booknote from LBL: What Remains

Lauren Baratz Logsted here again, with talk of the mysterious Apache Woman
What Remains: A Memoir of Fate, Friendship and Love, Carole Radziwill. This book is a good companion piece to Joan Didion’s National Book Award winner, The Year of Magical Thinking. Ms. Radziwill is the wife of the late Anthony Radziwill, who died after a long battle with cancer in 1999. His death was the predictable one. What was less predictable was that his cousin, for whom he was best man and who was his best man at their respective weddings, a man by the name of John F. Kennedy Jr., should predecease him by three weeks when the plane he was piloting plunged into the water, also killing his wife Carolyn Bessette, the author’s best friend, and Carolyn’s sister Lauren. Both Ms. Didion and Ms. Radziwill have had their books, between the lauds, tarred for being too coolly written, but I would say that those readers are mistaking the taut restraint of true grief when one is trying to maintain sanity for emotional distance. In the case of Ms. Radziwill, the charge has further been leveled that she’s no better than the “tragedy whores” she decries. Again, I would countercharge: Doesn’t she have a right to tell her own story?

There’s a wonderful passage in one of Dominick Dunne’s novels where a tragedy occurs in the home of a wealthy family and someone tells the young boy of the house something to the effect that, “It doesn’t matter what tragedies befall you. People will always say, ‘I wish I had his problems’.” And, indeed, this has always seemed to me to be the way the Kennedys are regarded: like they’re the luckiest people in the world for having all that money and power, and that it’s a mere incidental price that so many of them seem to die in such tragic circumstances.

And in Ms. Radziwill’s book there’s also a wonderful passage. When Anthony Radziwill, having been in denial for many years about his disease but applying for a new job at HBO, feels impelled to tell the producer, “I have cancer,” to which she replies, “So what? I could get hit by a bus tomorrow.”

It’s a wonderful line but it is also of course an awful line and a prophetic one at that: Anthony got cancer; John got hit by a bus.
It’s a peculiar thing, how we come to feel we know people we’ve seen on TV or read about in the newspapers but never talked to. Sometimes, we even have personal anecdotes to share about them, even if once removed.

Back when I was a student at UCONN, there was a somewhat wild girl who lived on the same floor whose nickname was Apache Woman. One weekend, Apache Woman took the bus to see our soccer team play Brown University. She went because Mr. Kennedy was a member of Brown’s team and she wanted to meet him. Somehow, she found where he lived and when he arrived home after the game, she was waiting for him. “You’re…you’re…you’re…” Suddenly, this loquacious girl who’d never lost a word, was thunderstruck. When she at last found her voice, it all came out in a rush: “Omigod, you’re J-J-J-John, J-J-J-John, J-J-J-John F. Kennedy Jr.! I’ve wanted to meet you forever! My sister wanted to meet Joe Namath and last year she got to but you’re the only person I’ve ever wanted to meet and…and…and…omigod, it’s you!” And more of the same. Mr. Kennedy didn’t do what most of the other college guys I knew back then would have done; he didn’t kick her sorry ass out or try to jump her bones. Instead, he invited her in, sat her down, gave her a drink of water and then just talked to her calmly until she was sane enough to get back on her bus. I remember thinking at the time, and have thought since, that there was a lot of grace in his behavior that most of us simply don’t have.

And, despite that of the four main people in this book – Ms. Radziwill, Anthony, Carolyn and John – he’s glimpsed on the fewest pages, he emerges as such a charismatic figure, it’s absolutely heartbreaking to think of what might have been, and I defy any reader to take in the passage where he sings his dying cousin a song they’d learned in their childhood about a bear and walk away with a dry eye.

“Life Changes fast,” Joan Didion writes. “Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. The question of self-pity.” This is the story Ms. Radziwill tells too – the story of life changing, ending in an instant – but she also tells the story about a person, her husband, dying by inches. In neither woman’s book, neither Ms. Didion’s nor Ms. Radziwill’s, is self-pity anywhere on evidence.

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don’t you wish this guy was still president?

Clinton’s speaking at the U.N. conference in Montreal today on behalf of the Kyoto pact–you know, the global environmental treaty that he championed but that Bush promptly backed down from the moment he stepped into office.

The Bush administration says it prefers to deal with climate issues on a bilateral or regional basis, not through global negotiations, and favors voluntary approaches. As a demonstration of U.S. efforts to combat climate change, it points to $3 billion a year in U.S. government spending on research and development of energy-saving technologies.

Hmm, that’s more than a billion dollars less than we’re spending in Iraq each month.

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concordance

I found something amusing on Amazon today. There’s a concordance for my story collection, The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress. The concordance lists the 100 most frequently used words in the book. They tend toward the masculine–ivan, jake, jimmy, john, sven. One thing is clear from this list: characters in the book, for better or for worse, seem to spend a whole lot of time looking and thinking.

across against always arms away baby bed beneath big black body boyd boys came car city come dad darlene day door down dress even everything eyes face father feel first front get girl go going got hair hand head home house ing ivan jake jimmy john know life little long look looked looking love man miss moment mother name new night now old own parents place right road rodney room saint say school see side small something stand still story street sven table take tell thing think thought time told toward two want wearing went white window woman world years

The exercise: Read a couple of your stories or novel chapters and try to identify the most frequently used words. Then write a story using precisely none of these words.

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consider the source

I and several other bloggers, including Dan Wickett of Emerging Writers Network, have been very critical of Robert Clark Young’s stink piece about Sewanee in the New York Press. But here’s a better source than I’ll ever be: Richard Bausch. In an email to the New York Press, Bausch states that he does not know Vice, that there are no private rooms from which certain participants in the conference are barred, and that Young sounds like someone with a bad case of paranoia.

I must say that it sounds like Mr. Young must have attended the conference and assumed he wasn’t invited somewhere or other, and then turned that into a plot against him. Either that, or he has listened uncritically and without checking his source to someone who did feel that way……It sounds, in fact, as if Mr. Young was IN a workshop, and people had critical things to say about his work. As EVERYONE knows, criticism takes place in a workshop. And also, as anyone who has ever taught one or taken part in one knows, there are sometimes people who attend them not to learn anything in particular but to have their own conviction that they are geniuses validated. These people often assume there is some ‘coordinated workshop attack.’)

Bausch also states, quite rightly in my opinion, that Young is “not fit to tie” Barry Hannah’s “literary shoes,” challenging anyone to “read the work of Mr. Hannah and the work of Mr. Young and see.” Sheri Joseph, currently an editor at Five Points, the magazine in which “Tuscaloosa Knights” was first published also weighs in eloquently.

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