Beautiful Craftsmanship

Book: Palace Beautiful by Sarah Deford Williams

Audience: C

Genre: Fiction

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I first encountered the term Palace Beautiful in Little Women. The March sisters loved to play Pilgrim’s Progress, where they would pretend to be Christian on his journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. One of the stops on this journey was the Palace Beautiful, a lovely resting place reached after mounting the Hill Difficulty. I was attracted to this book by its name (as I am for anything reminiscent of Miss Alcott’s works) and assumed that the nomenclature would just be a coincidence. Happily, I was wrong.

Sadie Brooks, along with her father, expectant step-mother Sherrie, and younger sister Zuzu, has just moved to Salt Lake City from Houston. Zuzu is all golden curls, gregariousness, and expressive emotion. Sadie is quiet, pensive, and artistic, with a penchant for expressing herself in uniquely named colors and figuring out people’s birth stories: hers is the Great Dog story, some people come from red birds, some from Adam and Eve, some from the cabbage patch (this may sound odd, but when you read them you will understand). She quickly meets her new next-door neighbor, a girl called Kristin who prefers the name Belladonna Desolation. Bella, very interested in ghosts, tells Sadie that from the attic in Sadie’s new house one can see the cemetery. When Bella goes to show Sadie the cemetery view, they discover a small crawl space with a hand-painted sign saying “Palace Beautiful.” They also discover photographs and a journal written by Helen White in 1918, when she was 13, Sadie’s age. Deeply intrigued, the three of them, Sadie, Bella, and Zuzu, decide to meet every day to work their way through the journal.

It is at this point that Miss Deford Williams reveals herself to be a master storyteller. She simultaneously spins two narratives, Sadie’s and Helen’s, each with its ups (Sadie and Zuzu growing closer to each other and their grandmother; Helen creating and decorating her Palace Beautiful as her personal secret spot; the sisters each surprising each other with their own improvements to Palace Beautiful; Helen’s friendship with Martha) and downs (Bella’s mother keeping her away from the sisters; Helen’s friends and their brothers off fighting the war). The two stories also share an element of suspense about impending doom. Sherrie, the girls’ stepmother, is seven months pregnant. The sisters’ mother died while giving birth to Zuzu, so when Sherrie experiences some complications, Sadie worries that the same fate might befall Sherrie, whom everyone loves very much. Helen’s family and friends are caught up in the influenza epidemic. So many people lose their lives, including some members of Helen’s family, who else will fall victim? Helen’s journal ends abruptly—was she herself a casualty of the epidemic?

I found myself racing through the story to see what would happen next. As a character-driven reader, this was unusual for me. The reading specialist at my school often calls kids of today plot junkies—they are too interested in the next event to focus on any other elements of the story or author’s craft. I found myself identifying with them—to some extent. Even while I eagerly read on to find out what happened to Helen and Sherrie, I appreciated the well-drawn characters (Sadie and Bella, particularly), the connections they made with each other and Grandma through learning how to knit, and the evolving relationship between Bella and her mother. I also greatly enjoyed the “creation” stories Sadie’s mom had told her and Sadie’s knack for color-naming, Dark-Planet Purple, Clenched-Fist Gray, Dried-Up Beige, and Sweet-Butter Peach among my favorites.

In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, travelers wending their way to the Celestial City can find respite and comfort at the House Beautiful, the palace on the crest of Hill Difficulty. Below Sadie’s attic there is conflict (the antagonistic relationship between Bella and her mother), discord (the sisters initially don’t get along very well), and worry (will Sherrie survive pregnancy and delivery), for Sadie, Zuzu, and Bella. Atop all this difficulty, they, too, find respite and comfort in Helen’s journal and each other’s company in Palace Beautiful. Miss Deford Williams skillfully weaves plot, character development, and symbolism into this touching and satisfying tale.

