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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.

Former CIA official Jose Rodriguez criticizes the FBI in his new book 'Hard Measures,' calling some of their methods ineffective. (CIA/AP)

In 'Hard Measures,' former CIA official Jose Rodriquez defends waterboarding

By Husna Haq / 04.30.12

Talk about explosive. We can already see the policy arguments, newsroom discussions, and dinnertime brawls emanating from the latest terrorism book to hit shelves, one that already has the blogosphere buzzing.

In “Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions after 9/11 Saved American Lives,” by former head of CIA’s clandestine service, Jose Rodriguez, and the CIA’s former top spokesman, Bill Harlow, Rodriguez argues for the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” like waterboarding, methods some consider torture.

In the book, Rodriguez, who for years was unable to publicly respond to criticism of his interrogation techniques, defends his waterboarding program and his order to destroy videotapes of harsh interrogation sessions in which suspected Al Qaeda members were held down and subjected to simulated drowning. He also goes on the counterattack, pointing a finger at those he says hindered the fight against Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

According to the Daily Beast, which earlier obtained a copy of the controversial memoir, those targets include the government of Pakistan, Washington’s supposed ally in the war on terror, whom Rodriguez says is actually assisting terrorists.

“We got close to [9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] a couple of times,” Rodriguez writes. “At one point we had narrowed down his whereabouts to a few square miles in Karachi. Working with Pakistani liaison, we tried to narrow it down. But then a corrupt Pakistani policeman who had somehow learned of the effort tipped off KSM. An email from the crooked cop was intercepted. In it, he told KSM, ‘They know where you are.’”

Rodriguez also goes after the FBI, whom he said publicly criticized the CIA’s interrogation methods and hampered its efforts. “Could we have gotten the same information using FBI practices?” Rodriguez asks. “Maybe. If we had all the time in the world, perhaps we could have. But we did not.”

He also skewers CIA critics in Congress, none more so than House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, challenging her assertion that she was not informed about the use of waterboarding.

“Pelosi said that we only briefly mentioned waterboarding and left the impression that it had not been used,” Rodriguez writes, explaining that he himself briefed her about waterboarding and its use, according to the Daily Beast review. He also says Pelosi posed no objection to the technique. “I know she got it.”

“There is no doubt in my mind that she, like almost all Americans less than a year after, wanted us to be aggressive to make sure that Al Qaeda wasn’t able to replicate their attack…. Pelosi was another member of Congress reinventing the truth.”

Rodriguez even goes after the CIA inspector general’s office, which reprimanded him for the destruction of the interrogation videotapes and the Obama administration, whom he says has become too reliant on missile-armed drones to kill, instead of capture, terrorists.

“Drones can be a highly effective way of dealing with high-priority targets,” Rodriguez writes in the book. “But they should not become the drug of choice for an administration that is afraid to use successful, legal and safe tactics of the past.” He adds, “Needless to say, there is no opportunity to interrogate or learn anything from a suspect who is vaporized by a missile launched by a keystroke executed thousands of miles away.”

We’re pretty sure this won’t be the last we hear of “Hard Measures.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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'The Help' by Kathryn Stockett occupied both the No. 1 and No. 2 fiction slots in several cities, thanks to the movie tie-in edition.

'Steve Jobs' and 'The Help' dominate reading lists in many American cities

By / 04.30.12

Data gathered by Nielsen BookScan for The Daily Beast showed that while cities in America may be divided by politics or geography, many of their residents are enjoying the same books – namely “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson and “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett.

The data was compiled using information from various bookstores in 10 of America’s largest cities, including New York, Chicago, Boston, and Dallas, and examined which nonfiction and fiction titles were the most popular.

“Steve Jobs” topped the nonfiction list in every city listed except Dallas and Houston, where the book “Heaven Is For Real” by Todd Burpo took the top spot. Stockett’s novel about maids in 1960s Mississippi took the top fiction spot in every city, in many securing the top two with “The Help (Movie Tie-In Edition)” coming in at the second spot.

