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Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller

4.03  ·  Rating Details ·  837 Ratings  ·  53 Reviews
A brilliant literary portrait, Isak Dinesen remains the only comprehensive biography of one of the greatest storytellers of our time. Her magnificent memoir, Out of Africa, established Isak Dinesen as a major twentieth-century author, who was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize.

With exceptional grace, Judith Thurman's classic work explores Dinesen's life. Until the appeara
Paperback, 512 pages
Published October 15th 1995 by Picador (first published January 1st 1982)
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Anastasia Hobbet
Aug 18, 2012 Anastasia Hobbet rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography
This is an intense biography by a writer every bit as talented as Isak Dinesen but much more sane, thank God. By any measure, Isak Dinesen was about as complicated, tempestuous, and megalomaniacal as they come. Midway through this giant tombstone of a book, I was wishing I hadn't opted to find out so much about her. I've loved her work for years without knowing much about her, and had the chance this summer--because I'm living in Scandinavia for a few years--to visit her home north of Copenhagen ...more
Dec 28, 2008 Barbara rated it it was amazing
I appreciate literary biography, and I consider this particular book to be at the very apex of that genre. Meticulously researched, richly described, not only of the culture and times of late 19th and early 20th century Europe and Africa, but of the fascinating, difficult, frequently unlikable character of Isak Dinesen, aka Karen Blixen.

What I found interesting was that Ms Blixen's tendency to self delusion and deception was central to her psychological survival and even her talent. She elevate
Mary Havens
Mar 22, 2013 Mary Havens rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book. Wow. I'm only halfway done and feel I need to capture some thoughts.

I read Out of Africa although I don't remember much except feeling frustrated. Now I know why!! It wasn't a memoir, it wasn't a novel, it was a hodgepodge and it confused me.

I put Isak Dinesen on my list because it won the National Book Award (and I went through a phase of putting all NBAs on my list). When I got it from Interlibrary Loan, I was looking at a 450 pager with small print. "This can't be good", I thought.
Oct 21, 2008 Chris rated it really liked it
When I was lucky enough to travel to Denmark, was I excited by all history? By the beautiful castles? By the wonderful food? No. I was over the moon because I could go to Isak Dinesen's (Karen Blixen's) house. While there, I broke one of my cardinal rules, don't buy a book aboard that you can get at home, unless it is used. I brought this biography there, among a couple other books.

Thurman does a very good job of portraying, not only Blixen but her family and friends as well. In particular, when
Sep 10, 2011 Pam rated it it was amazing
A fascinating story of the life of a Storyteller!!Judith Thurman began weaving the story when Isak started a life she cheerished & never really wanted to leave _as she says in the first line of Out of Africa..."I had a farm in Africa,at the foot of the Ngong Hills".The fact that she basically purchased her Title "Baroness"from Bror through marriage to him_when she really loved his twin brother_a relationship that was NOT going anywhere_says she's fiesty.

Dinesen had a privileged childhood,lov
Apr 17, 2017 Brandy rated it it was amazing
Karen Blixen- a woman being strong before it was acceptable. Syphyliss be damned! Her life, loves and even death lended wisdom to the page. Love her.
May 27, 2012 S©aP rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Una donna caparbia, che ha precorso i tempi. In parte egoista ed egocentrica, egualmente sensibile e sola. In un'Europa d'inizio secolo, incatenata alle convenzioni. Nella seconda parte della sua vita, dopo l'Africa di grandi emozioni e sconfitte, una scrittrice ineffabile.
Apr 03, 2013 Jennifer rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography
I watched the movie.

I became obsessed with this woman.

I read this biography.

I wanted to be this woman.
Tom Johnson
Sep 05, 2016 Tom Johnson rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
another difficult to rate book as it ranged from a tedious three to a heart-felt five. For myself Judith's book failed to give Tanne a sympathetic personality. I have ordered a "lot of 3 Dinesen books". Out of Africa was a worthy read now to further sample Dinesen's literary works. Also would like to read Linda Donelson's book, Out of Isak Dinesen (not too crazy about the title). Some notes of interest to me: Tanne's dad at one time had a cabin in the frontier forest of Wisconsin, KB never reali ...more
Aug 01, 2007 Kay rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a terrific biography, but as one might expect Dinesen/Blixen was an exceedingly complex and at time difficult woman, and this biography doesn't shy away from some of the more unflattering aspects of Blixen's character. Thurman plumbs her psyche in a way that isn't overly psychoanalytic but which still makes it clear what Blixen's driving forces were.

