November 20, 2007

Book Smart: Book Reports

The Cleft: A NovelBy Doris Lessing. HarperCollins; 260 pgs., $25.95.    Doris Lessing, whose breakthrough novel “The Golden Notebook” was released in 1962, won this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. Lessing, 88, is the 11th woman and oldest recipient. “The Golden Notebook” was embraced in the ’60s for underscoring women’s struggles, although Lessing has never seen herself as a feminist.    That’s rather surprising, because her latest novel, published in July, is titled “The Cleft.” Lessing excavates back to the past, offering an explanation of not only how people came to be, but hints of where the root of mythology sprung forth. The novel delves into the possibility that the human race was the product of evolution derived from sea creatures — and that they were all female at first.    A Roman historian narrates the recorded oral history of the Clefts and the Monsters (later known as the Squirts, and yes, the first males), who each have their own separate accounts, already signifying two different viewpoints. He threads their story with his own life, trying to illuminate the altercations that take place between men and women. The act of “the Othering” is first introduced through the differences of the physicality between the sexes, and then the internal. Are men really from Mars and women from Venus? Maybe. But Lessing proves that both reside on Earth, and should learn to deal with it for better or worse. —Claudia OleaA Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights RevolutionBy David A. Nichols. Simon and Schuster; 354 pgs., $27.    Commonly received wisdom tells us that the Eisenhower years were a quiet, almost sleepy time of respite and post-war recuperation. It is also portrayed as the last era of institutionalized, LEGAL racial discrimination, and that easy-going old Papa Ike was perfectly content with the status quo. David A. Nichols’ new book goes a long way toward dismantling that narrative and shredding the inherited mythology that makes up its foundation.    Eisenhower was a doer, not a talker, Nichols argues, and a recently released trove of Ike’s personal documents make that claim plausible indeed. The president, according to Nichols, was more effective than Truman (his predecessor), Kennedy and Johnson (his successors) at mitigating the racial disparities that were wearing away at the nation.    Nichols spends much of his time discussing fine legal points and back-room political machinations that surrounded both the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 and the Little Rock school desegregation crisis of 1957. Those events led pretty directly to the mainstreaming of the Civil Rights movement and its freedom riders, folk singers and measured successes.      The cast of characters includes Adam Clayton Powell, E. Frederick Morrow, Roy Wilkins, George Hayes, Thurgood Marshall and, of course, Dr. King. It’s clear, though, that Nichols’ primary affections are for the president and his handpicked (white) facilitators. These include some decent public servants: Chief Justice Earl Warren and Ike's two attorneys general, Herbert Brownell and William Rogers. The liberal federal judgeships and appointments of these years neatly put the lie to the image of Eisenhower as harmlessly complacent and uninformed. In fact, when it came to race, Ike was (at least intermittently) on the case. —Paul Kopasz