breath Becomes Air_KalanithiFor readers of Atul Gawande, Andrew Solomon, and Anne Lamott, a profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir by a young neurosurgeon faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis who attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living?

Use these discussion questions to guide your book club discussion of When Breath Becomes Air…

1. How did you come away feeling, after reading this book? Upset? Inspired? Anxious? Less afraid?

2. What did you think of Paul’s exploration of the relationship between science and faith? As Paul wrote, “Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue. Between these core passions and scientific theory, there will always be a gap. No system of thought can contain the fullness of human experience.” Do you agree?

3. How do you think the years Paul spent, tending to patients and training to be a neurosurgeon, affected the outlook he had on his own illness? When Paul wrote that the question he asked himself was not “why me,” but “why not me,” how did that strike you? Could you relate to it?

4. Paul had a strong background in the humanities, and read widely throughout his life. Only after getting a Master’s in English Literature did he decide that medicine was the right path for him. Do you think this made him a better doctor? A different kind of doctor? If so, how? How has reading influenced your life?

5. What did you think of Paul and Lucy’s decision to have a child, in the face of his illness? When Lucy asked him if he worried that having a child would make his death more painful, and Paul responded, “Wouldn’t it be great if it did,” how did that strike you? Do you agree that life should not be about avoiding suffering, but about creating meaning?

6. Were there passages or sentences that struck you as particularly profound or moving?

7. Given that Paul died before the book was finished, what are some of the questions you would have wanted to ask him if he were still here today?

8. Paul was determined to face death with integrity, and through his book, demystify it for people. Do you think he succeeded?

9. In Lucy’s epilogue, she writes that “what happened to Paul was tragic, but he was not a tragedy.” Did you come away feeling the same way?

10. Lucy also writes that, in some ways, Paul’s illness brought them closer – that she FELL feel even more deeply in love with the “beautiful , focused man” he became in the last year of his life. Did you find yourself seeing how that could happen?

11. How did this book impact your thoughts about medical care? The patient-physician relationship? End of life care?

12. Is this a book you will continue thinking about, now that you are done? Do you find it having an impact on the way you go about your days?

An Interview with Mary Chamberlain

January 14th, 2016

Dressmaker's War_ChamberlainFor readers of Amy Bloom, Sarah Waters, and Anthony Doerr, The Dressmaker’s War is the story of a brilliant English seamstress taken prisoner in Germany during World War II: about her perseverance, the choices she makes to stay alive, and the haunting aftermath of war.

Mary, you were a professor of history for many years before you turned to writing fiction. Did you always know that you wanted to write fiction?

History and literature have always been my two great passions. History promised a more realistic career to support a family, so I chose that passion first. Despite being widely published as a historian, I never felt I could call myself a ‘writer’ until I had published a work of fiction. I wanted to be up there!

What was that transition like, from writing history to writing fiction?

I was (and remain) on a steep learning curve. On the face of it, there are crossovers between history and fiction. Both operate with prose, narrative, characters, with mentalities and context. But a historian’s approach is omnipresent, forensic and cerebral; a novelist’s approach is partial, fluid and involved. Historians have evidence to support their characters and context, and to present an authentic interpretation of what happened in the past. Novelists have to invent everything: characters, evidence and context to create that aura of authenticity. They need to inhabit the world of their novel in order to portray the illusion of reality, to invent detail that historians have no concern with. On the other hand, a novelist is not constrained by the evidence in a way that a historian is. A novelist can invent and circumvent, lie and speculate.

How did your background and knowledge of history inform the way you wrote The Dressmaker’s War?

South London seemed the natural location for my novel. My parents originated there and my childhood was filled with a repertoire of family stories set in the docks and markets, houses and streets of what they called the real London. I knew that historical and urban landscape, and its social topography. My academic specialism was the middle decades of the 20th century so setting my novel in that period came naturally, too.

I am passionate about history ‘from below,’ so it was natural for me to make my character representative of two historically disenfranchised groups – the working-class and women. There are other communities too, passed over by historians for being the wrong race, gender, ethnicity, faith or sexuality, or the wrong side of struggle. I do feel that history – and its ally, fiction – can help reclaim these hidden pasts. We need these correctives to enhance our understanding of what really happened—of the complex, varied, volatile and fragile world we inhabit.