Perhaps it is my own prejudices, but I enjoyed the first half of the book, which involved Blixen's childhood and her life in Africa, more t
Czarny Pies
Dec 19, 2016 Czarny Pies rated it it was amazing
Cette biographique de Karen Blixen, la plus grande écrivaine dans le genre fantastique depuis Théophile Gautier, est absolument extraordinaire. Thurman prétend qu'elle a fait plus de recherches sur les 17 ans que Blixen a passé en Afrique que ses biographes danois. Si c'est vrai, ca ne veut pas dire que l'examen que fait Thurman sur les années danoises n'est pas excellent.

Dans ce livre, Thurman raconte avec brio la vie d'une grande auteur. En meme temps elle fait un portrait exquis de la vie des
Dec 12, 2014 Ahf rated it really liked it
I read it first when it came out. Dinesen was such an interesting woman, certainly a storyteller of extraordinary power. She was a feminist, and anorectic to draw men to her. She was independent, moving to Kenya to farm (essentially on her own, her husband was no help) and yet, so eager to please her lover that she acted a part in his presence most of the time. She hated middle class brits as bourgeoisie, and really treated "her" African servants well for the time. She was arrogant beyond belief ...more
Jan 22, 2009 Janice rated it liked it
I picked up a dog-eared copy of this book at a booksale shortly before traveling to Kenya, thinking it would be interesting to read about Karen Blixen, though my knowledge of her was confined to the film of OUT OF AFRICA. And it was interesting, though the book required diligence on my part--its rewards are of the slow-and-steady variety. I came away more fascinated by the size, ambition, charisma, caprice and sorrow of the woman than I was inspired to read her ouevre (which I suspect may not be ...more
Jan 26, 2016 Bobbie rated it did not like it
This was one of 4 heavy - literally and figuratively - that came in on inter-library loans on the same day. I started this one first, thinking I'd find it an easy and engaging read. I gave it a shot, made it through 80 pages, forcing myself to pick it up each night, before I had to acknowledge I wasn't enjoying it. Ponderous, too many references, too much information. She was an interesting person, but for me, not enough to justify this level of beyond encyclopedic detail. When I switched from t ...more
Oct 19, 2010 Peggy is currently reading it
I am about half way through. I have 'Seven Gothic Tales' waiting for me at the library to pick up so I can read more of her writings.
She is a free spirit lady, not what I am. I have friends that are 'free spirits' that I greatly admire. But I am not one of them.

