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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.

Yahya Hassan's poetry has become wildly popular in Denmark. (Jacob Ehrbahn/AP)

Meet Yahya Hassan, the Danish-Palestinian teen poet sensation

By Husna Haq / 04.04.14

It’s the story of a Danish-Palestinian teenager who has seemingly lived a lifetime in his 18 years: abused as a child, he is a ward of the state who finds a voice in poetry, becomes a surprise success in Denmark described as a cross between Rumi and Eminem, but the same verse criticizing his family, country, and religion earns him adulation as well as death threats.

His name is Yahya Hassan and he’s become a Danish literary sensation of sorts.

First, the numbers: Hassan, at a mere 18 years, penned a poetry collection with a first print run of 800 that has since sold more than 100,000 copies in a country with a population the size of Miami. It has also brought him at least 30 death threats, 1 attempted assault, and widespread attention.

His work is an eloquent declaration of his abhorrence for “the Danish welfare state, his family, and Danish Muslims at large for hypocrisy, cheating, and failure to adapt,” as the New York Times put it, words that have brought him a mixed bag of reactions: commercial success from mainstream Danes, death threats from Muslim extremists, and “a dubious embrace by right-wing politicians.”  

His work is a curious mix. Written only in capital letters, his verse has been described as one of “abrupt clarity,” while the contours of his subject matter – his life – remains mystery.

According to clues pieced together by the NYT and International Herald Tribune, Hassan spent his early childhood in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, moved to Denmark, and experienced trouble at home. He was a difficult child with an abusive father who, according to Hassan’s own verse, displayed violence at home and tenderness at the mosque. By age 13, Hassan was such a menace to his family at home and society at large – he dropped out of school and was engaged in petty burglaries and low-level drug dealing – he became a ward of the state, passing through a series of Danish institutions. The result: a searing bitterness toward the state, his family, Muslim immigrants, and Islam as a whole, all of which burns through the pages of his controversial verse.

His journey to poetry is unclear, though reports have hinted at various entrees – long periods of isolation in which he discovered literature, a government-run hip hop workshop, a teacher who recognizes his talent and encouraged Hassan to write.

His poetry is typically rife with profanity and graphic depictions of his life and experience.

Poems like “Childhood” and “Disgusted” deal with issues like the immigrant ghettoes, the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, religion, and child abuse. 

In “A Radius of 100 Meters,” he “provides a depressing panorama view of a few thousand square meters of ghetto life, describing his father’s violence as well as his social security fraud,” according to the Tribune.

“Long Poem” hints at the hypocrisy of Muslims, pointing to superficial displays of faith betrayed by amateur acts of vigilantism.

Muslims – and Muslim immigrants in Europe – are his main target.

“He finds particular fault with the ways their lives in Denmark are circumscribed — as are those of so many modern immigrants — by clinging to the remote control that brings satellite TV, in this case Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera, to their living rooms,” reports the Times.

“There’s something wrong with Islam,” Hassan told the Wall Street Journal. “The religion refuses to renew itself.” It needs a “reformation,” he said.

It has raised eyebrows – a Muslim-born immigrant Dane and self-professed atheist, taking aim at Muslims in a country where cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad fanned intense passion and protest in 2005.

It has also made Hassan, a Muslim immigrant turning on his religion and “his people,” a darling among Danes.

“I knew when I would tell my story would break many taboos and many people would get offended and my parents would get angry,” he told the WSJ. “But my premise was that I would have to tell it as it is.”

Few poets are as surprising or as polarizing as Hassan: Depending on who’s reading, he is a hero, a traitor, a genius, an angry kid.

For readers who think they’ve got him figured out, however, Hassan has another message. 

“What I write, that’s my identity, that’s who I am,” he said in another interview. “But that doesn’t mean I am the way my readers think I am. The reading depends on the individual reader, the reader’s reality. I’m not responsible for the interpretation.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

'Game of Thrones' stars Natalie Dormer (l.) and Diana Rigg (r.). (Macall B. Polay/HBO/AP)

Kind of creepy: 'Game of Thrones' generator gives you a Westeros death

By Staff Writer / 04.04.14

The HBO drama “Game of Thrones” is notorious for the number of characters it kills off and the way it axes characters viewers think must be safe.

So, with the show set to return for its fourth season on Sunday, April 6, the website Vulture has created a “Game of Thrones” Death Generator.

“If you were to suddenly find yourself in the Seven Kingdoms, how might you meet your maker?” Vulture writers Margaret Lyons, Justin McCraw, Josh Wolk, and Aaron Pederson write. “Disease? Warfare? Being tossed into a giant hole? Oh, there are so many ways to go.”

The generator has you click to find out what nasty end you would meet with in Westeros. This writer became “dragon lunch.”