In non-fiction, books that often showed up in the top five of the list were Burpo’s book, “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand, and “Killing Lincoln” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. “Bossypants” by Tina Fey showed up in spots No. 3 and 4 in several cities, including New York and Los Angeles, but were much further down in cities such as Dallas, Detroit and Houston.

While “The Help” swept the fiction list, another popular novel was “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen, which came in at No. 3 in many cities. Also often coming in the top five were “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larssen and “11/22/63” by Stephen King. In Dallas, Detroit, and Houston, the novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee made the fiction list of most popular novels, although it did not appear on the list at all in any other city. The same went for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby,” which made the list in Los Angeles and Houston, but didn’t rank in any other city. (Maybe residents are re-reading to get ready for Baz Luhrmann’s big-screen adaptation due in December.)

Molly Driscoll is a Monitor contributor.

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Their new partnership also means the litigation between Barnes & Noble and Microsoft has been settled, according to the companies. (L: Barnes and Noble Inc./AP)

Microsoft joins forces with Barnes & Noble

By / 04.30.12

Microsoft announced that it’s investing $300 million in a new business from Barnes & Noble that will encompass the bookseller’s Nook e-book products as well as its college bookstore division.

This will be a major move for Microsoft into the e-book business, which has been dominated by Apple and other of the company’s competitors. The new partnership between Microsoft and Barnes & Noble will include a Nook app that will be in Microsoft’s new operating system, Windows 8, which is due to be released later in 2012. Through the Nook app, those with the Windows operating system will have access to Barnes & Noble’s collection of e-books, magazines and other reading materials. The Nook app is now available for iPad and Android users.

“Our complementary assets will accelerate e-reading innovation across a broad range of Windows devices, enabling people to not just read stories, but to be part of them,” Microsoft president Andy Lees said in a statement.

The move comes after the two companies became embroiled in litigation last year when Microsoft sued Barnes & Noble, accusing the company of owing them money from licensing fees because of Microsoft patents that were used in the Android platform, which Barnes & Noble uses for some of its Nook devices.

According to the companies, this new business venture has settled the litigation. Barnes & Noble will possess a royalty-bearing license through the patents owned by Microsoft for the Nook.

Molly Driscoll is a Monitor contributor.

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Cissy Houston, Whitney Houston's mother, says her book would 'dispel all of those lies.' (Evan Agostini/AP)

Whitney Houston's mother may write book about her daughter

By / 04.27.12

Whitney Houston’s mother Cissy Houston is reportedly shopping a possible book about her daughter to various publishers.

Cissy Houston had a meeting with representatives from publishing companies at the St. Regis Hotel in New York this week to discuss the book, which would be written using a ghostwriter.

“There are so many lies out there and I want to dispel all of those lies,” Cissy Houston said, according to a publishing executive who spoke with the New York Times. Those present in the meetings estimated the bidding for the book could go into the millions.

Judging from one of Cissy Houston’s comments, the book may not shy away from addressing her daughter’s personal problems.

“It’s going to be the bad, it’s going to be the good,” she told a publisher during the meeting, according to the New York Times.

However, two publishers told the New York Times that Cissy Houston didn’t appear to want to discuss the circumstances behind Whitney Houston’s death and her alleged problems with drugs during her life.

Molly Driscoll is a Monitor contributor.

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The copyright on 'Mein Kampf' is due to expire in 2015. R: AP

'Mein Kampf' will be published in an annotated edition by Bavaria

By / 04.26.12

Mein Kampf,” the book written by Adolf Hitler, will be published in Germany in 2015, the first time it’s been released there since World War II.

The copyright on the book, which is held by Bavaria, a German state, would have expired in 2015. The new edition of “Mein Kampf” will include commentary, according to Bavarian finance minister Markus Söder.

“We want to make clear what nonsense it contains and what a worldwide catastrophe this dangerous body of thought led to,” Söder told The Independent.

The country of Bavaria will also be releasing the edition of the book as an audio book, an e-book, a school version, and an English-language translation.

Dieter Graumann, the head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told the AFP that he believed publishing this new edition of “Mein Kampf” is a good idea.

