"Rodin's Debutante" by Ward Just

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“Rodin’s Debutante” comprises the story of Lee Goodell, native of a small town near Chicago; he attends a private prep school, overhears things in his home that would get him into deep trouble, and becomes a sculptor.

This bald exposition does nothing to tell how engaging Lee or the other characters are, or how deep and cutting the issues on display. Ward Just, former National Book Award finalist with 1997’s “Echo House,” displays immense skill as he unfolds this drama. And this high skill, in competition with Just’s deep compassion – well, they finish in a dead heat at novel’s end.

Lee’s idyllic childhood features the best of both worlds: a close-knit, secure town, with deep porches and leafy streets, and, a bonus for any growing boy, a wild and possibly threatening area at the base of a high escarpment, known as “under the hill.” Lee and his friends must cross this escarpment to explore the wastes there: unkempt scrub and trees, secret trails, and fire pits set up among the rail spurs by tramps and hoboes. (Lee lives his childhood in the years just before and during World War II.) As Lee approaches his high school years, two separate attacks occur, which completely explode this Eden. His parents decide to move to an affluent suburb, closer to Chicago.

And this escarpment divides the rest of the book. Lee, it turns out, is a talented sculptor, whose successful debut show gets him off and running. But the first carving, done during his years as the U. of Chicago, reflects Lee’s own pain and injury from an attack he suffers on his street. Lee also serves as the thematic bridge that connects the two sides of this divide: he knows the hoboes who live "under the hill," works in a dangerous section of Chicago, and his early artwork is a series of versions of this bifurcation. This thematic escarpment also cleaves the life of a young girl, who not only loses her own idyllic childhood in a horrific attack at high school, but all memory of the event. We feel for Lee, and understand his struggle in the scene where this woman visits with him a few years later. To his credit, and to Mr. Just’s, he comes through with the support and frankness his character requires.

It’s been a while since I encountered characters so engaging and sympathetic. The only recent piece I can compare, in this vein, is “The Widower’s Tale,” by another great talent, Julia Glass. This is no Pollyanna piece, however. The big city’s dark side is open and displayed for all to see, and so is the small towns. Read it for Mr. Just’s deft capture of an era, for his so-real characters, for his prose, and his exact emotional feel for his characters.

Throughout History: My Pet Mystery Series

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The occasion of finishing “The Dove of Death” by Peter Tremayne makes a perfect time to review three detective series I have enjoyed over the years, but have not included here. An ancient setting recurs through these three series, which is a complete coincidence, a thing that evolved from simple preferences. Let’s start with the series the entry from which I finished just today. Each has its devoted followers (this is not a discovery piece, this is an appreciation).

Sister Fidelma, by Peter Tremayne

Set in Ireland in the seventh century CE, this series features a youngish nun who exercises the powers of a duly appointed investigating officer and advocate in the Five Kingdoms on the Island of Hibernia. Tremayne, real name Peter Berresford Ellis, studies English and Irish history professionally, and builds his rewarding stories around the customs and conflicts of the time, which to me is a wonderful extra spice in these pieces. His scholarship shows in such themes as the spread of orthodoxy of the Roman Church. Many professionals, particularly in the legal system, joined the Church as a way of pursuing their careers without interference, and Fidelma is no exception. You will not read of her in any sort of cloister or silent meditation; she does in fact marry a Saxon monk and have a son. However, a series of focused and fervent churchmen work tirelessly at spreading the celibate orthodoxy espoused by Rome. This doctrine is very slow to take hold in ancient Ireland.

The books stand very well as mysteries, and Fidelma is a memorable, intrepid character. These mysteries keep you guessing, often until the last dozen or so pages. Fidelma always guards her secrets well; often there is a reason she can’t even tell her husband Eadulf whodunit, because it could endanger him. One or two quibbles on these. The writing, particularly during conversation, can run a tiny bit stilted, as though Mr. Tremayne does not want his characters to sound vernacular or familiar. And he finds it too frequently necessary for Fidelma to cop an attitude about what she does, often putting a stuffy or prejudiced official in his or her place. Small quibbles, no doubt. A very worthwhile series, I have thoroughly enjoyed it.

