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Two Virginia authors and two anthologies of fiction provide compelling and controversial antidotes to wintertime blues.


"From My Cold, Dead Hands: Charlton Heston and American Politics"

Emilie Raymond (University Press of Kentucky, $27.95)

In his roll as Moses, Charlton Heston delivers the Ten Commandments to the Israelites, but the actor continued to model moral rectitude offscreen. Heston stayed involved in politics most of his career, most famously as president of the National Rifle Association from 1998 to 2003, which led to a less glamorous film cameo as the target of Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine."

In "From My Cold, Dead Hands," Raymond, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, traces Heston's civic evolution against the backdrop of American politics. She argues that while the neoconservative intellectual movement developed in think tanks and specialty publications, Heston's political epiphanies organically parallel them in the real world, making him a "visceral neo-conservative."

Raymond provides compelling histories of Hollywood unions, federal arts disputes and civil rights debates that Heston got tangled up in. Readers also get interesting tidbits about Heston, like the fact that in the '80s he had top-level military clearance so he could record voiceovers for instructional videos on nuclear weapons programs. It's an academic book, so come prepared with your own definition of the "bourgeois ethic," but overall Raymond writes an exceptionally readable work for the genre.

Given that it is a product of the academy, however, readers might reasonably expect a more rigorous analysis of what she means by "neo-conservative," and why Heston is not simply, say, a Reagan Democrat. Raymond successfully illuminates Heston's personal philosophy and his relationships with historical figures, and she highlights points of departure for what is now broadly considered the "culture wars." Unfortunately the neocon argument, her central theme, is weak by comparison.

— Amy Biegelsen

"Born Again"

Kelly Kerney (Harvest Books, $14)

Kerney's first novel, "Born Again," explores new territory — a teenage protagonist experiencing awkwardness and awakening with a Christian fundamentalist twist. Not the typical tale of teenage angst, but one probably being played out in many homes across the country. The book is a unique glimpse into a culture most of us have experienced only when watching Pat Robertson's "700 Club." Melanie, 14, lives in a world of super-churches, banned books, morality plays and abstinence rallies.

Bible passages juxtaposed with chapters from a stolen copy of Darwin's "Origin of the Species" enlighten the reader about her internal struggle. Evolutionary-convenient events (a sudden road trip to a cave, observing animals at a petting zoo) and a surprise revelation about her parents drive the plot as opposed to the rich characters — her basement-dwelling, hard-rock-listening brother; her banished sister who is a teenage mother; her father who is a recovering alcoholic.

Unfortunately, Kerney only scratches beneath the surface at what makes these characters tick. People are always more compelling than intellectual arguments. An uneven tone to the first-person narrative is also an issue; Melanie's insights into the hypocrisy and stilted beliefs of her church clearly come from Kerney's more mature vantage point, making them inconsistent with the character's age and experience.

The novel could have benefited from better editing and perhaps an omniscient narrator, as Melanie fluctuates between being fairly juvenile and too aware. Kerney's insights are far more interesting than the muddled plot and voice she commits to the page. — Shannon O'Neill

"New Stories From the South: The Year's Best, 2006"

Edited by Allan Gurganus (Algonquin Books, $14.95)

Editor Gurganus' entertaining introduction to this short-story anthology argues that our nations' best writers are Southern (William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O'Connor) and that by being the loser (of the Civil War), the South ultimately becomes the winner. The proof, he says, is in the stories: "Having got those in the settlement, we really are funnier and darker and shrewder."

The stories in this collection are indeed funny, dark and shrewd. They spin uniquely oddball tales of losers or sideways winners. The hardest to read is Cary Holladay's "The Burning," which sears our emotions with its horrific unfolding of a Southern slave's barbaric treatment and execution — a necessary telling, but difficult to bear. The rest of the stories are a treat: the dreamlike and Kafkaesque "Tired Heart" by Keith Lee Morris; R.T. Smith's tale of snake handlers in "Tastes Like Chicken"; the hilariously self-deprecating "How to Build a House," by Luke Whisnant; and the intense child's-eye view in "Brief Encounters With Che Guevara" by Ben Fountain. Nanci Kincaid's "The Currency of Love" offers recognizable Southern characters who finally defy stereotype, revealing "the power and the glory of being dead wrong."

Though not always obviously Southern, these stories affirm that exceptional and striking writing continues to come from the South. An added treat at the end of each tale is a photo of the author with a brief discussion of the story's inspiration. — Jennifer Yane

"The Anchor Book of Modern Arabic Fiction"

Edited by Denys Johnson-Davies (Anchor Books, $15.95)

Editor Johnson-Davies has picked a brilliant time in Western history to publish this anthology of short stories and novel excerpts by 79 Arabic authors from 14 countries. While compelling works of fiction in their own right, the stories within this nearly 500-page book also can serve to bridge gaps of cultural misunderstanding in more multidimensional ways than journalism or the media can.

Reading "Presence of the Absent Man," a passionate and turbulent lesbian love story by Iraqi author Alia Mamdouh, necessitates a closer examination of the cultural stereotypes of the country and the people with whom we are at war. The excerpt from "The Yacoubian Building" by Alaa Al Aswany, in which a young woman is groped by her employer, may be PG-13 to American readers, but it has shocked the author's Egyptian contemporaries.

These works of modern Arabic fiction read differently with more informed knowledge of the context in which they were written. The first Arabic novel, "Zaynab" by Muhammad Husayn Haykal, emerged as recently as 1929, and it wasn't until 1988 that an Arab author, Naguib Mahfouz, received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Western readers are also more jaded and less easily shocked, or as Johnson-Davies says, "In the West, our sacred cows have long been slaughtered."

A former professor at a Cairo University, Johnson-Davies also has translated many of the works in this anthology and is responsible for publishing "Tales From Egyptian Life" by Mahmoud Teymour in 1947, the first book of Arabic short stories to be translated into English. His selections, a surprisingly large number of which are authored by women, cover a wide range thematically and geographically, bringing sex, religion and politics across the cultural divide. — Valley Haggard

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