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Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller

4.07  ·  Rating details ·  1,184 ratings  ·  65 reviews
Winner of the National Book Award

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
Hardcover, 495 pages
Published September 1st 1982 by St. Martin's Press (first published January 1st 1982)
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Average rating 4.07  · 
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 ·  1,184 ratings  ·  65 reviews

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Anastasia Hobbet
Aug 18, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
This is a very good book. Much better, IMHO, than the book that Dinesen wrote herself, Out of Africa.

Coupled with another great book, Circling the Sun, by Paula McClain, it describes an unknown and romantic world in the country of Kenya.
Mary Havens
Mar 22, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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.
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
Dec 28, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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,loved h
Jul 08, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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. ...more
Apr 03, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
I watched the movie.

I became obsessed with this woman.

I read this biography.

I wanted to be this woman.
Apr 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Aug 01, 2007 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
Sep 12, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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. ...more
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. ...more
Othón A. León
Nov 25, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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...
Kris Norvig
Oct 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I had just read a trifecta of : "Out of Africa", "West With the Night" & "Circling the Sun" & wanted to know a bit more about Ms. Dinesen. Such a complex & ineffable woman. If nothing else, her sheer stamina to keep on writing & living in the face of all of her health woes is nothing short of heroic. But she is so much more than that. The book gives a great depth & breadth of information about Isak Dinesen & her family & colleagues, but surprisingly, leaves you feeling that you will never know t ...more
Fran Johnson
Jan 09, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: africa, biography
This is the story of Danish writer Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixon of "Out of Africa" fame. Although Africa was extremely important to Karen, time wise it was a relatively small part of her long and often painful life. She traveled and wrote extensively , was admired by many, and lived a life rich in experiences and famous friends. I have seen her "farm" in Kenya and her home in Denmark is open to the public.

While not an authorized biography the author did have access to letters, unpublished manuscrip
Elizabeth Tittle
Oct 23, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I felt, at times, I needed to close the book and read something lighter. But I’m delighted to have finished it. I knew very little about Isak Dinesen, aside from her being the author of Babette’s Feast and Out of Africa. I found myself in possession of this huge book and thought it would be a great read for the fall season. It was so well researched and written. Sometimes I adored Dinesen, other times I despised her, especially in the way she manipulated people in her life. This is a book that w ...more
Aug 31, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
My favorite movie is "Out of Africa", I haven't read the book though. This book on the life of Isak Dinesen gives the reader an insight into the person. She had very high morals and her ideas of how life should be lived/run. To be suffering a debilitating illness that had been passed on to her by her husband in that time affected her whole life. I think she would have been involved in more physical outlets and stayed in Africa rather than moving back to Denmark and the stuffiness of life there. ...more
May 03, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I can't explain why I felt compelled, almost obsessed, to learn more of the life of Karen Blixen, but fortunately, Judith Thurman had a similar obsession in the years she researched and wrote this excellent work, as well as the literary chops to interpret the subject's art. This is not a book with mass appeal, but if you are enthralled with the writings of Isak Dinesen and want to understand the storyteller's life and influences, it is exceptional. ...more
Aug 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was a little difficult to read at the beginning, but when she got to Africa, I was totally enthralled! I loved the movie! Her life had so many difficult times, but she was an extremely hopeful and loving woman. She did so much for the Africans in her vicinity. I recommend the book! It is quite overwhelming when you see the number of pages and print size though.
Jan 18, 2021 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I wanted to love this book, because I read Out of Africa and loved it, but this book was so hard to get through. I was a little confused by the names, which may be my own fault, but it got easier to read about 1/4 way through and especially when Isak got to Africa.
Debra Parmley
I tried for over a year to finish this book and just could not, though I love Isak Dinesen's writings. ...more
Sep 20, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is my favorite now, I love it!
Oct 23, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Well written. Huge amount of research. Very interesting. Isak Dinesen comes accross as a complicated person.
Olga Vannucci
Nov 14, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
She failed at her African fahm,
But succeeded at being a grand dahm.
Mar 03, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Excellent, but more information than I needed!
Tom Johnson
Sep 05, 2016 rated it really liked it
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
Jan 22, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 12, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Jan 26, 2016 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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
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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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