Throughout most of The Dressmaker’s War, Ada Vaughan is tenacious in her ability to stay alive. But even after surviving Nazi imprisonment and wartime Europe, Ada is ultimately defeated by the justice system of her own country—unfairly, it seems! Why did they prosecute her so zealously? Would a woman like Ada have ever gotten a fair trail, at that time in England?

Ada did murder Stanley/Stanislaus. That was why she was prosecuted. Nowadays, a defense would plead extenuating circumstances and probably convict her of the lesser crime of manslaughter. But post-war Britain was a society divided by class, gender (and, increasingly, race.) The political and justice system reflected the prejudices of the time. There was no gender equality. Parliament was dominated by men. Similarly, the judiciary. There were no women judges (the first was appointed in 1962), very few women lawyers. Women could sit on juries but there was a property qualification which in effect barred them, for few women owned or rented property in their own name. Furthermore, lawyers cost money and the poor could not pay for a good lawyer. The legal odds were stacked against Ada.

So were the civil odds. Female murderers transgress social and gender norms. The cases of Edith Thompson, hung for murdering her husband in 1923, and Ruth Ellis, executed in 1955 for the murder of her lover, are examples of what would now be considered gross miscarriages of justice. Today, the court would have a more sympathetic understanding of the role of long-term abuse as a motive in Ada murdering Stanislaus, but at that time there was no such defense.  Ada was sexually loose, which again transgressed acceptable behavior and would be enough to discredit her evidence. She was working class, in a society riddled with class division and snobbery. She was independent, at a time when women were being forced back into the home as part of the post-war drive to ‘normality.’ Finally, the post-war narrative of victory had no tolerance for traitors, and stories of survival such as Ada’s blurred the lines between survival and collaboration. She became, in effect, a scapegoat.

What gave you the idea for this story? Were Ada, or any of the other characters, inspired by real people?

The starting points for my novel were two of my aunts. My aunt Ada, whom I never knew, left her husband and young children, who had to be cared for by my grandmother. In any age, that was a shocking thing to do, but in the 1920s it was unforgiveable. The family never spoke of her again – a silence amply filled by myth. Aunt Ada, we learned, had – depending on the time and the source – variously married the heir to a manufacturer’s fortune, run off with a Hungarian count, been rescued from behind enemy lines and smuggled out from the Iron Curtain. As a child, this was high octane glamour and excitement. Aunt Ada was, by all accounts, uncommonly beautiful. But Ada was a working class girl from Walworth, and the stories say more about the family imagination than the truth. Nevertheless, I wondered why she abandoned her family, and what happened to her.

And then there was Violet, another aunt, a linen maid from Southwark, plain as a pavement, in sensible shoes and horn-rimmed glasses. She became a nun. I must have been twelve or thirteen when I first learned that this soft-spoken, lisping, aunt had been interned by the Germans and spent the war caring for their old people. I was old enough to know of Nazi atrocities, not old enough to understand the complexities of war, especially for prisoners. She never mentioned it again, nor did I ever ask. Trapped in the convent in northern France and rounded up by the Germans, she was shipped by cattle truck across France – a journey that took days without water or rest – to an internment camp, from where the nuns were isolated and sent to look after the elderly, either in Germany or Vichy France.

In the mill of my imagination, in the writing of this novel, these aunts morphed into one and became my protagonist, Ada Vaughan, who ran the story in directions that would have both the sinning aunt and the saintly aunt turning in their graves.  But I wanted to write about the real Ada’s drive, about Violet’s wartime survival, about women during and after the war, about post-war Britain and its problems.

For a woman like Ada, growing up in that era, were there many career options available to her? Was dressmaking a way to transcend class divisions, or would they ultimately have constrained her?