For more information; click http://www.sisterfidelma.com/

Roma sub rosa, by Steven Saylor

Beginning late in the life of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, (d. 78 BCE) and extending through the collapse of Republican Rome and the establishment of the Empire, Gordianus the Finder finds murderers, thieves, conspirators, and more in a series of superb-down-to-the-details mysteries set in ancient Rome. Highlights in this series include intimate fictional portraits of Cicero, the famed advocate and statesman of Rome (for whom Gordianus does a series of tasks, sometimes grudgingly), and the cunning, charming, and ruthless Julius Caesar. The principal attraction of this series lies in the engrossing verisimilitude of Rome at its height. The sights, smells, commotion, attitudes, backroom political ruthlessness, and religious traditions all flow from the extensive knowledge of Mr. Saylor, who, like me, remains entranced by all things ancient Rome.

Gordianus must navigate his way through the shark-infested waters of Roman power politics. He must find murderers and unearth conspiracies, freeing his slave and marrying her along the way. In his life he must balance the interests of the state, his clients, and his personal life, and he does it all with a rigid personal moral sense. Much of the brutality of the time leaves him aghast, but he doesn’t question slavery, or the preeminence of his homeland in the world. The rogue’s gallery in this series is a highly entertaining one, whether it involves historical characters or the anonymous gladiator/thug. This series remains a prized favorite.

For more information: http://www.stevensaylor.com/RomaSubRosa.html

Brother Cadfael, by Ellis Peters

Portrayed through 22 novels published between 1977 and 1995, and brought to the small screen in a terrific BBC series with the divine Derek Jacobi in the title role, Brother Cadfeal ranks as one of the best-loved and most-followed detectives in all of mystery literature. These novels feature the eponymous Benedictine monk, who serves his abbot and neighboring nobles by investigating murders and other crimes. This series shares with the Gordianus novels a highly charged political backdrop, which allows for all kinds of machination and skullduggery. Cadfael’s time encompasses the civil war that raged in England in the 1130s and 1140s, between adherents to two contenders for the throne, Empress Maud and King Stephen.

Edith Pargeter, self-taught scholar and translator, published well-researched fiction and non-fiction after World War II. Under the name Ellis Peters, she published her first Brother Cadfael book, “A Morbid Taste for Bones,” in 1977, beating by three years Umberto Eco’s very well-received “The Name of the Rose,” a novel that famously deals with similar material. In her Cadfael series, Peters maintained an excellence in her plots and in her renderings of a far-off world. Her mysteries contain anything and everything the reader hopes for in this genre: distinctive sets of suspects, games of high-stakes political shenanigans, plenty of physical danger for our hero and other virtuous souls, and plenty of surprise twists and gratifying endings. There are a lot of reasons for Cadfael’s popularity, and I’m sure it will endure for generations.

For more information: http://www.steveconrad.co.uk/cadfael/

"Seven Years" by Peter Stamm

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Alex pursues a career as an architect: he passes his exams, he draws, he puzzles over his influences, frets over the lack of creativity he sees in himself. He marries Sonia, a gorgeous, intelligent, ambitious fellow architect who represents everything he wants in a woman. Or almost everything.

With “Seven Years,” Peter Stamm has come out with the story (translated from the German by Michael Hofmann) of Alex, the weak and selfish young professional who splits his long-term commitments between a happy-on-the-outside marriage and an affair with a plain, uninteresting woman who immigrated to Bavaria from Poland. This bifurcation and its effect on everyone represent the bulk of the plot. The first-person narrative alternates between the current time and a sustained flashback which dictates the novel’s unsurprising outcome. Alex sees his wife Sonia as an ideal partner, principally because he sees that everyone else would think it. But he returns to undemonstrative, monosyllabic Ivona, his Polish lover, again and again, to make callous use of her. He finds her puppy-like devotion by turns infuriating and degrading. On the one hand, Hr. Stamm gives us Alex’s outward striving, where he looks for his place in society, viz. the successful firm, the beautiful wife and home. On the other, we get his yearning for dim, plodding Ivona. Ivona is the one who presents Alex with offspring; I always had the feeling that although she checked out physically fine, Sonia represented sterility, or the emptiness of our modern striving.

Hr. Stamm portrays his characters with high skill. Every action and reaction rings true in today’s image-conscious world. In the end we nod appreciatively as Alex learns he must cope with life with only his own devices, such as they are. Our appreciation for this outcome shows how successfully Hr. Stamm has drawn out his modern, cautionary tale.