Archive for January, 2014

Review of the book by Maya Angelou ‘I know why the caged bird sings’

January 6, 2014

Review of the book by Maya Angelou ‘I know why the caged bird sings’

I was first entranced by this writer when I read her poem of the same name. She captured exactly the feelings that a trapped bird ( or person) might feel.

Thus, when I approached her first of six autobiographical novels I was looking forward to it. I was not disappointed. This writer knew how to engage the reader with smooth flowing, evocative text. Never did I stumble over awkward phrases, yet anyone who is a stickler for ‘correct grammar’ or literary language could easily have felt disappointed. It was obvious that the writer knew her grammar and vocabulary, so much so, that the vocabulary reflected perfectly the voice of the author as a child and the language was shaped to create the unique, expressive and almost breathless thoughts of an imaginative child. It was always easy to picture this young black girl growing up – a girl, like any other girl of any colour, would feel the same in the circumstances and colourful background she described. The characters lit up the page. I felt I really knew Momma who had so much to do with bringing up Maya, especially in the love she gave that child and in her pride and competence that helped so much to shape Maya’s early life and thinking – thinking that was not always in agreement. Maya’s allegiance and affection for her brother and her reaction to her negligent parents were vivid. She did not see her parents as ‘negligent’, they were who they were and she accepted them as such. Many bland descriptions of Maya’s background led me to expect a text full of terror, anger and horrific drama. However, although her experience of rape was dreadful indeed, her description was couched in words of puzzlement, guilt and the helplessness of immature feelings not fully understood. This text reinforced the notion that nothing is always clear cut. There are many aspects to a situation.

This book was not only a testament to the ill-treatment of the blacks by the whites, but there were often moments of joy, love and triumph that demonstrated the capability of Maya’s people. Her determination and success in becoming the first black worker on the San Francisco trams was symbolic.

This was a most enjoyable and moving book that I highly recommend.


A look at May Angelou’s style.

Looking at the first words of the novel, I realized why I enjoyed her style so much:


Two incomplete lines of a poem begin the text. Why? We are immediately curious. Then we are immersed suddenly into the complex thoughts of an intelligent little girl. She hadn’t so much ‘forgotten’ the poem as her mind had been overtaken with other, more ‘important’ things. This profound thought is reinforced by the following moving description:

‘The truth of the statement was like a wadded-up handkerchief, sopping wet in my fists’. We can picture her, empathize with her embarrassment and know that we are about to share the life of a child who reminds us of our own childhood and all the misconceptions, childish beliefs and embarrassing moments that crowded our own young lives.  

Instead of merely stating that all she could think of was her lovely new dress and how her hopes that everyone would be very impressed were no dashed, she says:

‘The dress I wore was lavender taffeta, and each time I breathed it rustled, and now that I was sucking in air to breathe out shame it sounded like crepe paper on the back of hearses.’

Her great dreams of admiration for her in her new dress are shattered because she has ruined her moment of fame and could not bring herself to say all the words of the poem she was supposed to.

This is a prime example of how much of Maya Angelou’s prose is sheer poetry. Here, in the opening of this book, the strong metaphor in ‘breathe out shame’ and the rather dramatic simile ‘sounded like crepe paper on the back of hearses’ fit exactly with the exaggerated immediacy of a child’s vivid imagination and heightened emotions.


I am certainly one big fan of this writer!  



A poem that seems to descibe what it is like to begin to suffer from dementia

January 4, 2014

I was astounded to find that my husband’s experience of succumbing to dementia was beautifully expressed by someone who lived in the same area where John was born – Peterborough and by all accounts, could have succumbed to the same disease. I looked at the poem by John Clare called ‘I am’ which I expected to be a poem that would comment on the enigmatic nature of existence.

While his poem did, indeed, do this, I couldn’t help feeling that he was expressing exactly the same emotions and thoughts my husband could tell me about before he became too seriously ill. I can still sense the chill I felt when my husband said that it felt like his brain was ‘scrambled’.

If you’ve the time and inclination, you might like to read my description of what I think the poet is saying. This is quite different to the usual analyses, I believe.

(You’ll find the poem at ( accessed 04/01/2013)

I believe John Clare may have been on the edge of his illness and says:

‘I exist. Yet, even though I know I am here, and I am part of the world and people know I exist, no one wants to know or cares that I am here.’

His friends have left him; he feels he cannot enjoy the friendship he once had with them. He uses a simile to liken the loss of his friends to a memory, something very distant that happened long ago and is lost to his and their consciousness. He could also be referring to his own condition in which he is starting to lose his memory. The memories of the times he once had with his close friends are now distant or even lost to him.

