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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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

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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An eye-opening glimpse into the attempted self-unmaking of one of Hollywood’s most recognizable talents.


The debut memoir from the pop and fashion star.

Early on, Simpson describes the book she didn’t write: “a motivational manual telling you how to live your best life.” Though having committed to the lucrative deal years before, she “walked away,” fearing any sort of self-help advice she might give would be hypocritical. Outwardly, Simpson was at the peak of her success, with her fashion line generating “one billion dollars in annual sales.” However, anxiety was getting the better of her, and she admits she’d become a “feelings addict,” just needing “enough noise to distract me from the pain I’d been avoiding since childhood. The demons of traumatic abuse that refused to let me sleep at night—Tylenol PM at age twelve, red wine and Ambien as a grown, scared woman. Those same demons who perched on my shoulder, and when they saw a man as dark as them, leaned in to my ear to whisper, ‘Just give him your light. See if it saves him…’ ” On Halloween 2017, Simpson hit rock bottom, and, with the intervention of her devoted friends and husband, began to address her addictions and underlying fears. In this readable but overlong narrative, the author traces her childhood as a Baptist preacher’s daughter moving 18 times before she “hit fifth grade,” and follows her remarkable rise to fame as a singer. She reveals the psychological trauma resulting from years of sexual abuse by a family friend, experiences that drew her repeatedly into bad relationships with men, most publicly with ex-husband Nick Lachey. Admitting that she was attracted to the validating power of an audience, Simpson analyzes how her failings and triumphs have enabled her to take control of her life, even as she was hounded by the press and various music and movie executives about her weight. Simpson’s memoir contains plenty of personal and professional moments for fans to savor.

An eye-opening glimpse into the attempted self-unmaking of one of Hollywood’s most recognizable talents.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-289996-5

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Dey Street/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Feb. 16, 2020

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