Monthly Archives: July 2011

This River

book by James Brown

annotation by Patrick O’Neil

Sequels are tough. The reader has expectations, a preconceived idea as to what the author has to achieve, and a need for the book to be as good, if not better than the original. However, this also creates another set of problems: the author is either expected to write a continuation of the same sort as their first book, or the author is negatively critiqued for having written the same book twice – it is almost a no win situation, and at best a daunting prospect for the author. Plus, here we’re talking nonfiction/memoir, and time has passed, the author isn’t where he was when the first book was written. Like all of us, he has aged, his life has continued, a lot has changed, and while making new memories, the past hasn’t been forgotten, and is never far from mind.

Taking all of the above into consideration James Brown’s This River, the follow up to his first book of memoir, The Los Angeles Diaries, thankfully not only steers clear of repeating himself, but takes the reader into another evolving chapter of Brown’s life. Where in The Los Angeles Diaries Brown maintained a distance, mostly writing from a point of observation, never really taking responsibility for his actions, instead blaming it all on being an addict. Here, he not only takes full responsibility, but he also let’s the reader know why, argues the irrationality of his resentments and negative thoughts, and makes considerations for those around him. He achieves this in two ways. He shows the reader by using examples of his actions to demonstrate emotions, and with his choice of language for the dialogue in order to convey the sense of love and caring he is capable of, even though he’s a practicing drunk/drug addict. This humanizes the “demon”, and allows the reader into the world of those who live with him, and ultimately lets us see Brown through a more compassionate eye. As, ultimately, all addicts are not cold-blooded sociopaths. The majority are normal/regular folks with an all-consuming dependency that doesn’t allow them the “luxury” of showing feelings. Their focus is solely on whatever substance they’ve become addicted to. And instead of telling this to the reader, Brown has avoided using the overly clinical nomenclature of recovery that a majority of “addict/recovery memoirs” use, and instead presents a complete portrait for his audience to judge for themselves.

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The Sum of Our Days

by Isabel Allende

annotation by Ramona Pilar Gonzales

In 1991 Isabel Allende’s daughter Paula developed porphyria, a disease caused by a genetic mutation that affects the either the skin or nervous system, or in some extreme cases, both.  Allende began her memoir Paula while her daughter suffered through the illness that inevitably ended her life.

Years later, Allende wrote The Sum of Our Days as a letter to her daughter, catching Paula up on the family members she left behind and introducing her to the new ones that became a part of Allende’s “tribe” after Paula died.

The book is primarily written in the second person.  It’s this choice that shows how alive Paula is for Allende, and this brings her to life for the reader as well.  Writing about Paula in the third person would have made her solely a memory. Spirits, the supernatural and a multiple planes of existence are always present in Allende’s fiction and she brings those philosphies to her nonfiction work with the same attention to poetic lyricism.  Allende occasionally breaks with the familiar “you” form when relaying particular stories to Paul.  However, she always comes back to why it was so important to tell Paula that particular story.

Much like other “Memoirs of Grief” – The Year of Magical Thinking and Brother, I’m Dying, The Sum of our Days is an example of how writers can use their gift as a spiritual flotilla during times of extreme crisis and pain.  In The Sum of Our Days, Allende frequently recounts the various ways in which writing is a fundamental part of her life, as a means to heal, to grieve, to communicate and be connected to her family.

Allende’s ability as a storyteller is evident in the way she is able to turn people in her life into characters, not turning them into caricatures, but fleshing them out, deftly including the most pertinent parts of them while maintaining focus on the narrative thread.

What is particularly interesting about Allende’s work is that she writes in Spanish. Her works are translated into English by longtime translator Margaret Sayers Peden. Her lyrical language is so much a part of what makes her work a joy to read, in either English or Spanish. It is a testament as to how story, when it comes from the heart, can be strong enough to carry over into other languages and cultures.