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Ask A Book Question: The ninth in a Series: (A Classic of Self-discovery)

Hey folks, another question, which made me recall one of my favorite books. Maybe I should reread this one some time soon. Here ya go:Salvatore Nicholas Mastropaolo writes:What is the "story Line" of Herman Hesse's Siddhartha? I THANK YOU-Well, I thank you for writing in Sal. Herman Hesse wrote Siddhartha in 1922, and it was not considered one of his best books at the time. Hesse went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946, and then sometime after World War II, coinciding perhaps with the rise in popularity of Beat literature, people began to appreciate Siddhartha's message of self-discovery. By the 1970s Siddhartha had been fully resurrected from obscurity has since been considered an essential as both a book about mysticism and a coming of age story. Though Siddhartha was originally taught in schools as a fictional window into Eastern religions and philosophies, it is now used as an example of the Western view of those traditions. Aside from all that though, it is a terrific little book about a spiritual journey. The story line? How about this: "A young Indian mystic, a contemporary of Buddha, sacrifices everything to search for the true meaning of life." But don't take my word for it! It's a fantastic book and a quick and unchallenging read that's worth far more than the time it takes to read it. Most folks out there have read Siddhartha. Any thoughts? Use the comment button below.
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Ask A Book Question: The eighth in a Series: (Books for Li’l Einsteins)

I hope everyone had a good Halloween. Here in Southern California, it decided to rain for the first time in about six months, bad for outdoor costume parties (like the one I attended), but good for quelling forest fires. Now the rain is gone and the sun is back and I'm pleased to announce the return of Ask a Book Question. Ms. Frizzle has written in with a challenging and interesting question:I like reading popular science books like Genome by Matt Ridley, Best Science Writing of..., The Botany of Desire, Red-Tails in Love, etc. I teach middle school students who read on a much lower level than I do and have far less science background. I'd like to find books like the ones above, but written for 10-15 year olds. Suggestions? I already know about science picture books by Seymour Simon,Gail Gibbons, and others... I'm looking for something in between.After reading Ms. Frizzle's question, I stepped into my wayback machine to see if I was reading anything interesting about science when I was eleven. Aside from reminding me how dorky my glasses looked, my eleven-year-old self, while very interested in science, appeared to read only Hardy Boys books and would turn to his set of Golden Books encyclopedias when looking to read about something scientific. Not very helpful. Sadly, it appears that things haven't changed much since I was in middle school, and there remains a huge void somewhere in the middle of the wealth of popular science books for adults, the wealth of science-related picture books, and the wealth of science textbooks of which I'm sure Ms. Frizzle is well acquainted. Nonetheless, I did my best to come up with some makeshift recommendations (in three parts). First: As I scanned through various titles, I noticed that there are tons of picture books about science for little kids, but I also noticed that some of them are complex enough and advanced enough to hold the interest of older kids. By far the best one that I came across is a brand new book called The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin by author and illustrator Peter Sis. Sis uses Darwin's copious journals as a jumping off point for a multi layered narrative full of exquisitely rendered maps and charts and illustrations. Sis does a good job of keeping the text at a challenging but not impossible level, and the book is so densely packed with informative eye-candy that it probably would keep an eleven or twelve year old interested. Second: I thought that maybe some of those really good, really engaging science books for adults might work for younger teenagers. They probably couldn't handle the books on their own, but perhaps taking some excerpts from these books would be useful. My pick in this category would be Longitude by Dava Sobel because it has a good narrative that sticks to solving a single problem (how to calculate longitude) and it includes a fair amount of drama on the high seas. I also thought that the books of Gerald Malcolm Durrell might also serve this purpose well. Both My Family and Other Animals and A Zoo in My Luggage are about growing up fascinated by the flora and fauna around him. Maybe some of these kids will see themselves in the young Durrell. Third: Sadly, I was only able to find one measly book written for this age group about a scientific subject, but at least it's a pretty good one. I think kids will always be fascinated by Jane Goodall and the idea of living with chimps. Luckily she wrote a book for all those kids called My Life with the Chimpanzees. Finally, I should also mention the really cool Way Things Work series by David Macaulay. There are lots of entertaining illustrations that show the inner-workings of household objects from can openers to computers, a must for future inventors. The most recent installment is called The New Way Things Work.Ms. Frizzle: I hope this helped. Everyone else: hurry up and write some good science books for kids; they need them, and also, make sure you check out Ms. Frizzle's blog about being a middle-school teacher in the Bronx.More GrossmanBrian, who loves getting mentioned on The Millions, sent me a link to the New York Times' glowing review of Edith Grossman's translation of Cervantes' Don Quixote.
