Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Speed Reader

By Isak Howell, Julie Birnbaum, Stephen Ausherman, and Brendan Doherty

MAY 26, 1998: 

More Than a Champion
by Jan Philipp Reemtsma (Knopf, cloth, $21)

Step into the ring with Jan Philipp Reemtsma, the intellectual German boxing connoisseur, for a sweaty, high-brow event. Feel the power of Sonny Liston's left jab combined with a sly reference to Antigone, and you'll be reeling. Reemtsma examines Muhammad Ali's boxing style largely through "The Thriller in Manila," Ali's final bout with Joe Frazier. Interspersed with the glowing blow-by-blows of this showdown are chapters examining "Ali's magic," including an explanation of the tight kinship between the Rocky movies and Ali mythology. Using Clay/Ali's greatest fights, Reemtsma depicts a cunning and ever-evolving strategist who baffles, enrages and then soundly thrashes the world's greatest bruisers. He proceeds to weave Ali into American identity and life's emotional extremes. The book is exciting without dodging boxing's brutality or Ali's deterioration and current sad condition. Except for the last chapter, in which the energy deflates, the intellectual references don't hinder the flow, even if you don't know who Diocletian is. Read Champion and then rent When We Were Kings, and you'll see the nuances behind the knockouts. (IH)

The Powers That Be
by Walter Wink (Doubleday, cloth, $21.95)

In an interesting take on Christian belief, Wink's The Powers That Be discusses spirituality for a modern world in which governing forces have often turned away from morality in favor of materialism. Wink believes that society ignores the inner spirit that ancient religion understood, and he maintains that hope for changing "idolatrous" powers can come from reaffirming this spirit. Coming from a background of ministry, currently a peace activist and a professor of Biblical interpretation, Wink starts out offering a unique perspective on the modern corporate worldview, then returns to the familiar idea of Jesus as savior. Essentially, he writes, faith allows people to not only reconcile their lives with God despite the "Powers," but to free the Powers themselves and reconcile them with God. The work is (thankfully) a digest of three previous works on the subject, though still dry and repetitive at times. Philosophically, however, his take on religion, science and society could have validity for readers of any worldview. (JB)

A Stranger's Neighborhood
by Donald Morrill (Duquesne University Press, paper, $16.95)

A 1929 textbook on travel writing advises: "Learn to know your neighborhood. Then write about what you have learned, and you will soon find yourself a more interesting and popular person." Donald Morrill, it seems, had this advice in mind when he wrote his first book, a memoir in essays that compare his boyhood neighborhood in Iowa to ones around the globe. However, he often digs for significance where there is none, relying instead on indulgent self-consciousness expressed through forced metaphors. For example, in a segue from a description of swimmers in a frozen river, he notes, "I observed myself breaststroking through the ice of my circumstances, and I pretended I was neither swimmer nor watcher." Still, more often than not, he earns his place in Duquesne's Emerging Writers in Creative Nonfiction book series by capturing the character of a place and his identity in it. Whether he finds himself as a guest, stranger or invader depends upon a complex set of circumstances--both internal and external, past and present--that most travelers fail to consider. And while he admits that he's not always the most popular person in the neighborhood, he is one of the more interesting. (SA)

A Wave
by John Ashbery (Noonday, paper, $12)

Most readers grimace at the very idea of poetry. It is often a weighty anchor of rhymed couplets that hangs sorely around the necks of readers--the dross or chaff that is a nice shorthand of personal emotional experience. To drag readers down into the unprocessed dreck is to suffocate them in shallow pools of spit and dung. Few poets are ever able to capture the weight of death, the breeze of joy and the pulse of lust while keeping their ego out of it enough to transmit something that is truly transpersonal. This work, John Ashbery's 20th, is a treasure. As is his style, Ashbery throws his previous manner to the dogs and begins anew. Oh, if you're a reader who thinks "poet" is a four-letter word, Ashbery might be a nice place to begin. Or Sharon Olds. Or Louise Gluck. Should I tell you about the poems? They are vital and good. For this Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award-winning author, A Wave was and is yet another crashing series of poems in a universe of experience. This Wave, however, is one worth catching. (BD)

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