Annal: 1996 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography

Results of the National Book Critics Circle Award in the year 1996.

Book:Angela's Ashes: A Memoir

Angela's Ashes: A Memoir

Frank McCourt

“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

So begins the luminous memoir of Frank McCourt, born in Depression-era Brooklyn to recent Irish immigrants and raised in the slums of Limerick, Ireland. Frank’s mother, Angela, has no money to feed the children since Frank’s father, Malachy, rarely works, and when he does he drinks his wages. Yet Malachy—exasperating, irresponsible and beguiling— does nurture in Frank an appetite for the one thing he can provide: a story. Frank lives for his father’s tales of Cuchulain, who saved Ireland, and of the Angel on the Seventh Step, who brings his mother babies. …[more]

Book:Charles Ives

Charles Ives: A Life With Music

Jan Swafford

This penetrating study illuminates the life and works of the enigmatic composer/insurance executive Charles Ives, whose experimental works profoundly influenced the course of American classical music in the twentieth century. In his rich and colorful biography, Jan Swafford, himself an established composer, looks at this towering, paradoxical figure and finds the consistencies lying beneath the protean surface. Using what he calls an “Ivesian” approach, Swafford sees the music and the life as forming a single story; one that is firmly rooted in Ives’s Yankee background. Thus the book unfolds with a brief history of Ives’s Connecticut hometown of Danbury, then describes Civil War band music, and finally draws a fascinating portrait of George Ives, Charles’s remarkable father and musical mentor. We follow Ives to Yale and then to his early years in New York, as he becomes at once a composer of conventional church anthems, an unprecedented innovator in musical technique, and a rising insurance executive. After skillfully evoking the sights and sounds that influenced the composer and his music, Swafford weaves together Ives the businessman and Ives the musical explorer, always keeping the discussion of the works at a nontechnical level.

Book:The Last Happy Occasion

The Last Happy Occasion

Alan Shapiro

The Last Happy Occasion is the coming-of-age story of an American Jew and aspiring writer in the sixties and seventies. In this memoir in six movements, Alan Shapiro recalls how poetry helped him make sense of his own and other people’s lives. Events unfold, including his sister’s death, that make him reconsider the transformative power of art and accept the limitations of poetry in confronting the untransformable pain of mortal loss.

A refreshingly honest, lovingly crafted work, The Last Happy Occasion is a treasure map for anyone interested in exploring the intersections of life and art.

Book:Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn

Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn

David Hajdu

Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967) was one of the most accomplished composers in the history of American music, the creator of a body of work that includes such standards as “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Lush Life,” and “Something to Live For.” Yet all his life Strayhorn was overshadowed by another great composer: his employer, friend, and collaborator, Duke Ellington, with whom he worked as the Ellington Orchestra’s ace songwriter and arranger.

Lush Life, David Hajdu’s sensitive and moving biography of Strayhorn, is a corrective to decades of patchwork scholarship and journalism about this giant of jazz. It is also a vibrant, absorbing account of the “lush life” led by Strayhorn and other jazz musicians in Harlem and Paris. A musical prodigy who began a career as a composer while still a teenager in Pittsburgh, Strayhorn came to New York City at Duke Ellington’s invitation in 1939; soon afterward he wrote “Take the ‘A’ Train,”…[more]

Book:Pearl S. Buck

Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography

Peter Conn

Pearl Buck was one of the most renowned, interesting, and controversial figures ever to influence American and Chinese cultural and literary history—yet she remains one of the least studied, honored, or remembered. Peter Conn’s Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography sets out to reconstruct Buck’s life and significance, and to restore this remarkable woman to visibility.

Born into a missionary family, Pearl Buck lived the first half of her life in China and was bilingual from childhood. Although she is best known, perhaps, as the prolific author of The Good Earth and as a winner of the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes, Buck in fact led a career that extended well beyond her eighty works of fiction and nonfiction and deep into the public sphere. Passionately committed to the cause of social justice, she was active in the American civil rights and women’s rights movements; she also founded the first international adoption agency. She was an outspoken advocate of racial understanding, vital as a cultural…[more]

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