Reading Bobby, Arlene, and Jane

I found the video on YouTube:  Bobby Kennedy speaking to a rally of black people in Indianapolis in 1968, on the night Martin Luther King was shot. Bobby had been informed about King’s death by the mayor, who told him not to go to the black neighborhood because riots could break out. Bobby had replied, “Don’t tell me where I can and cannot go.”

Bobby mlkIn the darkness, standing on a flatbed truck, he spoke, unrehearsed, from his heart. “If you’re black, and you’re tempted to be filled with feelings of hatred and mistrust,” he told the crowd, “I would only say that I can also feel, in my own heart, (he pointed to his chest) the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my own family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

The crowd was silent.

Bobby continued: “What we need in the United States is not hatred. What we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”

I felt bereft. During our present racial crisis, who could speak as Bobby had, 48 years ago? It was not just his words, but his face and the sadness in his body that conveyed sincerity, humility, and, yes, love.

I grieved for how our world might have been different, if Bobby had lived to be president.

After watching the video, I ordered the new book, Bobby Kennedy, the Making of a Liberal Icon, by Larry Tye. It’s wonderful to read, (or listen to, as I’m doing) taking us back through the decades, showing us how Bobby evolved from an anti-Communist bully working for Joe McCarthy to the most impactful and courageous Attorney General we’ve had. We see his mistakes, his wrong turns, his gradual awakening, and how he was moved to act not by reason but by experience and feelings.

In 1961, when he watched news footage of Freedom Riders in Mississippi being beaten unconscious by white mobs, Bobby sent in federal marshals, and negotiated with Southern leaders for the protestors to gain safe passage to Montgomery, Ala. The night they completed that ride, Bobby was called back to the Justice Department, where he arrived, barefoot, wearing the briefs and dressing gown he’d had on when summoned. He poured Old Grand-Dad over rocks and talked with aides about his newfound understanding.  “Race really is the story of America,” he said. “And these situations are something we’re going to have to live with. This is going on and on.”

Bobby was only 42 when he was murdered, but Larry Tye’s book brings him—and the hope he embodied—back to thrilling life.

 

For something completely different, I’m reading Scary Old Sex, a collection of stories by Arlene Heyman, a 74-year-old psychoanalyst who’s publishing her first book.

HeymanI don’t generally love short stories, because just as I’m getting involved with the characters and their world, the story stops, like coitus interruptus. There’s rarely a resolution or deeper understanding.  Maybe an apercu, or turn of phrase.

Heyman, however, is a gifted observer, whose images made me laugh aloud. A woman in her 60’s, contemplating her body and that of her husband, muses: “Aged flesh is so fertile, grows excrescences:  papules, papilomas, skin tags, moles that have to be checked yearly; yet the hair thins out, underarm and pubic, as if the soil had changed to one that no longer supports that verdant shrubbery, but instead nourishes an astonishing variety of wild mushrooms.”    (I see the skin doc twice a year to harvest those mushrooms.)

It’s such a pleasure to read someone writing daringly about sex as we age, that I was willing to overlook the few stories that didn’t hit the mark.

 

Now, for my highest recommendation. Next year will be the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. To mark it, the Austen Project commissioned novelist Curtis Sittenfeld (Prep; American Wife) to write a contemporary version of Pride and Prejudice, titled Eligible.

I was curious to see how Sittenfeld would transmute this classic novel of mores in 19th century England to the present. Austen’s immortal first line reads: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” That single line jump-starts the novel, as Mrs. Bennett, who has five daughters, becomes obsessed with securing the wealthy newcomer as a son-in-law.

How, I wondered, would Sittenfeld set up her story? She places the action in Cincinnati, of which Mark Twain wrote: “When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it’s always twenty years behind the times.”

A new, Ivy League doctor from a wealthy family is coming to Cincinnati to work at the local hospital. When the news reaches Mrs. Bennett, mother of five girls, she’s determined that one should marry him. But how, one daughter asks, do we know he wants a wife?

They know because the newcomer, Bingley, starred in a reality TV show modeled after “The Bachelor,” and called, “Eligible.” In the series, he meets a troupe of gorgeous young women and each week, eliminates one, until it’s down to the final two. But in the climactic episode, when he’s supposed to choose his wife, he breaks down and cries. Both are lovely and have merits, he says, but he doesn’t feel the soulful connection with either of them that he desires with a wife.

So begins the fun, although it often devolves into soap opera. Unfortunately, I did not like Sittenfeld’s version of Elizabeth Bennet. She’s not the warm, vivacious, and witty Elizabeth of Pride and Prejudice, who lets no one cow her and who holds her independence dear.

But the update sent me running back to the original, which I hadn’t read in 30 years.

AustenI was astonished. I hadn’t truly remembered the brilliance of the writing, the sarcastic humor of Mr. Bennet, the playful intelligence of Elizabeth, and her compelling repartee.

If you’ve never read it, or haven’t since college, I urge you to do so now.

And please let me know how you experience it.

I’d also like to hear what books you’re most enjoying. As Austen herself said, “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading.”