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Ask A Book Question: The Seventh in a Series (Calling All Readers of Hesse)

C. Ryan Edwards wrote in hoping to jumpstart a discussion on one of his favorite authors, Hermann Hesse:I was hoping to start some discussion of one of my favorite books by mentioning hesses's the glass bead game or magister ludi whichever one wishes to call it. Have you read it? It did gain hesse the 1946 nobel prize.The only Hesse I have ever read is, predictably, Siddhartha, which I considered to be very good, if only because it kept me interested in subject matter that I don't typically care for. I have heard more than once that as far as Hesse goes Siddhartha should be considered a lesser work, since his other writing typically surpasses it. I invite anyone out there with thoughts on The Glass Bead Game/Magister Ludi to speak up via the "comments" link. I meanwhile will add it to my list of things to read.
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Ask A Book Question: The Sixth in a Series (Santa and the Romans)

Richard Smith writes in trying to track down what sounds like a very cool story. Hopefully someone can help him out I read a story in a compilation book in the 70's about Santa Claus, but you didn't know it was about Santa Claus. I want to know how to get a copy again. It was about a centurion called Claudius who was at the crucifixion. Does anyone know what it is called and who wrote it?Well, I googled this one for about an hour and couldn't come up with anything. There seem to be several Christian storytellers who have written first person accounts of the crucifixion, many of which are very interesting, but none that I could find include Santa Claus. Of course, there are also many dozens of great stories and legends about Santa Claus, but, again, none that I could find had a basis in Ancient Rome. If I had better access to a good library I bet I could figure this out, but, alas, I do not. Sorry I couldn't be more helpful, but maybe someone else out there has heard of this or knows their way around those great library databases. If you knows this story, please let us know by pressing the comment link below. Good luck on your search, Richard!
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Ask a Book Question: The Fifth in a Series (The Russians Are Coming)

All of a sudden I've worked my way pretty quickly through the pile of books I have lying around, so I was digging through my shelves looking for what to read next. I dug up an old copy of Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov that I'd come across on a book finding expedition a while back. The Russians occupy a gaping hole among books that I have read. I have never read any of the 19th century classics, and I figure I ought to start sooner rather than later. However, staring at this brick-like copy of Karamazov, I became intimidated as I wondered if this was the best place to begin my education in Russian literature. Yet, I did not panic; instead I emailed my friend Brian, who I happen to know is a great connoisseur of Russian Lit. Here is what I wrote: I've never read any of the classic Russian writers, and I want to start, but I'm not sure which one to start with. Any ideas? I've got The Brothers Karamazov... so I'm thinking of starting with that. ...and here is his response...the russians are my favorites -- all of 'em, dostoevsky, tolstoy, chekhov, gogol, turgenev, pushkin, etc...my favorite russian writer is Dostoevsky (chekhov is second) and my favorite novel is definitely The Brothers Karamazov. it might be my favorite novel of all time, but i think you should start with Crime and Punishment a much more conventional and accessible book. not that i think you couldn't handle The Brothers, but just think you might wanna ease your way in... check out Gogol's short stories "The Overcoat" and "The Nose" [in The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol] and Chekhov's story "Ward No. 6" [in Stories] is a masterpiece, as are many (most) of his stories.Thanks, Brian... If anyone else has insights on the Russians, let us know by using the comment button below.Two Hot New BooksA couple of very different brand new books have been getting lots of attention from customers lately: The Zanzibar Chest by Aidan Hartley is part mystery, part memoir that is a story of life in post-colonial Africa, which must necessarily touch upon the history of colonialism as well as all too recent war and genocide. Here is an excerpt. Completely unrelated but also very interesting is Where'd You Get Those? New York City's Sneaker Culture: 1960-1987 a pictorial history of playground basketball and the footwear that accompanied it by Bobbito Garcia, writer for Vibe, world-class DJ, "basketball performer," and world-renowned break-dancer. For pics of the hot kicks... go here.
