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From Harry Potter-style mega-hits to controversy over banned books to hot competition for literary prizes, there is never a dull moment in the book world. Chapter & Verse keeps readers up-to-date on the latest in literary headlines. Check in with us daily to learn about books and their people - those who write them and those who love them.

Novels on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize include 'The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry' by Rachel Joyce and 'Bring Up the Bodies' by Hilary Mantel.

Man Booker Prize longlist is announced

By Staff Writer / 07.26.12

The longlist for England’s Man Booker Prize was announced Wednesday, with 12 books – including “Bring Up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel, currently a bestseller in the United States – making the cut.

The winner of the prize, which honors the year’s best novel, will be announced in October; the 12 nominees will be reduced to six in September. The Man Booker Prize is awarded to an author from Britain, one of the Commonwealth Nations, or Ireland.

The group of judges for the Man Booker Prize consists of editor of the Times Literary Supplement Peter Stothard; critic Dinah Birch; writer Amanda Foreman; reviewer Bharat Tandon; and actor Dan Stevens, who plays Matthew Crawley on the popular TV miniseries “Downton Abbey.”

Of the 12 nominees, only Mantel has won the Man Booker Prize before. Seven nominees have made the longlist for the first time.

“We did not set out to reject the old guard but, after a year of sustained critical argument by a demanding panel of judges, the new has come powering through,” Stothard, who is also the chair of the judges, said in a statement.

The nominees besides “Bodies” by Mantel the other titles on this list are: “Communion Town” by Sam Thompson; “Philida” by André Brink; “Skios” by Michael Frayn; “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” by Rachel Joyce; “The Lighthouse” by Alison Moore; “The Yips” by Nicola Barker; “The Garden of Evening Mists” by Tan Twan Eng; “Swimming Home” by Deborah Levy; “Umbrella” by Will Self; “Narcopolis” by Jeet Thayil; and “The Teleportation Accident” by Ned Beauman.

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The manager of the British hotel that replaced Bibles with copies of erotic novel "Fifty Shades of Grey" defended the switch saying, “The Gideon Bible is full of references to sex and violence, although it’s written using more formal language. So James’s book is easier to read.”

Hotel swaps the Bible for – 'Fifty Shades of Grey'?

By Staff Writer / 07.25.12

People were taken aback by an electronic Bible coming to hotel rooms? Wait until they hear about one establishment’s innovation – swapping out Bibles for copies of the runaway E L James erotic bestseller “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

The Damson Dene Hotel in Crosthwaite in the United Kingdom decided to put copies of “Fifty Shades of Grey” in their rooms rather than the Bible because of the popularity of the book.

“I thought it would be a special treat for our guests to find it in their bedside cabinet, and that includes the men, too,” Wayne Bartholomew, the hotel manager, told the Westmorland Gazette. “They are as desperate to get their hands on a copy as the women.”

Guests will still be able to obtain a copy of the Bible at reception, Bartholomew said.

He said those who object to the swap may want to look more closely at the text of the Bible.

“The Gideon Bible is full of references to sex and violence, although it’s written using more formal language,” Bartholomew said. “So James’s book is easier to read.”

But a local priest, the Reverend Michael Woodcock, said he didn’t approve of the switch.

“It is a great shame that Bibles have been removed from rooms and very inappropriate to have been replaced by an explicit erotic novel,” Woodcock told the Westmorland Gazette.

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The Department of Justice says its suit against Apple and other retailers has already reaped positive change in the industry, citing upcoming devices such as the Microsoft Surface tablet that will compete against Apple and Amazon devices. (Rene Macura/AP)

DOJ defends its Apple lawsuit

By Husna Haq / 07.24.12

The Justice Department’s 66-page response to the 868 (overwhelmingly negative) comments it received about its e-book price fixing case can be summed up in three words: take a hike.

In response to these and other public complaints about the lawsuit (see Sen. Charles Schumer), the Department of Justice, perhaps not surprisingly, staunchly defended its case against Apple and five major publishers, insisting they conspired to raise the prices of e-books.

