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‘Civil Action’ Named Best Nonfiction Book

“A Civil Action,” Jonathan Harr’s account of a lengthy legal battle that pitted a group of Massachusetts families against two large corporations, was named the best nonfiction book of 1995 by the National Book Critics Circle.

The book, published by Random House, painstakingly chronicled the progress of a class action brought by eight families in Woburn, Mass., against W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods for allegedly poisoning the town’s wells.

Stanley Elkin, who died last May at 65, was given the fiction award for “Mrs. Ted Bliss” (Hyperion), the story of an elderly Jewish widow in Miami Beach who is plunged into a series of adventures after she sells her late husband’s Buick. Elkin had won the award in 1982 for “George Mills.”

Other winners were “Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson” by Robert Polito (Alfred A. Knopf), in the biography and autobiography category; “The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France” by Robert Darnton (W.W. Norton), in the criticism category, and “Time & Money” by William Matthews (Houghton Mifflin), in the poetry category.

Two special awards were also given. The Nona Balakian Excellence in Reviewing Award went to Laurie Stone, and the Iva Sandrof Award for Lifetime Achievement in Publishing went to Alfred Kazin and Elizabeth Hardwick.

Harr’s work, which took nine years to write, was chosen over four other nominees: “A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes and the Eternal Passion for Books,” by Nicholas Basbanes (Henry Holt); “In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle,” by Madeleine Blais (Atlantic Monthly); “All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence,” by Fox Butterfield (Knopf), and “Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder” (Pantheon), by Lawrence Weschler.

The other fiction nominees were “Moo,” by Jane Smiley (Alfred A. Knopf); “Galatea 2.2,” by Richard Powers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux); “Independence Day,” by Richard Ford (Alfred A. Knopf); and “The Tent of Orange Mist,” by Paul West (Scribner’s).

The National Book Critics Circle consists of nearly 700 newspaper and magazine editors and reviewers, academics and free-lance critics. The awards are chosen by the organization’s 24-member board after a mail vote by members.