PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... powerful ... Mr. Gorra demonstrates convincingly that this unshakable past for Faulkner came increasingly to involve race ... Mr. Gorra does not try to defend the indefensible. But he also refuses to reflexively \'cancel\' Faulkner—to jettison Faulkner from the American canon because of his attitudes. Instead, the critic offers a reason to continue reading the novelist that will strike readers as either generous or misguided ... If writing enabled Faulkner to become a better person, at least while writing, why did this process fail to affect the rest of his life? And to what extent should we make claims for literature as a transformative force in a world in which systemic injustice can continue unabated?
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Horwitz’s journalistic approach is to remain open to experience and allow readers to form judgments for themselves. As in his previous works, his generosity of spirit enables him to strike up conversations with a broad cross section of Americans living and working below the Mason-Dixon Line ... it is the people Mr. Horwitz encounters that make his book a compelling report on the state of our present disunion. Speaking with a seemingly endless cast of perceptive, funny and welcoming Southerners, he debunks the preconceptions of his Northern neighbors who imagine \'deep-red Texas\' as little more than an \'arid, alien, and hostile\' territory ... Gradually a picture emerges of a region still wrestling with the aftereffects of slavery, the Civil War and the failure of Reconstruction ... The Civil War continues to be fought, in Mr. Horwitz’s telling, over the relative status of white and black people.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalBefore the rise of the internet in the 1990s, the period of greatest technological innovation in the U.S. occurred during the first half of the 19th century. The railroad, the telegraph and the photograph conspired to shrink time and space in this era and, in the process, to knit together an increasingly far-flung people in the expanding nation. In Barons of the Sea, the nautical historian Steven Ujifusa chronicles another invention—the clipper ship—and the immense fortunes that both propelled and resulted from its development ... The book is almost a beginner’s manual in sailing and is infused by a clear love for the regal triple-masters of the past. But while it is filled with vivid portraits of the key players in America’s sailing dynasties, the focus on the ships themselves sometimes squeezes out more human stories. More attention could have been spent, for instance, on the remarkable Eleanor Creesy, whose knowledge of astronomy and oceanic currents rivaled those of her male peers. About the crews of the clippers we learn very little ... But these are small flaws. Mr. Ujifusa’s subject ultimately is a handful of vessels, as ephemeral as they were fast, that nonetheless produced fortunes still with us to this day.
Laura Dassow Walls
RaveThe Wall Street JournalIn her richly rewarding Henry David Thoreau: A Life, Laura Dassow Walls rescues Thoreau from the caricatures that have adhered to him since his most famous work was published ... Ms. Walls convincingly shows that Thoreau’s journals are his second great masterpiece. Here Thoreau finally overcame the influence of Emerson to become a meticulous observer of natural phenomena ... If the Thoreau beyond Walden is an author for our time, then Laura Dassow Walls is his biographer.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"Neither as nuanced nor as detailed as Louis Menand’s epic The Metaphysical Club (2001), Mr. Kaag’s book is ultimately less concerned with the historical context of pragmatism than it is with how that tradition might help us moderns survive and even thrive ... the bigger problem is that his passion for books shows how little connected he is to actual, living people...All this changes, however, with the arrival of Carol Hay, a feminist Kantian colleague who gradually pulls the narrator out of his depressive self-absorption and helps him to experience the world. Ms. Hay is a vivid presence in the book, a current of warmth in a sometimes chilly account of existential despair.\
Anne Boyd Rioux
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalAnne Boyd Rioux’s well-researched and highly readable Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist offers a fresh reappraisal of Woolson’s life and writing, but it is only half successful in freeing its subject from James’s literary orbit.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe burden of T.J. Stiles’s epic, ambitious, bursting-at-the-seams biography, Custer’s Trials, is to show that for 30-some years preceding Little Bighorn, Custer (1839-76) was shaped by forces every bit as powerful and overwhelming as Sitting Bull’s army of warriors on that infamous summer day.