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Conversations with Eddie Van Halen
By Chris Gill
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Get a completely new look at guitar legend Eddie Van Halen with this groundbreaking oral history, composed of more than fifty hours of interviews with Eddie himself as well as his family, friends, and colleagues.When rock legend Eddie Van Halen died of cancer on October 6, 2020, the entire world seemed to stop and grieve. Since his band Van Halen burst onto the scene with their self-titled debut album in 1978, Eddie had been hailed as an icon not only to fans of rock music and heavy metal, but to performers across all genres and around the world. Van Halen’s debut sounded unlike anything that listeners had heard before and remains a quintessential rock album of the era.
Over the course of more than four decades, Eddie gained renown for his innovative guitar playing, and particularly for popularizing the tapping guitar solo technique. Unfortunately for Eddie and his legions of fans, he died before he was ever able to put his life down to paper in his own words, and much of his compelling backstory has remained elusive—until now.
In Eruption, music journalists Brad Tolinski and Chris Gill share with fans, new and old alike, a candid, compulsively readable, and definitive oral history of the most influential rock guitarist since Jimi Hendrix. It is based on more than 50+ hours of unreleased interviews they recorded with Eddie Van Halen over the years, most of them conducted at the legendary 5150 studios at Ed’s home in Los Angeles. The heart of Eruption is drawn from these intimate and wide-ranging talks, as well as conversations with family, friends, and colleagues.
In addition to discussing his greatest triumphs as a groundbreaking musician, including an unprecedented dive into Van Halen’s masterpiece 1984, the book also takes an unflinching look at Edward’s early struggles as young Dutch immigrant unable to speak the English language, which resulted in lifelong issues with social anxiety and substance abuse. Eruption: Conversations with Eddie Van Halen also examines his brilliance as an inventor who changed the face of guitar manufacturing.
As entertaining as it is revealing, Eruption is the closest readers will ever get to hearing Eddie’s side of the story when it comes to his extraordinary life.
FOR THREE DECADES, starting in the late 1980s, Chris Gill and I frequently found ourselves driving up the twisting roads of the Hollywood Hills to Edward Van Halen’s spectacularly unspectacular 5150 recording studio, located just a short uphill jog from his house. From the outside, the building looked more like an industrial tool and die shop than a sexy rock and roll hideaway, but that no doubt appealed to Ed’s grungy, homemade aesthetic sensibility. It was his own private hit factory—a place where he could be found every day, playing guitar and composing tunes, some of which, he hoped, would one day appear on Gold and Platinum discs.
When we’d pull into his driveway, we were greeted by the sight of Ed waiting for us in his backyard, often chatting with his brother, Alex, or his studio manager, Matt Bruck. Invariably, he would flash his famous smile and wave us inside the studio.
Though not quite messy, 5150 definitely felt comfortably lived in, with an array of banged-up guitars strewn about the floor and resting on couches, disembodied guitar necks hanging on a wall, and stacks of recording tape and CDs filled with snippets of ideas and song fragments spilling off shelves throughout. And there’d usually be an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts teetering on the edge of his recording console.
On occasion, Ed would sniff the air, rub his hands in eager anticipation, and in his distinctive, nicotine-stained rasp say, “Hmmm, smells like work in here.” It was always a joke, and it was always true.
Because work is what he did—often for hours on end—writing songs, recording ideas, or futzing around endlessly with his guitars. As much as he was a musician Ed was also a revolutionary guitar designer and technician, and his workbench was forever crowded with parts on their way to being incorporated into his next great “Frankenstein” or tossed onto a scrap heap.
As a teenager growing up in Pasadena, California, Eddie spent much of his time in his bedroom, putting in the ten thousand hours of intensive practice that Outliers author Malcolm Gladwell insists is the key to success in any field. As an adult, his enormous artistic and commercial success notwithstanding, he remained that driven, curious teenager, spending those ten thousand hours and many more at 5150, which ultimately was just an infinitely more sophisticated version of the bedroom where he became Eddie Van Halen, once-in-a-generation guitar player and designer.
Both his childhood room and the studio were far more than places where he could work, practice, write, experiment. They were sanctuaries to which he could repair when the outside world annoyed him, angered him, or sometimes became too painful for him to deal with. At 5150, he was happy and in complete control. And it was his favorite hangout, the place where he spent the lion’s share of his time with Van Halen.
