Book Review: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

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“The caged bird sings

With a fearful trill

Of things unknown

But longed for still

And his tune is heard

On the distant hill

For the caged bird

Sings of freedom.”

  • From the poem, Caged Bird by Maya Angelou (1983)

 

THE caged bird has long been the symbol of man’s struggle against the shackles of oppression. In his 1899 poem, Sympathy, African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, wrote about knowing how the caged bird feels. How it grieves for its loss of freedom, and “beats his wings till its blood is red on the cruel bars.” This image of the caged bird crying and clamoring for freedom is one that made an indelible mark on Maya Angelou’s young mind.

In her masterful 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, (the first volume of a seven-part series), Angelou herself is the caged bird trying to break out of a world rife with racism, sexism, and strife. Detailing her early years to her adolescence, this poignant autobiography shows us Maya Angelou’s transformation from a withdrawn and self-conscious child to a confident trailblazer whose works would eventually influence, give voice to, and elevate an entire nation.

(SPOILERS BELOW)

The Unwanted Child: An Attempt at Normalcy in Stamps, Arkansas

“Stamps, Arkansas, was Chitlin’ Switch, Georgia; Hang ‘Em High, Alabama; Don’t Let the Sun Set on You Here, Nigger, Mississippi; or any other name just as descriptive. People in Stamps used to say that the whites in our town were so prejudiced that a Negro couldn’t buy vanilla ice cream. Except on July Fourth. Other days, he had to be satisfied with chocolate.  (p. 49)

Picture this: Two small children onboard a train—a three-year-old girl and a four-year-old boy. They sit on the edge of their seats, clasping each other’s hands so tightly their knuckles turn white. They’re traveling from Long Beach, California, to Stamps, Arkansas, and don’t seem to have anyone else with them. A journey of over 1,500 miles with no one to watch over them. Their tickets are pinned to the boy’s coat pocket, and if you look closely enough, you’ll find tags on their wrists addressed to the porter. The tags read: “To whom it may concern…”

Nowadays, such an occurrence is hard to imagine. Nobody in their right mind would send two preschoolers on a cross-country train trip without adult supervision. And if someone ever did, it’s the type of event that would cause an uproar. The children’s parents would likely be sued for neglect. But times were very different in the 1930s. While it was always heartbreaking for train passengers to see these children frightened and alone, it happened often enough that the children’s parents never really got into much trouble.

The example above is by no means a pretty picture, but it is an accurate one. This was how Maya Angelou and her brother, Bailey, came to live with their grandmother, Momma, and Uncle Willie in the heavily segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas. Their parents had just put an end to their “calamitous marriage,” and likely thought that it was the best arrangement for their children.

After all, Momma was a strong, resourceful, and successful businesswoman. She was the proud owner of the Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store—the Store that provided for the everyday needs of the town’s entire Black community. And true enough, Momma did a great job raising Maya and Bailey. She gave the kids as much love, care, and discipline as any great mother could give. But while their home life provided the children the stability they needed during those early years, it still proved impossible for Momma to completely shelter them from the hardships that came with living in the racist south.

At a young age, Maya and her brother became privy to the dangers and difficulties that came with discrimination. During the cotton-picking season, Black workers from town would enter the store, thrumming with optimism over the promise of an abundant harvest. By nightfall, they would return, deflated and bone-weary. Their hands sore from an entire day of picking prickly cotton, their hearts heavy and their pockets still near empty.

There was also the looming threat of the KKK riding in at any time, looking for an excuse to punish a Black man for one crime or another. Any man with dark skin would do. It was punishment by proxy. The segregation also meant that medical services were hard to come by; as nearby white doctors and dentists refused to treat anyone with ‘colored’ skin. As Maya later observed, equality only came in the event of a national crisis.

 “It was when the owners of cotton fields dropped the payment of ten cents for a pound of cotton to eight, seven, and finally five that the Negro community realized that the Depression, at least, did not discriminate.” (p.50)

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Quotes and Lessons from Carl Sagan’s Billions & Billions

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Celebrated astrophysicist, cosmologist, astronomer, astrobiologist, Pulitzer-winning writer, and world-renowned scientific genius Carl Sagan was a man that wore a multitude of hats. And boy, how he wore each hat so well! Beyond being a highly lauded scientist, he was a pop culture icon that brought the most complex of scientific ideas into the everyday consciousness of the everyman.

In Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium, Sagan condenses a plethora of scientific learnings and juxtaposes them with his views on humanity’s role in preserving the Earth and all its lifeforms. To quote the great scientist,

“We are privileged to influence and perhaps control our future. I believe we have an obligation to fight for life on Earth—not just for ourselves…”

He teaches this essential lesson through a series of essays (and transcribed speeches) dealing with various and seemingly disparate topics. Some of the topics tackled in his essays include the power of exponential notation and growth, man’s quick but ultimately limited progress in exploring the mysteries of the universe, the importance of morality, the great debate on abortion, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, how man is destroying the world through global warming, and the razor-sharp and double-edged sword that comes with technological growth.

Now, if that last sentence reads like a mouthful, that’s only because the book itself is overflowing with information that spans, not just the scientific plane, but the moral, the political, and the philosophical arenas of thought as well. Mind-blowing is one of the quickest terms that come to mind when I think of Billions and Billions, but it is a word that still feels greatly lacking. I’ve been awestruck by truly great text before, by works like A Room of One’s Own, An Unquiet Mind, and Existentialism is a Humanism. But this is the first time I’ve been both awestruck and struck dumb by one book.

Carl Sagan was truly a man that was larger than life, and much of his learnings (both personal and academic) have been poured out into the essays in Billions and Billions. I feel that any attempt from my end to come up with a standard review for this book will only come out clumsy and wanting. So, in lieu of an actual review, let me instead present to you a list of my favorite quotes and lessons from Billions and Billions. (Sagan’s quotes are in italics.)

Read and enjoy.

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Book Review: An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison

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Title: An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

Author: Kay Redfield Jamison

Genre: Non-Fiction, Autobiography, Psychology

First Published: 1995

 

Over the course of the last couple of decades, the medical world has made significant progress in finding effective diagnostic and treatment procedures for Bipolar Disorder, formerly known as Manic Depression. The onset of social media has also contributed greatly in disseminating information and dispelling biases against the disorder. And yet, while we are seeing change in the public’s attitude towards the illness, there are just a handful of autobiographical accounts that tackle both the personal and medical effects of the illness as brilliantly as Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness.

Written in the early 90s by Kay Redfield Jamison, a Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, An Unquiet Mind is an eye-opening memoir that effectively changes the way one views bipolar disorder. Now, one of the factors that make the book so compelling is how Jamison—one of the world’s foremost experts on the disorder—pulls from her own experiences as a manic depressive to provide a holistic view of the illness. Bear in mind that this was written during a period wherein an admission such as this could have major personal and professional repercussions for a medical practitioner. Despite the confession’s possible effects on her personal life and career, Jamison decided that to make a difference in the lives of other manic depressives, she needed to speak up. She was also tired of hiding and having to feel as if she had something to hide. In her words:

 

“One is what one is, and the dishonesty of hiding behind a degree, or a title, or any manner and collection of words is still exactly that, dishonest.”

It is with this fearless attitude that she lays bare her struggles against an illness that has brought some of the world’s brightest minds on or past the brink of suicide. In An Unquiet Mind, Jamison paints a vivid picture of a life shaped and distorted by moods and madness. As a child, she was optimistic, driven, but also plagued by a mercurial temperament. Her first manic depressive episode in her late teens meant weeks of flying high only to burn out so quickly that it left her incapable of finding pleasure in anything.

“I counted upon my mind’s acuity, interest, and loyalty as a matter of course. Now, all of a sudden, my mind turned on me; it mocked me for my vapid enthusiasms; it laughed at all of my foolish plans; it no longer found anything interesting or worthwhile.”

As Jamison grew older, her moods continued to worsen. Three months into her work as an assistant professor in the UCLA Department of Psychiatry, she had become a raving psychotic. Initially, her manic episodes conferred terrific advantages—the need for little sleep had coupled with amazing productivity. But at the tail end of those manic moments were long bouts of depression that had her frequently contemplating suicide. Eventually, the lines between the two states of mind became blurred. These episodes became even more pronounced during the time she was battling her way into the male-dominated world of clinical psychology.

After a terrible bout of depression, a colleague managed to convince her to see a psychiatrist. His diagnosis shook her to her very core.

“The endless questioning finally ended. My psychiatrist looked at me, there was no uncertainty in his voice. ‘Manic depressive illness.’ I admired his bluntness. I wished him locusts on his lands and a pox upon his house. Silent, unbelievable rage. I smiled pleasantly. He smiled back. The war had just begun.”