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Ask a Book Question: The Fourth in a Series (What’s in a Name)

Garth poses this topic:Here's a fun, listy book question based solely on opinion (these are my specialty): titles. As you can tell from the blank subject line above, titles are hard for me. I've always admired Hemingway's titles, and I was just reading East of Eden, when I thought, damn, that's a good title. Most of Steinbeck's books have great titles, as do the Mutis novellas. Perhaps you should solicit candidates for the greatest book titles of all time.I am still in transit throughout the East Coast so I won't have time to take a crack at this one. Anyone else have favorites? Use the comments link below.
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Ask a Book Question: The Third in a Series (The Constructive Subversive)

Cem's travels have continued. As one of the few Westerners to visit Burma (recently, anyway), he has decided to take advantage of the opportunity by bringing along some literature that might be of use to the Burmese. Good luck and be careful Cem!I am heading into Mandalay via Air Mandalay the day after tomorrow. Mandalay is the second most significant city in Burma, a country which has been under the boot, physically and psychologically, of one of the most oppressive governments in the world for some 30 years. save N.Korea and maybe now Tajikistan, there are few places more old-school totalitarian - even Syria is more free than this place.Books, fiction and nonfiction, have always played an important role in denting the armor (and often more) of authoritarian rulers, just ask Vaclav Havel and George Soros. So - I would like to do my part in bringing in some interesting material, in denting the armor, even if the tiniest chink. I don't intend on smuggling in tomes of guerilla tactics, or explicitly subversive rants published by expatriot opposition groups - I just want to bring in some books to give to these information starved people (well, the English speaking upper-mid class, probably students and hopefully not 'guest' intelligence, that read English), something that will either give them some inspiration, distract them, help them deal with/understand the living in an authoritarian/totalitarian society in an explicit way.Now, 1984 is an obvious choice, and I already have 3 used copies in my bag. Anyone could have come up with that. I need some titles that will impress the fleshy white activist chick crowd in Chiang Mai! Anyone else have any ideas? Even if I am unable to get them in time -which is almost certain - I'd love to hear what people have to say.I agree that 1984 is the perfect book for this situation. With simple, yet riveting prose, Orwell creates a generic totalitarian society, which, stripped of its ceremonial trappings becomes instantly recognizable as a society of horrors. One can imagine a Soviet dissident reading his samizdat copy by candlelight in an attic or basement and being struck by wave after wave of sickening, empowering recognition. It is no question that Orwell is most needed in places where books are banned and burned, so it seems fitting to bring along a book that addresses that very topic, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Other suggestions that come to mind are One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey and Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. And finally there is The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the towering giant of dissident literature. These books, once cutting edge, but now required reading in our schools, will surely fail to impress the "fleshy white activist chick crowd." Anyone have anything sufficiently subversive to recommend? Send me an email or press the comments link below.Mystery and the Buddha I finished reading Bangkok 8 by John Burdett yesterday. The mystery genre is highly underrepresented on the list of books I've read. I'm not sure if this is from lack of interest or lack of time (all these guys wrote so many books, and I'm worried that once I started I wouldn't be able to stop.) Anyone who has read this blog consistently knows that I'm a sucker for books set in exotic locales, and the fact that this book is set in Thailand and was well reviewed, led me to pick it up. First the bad: I found the book to be less than gracefully written. At times the language is painfully stilted. I know that I am not used to the "hard-boiled" style that many detective stories employ, but too often the prose caused me to lurch to a standstill while my brain rotated the offensive sentence around in my head, unwilling to go on. On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised by how well Burdett used Thai Buddhism to add fascinating depth and nuance to the story. I have often been wary of Buddhism in general, mostly because my only experience with it is as a trendy religion, the accessory of Beastie Boys fans and cause-hungry hippies for whom the Free Tibet bumper sticker perfectly conceals the country club parking permit on the bumper of the Volvo (cf: "fleshy white activist chick crowd" in previous paragraph). Burdett's Thai Buddhism, however, is both unassuming and universal. He presents it as inseparable from Thai culture, and naturally the Buddhist way of thinking, so different from our cold Western logic, becomes integral to solving the mystery (we are investigating the gruesome death by multiple snakes of an American marine, by the way.) It's not so tidy as most detective stories, but then that too, follows the Buddhist way of thinking and is the strongpoint of the book.Two More Books That Bear Mentioning and an Important Programming NoteI'm starting to hear good things about the new Garrison Keillor novel Love Me. Brian pointed out the laudatory review in the Washington Post. Also, how could I have not mentioned this yet. Though I have never cracked the spine of a Chuck Palahniuk novel, I should mention that fans of his will be pleased to hear that he has a new book coming out very soon: Diary: A Novel. I haven't seen any reviews yet, but I have heard that this one might be his most twisted yet.Tomorrow I'm getting on a plane and flying to the East Coast for 10 days. I have a lot planned and so I will probably not be able to post extensively. However, if any of you feel like picking up the slack and have some book-related news that just can't wait email me or use the form at the right, and I will post it up. Thanks!