It was in this laboratory—this land of loud amplifiers, misfit guitars, and where he recorded albums like 1984 and OU812—that I or my coauthor, Chris Gill, would shoot the breeze with Eddie. As players and veteran guitar journalists, we spoke his language, and he knew that we’d have a clear understanding of who he was as a musician and a human being.
So, it’s hardly surprising that the first thing that flashed through our minds when, on October 6, 2020, we heard the terrible news that he had died of cancer was Ed playing guitar and recording at the studio, as vital as a man could be. It wasn’t possible that such a force of nature was gone. Yet he was.
WHEN EDWARD VAN HALEN WAS alive, several books about him had already been published. Some were both informative and flattering; others, not so much on either score. A couple focused on Eddie, the young, inventive genius who early in his career seemed as if he could do no wrong. Others saw him as a star who was as emotionally fragile as he was confident onstage. Bandmate Sammy Hagar’s account of their time together painted a darker picture of Ed, whom Hagar saw as gifted, brilliant, but also erratic and duplicitous.
But each of the books missed the bigger picture while at the same time neglecting to convey who Ed was at his core or to capture his essence.
Our intention with Eruption: Conversations with Eddie Van Halen is to present for the first time a panoramic view of the man considered to be the most inventive guitarist since Jimi Hendrix and perhaps the greatest rock player of all time. He was a unique phenomenon in the annals of pop music, a nonsinging instrumentalist whose enormous talents and charisma made him the dominant force in a band that sold more than eighty million records worldwide. He also singlehandedly changed the course of music for much of the eighties and nineties by reviving guitar-oriented music, whose primacy had been threatened by the synthesizer in New Wave and the sleek orchestrations of disco.
But Ed was more than “just” a guitarist whose radical approach to the instrument was so exciting—so other—that it bordered on the magical. He was also a brilliant songwriter and a world-class inventor. And in his personal life, few things were more important than his parents, brother, wife, and son.
Sadly, maybe inevitably, this smiling artist also struggled with his share of personal demons throughout much of his life and career. As a youngster, he was an immigrant child who, because he spoke no English, was the target of bullies. It was not difficult to see that this harrowing time was responsible for his lifelong debilitating social anxieties and insecurities. He was also the son of an alcoholic, and Ed struggled his entire life to tame his own addictions to alcohol, cocaine, and cigarettes.
For more than six decades, both sides of Eddie Van Halen—the light and the shade—wrestled each other, creating an often-unbearable amount of pressure that fueled his obsession with attaining greatness… and caused him to periodically self-destruct.
In this book, my coauthor and I strive to illuminate how these contradictory sides of the man came together to create one of the greatest musical minds of the twentieth century. How could a person who projected so much warmth and confidence onstage be beset by such demons? How could a man so totally disciplined from childhood, always brimming with creativity, throw so much of his life away on soul-crushing dependencies?
We had our theories, but we didn’t really need them—because during our hours with him Ed always told the truth about himself. This was a man who was all too familiar with his soaring strengths and destructive weaknesses—destructive not only of himself but also of the people he loved most, those who always supported him.
In the following pages, we will take you on a tour of the dramatic arc of his complex and, ultimately, all-too-short life. This is the story of the remarkable rise of a great American artist, his excruciating fall, and his extraordinary redemption. It is also the story of his death, the pain of which was felt by the millions of fans around the world whose devotion to him and his art never wavered.
So, what we have here, what you’ll find in this book, is the true essence of Eddie Van Halen. He knew exactly what it was. “We’re musicians,” Ed once said of himself and his band. “We make music for a living. It’s that simple. Nothing else matters.”
—BRAD TOLINSKI & CHRIS GILL
Edward Lodewijk Van Halen moved to Pasadena, California, from his native Nijmegen, Holland, when he was seven, along with his parents and his older brother, Alex. When they arrived in 1962, they had “fifty dollars and a piano.”