The DOJ’s investigation into sharp upticks in e-book prices upon the launch of Apple’s iBookstore in 2010 “uncovered significant evidence that the seismic shift in e-book prices was not the result of market forces, but rather came about through the collusive efforts of Apple and five of the six largest publishers in the country,” according to a US federal court filing in New York.

(The Wall Street Journal reported that the DOJ’s suit claims “executives of the major book publishers met regularly in private dining rooms of upscale Manhattan restaurants to discuss how to respond to steep discounting by Inc.”)

“The Department stuck to its view that what matters most is that consumers be able to buy e-books at the lowest prices possible in free market competition and that Apple and five publishers colluded illegally in instituting the agency model,” writes industry newsletter Shelf Awareness. “The Department defended all of its proposed remedies, right down to its requirements of ‘logs of communications among publishers,’ federal review of any joint ventures and ‘antitrust counseling’ for publishing executives.”

In other words, the DOJ said it’s not wavering.

As reported in previous posts on the suit, three publishers – HarperCollins, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster – have agreed to settle the DOJ suit while Apple, Penguin, and Macmillan continue to fight the charges. The settlement with the first three publishers was opened to public comment, bringing a deluge of responses from individuals and groups including the Authors Guild, independent publishers, Barnes & Noble, literary agents, and Apple itself, which has long argued that the DOJ’s suit will endanger e-book retailers and distributors alike and result in Amazon’s market domination.

The DOJ called fears of an Amazon monopoly “speculative at best” and pointed out that Barnes & Noble had already captured part of Amazon’s e-book market share long before the agency model was introduced.

“In the pre-conspiracy competitive market, innovation, discounting, and marketing were robust,” the DOJ said in its response. “In contrast, the conspiracy eliminated any number of potential procompetitive innovations, such as 'all-you-can-read' subscription services, book club pricing specials, and rewards programs.'”

Not only is its suit legitimate, the DOJ asserted in its response, it’s also already reaped positive changes in the industry. Since the settlement was announced, “more companies are investing to enter or expand in the market and compete against Amazon, Apple, and other e-book retailers,” the DOJ claimed in its response, citing Microsoft’s investment in Barnes & Noble and forthcoming tablets from Microsoft and Google.

Adding insult to injury, the DOJ said much of the criticism it received on its proposed settlement “expressed a general frustration ...  from the evolving nature of the publishing industry – in which the growing popularity of e-books is placing pressure on the prevailing model that is built on physical supply chains and brick-and-mortar stores.”

The DOJ is resolute in its suit and proposed settlement, but we’re pretty sure this isn’t the last we’ll hear from Apple, either.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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The cupola from the school in Bath Township, Michigan, which was bombed in 1927, now sits in a memorial park. (James Daggy/Michigan State University)

America's deadliest school violence? Not Columbine, but Bath, Mich., in 1927

By Randy Dotinga / 07.24.12

Sometimes it feels like the mass violence of our modern age is something devastatingly new for America. History shows that's not the case.

In 1927, a single man's outbreak of violence in a small Michigan town took the lives of 45 people, including 38 children. The Bath School Disaster became the nation's deadliest killing spree at a school, and it still holds that distinction today.

A few years ago, Chicago author Arnie Bernstein went to Bath Township, Mich., near Lansing, to tell the story of the day that a local farmer and school board member – for reasons that are still unclear – used dynamite to destroy the town's school and kill many of its inhabitants. While the rest of the country promptly forgot about the tragedy – one of the century's biggest news events distracted the nation shortly after it happened – he discovered that the scars remain.

But there was more to find than heartache.

In an interview this week, Bernstein, author of 2009's "Bath Massacre: America's First School Bombing," describes a community's strength and the silent generation that finally spoke out when he came calling.

As another city goes through a familiar cycle of shock and grief, Bernstein's words offer a glimpse of the humanity that the worst kinds of horror cannot destroy.

Q: How was the reaction to this tragedy different than what we're seeing in Aurora?
A: While the people of Bath weren't any different than the people of our times, it was a different time, a different era. These days, we have better coping mechanisms. We have counselors and all kinds of different support systems.