“If it is going to be released, then I prefer seeing a competent annotated version from the Bavarian state than profit-seekers trying to make money with Nazis,” Graumann said.

However, Deidre Berger, the head of the Berlin office of the American Jewish committee, said she was uncomfortable with the plans for a new edition.

"I think we shouldn't underestimate the potential danger to this day of this book," she told the AFP. "This book presented a genocidal theory that was then enacted, and the book continues to exert a horrible attraction for many young people."

As we reported, the German magazine Zeitungszeugen had planned to publish excerpts of the book last January, but ultimately backed down after the Bavarian government began legal proceedings against the magazine.

Editions of the book exist in Germany – the book isn’t banned – but before now, reprinting or selling the book has not been allowed.

“Mein Kampf” has been available on the Internet and in other countries as well as in multiple languages.

Molly Driscoll is a Monitor contributor.

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“Our authors and readers have been asking for this for a long time,” says Tom Doherty of Tom Doherty Associates, publisher of sci-fi authors like 'Ender's Game' writer Orson Scott Card. “They’re a technically sophisticated bunch, and DRM is a constant annoyance to them.

Digital Rights Managment to be dropped by Tor and other Macmillan sci-fi books

By / 04.26.12

The publishing division Tom Doherty Associates, the section of Macmillan that releases science fiction and fantasy books through Tor, Forge and others, announced that it will stop selling e-books with Digital Rights Management (DRM) by July of this year.

The DRM system aims to stop users from pirating e-books, but many have complained because the DRM technology stops them from transferring a digital book they’ve legitimately bought from one e-book reader to another, such as from a Kindle to a Nook.

Tom Doherty, founder of Tom Doherty Associates, noted this problem in his statement about the change.

“Our authors and readers have been asking for this for a long time,” Doherty said. “They’re a technically sophisticated bunch, and DRM is a constant annoyance to them. It prevents them from using legitimately-purchased e-books in perfectly legal ways, like moving them from one kind of e-reader to another.”

Fellow sci-fi publisher Baen Books has also supported taking DRM off e-books and sells their own electronic titles in multiple formats, setting the titles at costs that are the equivalent of or less than the price of buying the book in paperback form.

Tor author John Scalzi wrote on his blog that he’s never seen DRM be particularly useful.

“DRM hasn’t stopped my books from being out there on the dark side of the Internet,” Scalzi wrote. “Meanwhile, the people who do spend money to support me and my writing have been penalized for playing by the rules…. So the idea that my readers will, after July, ‘buy once, keep anywhere,’ makes me happy. “

Bookseller Magazine editor-in-chief Neill Denny told the BBC that he’s heard opinions for and against DRM software in the publishing industry.

"Some people think that it is an impediment and has been cracked anyway so we don't need it,” Denny said. “But others say that it continues to restrict piracy.”

After the change takes place, Tor titles will also become available at e-book merchants that only stock DRM-free titles.

Molly Driscoll is a Monitor contributor.

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"This story might have happened to happen in China," says Huang of his memoir "The Little Red Guard." "And sleeping with a coffin would not be very common in the US. But there is that common theme as to how we deal with our parents."

"The Little Red Guard": inside a Chinese family

By / 04.25.12

At the age of 71 Wenguang Huang's grandmother began obsessing over the question of her funeral. She wanted a grand send-off, in a coffin, and a burial in the countryside of her childhood. To a Westerner none of this may seem problematic. But in Mao's China, where Huang's family lived, elaborate funerals and burial in a coffin were against the law. Thus began a battle between Maoist and Confucian values that would engulf the entire Huang family for years. Recently I spoke with Huang about his childhood and his new memoir The Little Red Guard in which he recalls – with bittersweet humor – a childhood spent sleeping next to a contraband coffin.  Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

Q. Your grandmother started thinking of death at the age of 71. One of the saddest ironies is that your dad – who sacrificed everything to make her hopes about her funeral come true – actually died first. What did your family lose as a result of your dad's focus on this strange mission?

