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The Los Angeles Times Book Prize 1986

October 05, 1986

On Nov. 7, The Times will award its annual Book Prizes in five categories--biography, history, fiction, poetry and current interest--along with the Robert Kirsch Award for a body of work by a writer living in or writing on the West. This week we publish excerpts from some of the books nominated in biography. Not excerpted, but also nominated, are: "Flame Into Being: The Life and Work of D.H. Lawrence" (Arbor House) by Anthony Burgess; "Alexander Pope: A Life" (Norton) by Maynard Mack, and "The Stones Cry Out: A Cambodian Childhood, 1975-1980" (Hill & Wang) by Molyda Szymusiak.

"Henry James: A Life" (Harper & Row) by Leon Edel.

This is the one-volume condensation, revised and updated, of Edel's definitive, five-volume life of the great turn-of-the-century novelist and critic . As James was an American in Europe, so he was also a kind of European for America, a writer who self-consciously set out to make American literature a world literature. In the passage that follows, Edel describes James' state of mind as he began work on his first important novel.

The writer of 31, who sat in his large shabby room in the Piazza Santa Maria Novella during the Florentine spring of 1874, working on his first important novel, was quite different from the troubled Henry James of four years before who had hurriedly written Watch and Ward and hoped it would make his name in American literature. He had always had a sense of his destiny, and now he worked with confidence, drawing his material out of the past decade of his life--the days he had spent in Northampton, just after the end of the Civil War; the days he had spent in Rome a year before--and out of his inner vision as artist.

In his travel sketches and literary reviews, during his slow process of development, he had taken possession of a personal philosophy that would forever guide him. It stemmed from a saturation with certain aspects of life and of literature, and a happy synthesis of the two--and from his constituted personality: the way in which he had learned to look steadily at--and accept--whatever life might bring into his orbit. In one of his travel sketches, he spoke of "that perfectly honorable and legitimate instinct, the love of the status quo --the preference of contemplative and slow-moving minds for the visible, the palpable, measurable present--touched here and there with the warm lights and shadows of the past."

A year earlier, he had written to Charles Eliot Norton, "I regard the march of history very much as a man placed astride of a locomotive, without knowledge or help, would regard the progress of that vehicle. To stick on, somehow, and even enjoy the scenery as we pass, is the sum of my aspiration." James, on his locomotive of history, offers a vision of a comparatively happy observer and artist; the reality on which he had been placed by fate fascinated him to such a degree that the task of observing and recording it from various points of appreciation and ironic judgment proved sufficient for a lifetime.

"Rain or Shine, A Family Memoir" (Knopf) by Cyra McFadden.

McFadden was until recently best known for her Marin County novel, "The Serial" (Knopf). Most readers were surprised to learn that she grew up in the rough-and-tumble world of rodeo, the daughter of Cy Taillon, king of the rodeo announcers, and his wife Pat, a showgirl turned trick rider. "Rain or Shine" is a memoir of Cy and Pat and of a later adoptive father, who married Pat and raised Cyra after Cy unhitched the trailer, one unforgettable desert night, and drove off into the darkness. In the passage that follows, Cyra remembers a happier, earlier day (Ila Mae is Pat's older sister):

Unlikely candidates for parenthood, Cy and Pat made the best of it. They took two rooms in a boardinghouse, with the second for a nursery. I was born, another newsworthy event to the Great Falls Tribune . They started a scrapbook for me. Scrapbooks, in my family, are a way of life. You may have nothing else, but you've got your press clippings.

In two weeks, we were on the road again. Where Cy went, Pat was going, with or without a baby. Either she knew better, by now, than to send him off on his own, or he knew enough to insist that she come with him.

Soon I was big enough to be outfitted like a Western Barbie doll and had a role in their long-playing drama. I played what my mother called Little Pat and Cy called Little Cyra and my aunt called "the poor little thing."

And I had a glorious time, as unofficial mascot of the rodeo, from Canada to New Mexico, though my parents sometimes forgot momentarily that I existed. After a long night larking in the bars in Cheyenne, Wyo., they once left me sleeping in a motor court bed, packed up and headed for the next rodeo. Seventy miles out of town, they had to turn around and go back.

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