Indeed, the war wasn’t over for Jamison. She had been prescribed lithium—a life-saving drug that tempered her moods but also brought with it an unpleasant string of side effects. For a long time, she went on and off the drug intermittently. At one particularly bleak moment, she decided to kill herself. Her method of choice was overdosing on the drug that was meant to save her. She reveled in its irony. But help came on time, and over the years she realized that the pros of taking lithium greatly outweighed its admittedly many cons.

Ultimately, An Unquiet Mind is a lot more than just a ‘memoir of moods and madness.’ It is an illuminating piece that educates its readers about one of the most misunderstood mental disorders in the world. It’s also a success story, a light at the end of the tunnel for people struggling with bipolar disorder.

Written in incredibly magnetic and eloquent prose, this is a book that effectively pulls the reader in. At times, the emotions from the page became so palpable that it left me breathless. This is a book that has moved me to tears, the first, second, and third time I’ve read it. It has been an honor to have chanced upon this seminal work—and now it takes its place on my metaphorical shelf of literary greats.

Rating: A+++

Definitely a must-read and must-keep.

Book Review: Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy, by Helen Fielding

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Title: Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy

Author: Helen Fielding

Genre: Fiction, Chick Lit, Romance, Comedy

First Published: 2013

Pages: 390

There is a lot to be said about Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy—most of them, good things. I had loved Helen Fielding’s first and second offerings, Bridget Jones’s Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, so it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that I would be a fan of Fielding’s third “Bridget” book. But to be honest, it was a big surprise that I liked it at all. Here’s a tiny confession: ever since I heard it was out, I had done my best to avoid reading Mad About the Boy. I was convinced it would be a major let down. But when my best friend got me this book for the holidays, I knew it was time to finally have a sit-down with dear ol’ Jonesey.

The reason for my reluctance to read the novel was that, like most fans, I had heard about its major spoiler long before the book became available in nearby bookstores. In The Edge of Reason, we had left Bridget in what felt like a “happily ever after” scenario with Mark Darcy. The way things were going for the lovebirds, it seemed like their domestic spats would consist of petty jealousies, Bridget’s hyperactive imagination, disagreements on child-rearing—all the good quarrels associated with a healthy marriage. And, like most readers, I would’ve been perfectly happy reading about these things. It would’ve been gratifying even, to find the two in the midst of saccharine normalcy. But instead, we find out that Mark Darcy’s gone—done away in a ‘blaze of glory’ or in a rather gruesome manner, depending on how you look at things.

I had wanted to ask Helen Fielding, “Now why would you do that?” It just seemed cruel to get half the population of women, (a gross exaggeration, I know), to fall in love with a male lead only to kill him off immediately after a fairy tale ending. And the questions kept coming. “Isn’t Bridget Jones supposed to be a modern-day retelling of Pride & Prejudice? How can you have Elizabeth without Mr. Darcy?” But that’s the sad premise of Mad About the Boy. And the book starts off with Bridget, once again, trying to find love in a horridly superficial and ageist world.

It’s 5 years after Mark’s death, and Bridget’s 51 with two young kids to look after. Though Mark had made sure that their family was well-provided for, Bridget is left struggling to stay sane while trying out a new career as a scriptwriter, attempting to keep her children well-fed and not raised purely by technology or Sponge Bob, and of course, shedding her dismal add-on poundage and “Born-Again virginity.”

The first problem, she tackles by creating a modern script for Hedda Gabbler by Anton Chekhov. (To you, dear literatus, I know. It’s part of the fun, really.) At the start of the novel, Bridget gets a call from her agent, saying her latest script is ready for film adaptation. This turns out to be an exceedingly humorous, and at times, embarrassing experience for Jonesey. Unfortunately, it also serves as a prop for the novel—at times, completely forgotten, as Bridget goes on her usual love-centric existence.

The second situation, I’ll have to say, is the heart of the story. Though one may doubt it sometimes, due to Bridget’s laughable thoughts and whims, our lovable heroine has certainly grown up some since the last book. Her love for her children, Billy (a mini-Mark) and Mabel, is palpable throughout the novel. She does well as a single mother; though not without the help of her perfect babysitter, Chloe, the children’s ‘fun’ godfather, Daniel Cleaver (Yes, *that* Daniel!), and the odd, aloof, and admittedly Daniel Craig-esque sports teacher, Mr. Wallaker.