My father’s whole attention was directed toward the question of my grandmother's coffin. A lot of times he really did not have too much time for us. And we were always worrying about saving money [for funeral preparations]. My brother needed help with his studies at school and we never really paid too much attention to that. I wanted to play the violin. And my father always said, "No, we have to save for Grandmother's funeral." And my sister would want to go to see a movie. But my dad was very frugal and would say, "Oh, we have to save for Grandmother's funeral." And he focused so much on the coffin that in a way he neglected my mother.

Q. Yet much later, as an adult, you realized that this obsession of her father's shaped your life in many positive ways as well.

I didn’t realize how much difference the coffin had made in my life until several years ago as I was getting older. I started to realize, no [normal] family was obsessed with a coffin for so long! But during the preparation for the funeral [my father] taught me a lot about Chinese culture. I learned a lot about who are family was, where they came from, how you have to be humble. This group of teachings were totally contrary to what I was learning in school where they were teaching us the Cultural Revolution. They were teaching us, "Be loyal to your friends." Dad always said, "At home you rely on your parents." The way that he educated me, always through this obsession with the coffin, really shaped me a lot. Now each time I do things I can feel his invisible hand. I got lots of good things out of it.

Q. What drove your father? What motivated him?

The Chinese tradition of fealty. Also, he was an orphan and my grandmother totally devoted her life to him. She never got remarried. She was only in her 20s when my grandfather died. She sacrificed herself for the sake of my father. He never got out of this shadow of feeling that he was so indebted to his mother. Everything that he did was to try pay back. It was the traditional, Confucian belief that the son has to pay back what the mother has done for him.

Q. What would you want your dad to know about who you are today?

One of the regrets that I have is that when I was young he always felt like I was trying to be different from him. I tried to be very rebellious. I felt like I was much better educated than he was and I was more I was very arrogant. I want my dad to know  the older I get the more I behave like him. He and his teachings shaped many of the decisions that I’m making now and more and more I feel like I’m kind of very proud of dad now. In  the old days, I had this strong desire to be different from my dad. I felt like he had this sad life. [He spent his life] working in a factory and planning for his mother’s funeral. I really kind of looked down on him in a way. Now as I get older I wish that he could see that I’m more and more like him now and that I really cherish the things that he did. He was very nice to people, always wanting to help people.

Q. Your grandmother was also a huge figure in your life. If you could talk to her now, what would you want her to know?

I would like her to understand that I am doing a lot for the family. In the old days my grandmother always saw me as somebody who never cared family. I was going out and doing stuff. [Then] when I went back to China I visited her family. I started to know more about our family history and to recognize who I am and to accept who I am and where I come from. When she told us her family stories we always rolled our eyes. We never accepted what she said. When I started to go back I really started to appreciate her devotion and what she did for the family. I think that I’m following her example in a way. I’m starting to be more devoted to my family and to my siblings.

Q. Maoism and the teaching of Confucius were oddly intertwined in your youth. Then you moved to America. Who are you today?

It’s a fusion. If I used percentage points I’d say 60 percent Chinese, 40 percent American. For the first 10 years I was here I was so Americanized. But then in the past 10 years the past started to come back more and more. And the way I act and the way I think is more and more Chinese. The Confucian thinking in me is still very strong. Even the Maoist thinking is still there. I think it’s true with every Chinese. We’ve been taught Communism for years and years. The Communist education seems to have pointed us in the opposite direction. But still, the way we think about things, our childhood memories for example, the movies, the way we look at things, I have to say that the Mao era has a big influence on us.

Q. In China today, are there still people who share your grandmother’s mindset about funerals?

[Today's Chinese] tend to play up the funeral. There are these very huge funerals and people want to be buried in a certain way. It’s part of the new economic power of wealth. Funerals are becoming more and more of a way to show off their wealth. [But they] no longer do the coffin thing. [Because the countryside is being developed so extensively] my grandmother’s [remains] has already been relocated twice and probably will have to be moved again.

Q. In some ways your story is so uniquely Chinese. But on another level – especially when it comes to your feelings about your father – it seems so universal.

