Genre: Historical Biofiction vs. Biography

Tuesday, March 21, 2017 9:45 – Noon
Location: South Hadley Public Library
Genre: Historical Biofiction vs. Biography
Benchmark: Choose 2 of your own titles, on the same person.



Name: Jan Resnick
Title: Leaving Cold Sassy: the unfinished sequel to Cold Sassy Tree with a reminiscence
Author: Olive Ann Burns
Appeal Factors: Pace: Fast; Characters: Well-developed; likeable; Story: Character-driven; Language: Engaging, colloquial; Tone: Upbeat; heartwarming; Frame: Cold Sassy GA (aka P.C. Progressive City), 1917; Reminiscence: Pace: Fast; Characters: Likeable; empathetic; Language: Engaging, colloquial; Tone: Upbeat; heartwarming; Frame: Georgia, 1970’s – 1990

Summary/Thoughts: Leaving Cold Sassy is an unfinished sequel to the Southern classic Cold Sassy Tree. It takes place 10 years after the first novel. Many of the earlier characters reappear, and the reader meets Sanna, the young woman Will Tweedy will eventually marry. The sequel helps move the full story along, but leaves the reader wanting more, and leads to rereading the original.

The most compelling part of the book is the reminiscence written by Burn’s editor Kristina Kenison. Olive Ann and Katrina built a long, warm relationship that lasted until the author’s death from cancer. The story of Burn’s life, career and marriage is fascinating and inspirational. She enjoyed her career and was delighted by the success of her novel. Readers who enjoy family or small town novels or biography should find Leaving Cold Sassy a good read. Recommended.

Readalikes: Stephen King – On Writing; That’s Me in the Middle – Donald Lamont Jack; Kaye Gibbons – Divining Women; Call It Sleep – Henry Roth; Juliette Faye – The Tumbling Turner Sisters; To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee; Annie Barrows – The Truth According to Us; The Persian Pickle Club – Sandra Dallas; Ivan Doig – The Whistling Season; Adriana Trigiani novels, particularly The Queen of the Big Time; Boston Girl – Anita Diamant; Miles Hood Swarthout – The Last Shootist

Name: Jan Resnick
Title: Virginia Woolf: a biography
Author: Quentin Bell
Appeal Factors: Pace: Deliberate (print – small); Characters: Complex, well revealed; authentic, flawed; Story: Chronological; Language: Compelling, richly detailed; Tone: Strong sense of time and place; Frame: Primarily London, 1882 – 1941

Summary/Thoughts: Quentin Bell’s biography of his aunt Virginia Woolf was only the second published about her. Unlike later biographies, this is strictly historical avoiding the literary criticism included in other titles. The initial section of the book outlines the family biography and lineage. It briefly sets up the family history and gives a view of Virginia’s parents’ background and their impact upon her.

This volume includes: Volume 1 Virginia Stephens 1882-1912 (216p.); Volume 2 Mrs. Woolf 1912-1941 (314p.); 115 pages of chronology, appendices and indexes.

This biography feels massive but over a quarter of it is footnotes and other documents. It also includes photos. It is easily possible to read the narrative and skip the footnotes if the reader chooses. There are lots of names, places and dates for those who appreciate them, but the narrative is linear and clear. If the author plans to follow-up with information at a later point, it is clearly indicated. Bell was an historian having a clear respect for his subject, with, as a member of the family, access to all the personal materials about her as well as access to her husband Leonard Woolf.

The biography reads easily, though the amount of detail slows the pace. Virginia Woolf was a very complex woman at a very complex time. This history puts the Bloomsbury group in a context for the reader. Virginia Woolf is a sympathetic biography, but not an indulgent one. Recommended.

Readalikes: Michael Cunningham’s The Hours; Susan Sellers – Vanessa and Virginia; The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland; Tracy Chevalier – Burning Bright; Becoming Jane Austen – Jon Spence; Jane Austen by Carol Shields; Douglas Gresham’s Jack’s Life (C.S. Lewis); Wodehouse by Robert McCrum; Julia Briggs – Virginia Woolf: an inner life; Ruth Gruber – Virginia Woolf: the will to create as a woman; Viviane Forrester – Virginia Woolf: a portrait; Hermione Lee – Virginia Woolf’s Nose: essays on biography.

Name: Jan Resnick
Title: Vanessa and her Sister (Virginia Woolf)
Author: Priya Parmar
Appeal Factors: Pace: Fast; Characters: Complex, beautifully revealed; authentic, flawed; Story: Character-driven; Language: Lyrical, elegant, compelling, witty, richly detailed; Tone: Serene, atmospheric; strong sense of time and place; Frame: Bloomsbury London, 1905-1912

Summary/Thoughts: The focus of this insightful biographical novel is the Stephen siblings, primarily painter Vanessa and her younger writer sister Virginia (Woolf). Told through a series of diary entries, letters, telegrams, and tickets, the reader gets to know the Bloomsbury group as it evolved into a hub of culture and the risqué contrast to Victorian values.

Vanessa and Virginia are just beginning to develop as true artists against the background of Virginia’s instability and mental illness. The artists and writers in their brother’s circle provide a background as well as stimulation to their skills. They also provide context for their competition.

Thoby, the eldest son brings in most of the group as extensions of his college friendships. Vanessa, the eldest, is the anchor of the home, the planner, organizer, and when necessary, the rock for Virginia’s flights and panics.

The novel reads very quickly and smoothly as the author bridges between Vanessa’s imagined journal and letters, telegrams, and postcards written by the various members of the group. The characters are gradually revealed in all there complexity. A wonderful read accessible to those who know the writers/artists and those who would now like to. Highly recommended. LibraryReads Favorites 2015, New York Times Notable Books 2015).

Readalikes: Michael Cunningham’s The Hours; Mrs. Engels by Gavin Mccrea; Susan Sellers – Vanessa and Virginia; Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh; Norah Vincent’s Adeline; Jo Baker – A Country Road, A Tree; Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise by Oscar Hijuelos; Nancy Horan – Under the Wide and Starry Sky; The Dream Lover – Elizabeth Berg; The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland; Tracy Chevalier – Burning Bright; Frida by Barbara Louise Mujica.