"Sabbath's Theater," Philip Roth's novel about a sexually crazed puppeteer confronting his advancing years, became the talk of literary circles in late summer because of its blunt story line and the harsh responses of certain reviewers. Thursday, the buzz continued, as this, Roth's 26th book, was among the finalists announced for the 1995 National Book Awards for fiction, nonfiction and poetry.
"Sabbath's Theater," published by Houghton Mifflin Co., was the best-known novel nominated for the fiction award. The four others included two that focus on the Haitian experience: Madison Smartt Bell's "All Souls' Rising" (Pantheon), a retelling of a slave uprising, and Edwidge Danticat's "Krik? Krak!" (Soho Press), a cycle of nine short stories. Completing the fiction category were Rosario Ferre's "The House on the Lagoon" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a historical novel about Puerto Rico, and Stephen Dixon's "Interstate" (Holt), which deals with parents and violence against children.
The finalists for the nonfiction award were Dennis Covington's "Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia" (Addison-Wesley); Tina Rosenberg's "The Haunted Land: Facing Europe's Ghosts After Communism" (Random House); Maryanne Vollers' "Ghosts of Mississippi: The Murder of Medgar Evers, the Trials of Byron De La Beckwith, and the Haunting of the New South" (Little, Brown); Daniel C. Dennett's "Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life" (Simon & Schuster), and Jonathan Harr's "A Civil Action" (Random House), an account of how eight families took on industrial polluters in Woburn, Mass.
The finalists for the poetry award were: Barbara Howes' "Collected Poems, 1945-1990" (University of Arkansas); Josephine Jacobsen's "In the Crevice of Time" (Johns Hopkins); Donald Justice's "New and Selected Poems" (Knopf); Stanley Kunitz's "Passing Through" (Norton), and Gary Soto's "New and Selected Poems" (Chronicle).
The National Book Awards, sponsored by the National Book Foundation in New York, are among the most prestigious in publishing.
This year's 45th annual awards ceremony is scheduled for Nov. 15 at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan.
A Dream Comes True: On many evenings, on many stages around the country, Frank McCourt has shared the hilarity and the heartache of his life story.
"A Couple of Blaguards," performed through the years by McCourt and his brother, the actor Malachy McCourt, is a musical revue that touches on their Irish boyhood, the early deaths of three siblings, the abandonment by their father and the jolly road from Limerick to New York. Like so many Irish works, the show is very funny and very, very sad.
Meanwhile, Frank McCourt, a teacher until he retired seven years ago, struggled to tell his tale on paper. Urged finally by a filmmaker to write a book from which a screenplay could later be mined, McCourt tried anew.
A friend introduced him to Molly Friedrich, an agent in the Aaron M. Priest Literary Agency in Manhattan. Friedrich showed about 140 pages to Nan Graham, editor in chief of Scribner, the literary division of Simon & Schuster. And Scribner bit.
McCourt signed for an advance of $125,000. In addition, publishers in Brazil, Holland, France and Germany, as well as HarperCollins in Britain, are preparing to bring out the book.
"Angela's Ashes" will be published next fall. Said McCourt: "All of this feels like a dream to me."
You \o7 Have\f7 Seen It Before: Magazines change designs and logos all the time. But U.S. News & World Report has gone back to the future, adding an updated version of the boxed cover logo the newsweekly had dropped in favor of wider lettering two years ago.
"This historical banner carries greater identity for our readers, so we're returning to our roots," Publisher Thomas R. Evans said in a note to readers introducing the change last week.
The switch follows a report, attributed to Mediamark Research Inc., that U.S. News saw a 22% drop in total readership (not to be confused with circulation, which stands at 2.2 million) during the past two years.
On the Racks: Signet's publication of Stephen King's "Los Langoliers" in May, coinciding with the ABC miniseries of "The Langoliers," made the mass-market paperback perhaps the first Spanish-language tie-in. Sales since then are described by Signet as modest, as the publisher joins the list of companies seeking to make inroads into the Spanish-speaking market. This month, Signet continues its reach by publishing the second of four projected King thrillers, "Ventana Secreta, Jardin Secreto" ("Secret Window, Secret Garden"). . . .
These are somber days in some quarters at Times Mirror Magazines, which announced last week that it will shed 125 of the division's 611 employees by the end of the year. Times Mirror is the parent company of the Los Angeles Times.
However, as the TM magazines brace for the changes, one of them, Field & Stream, is celebrating its 100th anniversary with a collector's edition October issue. The 2-million-circulation success story, the leader in the outdoors field, presents some of the best illustrations, photos and pieces that have appeared in its pages, such as Zane Grey's 1911 tale of a tangle with wild pigs.
* Paul D. Colford is a columnist for Newsday. His column is published Fridays.