Van Cliburn biography among nominees for book critics prizes

Van Cliburn, a legendary life remembered

A look back at the life and accomplishments of legendary pianist Van Cliburn (1934-2013). Video by Clif Bosler/Star-Telegram
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A look back at the life and accomplishments of legendary pianist Van Cliburn (1934-2013). Video by Clif Bosler/Star-Telegram

A 2016 biography of the late pianist Van Cliburn was among the finalists announced Tuesday for the National Book Critics Circle Awards.

British historian Nigel Cliff’s Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story — How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War (Harper, $28.99) chronicles the story of how in 1958, at the height of the Cold War, a lanky, baby-faced pianist from Texas stunned the world by going to Russia and winning that country’s most prestigious music competition.

A Star-Telegram reviewer called the book “an elegant, insightful and ultimately definitive account of one of the 20th century’s most compelling events, and the extraordinary artist and person at the heart of it.”

Cliburn died in his Fort Worth home in 2013. “Though the author never met Cliburn, Cliff came away with a sense of the man that was shared by most who knew him,” wrote the Star-Telegram critic, who gave the book four stars out of five.

Other biography finalists were Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, Joe Jackson’s Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary, Michael Tisserand’s Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White, and Frances Wilson’s Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey.

Winners will be announced March 16.

Books by Ann Patchett, Michael Chabon, Zadie Smith, Louise Erdrich and former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky also were among 30 finalists in six competitive categories selected by the 42-year-old organization.

Margaret Atwood, the celebrated Canadian author known for such novels as The Handmaid’s Tale and Cat’s Eye, will receive a lifetime achievement prize. Honorary awards also will be presented to Yaa Gyasi for best debut novel, Homegoing, and to Michelle Dean for excellence in reviewing.

Patchett’s Commonwealth, Chabon’s Moonglow, and Smith’s Swing Time were all fiction finalists, along with Erdrich’s LaRose and Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone.

In addition to Ibram X. Kendi’s book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, nonfiction nominees were Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, and John Edgar Wideman’s Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File.

In autobiography, the nominees were Marion Coutts’ The Iceberg, Jenny Diski’s In Gratitude, Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl, Hisham Matar’s The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land in Between, and Kao Kalia Yang’s The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father.

Pinsky’s At the Foundling Hospital was a poetry finalist, along with Ishion Hutchinson’s House of Lords and Commons, Tyehimba Jess’ Olio, Bernadette Mayer’s Works and Days, and Monica Youn’s Blackacre.

In criticism, the finalists were Carol Anderson’s White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, Mark Greif’s Against Everything: Essays, Alice Kaplan’s Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic, Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, and Peter Orner’s Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live.

The National Book Critics Circle is made up of about 1,000 critics, book review editors and supporting members.

This report contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.