Ada Gump

Book: The Housemaid’s Daughter by Barbara Mutch

Audience: G-U

Genre: Fiction

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I believe I came across this book in a Goodreads newsletter. I may need to use that as a warning sign, because quite a few of the books whose summaries appeared interesting to me turned out to be less than satisfactory. This book fits into that trend.

Cathleen Moore leaves her native Ireland in 1919 to join her fiancé Edward Harrington who has made his fortune in South Africa. They have been apart 5 years and their ensuing marriage cannot exactly be called a love match. They produce 2 children, Rosemary and Phil, and have very different outlooks on the racial situation of their adopted country. As they grow apart in their stately home Cradock House, Edward turns to his books and business for companionship, Cathleen to her beloved piano.

When their maid Miriam gives birth to a girl, she names the child Ada, after Cathleen’s sister back in Ireland. As young Ada grows up, it becomes apparent that while ignorant and under-educated, she is intellectually curious. She also shares “Madam’s” love of music and possesses incredible talent. Ada and Madam begin a lifelong bond of love and friendship, one that is echoed and intensified in Ada’s relationship with Master Phil.

As Ada and Phil grow up, they develop intense, yet undeclared, romantic feelings, feelings that can never be realized due to Phil’s death in the aftermath of World War II. Phil was everything to both Ada and Cathleen, who can find no comfort from her husband or daughter. When Cathleen visits Rosemary in Johannesburg (where she has gotten herself into trouble) Edward assuages his own loneliness with Ada. When Ada discovers that she is pregnant, she leaves Cradock house and makes her way to a native settlement where she teaches music and raises her mixed-blood daughter Dawn alone.

Eventually Cathleen, missing Ada terribly, finds her and persuades her and Dawn to return to Cradock House. Edward regards them with cold indifference and Rosemary, when she visits, treats them with contempt. Free-spirited dancer Dawn has a difficult time because of her mixed-race heritage in apartheid-ruled South Africa, so she moves to Johannesburg and leads a somewhat dubious life. Ada and Mrs. Cath (as Ada now calls her) live on in Cradock house after Edward’s death, taking care of each other and the town, until Mrs. Cath’s own death, when Ada is left to care for her darling grandson on her own.

Throughout my reading of the book, I was reminded forcibly of Forrest Gump, a film I did not enjoy. Both Forrest and Ada express themselves very simply; Forrest because of his limited cognitive skills, Ada because of her innocence and lack of formal education. Forrest and Ada both interact with famous people and movements of their day. And in the end, Forrest and Ada both lose the person they love most (Jenny and Dawn, respectively) due to an illness resulting from a promiscuous life (AIDS, not named but strongly implicated) and wind up taking care of a son of their loved ones.

The main reason I didn’t care for Forrest Gump was because of Jenny. I know we are supposed to feel sorry for her because of her abusive childhood, but she used Forrest (who loved her unconditionally) and I believe took advantage of that love and his simplicity. I was ambivalent about this book, though, because I found myself unable to care about Ada. I believe the author wanted to show that Ada was largely self-educated (after Madam taught her to read) and lacked opportunities, but the voice Miss Mutch gave Ada came off as silly and lacking in credibility. This became increasingly hard to take as the novel wore on. Yes, Ada had many admirable qualities (her inner strength, her independence, her moral center), but while I didn’t actively dislike her, I could not warm to her.

My other big issue with this book is Ada’s rape. When she and Edward are alone in Cradock House for an extended period of time, he comes to her bedroom, talks of his loneliness and promises not to hurt her. Ada does not fight him off because she believes that as his servant she is duty-bound to do whatever he asks of her. So while Edward does not use physical force, he uses his position as her Master to make her comply. It seems that Miss Mutch tries to soften the situation by making Edward gentle and by making Ada decide that it is her job to let him do this to her, inferring tacit consent. I find that offensive. Ada did not want to have sex with Edward. That makes it rape. Call it what it is.

