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2009 Notable Biographies of Women Writers

2009 seems to have been rich with biographies of women writers. We don't know if this is unusual for any given year, or rather just a coincidence that so many biographers finished up at about the same time, but we like it! We have scoured the publisher catalogs for some of the most interesting biographies and presented them here, with excerpts from their publisher's synopses, for your reading pleasure. We have also included two books of 'conversations', and one journal. Together, these books illuminate the lives of a fascinating and varied group of 19th and 20th Century women writers.

The picture on our homepage leading to this section, is of the actors playing the Alcott family in the new PBS documentary about Louisa May Alcott. For a link to a preview of the film, see Harriet Reisin's companion book below.

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Jill Roe

2009 Queensland Premier's Literary Award.
Born in the Australian bush, Stella Miles Franklin became an international publishing sensation in 1901, at the age of 21, with My Brilliant Career, whose portrayal of an ambitious and independent woman defying social expectations still captivates readers. In a magisterial biography, Jill Roe details Miles' extraordinary life. The culmination of decades of research in thousands of papers left by Miles, Her Brilliant Career stands as the definitive life of this remarkable writer and feminist.

Harvard/Belknap, hardcover, 9780674036093
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Benjamin Mosher

"That rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf," said translator Gregory Rabassa. Clarice Lispector is one of the most popular but least understood of Latin American writers. Now, after years of research on three continents, drawing on previously unknown manuscripts and dozens of interviews, Benjamin Moser demonstrates how Lispector's art was directly connected to her turbulent life. Born amidst the horrors of post-World War I Ukraine, Clarice's beauty, genius, and eccentricity intrigued Brazil virtually from her adolescence. Why This World tells how this precocious girl, through long exile abroad and difficult personal struggles, matured into a great writer, and asserts, for the first time, the deep roots in the Jewish mystical tradition that make her both the heir to Kafka and the unlikely author of "perhaps the greatest spiritual autobiography of the twentieth century." From Ukraine to Recife, from Naples and Berne to Washington and Rio de Janeiro, Why This World shows how Clarice Lispector transformed one woman's struggles into a universally resonant art.

Oxford University Press, hardcover, 9780195385564
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Nicola Beauman

Betty Coles became Elizabeth Taylor upon her marriage in 1936. Her first novel appeared in the same year, 1945, as the actress Elizabeth Taylor was appearing in National Velvet and began her ascent to stardom. Meanwhile, over the next thirty years, 'the other Elizabeth Taylor' lived and worked in Buckinghamshire and published eleven more novels and four volumes of short stories. The Other Elizabeth Taylor tries to give this marvellous novelist her due while describing her life as truthfully as possible.

Persephone Books, hardcover, 9781906462100
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Bradley C. Edwards, Editor

The first naturalized citizen to win the National Book Critics Circle Award, Bharati Mukherjee (b. 1940), born into a rigid hierarchy as a Bengali Brahmin and raised in the elite of Calcutta society, joined the American masses by choice. This journey from a privileged yet circumscribed life to one of free will and risk supplied the experiences she has turned into literature. From her first interview, originally published over three decades ago in her native tongue Bengali in the Calcutta journal Desh and appearing here for the first time in English, to an in-depth interview in 2007 granted specifically for this collection, this volume provides a candid look at the woman who has been called the grande dame of diasporic Indian literature. Mukherjee is the author of Jasmine and six other novels, several short story collections, a memoir, and several books of nonfiction.

Univ. Press of Mississippi, paperback, 9781604732276

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Lilian Pizzichinl

Jean Rhys (1890-1979) is best known for her 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea. A prequel to Jane Eyre, Rhys's revolutionary work reimagined the story of Bertha Rochester– the misunderstood "madwoman in the attic"—who was driven to insanity by cruelties beyond her control. The Blue Hour performs a similar exhumation of Rhys's life, which was haunted by demons from within and without. Its examination of Rhys's pain and loss charts her desperate journey from the jungles of Dominica to a British boarding school, and then into an adult life scarred by three failed marriages, the deaths of her two children, and her long battle with alcoholism.