Lack of education constrained most working class women and men from social advancement. A few won scholarships to high school which offered one route to social mobility, but most working class children left school at fourteen—the school leaving age was raised to fifteen in 1936. There was a real hunger for further education and Ada was typical in her desire for self-improvement. Institutions arose to satisfy this desire, providing evening classes in a range of vocational, academic and recreational classes. Career avenues for working class girls were limited to service, shop work, or the factory floor. A few acquired skills such as typing or shorthand which brought them into clerical work. Ada was lucky. She had a trade and secured a job with a ‘modiste’ which elevated her above the sweatshops of the East End. She was ambitious, talented, and hard-working. Perhaps, with luck and financial patronage, she could have fulfilled her dream of owning her own atelier. But opportunities would have been limited and the chances are she would have married, started a family and perhaps, to make ends meet, bought a sewing machine on hire-purchase and ran up the odd garment for a friend or family member.

How much has this notion of class changed, from the England of then versus today?

Britain’s class system was (and is) by no means monolithic. Rankings and gradations existed which were finely and acutely observed. Class snobbery, often morally charged, could be found both within and across classes. Among the working class, this ranged from skilled workers and their families who lived comfortably, discreetly and ‘respectably,’ to the rough and tumble of casual and unemployed workers in sub-let rooms. The Poor Law (abolished in 1932) had classified the working class into the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving.’ The Trade Unions, on the other hand, helped to instill pride in the working class and their institutions, to secure a living wage, and to ferment the demand for, and the practice of, democracy.

Social disadvantage still exists, but ‘class’ as a concept has lost its political potency and its conceptual clarity. The discourse has changed, but attitudes remain morally charged. The ‘deserving’ or ‘respectable’ working-class are now lauded in the political rhetoric as ‘hard-working families’; the undeserving as ‘benefits scroungers.’ The reality is very different: low wages mean even those who work full-time are impoverished. Many of those hard-working families rely on benefits to survive. The Trade Unions have been decimated. The so-called ‘scroungers’ are often mentally, physically or socially disabled, or live in regions where unemployment is endemic.  Class, as a term or a concept, is rarely used either by politicians or social analysts, least of all as a banner of pride. In the England of today, poverty still hits women the hardest and society seems a harsher, more cynical place.

The descriptions of Ada’s dressmaking—the fabrics, the draping, the details—are some of the most evocative moments in the book. Did you have to do much research, to capture this world so vividly? How did you go about envisioning those creations, and writing those scenes?

My grandmother was a seamstress and my mother, though not a professional, made her clothes, and mine, and taught me how to sew. I grew up imbibing the mechanics of dressmaking, and the qualities of fabric. One of my daughters is now a costume designer so I had another generation to advise me. Not much research was needed on the practical side! Animating material was pure invention, and a lot of fun. I used the internet for finding period fashions and coupled these with memories from a misspent adolescence watching old movies on TV from the 1930s and 1940s. But I wanted to give Ada depth, to suggest that her passion for dressmaking was more than a passion for finery. She was well aware of the transformative power of clothes, on herself and others. This also enabled a human link, woman to woman, across the political divide of war.  The way she imbued the fabric with living qualities provided a foil to the war-torn world around her, and it gave her a metaphor of survival in the midst of brutality and destruction. At the same time, it emphasised the human cost of adornments, the superficiality of the women who demanded these luxuries and their indifference to the plight of Ada and other exploited labour.

You write so beautifully about the notion of “the twilight” in history, the real stories of what happened,  stories of women like Ada: “Ada’s war would be forgotten.” Do you think it’s a problem we still face, today?

In the immediate aftermath of World War Two, the public narrative that prevailed in Britain was one of victory and valor. Stories which did not conform to this template were often ignored, not listened to, or believed. The subjugation and imprisonment of British subjects was one such. Male prisoners of war held a heroic place as resisters and survivors in the narrative. But women? There is, for the most, part silence. Collaboration was another toxic theme. This was not the pressing issue in mainland Britain that it was in other parts of Europe, but I wanted to raise some of these questions in my novel: what happened to women subjugated by the enemy? How were they regarded? What is collaboration? What is choice under these circumstances? Where does gender sit in this murky arena? Women charged with collaborationusually for sleeping with the enemy—were regarded particularly harshly. The nature and forms of collaboration with an enemy may take many forms, gradations of co-operation which may have little or nothing to do with sympathies for the occupying power and much to do with survival. Equally, the ethics of resistance are not so clear-cut: how right is it to carry out an act of sabotage knowing that the reprisals would be savage?