Back then, they didn't talk about it, period. They were farmers, and they had to go back to work. Your cow couldn't take a day off for a tragedy.

And there wasn't a media frenzy like today. The media came in and left. Three days after it happened, Lindbergh took off and flew to Paris, and that part of it was over.

When I came in, it had been eight decades, and nobody had talked about it. It was just this scar on the land.

Q: Amazingly, you talked to survivors of the school bombing who are now in their 90s and 100s. What did they say?

A: One woman who's 99 now was telling me the most graphic details about how her seven-year-old brother was killed. I was worried about upsetting her and told her she didn't have to talk about all this. She said, "No, people have to know. I'm not going to be around forever. I want people to know what happened."

Q: What can we learn from Bath Township?

A: One lesson is that you cannot stop someone who's determined to do something like this, who doesn't have that switch in their head that says to not do it. You cannot stop them any more than you can stop an iceberg.

But out of that horror, out of the one or two people who commit these kinds of crimes, comes the good, the tremendous good that you see in the wake of these things. Our humanity comes through in the face of evil and the inexplicable.

The survivors and their children are some of the most decent people I've ever known in my life, and they grew out of this.

Q: Will this part of Bath's history ever fade?

A: This cannot go away and never will, even after these people die. It's always part of who they are in Bath. But they remain a quintessential small Midwest town America: nice, kind, and good Christians in the absolute greatest sense.

Q: What has writing the story of this town meant for you?

A: One day when I was walking through the town cemetery, I realized I knew everybody: This guy was a rescuer, this child was killed, here was someone's wife who made sandwiches for the men.

I saw many names on the headstones with no death dates. These people are still alive. Bath was where they were born and raised, and it's where they'll die.

When my life is over, I think this will probably the best thing I've done in my life, bringing this town some healing, helping people talk about it and bringing the community together.

It's been 80 years, but it's still fresh in mind. It's yesterday. But out of this came good and decency – people caring for strangers and looking out for one another.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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Publisher Simon & Schuster has drastically scaled back the book tour and other events for 'Paterno' by Joe Posnanski.

Paterno biography: Can it recover from bad timing?

By Husna Haq / 07.23.12

It’s being called “perhaps one of the most unfortunately timed books of 2012.”

And with a rejiggered game plan chock full of author event cancellations, title tweaks, and frantic changes in the publication date, it’s also a lesson in damage control for the publishing industry.

“Paterno,” a forthcoming biography of the late Penn State football coach by author Joe Posnanski, has made Simon & Schuster “the latest example of a publisher that is trying to recover when the story behind a planned book changes before publication,” reports The New York Times in a piece on the forthcoming bio’s bad timing.

And how the story has changed. “Announced in March 2011 as ‘a biography of America’s winningest college football coach, who changed the country one football player at a time,’ the book will enter the marketplace at a moment when the name of Joe Paterno, the late Penn State coach, has gone from revered to radioactive,” writes the Times.

In the wake of the Penn State scandal, Paterno, who died of lung cancer in January at the age of 85 after 46 years as head coach at Penn State, has fallen hard. Following accusations of child sexual abuse by Paterno’s longtime assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, reports emerged suggesting Paterno was aware of the abuse accusations and failed to report it. One in particular, a July 12 report by Louis J. Freeh, a former director of the FBI, that found Paterno not only failed to report accusations of abuse to police, but also renegotiated his contract in 2011 as the scandal was unfolding, “winning himself and his family more money and perks,” was particularly damaging to the late coach. 

Since then, Paterno’s alma mater, Brown University, axed his name from a prestigious annual award and coaching position. And Penn State President Rodney Erickson ordered the removal of a statue of the late coach from outside the university’s football stadium, commenting in a statement, “I believe that, were it to remain, the statue would be a recurring wound to the multitude of individuals across the nation and beyond who have been victims of child abuse.”

The turn in public perception of the once-beloved JoePa has “made people angrier at Joe Paterno,” Simon & Schuster publisher Jonathan Karp told The New York Times. “And that has made it a more difficult environment to publish a biography about Joe Paterno.”

