Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Preach it!

My book group selected I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings shortly after the death of its author, Maya Angelou (pronounced Ann-gel-low) this past spring. I think the reason I've never read this woman's work is because I'm generally not a fan of poetry or memoir and I probably won't read any more, but I am glad for this brief exposure. And to hear her familiar voice read this book was an added treat.

I Know Why ... begins with the arrival of three-year-old Marguerite Johnson at the home of her paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas in the early 1930s. Maya, her beloved brother Bailey's nickname for her, had been sent there (along with Bailey) when her parents' "calamitous" marriage disintegrated. Taken under the formidable wing of her loving grandmother, whom she calls Momma, Maya observed the lives of African Americans in the deep South, formed by cruelty, poverty and active churchgoing.

This memoir ends with Maya graduating from high school, giving birth to her only child and reconnecting with her distant mother as she struggled to attach to the baby. She'd already lived a pretty full lifetime at this point, including sexual abuse, running away from home and living rough, and -- in a brief moment of levity -- working hard to get a job as a streetcar conductor in San Francisco. Yet this was only the beginning of her many adventures, recounted in six subsequent memoirs.

Angelou's writing is beautiful, naturally. My erratic notetaking consists of disc and track numbers where I mentally jotted a phrase or sentence that rang out. I'll share just one but, trust me, there are hundreds. Here, she's describing the condition of the food sitting out and awaiting the conclusion of a long sermon Maya is convinced has bored God to death: "the eggs had withdrawn from the edge of platter to bunch in the center like children left out in the cold, and the catheads had sat down on themselves with the conclusiveness of a fat woman sitting in an easy chair."

I think we're all familiar with Angelou's speaking voice. It's resonant and slightly hoarse tinged with a bit of the South. She reads her memoir with plenty of expression but it's not a performance (even though one of Angelou's careers was acting). You can tell that she's lived this story and knows what to emphasize and what to let pass by. Occasionally she runs out of breath in the middle of a sentence leaving an odd silence but I'm willing to let these pass. I give her this pass because she also sings hymns several times in the narrative. And you know I love me some audiobook singing!

(In the other childhood self-narrated memoir from an African American writer that I heard this year, I'm glad to say that National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson sings as well.)

The intro and outgo of this audiobook feature some church-ish music, sounding like the opening chords of a hymn before the choir comes in. Just perfect for this memoir. And I must mention the magisterial "I am Maya Angelou" that comes from the author/reader in these sections. No wimpy "read by the author" statement for this fine lady!

[Stamps Ice & Fuel Co. may still have been around when Maya lived nearby in the 1930s. This photo is from 1904 and is from a book about the Louisiana and Arkansas railways. It was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Narrated by the author
Books on Tape, 2011. 10:11

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