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Ask a Book Question: The Second in a Series (More thoughts on yesterday’s question and new speculation today)

Garth and Elise had some aditional thoughts on yesterday's question: Elise, daughter of a children's librarian and a great afficianado of too-smart-for-kids-too-fun-for-adults fantasy, likes the Garth Nix books (Lirael, Sabriel, and something else I can't remember). I used to love Lloyd Alexander's Taran Wanderer. Also, the Neil Gaiman/Terry Pratchett collabo Good Omens is pretty awesome. And did anyone actually read Summerland [by Michael Chabon]? Maybe it's good, too.Great ideas. I can't speak to many of these picks, although they sound intriguing. I didn't read Summerland and I didn't have any customers rush back into the store a week after buying it saying that it changed their kid's life, as I occasionally do with, say, the Philip Pullman books. On the other hand, Chabon is a talented writer, so it makes sense that the book is at the very least quite readable. Moving on. Garth also posed an interesting question in which we enjoy the pleasures of trying to predict the future: Here's my book question. Who are the under-50 writers you and your readers think are capable of producing something that will be read widely and passionately 100 years from now? Here's my extemporaneous list: Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Jeffrey Eugenides, Rick Moody, Colson Whitehead, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, Peter Carey, Roddy Doyle, Nick Baker, Paul Beatty, Jhumpa Lahiri, Conor McPherson, Suzan-Lori Parks, Patrick Chamoiseau and myself. Any thoughts?This is an interesting question having to do with capabilities. I think it's fair to say that with the possible exception of Franzen's The Corrections, none of these writers has as of yet written something that will be read in a 100 years. I am familiar with most but not all of the writers mentioned above, having said that, here are the writers that I think have the best chance to become immortal from the above list: Franzen, Wallace, Whitehead, and Lahiri. On the other hand I'm not sure that Zadie Smith or Suzan-Lori Parks should be included at all, though that may have to do more with my personal taste than the quality of their writing. This is of course an impossible question to answer, but you have to wonder what the prevailing opinion might have been to the same question posed 50 to 100 years ago. Do Hemingway and Faulkner get mentioned? Or is everyone convinced that Sinclair Lewis wll have enduring undying popularity. At any rate, it's clear that the most fervent current acclaim is no guarantee of canonization. (For what it's worth, the most voraciously read books that are at least 50 years old are as follows: The Catcher in the Rye, Fahrenheit 451, Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, 1984 and Animal Farm. These will be joined by To Kill a Mockingbird in a few years when it turns 50.) I would add a few names to Garth's list George Saunders, Gary Schteyngart, Maile Meloy, and my favorite to take the title, Jonathan Safran Foer. Finally, I would like to point out three authors who may have already written something that will be read by future generations. All three have only recently turned fifty, so I don't mind bending the rules to include them in this discussion. They are: Denis Johnson (age 54), Ian McEwan (age 55), Haruki Murakami (age 54), and maybe I'll throw in Paul Auster (age 55) for good measure........ Anyone else got some ideas???Loving the Little GuysI went to a "publishing party" at Book Soup in West Hollywood the other day to celebrate the emergence of two local publishers. First Cut Books is the coolest online book store ever. Each month or so they feature a new set of great books that their dedicated staff of reviewers selects and recommends. First Cut is also a publisher and their first publication is Filthy, a quarterly about baseball pitching, to which I am a contributor. Also there was Tam Tam Books, devoted publisher of all things Serge Gainsbourg, Boris Vian, and Guy Debord. Small publishers and the devoted people who run them may be the most exciting thing about the publishing industry.A Brief ExcerptFrom the book I'm reading right now: "I watch him go not without a tinge of envy. In nearly two decades of meditation the Buddha has not told me a single joke. Surely one would laugh for eternity?"