A mesmerizing evocation of a fragile and brilliant mind, The Blue Hour explores the crucial element that ultimately spared Rhys from the fate of her most famous protagonist: a genius that rescued her, again and again, from the abyss.

W.W.Norton, hardcover, 9780393058031

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Panthea Reid

In her classic short story "I Stand Here Ironing" and her groundbreaking Tell Me a Riddle, Yonnondido, and Silences, Olsen scripted powerful, moving prose about ordinary people's lives, exposing the pervasive effects of sexism, racism, and classism and elevating motherhood and women's creativity into topics of study. Popularly referred to as "Saint Tillie," Olsen was hailed by many as the mother of modern feminism.

Based on diaries, letters, manuscripts, private documents, resurrected public records, and countless interviews, Reid's artfully crafted biography untangles some of the puzzling knots of the last century's triumphs and failures and speaks truth to legend, correcting fabrications and myths about and also by Tillie Olsen.

Rutgers Univ. Press, Hardcover, 9780813546377, Forthcoming: January 2010

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Susan Sontag, Edited by David Rieff

"In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself."

The first of three volumes of Susan Sontag's journals and notebooks, Reborn (1947-1963) reveals one of the most important thinkers and writers of the twentieth century, fully engaged in the act of self-invention. Beginning with a voracious and prodigious fourteen-year-old, Reborn ends as Sontag, age thirty, is finally living in New York as a published writer.

Picador, paperback, 9780312428501

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Nadine Gordimer

Few writers have been so much at the center of historical events as Nadine Gordimer. Telling Times, the first comprehensive collection of her nonfiction, bears insightful witness to the forces that have shaped the last half century. It includes reports from Soweto during the 1976 uprising, Zimbabwe at the dawn of independence, and Africa at the start of the AIDS pandemic, as well as illuminating portraits of Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and many others. Committed first and foremost to art, Gordimer appraises the legacies of hallowed writers like Tolstoy, Proust, and Conrad, and engages vigorously with contemporaries like Achebe, Said, and Soyinka. No other writer has so consistently evoked the feel of Africa—its landscapes, cities, and people—through a remarkable range of travel writing from Tanzania, Egypt, and along the Congo River. Telling Times is an extraordinary summation from a writer whose enduring courage and commitment to human freedom have made her a moral compass of her time.

Nadine Gordimer won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991. Her nonfiction has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, and publications all over the world. She lives in Johannesburg.

W. W. Norton, hardcover, 9780393066289 (December)

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Harriet Reisin

Louisa May Alcott portrays a writer as worthy of interest in her own right as her most famous character, Jo March, and addresses all aspects of Alcott's life: the effect of her father's self-indulgent utopian schemes; her family's chronic economic difficulties and frequent uprootings; her experience as a nurse in the Civil War; the loss of her health and frequent recourse to opiates in search of relief from migraines, insomnia, and symptomatic pain. Stories and details culled from Alcott's journals; her equally rich letters to family, friends, publishers, and admiring readers; and the correspondence, journals, and recollections of her family, friends, and famous contemporaries provide the basis for this lively account of the author's classic rags-to-riches tale.

This biography explores Alcott's life in the context of her works, all of which are to some extent autobiographical. A fresh, modern take on this remarkable and prolific writer, who secretly authored pulp fiction, harbored radical abolitionist views, and completed heroic service as a Civil War nurse, Louisa May Alcott is in the end also the story of how the all-time beloved American classic Little Women came to be.

