The Virtue of Selfishness

Last Christmas I saw a copy of this book on the desk of one of my Dickens Square colleagues, and the audacity of its title reminded me that, while I had read all of Ayn Rand’s novels (at age sixteen or seventeen), I had never read any of her non-fiction. So I read this (at least the essays by Ms. Rand herself). Oddly enough, there is no essay that deals exclusively with Rand’s unusual concept of selfishness, but selfishness is laced throughout the collection. Anyone interested in our current politics could save a lot of time by not reading Atlas Shrugged but dipping into this book for an hour or two.  Here’s just one quote about Medicare that struck me:
“The fog [of collectivized thinking about Medicare] hides such facts as the enslavement and, therefore, the destruction of medical science, the regimentation and disintegration of all medical practice, and the sacrifice of the professional integrity, the freedom, the careers, the ambitions, the achievements, the happiness, the lives of the very men who are to provide that ‘desirable’ goal–the doctors.” [the “goal” being Medicare]
Rand puts individual freedom above all things and calls “collectivist” those concepts that place limits on total freedom in favor of those things that benefit the greater good. Of course, she didn’t believe in Social Security, either, but that didn’t stop her from signing up for it, an action she would have called hypocritical if anyone else but herself had done it.

I love doctors, but I guess I don’t love them as much as I desire the greatest good for the greatest number, a concept that Dickens would more likely have endorsed than those ideas of Ms. Rand’s. The doctors I know don’t seem too crushed in their ambitions or lacking in personal integrity.

Not all of her ideas are kooky, at least up front. She deplored racism and racial discrimination, but a few pages later declares the civil rights bills of the sixties as “the worst breach of property rights in the sorry record of American history in respect to that subject.” Just when you think she has a good idea, she pulls the rug out from under herself and her arguments crumble.

I once said that Rand was a bad novelist and a worse philosopher, and I stand by that assessment.

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

I haven’t been reading much of late; it’s because I’m knee deep in a new series of murders here in Dickens Junction.

But here’s something fresh and new—a Civil War story you’ve never heard before—and some of it is true.

First-time author Lois Leveen shows in her new novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, a freed black woman who, after going north to be educated, returns to the south to serve as a spy in the Confederate White House.

Mary Bowser has lived in Richmond, the property of the Van Lew family, until the aging ingénue of the family, Bet Van Lew, secures Mary’s freedom and sends her to Philadelphia to be educated. But in spite of these privileges, Mary has an agenda—freedom for her father, still enslaved in Virginia (by another owner) and, ultimately, freedom for her people. So she puts her freedom at risk, first by becoming involved in the Underground Railroad and then, even more audaciously, returns south to masquerade as a servant in the home of Jefferson Davis.

Leveen, a scholar of African American literature and no dilettante in American history, has wisely left much of her scholarship in her notes, giving us vivid portraits of freed blacks in the north, and the ravages of war-torn Richmond. The opening scenes are rich in detail; later scenes back in Richmond move with the fiery pace of the war itself.

In addition to the first-person narrator of Mary, Leveen creates vivid secondary characters—the rebellious Bet Van Lew, Mary’s former mistress; the spy and Underground Railroad Scotsman McNiven; and, perhaps Leveen’s most intriguing portrayal, “Queen” Varina Davis, the First Lady of the Confederacy. Mary’s insider view of the Confederate White House is compelling, and Leveen handles those scenes with a deft touch.

Since Leveen can’t do much with historical reality (this is no alternative history where the South wins the war) or with the real Mary Bowser (about whom little is known), she instead gives Mary a Forrest Gump-like opportunity to stand in the place of the many African Americans who (mostly) anonymously contributed to their freedom from enslavement. There’s no surprise at the end of the book, but Leveen gives Mary a final moment that, tailor-made for the movies, is deeply emotionally satisfying.

I would highly recommend The Secrets of Mary Bowser to book groups, and particularly to younger readers as an alternative to those inexplicably popular vampire novels. Mary Bowser is a young woman who feels that fulfillment can only come with freedom, not enslavement, and she puts her life at risk so that she, and others, can achieve it. The message in this novel is one of empowerment. And if your group invites authors to attend in person or by Skype, consider inviting Ms. Leveen. She’s a hoot.