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Ask a Book Question: The First in a Series (Life After Harry)

Heather wrote in with a great question about life after Harry Potter:Recently I have devoured the series of books by Philip Pullman called "His Dark Materials" (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass). While the shelf at the bookstore I found them in was young adult and science fiction/fantasy, I felt they went far beyond the scope of what a young person would appreciate. Much like the fascination with the Harry Potter series by both young and older, but far more compelling in my opinion. Can you recommend any other authors/books similar to Pullman other than the more familiar Tolkien and Lewis?Harry Potter, as everyone knows, has dominated the world of young adult and fantasy fiction of late. J. K. Rowling's greatest asset is her boundless imagination, but she can be lacking in her mastery of language and form. So what else is there? As you suggest, Philip Pullman has emerged with an incredible series of books (which I, too, devoured about a year ago). They exceed Harry Potter in nearly every sense, and Pullman manages to strike the perfect balance, appealing to children (and clearly adults, as well) with thrilling adventures, characters, and a seamless world, while never ever dumbing down for his young readers. It's really a great series, one of the highlights in books from the last few years, if you ask me. But you already know this. My other favorite children's fantasy series is Brian Jacques' Redwall series. The world he creates has a medival, Tolkeinesque feel to it, though instead of knights and princesses or hobbits and orcs, this world is populated by tribes of animals, mice and ferrets and stoats and many others. I started reading these when I was very young and I made my way through at least six or seven, so I can vouch that these are great books. The series begins with Redwall, Mossflower, and Mattimeo with many beyond those. Having said that, I don't think that anything out there is as good as C. S. Lewis' "Narnia" series or J. R. R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" series. They are the masters that preside over the genre. Another thought: try revisiting (or making your acquaintance with) some classic books. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne or The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. Great books one and all. Anybody else have thoughts on though this one. Hit the comment link below and let us know.Mucho Mutis!!!My buddy Brian who is a fellow follower of the travels of Maqroll the Gaviero notified me of two recent developments concerning the head Maqroll-watcher himself, Alvaro Mutis. First, and most exciting, it appears as though a new book by Mutis will appear in English for the first time ever this fall. It's called The Mansion & Other Stories, and it will be released by the Canadian publisher Ekstasis Editions. I have so many questions: will there be stories about Maqroll, will this edition be well-translated, will the stories bear any resemblence to the novellas that I know and love? I can't wait to find out. So far all I know is this. In the early 1970s, Mutis got into an argument with his friend, the director Luis Bunuel. Bunuel felt that a "gothic" story could not be set in the tropics because that sort of story required the ambient chill of higher latitudes. Mutis strenuously disagreed, and in order to prove him wrong penned the story, The Mansion of Araucaima, the title story of this collection. Bunuel loved the story and expressed his desire to make it into a film, but he died before he was able to carry it out. My friend Brian also alerted me to the fact that the current issue of World Literature Today is devoted to Mutis. If you're interested, you can find on the site: ten poems by Mutis, Mutis on Mutis, and several more academic papers on this fantastic writer.The Return of PolidoriThe Robert Polidori book that I mentioned a few days ago has hit bookstores. It's called Zones of Exclusion: Pripyat and Chernobyl. Polidori is one of the most skilled and sought after architectural photographers in the world, and in this capacity he is often called upon to capture the sleek and the new. But anyone who has seen his book Havana knows that architectural decay is his true calling. At Chernobyl and in Pripyat he presents the shattered world of nuclear disaster, both frozen in time and abandoned to a new and dangerous mutant form of nature. As always, he lets color do all the work in these photographs, seemingly luring the most poignant hues to the foreground of the compositions. But I have to say, this collection, due to the nature of the subject matter, exudes a cold and souless sort of beauty while the