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Table the Issue

Weighty books and other new releases by Virginia authors.


In "James McNeill Whistler: Uneasy Pieces" (University of Virginia Press, $35), David Park Curry, the former curator of American art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, chronicles a lifetime of artwork by one of the first artists in VMFA's collection. This in-depth and highly academic read is balanced with paintings by Whistler that Richmonders will find both familiar and fresh.

"Lincoln Perry's Charlottesville: Paintings by Lincoln Perry" — with an essay and interview by Ann Beattie (University of Virginia Press, $39.95) — is a slender and beautiful book that literally portrays the marriage of painting and language. Perry's paintings, interwoven with his writer wife's words, create a moving homage to the University of Virginia and its surrounding territory.

"Great Road Style: The Decorative Arts Legacy of Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee" by Betsy K. White (University of Virginia Press, $59.95) is an extensive multimedia exploration and history of decorative arts and furniture along the Eastern Sea board. This crafty book documents everything from crazy quilts to egg-gathering baskets to handmade dulcimers.

"West of the Equator: In Search of Paradise"

Cheryl Bartlam DuBois

(Frederick Fell Publishers, Inc., $14.95)

The last thing I desire is to trash a spiritual novel, but a book written without regard to sentence structure and spelling simply cannot be taken seriously. "West of the Equator," by Virginia native DuBois, requires more goodwill than many readers will have. When an author instructs others about spiritual growth, she needs the humility to ask for far more help than DuBois acknowledges. Nowhere in this book is there evidence of an editor or a proofreader, and the narrative suffers. It is clear that DuBois has acquired a great deal of knowledge about sailing, the Caribbean and life; her tale of love found is informed with great personal knowledge and experience.

Crammed with copious footnotes that range from informative to absurd (one footnote even defines the expression "to eat humble pie"), the book cannot decide whether it is: (a) a travel guide to the Caribbean, citing the history of every native colloquialism, custom and place name mentioned; (b) a yachting/sailing manual defining each nautical term used and every device found on a sailing craft; or (c) the spiritual adventure tale it purports to be.

The narrative, as told by the protagonist's spirit guide, does contain some neat twists and suspense once it leaves shore. The island dialect is believable, and the characters are lovable, though the climactic lovemaking scene is marred by a grammatical error. However, as in love, passion is not enough — a commitment is required. When DuBois acquires a commitment to the craft of writing, then she will have a wonderful tale to tell. — Jennifer Yane


James Pendleton and Jerome Johnson

(Brandylane Publishers Inc., $15)

Readers interested in a nonstop trip through Richmond's dark side should pick up "Nightman." It's co-written by Johnson, a sexton of Emmanuel Episcopal Church who also operates Johnson's Janitorial Service, and Pendleton, an emeritus member of the creative writing faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The book follows Braxton Bragg, a black janitor, through 10 unrelenting days and nights on the job. Like a shadow, the reader traces Braxton's footsteps from corporate offices of the elite to the tension-filled halls of an abortion clinic, into a glitzy philanthropic event at VMFA. It culminates in the seedy underworld of strip joints, complete with G-strings and a macho Mexican named Jesus. Through it all, the reader finds there's plenty of dirt to go around.

The main character never sleeps, and neither does the reader. There are sex scandals, payoffs, threats and the rekindling of a romance with a preacher's daughter. There's even an aggressive nun who dresses like a seductress. Much of the novel's last half involves Braxton's own pursuit of an FBI fugitive. Just like a James Bond movie, the book never knows when to quit — which isn't bad, so long as you know what's in store.

"Nightman" attempts to tackle many substantive issues of our city, like the socioeconomic divide, racism and violence. It's preachy at times (think calculating fetuses) and absurd at others (think elderly millionaire who carries a minihatchet). But given the authors' collaboration, the reader can't help but wonder if some of the stories aren't pulled straight from the street. Overall, the novel reveals the compromises Braxton makes in his pursuit of a better, cleaner life. — Kerry Day

"Nothing but the Right Thing"

Stacy Hawkins Adams

(Revell, $12.99)

The gripping scene of spousal assault that opens Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Adams' recently released second novel holds out the promise of an engrossing read. In the book, characters introduced in Adams' first novel, "Speak to My Heart," continue to encounter spiritual challenges. Erika Wilson flees her abusive husband. Serena McDaniels struggles with infertility, and her husband, the Rev. Micah McDaniels, faces a congregation bedazzled by the allure of prosperity over service to the vulnerable and needy.

However, all of Adams' plot lines are ripe with potential drama that never materializes. Relentlessly good-looking central characters attended by a supporting cast of bland stereotypes demonstrate little or no conflict about God's role in their lives. Erika needs a job to leave the battered women's shelter. Presto! A high-powered D.C. interior design firm hires her in spite of her lack of credentials or experience. As long as the characters listen to God's voice, which is loud, clear and devoid of mystery, easy and predictable solutions to their problems pour forth at an unbelievable rate.

Written for the multicultural Christian fiction market, the book stays so faithful to the genre's formula that it quickly loses its spark. Like most novels crafted to sell a specific message, "Nothing but the Right Thing" may appeal to readers who already subscribe to its doctrine. Readers seeking to be truly entertained or moved should look elsewhere. — Mary Mullins

"Losing the Moon"

Kathryn Levy

(Canio's Editions, $14.95)

Maryland native Levy's first volume of poems is a dark debut. "I want/all the lovers/I will never hold" ends her title poem. But dark has too easily entered our everyday parlance. Go to any crossword puzzle dictionary and find 62 entries for "dark" alone, but "sad" and possibly "sunless" would apply to Levy's exquisitely crafted poems. This author has sworn no Stygian oaths. Instead, her writing is lyrical and candidly aboveground.

In her launching poem, "Telling Stories," Levy begins: "A dancer on the roof spun into her end." But in responding to the dancer's tragic suicide, the author answers on the side of hope. "Once, I wanted to die,/but didn't. And then the leaves turned in the wind/bright, so new. That can happen." This illustration of the fragility of life is finely wrought by a master stylist.

Sometimes Levy's poems seem like one-act plays featuring a dramatic "moon" character, a slightly eccentric woman, entirely capable of hanging blankets at the windows instead of drapes, to experience only the nights of her broken heart. She is our sister, and her poems are love's warnings: "So we say,/we'll be together forever /-and run to a home/and clutch each other/and try to make some love" (from "They Rush").

In her charming poem entitled "Readings," the speaker has a relationship with birds, listening to understand that "they're singing beyond themselves." Levy's poems do, too. — Susan Hankla

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