“We were like a kid freak show. ”
IN 1982, VAN Halen was one of the largest rock bands in the world. Starting with their 1978 debut on Warner Bros., each of their first five albums went Platinum and peaked as high or higher on the Billboard 200 Albums chart than its immediate predecessor. Diver Down, released in 1982, produced their biggest Billboard Hot 100 hit, “(Oh) Pretty Woman,” thanks in large part to heavy airplay of its surprisingly quirky video on MTV, the experimental cable music channel launched just a few months earlier in 1981.
In the video, the band members appeared dressed as a samurai (bassist Michael Anthony), Tarzan (drummer Alex Van Halen), a cowboy gunslinger (guitarist Eddie Van Halen), and Napoleon (singer David Lee Roth). They are called upon by a hunchback to rescue a girl (played by transgender entertainer International Chrysis) held captive by a pair of dwarves, who fondle her against her will. Falling somewhere between a wacky episode of The Monkees and a perverse John Waters arthouse film, the video carefully gave equal time to each member of Van Halen, establishing their individual personas while depicting the band’s affability, chemistry, and off-the-wall humor.
The clip was ultimately banned from MTV for its depiction of two little people molesting a woman (actually a drag queen), but millions of fans saw it and loved it, as did hipsters who enjoyed the unexpectedly weird and edgy content. One thing was certain: Van Halen understood the promotional possibilities offered by the nascent MTV far better than most of their contemporaries. The “(Oh) Pretty Woman” video helped sell boatloads of records and placed the band at the vanguard of popular culture.
By the time Van Halen finished recording their next album two years later, their instincts about the cable channel had proved to be prophetic: MTV had become arguably the biggest driving force in the music industry.
Robert Lombard, who directed the “(Oh) Pretty Woman” video, remembered, “Once Van Halen got into MTV mode, they got into it. David Lee Roth was glued to the television. He threw something through his TV set one night because they’d dropped in rotation on MTV… they were obsessed. It was like a new drug.”1
When it came time to film their next video to promote their new single “Jump,” there was some disagreement about its content. Singer Roth wanted to create another surreal, larger-than-life fantasy similar to the “(Oh) Pretty Woman” video. And why not? It worked once…
However, director Robert Lombard and Pete Angelus, the band’s road manager and lighting designer, had something different in mind. They wanted to buck the trend of big-budget videos produced at the time by artists like Madonna, Duran Duran, and Michael Jackson, envisioning something “more personal.” Perhaps a simple performance clip showing what the guys did best: play music in their charming, knockabout fashion.
There was something joyous and life-affirming—Beatles-like—about Van Halen. Their chummy stage chemistry and rainbow-colored clothing made people feel good. From the unbridled way Alex Van Halen attacked his drum kit, to Michael Anthony’s rowdy, everyman approach to playing bass, to David Lee Roth’s breathtaking jump splits and gregarious stage patter, there was no other band in the world that projected such excitement and good-natured bonhomie. That went double for their virtuoso guitarist, Eddie Van Halen, whose shaggy exuberance recalled the joy of a Labrador retriever chasing a Frisbee.
Lombard and Angelus understood the power of the group’s appeal perhaps better than Van Halen themselves, and they were determined to capture it in a simple performance video without any little people or clutter. But there was one thing they agreed would be essential: getting Eddie to smile.
Smiling was something Ed did naturally—and often—to great effect. Though he was unquestionably the most dynamic and innovative electric guitarist since Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, Edward’s boyish grin was one of the things that distinguished Van Halen from other huge rock bands at the time, such as the menacing Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, and AC/DC. Unlike most guitar heroes who affected an anguished look during their solos, Ed performed his spellbindingly complex guitar parts while flashing that smile augmented with a hint of “gee whiz” bashfulness that made girls’ hearts melt and guys want to be his best friend.
Even one of rock’s most important guitarists and thoughtful observers, The Who’s Pete Townshend, commented on Eddie’s beatific countenance on more than a couple of occasions. “His smile was just classic,” he said. “A man in his rightful place, so happy to be doing what he did. The Great American Guitar Player. I was hoping he might be president one day.”
Released in January 1984, the music video for “Jump,” directed by Angelus and Lombard, was exactly what they’d envisioned—a brilliant song, performed by a charismatic band, with no special effects (except for the guitarist’s irresistible grin). “Jump” leaped up the charts and became Van Halen’s most successful single, reaching number one on the US Billboard Hot 100, while the album 1984 went on to sell over ten million copies.
