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Booknews: Will Readers Cry 'Wulf'?
Edited by Judy Quinn -- 2/14/00
Heaney's new translation and upcoming Miramax film shine a spotlight on 1,100-year-old epic

"Just don't take any course where they make you read Beowulf," says Woody Allen to Diane Keaton in Annie Hall.

Indeed, the 1,100-year-old Anglo-Saxon epic p m, a staple in English literature courses, rarely catches fire with readers as, d s say, The Catcher in the Rye.

But thanks to a newsmaking new translation and a Miramax film adaptation coming this year, the time may be ripe for readers to revisit the story of warrior prince Beowulf and his quest to slay the dreaded monster, Grendel.

Last month, Seamus Heaney's new translation of the p m won Britain's top Whitbread Prize, and FSG, publisher of the U.S. edition, which g s on sale February 23, claims some momentum thanks to the book's new high profile: the house just went back for an additional 5,000 prepublication copies to supplement its already ambitious-for-p try 15,000-copy first printing of the 208-page, $25 hardcover. Books will now be stickered with notice of the award win. Nobel Prize-winning Irish p t Heaney is also expected to come over to the U.S. in March, allowing for some extra promotion (plans not yet set).

FSG is encouraging booksellers to put the book in the front of the store rather than in p try sections. It's certainly already front of mind in Britain, having prompted some heated literary debate as the Whitbread (as well as the U.K.'s South Bank show Award) came down to Heaney and J.K. Rowling for her if-you-don't-know-it-by-now-go-back-to-the-cave blockbuster Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (see News, Feb 7).

Rowling (who won against Heaney the third time around at the Boston Book Awards) certainly d sn't need to worry about sales, but all the British backbiting, which has received international coverage, has helped catapult Heaney's book to the top of Amazon.com's U.K. bestseller list, with some 75,000 copies now in print of the Faber & Faber U.K. edition.

But even those critical Brits hope Heaney revives readers' interest in the Beowulf saga. In addition to the various Beowulf translations, including Heaney's, the London newspaper the Independent recently recommended Grendel, John Gardner's 1971 classic novel written from the monster's point of view (available in a Vintage 1989 paperback edition), as well as David Wright's prose translation of the p m (available in a 1957 Penguin Classics edition) as worthwhile adjunct reading. And since Heaney originally was commissioned to do his translation for the Norton Anthology of English Literature, readers will find it in that anthology's seventh edition, just out now, as well.

Penguin spokeswoman Maureen Donnelly told PW that Beowulf sells close to 70,000 copies annually in its three different editions.

But perhaps what will bring even more new readers to Beowulf will be the upcoming Miramax film adaptation, set to arrive by the end of the year, with Christopher Lambert in the title role. But a Miramax spokesman told PW the film is only "inspired" by the Beowulf story, reflecting some of the perennial ambivalence Americans have toward this classic tale.

Hoping for 'Holiday' Sales

Originally scheduled to hit stores in May, David Margolick's Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society and an Early Cry for Civil Rights, is now being bumped up to an April 7 pub date by Running Press.

The Philly-based publisher decided this new release date made better publicity sense, since it commemorates what would have been Holiday's 85th birthday. (Among other publishers tying into this occasion is Da Capo Press, which will be reissuing Robert O'Meally's award-winning 1991 biography Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday in June.)

Running Press is now particularly jazzed for its book following some great and unforeseen pre-pub publicity: on December 31, Time magazine picked "Strange Fruit," the civil rights ballad that's the focus of lawyer-turned-journalist Margolick's 144-page small-sized hardcover, as the best song of the century. The new accolade for the song and the new tie-in has already lead to more expansive media bookings for the book, including author appearances on NPR's Fresh Air as well as Charlie Rose. An auction for paperback rights is now being planned.

But just how did Running Press win a book by a four-time Pulitzer Prize nominee previously published by Morrow (Undue Influence: The Epic Battle for the Johnson & Johnson Fortune) and S&S (At the Bar: The Passions and Peccadill s of American Lawyers)? Associate publisher Carlo De Vito just asked after he read Margolick's article on the subject in the September 1998 issue of Vanity Fair.

The book significantly expands on that original article, and now includes the story of the song's composer, Abel Meeropol (aka Lewis Allen), a white, Jewish schoolteacher and Communist sympathizer from the Bronx, who is perhaps better remembered for adopting the orphaned sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The book also includes a foreword by New Yorker writer Hilton Als.

