The birthplace of Karl Fleming, author of "Son of the Rough South," was incorrect in the June 12 issue of Book World. He was born in North Carolina. (Published 6/20/05)
A Yale graduate and Rhodes scholar, Naomi Wolf achieved fame with The Beauty Myth in 1991 and followed with three more books on feminism. When she worked for Al Gore's presidential campaign as an adviser on women's issues, critics sneered that she was helping choose the candidate's wardrobe and urging him to behave more like an alpha male -- allegations Wolf denied. Last March, to a chorus of mingled approbation and indignation, she revealed to New York magazine that famed literature scholar Harold Bloom had placed his "heavy, boneless hand" on her thigh when she was an undergraduate.
Her latest book, The Treehouse: Eccentric Wisdom from My Father on How to Live, Love and See (Simon & Schuster, $24), describes a retreat from the public arena. Having bought a rundown house in upstate New York, Wolf is building a treehouse for her daughter, Rosa. At the same time, she is working with her father, poet and professor Leonard Wolf, on a distillation of his philosophy about life and writing. Her memoir is both a sequence of lessons and a tribute to Leonard.
With chapter titles like "Be Still and Listen," "Identify Your Heart's Desire" and "Mistakes Are Part of the Draft," The Treehouse works primarily as a how-to book, but it is more literate and more thoughtfully crafted than most such offerings. Wolf interweaves descriptions of the construction of the treehouse (these sections are among the book's least interesting) with her father's observations, illustrating the latter with bits of his biography and personal stories. Exhortations that would otherwise be mere cliches -- approach one's work with both passion and discipline, pay attention to details, don't expect worldly success -- are redeemed by the ballast and authority of Leonard's voice.
The book has some problems. There's precious little humor, and Wolf tends to idealize and sentimentalize almost everyone she writes about. Her friends are all lovely and extraordinary in some way; her students constantly tremble on the verge of psychological and artistic breakthrough. Even her landscaper is a poet at heart.
Wolf does best when revealing her knowledge and analytic ability. She shines, for example, when describing the cultural differences between New York and California in the 1940s, discussing how writers survived the Depression and briefly addressing 18th-century landscapes. There are charming details, too, like a paragraph on her grandmother's cooking and another on her grandfather's aversion to a job that required him to kill chickens: "Jewish chickens are killed by a shokhet -- a religious slaughterer. That is ritual and related to God; this was just crude bloodletting. He hated it. Chickens, when you put their heads down, just give up; they lie there." This low-key memoir explores territory far removed from the bruising public arena.
When Mississippi Burned
Karl Fleming, who spent much of his professional life at Newsweek, is an old-fashioned kind of reporter -- hard-nosed, hard-drinking and dedicated to seeking the truth. His topic in Son of the Rough South: An Uncivil Memoir (PublicAffairs, $26.95) is one of the most important of the American 20th century: the struggle for civil rights.
In the best autobiographical tradition, Fleming's personal and professional stories work seamlessly together, each enhancing the other. Born in Virginia, he was taken to an orphanage at the age of 8 because his mother could not afford his keep. His years there were difficult but also structured and fruitful. Like many lonely children, Fleming found welcoming worlds between the pages of books. And his harsh upbringing fostered an enduring hatred of bullies.
His book covers familiar terrain: James Meredith's enrollment at the University of Mississippi, the church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four young girls, the murder of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.
But early in his career, Fleming was convinced by an editor of the importance of detail, and Son of the Rough South is full of telling observations that bring the familiar to life. So we learn that Meredith was not only courageous but also small, impassive and elegant; we understand the plight of federal marshals assigned to protect him, fighting for their lives amid a hail of rocks and bottles after Mississippi state troopers deserted their posts.
There are also fascinating smaller details. Fleming quotes an older Klansman at a cross burning: " 'These lazy young Klansmen,' he said, 'they don't have no respect for tradition, just get iron pipes, tie rags to 'em with wire and soak 'em with oil and make a nasty-smelling fire that leaves a mess afterwards.' " He describes an uneasy early attempt to socialize across the color line. After inviting an African American professor to dinner, Fleming decided to serve beef bourguignon rather than the Southern-fried chicken and buttermilk biscuits he himself loves for fear the latter might represent "a racist cliche." The dinner was cordial but stiff.
