Monday, 4 August 2014

The Reading Nook: A childhood, a dog and a trauma

Look at this.  3 books.  3 WHOLE BOOKS!!!!
I haven't really been doing anything else in the evenings it has to be said, but I have read 3 books.  Every page, didn't skip ahead, absorbed it all.

Are you proud of me?

OK, so they aren't exactly the longest books in the world (one happens to be a children's book which I read in 45 minutes, we'll come back to that in a minute), but the fact remains that in one month I read 3 books.

Hah!
I had a rather specific reason for selecting the first of my trio of literary lovelies.  As the whole world knows, Maya Angelou, an amazing woman and writer, sadly passed away in May of this year.  As a personal tribute to her, I picked up the first of her autobiographies; a book that I had only read snippets of before.

I was first introduced to her writing when I was about 14.  I was sat in my English Literature class in secondary school.  Our teacher had just handed us all extracts from a book of poems to study and analyse, and preceding each poem was a sample of writing from "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings".  I have no idea why all the poems were preceded by these extracts, I can't even remember what the poems were or who they were by (they weren't by Angelou, I know that much).  What I can remember is being more fascinated by the extracts from this book with an intriguing title than I was by the poems themselves.

Thus began a lifelong love of American Literature.  I went on to study it alongside my Classics at University (thank heavens for Joint Honours degrees) and dove into a world filled with Toni Morrison, Harper Lee, Norman Maclean, Donna Tartt, Don Delillo and Alice Walker.  "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings" had always been on that list of books that I would eventually read and it was just waiting for me on my bookshelf.  When the story of Angelou's passing appeared on my news feed, I knew that the time was right to read it.

It was worth the wait.
Written in 1969, "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings" charts the life of the young Angelou from the age of 3 when her and her older brother go to live with her grandmother in the sleepy and racially segregated town of Stamps in Arkansas.  The book describes the general store in Stamps that her grandmother ran with her Uncle, her meetings with her father who is a stranger to her in her early years, school, examinations and her first best friend, weddings and funerals and the acceptance of death.  It covers the childhood struggle to find your own identity and a critique of the racism that permeated the everyday life around her, a racism that she refused to accept, a racism that she witnessed forcing her Uncle to contort his body for hours hiding in a barrel to escape the KKK, having her own name changed from Marguerite to Mary as it was more acceptable for her white employer and the refusal of a white dentist to remove a rotten tooth from Maya's mouth, despite the agony she was in.  It showcases powerhouse female role models, the idolisation of her Momma (her grandmother) and her mother, the trauma of her rape at 8 by her mother's boyfriend and the refuge she finds in books.

Written in conversational prose, we see the thoughts, ideas and dreams of the young Maya come to life before our eyes as she tries to work though complex situations in her mind and make sense of the environment around her.  We see her progress into her teenage years, rebel against the role of the housemaid that she is forced into and her growth and development into a self-assured young woman when she stays with her mother in San Francisco and becomes the first black female street conductor on the trams.  She stays with her father in California and goes with him to Mexico.  She later runs away from him and his new wife and lives in a car scrap yard with other children for a short period of time.

The book finishes with Angelou at the age of 16 giving birth to her son, having concealed her pregnancy- caused by her fear that she may be a lesbian or a hermaphrodite (the same thing to her confused and ill-educated about these matters teenaged mind) - from her family for 8 months so that she could graduate from high school.  

"I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings" is the first in a series of 7 autobiographical books written by Angelou which have been described as some of the most powerful books by women ever written.  It was nominated for a National Book Award in 1970, topped the New York Bestseller list for 2 years and has been studied in schools and universities ever since (although some places, including libraries, have banned it).

For me, it was hypnotic.  I loved how Angelou recreated the world of her childhood for me, and whilst I could never relate to the struggles she went though as a black child in the deep south of 1930's America, I could still relate to her as a child struggling to come to terms with who she is and her place in the world.

Everyone needs to read this book.
After immersing myself in Angelou's world, I needed something a bit lighter.  When I was little, my step-grandmother had a wonderful tradition of buying me books with characters called Becky or Rebecca in them, so that I could feel like I was part of the story.  She was always very discerning about the books though and would only do so if she felt that they were well-written, had a lesson I could learn or would interest me.