11/22/63

It’s been a long time since I read a Stephen King novel. I tried Lisey’s Story a few years back and just couldn’t get into it. Before that I can’t exactly remember what I last read–it might have been as far back as Four Past Midnight. I was a huge fan in the eighties, probably culminating in the It, Christine, and Misery phase of his career.

But his recent novel about time travel and the Kennedy assassination intrigued me, so I picked up the book and read it. I loved it. Everything you love about Stephen King is there–pop culture references, a keen sense of place and time, and a story that keeps you on the edge of your chair and awake until the wee hours of the morning because you can’t put the book down.

The premise is simple–schoolteacher Jake Epping is given an opportunity to travel back in time to 1958 with the intention of thwarting Lee Harvey Oswald’s killing of President Kennedy. But, because this is an 800-page Stephen King novel, Jake must be tested first by going back in time and changing a small event first, which takes up the first two hundred or so pages in the book. It’s a great story, but it makes you salivate for the main item, getting into the Kennedy/Oswald story.

When King finally gets there it’s worth the wait. Under his alias, George Amberson, Jake returns to Texas (he must return to 1958, it’s part of the peculiar way Stephen King envisions time travel) and live a normal life as he waits for the fatal day to approach. Naturally, many bad things happen to him, and good ones, too–a job, friends, and a new woman. Everything gets complicated as Jake relocates to Dallas/Fort Worth to spy on Oswald using cutting-edge (for the 1960s) technology to find out whether Oswald acted alone or not (I won’t tell you). As the date with destiny approaches, King ramps up the suspense with twists and turns to Jake’s/George’s circumstances that kept me interested even as I raced forward to see what would happen at the Texas School Book Depository.

The book has a great conclusion with more unexpected and even emotional ripples that I wasn’t expecting from a page-turner, justifying the enhanced reputation King has enjoyed over the last few years.

In an afterword, King praises what he calls “the great time-travel story,” Time and Again, by Jack Finney. That novel has been among my very favorites since I discovered it in the eighties, and King’s book could hold pride of place next to it. In fact, I might run over to the bookstore right now and get a copy of Time and Again to reread. Zach won’t mind if I burn a little midnight oil…

The Monster in the Box

Ruth Rendell is in a class by herself. She left all other mystery writers in the dust years ago. I’ve read nearly all of her fifty-plus books. Her novels written under her Barbara Vine pseudonym are my favorite mysteries ever (A Dark-Adapted Eye, A Fatal Inversion, and, best of all, The House of Stairs).

I admit that I’ve fallen a few books behind, which is why I’ve just gotten to her 2009 Inspector Wexford novel, The Monster in the Box. This is her 22nd in the Wexford series. It might not be quite at the top of my favorites List (Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter probably holds that position) but it has everything a Rendell/Barbara Vine fan has come to expect from her later works–very complex plotting, convoluted time sequencing, and social/class/racial tensions.

The aging Inspector Wexford is in a nostalgic mood, brought on by seeing a man named Eric Targo, whom Wexford suspects of having committed a crime years earlier. Suddenly, Targo is back in Wexford’s life, complicating his present and forcing him to examine his past personal and professional life. Wexford is also drawn into a subplot involving Tamima, a missing Moslem girl (the term Rendell uses). The reader knows that these two stories must be related (this is, after all, a Ruth Rendell book), but it is to Rendell’s credit that she keeps the suspense going until the very end, when Wexford’s past and present collide in a manner that is truly unpredictable, if not somewhat anticlimactic. Suffice to say I didn’t even come close to guessing what actually would happen to Targo and Tamima.

Rendell’s successes place her head and shoulders above her peers. Even a lesser work like The Monster in the Box is good enough to send me back to my “to be read” bookshelf to catch up on the Rendell books I haven’t read. And I see from my trade information that she has two more books scheduled for publication in 2012, so I had better hurry.