An irony: genuine and heartwarming though Ed’s smile was, behind its brilliance lay a complicated life that was anything but joyous. You would never know it from watching his effervescent performance on “Jump,” but in the early eighties Ed was unhappy with many things, and because of this the band that appeared so brilliantly footloose before the cameras was actually dangling by a thread.
Yes, Ed was smiling through his problems. Then again, he was used to it—he’d been doing it for most of his life.
ALEX VAN HALEN WAS EIGHT years old and younger brother Eddie was seven when their father Jan announced that they were leaving their native Holland for California. The family had been struggling to make ends meet, and the boys’ mother, Eugenia, thought it would be a good idea to leave their home in the town of Nijmegen to join her relatives in “the land of opportunity.” But there were other reasons for their move to America.
Eugenia, who was of mixed Dutch and Southeast Asian ancestry, was considered a “half-breed” in the Netherlands, as were her children, and the prejudice against people of mixed descent was so strong that the Van Halens decided it would be better for their sons to leave the country and start fresh somewhere else.
It wasn’t the first time prejudice and discrimination would impact the Van Halen family, and it wouldn’t be the last.
JAN VAN HALEN WAS BORN in the Netherlands (informally, Holland) in 1920 and became obsessed with music at an early age. By the time he turned eighteen, he was playing saxophone and clarinet at a professional level and performing in jazz bands and orchestras throughout Europe. When World War II erupted in 1939, he enlisted in the Dutch Air Force and was assigned to play ceremonial and marching music in a military band.
However, when Germany invaded Holland in 1940, it conquered the small country in just five days and all Dutch soldiers were conscripted to fight for Germany. Those who resisted were shot on the spot. Jan was reassigned to play propaganda music for the Third Reich, which he detested, but it was preferable to taking a bullet in the head or fighting in the trenches for Hitler.
After the war ended, instead of returning home he traveled to Indonesia, a large Southeast Asian island nation that had been under Dutch colonial rule since 1815. Work for musicians was relatively plentiful there, and it was where he met and, on August 11, 1950, married Eugenia van Beers.
The couple attempted to make a home there, but once again geopolitics intervened. After World War II, the Netherlands attempted to reestablish colonial rule in Indonesia, but a bitter armed struggle ensued, ending in December 1949 when, in the face of international pressure, the Dutch formally recognized Indonesian independence.
Indonesians subsequently became increasingly hostile to any Dutch residents, which made it difficult for Jan to find work. He decided it was best for him and the pregnant Eugenia to return to Holland, and on March 4, 1953, they left for Amsterdam. Two months later, on May 8, Alexander Arthur (Alex) was born, followed by his brother, Edward Lodewijk (Eddie), on January 26, 1955.
But just as the family was regarded with great suspicion by Indonesian nationals for being Dutch, Eugenia felt the brutal sting of discrimination in Holland for being half Asian, and she worried that her young boys would be victimized by what she described as the same “horrifying” treatment. So, on March 9, 1962, despite knowing almost no English, the family packed their bags and moved to America on a jammed steamship, sleeping in the lowest, cheapest quarters.
In their possession were a few suitcases, seventy-five Dutch guilders (the equivalent of about fifteen dollars at the time), and a piano made by the Dutch-owned Rippen Company. Given their circumstances, it seems odd that they dragged a piano halfway around the world, but both Edward and Alexander had been taking lessons from the time each was six, and their parents had dreams that they would grow up to become respected classical musicians. So, the family made the difficult decision to bring the piano with them.
It was a nine-day boat ride, and to help pay their fare, Jan, Edward, and Alexander, the boys on piano, provided the ship’s musical entertainment. It would be nice to imagine their experience as something out of a quaint 1930s musical, but the Van Halens’ financial situation was dire, and Jan and the kids were busking for their very survival.
“We were like a kid freak show,” Eddie remembered. “Dad would pass the hat, and we’d make an extra twenty dollars.”
Once in New York, the family took a four-day train ride across the country to Pasadena, California, to be near relatives who’d emigrated before them. With the money they earned on the ship, Jan and Eugenia were able to afford a cramped house they shared with two other families until they could get on their feet.