And lastly, Bridget overcomes her third problem with the help of her ever-hip and ever-reliable posse of Tom, Jude, and Talitha. Sharon, the feminist of the original group, has since moved to the United States after marrying her successful dot.com husband. With the help of her three friends, a touch of Botox, and the diet plan of the local Obesity Clinic, Bridget manages to once again bring out her “wanton sex goddess” side.

Her amusing foray on social media, particularly Twitter, also leads her to the handsome boy-toy, which the reader meets at the start of the book. Roxster is, as his handle suggests, quite the rockstar in the bedroom and in real life—if you can categorize smokin’ hot, 30-year-old environmentalists as real-life rockstars (which I do!). Despite the raging chemistry between the two, Jonesey still finds herself in the midst of heartbreak and self-doubt. But that’s to be expected. This is, after all, Bridget Jones we’re talking about. In the end though, she does find what she’s looking for—a lasting love with a great father-figure for her kids. Though the introduction of this ‘great love’ is quite abrupt, it does work in a multitude of levels. At the very least, it’s a good way to tie up what would’ve been a gloomy story.

The Verdict: a well-deserved A.

Now, the rest of my two cents. Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy is a feel-good novel that has enough laugh-out-loud moments to keep you turning the page, despite Mark Darcy’s depressing exit. Again, I really don’t agree with killing Mark off just to create a story. I believe that a marriage offers a wealth of ‘stories’ on its own. And no matter how greatly written her new love interests are, there’s simply no replacing Mark Darcy.

But, and this is quite a big BUT, that’s also what I loved about the book. Helen Fielding’s treatment of Mark’s death—with Bridget’s private grieving, particularly in that scene with her mother—left me in tears at least a couple of times. Mark is gone and he is missed. There are no over-the-top dramatics with Bridget, but you do acutely feel her loss. And the new men in her life aren’t Mark, nor are they designed to replace Mark. They are there to show that there is life after a loved one’s death. That, like most women in her situation, Bridget has had to move on, no matter how difficult the process was.

In the end, I do believe this is the type of story worth recommending to all fans of the Bridget Jones series.

Book Review: I’m with the Band. Confessions of a Groupie – Pamela Des Barres

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Title: I’m with the Band: Confessions of a Groupie

Author: Pamela Des Barres

Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir, Music

First Published: 1987

Pages: 320

Status: Read

Here’s a small confession: I have been lusting after this particular book for almost ten years. After reading about her affair with the incomparable Jimmy Page, Pamela Des Barres (aka Miss Pamela) reached Rockstar status in my book. I scoured the World Wide Web for snippets of I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie. The odd few pages I found in forums and blogs had me oooh-ooh-ooh-ing over Des Barres’ relationships with music legends like Mr. Page, Robert Plant, Mick Jagger, Chris Hillman, Keith Moon, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, and Gram Parsons.

So, when my sister handed me my own copy of I’m With the Band, I flipped through the first hundred pages in search of her love affair with Jimmy Page. Reading about her passionate encounters with the Rock God had me aching with envy. It was a sensory overload. I was seduced, and at the same time, set straight by Des Barres’ stories of the infamous 1960s-1970s rock scene.

In I’m With the Band, we follow the transformation of Pamela Ann Miller from small-town girl to the golden muse of some of Rock’s most formidable personalities. We read about how Miss Pamela, and her group—the GTOs, helped pave the way for girl groups and the new breed of baby groupies. The group, which was officially formed by Frank Zappa, went on to record an album called Permanent Damage in 1969. Though the album’s commercial success was limited, it was an admirable effort, which brought the spotlight to the fantastic women behind the rock movement. To me, these women showed the world what it means to really love music–to feel passion, awe, and reverence for those who produce stellar riffs and melodies.

In this book, we also learn more about the LA scene. We are made privy to the backstage secrets of some of the music industry’s biggest stars. Interspersing memories and personal anecdotes with journal entries, Miss Pamela takes us by the hand and guides us through the blossoming sense of awareness of the 1960s and the decadence and excess of the 1970s. Her delightfully candid and well-written memoir details the goings-on and the who’s who of one of the most important modern musical and spiritual revolutions in history.

To be honest, I don’t think I can rave enough about this book. Loved every Page—pun, v. much intended. The only bad thing about I’m With the Band is that it had to end.

Verdict: Highly recommended to ALL music lovers and closet groupies (like yours truly).

RATING: A+