The essential weakness of Glantz's book is that it's more about him than it is about Iraq. In prose as dry and bland as a salt-free soda cracker, he squanders the reader's goodwill on his endless trials while hiring translators and drivers, and on recounting stilted conversations with fellow journalists. Even his descriptions of the most horrifying events like the U.S. assault on Fallujah, in which he presents substantial evidence that American soldiers gunned down hundreds of innocent civilians by shooting them in the neck, fail to rivet and move the reader. Glantz's self-acknowledged weariness and despair over the situation in Iraq will leave readers grateful to be done with the book rather than moved to protest the war. Mary Mullins
"Fighting Wars, Planning for Peace: The Story of George C. Marshall" (Morgan Reynolds Publishing, $24.95) was written by Richmond author Lee Gimpel for the historically minded young adult (9-12) set. This readable biography of an esteemed army hero and 1953 Nobel Peace Prize recipient is made even more digestible with well-placed color photographs and maps, an index and a timeline. Readers follow Marshall from his modest beginnings and graduation from the Virginia Military Institute through his pivotal roles in both World Wars and terms as secretary of state and secretary of defense, to finally, his burial in Arlington Cemetery. In simple language, Gimpel illustrates the impact of one man's life on the nation as a whole, as well as his influence on it becoming the superpower it is today. Valley Haggard
Washington County author Joe Tennis' "Southwest Virginia Crossroads: An Almanac of Place Names and Places to See" (The Overmountain Press, $29.95) is the kind of book you want to own, not just because it adds flair to your coffee table, but because it offers an in-depth examination of the oft-forgot southwestern corner of our state. Wearing the hats of both a traveler and native son, Tennis details a perspective on the bottom left half of Virginia as practical as a road map, a little less juicy than gossip, but more interesting than your average travelogue. Readers are promised a blend of out-of-the-way, homegrown culture with images of the history that shaped it. While it's impressive that Tennis is his own photographer, his landscape and architectural shots would be even more stunning in color. Valley Haggard
"Rococo" (Random House, $24.95), by Adriana Trigiani, is the story of one man's lifelong passion to renovate his hometown church. It's also an ode to community and to Italian-American family life. As an interior decorator, Bartolomeo di Crespi (aka "B") would rather cuddle up with a swatch book than with a beautiful woman. But as his story unfolds, we learn that his sense of familial duty (as well as of beauty) is a defining trait that binds the large, extended family, providing stability to the whole community.
The main crisis occurs when B finally gets a chance at his dream of a lifetime but develops artists' block. How he grows through his problem is heartening. But survival of the first, say, five pages of this book might be doubtful for some, so copious at first are the interior-decorating descriptions. However, the family and character idiosyncrasies woven with the crisis resolution lead one to actually enjoy the decorating details as an extension of the character of B. The church renovation descriptions are actually exciting, and made the venture more concrete.
"Rococo" is Trigiani's sixth novel and takes place in small-town New Jersey; and B is her first male narrator. As a native Virginian, Trigiani has a large fan base for her previous Virginia-based Big Stone Gap trilogy, and The New York Times best sellers, "Lucia, Lucia" and "The Queen of the Big Time." Jennifer Yane
Mark Helprin applies his prodigious storytelling powers to the kissing cousins of literary genres, the farce and the quest, in "Freddy and Fredericka" (The Penguin Press, $27.95). Freddy, the Prince of Wales, brings shame to the Crown through a flow of humiliating and humorous public appearances. The newspapers devour the stories for their readership, as well as for the hijinks of Fredericka, the voluptuous blonde doorstop to the throne. A secret protocol to deal with the embarrassing royals is called in, and Freddy and Fredericka are parachuted into New Jersey to reclaim the long-lost colonies for Britain.
Here they become vagabonds, crossing the broad landscape and diverse cultures of the country. Helprin's novel rolls from their encounters with biker gangs to a brief stint as dentists before landing them in the middle of a presidential campaign. In the forge of America, Freddy and Fredericka, poor as wandering monks, reveal the nobility that no crown can impart and begin, finally, to fall in love with one another.
The truly expansive poetic voice that has become Helprin's trademark in stories about World War I and love in New York is reined in here, as he turns his hand to comedy. Long dialogues of misunderstanding roll out in cheeky Brit-com style, while he patiently guides us through the most absurd developments. Though the book becomes ponderous at times with its detail, it's light enough for the reader to float through its pages. As with all of Helprin's books, though, this quest is a serious declaration of morals and virtue, revealed through our royals with wryness, sure, but never with sarcasm. Brandon Reynolds
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