Oh Virginia, how Southern art thou with thy literary endeavors. From photography to music, from history to murder and the rise and fall of grand empires, there's always another book to shed light on your many complicities.
"Love Is a Mix Tape"
by Rob Sheffield (Crown Publishers, $22.95)
Finally, a romantic story of two music critics in love and it takes place in our own backyard. During the '90s, up-and-coming music critic Rob Sheffield was a tall, geeky grad student at the University of Virginia who spent most of his time listening to records. Until he met his Appalachian punk-rock queen. Renee Crist was a feisty redhead from Pulaski County who wrote for Spin, worked at Plan 9 Music, sewed her own clothes and loved Braves baseball.
They were soon married and living a financially bleak but happy life as music freelancers in C'ville, attending shows at the Tokyo Rose and DJing at independent radio station WTJU. Then five years into their marriage, 31-year-old Renee dropped dead of a pulmonary embolism, leaving Sheffield stranded with his grief. A talented writer, Sheffield describes how he suddenly "had no voice to talk with because she was my whole language."
This book is the moving story of their brief romance, built as it was around a shared love of music, and recollected partly through the mix tapes they made for one another (each chapter begins with a photocopy of a cassette case). Now a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, Sheffield looks back on the tragedy and his musical upbringing with humor, deft writing and an epic sense of appreciation and awe for his wife.
Parts are almost unbearably heart-wrenching, but the book moves along at a brisk pace, driven by the same infectious passion that illuminates Sheffield's witty pop-culture writing. One comes away touched by a memorable portrait of young love frozen in time and entwined with music, not to mention that all-too-human drive for meaning as familiar as the radio hit you can't get out of your head. Brent Baldwin
"A Guidebook to Virginia's Historical Markers"
by Scott David Arnold and the Department of Historic Resources (University of Virginia Press, $19.95)
Your teachers read them to your class on every field trip you took as a child. As a teenager with your own set of wheels, you whizzed past them without a second glance. Now, as a parent, you seek them out and read them to your own children or any other child within earshot. They mark battle sites and birthplaces, forts, churches, courthouses, sites of raids, witchcraft and the origins of songs. They are the nearly 2,000 historical markers that since 1926 have decorated Virginia's roadways, like so many X's on a treasure map of history.
Methodically categorized into six different geographic/cultural regions and then subdivided by county or city, this guidebook can be used to chart an educational tour through the state or flipped through from your own couch like a choose-your-own-adventure book. Beware the horrors of Civil War, bloodshed and slavery, and veer toward the slightly happier days of emancipation and suffragettes. Valley Haggard
"The Stones Cry Out"
by Sibella Giorello (Revell Books, $14.99)
Summer. Richmond. A black gym owner and a white cop fall to their deaths from a warehouse roof. Exactly what happened is anybody's guess.
Forensic geologist and FBI investigator Raleigh Harmon, the narrator, assures us that racial tensions flare over what might (or might not) be a civil rights murder, but Giorello doesn't dramatize these supposed tensions to any satisfying or memorable effect. And there's no sense that the morally spotless Raleigh is anyone other than the author thinking it might be fun to play detective.
The novel makes room for all the familiar motifs of "local color" mystery fiction while being vacant enough to channel the full force of Giorello's cruel and alienating attitude toward her dozen or so supporting characters, who would be freaks if they weren't so shallowly written.
Be prepared for a brutally misogynistic scene that seems to come out of nowhere and is forgotten just as suddenly, making no meaningful contribution to the story.
On one page, we're witnessing a doctor being interrogated at a fertility clinic. On the next, we're in a geologist's lab, but with no sense of how we got there or why it matters. One chapter of inane dialogue blurs into the next, punctuated with incomprehensible forensic details about mica and river sediments. There is, however, far too little attention paid to the details of daily life. There is no interest in or empathy for people. Even the worst episode of "Crossing Jordan" has some residue of human truth at the bottom. Kenny Williams
"Celebrating an American Legacy: A Photographic Journey of Greater Richmond"
Edited by Rob Levin (Riverbend Books, $39)
If a picture is worth a thousand words, 500 pictures of Richmond is still only a fraction of the truth. In this coffee-table collaboration by the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce, a not-for-profit voice for Richmond business, a strong photographic light is shined directly on Richmond's sunny side of success. BB&T, Hunton & Williams, the Crowne Plaza and Philip Morris are a few such Richmond enterprises represented by big smiles and suits. The photographic history behind the success of such greatness may tell a different story. V.H.
by Libby Brown (Crossroads Press, $18.95)
Everybody over 30 recalls This End Up, the crate furniture company that originated in Richmond and went on to become a nationwide phenomenon. "Making Waves" is the self-published story of the meteoric rise and sale of that company as told by one of the four founders, Libby Brown, and of her subsequent adventures in the Bahamas with her husband, Stewart, as they go from footloose sailors to the owners of an island resort.
What dismays Brown most is that the surefire formula for success she used to build This End Up "plan well, nose to the grindstone, play fair, be nice" does not seem to work in the Bahamas. The Browns' square dealing, patience and generosity are met with mind-numbing postponements, prevarications, manipulations, dishonesty and stealing on the part of the hired help and, apparently, the Bahamian government.
Nonetheless, the Browns persevere and build their resort on their island, sparing no costs (This End Up sold for a lot, apparently), gleaning pleasure from the island beauty, the clear turquoise waters and the waves of alcohol on which they float. Borrowing from her meticulous journal, Brown cites every meal eaten, alcoholic concoction imbibed and slight received. But what continues to baffle her is the lack of rapport felt between the mostly penniless Bahamians and the rich Americans who can purchase their islands but not their souls. Intelligent and often insightful, "Making Waves" teaches also by what it does not say. Jennifer Yane