I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
It's about: The first part of Maya Angelou's six-part serial autobiography, this memoir begins with a three-year-old Maya and her four-year-old brother, Bailey, traveling alone with tags on their clothes from California to Stamps, Arkansas, where her recently divorced parents have sent them so as not to have to worry about raising them.
This book takes us through Maya's earliest memories, which revolve around the tough but loving Momma (they soon stopped calling her Grandma), the crippled but secretly tender Uncle Willie, her almost idol of an older brother Bailey, and the overwhelming racism of the deep south during the Jim Crow era (black kids in Stamps weren't even allowed to eat vanilla ice cream, Angelou jests, except on the 4th of July).
We journey with Maya as she explores the world of literature, the world of the racist south, the meaning of family, the meaning of being alone, the destructive power of rape, and the redeeming power of words.
I thought: Angelou is one of the great writers of our century. Not only has she lead an incredible (though sometimes misled) life, but her unabashed honesty and her talent for weaving words and stitching together the world of her youth for us make her story engaging, enjoyable, and edifying. Once you have read this opening to Angelou's life, you won't be able to help but pick up the next part, and then the next, and then the next. Angelou is a hero of mine -- a woman who has discovered, through trial and error, how to be black and a woman in a world that would tell her she can be nothing but a cook and a seamstress.
Verdict: Stick it on the shelf, and then buy copies for all of your friends and re-read it every year.
Reading Recommendations: Well, read it. Seriously, Angelou's books are life-changing.
Warnings: If you're at all prudish, don't bother with any of Angelou's stuff. This book specifically includes the description of a raping she suffered at the age of 8 as well as details of being a young woman exploring her sexuality. It also includes mature themes like prostitution, homosexuality, and murder.
Favorite excerpts: (coming soon...)