I thought that maybe sometime I could write a book about my father. But for years and years I was wondering, "If I tell this story to a Western audience, will they be able to understand?" But I’ve been here for 20 years now. And as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that many things, many of the feelings are universal. For example, how we deal with our parents. When we’re young we may have a tense relationship with our parents but as we get older we start to understand them more. This story might have happened to happen in China. And sleeping with the coffin would not be very common in the US here. But there is that common theme as to how we deal with our parents. I tried out an excerpt in the Paris Review and I got a lot of e-mail from readers saying, “That reminds me of my childhood.” That encouraged me.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's Books editor.

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The Department of Justice may have shown some leniency in bringing a civil case against Apple and the five book publishers rather than a criminal case. (Cliff Owen/AP)

Is Amazon morally wrong but legally right?

By Husna Haq / 04.24.12

Might Amazon, just this once, actually be in the right?

The publishing industry’s favorite punching bag du jour has gotten a lot of flack lately over a Justice Department antitrust lawsuit against Apple. As we reported earlier this spring, the DOJ filed a lawsuit against Apple and five publishers, accusing them of colluding to fix e-book prices.

The DOJ has gotten an earful ever since. Book industry advocates have lambasted the government agency for going after struggling book publishers and Amazon’s only real competition, thereby propping up the mega-bookseller’s dominance.

“I feel absolutely befuddled by the lawsuit,” New York Sen. Charles Schumer told the Wall Street Journal. “For the Antitrust Division to step in as the big protector of Amazon doesn't seem to make any sense from an antitrust point of view. Rarely have I seen a suit that so ill serves the interests of the consumer.”

“The irony bites hard,” Authors Guild President Scott Turow wrote in an open letter. “Our government may be on the verge of killing real competition in order to save the appearance of competition.”

And David Carr of the New York Times criticized the antitrust suit as the modern equivalent of leaving Standard Oil intact and “breaking up Ed's Gas 'N' Groceries on Route 19 instead.”

It’s time to take a step back.

Is it possible that amidst the deafening uproar over the DOJ’s suit – the protestations, the criticism, the comparisons – we’re missing the point? That, as much as book lovers love to hate Amazon, the online bookseller – and the Justice Department – may be actually be in the right?

That’s what Thomas Catan argues in a lucid, cogent must-read in the Wall Street Journal titled “Experts Say Government Had Little Choice in E-Books Lawsuit.”

At the root of this criticism is a misperception of the antitrust law, writes Catan.

U.S. antitrust law doesn't seek to protect little companies against big ones, or even struggling ones against successful ones. Companies can grow as large as they want, as long as they do it through lower prices, better service or niftier innovations. Companies can even become monopolies, as long as they don't get there illegally or try to extend their power by unlawfully stifling competition.”

In other words, just because Amazon dominates the book market and drives smaller competitors out of business through its low prices and convenience doesn’t make its actions illegal.

(As Herbert Hovenkamp, a law professor at the University of Iowa, told the Journal, “The goal of antitrust policy is to protect consumer prices. It's not to protect inefficient firms from having to exit the market.”)

What’s more, writes the Journal, “antitrust lawyers scoff at the notion that the Justice Department would refrain from bringing a case if it believes it has solid evidence."

“Price fixing is kind of the first-degree murder of antitrust violations,” Prof. Hovenkamp, told the Journal. “They don't have discretion to just walk away from what appears to be a strong set of facts that, if true, are one of the most central of antitrust violations.”

In fact, the DOJ may already have shown some leniency in bringing a civil, rather than criminal, case against Apple and the five publishers.

Let’s recall what’s at stake here. There are two competing models for distributing books: Amazon’s wholesale model, whereby a publisher sells its goods to a distributor (like Amazon) for a fixed price and the distributor is free to decide the actual price for the public; and Apple’s new agency model, in which publishers set the retail price and the distributer gets a fee (30 percent in the case of Apple).

Despite Sen. Schumer’s comments, Amazon’s pricing system has actually been better for consumers than Apple’s (although it’s not better for publishers, which is why they’re fighting the suit).

When it introduced the Kindle in 2007, Amazon began discounting e-books at its own expense, setting a $9.99 price for new best sellers. By contrast, when Apple launched its iPad in 2010, it shifted the publishing industry to a new system that let publishers control the price for e-books. Under that system, the price of most best sellers rose to $12.99 or $14.99.