Among the publishers' damage control measures: the release date was changed from Father’s Day 2013 to August 2012 and the title changed from a majestic “The Grand Experiment: The Life and Meaning of Joe Paterno,” to a more modest “Paterno.”

What’s more, Posnanski’s book tour has been scaled back and scores of author interviews, book signings, and events have been cancelled. “We’re sensitive about putting our author in forums where he might be viewed as a stand-in for his subject,” Simon & Schuster spokeswoman Anne Tate told the Times.

Already, Sports Illustrated declined to run an excerpt in its pages and some bookstores have said they will not carry the book.

It’s a vexing challenge for any publisher certain it had a touchdown on its hands only to find itself scrambling to stay in the game. For his part, S&S publisher Karp is shifting the focus away from the once-celebrated coach to his biographer.

As he told the Times, “People can pass all the judgment they want about Joe Paterno, but Joe Posnanski deserves a chance to be read.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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The website Goodreads allows users to post reviews of books, but asks that visitors abide by the code of conduct.

Goodreads reviews: Are they fair?

By Staff Writer / 07.23.12

It's easy to recognize a negative book review. But how can you detect an unfair one? Popular review website GoodReads now finds itself in the midst of a debate over what justifies a negative book review and what freedom online reviewers – including anonymous ones – should have.

In a recent column on the Huffington Post, the administrators of the website Stop the GR Bullies stated their concern over what they said are bullying reviews being posted on the GoodReads website, which allows users to post reviews of the books they read. The Stop the GR Bullies administrators say that bullies have been posting negative reviews of books because they holds grudge against an author or simply want to harass someone.

“If they are given any reason to target an author, they will attempt to destroy that author's reputation and career for either their own personal amusement or for vengeance,” the administrators wrote in their column.

On the website Stop the GR Bullies, which appears to have been created this month, four administrators posted screencaps of reviews that they say are examples of the bullying trend. They also posted profiles of Goodreads users whom they say are bullies.

In their column on the Huffington Post, the administrators cite the Goodreads comments policy, which reads, “You agree not to post User Content that: (i) may create a risk of harm, loss, physical or mental injury, emotional distress, death, disability, disfigurement, or physical or mental illness to you, to any other person…  (v) contains any information or content that we deem to be unlawful, harmful, abusive, racially or ethnically offensive, defamatory, infringing, invasive of personal privacy or publicity rights, harassing, humiliating to other people (publicly or otherwise), libelous, threatening, profane, or otherwise objectionable.”

“If you surf the GR fora, you will see hundreds of instances where the GR TOS is being violated, which shows that Goodreads is not policing their site,” the STGRB administrators write in their Huffington Post column. “Further, they are unresponsive when posts like these are reported.”

While some comments on the column supported the administrators’ message, others didn’t see what the problem with the Goodreads reviews were.

“I have to join in with those extremely disconcerted that HuffPo sought out these people and gave them a platform to continue this ridiculous and dangerous campaign,” one commenter who gave their name as OtotheA wrote. “I see people who can't deal with criticism of work that they put out into the marketplace.”

Another commenter objected to the fact that the STGRB website posted profiles of the alleged bullies without offering any identifying information about the website administrators.

“They have the audacity to ‘out’ reviewers but refuse to have their real names, or even have a bio or a picture here,” a commenter named Katiebabs wrote.

However, others commenting supported the STGRB site and their message.

“Maybe it's not a big deal to authors who are already fairly well established,” a commenter using the name TeaPartier said of the negative reviews. “But those people who are just starting out, this is serious.”

After the column was posted, Andrew Losowsky, the Huffington Post books editor, posted a column titled “Stop the GR Bullies: An Explanation.” In the piece, Losowsky explained that while columns are edited for grammar and factual errors, they do not go through the same process as a news article on the site.

“To those who feel that we let them down, I can only apologize,” he wrote. “We should have provided more context and presented the debate over the site – and the broader issue of online bullying in the books world – in a more balanced fashion.”