Pasadena, located eleven miles northeast of Downtown Los Angeles, is perhaps best known for its Tournament of Roses Parade, an annual event that marks the start of the Rose Bowl college football game held on New Year’s Day. But when the Van Halens arrived, the city was also a major West Coast industrial hub after its transformation during World War II into a research and manufacturing center for scientific and electronic precision instruments, and by the time the fifties rolled around, almost four hundred such firms were headquartered in the city. Add the Arroyo Seco Parkway, which provided a fast and direct route to Los Angeles, and Pasadena was an inexpensive and attractive place to live for people who worked in LA.
During the postwar boom, newcomers flocked to the city in droves, and Pasadena saw a steady influx of African Americans from Texas and Louisiana, as well as a large immigrant community, particularly people from China, Japan, Indonesia, and other Southeast Asian countries.
But despite the opportunities afforded by what was a boomtown, work was difficult to come by for Jan and Eugenia, who barely spoke English. While Jan desperately searched for jobs as a musician, he often had to make do with janitorial work and washing dishes.
“My dad didn’t know the language and was unable to drive a car, because in Holland you rode bicycles,” said Ed. “He often had to walk six miles to work, because in the beginning we couldn’t even afford a bicycle.”
Whereas things were tough for their parents, Ed and Alex’s early days in America were almost as grim. “It was beyond frightening,” said Eddie. “We had to go to school, and Al and I didn’t know anything about anything. We were two outcasts, so we became best friends and learned to stick together.”
The first school the boys attended was segregated, with students of color relegated to one side of the playground and white kids on the other. Since they spoke no English, the Van Halens were grouped in with the black and brown kids.
As Ed confided in a 2004 interview, “My first friends in America were black. It was actually the white kids that bullied me. They would tear up my homework and papers, make me eat playground sand, all those things. The black kids stood up for me.”
Alex, the more extroverted of the two boys, made the best of a bad situation and worked hard to fit in. But his extremely sensitive younger brother retreated into his own world—the world of music. While words often failed him, as a child Edward expressed himself through the piano, which he studied with a strict Russian-born instructor, maintaining a rigorous practice schedule under the watchful eye of his mother. That discipline and the obvious fact that he’d inherited his father’s musical gifts led Eddie, at the age of nine, to defeat thousands of other kids in local classical music competitions.
A few short years later, at the age of twelve, he would apply the same diligence to learning the electric guitar, spending countless hours locked in his bedroom developing the technique that would help him become one of the greatest players in the world.
For all Ed’s later incredible success, the pain of those early years never left him, especially his discomfort in social situations and his fear of ridicule. But the things that helped him deal with his childhood difficulties—his unyielding determination, his belief in the power of family, and his unique ability to channel his emotions in his playing—also remained with him. Music and his family, said Ed, “saved us.” During this time, an inextricable bond with his brother also formed. “Our struggle to make it in America made us stronger, because you had to be.”
And though he had been traumatized in his youth, Ed learned to smile through it all. Perhaps David Lee Roth was thinking of the Van Halen brothers when he wrote “You got to roll with the punches to get to what’s real” in the buoyant “Jump.” It was certainly something Alex and Eddie could identify with, and it was that vibe the cameras captured in the song’s iconic video.
You started off on piano.
Alex and I both started playing at age six. We had to learn to play piano because that was the “respectable” instrument to play. It was my mom’s dream that if we were going to be musicians, at least be respectable. We were seriously being trained to be concert pianists, like Vladimir Horowitz, that type of deal.
When we moved to the States, my parents did their best to find a really happening concert pianist teacher. They found this older guy, Stasys Kalvaitis, who had studied at one of the top conservatories in Russia [the Imperial Conservatory in Saint Petersburg]. He didn’t speak a word of English, and he would just sit there with a ruler ready to smack us if we made a mistake. He would have us practice all year for this contest they had at Long Beach City College. I actually won first place three years in a row, but I hated it. I never learned how to read. I always fooled the teacher. He’d play the song for me first and I’d watch his fingers and learn the piece by ear. I could read a little, but never like Al.
So, you won the competitions by “faking it”?
Yeah, I guess I was blessed with good enough ears to pull it off. I won first prize out of two thousand kids, and the judges would make remarks like, “Hmm, very interesting interpretation of Mozart.” And I’d think, “Oh, shit, I thought I was playing it right!” But I guess they got off on the fact that I put myself into it.
