Praisesong for Paule and Octavia

Good evening and greetings from rainy, fogged-up Baltimore. February is a short month, but hopefully everyone is squeezing as much reading as possible into their leap month this year.

I haven’t written for a while, after spending most of January reading a book that really doesn’t fit with what I usually write about, but was so wonderful I couldn’t put it down. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is not a 20th century novel and it’s by no means obsure either (Tartt won the Pulitzer in 2014 for it). Unusually, my mother and sister had both read it before me (they are both more nonfiction readers than fiction), which was a lucky thing – as I worked my way through the book, I could rely on them to understand when I was upset or shocked by a new twist or revelation in the novel. And there were many!

There are about 30 blurbs in the front of my edition praising the book, and 20 of them compare Tartt to Dickens in some way – on the one hand, I agree it’s a fair comparison, and in another way I resent comparisons between great authors of their time. Tartt isn’t the Dickens of the 21st century. She’s Tartt, that’s all, just like Morrison is Morrison, Joyce is Joyce…the best compliment I can think for a writer is that they are their own artist and need no comparison against others.

Once February began and I stopped mourning the end of my time with Theo and The Goldfinch, I turned to my TBR pile for Black History Month. For the last several years, I’ve tried to focus my reading in February on black American writers. It helps ensure that my reading doesn’t get too stagnant and that I don’t always fall in the habit of gravitating to white women writers that remind me of myself, which I can do without really meaning to.

I started (and finished) the great Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow last week, and I’ve been thinking about it off and on ever since. Marshall’s mostly known for her 1959 masterpiece and debut novel Brown Girl, Brownstones. I remember Maya Angelou mentioning in one of her follow-up books to Caged Bird that Marshall was a friend in her writing circle in Harlem (maybe that is mentioned in The Heart of a Woman?).

Praisesong for the Widow came out much later, in 1983. A recently widowed woman, Avey, is compelled, for reasons she doesn’t completely understand, to leave a Caribbean cruise she’s taken with her two friends and find a way back home to New York from Grenada. Her experiences on the island are juxtaposed with her memories of her marriage and life in New York, and with her childhood memories of her great aunt in the Gullah country of South Carolina.

I was personally very drawn to the sections of the book that take place in Beaufort, since I have visited that area of the country before (and have visited my own great aunt there!). It also shares imagery and setting with one of my all-time favorite films, Daughters of the Dust by Julie Dash. A subtle, but memorable, and thoughtful book. I will be thinking about Avey’s adventures in Grenada for a long time, I think.

I also managed to finally track down – through the wonders of the internet – the first of Octavia Butler’s Patternist series, Patternmaster. Aside from Kindred, Butler books are tough to find used! I have yet to come across a non-Kindred book at a used bookstore. It seems folks know what they’ve got and hang on to those old copies of her books pretty tightly.

Oh, and it was worth the effort. Octavia Butler’s books are always inventive, exciting, maybe a little frightening in how much she foresaw of our future, but brilliant. Her genius shines through in everything she wrote, even in her early work. I don’t even know the first thing about trying to summarize Patternmaster, but it’s science fiction, there’s telepathy, there’s mind control, there’s adventure, all in a dystopian Mad-Max-esque future.

I have an old copy of the next of the series, Mind of My Mind, which I’ll be diving into soon enough, but after that, I’m sure I’ll be searching the corners of the internet galaxy for the rest of the Patternist series!

4 thoughts on “Praisesong for Paule and Octavia

  1. I appreciate you appreciating Octavia and Paule. I need to read more Paule, zo I will take your recommendation and read Praisesong. Thank you.

    I have a copy of everything Octavia wrote. I’ll never let them go.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with your comment about comparing writers. Every writer is unique and they write in their own way. Not every writer can speak to every reader and judgements about who is or isn’t a “great” writer can be very subjective. On the other hand, being compared to a writer like Dickens would certainly be a great honour. But I would be worried that it might create unrealistic expectations or put too much pressure on writers to always be “great.”


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