Losowsky said that many users had contacted him citing a case in which they said a reviewer who had been called a bully by the STGRB website had been threatened via telephone. Losowsky said they had been unable to corroborate the incident had actually happened.

“In an email to me, one of the people who runs the site categorically denied stalking, threatening or telephoning any of the people who have been featured on Stop the GR Bullies,” he wrote.

Author Foz Meadows posted a column on The Huffington Post sharing her thoughts about the Goodreads controversy. She cited the alleged incident of a woman being harassed over the phone as one of the matters concerning her.

“The STGRB site stands as singularly unhelpful forum for discussion, unashamedly more concerned with personal vendettas, retaliatory anger and biased crusading in a name-and-shame format than a considered exploration of the issues,” Meadows wrote.

Questions about negative online reviews, of course, are not new. In one high-profile example, historian and writer Orlando Figes paid damages to fellow authors after it was discovered he had gone onto and left negative reviews of their work under the name Historian while positively reviewing his own books. He first claimed the comments had been left by his wife.

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Trainer Dawn Brancheau (pictured) was killed by a killer whale at SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla. in 2010. (Julie Fletcher/Orlando Sentinel/AP)

SeaWorld death prompts author to explore whales in captivity

By Randy Dotinga / 07.20.12

If you drop by one of the SeaWorld theme parks in San Diego, Orlando or San Antonio, you can head to Shamu Stadium and watch killer whales perform thrilling tricks and splash the audience.

But these days, you won't see animal trainers ride on the tops of the killer whales or be flipped high into the sky from their noses.

In fact, the trainers won't get into the water at all. If federal safety officials have their way, they never will again, at least during a show.

Why? Because killer whales can be dangerous. Two years ago, a killer whale named "Tilly" killed a trainer during a show at SeaWorld Orlando, and it wasn't an isolated incident. Tilly had killed people before, not once but twice.

It turns out that killer whales have a long history of harming trainers at SeaWorld. The chain of marine parks was horrified by the death, but it wants to restore the interaction between human and sea creature that made Shamu shows so spectacular for decades.

Last week, SeaWorld lost a battle in its bid to return to the old way of doing things. And it got a firm slap in the form of journalist David Kirby's fascinating and deeply disturbing book "Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity."

In an interview, I talked to Kirby about the inner lives of killer whales, SeaWorld's position and the big questions underlying the debate. 

Q: What makes killers whales a unique kind of animal?

A: They are quite possibly the most socially complex animals on earth after humans, and they're among the smartest.

They engage in abstract thinking, recognize themselves in the mirror – which very few animals can do – and understand gestures. If you point your finger, a dolphin [a killer whale is a kind of dolphin] will generally either look or swim in that direction.

They recognize themselves in the mirror, which very few animals do. They can distinguish a Chinook salmon from a coho salmon at a great distance simply by issuing clicks that bounce off the fish.

And they have a great propensity for compassion – for saving each other, for saving other species, for saving people.

Q: What are their personal lives like?

A: They have a highly developed culture. They quite possibly have the greatest family bonds of any animal on earth, including humans.

Males in at least one resident community of the Northwest stay with their mothers for life, and their mothers introduce them to females in other pods.

Ask your mom if she'd like to spend 70 percent of her day, every 24 hours, within one body length of you. I don't think my mom would like it, and I don't think most men would either.

Q: Well, let's just say that you haven't met my mom. But never mind that. What do the mothers get out of this?

A: Part of the deal is that the older males babysit their younger brothers and sisters. Then if the mother wants to go off and rest or get away for a while, mostly to socialize with other females who run these societies, the oldest male will be left behind to watch after his siblings.

Q: Have you talked to guys about these unique killer whale arrangements?

A: I've had more than one Jewish man marvel at the fact that they get to stay home and live with their mother, who introduces them to eligible females. They think that's a pretty good deal.

Q: So these amazing animals exist, and SeaWorld has them do tricks for us?

A: SeaWorld calls them "behaviors." They're tricks: they either don’t do these things in nature or only things that are vaguely similar.

Virtually nothing you see in a Shamu show is anything you’d see a whale doing in the wild, certainly never to blasting music.