He is saying his troubles are self-contained, only within his own thoughts. Only he really knows what he is suffering. His problems ‘eat him up’ and no one else could really understand what it is like to experience his suffering.  

At times his problems greatly increase or disappear into the ether of existence where nothing is known, where they completely disappear into a place which is kept by a ‘Host’ or God who holds everything that is or has been known so that the poet’s distressed thoughts sink into ‘oblivion’; they are no longer a significant part of him or the whole scheme of things.

He uses a simile to liken the effect loss of his memories of previous heightened experiences (especially those of love) to mere shadows in the world and within in his own memory; these memories are doomed to come to inevitable finality in death, which brings about the loss and obliteration of a person and all that they have held dear.

He uses the conjunction ‘and’ and the word ‘yet’ to emphasize that even with all of these worries, he does exist, he knows he exists and thus it matters. He knows he is alive although living with dark memories that are thrown about within his troubled mind.

In his difficult life that has been full of the derision and fuss of others

In his life as it is, full of jumbled, disturbing thoughts he does not really feel alive or appreciates the joy he may have done once.

His hopes, desires and achievements have fallen to ‘wrack and ruin’ indicated by the metaphor ‘shipwreck’

Even the people who have been those he has loved the most,

even they seem different, not like they were, even more changed than everyone and everything else

He wishes he could go to places no one has ever been to before, where there is none of the noise and worry of that has come upon him.

He wants to be where he doesn’t have to feel or remember the impact of a woman and her emotions and the effect she has or had on his feelings.

He wants to finish it all, to go home and return to where he came from to be with God.

He is so tired, he wants to rest, to sleep as soundly as he did when only an innocent child.

He wants his worries to cease. He wants to be no trouble to anyone else, nor suffer from the unhappy anxiety that he is experiencing now. He wants to rest, and be still and unaffected by his problematic mind.

He wants to lie down on green fields or ‘grass’ leading us to imagine him finally at rest on the ‘green pastures’ from the 23rd psalm – pastures where he can metaphorically rest in the arms of a caring God. Such pastures are more important and on a higher plane than the sky itself. The ‘grass’ could also refer to his grave. He wishes to die and be free of all his difficulties.


What do you think?

Review: Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

January 1, 2014

Review: Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

I’m a great admirer of the work of P. D James. I have devoured every book of hers I could lay

my hands on. She captured me as an avid reader when she described the atmosphere and

character of Cambridge so perfectly. Her characters and plots were always interesting and

the books thoroughly enjoyable.

However, when I bought ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’ I was mystified. Why would someone

who can provide her own vivid characters borrow someone else’s – characters that

are already familiar to many of us? Why would she try to change her style of writing

when her own was brilliant?

I’m afraid I couldn’t finish the book. As I am want to do, I decided to look at

the first few hundred words and analyse what was wrong. Was it me? Was I being too fussy?

I’d remembered Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ from school days, so I looked up

‘Pride and Prejudice’ on the ‘Gutenberg’ website (well worth a visit). Sure enough,

I could see why Jane Austen’s writing was so attractive.

Her first paragraph starts with a single stark sentence that sets the drama of the whole book.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune,

must be in want of a wife”

This book is going to explore what happens as the society around him endeavours

to ‘catch him’ as a husband.

Jane Austen then immediately introduces one of the main, strong characters,

the unforgettable Mrs Bennet and her dramatic busy-body, control-freak ways. She announces to her husband that someone new is coming to

Netherfield Park.

Mr Bennet character is also immediately revealed as he hardly

answers his wife and lets her ‘rabbit on’.

A thoroughly good beginning.

Now to ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’:

I was expecting a similar introduction or re-affirmation of the characters.

There is no statement of a general truth

to indicate the drama that follows. The first sentence describes

where we are, giving the precise day and year,

just in the way you would expect a modern whodunit to begin.

The character is introduced with statements about her preferences with

the decor of a room. I looked in vain for the dialogue of Jane Austen,

so I sadly put it aside.

When the TV programme was advertised I decided I must watch.

The problem is obviously mine. Sure enough I enjoyed the three programmes.

The acting was very good, the costumes and settings were wonderful.

I could believe I was there in that past century. Also, of course, with P.D. James,

the plot was full of interest.

However, the whole experience felt surreal. It was P.D. James all right,

but what were the Darcy’s doing there? It didn’t feel right at all. It would have been

great if fresh new characters had been involved. Maybe next time P.D. James

has a whim to write another whodunit she could be persuaded to revert

to her usual, brilliant, original, self-made, whodunit style? Please?