UNBROKEN Breaking Everywhere

Laura Hillenbrand’s second book after her mega seller Seabiscuit is breaking records for media attention in advance of its release tomorrow. Library holds are growing on modest orders, so the issue now how many more copies to order.

Newsweek asks the central question, Can Laura Hillenbrand Top Seabiscuit?, and answers with a resounding “yes,”

Unbroken is wonderful twice over, for the tale it tells and for the way it’s told. A better book than Seabiscuit, it manages maximum velocity with no loss of subtlety. With a jeweler’s eye for a detail that makes a story live, Hillenbrand compresses pages of explanation into a paragraph and sometimes just a line. Even the planes come alive. One pilot describing what it was like to fly the unwieldy B-24s compares it to “sitting on the front porch and flying the house.”

But this doesn’t address how many readers will be willing to live through the book’s detailed descriptions of suffering. The hero of the story, Louis Zamperini, survives 47 excruciating days at sea after his WWII bomber crashes, only to be “rescued” by the Japanese and endure 2 more years of captivity in a brutal POW camp.

Janet Maslin, in today’s NYT says Unbroken tells a “much more harrowing, less heart-warming story” than did Seabiscuit and notes, “there’s a limit to how many times Ms. Hillenbrand can present a man-socks-shark-in-the-nose anecdote before it begins to get old.” But even so, she says, the book “manages to be as exultant as Seabiscuit.”

Hillenbrand, herself, addresses the differing appeal of the two books in the Wall Street Journal,

“Seabiscuit’s story is one of accomplishment. Louie’s is one of survival. Seabiscuit’s story played out before the whole world. Louie dealt with his ordeal essentially alone. His was a mental struggle.” That struggle, she adds, feels particularly resonant in 2010. “This is a time when people need to be buoyed by something, and Louie blows breath into people by making them realize that they can overcome more than they think.”

Our take; libraries that have ordered modestly should order more copies now as demand will be driven by the book’s considerable publicity (upcoming this week; the Today Show, NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday, as well as the NYT BR). Will you need even more? That depends on whether readers are put off by the grimmer scenes, or whether they see it as a story of “survival, resilience and redemption” as the book’s subtitle describes it.

Will Unbroken follow Seabiscuit to the big screen? That would seem a no-brainer, but there are some sticky rights issues that have to be worked out, as outlined in the Wall Street Journal. Mr. Zamperini is still living (at 93, he is excited about promoting the book. Ironically, he is better equipped to do so than Hillenbrand, who suffers from chronic fatique syndrom). Universal optioned both Zamperini’s “life rights,” and his own earlier autobiography, Devil at My Heels, first in the 1950’s, with plans to star Tony Curtis and again in the 1990’s with Nicholas Cage in mind. It seems Universal still has the rights to the autobiography, although Zamperini says he’d rather they base the movie on Hillenbrand’s book.

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