When I read in this book how much she uses her family and acquaintances to model the characters in her writings it gave me pause on the story 'Babette's Feast'. I think that one may have been modeled on her mother's family, the Westenhol
Sep 12, 2010 Arlene rated it it was ok
How appropriate is it that this biography about the "life of a storyteller" is the most incredibly complete story telling of the storyteller herself. By far, the most interesting stories are about the eccentric Isak Dinesen's twenty years spent in Africa. It was the time period (early 20th century), when Africa was the place in which most people have embedded their romantic images. To Isak Dinesen, Africa (and life itself) was far more real and incredibly more complicated.
Kathie H
Aug 12, 2007 Kathie H rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: "Adults"
This book has more dog-eared pages than any book in my library. It is like a handbook for how to live a happy life. Books about Africa in the early 1900s greatly appeal to me, but reading about how astoundingly-gifted writer Karen Blixen stumbled & groped her way through a long, tumultuous lifetime - making many mistakes along the way (sometimes learning from them, sometimes not) - resonated deeply with me.
Ann A
Oct 25, 2011 Ann A rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, biography
Winner of the National Book Award in 1983. Not an easy read, but worth it if you like in-depth, literary biography, and you're very curious about Isak Dinesen. I didn't get a feel for who she really was from reading Out of Africa, and I wanted to know more. My sense is that she was a fascinating woman, if not necessarily likeable. I do want to read some more of her writings (mostly short stories), which are discussed at length in this book.
Nov 15, 2011 Lisa rated it really liked it
Very good biography. It has to be both rewarding and challenging to write about someone who felt that her life was one big narrative project, and this was really well done and thorough -- you got a feeling for the sense of Dinesen's life, both her own and from those around her, not just the details and dates. Which is what I really want from a biography, and this one definitely captured her whole dramatic, messy essence.
Jan 16, 2011 Daphne added it
If you stick it out, you'll feel you've been through the ringer by the time you finish this one. Dinesen's life was hard, romantic and endlessly creative, and her various fiery relationships (friendships and romance) nearly wear the reader out--but I was thoroughly engaged in this book and fascinated by Dinesen's life and adventures. It's a detailed chronicling of her literary development and the reception at home and oversees of her books--beautifully done.
Othón León
Nov 25, 2012 Othón León rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography
For some reason Karin von Blixen (Isak Dinesen) has one of the most fascinating lives I have ever heard of. Perhaps because of the intensity of her love affairs or maybe because of the willingnes to face life challenges or even due to her way of turning fatality into poetry. Best choice. No doubt. Delicious at sharing with Mozart...
Apr 11, 2011 Brittany rated it really liked it
I am so thoroughly intrigued with Africa and the idea of an adventurous woman taken to living life on her own terms... I am enjoying this but it is dense - every little details of her early life, and her parents early life, and her aunts and... Etc. This one may take me a little while to finish, especially as i have a tendency to read a multitude of things at the same time...
Nov 28, 2008 Becky rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I actually am listening to the book on tape version narrated by Davina Porter. Isak Dinesen/Karen Blitzen is the author of Out of Africa and her life was an amazing one. She suffered most of her life from syphilis which she caught from her husband. Her life in Africa, her struggles, her triumphs, her passion, her personality--all make this a fascinating "read."
May 03, 2011 Nancy rated it really liked it
I became interested in learning more about Ms. Dinesen after reading her memoir “Out Of Africa,” that I read previous to this—still haven’t come across it as I go through books I’ve had stored in the garage. She was a woman ahead of her time and led a fascinating life. This was an excellent supplement to her own story.
Alice Verberne
Jan 17, 2011 Alice Verberne rated it really liked it
One of my favorite writers. This book digs into the life of an amazing woman and the history of her life. Karen Von Blixen's life was more interesting and amazing than her book reveal which makes this book even more worth reading than first imagined. Her books such as Babbette's Feast and Out of Africa are fascinating vignettes of her life and lifestyle, which this book tells about in detail.
Jul 08, 2007 Michael rated it really liked it
I love Out of Africa (though I can't abide the movie), and have different feelings about her short stories. But as a reader, i think I prefer her life itself. There is more drama and heartbreak here than anything she later got on paper. Grim and magnificent.
Laurie Mcclary
Aug 20, 2012 Laurie Mcclary rated it really liked it
Well written book about the author behind the book "Out of Africa". Interesting to read what went on in her life to cuase motivation to write the book. She was an eccentric that was driven or held back (depending on how you look at it) by her battle with syphillis. Now to read "Out of Africa".
Dec 27, 2011 Jossalyn rated it liked it

read for westridge alum book club- we had on the list for 1/09 but I wasnt able to get through it then. sat on my bedside table for a long while. picked it up and enjoyed it.
winner National Book award 1983
Sep 18, 2014 Zabette rated it it was amazing
This is one of the best biographies I've ever read. It was more of a psychological biography than a physical one, explaining what eventually led Isak Dinesen to write her books, and why she wrote about what she did. But the events in her life are fascinating as well.
Patience Blythe
Loved this book: Isak Dinesen is a big hero of mine and it was amazing to see that Out of Africa, while a lynchpin in her story, was just one of many. I definitely recommended this beautifully crafted biography despite how long it took me to read it!
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Judith Thurman began contributing to The New Yorker in 1987, and became a staff writer in 2000. She writes about fashion, books, and culture. Her subjects have included André Malraux, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Cristóbal Balenciaga.

Thurman is the author of “Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller,” which won the 1983 National Book Award for Non-Fiction, and “Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette,” (
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