Despite his profound sympathy for the civil rights movement, Fleming is a scrupulously fair reporter. Son of the Rough South is a rich and absorbing book, a window into a time and place that defined America.
Desperately Seeking . . . Something
Julie Mars had always believed, or tried to believe, that "the universe is organized in such a way that every person gets exactly what she or he needs in order to evolve." But after the death of her sister Shirley from cancer, Mars found herself adrift, unable to imagine any order or significance to the world. In search of spiritual help, she visited 31 different churches on 31 consecutive Sundays.
These visits provide the structure of her memoir, A Month of Sundays: Searching for the Spirit and My Sister (GreyCore; paperback, $12.95). Mars attended, among others, a Roman Catholic mass, a service in a synagogue, a Friends meeting, a Native American corn dance, a session at a Church of Scientology. Each chapter begins with a description of one of these experiences, followed by musings, bits of dream or conversation, autobiographical snippets and reminiscences about Shirley.
Mars longs for belief but retains an intelligent, unsentimental skepticism throughout. This is the book's strength. Its weakness is the author's relentlessly inward focus. Mars was remarkably incurious about the worlds she entered. She did no research on the religions she sampled or the congregations she visited, choosing churches as if they were products on a supermarket shelf.
A few tantalizing glimpses suggest that a more interesting book may have been trapped between the pages of this one. Mars was a hippie who protested the Vietnam War. Her family relationships were strained; her marriage is oddly distanced. Mars also shares some fascinating details about Shirley: She wore a lacquered hairstyle and was an obsessive perfectionist; she never tasted alcohol or -- according to her own comment to a doctor -- had any fun in life. This all sounds like territory worth exploring.
Even though Israel's history and politics are reasonably familiar, Hirsh Goodman addresses them with particular authority in Let Me Create a Paradise, God Said to Himself: A Journey of Conscience from Johannesburg to Jerusalem (PublicAffairs, $26). His persuasiveness stems in part from his upbringing in a Jewish community in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he became increasingly aware of the violence and injustice of apartheid -- noting that Grace, the family maid, was summoned with a silver bell, her backyard shack had no running water and she was able to see her own child only once a month. He observed black people routinely humiliated and brutalized, the press controlled and history sanitized.
Goodman joined a Zionist group that spoke inspiringly of equality and justice; he eventually traveled to Israel at age 19. There he joined the army, determined to become a part of the elite paratroopers' unit: "Earning that red beret would be like a second Bar Mitzvah. . . . It would mean graduating from being a bright-eyed Zionist into an Israeli, and with that earning the right to question and ask, doubt and criticize on an equal footing with the rest of the country."
Goodman fought in the Six-Day War of 1967. On a brief leave afterward, he heard Israel's founding father, former prime minister David Ben-Gurion, on the radio saying that if Israel did not divest itself of its newly occupied territories, it would become an apartheid state. Because of his experience in South Africa, Goodman is infuriated by those who now describe Israel in similar terms. Yet he criticizes the corrosive effects of occupation as bluntly as he rejects the apartheid analogy and warns of the increasing rage and extremism that characterize Israeli politics.
As a soldier, and later the military reporter for the Jerusalem Post and founding editor of the Jerusalem Report, Goodman observed the events that shaped his country at first hand and knew many of the primary movers. He covered Egyptian president Anwar Sadat's historic visit to Israel in 1977. He met such diverse public figures as Ariel Sharon -- whom he characterizes as arrogant and brazen -- and the late Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, whom he describes in similarly unflattering terms and whose leftist critique of Israel Goodman considered dogmatic. He also interviewed Yitzhak Rabin shortly before the prime minister's 1995 assassination by a young Jewish zealot.
Goodman's tone as he recalls those events is journalistic, humorous and to the point, and he is a convincing narrator. There's little in this book about his personal life, but he does describe how his son, Shai, became furious with his country after serving in the West Bank and Gaza and left Israel for an extended stay in India. "I had been there when the occupation was sown," he writes, "and Shai had eaten its bitter fruits." *
Juliet Wittman teaches in the Program for Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Colorado.