OC Bookly: Literary Orange, and the Jim Brown (Not the Football One) Diaries

Categories: OC Bookly
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​This week the Bibliofella previews, anticipates and otherwise promotes Orange County's upcoming annual spirng literary wingding, the weirdly named Literary Orange. Not Orange Julius or A Clockwork Orange or Orange Sunshine, which might be other great one-day conferences about, respectively, a frothy juice shake, a Kubrick film from the novel by Anthony Burgess and a Nick Schou history of the notorious OC hippie drug cult, but is actually a groovy, smart and fun book festival sponsored by the county's libraries and UC Irvine.  There's a catered lunch and coffee and book signings to go along with keynote addresses, all of it on a Saturday at Mr. Bib's alma mater and employer. The Sixth Annual Literary Orange happens Saturday, April 14 at the UCI Student Center

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Frothy Orange
​Past years' highlights included a hilarious morning address from novelist and all-around swell gal Karen Joy Fowler (The Jane Austen Book Club) and the yummy cookies in the lobby, and a panel hosted by Yours Truly on Latino "sudden fiction." I mispronounced all sorts of espanol while nonetheless delighting attendees with insightful questions. You shoulda been there.

Participating in this year's festival will be plenty of writers, readers, editors and assorted literary folk offering advice, testimonials, case studies on the writing and reading life. Sixty bucks gets you two keynote speakers (Lisa See and Paula McLain), a lovely catered lunch, coffee, excellent cookies, book signings and panels on everything from mystery to memoir.  
Wow, some segue!  Among writers on hand will be James Brown, the So Cal neo-realist recovering addict and redemption-boosting tough guy whose two dark, beautiful memoirs about family and death and loss and remorse make your life look like The Donna Reed Show, pal.

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"You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife."
​  Divorced parents. Emotionally troubled, criminal mother. Smart, handsome, precocious over-achiever older brother and sister. Except that both (!) of Brown's siblings, wildly talented adults, actors with loads of success and even more promise, nonetheless abused alcohol and drugs and took their own lives. (His brother was famous Barry Brown, of the excellent films Bad Company and Daisy Miller.) Little Jim himself published serious literary fiction as a teenager, showing early his own super-intelligence and talent, and no doubt already trying to make sense of his dysfunctional family. He achieved success, publishing novels and attending, yes, UCI's MFA Creative Writing workshop. But like his siblings, Brown artificially fueled his comet-like personality with drugs, booze. He crashed, over and over, and then, because he was so darn smart and creative, was supposed to somehow learn from his own and family's experiences and not, say, kill himself. You get the picture. Or maybe don't, until you read his starkly blazing prose. Because as potentially depressing and disempowering as Brown's life (and death) stories might seem, or might have been written if he were trying for the cheap kill-and-tell genre of cliched addiction-hopelessness-recovery pamphlet be assured, please, that Brown is a writer, somebody struggling (succeeding) at saying it right and true, which trumps the rest.
 
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A river runs through him
​The first memoir, The Los Angeles Diaries (2003) is, loosely, a journal connecting episodes of substance abuse, writer abuse (his, at the hands of Hollywood), doubt and crisis and anger, at the Santa Ana winds, killers on the loose, being trapped on the freeway, a broken marriage, all while teaching university students while high as a kite. Hard to tell whether Brown's addiction fuels his drive to earn appreciation and love or whether if fills in for that impossible deep lack.  In the recent second volume, The River (2010), we get a modestly steadied, almost (but not quite) variety of comfort and tempered self-awareness. But the cruelty of relapse, of darkness, of the violence and pain of memory are always there. The essays in This River locate all kinds of streams, rivers, tributaries of grief, joy, reconciliation. But because Brown knows how close he is to drowning from any careless or reckless misstep--steroids to guns to ghosts--the collection ends with the cautionary "Relapse," where his first wife (and mother of his sons) has died, wait for it: giving birth. Shit. As if  Brown hasn't had enough troubles, with deaths,addiction, and choosing the life of a writer. Struggling to stick to his AA discipline, trying to be a good father, but so incredibly angry, he seems to make up his own Unserenity Prayer, in one of the most tortured, poetic,satisfying illuminations anybody could offer about themselves:

"My God serves up a lifetime of guilt, alcohol, and dope. My God allows the good and   innocent to die and the bad and evil to prosper. My God drags my boy through the ghettos of San Bernardino in a drunken, manic haze. My God is me and I do not forget. I do not forgive, and because I cannot forgive my brother or sister or anyone else who ever hurt me, I cannot forgive myself."

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​It's hard not to be taken in by the persona, the voice--why would you try? --even though this God is, finally, the kind of horrible guy you cannot and absolutely should not trust. An addict, a junkie, an object lesson; somebody to run, not just walk away from. But you can listen to his voice, and read about him, and believe the writer, the other James Brown, who tells the truth about a character he has both created and been, and has been fated, it seems, to observe, powerfully. Brown's impossible mother, with whom he seems to reconcile as an adult, becomes a helpless old lady, infirm. She was once a crook and an arsonist, but now he takes her on errands, doctor's appointments. He finds love, with a wonderful new wife, another writer.  But often love is a stern reminder of mortality. He buries brother Barry's ashes on a favorite wild trout stream. He wishes for his own father, touchingly. There is peace, and it is like a river. Until the next storm, anyway.

The Los Angeles Diaries, James Brown, Counterpoint: 224 pp., $14.95.

This River, James Brown, Counterpoint: 224 pp., $14.95.

Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program, Bibliocracy Radio, on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.

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Great piece, fascinating sounding author. Thank you for adding Andrew Tonkovich's OC Bookly to your offerings, really splendid to have this river of literary info and musings running through our county!

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