In the years following World War Two, people were desperate to put the hardship and suffering behind them and look to the future. The political environment had also changed; the Cold War brought with it the potential for nuclear annihilation. These were cosmic issues of survival which contributed to an amnesia of the war. I think many writers of my generation, born during or just after the Second World War and growing up in its aftermath, are still trying to make sense of our lives and the turbulent century into which we were born. Other tales now are beginning to be told, which examine a more ambiguous and ambivalent past. This is a rich seam to mine.

Readers seem to have a continuous appetite for stories from World War Two and stories of survival. How do you account for this?

Wars generate extremes–heroism and cowardice, generosity and selfishness, death and survival. Those extremes fascinate, but they raise fundamental issues. We all ponder, at some time, how we would behave faced with unimaginable danger or hardship. Would we kill or betray or connive for our survival or those of our loved ones? How far would we go? Stories of war – of other peoples’ heroism or brutality – allow us to make those decisions vicariously and let us off the hook for the time being.

Are you working on another novel? Can you tell us a little about it?

My next novel is set in the Channel Islands under the German occupation during World War II, and in it I am exploring themes of betrayal and survival in the war, and their reckoning after the war. But I am also trying to invert – or subvert – some of the usual stereotypes, and tell the story through two very different characters and perspectives. Watch this space for more details in the future.

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An Essay from Louis Begley, Author of Killer, Come Hither

January 8th, 2016

Killer Come Hither_Begley

From the master observer of upper-crust New York life comes a taut thriller that takes readers from the office suites of Manhattan to the tidy elegance of Sag Harbor and the rough-and-tumble western plains of Brazil.

Louis Begley writes about his inspiration for the novel and things he contemplated while writing…

There are interwoven themes running through Killer, Come Hither that readers may wish to consider.

One of them is violence—-immanent wherever there are human beings, ordinarily held in check by laws and custom and fear of retribution, but ready to explode without the need for any visible spark. Examples abound. ISIS, jihadist and Taliban terrorist attacks, mass shootings in the United States by hate–driven psychotics wielding assault weapons—-alas, they have lost the capacity to surprise us. Hardly a day passes without coming across the account of some such event in the newspaper or on radio and television news.

But there is another kind of violence that one might call private. At night or during the day, on the back street of a quiet town, an intruder tries the front door of a one–family house. The town is one of those places that still exists where natives don’t think they need to lock the front door. So the doorknob turns; the door yields; the intruder enters. Once inside, he is in no hurry to kill. First he has his way with the old lady, or the old man, or, perhaps, an old couple. Were they asleep, preparing dinner, or watching the evening news? What will follow? It depends on what the intruder wants, what he got, and above all, on his mood.

Another theme concerns punishment and revenge. Suppose the old lady or the old gentleman is someone you love dearly. What will you do about the torture, the rape, and the murder? In our society, crimes are investigated by the police, and we like to think that in most cases the culprit is caught, brought to trial, and, if found guilty, sentenced according to the law. In the case I have posited, under the laws of a majority of American states, the murderer would stand a good chance of being sentenced to die. In the nineteen states that have abolished the death penalty and in the District of Columbia, imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole is not unlikely.

Unless, of course, the first–degree-murder charge for one reason or another doesn’t stick and the accused is tried for a lesser crime, or plea bargains his way to a lighter sentence, for instance, a term of years with parole not being precluded. Or, perhaps, after expert testimony, he is found not guilty by reason of insanity. Is trusting the police and that range of possibilities good enough for you, is your belief in the rule of the law that solid? And if it isn’t, will you heed the verses of Deuteronomy that enjoin us to leave retribution to heaven: “To me belongeth vengeance, and recompense. . . .”?

To complicate matters, take the case of my protagonist, Jack Dana, a young man of about thirty, a former Marine Corps infantry officer and Force Recon platoon leader. His only living relative, whom he loved unconditionally, is the victim of such a crime. Jack has learned in Iraq and Afghanistan how easy it is to kill a man. He is a trained killer, and a match for the intruder. He thinks it would be a cinch to liquidate the intruder once he gets his hands on him.

