Posts Tagged ‘Style’

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 look at style in Nicholas Shakespeare’s ‘In Tasmania’.

December 14, 2013

For ever searching for a sense of style, I am want to analyse the first 500 words of anything I read.  So, for what it’s worth, these are my musings of Nicholas’s style in the first words of his book ‘In Tasmania’ :

It opens intriguingly with someone telephoning Nicholas to tell him there is another ‘N. Shakespeare’ in Tasmania. This introduces the book perfectly. We know that he will be on a quest to search out his family roots.  

However within the first paragraph we are distracted from Nicholas with an aside that tells us how his friend had discovered another N. Shakespeare.  Then immediately in the next sentence, Nicholas mentions Argentina and its connection with another near namesake. I would have preferred a slower, more focused presentation of the facts that also included personal reactions.  I would have liked, for example, a paragraph about his friend and his experience when he first came across N. Shakespeare in Tasmania followed by a new paragraph about Nicholas’s previous searching for his namesake. This would have led me more smoothly through his experiences and I could have related more readily to his tale.

When Nicholas meets his namesake, we are given details of what mode of transport was used (a motorbike) and how this meant a great deal to its rider. We are told where we were (in the drive of a house behind an estate) but it isn’t until later that we are given a description of what his namesake looks like. I would have loved to have known what he looked like first, followed by a description of Nicholas’s reaction to meeting him, and then, finally, if he must, mention of the importance of the motorbike. The description of his namesake, when it comes, is excellent, I can picture him immediately, but then I feel cheated. How does his appearance relate to other members of Nicholas’s family? What did Nicholas feel about this encounter? The feelings presented are those of envy for the motorbike i.e. I feel I am being distracted from what appeared to be Nicholas’s initial goal: to find out more about his ancestors but then, who am I to question these things?

Having reacted this way I now resolve to present my characters in a slow, smooth and connected way. A description first, personal reactions next and information given during the encounter, rather than bland statements added in between.  We’ll see …

What’s the secret to writing a page-turner – a book that you cannot put down?

July 22, 2012

What’s the secret to writing a page-turner – a book that you cannot put down?

This is the question that I think we would all like answered.

I have noticed that some books read really smoothly and quickly. You are swept along and cannot put the book down until you reach the final page. Other books are more leisurely but are very enjoyable in their own charming way, while some are difficult to get into, seem to block the natural flow and yet are deemed successful by ‘those who know’.

Having been made aware that much of my writing is ‘lumpy’ (a lovely description which makes me know exactly what it means) I plan to look at three different books that represent the three different types I have just mentioned to see what secrets they hold.

The first, the page turner: This book raced along. It almost seemed too simplified. Did it miss subtleties that make good literature that we can appreciate? This was by … no, I will not say the names of the authors for then you, like me, may already assume that they are brilliant – too good to criticise. This first author writes in short snatches of sentences, sentences that none-the-less create images that stay with you and speed you along with the action.

A sample of 76 words: (Sample ‘A’):

“A beer?”

“It’s customary to say a kind. Like … or something.”

“Oh, what have you got?”

The bartender started ripping off about a million titles. M stopped him on the Flying Fish Pale Ale, mostly because he liked the name. The beer ended up being awesome, but M wasn’t much of a connoisseur. He grabbed a wooden booth near a group of lovely young, uh, girls-cum-women. It was indeed hard to tell ages any more.” …

Comment: I find this really easy to read. My eyes sweep across the lines while I ‘get the picture’ immediately. I notice the sentences are nearly all short. They nearly always involve someone doing or saying something. The atmosphere and characters are created, I have decided, largely by the choice of vocabulary. The first person to speak is a man of few words, a man of action. The second has more time – slightly opinionated – why does he say “It’s customary to say” and not “People usually say”?, for example.

Now for Sample ‘B’:

“The wide reception squelched with the footsteps of my flat driving shoes as I walked over the polished stone slabs. To the right and opposite of the dark wood desk was a dark wood staircase with ornate banisters that swept up to the first floor. Coming down the stairs were two people. A couple.

They weren’t holding hands but had the air of being ‘together’. It was most likely their first holiday together. They’d probably spent the morning …”

Comment: This seems to be a more leisurely style. As the reader I have more time to savour the moment. Again the atmosphere and characters are created by choice of vocabulary – using the word ‘squelched’ rather than ‘made a noise’. The use of the preposition ‘of’ after ‘opposite’ made me stop for a moment – I was expecting something different – I was expecting opposite ‘to’. This sample is interesting and ‘easy’ to read because the sentence lengths are varied. There are even two words that are grouped as if making a sentence yet there is no verb to make it grammatically correct. However, I do not mind – it gets the point across. We are told not to repeat the same words close together but here the repetition of ‘dark wood’ emphasize the atmosphere, they do not detract from it.

