If this is the Thoreau you don’t know, it’s also a Sullivan you don’t expect.




“What if the Thoreau you think of as a refuge-seeking mystic,” asks literary journalist Sullivan, “is a humorist with the eye of a social satirist?”

Readers of his previous volumes on whaling, rats and road trips (Cross Country, 2006, etc.) may be surprised by his latest book. Sullivan did not spend a week on the Concord and Merrimack or journey to the Maine woods or Cape Cod; he did not even go to Walden Pond until the final (dazzling) chapter. His text focuses instead on reading, thinking and writing, with Sullivan’s normally remarkable “I” regrettably concealed in a thicket of scholarly diction and convention. All the trappings of traditional academic volumes are here: thick block quotations, lengthy discursive and/or digressive footnotes, cavils with previous Thoreauvians, textual exegeses and dense passages on Transcendentalism, Fourierism, Swedenborgianism. Most chapters do feature some of Sullivan’s familiar touches, including detours, often more engaging than his thoroughfare, on the economy of 19th-century Concord, bean growing, the shipwreck that killed Margaret Fuller and utopian communities. Inviting us to imagine Henry David Thoreau (1817–62) at various pivotal or quotidian moments, the author offers thoughts both novel and illuminating. His research is prodigious, though the book seems to have been written to impress academics rather than to attract general readers. Nonetheless, this Thoreau is a more interesting and complex fellow than the pervasive tree-hugging, hermitical caricature. He could be a jerk, but he was manifestly not a loafer. Sullivan spotlights Thoreau’s work ethic, his business sense, his willingness to help others, his abolitionist sympathies, his belief that nature was all-encompassing and his insistence that change begins within, then ripples outward.

If this is the Thoreau you don’t know, it’s also a Sullivan you don’t expect.

Pub Date: April 1, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-06-171031-5

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Collins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2009

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Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

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One of history’s most prolific inventors receives his due from one of the world’s greatest biographers.

Pulitzer and National Book Award winner Morris (This Living Hand and Other Essays, 2012, etc.), who died this year, agrees that Thomas Edison (1847-1931) almost certainly said, “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” and few readers of this outstanding biography will doubt that he was the quintessential workaholic. Raised in a middle-class Michigan family, Edison displayed an obsessive entrepreneurial spirit from childhood. As an adolescent, he ran a thriving business selling food and newspapers on a local railroad. Learning Morse code, he spent the Civil War as a telegrapher, impressing colleagues with his speed and superiors with his ability to improve the equipment. In 1870, he opened his own shop to produce inventions to order. By 1876, he had money to build a large laboratory in New Jersey, possibly the world’s first industrial research facility. Never a loner, Edison hired talented people to assist him. The dazzling results included the first commercially successful light bulb for which, Morris reminds readers, he invented the entire system: dynamo, wires, transformers, connections, and switches. Critics proclaim that Edison’s innovations (motion pictures, fluoroscope, rechargeable batteries, mimeograph, etc.) were merely improvements on others’ work, but this is mostly a matter of sour grapes. Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone was a clunky, short-range device until it added Edison’s carbon microphone. And his phonograph flabbergasted everyone. Humans had been making images long before Daguerre, but no one had ever reproduced sound. Morris rivetingly describes the personalities, business details, and practical uses of Edison’s inventions as well as the massive technical details of years of research and trial and error for both his triumphs and his failures. For no obvious reason, the author writes in reverse chronological order, beginning in 1920, with each of the seven following chapters backtracking a decade. It may not satisfy all readers, but it works.

Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9311-0

Page Count: 800

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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