 Q: Aquariums and water parks have been doing this for decades, right?

A: When the captive whale and dolphin industry got started, they put the animals in tanks, and people would line up to see them. They found that if you got in the water with them and started surfing on them, more people would show up.

So almost from the beginning, it's involved performance and acrobatics.

At the same time, people were protesting at the Seattle Aquarium back in the 1960s when one of the first killer whales was brought in for display. There have been anti-captivity activists since there have been captive killer whales, and their numbers are really growing.

Q: SeaWorld says the killer whale shows are valuable because they educate people about these animals. Is that a valid argument?

A: The most powerful counter-argument is that the education that goes on at SeaWorld is not adequate, especially when it comes to killer whales. The raising of awareness on conservation issues and inspiring people to save their habitat – there’s none of that.

If you walk around SeaWorld, most people are talking about the Shamu whales, but I'm sure most people don't know they're dolphins or where they come from.

My point is that we can argue over whether trainers should be in the water or not, but the big question is whether the killer whales should be in these pools in the first place.

Q: What's the overarching issue here? Are we talking about how we treat animals or how we treat the people who work with them?

A: We're talking about both.

And we're talking about entertainment – I don't think the educational component is very compelling – and spectacle. We're hard-wired to crave spectacular things. We stare at forest fires, we love Broadway shows, we crave spectacle. Look at the Romans and the gladiators.

But in a more subtle way, we're more wired to be compassionate, reject cruelty and be humane. What we have here is a fight between the desire for spectacle and our more humane side.

Killer whales are beautiful animals. When you see them up close, it's really inspiring. But maybe this isn't really what's best for them.

For more about the debate over the captivity of killer whales at SeaWorld, read the Monitor story from 2010 or check my separate interview with Kirby for the Voice of San Diego news organization. He talks about the safety of trainers, the horrific deaths caused by killer whales, and the elaborate precautions that SeaWorld has put into place to protect humans.

To understand the perspective of SeaWorld, read this FAQ about marine mammals from the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums trade group.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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Sen. Charles Schumer reprimanded the Department of Justice in his column in the Wall Street Journal. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Schumer challenges DOJ on e-book lawsuit

By Husna Haq / 07.19.12

It’s not often someone challenges the Department of Justice. Especially a senator. And especially regarding a price-fixing suit.

But that’s exactly what Sen. Charles Schumer did when he reprimanded the DOJ for filing its e-book antitrust lawsuit against Apple in a bold Wall Street Journal op-ed published Tuesday.

“While this claim sounds plausible on its face, the suit could wipe out the publishing industry as we know it,” Schumer writes.

Schumer’s op-ed caught everyone by surprise, as has the high level of attention and advocacy this case has attracted. At a time when the industry is in flux, the emergence of champions like Schumer – seemingly from the woodwork – is heartening to many in the publishing industry.

According to the government’s account, Apple and five publishers were upset that Amazon had set the price of all of its e-books at $9.99, thereby driving down the price of e-books. In response, Apple and the publishers allegedly conspired to establish a new business model, called the agency model, which put pricing in the hands of publishers (instead of distributers, as in Amazon’s wholesale model) and raised the price of many e-books by about $2 to $3.

In April, the Justice Department filed the lawsuit against Apple and two publishers, Macmillan and Penguin Group, for price-fixing e-books. (Three other publishers, Hachette, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster, agreed to a government settlement to avoid litigation.) The government filed suit to break up what it perceived as price-fixing.

Schumer, however, doesn’t see it that way. Agency pricing, Schumer argues, helped free the e-book market from Amazon’s dominance and generally increases competition. It also gives consumers more platforms to buy e-books. As he noted in his op-ed, Amazon controlled 90 percent of the market under the old model, but after publishers instituted the agency model pricing, Amazon’s share fell to 60 percent.

What’s more, he notes, the new model actually helped bring down prices on may older e-book titles.

“The Justice Department has ignored this overall trend and instead focused on the fact that the prices for some new releases have gone up. This misses the forest for the trees,” Schumer writes. “While consumers may have a short-term interest in today's new release e-book prices, they have a more pressing long-term interest in the survival of the publishing industry.”

