Annal: 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography

Results of the National Book Critics Circle Award in the year 2009.

Book:Cheever: A Life

Cheever: A Life

Blake Bailey

From the acclaimed author of A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates comes the unforgettable life of John Cheever (1912–1982), a man who spent much of his career impersonating a perfect suburban gentleman, the better to become one of the foremost chroniclers of postwar America. “I was born into no true class,” Cheever mused in his journal, “and it was my decision, early in life, to insinuate myself into the middle class, like a spy, so that I would have an advantageous position of attack, but I seem now and then to have forgotten my mission and to have taken my disguises too seriously.” Written with unprecedented access to essential sources—including Cheever’s massive journal, only a fraction of which has ever been published—Blake Bailey’s biography reveals the troubled but strangely lovable man behind the disguises, an artist who delighted in the everyday radiance of the world while yearning, above all, “to be illustrious.” …[more]

Book:Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone

Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone

Stanislao G. Pugliese

One of the major figures of twentieth-century European literature, Ignazio Silone (1900–78) is the subject of this award-winning new biography by the noted Italian historian Stanislao G. Pugliese. A founding member of the Italian Communist Party, Silone took up writing only after being expelled from the PCI and garnered immediate success with his first book, Fontamara, the most influential and widely translated work of antifascism in the 1930s. In World War II, the U.S. Army printed unauthorized versions of it, along with Silone’s Bread and Wine, and distributed them throughout Italy during the country’s Nazi occupation. During the cold war, he was an outspoken opponent of Soviet oppression and was twice considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Twenty years after his death, Silone was the object of controversy when reports arose indicating that he had been an informant…[more]

Book:Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor

Brad Gooch

The landscape of American literature was fundamentally changed when Flannery O’Connor stepped onto the scene with her first published book, Wise Blood, in 1952. Her fierce, sometimes comic novels and stories reflected the darkly funny, vibrant, and theologically sophisticated woman who wrote them. Brad Gooch brings to life O’Connor’s significant friendships—with Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, Walker Percy, and James Dickey among others—and her deeply felt convictions, as expressed in her communications with Thomas Merton, Elizabeth Bishop, and Betty Hester. Hester was famously known as “A” in O’Connor’s collected letters, The Habit of Being, and a large cache of correspondence to her from O’Connor was made available to scholars, including Brad Gooch, in 2006. O’Connor’s capacity to live fully—despite the chronic disease that eventually confined her to her mother’s farm in Georgia—is illuminated in this engaging and authoritative biography.

Book:Passing Strange

Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line

Martha A. Sandweiss

The secret double life of the man who mapped the American West, and the woman he loved.

Clarence King is a hero of nineteenth century western history; a brilliant scientist and witty conversationalist, best-selling author and architect of the great surveys that mapped the West after the Civil War. Secretary of State John Hay named King “the best and brightest of his generation.” But King hid a secret from his Gilded Age cohorts and prominent family in Newport: for thirteen years he lived a double life—as the celebrated white explorer, geologist and writer Clarence King and as a black Pullman porter and steel worker named James Todd. The fair blue-eyed son of a wealthy China trader passed across the color line, revealing his secret to his black common- law wife, Ada Copeland, only on his deathbed.

King lied because he wanted to and he lied because he had to. To marry his wife in a public way—as the white man known…[more]

Book:Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector

Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector

Benjamin Moser

That rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf, Clarice Lispector is one of the most popular but least understood of Latin American writers. Now, after years of research on three continents, drawing on previously unknown manuscripts and dozens of interviews, Benjamin Moser demonstrates how Lispector’s art was directly connected to her turbulent life. Born amidst the horrors of post-World War I Ukraine, Clarice’s beauty, genius, and eccentricity intrigued Brazil virtually from her adolescence. Why This World tells how this precocious girl, through long exile abroad and difficult personal struggles, matured into a great writer, and asserts, for the first time, the deep roots in the Jewish mystical tradition that make her both the heir to Kafka and the unlikely author of “perhaps the greatest spiritual autobiography of the twentieth century.” From Ukraine to Recife, from Naples and Berne to Washington and Rio de Janeiro, Why This World shows how Clarice Lispector transformed one woman’s struggles into a universally resonant art.

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