For a sneak peak at the documentary of Louisa May Alcott written and produced by Harriet Reisen; directed and produced by Nancy Porter, and scheduled to air in December on PBS stations (US), visit the publisher's web site

Henry Holt & Co., hardcover, 9780805082999
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Joan Schenkar

Patricia Highsmith, one of the great writers of 20th Century American fiction, had a life as darkly compelling as that of her favorite "hero-criminal," talented Tom Ripley. In this revolutionary biography, Joan Schenkar paints a riveting portrait, from Highsmith's birth in Texas to Hitchcock's filming of her first novel, Strangers On a Train, to her long, strange, self-exile in Europe. We see her as a secret writer for the comics, a brilliant creator of disturbing fictions, and erotic predator with dozens of women (and a few good men) on her love list.

The Talented Miss Highsmith is the first literary biography with access to Highsmith's whole story: her closest friends, her oeuvre, her archives. It's a compulsive page-turner unlike any other, a book worthy of Highsmith herself.

St. Martin's Press, hardcover, 9780312303754, (December)
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Conseula Francis, Editor

"I write about people who do extraordinary things. It just turned out that it was called science fiction."

Octavia Butler (1947-2006) spent the majority of her prolific career as the only major black female author of science fiction. Winner of both the Nebula and Hugo Awards as well as a MacArthur "genius" grant, the first for a science fiction writer, Butler created worlds that challenged notions of race, sex, gender, and humanity. In interviews ranging from 1980 until just before her sudden death in 2006, Conversations with Octavia Butler reveals a writer very much aware of herself as the "rare bird" of science fiction even as she shows frustration with the constant question, "How does it feel to be the only one?"

Whether discussing humanity's biological imperatives or the difference between science fiction and fantasy or the plight of the working poor in America, Butler emerges in these interviews as funny, intelligent, complicated, and intensely original.

Univ. Press of Mississippi, paperback, 9781604732764 (December)
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Jennifer Burns

Worshipped by her fans, denounced by her enemies, and forever shadowed by controversy and scandal, the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand was a powerful thinker whose views on government and markets shaped the conservative movement from its earliest days. Drawing on unprecedented access to Rand's private papers and the original, unedited versions of Rand's journals, Jennifer Burns offers a groundbreaking reassessment of this key cultural figure, examining her life, her ideas, and her impact on conservative political thought.

Goddess of the Market follows Rand from her childhood in Russia through her meteoric rise from struggling Hollywood screenwriter to bestselling novelist, including the writing of her wildly successful The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged . This extraordinary book captures the life of the woman who was a tireless champion of capitalism and the freedom of the individual, and whose ideas are still devoured by eager students, debated on blogs, cited by political candidates, and promoted by corporate tycoons.

Oxford University Press, hardcover, 9780195324877
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Lily Tuck

Elsa Morante was born in 1912 to an unconventional family of modest means. She grew up with an independent spirit, a formidable will, and a commitment to writing—she wrote her first poem when she was just two years old. During World War II, Morante and her husband, the celebrated writer Alberto Moravia, were forced to flee occupied Rome—Moravia was half-Jewish (as was she) and wanted by the Fascists—and hide out in a remote mountain hut. After the war, Morante published a series of prize-winning novels, including Arturo's Island and History, a seminal account of the war, which established her as one of the leading Italian writers of her day.

Wonderfully researched with the cooperation of the Morante Estate, filled with personal interviews, and written in graceful and succinct prose, Woman of Rome introduces the reader to a woman of fierce intelligence, powerful imagination, and original talent.

Harper Perennial, paperback, 9780061472596
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Brad Gooch

The landscape of American literature was fundamentally changed when Flannery O'Connor stepped onto the scene with her first published book, Wise Blood, in 1952. Her fierce, sometimes comic novels and stories reflected the darkly funny, vibrant, and theologically sophisticated woman who wrote them. Brad Gooch brings to life O'Connor's significant friendships - with Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, Walker Percy and James Dickey among others - and her deeply felt convictions, as expressed in her communications with Thomas Merton, Elizabeth Bishop, and Betty Hester. Hester was famously known as 'A' in O'Connor's collected letters, The Habit of Being, and a large cache of correspondence to her from O'Connor was made available to scholars, including Brad Gooch, in 2006.

Little, Brown & Co., hardcover, 9780316000666