aching, crumbling beauty of Havana is more suited to his particular skills.A note of things to comeI finished Jonathan Lethem's new novel The Fortress of Solitude, a week or so ago, and I intend to put some more elaborate comments on the book up here once it comes out, but I will make few comments now, too. Look for this book to be huge this fall. There will be a big push from Random House, and along the book distribution pipeline, big numbers are being anticipated. The book is very good in the same way that The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon is very good. The books are similar in structure and theme, both are very ambitious and largely succeed in their grand scope. Pehaps most interestingly, the careers of Chabon and Lethem are parallel. Lethem has several books under his belt each more widely read and more favorably recieved than the last, and now this latest book will be a best-seller and will make him more of a household name. The same thing happened to Chabon. Finally, I'm going to go out on a limb here and predict that The Fortress of Solitude will win the Pulitzer Prize, (or at the very least will be a finalist) like Kavalier & Clay did a few years back.
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New Feature… Ask a Book Question

As promised, I have added a new feature to The Millions. I know it doesn't look pretty, but I'm hoping it will get the job done. If you haven't already read the sidebar on the right, it explains what I'm trying to do, but I have a few other things to mention as well. I came to realize not too long ago that it can be really hard to get a definitive answer when you have a question about a book. This is perhaps what makes reading so enjoyable. As a reader you must formulate an opinion and weigh it against the opinions of others. A book review from a friend or from the New York Times is not the same as a movie review from either. There is too much nuance to the reading experience, too much interplay between reader and book, for one person's experience with a book to mirror another person's experience with the same book. If you and I have both seen the same movie, chances are our experiences were quite similar: in the darkened theater or at home on the couch. If we have read the same book, however, it is likely that our experiences were vastly different: it took me two months to read; it took you two weeks; you discussed the book with several friends, I wrote about it in my journal; you read the book while on vacation in Europe, I read it during my lunch breaks at work. The infinitely varied experience of reading is what makes discussing books so pleasing and rewarding; there is bound to be angle that hasn't occured to you, a detail you had passed over. So, I hope really to accomplish two things. First, I would like this to be a place where any book or book-related topic can be discussed. Second, I would like this to be a place where questions like "I just read Life of Pi and loved it, is there anything else like it?" and "My grandmother is really into Russian history, are there any new books about this that she might be interested in?" can be answered. As I mentioned earlier, getting definitive answers to questions on books can be tricky, since taste and experience vary so widely, however, with help from you guys, I think we can arrive at some good collective answers, and entertain ourselves along the way. So, I hope all of you think this is as good an idea as I do. If you have any further ideas or comments or suggestions please email me.I Coulda Been A ContendahBy the way, I'll keep talking about books as I always have, mentioning whatever is of interest to me and whatnot. So, today I have a couple of books to mention. There are many, many books about Muhammad Ali, some are fantastic, others uninformative, and it seems as though very little has been left unwritten about him. However, I noticed a new book at the bookstore the other day that looks at Ali from a new angle: Facing Ali. The subtitle is 15 Fighters / 15 Stories, and in the book 15 men who faced Ali in the ring describe the experience. The book includes well-known fighters like Joe Frazier and George Foreman, as well as more obscure names like Tunney Hunsaker, the first man to step in the ring with Ali.Meanwhile, the Ali fan extrodinaire, erstwhile boxer, and Paris Review founder himself, George Plimpton, has signed on with Little, Brown to pen an autobiography, which will be released along with a collection of his essays. I've seen Plimpton speak a couple of times, and the man is a font of entertaining tales in which he played a small, but important part. I eagerly await this new book. To tide myself over while I'm waiting, maybe I'll reread The Best of Plimpton. Source: Publisher's Weekly