Visitors to the site should be advised that the generator reflects some of the adult content on “Game of Thrones.”

Bryan Cranston will reportedly write a memoir that will include thoughts on his time working on the acclaimed TV show 'Breaking Bad.' (Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

'Breaking Bad' actor Bryan Cranston will write a memoir

By Staff Writer / 04.04.14

Breaking Bad” fans, your favorite show may be over, but you still have something left to look forward to.

“Bad” star Bryan Cranston has announced he will be writing a memoir that will include reflections on his time working on the AMC drama.

“Walter White taught me a lot — some of it useful, some of it dangerous," Cranston said in a statement about his famous role. "With this book, I want to tell the stories of my life and reveal the secrets and lies that I lived with for six years shooting 'Breaking Bad.'”

The book will be released by Scribner in the fall of 2015, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Cranston received three Best Actor Emmy Awards for his role as Walter White. The show also secured the Best Drama award in 2013 and “Bad” actress Anna Gunn received the Best Supporting Actress prize.

Sen. Ted Cruz speaks in Des Moines, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Ted Cruz will write a memoir (+video)

By Husna Haq / 04.03.14

If the laws of political memoir-writing are correct, Ted Cruz is running in the next presidential election cycle.

That’s because the Republican Senator from Texas has signed on to write a political memoir with HarperCollins, and as we have learned from election cycles past, party hopeful + political memoir = presidential run.

And if Sen. Cruz’s advance is any indication, folks have confidence in the Tea Party darling: A report in the Washington Examiner listed his advance at $1.5 million, and while literary agent Keith Urbahn declined to confirm the report, he has said the number is “close.”

“The advance would be the biggest for a conservative politician in years, even more than the $1.25 million that former 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin received after her sensational rise in Republican politics,” the Examiner reported. 

HarperCollins reportedly won out in a four-day book auction last weekend in which several publishing giants – including St. Martin’s, Simon & Schuster, and Newsmax – fought to sign on the high-profile senator.

The book, as yet unwritten and untitled, will cover Cruz’s past as well as his vision for Washington and the future of the country.

"I'm looking forward to the opportunity to share my story and to tell the truth about what's happening in Washington," Cruz told The Associated Press.

"We're having a national debate right now about the direction our country should go, and I am eager to participate in that debate through any medium possible. And a book can serve as an effective vehicle for conveying the positive hopeful optimistic vision for America that I believe together can turn this nation around."

One of the party’s most popular, yet polarizing figures, Cruz is the first Hispanic senator from Texas. Elected in 2012, he is also a Tea Party favorite and an outspoken player in several major Washington fights, including last year’s government shutdown and efforts to repeal Obamacare.

With his book deal, Cruz establishes himself as a likely 2016 presidential candidate, joining former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Wis. Rep. Paul Ryan, Fl. Ky. Sen. Marco Rubio, and Sen. Rand Paul, all of whom have forthcoming or already-published books.

Now if we could only get statistician-extraordinaire Nate Silver to determine the correlation, if any, between book advances and sales and success in the presidential primary.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

'Eleanor & Park' is by Rainbow Rowell.

Young adult novel 'Eleanor & Park' will become a movie

By Staff Writer / 04.03.14

Rainbow Rowell’s bestselling young adult novel “Eleanor & Park” is reportedly coming to the big screen.

The movie of “Eleanor” will be released by DreamWorks Studios and Rowell will be writing the screenplay for the film, according to Entertainment Weekly.

“Every girl who has read it says, ‘That was me in high school, or 'That was me in 7th grade,'" DreamWorks president of production Holly Bario said of the protagonist of Rowell’s novel in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “It reminded all of us of our own sort of awkwardness, or family dysfunction.”

According to EW, DreamWorks hopes to begin filming the movie in 2015.

“Eleanor” was released in 2013 and is still at number 10 on the New York Times Young Adult bestseller list for the week of April 6. Monitor young adult fiction critic Katie W. Beim-Esche called Rowell’s novel “intense and lyrical” and writes that Rowell “writes with the witty wonderment of someone experiencing love for the first time” with a “marvelous, clear voice.”

“Observant,” Beim-Esche wrote. “Incisive. Tense, yet buoyant with hope. ‘Eleanor & Park’ is constructed like a Swiss watch: tightly knit and perfectly paced. This book is well-deserving of its status as 2013’s best young adult novel.”

'The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry' is by Gabrielle Zevin.

Independent bookstore workers embrace Gabrielle Zevin's 'The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry'

By Staff Writer / 04.03.14

When the main character of a new novel is the owner of an independent bookstore, perhaps it’s no surprise that indie stores are embracing the book.