“If publishers, authors and consumers are at the mercy of a single retailer that controls 90% of the market and can set rock-bottom prices, we will all suffer. Choice is critical in any market, but that is particularly true in cultural markets like books. The prospect that a single firm would control access to books should give any reader pause.”

In his signature brazenness, Schumer concluded by urging the Justice Department to drop the suit, which, he asserted, had already hurt the industry.

“I am concerned that the mere filing of this lawsuit has empowered monopolists and hurt innovators.”

It’s a bold move for the senator from New York and we’re eager to see how the Justice Department responds. With the trial set for 2013, there could be months of posturing – or settlement talks – ahead.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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"We Americans collectively, whether we’re a red state or a blue state kind of person, believe that we are best at being on our own," says Batt, "and that means that you have to be pretty intrepid when it comes to problem solving and finding a safe and stable place to live." (Bill Hickey/Houghton Mifflin)

You bought – a crack house?

By / 07.19.12

Sure, it’s hard to afford that first home. But rehabbing the neighborhood crack house – isn’t that a bit extreme? Matthew Batt did exactly that and claims the process made him a better husband and writer. Monitor books editor Marjorie Kehe recently talked to Batt about his renovation project and Sugarhouse, the memoir that came out of it. Here are excerpts of their conversation. 

Q: You bought a onetime crack house, an utterly unloved property  no one else wanted.  Why?

It was 2002 and properties were coming and going almost on the same day. When we found the crack house in question, it was at least a blank slate. It was the kind of place we went into and with really active imaginations it was possible to see that we could make it a home, both for its sake and for our own.

Q: You evoke Thoreau in your memoir and say that you find home repair to be “essentially American” and “perfectly democratic.” What do you mean by that?

I think it’s kind of in our American DNA, that pioneer spirit where you have to be self-reliant. We Americans collectively, whether we’re a red state or a blue state kind of person, believe that we are best at being on our own, and that means that you have to be pretty intrepid when it comes to problem solving and finding a safe and stable place to live.

Q: Is there a morality to it? Did home repair make you a better person?

I hope it made me, if not a better person, at least a better husband. The thing I learned most is how important it is to really listen to your spouse. What became clear is that pretty much everything involved with home renovation is a metaphor. Jenae [Batt’s wife] brought up a set of these cool but really expensive drawer pulls that she wanted to use as curtain binders. My first reaction was, “That’s kind of ludicrous. Sure, it might work but that’s going to cost a lot of money,” and then I listened and I realized that this is important – it’s about who she is and who she wants us to be.

Q: You were also working toward a PhD in English and writing while you were renovating the house. Which was the bigger achievement – getting the degree or fixing the house?

The home was definitely the far greater educator. [But] I probably wouldn’t have been able to learn as much in the home renovation process had I not been enrolled in that degree program. [One time] I found myself very much needing to turn in an essay the next day for workshop. I sat down on a Sunday night to write and I literally had to shove away power tools and little scraps of wood and paint samples in order to find a space for my laptop. And I began writing about a hardwood-floor-laying workshop that I had attended the day before and it just unlocked something in me, gave me permission to write in a voice that sounded more like me than anything else I’d ever written. I think probably that without both of those things neither could have happened as well.

Q: You and your wife just moved to a new house. Is it also a fixer-upper?

Yeah, I’m afraid so.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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Chen Guangcheng drew the ire of the Chinese government after he spoke out about the country's policy on one-child families. (

Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng will release memoir

By Staff Writer / 07.19.12

Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese activist who escaped house arrest in his country last spring, has signed a deal with Times Books, which is an imprint of the publishing company Henry Holt & Company.

The book is planned for a fall 2013 release, according to Henry Holt.

Chen, a lawyer who drew ire from the Chinese government after he spoke out about the country’s policy about one-child families, said in a statement, “This is an opportunity for me to share with the world the true conditions in China, especially in the vast stretches of rural China.”

After escaping from his home, Chen sought sanctuary in the American embassy in Beijing. He now attends the New York University School of Law.

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