Ada and Forrest are simple people who love in a wholehearted way.  Their love is not fully reciprocated. They are fine, good, and honest, and horribly taken advantage of. I can appreciate their noble characteristics, but I cannot unequivocally enjoy their stories. Forrest and Ada may go together like peas and carrots, but then, I’ve never been much of a veggie-lover.

The Year in Numbers

My goal this past year was not about the number of books read, but rather the number of reviews written. My plan was to have a review for every week of the year, so a total of 52. I barely got it in, but 52 reviews appeared on this blog for 2014. Yay me!

So, how many books did I read? A whopping 165. Now, that may seem a bit paltry after the 217 books read in 2013, but come on, that’s still an achievement. I will admit to watching a bit more television this year (although I can’t really say why, it’s not like I found anything truly worth the extra watching time). I also did a bit more traveling and a bit more piano playing, not to mention a bit more writing for this blog (52 posts this year and only 31 in 2013). As for the books themselves, there is actually a fairly simple and logical factor for it, a reason that can be summed up in two words. Harry Potter.

In 2013 I read 169 children’s books and last year 119, for a differential of 50. In 2013 I did not complete my annual review of the Harry Potter series because the last 4 are of considerable length and I wanted to be sure I read 200 books for the year. This past year, though, I did indulge myself in the luxury of Harry and Hogwarts. That took 73 days. So in those 73 days I read 7 books sitting at my dining room table. Looking back at my info for 2013, over the same 73 days I read 24 children’s books, also while sitting at my dining room table. That’s 17 more in 2013, right there.

Besides, it’s the quality and experience of the actual reading that really matters, not simply the quantity, right? Well, to an extent. When I set a goal, I will pretty much do whatever it takes to meet it, and I certainly can live and die by some of the numbers in my life.

So what were those numbers in 2014? As stated, I read 119 children’s books, 55 new and 64 rereads. I read 46 grown-up books, 36 new and 10 rereads. The vast majority of the children’s books were fiction, while the grownup books were a little more evenly distributed (19 fiction and 27 nonfiction). Do the math and discover that ultimately I read 91 new books last year. Not too shabby.

Some of those children’s books were graphic novels. This is an increasingly popular format for kids and the ones I read are a part of the Black-Eyed Susan program this year. Can’t say I enjoyed them. I get why kids relish them, but most of the ones I read this year had truly poor-quality storytelling. I do believe that reading is reading, and if graphic novels can turn a nonreader into a reader they have some merit. However, a steady diet of them for anyone does not bode well for the art of good storytelling. As Julia Child opined, “everything in moderation.”

I read 11 new grown-up fiction books this year. I only loved 2, greatly admired 2 others, was OK with 1, and pretty much could have done without the rest. Not a great showing. This occurrence did, however, inspire my challenge for this year. More on that later.

I read 25 new grown-up nonfiction titles this year, 19 of which I thought were exceptional. These 25 included 7 histories, 5 literary analyses, 4 memoirs, and 3 biographies. Basically I boned up on books and people’s pasts. That sounds about right for me.

So, what were my top picks? These were easy to determine this year.

Children’s Book: This Journal Belongs to Rachet

Grown-Up Fiction: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Grown-Up Nonfiction: A Fine Romance

When I resolve my server issues I’ll post lists of my rankings for the year.

On to this year’s challenge.

For years I have lamented the fact that I have a hard time finding grown-up fiction that I truly enjoy. This was not always the case. There was a time when I loved the books of Sidney Sheldon, Patricia Cornwell, and Judith Kranz. However, now I find that fiction written by contemporary authors fails to capture my imagination more often than not. Since I love things of the past, this year I have decided to read 12 classics, one for each month. I have already compiled my list, trying to balance American and British authors, men and women. When I have finished each one, a review will appear in the blog. Other reviews will also appear, just not 52.

Keep calm and read on. Read whatever you like; I will devote myself to classics!