'Enemy' Makes Friends

This title is currently not available" is what Amazon.com's site was saying recently about Tim Binding's Lying with the Enemy, a November 1999 release from Carroll & Graf.

But not to worry; a new 5,000-copy shipment is now making its way to both online and bricks-and-mortar outlets to fill the orders for this murder mystery/love triangle/thriller set on the British isle of Guernsey, which was occupied by the Nazis during WWII.

Carroll & Graf's Kent Carroll is pleased to have now almost doubled the copies in print of this book, which is selling well thanks to some recent good review notices, most notably in the New York Times Book Review on January 2, which helped to drive the book briefly to #17 on Amazon.com's Hot 100.

While overall sales are not what might attract a larger trade house, Carroll said Lying with the Enemy is the kind of book he can publish well, and with a reasonable profit. In fact, Carroll grabbed this book, a third novel from the German-born (1947), British-based Binding, a former Pan and Penguin publishing executive, after other trade houses had passed. Binding previously wrote In the Kingdom of Air (Norton, 1994), a novel about the angst and affairs of a middle-aged BBC weatherman, which at one point was a contender for the Booker Prize; and A Perfect Execution (Doubleday, 1996), the imagining of the life of one of the last professional hangmen in 1960s Britain. Both books are currently out of print.

Carroll said a disproportionate number of orders for Lying with the Enemy (previously published in the U.K. under the title Island Madness) are from independent bookstores. That d sn't surprise him, since he believes the book is the kind of sophisticated hybrid that may be hard to categorize but is the perfect handsell.

"It's not only an intelligent thriller but raises a lot of moral issues as well," Carroll said. The saga of British police inspector Ned Luscombe's investigation of the murder of a local girl who was involved with the local German commander is "the kind of book you'd recommend to fans of le Carre or Deighton," Carroll.

Binding's story also recalls another popular WWII thriller, Ken Follett's Eye of the Needle, which was turned into a memorable film. That could be the case also for Lying with the Enemy, as Binding, who recently developed BBC series The Last Salute with Men Behaving Badly creator Simon Nye, is now working on a screenplay of his novel for a British producer.

A 'Spirited' Debut

People are wondering how John McCain pulled off his victory over George W. Bush [in the recent New Hampshire primary]," said author A.E. Jeffcoat. "They can find the answer in Spirited Americans."

Jeffcoat is, of course, the author of this recently self-published book, and wants to promote it..

But his historical analysis, which reminds readers the United States was built by those with optimistic vision has, like the McCain's candidacy, struck a chord with the American public.

Produced by Bainbridge Island, Wash.-based Jeffcoat under his own Winslow House Books imprint and distributed by Midpoint Trade Books, Spirited Americans is now going back for an as-yet-undetermined third printing that will most likely more than double the current 12,000 copies in print.

The surprise momentum for a title that originally had only a 2,000-copy release follows a strong endorsement by radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh on December 22. Limbaugh praised the book several times that day, helping to catapult it briefly on the top of Amazon.com's Hot 100 list. On January 17, the book also received a major review in the Wall Street Journal, which noted, "We can be grateful to Mr. Jeffcoat for reminding us of what America used to be like before the cultural rot set in, and of what it can still be again, when the spirit moves it."

Jeffcoat is a former longtime WSJ journalist, so perhaps a review there was inevitable. But the author claims no connection to Limbaugh, saying the conservative host was merely a name on a mailing list he bought from self-publishing guru Dan Poynter.

Indeed, in his pioneering positivism to produce this book, Jeffcoat himself embodies his own Spirited Americans ideal, traced in his book throughout U.S. history in real-life figures ranging from little-known frontierswoman Sarah Royce to Ronald Reagan.

Initially given the runaround by an agent (who wanted to tinker with some of the politics of the decidedly pro-Reagan, anti-Clinton tome) and a publisher (S&S seemed interested but ultimately passed), Jeffcoat decided to check out the do-it-yourself option. Attendance at a Pacific Northwest Book Publishers Group meeting led him to Steve Herold, who runs Seattle bookstore Wit's End, the online publishing venture Books A to Z and a book publishing/design firm called Laser Graphics.

Herold helped him design the book, and Jeffcoat is particularly proud of the book's attractive cover art, reproductions by frontier painters John Clymer and Thomas Hart Benton.

Next on this media-savvy self-published author's agenda:foreign rights deals. Jeffcoat counters pessimistic presumptions about that latter prospect with a jacket blurb from a French bookseller acquaintance praising the book.

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