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"Prince of Darkness"
Robert Novak (Simon & Schuster, $29.95)

Robert Novak's fame is undoubtedly tied to the George W. Bush administration's outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame. This is unfortunate, as Novak represents a dying breed among journalists: one who reports what happened, rather than what should have.

The child of fist-wielding Russians, Novak caught the journalistic bug early, dropping out of college to pursue his night job: cub reporter. By the late 1950s, his sources broadened from Chicago politicians to JFK and Nixon. Despite his Eisenhower Republicanism (later moving more right toward Reagan conservatism), Novak didn't let his politics influence his perception of the charisma factor of politicians. JFK had it in spades -- more so, Novak writes, than any politician he's covered since. Nixon, on the other hand, was a foul-mouthed paranoid never really ready for the presidency. LBJ was a would-be tough guy with watered-down scotches and a terrific insecurity problem.

Novak practices what he preaches with this memoir. For him, journalist and pundit should be compartmentalized, and they are. Republicans hoping for Democrats getting drubbed in these pages will be disappointed. George H.W. Bush is described as goofy and out-of-touch, while his presidential son is in thrall to the religious right.

"Prince of Darkness" is a highly readable re-creation of an era when journalism meant shoe leather and off-the record conversations. In his self-portrait, Novak is as hard on himself as he is on presidents: He emerges from this memoir as an alcoholic reporter who nevertheless was sober and irritating enough to make it on the list of enemies for every president since the 1950s. — Ron Capshaw



"The Headmaster Ritual"
Taylor Antrim (Houghton Mifflin, $13.95)

Taylor Antrim's debut novel is spicy with political extremism, teenage angst, sexual tension, gay commitment ceremonies and the all-encompassing power of loneliness. The only thing it steers clear of is religion, and that's probably because there wasn't space.

Antrim, a Richmonder and University of Virginia grad, traces a year in the lives of the headmaster's son, James Wolfe, and newbie history professor, Dyer Martin, at Britton, a prestigious New England prep school. Their narratives run parallel: Dad abandons boy, boy meets girl, boy screws things up with girl, and then boy (mostly) gets girl back. Boy then realizes that he'll never get what it is he's always wanted: dad's approval.

Antrim creates a tactile and psychologically believable world that will put fire in the belly of anyone who's ever loved the underdog. In other words, everyone. Through clean, spare and unpretentious prose, Antrim allows the reader to sensually inhabit every detail of Dyer and James' volatile new home. The brash ring of lusty adolescent voices, the acrid stink of urine-soaked sheets and the heavy weight of intimidation ring true against the backdrop of a lush and elegant campus that seems at first so pure.

Antrim's book is trim and clean, with a precision and economy of words. The only thing out of place is the title. "The Headmaster's Last Stand or Coup or Uprising or Rebellion," would be more appropriate, for whatever does take place behind the heavily closed doors of the headmaster's suite, a ritual it is not. — Valley Haggard



"Growing Up Moffett"
Sarah Moffett (FaithWalk Publishing, $12.99)

To some, storytelling comes naturally. In the case of Sarah Moffett, a 27-year-old lawyer and author, it's apparent that she's been born with the gift of gab. Humor is her greatest ally. Given her description of relatives near and far, her gift is likely inherited at both the cellular and learned levels.

Her amusing memoir takes readers from her parents' first kiss onward. It offers details of her rambunctious childhood and walks readers through the painful year, at age 12, when she lost three of her closest relatives.

Highlights include Moffett's descriptions of trying to blow up a battery with fire and gasoline (with her brother as an unknowing accomplice) and watching rainstorms descend after her uncle's death.

The book's weakness rests in the author's inability to reign in hyperbole and to recollect experiences, particularly as a toddler and young child, with realism. Her retelling (often akin to the "big fish" story) ultimately deters one from believing. And that's a loss.

It's when Moffett moves away from self-absorption and into a place of human reflection that the book becomes most enjoyable. One suspects that Moffett's next book will grow in maturity and wisdom. — Kerry Day



At VMFA


"Modern and Contemporary Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts"
John Ravenal (University of Virginia Press, $19.50)

John Ravenal, curator of modern and contemporary art at VMFA, acts as a docent in absentia in this miniature chronological tour through the museum, a handy stand-in until construction on the expansion is completed in 2009.

Sculptures, paintings, photographs, collages, prints and stills from video art, 114 in all, are each accompanied by a quote from the artist and Ravenal's neat summary of both the artists and their work. The likes of Jackson Pollock, Sally Mann and Andy Warhol help create this visual history of our last century in art. — V.H.



"Selections From the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts"
Anne B. Barriault with Kay M. Davidson (University of Virginia Press, $45)

Considering the scope (some 5,000 years and two dozen cultures), narrowing down VMFA's permanent collection into a book that will fit on an average-size coffee table is a formidable thought. But VMFA Foundation writer and editor Barriault and VMFA research assistant Davidson make a daunting job look … not easy, but thorough.

More than 150 paintings and sculptures from African, Asian, Mediterranean, European and American cultures are represented in full color alongside historical essays that detail the artist, the culture, the time and the style. This book is an ode for the loyal, a brag book for the unacquainted and an international world tour for those disinclined to leave the couch. — V.H.



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