 

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15 thoughts on “Reading Bobby, Arlene, and Jane

  1. Bobbie Lewis

    Have you read “Jane Austen in Boca”? A thoroughly charming reselling of P&P set in Florida retirement community.

    Reply
  2. Judith Citrin

    The books I have been reading and greatly enjoying are: all of the books by Douglas Kennedy…first lured to him by the book set in Morocco, The Blue Hour. Also reread Dorris Lessing’s autobiographies with even more appreciation than the first time. And Peter Mayne’s 1953 book Alleys of Marrakech. And Tahir Shah’s The Arabian Nights.

    Have had a good time with all of your old posts of articles.

    Reply
  3. Toni McConnel

    Thank you for this newsletter, Sara. The reference to Scary Old Sex is especially valuable because I am writing a memoir about old age (I’m 84) and reading everything other people have done in my topic is immensely valuable. But Diana Athill I am not – everything is NOT hunky dory, especially my sex life (nil). I also appreciate the suggestion to reread Pride and Prejudice. Will do.

    Reply
  4. Silvia

    My reply is about Pride and Prejudice and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I’ve been an avid reader ever since I learned to read. I discovered Jane Austen in my 20s and began a love affair with the Regency period. After reading Pride and Prejudice, I went on to read all of Jane’s books, and after encouraging my husband to read Pride and Prejudice, he understood why I love all of her books.
    We watch the Colin Firth version of Pride and Prejudice a couple of times a year, and I read both Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion at least once a year. I am now listening to Rosamund Pike’s reading of Pride and Prejudice–which is excellent, by the way.
    What makes Austen’s book so wonderful is her spot on description of the mores and societal rules of the Regency period, written in a very engaging, light hearted manner, which is the reason why her books are still popular to this day.

    Reply
  5. James Angleton

    Powerful emotions drive Carson McCullers’ fiction. A character in Reflections in A Golden Eye is a brilliant sexually conflicted Major married to a magnetic wife who is very nice but not intelligent.The wife and her husband sleep in separate rooms.A soldier comes into her room at night to sit and gaze at her while she sleeps. The Major starts sleeping in a wrapper. One night he goes to his wife’s bedroom, sees the soldier, and shoots and kills him. Then the Major collapses. Ms. McCullers concludes: ‘In his queer coarse wrapper he resembled a broken and dissipated monk.” Tennessee Williams was her soul mate and wrote an introduction to her “Reflections in a Golden Eye” and dedicated “Summer and Smoke” to her. Then there is a short story called “Sucker” narrated by a young man who has brutally insulted a once worshipful younger relative. At the end the narrator says that maybe if he and Sucker had a fight things would clear up. “But the way he looks at me makes me think that he would like to kill me.”-

    Reply
  6. Linda Newton

    Thank you, Sara, for sharing the YouTube video with us.

    I, too, love Jane Austen. Periodically I simply have to reread Pride and Prejudice. I also liked the newish movie, Love and Friendship.

    I’m enjoying reading The Invention of Nature by Wulf about Humboldt. He was two hundred years ahead of his time with regards to climate change. I also recommend the Regeneration trilogy by Barker, American Nations by Woodard, and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Chabon.

    Linda

    Reply
  7. Ellen Alterman

    I just finished reading “Vinegar Girl”- Anne Tyler’s take on “The Taming of the Shrew,” and I really enjoyed it.
    Kate’s rough-edged sparring keeps her afloat with just enough dignity to survive a situation she has no clue for navigating. And then it turns romantic. I love the speech she gives at the end, when she realizes she’s in a relationship. It’s a wonderful updating of the Elizabethan original, better-tuned for our times.

    Reply
  8. Tami Stapleton

    I just read THOSE GIRLS by Chevy Stevens, it was one of the best books I have ever read~ one of those real “I can’t put it down until the end” books~ She is a great story teller~

    Reply
  9. Roxana

    Wonderful Sara:
    I so enjoy reading you/your work. You’re better than even you may know. :) I think of you as thee professional wordsmith, and if I had Mrs. Bennett for a mom, I’d ask her to find me something more important than a husband: Steady, satisfying work with sane folks.

    Reply
  10. James Angleton

    I’m reading Jeffrey Toobin’s account of Patty Hearst’s kidnapping,her life with the SLA, and her opportunistic choices after her capture.Ms. Hearst was viewed through a number of perspectives. I remember comments of Ms. Davidson and Joan Didion. Toobin and Didion seem to see Patty Hearst as a young woman who did what she needed to do to survive and stay out of jail. Ms. Davidson suggested that she and others would say–out of guilt– a prayer for Patty during Patty’s run with the SLA. Yet Toobin recognizes that the SLA allowed Patty to release a lot of anger but sees the daughter in Didion’s Book of Common Prayer as modeled off of Patty Hearst. The daughter spouts revolutionary cliches.Bill Harris saw Patty’s life with the SLA as the wild boy’s life with his kidnappers in “The Ransom of Red Chief.’ But we have to remember that Patty committed serious crimes.

    Reply