“What Amazon does may be harmful to the publishers, but so far it's been very good for consumers,” Spencer Waller, a law professor at Loyola University Chicago, told the Journal.

In this case, the Justice Department may actually be doing consumers a favor.

And as far as the nuts and bolts of the legal suit against Apple, Amazon – at least in this case – appears to be entirely within the bounds of law.

What do you think? Is Amazon morally wrong but legally right?

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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Author Marilynne Robinson says her new collection of essays, 'When I Was a Child, I Read Books,' is partly drawn from talks she's given to conservative Christian audiences. (AP)

Marilynne Robinson: Why are we so afraid?

By Yvonne ZippMonitor fiction critic / 04.24.12

Why are Americans today so afraid, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson wants to know.

“If there have ever been people on earth who should have been able to take a deep breath and say. 'Thank God,' we're the people,” said the author of “Gilead” to an audience of about 2,000 at Calvin College's Festival on Faith & Writing. “Why not enjoy it?”

Instead, she said she sees people hunkering down in psychological bunkers, as if they're living in an alien and hostile land. “There's an increasing normalization of fear in this culture,” said Robinson, who has a new collection of essays, “When I Was a Child, I Read Books.”

“This is not the siege of Paris,” Robinson pointed out.

Robinson's speech echoed a certain president who is not generally beloved by conservative Christians: She sees “the accelerating problem of fear” as one that's causing individuals everywhere to lower the bar on what they can accomplish in their lives. “There are all these anxieties we internalize, and we create a smaller model of ourselves around them.”

As for the Great Recession and the current lukewarm recovery, Robinson asked, “Do we never expect to have a bad time? Every generation or so, something goes haywire. It's human history.”

Robinson said she can't figure out when people decided that previous generations' sacrifices and accomplishments should be used to create a “satin cushion that our generation is supposed to be carried on. It's bizarre. Not to mention not particularly admirable.”

But she said she rejects the notion that the United States is in decline or that our culture is “sprouting mushrooms.”

“I can't idealize an earlier generation of youth,” said Robinson, who sits on the faculty of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. “These people are wonderful.”

Nor is she opposed to technological advances that some see as putting pressure on publishing. “I love the Internet. If I can find out what 17th century colonial law is in Maryland, I'm a happy woman.”

Robinson, who calls herself a Calvinist by adoption, also rejected the fear-mongering she says certain figures have used to co-opt religion in strong terms. “A great deal of what I see among my students is anxiety that is aroused by the identification of religion with exclusivism …. what I think Jesus might have called Phariseeism.”

For example, there's a segment of the population that really detests liberal college professors that teach at secular universities. “That's me,” said Robinson. As far as any plot to destroy Christianity or patriotism goes, “I did not get the memo, I'll tell you that.”

When an audience member Friday morning pointed out that her speech “could have been ghost-written by Bill Moyers and aired on PBS,” and asked how she could have credibility among Fox News-watching conservative Christians, Robinson said, to audience applause: “I don't recognize any other obligation than to say what is true.”

Her new collection, “When I Was a Child, I Read Books,” is partly drawn from talks she's given to conservative Christian audiences, she said. And she's found that, if she's honest about what she believes, they'll listen.

“I think that's how a Christian conversation should proceed.”

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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'Do I regret that some material got left out? It would be really miserly and inappropriate to go into that,' Jonathan Safran Foer said of the movie adaptation of his novel 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.' 'I gave away my right to complain.'

Jonathan Safran Foer: "I'm not so interested in the comforting kind of religion"

By Yvonne ZippMonitor fiction critic / 04.23.12

A Jewish agnostic might not be the most obvious choice as a keynote speaker at a religious conference at a private Christian college named after John Calvin. But Jonathan Safran Foer was one of five “plenary” speakers at Calvin College's Festival on Faith & Writing in Grand Rapids, Mich., along with Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson, Orange Prize winner Chimamanda Ngozi Achidie, Newbery Honor winner Gary D. Schmidt, and activist Shane Claiborne.

