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Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller Paperback – October 15, 1995

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Editorial Reviews


“This, like the best biographies, is a book in which the reader can live.” ―Margaret Drabble, The New York Times Book Review

“Splendid, inestimably valuable . . . I cannot imagine that it will be supplanted. Right now it is the essential book on Isak Dinesen.” ―Chicago Tribune Book World

“Absorbing biography . . . This is a gothic tale worthy of the author of Seven Gothic Tales.” ―Victoria Glendinning, The Washington Post Book World

About the Author

Judith Thurman, critic and biographer, won the National Book Award and two foreign literary prizes for her work. The author of Cleopatra's Nose, to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in October 2007, and Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette, she is a staff writer at The New Yorker and lives in New York City.


Product Details

  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Picador (October 15, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312135254
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312135256
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.4 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #299,422 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

99 of 107 people found the following review helpful By Pasiphae on June 27, 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Ah, so I finally finished this biography last night. I had fallen in love with Out of Africa and Seven Gothic Tales, and in reading her biography, I had hoped to fall in love with Isak Dinesen, the Pellegrina. Sadly, I fell out of it.

The fault is not in the biography. It's a fascinating life, and it was good to have the blanks filled in as far as her childhood, and what happened in Africa, the continent to which she spoke and which spoke back to her. The popularity of her work, the American reaction to it, I found this all good reading. But you know, eventually, she turned into quite the old megalomaniac. Thurman shows us where it all came from. (spoilers ahead) Dinesen had always believed that she was special, and was infuriated by her family's insistence on equality, fairness and calm. She felt restrained by it, stifled, dismissed. She felt that the loss of her father was uniquely hers, that it mattered less in the lives of her siblings that their father killed himself. She wanted to somehow own or claim that.

And sadly, the circumstances of her erotic life seem to have warped her terribly. She had syphilis, and had to live carefully and chastely even while madly in love (though there is a question regarding this as far as her relationship with Finch-Hatten). I can see how this would do a woman in, I really can. She spoke of syphilis as both the price and the source of her gift, a horrible bargain with the devil that made her a genius at telling tales. But the cost was high, and the damage was deep.

The warping took various ugly shapes as she aged. She tried to usurp her sisters and brothers in the eyes of their children, found her nieces and nephews disappointing in their love of their parents.
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122 of 134 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 4, 2002
Format: Paperback
I saw "Out of Africa" in Copenhagen in 1986 when I was 21 and bought the biography in Danish, but I couldn't get into it at the time, and eventually sold it to a used book store. Then two years ago I came across it (in English) in a used book store here in Southern California, read it and adored it. It's one of the few books I have read more than once.
I love the movie as well, bought it on video about a year ago and have watched it many times. Yes, Redford is not a Dennis F.Hatton type but he's perfect. (In '86 I thought he was utterly miscast, despite being already then a huge Redford fan!)
Thurman took seven years to write this bio, and even learned Danish in the process. She truly cares about her subject and thankfully takes her time. Dinesen comes fully alive in this book, a rare accomplishment for biographers.
If you go to Copenhagen, take the train north along the coast (20 min. from the Central Station), get off at the beautiful, small, old Rungsted Station and walk down to Rungstedlund (about a mile). It was there that Karen Dinesen, later Blixen, was born and raised. She returned in 1931 from her farm in Africa, and began writing her first collection of tales, Seven Gothic Tales, published in 1934 in English and in Danish (in her own translation) a year later. She "only" wrote seven books for the next thirty years, but oh, what books. It is indeed quality, not quantity that counts with art.
In 1991 Blixen's house was opened as lovely museum with a small tasteful book store with books by and about Blixen (she is always referred to as Karen Blixen in Denmark), and a very nice and quiet small cafe. Upstairs is a wonderful exibit about her life, including seperate rooms with many books from her private collection.
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39 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Michael J. Muller on January 10, 2005
Format: Paperback
Had I not seen the movie "Out of Africa" I would never had given any thought to reading a book written by a Danish woman of her life in British East Africa in the early 1900's on a coffee plantation. The movie was enjoyable and that provoked me to read her memoir. Getting beyond the fact that Robert Redford and Meryl Streep played the main characters, I became fascinated with the wonderful story and even more so the beautiful tapestry of language presented by the author in her book. A few years ago I had the opportunity to travel to Nairobi, Kenya and first on my list of places to see and things to do was a visit to Karen Blixen's farmhouse. The house and a small portion of the original lands remain intact as a museum. Although the area has been built up over the last 75+ years (the area is known as Karen in honor of the Baroness) there are still a few coffee plantations in the area and of course the Ngong mountains can be seen off in the distance. With this backround in mind I set off to read ISAK DINESEN : The Life of a Storyteller. I found the biography to be very comprehensive and exhaustively researched. "Exhaustively researched" not in a negative sense in that I found it fascinating to learn of the web of personalities that floated in and out of Karin Blixen's life including Hans Christen Andersen, President Theodore Roosevelt's son Kermit, Playwrite Arthur Miller, Prince Edward, George Bernard Shaw, Marilyn Monroe, Beryl Markham, Lord Delamere.... Moreover what she read and how much she read (and learned)are testament to what one can accomplish with 'self education' (especially so when there are no televisions or radios as was the case in the early days in British East Africa). The footnotes in this biography lead the reader into intriguing digressions. For sure this is not an adventure book nor is it more of "Out of Africa". Karen Blixen led a very interesting life and accordingly it is the stuff of a very interesting biography that is well presented.
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