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Category Archive for 'Biography'

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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French author Catherine Cusset, the author of thirteen novels, several of which have been nominated for the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis, combines fiction and biography in new ways here as she recreates the life, feelings, thoughts, and conversations of British artist David Hockney, described by some as the world’s “most famous living English painter.” Although I have read a number of such “fictional biographies,” in which the author invents conversations and thoughts for her characters, this is the first time that I have seen such a work in which the subject is someone who is still alive. Hockney, born in 1937, studied art at a time in which nearly all contemporary artists were abstract artists. He, by contrast, does representational art, yet he was able to become a raging success. Handsome, gay, a traveler from London to LA, where lived for much of the time, and an artist who explored many media, David Hockney comes to life here in ways made possible by the author’s point of view.

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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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On March 24, 1946, fifty-four-year-old world chess champion Alexandre Alekhine was found dead in his hotel room at the famed Hotel do Parque in Estoril, Portugal. He had been living there alone for two months during the off-season, first awaiting news of a worthy opponent and then awaiting the details regarding a future match. As Italian author Paolo Maurensig develops this story, Alekhine’s life in several different countries under several different governments begins to unfold, and the suspicious circumstances in which his body was found lead to the inescapable conclusion that this death may not have been an accident. Alekhine was fully dressed and wearing a heavy coat as he sat in his overheated room, apparently eating a meal, though he had attended a full dinner in his honor that same night. The journalist who reported on his death in the Portuguese press, Artur Portela, did so in the face of strong censorship and the influence of the secret police of long-time ruler Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, which promptly ended the investigation, making no comment at all. The investigation by Portela, the journalist, provides author Maurensig with details of the case which he develops. Enjoyable as a picture of the times, whether or not you are a chess aficionado.

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Written as a biography, not of Arthur Conan Doyle’s life but of the specific influences on his life which led to his successful creation of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson as fictional heroes, Michael Sims presents a fully documented and carefully researched study of Arthur Conan Doyle and how he eventually achieved success as the author of the wildly popular Sherlock Holmes novels. Doyle began his career as a novelist in 1886 in Edinburgh, Scotland, when he was only twenty-seven years old. In private medical practice in Portsmouth, England, at this time, Doyle had been out of medical school for five years, and as he had always enjoyed writing, he had been spending his spare time writing stories of mystery, adventure, and the supernatural as a way to augment his income. Focusing primarily on A Study In Scarlet, his first novel, written in 1887, Sims documents how Doyle made the detective’s methods unique for the time, and, in the process, made his mysteries huge successes. Five years after this novel, Doyle was able to begin writing full-time. Great and unusual information here shows how one man became a success in this genre.

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