A moving if uneven biography of a man whose career was marked by moving and uneven performances.



He was the talk of the classical music world, as idolized as any pop star, and an unwitting player in the geopolitical struggle between the two superpowers of the 20th century.

He was pianist Van Cliburn (1934-2013), the “long-legged young Texan” from the small town of Kilgore, who, at age 23 in 1958, was the surprise winner of Moscow’s inaugural Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition, which Isacoff (A Natural History of the Piano, 2012, etc.), a musician and Wall Street Journal contributor, calls “a high-culture version of the World Cup.” In retrospect, Cliburn’s victory may not have been that big a surprise. This was a young man whose piano-teacher mother, Rildia Bee, would “playfully suspend him over the keys of the piano” when he was a child. That he resisted the temptation to pound on the keys was, to Rildia Bee, “a sign of unusual sensitivity.” She was right. Soon, he was studying at Juilliard with famed piano teacher Rosina Lhévinne, entertaining audiences on Steve Allen’s Tonight Show in 1955, and, three years later, performing a rendition of Rachmaninoff’s famously difficult Piano Concerto No. 3 that inspired members of the competition’s jury to proclaim that Cliburn had a “Russian soul.” Isacoff does an excellent job documenting suspicions of corruption in the competition and the result’s effect on U.S.–Soviet relations. He gets sidetracked, however, with details about the other students, and there are extraneous passages that fail to enlighten—e.g., Truman Capote’s dissatisfaction with a Leningrad hotel in 1955. Nonetheless, the author offers a touching portrait of Cliburn, a natural performer who received injections of an amphetamine-laced “miracle tissue regeneration” to combat nervousness-induced weight loss and whose nonchalance and lack of curiosity—he was a poor student and was chronically late, even to his own performances—were primary reasons that he never again reached the heights of his early success.

A moving if uneven biography of a man whose career was marked by moving and uneven performances.

Pub Date: April 18, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-385-35218-5

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 24, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2017

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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Doyle offers another lucid, inspiring chronicle of female empowerment and the rewards of self-awareness and renewal.

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More life reflections from the bestselling author on themes of societal captivity and the catharsis of personal freedom.

In her third book, Doyle (Love Warrior, 2016, etc.) begins with a life-changing event. “Four years ago,” she writes, “married to the father of my three children, I fell in love with a woman.” That woman, Abby Wambach, would become her wife. Emblematically arranged into three sections—“Caged,” “Keys,” “Freedom”—the narrative offers, among other elements, vignettes about the soulful author’s girlhood, when she was bulimic and felt like a zoo animal, a “caged girl made for wide-open skies.” She followed the path that seemed right and appropriate based on her Catholic upbringing and adolescent conditioning. After a downward spiral into “drinking, drugging, and purging,” Doyle found sobriety and the authentic self she’d been suppressing. Still, there was trouble: Straining an already troubled marriage was her husband’s infidelity, which eventually led to life-altering choices and the discovery of a love she’d never experienced before. Throughout the book, Doyle remains open and candid, whether she’s admitting to rigging a high school homecoming court election or denouncing the doting perfectionism of “cream cheese parenting,” which is about “giving your children the best of everything.” The author’s fears and concerns are often mirrored by real-world issues: gender roles and bias, white privilege, racism, and religion-fueled homophobia and hypocrisy. Some stories merely skim the surface of larger issues, but Doyle revisits them in later sections and digs deeper, using friends and familial references to personify their impact on her life, both past and present. Shorter pieces, some only a page in length, manage to effectively translate an emotional gut punch, as when Doyle’s therapist called her blooming extramarital lesbian love a “dangerous distraction.” Ultimately, the narrative is an in-depth look at a courageous woman eager to share the wealth of her experiences by embracing vulnerability and reclaiming her inner strength and resiliency.

Doyle offers another lucid, inspiring chronicle of female empowerment and the rewards of self-awareness and renewal.

Pub Date: March 10, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-0125-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Dial Books

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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