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Category Archive for 'Biography'

Using known facts and details provided by Mary Wollstonecraft’s husband, William Godwin, following Wollstonecraft’s death in 1797, at age thirty-eight, author Samantha Silva creates an intense and vibrant fictional biography of a woman many generations ahead of her time. The feminist ideals she exemplifies in her life, which shocked the women of her own time, include her years-long relationship with a woman friend and her desire to set up a “female utopia” with her; her establishment with others of a school for young women under the banner of being “dissenters” from the Church of England; her flagrant affairs with two well-known writer-philosophers; her stay in France and support of the French Revolution; and her much-loved child from her out-of-wedlock relationship with Gilbert Imlay. The publication of her ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ (1792), considered “one of the trailblazing works of feminism,” added to her reputation as one of the early founders of feminist philosophy. In author Samantha Silva’s hands, however, Mary’s story becomes completely human, with two narratives conveying her life stories from two different times and perspectives. Here Mary Wollstonecraft’s feminist beliefs play out within the context of her life two hundred years ago, as these ideas come vibrantly to life among writers, publishers, and political leaders during that time.

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With a first chapter set at the Stork Club, where Oona O’Neill, then a sixteen-year-old “voluptuous child,” sits at Walter Winchell’s Table 50, author Jerome Charyn creates a mood of wild nights and war-fueled abandon in New York shortly after the recent Pearl Harbor attack. Oona, young daughter of Nobel-Prize-winning playwright Eugene O’Neill, is waiting for her beau, J. D. Salinger (Sonny) and an evening of fun and dance. That night Salinger receives his draft notice to appear immediately at Fort Dix for counterintelligence work for the US. He spends the next three years at war in Europe, and everything changes. Those whose familiarity with the life of J. D. Salinger focuses primarily on his hermit-like existence later in life, will find his early activities from 1942 – 1946, detailed in the opening chapters at the Stork and in the crises he faces throughout the war, particularly insightful of his life and personality. Author Jerome Charyn is particularly careful to connect the events in ways which allow the reader to feel the traumas and horrors and to gain some understanding of the dramatic changes in his personality after the war.

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When author Marc Petitjean was contacted in Paris by a Mexican writer named Oscar, who wanted to meet him to talk about Marc Petitjean’s father Michel, the author’s interest was piqued. His father, a “left-wing militant” journalist, and associate of avant-garde artists and writers in Paris, had been dead for twenty years. When they met, Oscar pulled out a short manuscript he had written with information acquired from the archives of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, indicating that she had had an affair with Michel Petitjean during the three months she had been in Paris from early January to late March, 1939. An affair between the author’s father and Kahlo was new information to son Marc Petitjohn, who almost dismissed it as “overblown.” Still, Frida Kahlo had given his father one of her best paintings when she returned to Mexico after that three-month visit in 1939. Ultimately, “Oscar’s curiosity kindled my own, and I in turn embarked on researching the lovers’ lives.” The developing love story of Frida Kahlo and Michel Petitjean is inextricably connected with the fraught pre-war political atmosphere of Paris in 1939, the boiling artistic and philosophical ferment of the period, and the close, interconnected friendships among Joan Miro, Kadinsky, Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and “other big cacas of Surrealism.” When she finally departs from France after three months, Michel Petitjean has thought ahead to have letters and notes delivered to her along the way.

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Sonia Purnell’s biography of Virginia Hall honors an American woman whose war-time exploits from 1940 – 1945 were so well planned, so well executed, and so successful in saving lives that she was honored by three countries for her efforts. When she received the US Distinguished Service Cross from Gen. William Joseph “Wild Bill” Donovan, she refused to have a formal ceremony at which President Truman would have presented the award to her publicly, for fear of endangering people who worked for her, and jeopardizing any future work she might be assigned for new, secret projects. Hall’s work in France for the British SOE (Special Operations Executive) and the American OSS (Office of Strategic Services), had put her in touch with organizations and spies from two countries as they fought the Nazis and the French Vichy government, and she had managed to remain almost anonymous because she “operated in the shadows, and that was where she was happiest.” This is her amazing story.

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Although much-loved author Jane Austen is a dominating force throughout this biographical novel by Gill Hornby, most of the action here revolves around Jane’s older sister Cassandra. Closer to Jane than any other family member or friend, Cassandra is privy to every aspect of Jane’s life, living with her and sharing most of her life, including Jane’s final illness when Jane is forty-one. Having previously written The Story of Jane Austen, a biography for young readers, Hornby has obviously “lived with” Jane Austen so intimately, over the years, that readers of this novel may be surprised to learn that the revelatory letters here, purportedly written by Jane Austen or her family, were, in fact, written by author Gill Hornby herself. Through them, she provides insights into the lives of both Cassandra and Jane, and her vibrant details of everyday life bring the society of the era to life. More importantly, however, the author recreates some of the psychological issues with which these women have to contend whenever fate unexpectedly changes their social positions through death, loss of home, or loss of income. By highlighting these issues within fictional letters, Gill Hornby offers insights into social conflicts faced by women and makes them understandable to modern readers – no matter how much the reader might regret some of the actions these characters take to resolve their problems. A lively read, Miss Austen is a significant addition to the world of Jane and Cass Austen and all the mysteries still associated with them.

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