And many bookstore employees are expressing enthusiasm for Gabrielle Zevin’s new novel “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry,” which was just released on April 1 but already seems to be everywhere in the indie book world. “Fikry” follows the title character, who is the owner of a bookstore called Island Books. A.J. is struggling personally after the death of his wife and the slow slide of sales at his store, but many members of the community on Alice Island, where his store is located, refuse to give up on him and the arrival of a strange package is about to change his life.

“Fikry” debuted this week at number six on the IndieBound bestseller list and IndieBound chose the book as the number one pick for its April Indie Next list, with Daniel Goldin, a worker at Wisconsin’s Boswell Book Company, calling it “a romantic comedy, a spiritual journey… it’s a celebration of books and the people who read them, write them, and sell them.”

Other reviews have been fairly good, with Washington Post writer Keith Donohue calling it “an entertaining novel, modest in its scope, engaging and funny without being cloying or sentimental,” though Donohue said that “here and there, one’s suspension of disbelief is tested.” Meanwhile, Publishers Weekly wrote that “Zevin is a deft writer, clever and witty, and her affection for the book business is obvious,” though PW called one part of the plot “somewhat unbelievabl[e]” and “predictabl[e].” Kirkus Reviews found it to be “a likable literary love story about selling books and finding love,” though the critic noted that “Zevin writes characters of a type, certainly, but ones who nonetheless inspire empathy.”

However, indie bookstore workers were already loving the novel all the way back in January, when Michael Link, a worker at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, told industry newsletter Shelf Awareness that staff at both the Kentucky and Ohio locations of the store had read the book and loved it. “The writing is top-notch and the story, set in a small bookstore, is wonderful,” he said.

More recently, California’s Rakestraw Books decided to take a gamble on a recent rainy day and chose “Fikry” as the book they wanted to gamble on. After two days of slow sales, owner Michael Barnard told Shelf Awareness they really needed a good sales day on March 26, so were discouraged when it started raining that day. Rain usually meant slow days at the store. So staff came up with an idea: if customers who lived in one of a few towns nearby ordered “Fikry,” Rakestraw Books workers would deliver it to their home that day. Barnard said his staff had all read Zevin’s book and were all enthusiastic about it.

“It's the perfect rainy day read,” he said of the book. “Making the offer drew a lot of attention. And the response has been great, very validating and affirming. People have said they read the book and loved it, and that it was a fun promotion.”

In Illinois, Anderson’s Bookshops staff liked the book enough to make it a focus of an April Fool’s Day joke – workers transformed both locations in Downers Grove and Naperville into A.J.’s store, Island Books, for the day, complete with signs reading “New owner!” and a fake biography of the “new owner,” A.J., on the store’s website. Their embrace of the novel isn’t over: throughout the month of April, customers can take a photo with a basket with a doll inside, representing the toddler A.J. finds in his store. Those who put the photo of themselves with the doll on social media could win a T-shirt and signed copy of the book from Anderson’s and head up the line when Zevin comes to the store at the end of April.

Flea (center) performs at the Super Bowl with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bruno Mars, and Mars' band. (Matt York/AP)

Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea will write a memoir

By Staff Writer / 04.02.14

Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea will reportedly write a memoir. 

Flea, who was born Michael Balzary, has been a member of the band since it was founded (the group released a self-titled debut in 1984). According to the book’s publisher, Grand Central Publishing, Flea’s book will focus on his “young, rebellious life on the streets of L.A. where he befriends Anthony Kiedis and founds the Red Hot Chili Peppers with Kiedis and two other high school friends; details about his sometimes complex friendship and collaboration with Kiedis; his myriad experiences with hard drugs; and, of course, the tumultuous creative journey” of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. 

In a statement, Flea said that he thinks of books as “sacred” and that he has a desire to “honor the form that has played such a huge part in shaping who I am.”

A release date for the book has not yet been announced.

'Divergent' stars Shailene Woodley (l.) and Theo James (r.). (Jaap Buitendijk/Summit Entertainment/AP)

'Divergent' summer camp will be held in Illinois

By Staff Writer / 04.02.14

Fans of the “Divergent” series by Veronica Roth can read the books and immerse themselves in Roth’s world via the new film adaptation of the first book in the series. And now Illinois devotees will have the chance to live in Roth’s world (the more benign aspects of it, anyway).

Anderson’s Bookshops, which is based in Naperville, Ill., has created a five-day camp session for “Divergent” fans that will be held this summer at a museum near the store called Naper Settlement. Three of the five-day sessions will be held in June, July, and August, respectively.

During the camp, which is aimed at tweens and teens, according to Publishers Weekly, campers will participate in activities based on the factions in Roth’s books. For example, one day will highlight the Abnegation faction, members of which are known for their selflessness in “Divergent,” and campers will compile food packages to send to Africa. On a day centering on the Erudite faction, whose members are known for their intelligence, campers will work on brain teasers. The day centering on the Candor faction will have local politicians tell campers the importance of morality and Amity Day will find them planting vegetables. On the day focusing on the Dauntless faction, the group to which “Divergent” heroine Tris belongs, campers will learn mixed martial arts.

