BOOKS: Recently Read 

Contemporary authors and poets offer Virginians a different perspective.

"Journey Within: A Healing Playbook" (Northlight Publishing, $18), by artist, author and licensed clinical social worker Jeannette Drake, offers 13 evocative drawings that serve as a springboard for a self-guided process of meditation, journaling and inner reflection. The body of original art is followed by Drake's own dreams, stories, memories and musings, which illustrate her interior world as one that is clearly moving through deep suffering to healing and illumination. Drake's emotive and beautifully realized drawings are an authentic catalyst for introspection. In spite of a sometimes Christian underlay, "Journey Within" can facilitate self-growth universally, individually or in a group. Drake will be at Book People Aug. 20 at 3 p.m. to discuss her work. — Valley Haggard

In his latest collection of short stories, "Sabbath Night in the Church of the Piranha: New and Selected Stories," (Unbridled Books, $13.95), Virginia Tech professor Edward Falco illuminates the struggles of men and boys as they navigate the strange and sometimes treacherous roads of their lives. Peopled by fathers laboring to understand and protect their children, adolescent boys endeavoring to find their places in the world, and men confronting disquieting pasts, Falco's stories resonate with a quiet compassion for his characters, even those who make choices of terrible moral consequence.

Falco creates such wrenchingly believable characters as Coon, the victim of molestation in "Silver Dollars." Neglected by his damaged parents, Coon does all that he can to protect his older teenage sister from her bad decisions about men, but is unable to resist attention and gifts from a soft and sinister stranger.

Wounded by neglect, abuse, grief, Vietnam and the inhumane ideals of popular culture, Falco's men and boys search for comfort, connection and esteem from their parents, from peers and from women. Sometimes their searches drive them to betrayal, adultery and even murder in stories that leave the reader with both sympathy and revulsion for the hero.

In the most touching stories, like "The Match," "The Professor's Son" and the title story, "Sabbath Night in the Church of the Piranha," fathers struggle with varying degrees of success to love and parent their teenage children. Falco brings a remarkably tender voice to a distinctly male collection of stories. — Mary Mullins

Set against the sweltering backdrop of the Deep South, Richmond author Gigi Amateau's "Claiming Georgia Tate" (Candle-wick Press, $15.99) follows the novel's namesake, a bright-eyed, extremely precocious 12-year-old girl, as life knocks her from tragedy to tragedy in the trying years of her early adolescence.

The horrors that Georgia Tate must endure are seemingly endless: Her mother abandons her as an infant; her grandparents send her to live with her sexually abusive father; her grandparents deceive her about her family's past; and much more. But Amateau's protagonist proves herself to be more than just a poor victim for the reader to pity. In fact, it's her resiliency in the face of so much adversity that makes the novel so compelling. That she manages to survive such consistently devastating mistreatment from the world is obviously remarkable. But for her to also emerge from these travails, as Georgia Tate ultimately does, a sympathetic, good-hearted young lady who repeatedly befriends society's outcasts and inspires those around her to become better people, is nearly too much to believe. Normally, so much pure goodness dressed up in Pollyanna-style sentimentality would be difficult to stomach. Yet somehow Amateau pulls it off. The sincerity of her intimate first-person account of Georgia Tate's life is undeniably contagious, stirring within the reader a certain optimism — a renewed faith that people can be good in spite of all that aligns itself against them.

Though labeled as a "young adult" novel, "Claiming Georgia Tate" is a book saturated with enough relevance and emotional depth to be enjoyed by readers of any age. — Hutch Hill

In her newly released book of poetry, "White Sea" (Sarabande Books, $20.95), Cleopatra Mathis revisits the examination of the Demeter/Persephone myth introduced in her previous book, "What to Tip the Boatman?" With white-hot purpose, she searches for soul everywhere, to find it … nowhere! Mathis' speaker guides us through her childhood with a self-castigating, blunt tone, but doesn't foresee what will become wrenching: her relationship with her grandfather. In "SALT" she writes: "He can't speak English / and I won't speak Greek … He's talking, telling me that taste [of muscadine grapes] is like the sea. / He's in another country / trying to tell me something. I look away."

If we read these poems as vehicles of illumination, we'd know Mathis reveals the natural world with her pen. The speaker in "LISTEN, SPIRIT" confesses: "I didn't go around talking to you. I believed in prayer… / But you are not the sentimental one, / … you don't care about my American happiness … / Charmed by shine, / …I've stared into the sun. / Imagine, thinking that's where I'd see you."

When "White Sea" begins, this Greek Southerner from Rustin, La. — transplanted to New England, with its punishing winters — struggles for domestic order. By the book's end (also in winter), she knows what's not shining there, but everywhere.

Mathis conducted a workshop/public reading here April 9 benefiting Frost Place, a poetry venue in Franconia, N.H. This gifted teacher/poet founded and directs Dartmouth's creative writing program. — Susan Hankla

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