In two sessions, April 19 and 20, author Jonathan Safran Foer ranged widely over topics from his love of sculptor Joseph Cornell, why he would be an obstetrician today without his mentor, Joyce Carol Oates; the movie adaptation of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”; and editing the “New American Haggadah.”

Here are a few highlights:

On religion:

“I'm interested in the kind of religion that makes life harder. I'm not so interested in the comforting kind of religion. I'm interested in a religion that forces me to take stock in myself. To ask the hard questions: 'Who am I really and am I the kind of person I wanted to be?' … Whenever religion is used to have it both ways, that makes me uncomfortable.

"Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac – these are the greatest stories ever told – the most important stories in my life. But I do think of them as stories. I don't read Bible literally, or maybe I do: I believe literally in the values spoken. Do I believe Abraham literally took his son Isaac [up on a mountain] to sacrifice him? I don't find that question all that interesting. I do find the undercurrents incredibly interesting and important.”

On the existence of God:

“It's something I continue to think about. I will never come around to idea of an anthropomorphic God.

I'm also uncomfortable with the word God.... I'm agnostic about the answer and I'm agnostic about the question. There's a definition of God that Christopher Hitchens believed in, and a definition of God that the Pope doesn't believe in. If you could put it into words, it wouldn't be God anymore. … I find the process really fulfilling. The endless search and endless wrestling really valuable.”

On prayer:

“I can't imagine praying to God. But I would like to talk about God in a literary way.

What's the best metaphor for God? Is God an author … a character or a reader? Is there a way to think about who God might be?

“It's an ongoing question for me. It's one I think about a lot more now than I used to. I used to dismiss the question. … [But] not in a contemptuous way. That's not how I grew up – I went to Hebrew school twice a week – my family had an immense respect for religion."

On editing the “New American Haggadah,” which came out in March and offers a new translation by Nathan Englander and commentary from Jewish writers including Rebecca Newberger Goldstein and Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket:

Passover is one of the oldest continually told stories and one of the most widely told stories.... The Haggadah is a user's manual for that night.... There are 7,000 published versions. No book has been revised more than the Haggadah.

[In it, it says that] in every generation, each person has to feel like he himself has to be liberated from Egypt. It's so weird, most people gloss over [the passage]. No other book makes such a strong demand. What kind of book could inspire that really radical leap of empathy?”

On writing:

“I never wanted to write a novel that was merely read. Or merely liked or appreciated. Ideally, I want the reader to feel complicit in authorship of the book. There's a certain kind of book where reader sits here [points to audience] and the author sits here. I hate those books....”

What he calls the “11th and 12th Commandments” – “Don't ever change,” and “Change”:

“Kids are a great analogy. You want your kids to grow up, and you don't want your kids to grow up. You want your kids to become independent of you, but it's also a parent's worst nightmare: That they won't need you. It's like the real tragedy of parenting.”

On silence:

“I don't know if I have any interest in preserving silence. I don't know that silence is a very good thing. I think quiet is a very good thing. In my books, silence is not the silence of reflection, serenity, or peace. It's the silence of not being able to communicate. A lot of my writing is about not being able to communicate things in my life.

“When I was young, I thought [writing] was this romantic thing.” Safran Foer went on to say he thought it would be like creating a mountain, by laboring every day to create sentences and “dump off all these sentences into the pile … and everyone would come and see and point to the top of it.

“Instead, I would encounter these holes ... I was [pouring] these sentences into the hole until it was level. Then I would move onto the next hole.

“As I've grown older, I've grown more convinced there's nothing that shouldn't be talked about. If we think we're protecting each other, we're not. … Families pay a huge price by dancing around the subject.”

On having his books turned into movies:

“Would you believe me if I said no?” [When asked if he'd seen the movie versions of his books] “Of course I've seen them! I thought that 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close' was a really moving movie. The last third is really powerful. Do I regret that some material got left out? It would be really miserly and inappropriate to go into that. I gave it away. I didn't give it away [chuckles from audience] but I gave away my right to complain. To split hairs is not in the spirit of what was done.”

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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