An important part of playing classical music is the performer’s interpretation.
Oh, exactly. That’s why my favorite pianist was always Horowitz. He had such a great sense of humor in his playing—he always put his own spin on Bach or Chopin or whatever he was performing. Segovia was the same way. He created his own interpretations of the classics for guitar, and people who just copy his transcriptions note for note miss the point. You’re supposed to find your own voice.
I think that’s why when I found the guitar, I refused to take lessons. I was going to do my own thing and find my personal emotional release, and I didn’t want to be told how to approach the instrument.
What about the guitar appealed to you? Is it because on the guitar you can bend the strings and get in between those tempered notes found on the piano?
Absolutely. With a guitar you can bend or use vibrato to reach all those microtonal notes and those feelings that fall between the cracks on the piano. The same is true of any fretless stringed instrument, like the violin and the cello—just listen to Yo-Yo Ma play the Bach cello suites.
Actually, I’ve been playing a lot of cello lately—you’ll probably hear some on one of our albums in the future. And at this point, I’m finding it a little too easy to fall through those cracks—a lot more than I want to! (laughs)
But back to your point, the guitar is such an expressive instrument because, like being with a woman, your touch is everything. You can play it angry or you can massage it sexy—how it responds depends on your touch. There’s a touch involved in piano, but you’re not actually touching the strings. So, there’s an agent in between you and the strings—a middleman. On the other hand, I’m not sure I’d really want to hear somebody bend the strings on a piano, but it’d be fun to watch them try!
You also played violin.
Yeah, for about three years. Al did, too. That was at the end of elementary school and the beginning of junior high. It was school-based stuff. Al actually made All City Orchestra on violin. I never did. I didn’t like the music they made me play, so I just started messing around with it and lost interest.
You did smuggle a bit of Kreutzer’s famous Etude No. 2 for the violin into your solo in “Eruption.”
(laughs) It was a bit of a joke.
Music was an important part of your family.
Playing music is what saved
An Amazon Bestseller in Music Biographies
- “During Eddie Van Halen’s lifetime, few—if any—journalists were granted the access that journalists Brad Tolinski and Chris Gill were afforded. And as Eruption: Conversations with Eddie Van Halen demonstrates, the guitarist’s trust was not misplaced. This is the final word on what made this epochal musician, guitar innovator and, it must be said, complicated man, tick.”—Tom Beaujour, New York Times bestselling co-author of Nothin’ But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the ‘80s Hard Rock Explosion
- “Though he lived his adult life under a spotlight, Eddie Van Halen remains shrouded in mystery. There is no duo better suited to peel away the fictions and fog and get to the heart of Van Halen the man and the musician than Brad Tolinski and Chris Gill, two of the greatest guitar journalists of our era. That's exactly what they do in Eruption. Even the keenest fan will find surprises on every page.”—Alan Paul, New York Times bestselling author of Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan and One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band
- “Guitarists and rock fans can rejoice that Eddie Van Halen’s story has finally been told, accurately and with insights from those who knew him best. Tolinski and Gill compellingly unravel such details as the development of Ed’s two-handed tapping technique and the Frankenstein guitar, and sheds new light on every corner of Van Halen’s life and prodigious artistry. It’s a long-awaited and vital read about the most important and influential guitarist of the modern age.”—Christopher Scapelliti, Editor-in-Chief, Guitar Player magazine
- “Few journalists get a front-row seat to witness genius at work the way that Brad Tolinski and Chris Gill did over decades with Eddie Van Halen. In this comprehensive look at the late guitar virtuoso's art and artistry, the pair share everything they learned from the man himself."—Kory Grow, Rolling Stone
- “A respectful and detailed....tribute to a guitar legend.”—Kirkus
“ERUPTION is the closest you will get to hearing Eddie’s side of the story when it comes to his extraordinary life. It’s a comprehensive and compelling nonfiction narrative about the guitar virtuoso and visionary. Kudos to Tolinski and Gill for bringing this to fruition.”
“Fans and guitar enthusiasts will appreciate this fresh look at the legendary Van Halen, with an emphasis on his technical wizardry.”
- On Sale
- Oct 5, 2021
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Hachette Books