Campers will also discuss other dystopian novels like the “In the After” series by Demitria Lunetta and the “Testing” books by Joelle Charbonneau, said Anderson’s Bookshops co-owner Becky Anderson, who told PW that Charbonneau and Lunetta will hopefully stop by the camp and that Roth herself might even make an appearance (no definite answer from the author yet, though).

Anderson said she got the idea for the sessions after hearing about the camps sponsored by the indie bookstore BookPeople, which is based in Austin, Texas. The store has hosted a camp based on Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson” series for the past seven years, in addition to hosting a camp centered around the “Ranger’s Apprentice” books by John Flanagan for the past four.

As for the camp based on Roth's books, “by the time you’re done with the week, you’re definitely Divergent,” Anderson said, referencing the status in which residents of Roth’s world belong to more than one faction. “You’ll learn something in the process and have a great time.”

Siblings Autumn (l.) and Rye (r.) Joyner read a book at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vt. (George Levines)

No time to peruse a book? Not to worry – speed-reading is back (+video)

By Husna Haq / 04.01.14

Dust off your smartphones, folks, speed reading is back.

Considering the factors, it was bound to happen sooner or later. The flood of information competing for readers’ eyeballs each day, combined with the technology we use to read everything from novels to news – smartphones, computer screens, tablets, e-readers – has led to a revival in the art of speed reading, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.

“Reading these days is often a few minutes on the phone in the grocery-store line, not an hour curled up with a book on the couch. This quick-hit reading is sparking a renewed interest in the art of speed reading,” reports the Journal.

Most of the reading done today – and this includes news, blogs, and other online material – is on mobile devices and in 10-minute bursts, according to e-reading subscription services, as reported by the WSJ.

It’s only appropriate, then, that this time around, the trend is brought to us by the very 21st-century tool of the app. A crop of new apps, including Spritz, Velocity, AccelaReader, and Rooster, are popping up, training readers to read more, faster. 

First, consider an average reader’s reading speed. The average college graduate reads at about 250 words per minute, according to Michael Masson, professor of psychology at the University of Victoria in Canada. That’s compared with the 80 words per minute that the average 7-year-old reads and the 185 words per minute read by the average sixth-grader. 

According to the founders of speed reading apps, those who use speed-reading apps can boost their speeds to between 300 and 500 words per minute, depending on their starting speed and the training speeds they choose. 

How do these apps work?

Most of the apps, like Spritz, use “rapid serial visual presentation,” or “RSVP,” in which words are flashed on the screen at rapid speeds, according to a preset rate determined by the user. So if a user was reading a Christian Science Monitor article on Spritz (most of the apps are designed to help people read news, as opposed to novels, faster), the app would flash one word at a time on the screen at a very high rate, say, 400 words per minute.

As the Journal’s report notes, the technology behind Spritz and other speed reading apps “is based on the premise that a lot of reading time is wasted by moving our eyes back and forth.”

That’s why traditional speed reading training encourages readers to pretend there is a vertical line down the center of a passage in a book and to keep eyes trained there, rather than waste time scanning from left to right on each line.

Not surprisingly, however, it turns out speed reading damages comprehension. In one study conducted by Keith Rayner, a psychology professor at the University of California-San Diego, comprehension accuracy dropped from 75 percent after reading at a natural pace, down to 50 percent after speed reading.

Want to quickly read long novels and keep your comprehension high?

There’s an app for that. Rooster, a $4.99-a-month subscription service, sends users a 15-minute chunk of a novel every day. A new novel, such as Leo Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata,” is chosen by the Rooster team each month. 

Accomplishing a novel a month by reading on your smartphone 15 minutes each day? That’s the sort of speed reading we can get behind.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

Ryan Avery is the co-author of 'Speaker, Leader, Champion.'

Author Ryan Avery aims to set record for number of books signed

By Staff Writer / 04.01.14

Writer Ryan Avery had better be doing some hand-strengthening exercises.

Avery, co-author with Jeremey Donovan of the book “Speaker, Leader, Champion,” is hoping to set a new record in number of books signed for the Guinness Book of World Records. Avery aims to sign 5,000 copies of the book which is being published on April 18.

Avery will be signing the copies at a bookstore at Colorado State University on April 16 and money from the event is "support[ing] scholarship through the Alumni Association," according to the CSU website. The author has said that all involved with the event will have their names in his next work.

The record for most books ever signed is currently held by writer Sammy Lee, a Chinese author who scrawled his signature on 4,649 versions of his book “Autopilot Leadership Model” in China in 2013.

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