A third essential theme animates my novel, that of corruption. The crime against someone Jack loved was committed in January 2012. Jack was wounded in Afghanistan in 2008 and afterward spent many months at Walter Reed Hospital being patched up by surgeons. When he looks back as a civilian on the two wars he has fought, he sees that they were botched, that the sacrifice of human lives and treasure was in vain, and that the country is indifferent to the sacrifices and suffering of men and women who fought for it. Money from extremist donors is flooding the political system. He believes that their influence reaches deep into Congress and the highest levels of the administration. Not even the FBI and the CIA seem to be immune. Alongside the corruption, he sees incompetence. Is there any doubt about how Jack will respond once he has gained the conviction that a colossally rich man who, in his opinion, is subverting the republic, is behind the crime?

These themes have coalesced in Killer, Come Hither. The story I tell is the fruit of brooding about them and facing some of my personal obsessions, including the fear of intruders and violence.

—-Louis Begley

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Discussion Questions: Too Close to Home by Susan Lewis

December 14th, 2015

Too Close to Home_LewisFor readers of Jodi Picoult, Heather Gudenkauf, and Elizabeth Flock comes a riveting and timely novel that delves into a modern family’s harrowing encounter with the complex world of cyberbullying.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Have you, or has someone you know, ever experienced bullying?

2. In what ways do you think the Internet and social media change the bullying culture in schools?

3. What can be done about this issue, in schools or at home?
Do schools have a responsibility to get involved? To what

4. What do you think prompts bullying behavior in teenagers? Can it be stopped?

5. Discuss Jack and Jenna’s relationship. What changed
between them after the move to Wales? Could they have handled their affairs differently? How would you have handled it?

6. What sort of consequences do you think bullies should face for their actions?

7. Why do you think the bullies chose to target Paige specifically?

8. Discuss the mother–daughter relationship at the heart of this novel. What did you think of Jenna’s parenting? How could she have handled Paige’s situation differently?

9. Discuss Paige’s relationship with Jack. How does the fact that he’s her stepfather influence the family dynamic?

10. Paige has a very complicated home life: her mother’s marriage is in jeopardy, they recently moved to Wales, finances are tight, etc. What other aspects of her home life may have heightened the stress Paige was under?

An Interview with Susan Lewis, Author of Too Close to Home

December 4th, 2015

Too Close to Home_LewisThe Research Behind Too Close to Home

An Interview with Kidscape

As many of you may already know, Too Close to Home deals with the difficult, even toxic issue of bullying. Its main focus is Paige Moore who, aged fifteen, moves to a new school in Wales where her life is turned into a living hell.

When writing this book Susan wanted to present very real scenarios experienced by children who are bullied. Dealing with such a sensitive issue, she had to be sure the research was thorough and was, therefore, extremely grateful to be put in touch with Claude Knights, CEO of Kidscape.

Kidscape is an anti–bullying charity in the UK that supports children from ages six to nineteen and we hope that after reading this you, too, will think more closely about this subject and those who may be in need.

In Susan’s book, fifteen–year–old Paige Moore falls victim to some ferocious bullying, both face–to–face at school and around the clock online. Have you noticed a significant increase in bullying since the advent of social media?

Social media has certainly added another dimension to the bullying landscape. The 24/7 aspect of online bullying as well as the sheer number of platforms add to the opportunities to dish out abuse. The disinhibition experienced by the bullies because they do not have to face the pain of their targets makes for very raw, thoughtless and relentless cruelty. At Kidscape we have found that young people who are vulnerable offline are often targeted online. Too many incidents of bullying remain unreported, but as there are an increasing number of channels for disclosing occurrences statistics would seem to point to an increase.

One recent study indicates that 69 percent of young people aged between thirteen and twenty–two had experienced cyber bullying and that 20 percent of those reported it as extreme. A robust finding across much recent research into the prevalence of bullying per se is that 46 percent of all children report that they have experienced some form of bullying during their time at school.

What are the signs that you advise parents to look out for?

Claude Knights of Kidscape: who is being bullied may exhibit some of the following signs and symptoms: they may be frightened of walking to or from school; refuse to attend school; feel ill in the mornings or on certain days discernible by a pattern; be truant; show a marked deterioration in their schoolwork; become anxious after using their mobile phone or computer; may become distressed or withdrawn; start stealing money (to pay the bully); refuse to admit that anything is wrong; have unexplained bruises or cuts; may become aggressive and unreasonable; and give improbable excuses for any of the above.

