Well-told stories and a well-used reference guide. 

The King and other Champs

The larger-than-life athlete as national icon has by now become a familiar figure.

But Muhammed Ali was the first.

When Ali, (then Cassius Clay) defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title in 1964, and soon after publicly joined The Nation of Islam and then refused the draft, he immediately became not just a sports figure, but a revolutionary.

That's the case David Remnick makes in "King of the World," (Vintage Books, paper, $13), his biography of Ali from his youth in Louisville through his victories over Liston to gain and keep the heavyweight crown. Remnick does a remarkable job setting the stage for Ali's mammoth ascent. He describes the state of the sport of boxing, mob-infused and racially charged in an era when the civil rights movement was just gaining steam. He shows how in Ali's time, boxing was a morality play between Sonny Liston, the silent, menacing black character, and the apologetic, kowtowing "Uncle Tom," Floyd Patterson. The sportswriters of the time fed these racist notions, and the public bought them.

And most remarkably, Remnick describes how Ali was a huge underdog, so much so that his managers were silently praying that he would survive the first Liston bout and gave little thought to actually winning.

It's hard to conceive of a time, pre-Michael Jordan, when sport had no worldwide heroes, instantly recognizable and adored throughout the world. Similarly, it's just as difficult to imagine an era when a sporting figure could personify and politicize a monumental gulf such as race, as Ali did in the turbulent, divisive 1960s. But Remnick manages to evoke those times, and vividly portray the man who in many ways defined them. — Mark Stroh

"Plainsong" by Kent Haruf (Knopf, $24) is a finalist in the competition for this year's National Book Award. There is good reason for this because Haruf has written a charming story of people in a small town whose troubles and emotions are those we see around us every day: mental illness, disappointment in marriage, a woman's lonesome pregnancy,but also love, generosity and the fight to keep one's integrity when it would be far easier to toss it aside.

Haruf's style and method of relating his story make the book a plainsong — a simple melody without complicated methods of delivery, yet with some repeated themes. There are two sets of brothers, for example, whose love and devotion to each other are clear. There is also Harufs writing style — simple declarative sentences with occasional repeated phrases. His is a style closer to Hemingway than to Faulkner.

While here and there it is a trifle off-putting to recognize the author's technique, Haruf succeeds with this book because he has drawn characters we care about, characters whose emotions and predicaments we recognize, and he has told their story well. I might put my money on this novel to be the winner.

Civil War buffs should take a look at Clint Johnson's "Touring Virginia's and West Virginia's Civil War Sites" ( softback, $19.95. Published by John E. Blair , this book has suggested tours, a bit of history and maps. If you are interested in sightseeing close to home, this should be a handy glove compartment companion.

If you would like to receive an occasional e-mail with book news, including what some area book clubs are reading, e-mail rright@styleweekly.com — Rozanne

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