"Shiloh", by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, was one of these books.  The copy I have is a first edition from 1991 (sadly minus the dust cover, that got relegated to the sands of time somewhere over the years) and the story is still as beautiful today as it was then for me.  It isn't exactly long - I re-read it in about 45 minutes, but for those 45 minutes I was immersed in the love of a boy for a mistreated and abused beagle that he takes in and protects.

The book is narrated from the point of view of Marty, the 11 year old protagonist who lives in the poverty stricken and country town of Friendly in West Virginia.  One day, whilst out walking, he comes across a terrified Beagle dog who follows him home.  Marty quickly falls for the dog, whom he names Shiloh, but knows that he his parents would never allow him to keep him as they can't afford pets.  The Beagle also belongs to his neighbour, Judd Travers, a brutal man who hunts when it is illegal to do so, and whom Marty suspects shot one of his own dogs that was misbehaving.  Marty keeps Shiloh tied up and hidden away, and manages to keep the secret from his mum, dad and his two younger sisters (one of whom is called Becky) for a couple of days.  Eventually though the secret is revealed when Shiloh is attacked and injured by another dog.  Marty's family agrees to care for the dog until his leg is better, at which point he will go back to Judd.

Desperate to save and protect Shiloh, Marty, with his parents permission, offers to buy him from Judd by working for him for a week.  Judd, surprisingly, agrees and Marty is put through a series of brutal and hard tasks on Judd's land over the course of the week.  He does them tirelessly, and without complaining and by the end of the week there is a mutual respect between Marty and Judd.  Judd agrees that the debt has been paid and Shiloh returns to live with Marty.
Written in colloquial first person narrative, the book is incredibly easy to read.  It is really a coming of age story, a message about the need to work and fight for the things we believe in and just a brilliant children's book.  I'm not the only one who thinks so; it has won numerous awards over the years, including the Newbury Medal and has since been adapted into a film (which I have never seen) and is apparently taught as part of the curriculum in the US.

For me though, it will always be one of the novels I loved that Colleen bought for me because one of the characters  is named Becky.
The final book I whizzed through this month is "And Now You Can Go", the debut novel from Vendela Vida (and, coincidentally another book that Colleen bought for me.  She knows me far too well!).  Published in 2003, this is a very different style of book to the previous two.  It deals with the aftermath of a traumatising encounter that the protagonist, Ellis, had with an armed gunman in her local park in New York as she was walking one day.  After talking him down and trying to connect with him through reciting poetry to him, she escapes physically unharmed but emotionally and mentally traumatised by the ordeal.
The rest of the novel deals with her unravelling relationships, the romance that collapses, the university therapist she is referred to who hints at victim blaming, her friends and relatives who just want her to open up.  She bounces from man to man and friend to friend, searching for something that she isn't sure can be found, and finally agrees to assist her mother on a medical aid mission to the Philippines.  Once there, she finds that no matter what, life will still progress and she begins to confront her own insecurities about the father that abandoned her mother for a few years and then returned with no explanation or apology.

I loved this book in places and absolutely hated it in others.  One of my biggest peeves was the lack of chapters - it is instead divided into about 5 segments and as a result is quite choppy and the flow is difficult to follow.  I also found that because Ellis is written as utterly numb to everything around her as a result of the trauma she experienced (and the fact that this means that she is numb from about 10 pages in) I found it incredibly difficult to relate to her, or even feel any form of emotional attachment to her.

On the positive side, the book is beautifully written with sweeping descriptions and it moves quickly.  It was smart and funny, although the humour has an edge of pathos winding through it the entire time.  It is not an easy book to read and you need to expect that the book doesn't really go anywhere - there is no closure to be found.  It just stops.

Maybe, ultimately, that's why I found it so unsatisfying to read.
If you like (or hate!) what you have read, please do let me know in the comments below or slap me with a cheeky follow, or say Hi to me on my Facebook group or Twitter or Instagram!

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