Do you feel schools are vigilant enough?

CK: Schools vary hugely in terms of how they acknowledge, respond to, and deal with bullying behavior. The support given to targets of bullying and their families has improved over the past decade, but there are still too many establishments that value exam results and reputation above the creation of an environment that does not tolerate bullying in any form and that investigates incidents that take place beyond the school gate. Schools have a duty of care to all their pupils that entails providing them with an environment that guarantees their safety and in which they can pursue their studies free of anxiety. Anti–bullying policies are mandatory, but to be meaningful in an active sense, they need to be understood and enforced by the whole school community. Pupils need to understand that bullying in all its forms is wrong and that there will be consequences if any anyone engages in this destructive behavior. At Kidscape we still have to deal with too many examples of bullying situations that have slipped beneath the radar and which have not come to light until a crisis point has been reached. There remains a real need to provide additional training in preventative strategies for teachers as well as the resources to sustain peer–support initiatives and workshops for parents.

What sort of advice do you give young people who contact you for help?

CK: We urge young people who are being bullied not to suffer in silence. If their school ignores the bullying, we tell them not to be resigned to becoming a target. We also suggest a wide range of strategies that include: telling a friend (A supportive friend can keep bullies away.); saying “No” assertively; not giving a reaction to taunts, giving the impression that you don’t care; thinking up creative responses in advance; trying to avoid being alone in places where you know the bully is likely to pick on you; practicing “walking tall” and looking confident so that the bully finds it harder to identify you as a target—-even if you feel small inside; and keeping a written record of all incidents. Advice specific to online bullying is also given, and this includes never sharing passwords; activating privacy settings; never sending out provocative or cruel messages yourself; and reporting abuse to the service provider and retaining evidence.

In the book, Paige’s mother, Jenna, is distracted by problems in her marriage. Do you find that children will try to protect their parents by keeping their own pain to themselves?

CK: We can quote a number of cases where children and young people have channeled much effort into protecting their parents by hiding the agonies caused by bullies for months and even years. In such cases the parent finds out what is going
on once a crisis point has been reached, e.g., an escalation into self–harm, attempted suicide, risky behaviors, etc. One memorable case study is one where the mother was suffering from breast cancer and her ten–year–old daughter, who was enduring extreme face–to–face bullying, was determined not to disclose her pain as she felt that there was already too much anxiety in the home. The mother found out the extent of her child’s agony when she happened to see her in the bathroom (the door was normally locked), and she caught sight of bruises, cuts, and cigarette burns on her back and legs. This revelation resulted in an anguished call to Kidscape. Some children tell us that they are ashamed to tell their parents, and that they feel that they are somehow to blame for the abuse.

If a parent contacts you wanting to know how to help their child, what advice do you give?

CK: The advice would depend on the nature of the bullying, but information essential to all bullying situations would include the need for parents to encourage their child to disclose what they are going through by ensuring full support and a real sense that they are believed. The parent needs to find out the details of what has been happening, which entails talking to teachers, probably the head of school. Parents can help to “bully–proof” their child by emphasizing a positive outlook, including assertive body language and firm eye contact. Well–developed social skills, including the ability to listen to others, to ask questions, to smile when appropriate can be modeled and encouraged by parents. These are all protective behaviors, which help to prevent being assessed as a potential target of bullying.

Do you ever counsel the bullies themselves? If not, are there organizations that do?

CK: Some of the young people who attend Kidscape therapeutic sessions are both target and bully in different settings. Our literature addresses issues that underlie bullying and aims to stimulate reflection and provide strategies and motivation for changing that behavior. One of our major projects works specifically with young people who tend toward aggressive and antisocial behavior. The content includes modules on anger management, conflict resolution, and the development of self–awareness. It is a sad fact that in comparison to targets of bullying very few bullies come forward to ask for help. Kidscape’s aim is early intervention. If we are to challenge bullying, we need to work with both bullies and victims. There is certainly a need for more interventions that address the under-lying issues that lead young people to satisfy specific needs through bullying.

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