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Category Archive for 'Biography'

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. Born into an upper middle-class family in Baltimore, Virginia Hall graduated from private schools, a highly popular student there for her unconventional attitudes and her leadership capabilities. Always independent, she attended both Radcliffe and Barnard Colleges, then continued her education in Europe, where she also worked in several consulates. She was fluent in five languages. With the German takeover of France and the establishment of the Vichy government, she connected with the newly established British Special Operations Executive there, and in April 1941, she started preparing for her first secret mission in France in an attempt to overthrow the Vichy government and the Nazis. Insistent on maintaining absolute secrecy and taking no other agent for granted, she was able to slip through the traps that often nabbed other SOE agents less meticulous in their behavior. Highly successful, she performed heroically, eventually working for the American OSS. Almost unknown by the American public during her lifetime, she is celebrated here in a meticulously researched book by Sonia Purnell which is both momentous and inspiring to the reader – a true story of heroism for the ages.

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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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In a novel about the French intellectual elite who live confidently and proudly at the very margins of society in the early twentieth century, author Rupert Thomson explores the lives and loves of two women who live on their own terms at the very margin of social acceptance. Avant-garde in their personal beliefs throughout their lives, they become close friends when they first meet in 1909 when Lucie Schwob is fourteen and Suzanne Malherbe is seventeen. Suzanne and Lucie are actually aided in the development of their relationship when Lucie’s father and her institutionalized mother divorce, and he marries Suzanne’s widowed mother. Now stepsisters, the two can to be together all the time, without causing gossip. Traveling frequently between Nantes, Paris, and the island of Jersey, off the coast of France, for summer vacations, they explore their new lives “as sisters.” As they grow up, they become part of the avant-garde artists and philosophers in Paris, eventually being forced to leave for the Channel Islands as World War II breaks out. Following their story from 1920 to 1970, Rupert Thomson creates a fascinating story of two very unusual women.

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Meticulously constructed and highly dramatic, The Secrets We Kept moves forward with dual story lines – one set in the West and featuring members of the Soviet Russia branch of the US intelligence agency, beginning in 1950, and the other set in the East, primarily Moscow, focusing on the Soviet government, famous author Boris Pasternak and his banned book, Dr. Zhivago, and the people surrounding him, beginning in 1956. The title alone attests to the fact that both groups keep important, even life-or-death secrets during the Cold War. While maintaining the almost contemporaneous time frames of the two separate groups, East and West, the author alternates the locations of the action over the course of several years, a technique which puts two big story lines into a grand perspective while allowing readers to recognize how these story lines overlap in real time. The Soviets are determined to keep the novel Dr. Zhivago hidden in their own country, and the west believes it will benefit the world if it is released internationally. The excitement of the story line, especially for those who remember the atmosphere in the US when Dr. Zhivago was finally published here in 1958-59, is palpable. A debut novel which will have almost universal appeal for lovers of literary fiction, history, biography, and Cold War politics.

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