Of the two styles, even though the first seems to fit the criteria of today’s successful writer, I prefer to have an opportunity or two to savour what is happening as in sample ‘B’.

sample ‘C’:

“She looked around the foyer. This being where N lived, and therefore some of the most expensive real estate around, the communal areas were furnished as if they were private, too; fresh flowers, sofas, a coffee table with magazines, thick carpet, artworks, no expense spared. It left her with a feeling that she was going to trespass into someone else’s apartment on her way to N’s. In the corner was a Victorian style desk with everyone’s  …”

This script I found less easy to follow. Why? I enjoyed the story and some of the most meaningful moments between the characters. Perhaps I find it more difficult because it seems to me that even though the sentences here are varied they do not seem to follow on from each other.

The first sentence lets me know who immediately and where she is. Good. However, then there is an awkward passage: “This being where N lived, and therefore some of the most expensive real estate around, the communal areas were furnished as if they were private, too; fresh flowers, sofas, a coffee table with magazines, thick carpet, artworks, no expense spared.”

Why say ‘This being where N lived’ and not “ N lived here” or “It was obvious that N lived here.” Or why not describe her looking directly at the objects mentioned later so that we are still with her and seeing the scene through her eyes?

The phrase “and therefore some of the most expensive real estate around” worried me. Why? I think it is because I became fixated with the word ‘some’. It was probably one property so why did the author not say ‘a most expensive piece of real estate’ – instead of ‘some of the most expensive  …’? Then I got hung up on the ‘too’ in ‘the communal areas were furnished as if they were private, too;’ I think the punctuation confused me here – I’d have preferred the words to flow on without the comma before ‘too’.  Finally the list of things in the foyer did not seem to help me absorb the atmosphere as well as the description in ‘B’ – why not? I think it is because there were so many different ones – too many to envisage or to appreciate fully. Maybe I would have preferred just one or two items mentioned and described a bit more. What colour were the flowers – what kind? Then the phrase ‘no expense spared’ worried me. it I expected would help me get involved with the scene but it did not seem to follow on directly from all the objects – yes the thick carpets, but everyone has coffee tables with magazines – they do not epitomize ‘expense’.

Perhaps I am being too picky but as one of the most ‘lumpy’ writers around, I hope I can take this to heart and look again at some of my own writing and improve it.



A quandary: What is the difference between ‘register’, ‘style’

September 20, 2011

What is the difference between register and style and what has ‘audience’ to do with them?

I am in a bit of a quandary. While preparing the teachers’ DIY kit of ideas worksheets and exercises to prepare students for the IGCSE in English as a Second Language for next year’s IATEFL Conference (I hope), it struck me that I don’t REALLY know the difference between ‘register’ and ‘style’. It is a good idea to know what you are talking about when writing a textbook, so I need to know: what IS the difference between ‘register’ and ‘style’?

I searched the web and read the books I could get my hands on and it seems to me the simple difference is ‘register’ is concerned more with specific language choices i.e. whether vocabulary and grammar is ‘formal’ or ‘informal’.

‘Style’, on the other hand, not only concerns register but looks at the way the words, sentences and paragraphs are put together. A particular author may have a preferred style – e.g. Jane Austen.  ‘Style’ also concerns the correct or conventional use of language e.g. is ending sentences with prepositions using a correct/appropriate style of English for the purpose intended?

When the examination specifications mention ‘audience’, I assume that when considering an appropriate register and style one is also considering the audience – the person/people for whom the language is written.

Sorted. I hope – DO correct me if I am wrong!

Agatha Christie can still teach us a lot

February 21, 2011

Agatha Christie can still teach us a lot. After writing for some time I decided to have a close look at what she does and reading her book with a critical eye – she does exactly what we are advised to do: – sets the scene, has her characters clearly expressed through action, writes in an easy, readable style… now for a first attempt at a crime novel. I am hoping the need to remember every detail will improve my brain. Well there is no harm in trying, eh?

I have found something that may improve my writing (I hope).

February 23, 2010

I have found a great book that may improve my writing. Style by Joseph Williams, published by Scott, Foresman and Company ISBN 0-673-38186-2, gives ten lessons in ‘clarity and grace’. I am not sure about the grace bit, but he certainly helps to clarify. I have not finished reading the book, but I have already come across some brilliant ideas.

New to me is the notion of placing an important idea at the END of a sentence. While he agrees that you try to put the central idea at the beginning of the sentence/paragraph I never thought of leading up to a main idea and placing it at the end.

I always have a problem with too many adverbs and he shows how to avoid these. In the chapter on cohesion he provides lists of joining words that I can use when teaching. He provides exercises for you to try and answers to some of them in the back. I really need answers to any exercises I do, so I skipped those that had no answers.

 I have decided to buy a copy for myself for I think it will be very useful if I teach advanced English as a  Foreign Language in summer as planned.  

And no, nobody is paying me to say these things!