National Book Critics Circle nominees / Biography

Two of the five finalists in the biography and autobiography category for the NBCC award are about religious faith. Paul Elie, an editor with Farrar, Straus & Giroux, has written a composite biography about four Roman Catholics, famous 20th-century American writers known as the "School of the Holy Ghost." Ironically, George Marsden's biography is about a staunch anti-Catholic, Jonathan Edwards, leader of the Great Awakening in the early 18th century. Today, if he's known at all, Edwards is usually identified only as the author of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." But as Marsden shows, this last of the great Puritans was far more interested in inspiring spiritual understanding than terror.

At the 30th-anniversary awards ceremony on March 4, Pulitzer Prize-winner Studs Terkel will receive a lifetime achievement award. His most recent book, "Hope Dies Last," published in November by New Press, includes interviews with 56 famous and unknown people who have survived difficult times but retain their hope for the future.

A Tragic Honesty: Richard Yates, by Blake Bailey, Picador, 671 pp., $35

The world of novelist Richard Yates, as Bailey unflinchingly, unrelentingly reminds us, touches on almost every human failing, and on myriad stereotypes of a mad and desperate writer's life. The alcoholic, manic-depressive, poor, pained, and underappreciated Yates smoked four packs a day and died in a cockroach-infested duplex with his books out of print and his last manuscript in the freezer. This exhaustively detailed story - drawing on letters, reminiscences, and the cooperation of family and friends - never shirks from the raw tragedy of his tumultuous life. Yates's fiction, with its themes of self-deception and its tarnished dreams of the middle class, reflected that life - and Bailey has analyzed it with a sharp and careful eye. But the degree to which he reads Yates's life into his fiction is striking, distracting, even reductive. To a certain extent, that's standard fare for literary biographies. But Bailey goes so far as to assume an uncle's anti-Semitism based on a fictional "counterpart"; at every turn, he uses Yates's stories to flesh out reality. One can't help wondering if such an obsessive - if skilled - effort of "connect the dots" gives short shrift to Yates's imagination in this otherwise meticulous rendering of a tortured life. By Christina McCarroll

The Life You Save May Be Your Own, by Paul Elie, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 555 pp., $27

Elie chronicles the lives of four major figures in American cultural and literary life: Mary Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy. In a nation almost obsessively preoccupied with questions of religion, our literature has for the most part turned against monotheism in favor of secular thought, and most of that thought has worked tirelessly, if not with mockery and a sneer, against religion. The four writers featured in Elie's deft biography are American Catholics, and Elie focuses his study on the spiritual and aesthetic development of each, tracing not only their early struggles with faith and doctrine, but how their belief systems fused with their lives and their creative and public works. The book itself is an unconventionally structured biography, presenting the chronologies of the subjects' lives not in disparate chapters but in fugue-like vignettes that alternate from writer to writer every three or four pages, making for a dramatic read. It is a relief to be reminded that questions of the spirit and soul - not just politics, profit, and narcissism - still concern the minds of some of our greatest cultural icons. "The Life You Save May be Your Own" is a splendid look at the largely ignored link between spirituality and American art. By Eric Miles Williamson

Jonathan Edwards, by George Marsden, Yale University Press, 640 pp., $35

Widely considered to be foremost among American religious thinkers, Edwards (1703-1758) lived a life of passionate devotion. Indeed, his preaching fueled the Great Awakening, a period of spectacular revivals that ran through the Colonies during the mid-1700s, permanently changing American religious experience. In Marsden's vivid and absorbing biography, Edwards's life is equal to his famous works of theology. At the end, the reader feels a quiet joy as Edwards, so long exiled in lonely work among the Indians, assumes the role of professor and learns to enjoy it a little. Marsden, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, manages to make Edwards both familiar and strange, a man who acted within the "traditions of martyrdom and submission." Marsden appears to be writing a saint's life, but his aim may be less exotic. "We need to use history for the guidance it offers," he warns, "learning from great figures in the past - both in their brilliance and in their shortcomings." He hopes to "bridge the gap between the Edwards of the students of American culture and the Edwards of the theologians." In this well-documented, conscientious biography, the pious man comes to unruly life with all his unresolved complexity intact. (Full review March 6.) By Thomas D'Evelyn

Lucia Joyce, by Carol Shloss, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 560 pp., $30

James Joyce called his daughter, Lucia, the "giver of light." Carol Shloss posits that Lucia did indeed shine brightly in her father's eye, feeding him inspiration. Shloss's assertion to this effect is bound to stir debate among Joyce scholars, considering the lack of primary sources: Almost all Lucia's correspondence was destroyed by the Joyce family or its friends. Shloss suggests that in the penniless, chaotic, polyglot Joyce family of Lucia's childhood, Lucia's mother, Nora Barnacle, doted on her brother, Giorgio. Joyce in turn bonded with Lucia by reading and singing to her, igniting a love of art and words and a thirst for learning. As an adult, Lucia was a modern dancer until her behavior was affected by emotional crises and violent outbursts. The family decided to end Lucia's career: The father's took precedence. Lucia, Joyce's muse (Anna Livia Plurabelle in "Finnegans Wake"), took her place in the margins of the Joyce biographies labeled as mad, a guinea pig for the likes of Jung and a victim of her family's will. By casting the events in Lucia's life in this different light, Shloss's work takes its place as an important contribution to "Joyceana." By J. Johnson

Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, by William Taubman, W.W. Norton, 876 pp., $35

He was a crude opportunist, an uneducated boor, a willing henchman to Stalin ("My arms are up to the elbows in blood," he once admitted). As leader of the Soviet Union, he banged his shoe at the UN in rage and promised to bury capitalism. His geopolitical brinkmanship during the Cuba missile crisis nearly ignited nuclear war. Yet Nikita Khrushchev was also energetic, principled, hard-working, simple, and decent, a reformer who wanted to make his beloved communism more humane and modern. After the death of Stalin, his mentor and tormentor, Taubman says, Khrushchev spent a decade in power (1953-64) tearing away the worst elements of the Stalinist police state, rehabilitating millions, and setting the stage for the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. According to one pollster, the only time under communism that today's Russians look back upon favorably is the Khrushchev era. Taubman, who admits to a "special affection and special disdain" for his subject, finds this round-faced Russian "a study in unresolved contrasts and in pathos," a Machiavelli disguised as Chekhov's Vanya the Fool. Through extensive interviews and research into now-open Soviet archives, Taubman exposes Khrushchev in all his disturbing and fascinating humanity. By Gregory M. Lamb

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