Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Human Comedy of Chess

A Grandmaster's Chronicles

I learned the game as a child from my grandfather, who played postal chess. He bought me a small book suitable for my age, but I was more captivated by the names of the openings than the openings themselves, and to this day it is the lore of the game holds my greatest interest.

The Human Comedy of Chess is a work exactly suited to my taste. It’s a collection of articles written in the 1990s by Dutch GM Hans Ree and splendidly translated by Willem Tissot and Maureen Peeck.

It contains 56 articles with an average length of just around five pages and bearing titles such as:

Chess with the KGB
Karpov's Revenge
Khan of Kalmykia
What is Beautiful?
Heroic Tales
The Chess Murder
Adjourned Games

There are pieces on the history of chess, and on familiar names such as Reshevsky, Tal, Botvinnick, Marshall, Keres, Nimzowitsch, Koltanowski, Duchamp. Scattered throughout are a number of games with brief but colourful annotations. Particularly entertaining is Ree's account of the matches between Karpov and Anand, Short and Timman, and Short and Kasparov.

The writing is smooth, witty, engaging, with pungent observations on nearly every page. A sampling:

Today's top chess: rather like the headhunting frenzy of axe-wielding savages

Tal: doctors had accidentally removed not a kidney, but his appendix

Krylenko: executed in 1938 because he had neglected to propagate the social meaning of chess

Duchamp: after the game, chess pieces were sent into the air by balloons

Kasparov: uproots heavy trees with bare hands

FIDE: a banana republic run by gangsters

Time trouble: an addiction

Soviet chess
: before Sputnik circled the earth chess was the only field in which the Soviet Union had caught up with the rest of the world and outdone it

Nor has Ree neglected the dark side of chess. He mentions bribery, conspiracy, intimidation, scandal, con men, imposters, bodyguards, chess bosses, "gruff telephone calls from blackmailers," and bald-faced attempts at cheating. "Sometimes," he writes, it is "hard to distinguish between the chess community and the world of organized crime."

But the best parts of the book are those that communicate Ree's infectious love of the game. Of a match with Topalov, he writes that Kasparov "conjured up an attack out of nothing, with a rook sacrifice," after which he made "fifteen mortal blows in a row, all of marvelous beauty." He concludes by saying, "Those who were privileged to be present knew they would tell it to their children and grandchildren, as long as chess will be played in this world."

This wonderful book gives a thrilling glimpse into a world that ordinary mortals like me would not otherwise see.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Golden Spruce

A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed

Winner of the Governor General’s award for non-fiction in 2005 for its combination of fine writing, gripping story, and fascinating detail.

The setting is the BC rainforest and the Queen Charlotte Islands, where trees "like Tolkien's Ents" can be found.

The backstory includes the troubled history of the warlike Haida, whose totem poles were at one time cut down and used for pilings; the hair-raising dangers of logging as experienced by chokermen, whistlepunks, donkey punchers, and high-riggers; and the deadly waters of Hecate Strait (between the BC mainland and the Queen Charlottes) with its overfalls, blind rollers, clapitos, and katabatic winds.

But in the end what makes this book so compelling are its elements of Shakespearian tragedy. The people and events will stay with you for a long time to come.

The Greed

The forest industry in BC has clearcut an unimaginable amount of rainforest and left behind “traumatized landscapes.” Worst of all is the removal of old growth trees that have lived for centuries and whose harvest resembles “terrestrial whaling.” BC, the author notes, “has been described as a banana republic, only with bigger bananas.”

The Myth

One tree on the Queen Charlotttes was utterly unique, a Sitka spruce with golden needles. An "arboreal unicorn" is how the author refers to it, while another person said, “This was not just a physical tree of unusual beauty, it was in fact a unique symbol of the islands and ourselves. It was a mythic tree.” According to the Haida, the tree had once been a human being. MacMillan Bloedel had abstained from harvesting it.

The Madness

A gifted and formidable woodsman working in the logging industry became disillusioned with the devastation it was causing. After suffering a religious experience, he cut down the sixteen-storey Golden Spruce to publicize his concerns. He called it a freak, MacBlo’s "pet tree." He wrote, “We tend to focus on the individual trees like the Golden Spruce while the rest of the forests are being slaughtered.”

He refused to travel by public transport to the Queen Charlottes for his trial because he feared that he would be murdered. Instead he set out by kayak and was never seen again. Many people, including former colleagues and Haida elders, believe he is still alive. His former wife called him “indestructible.”

The Author

John Vaillant is also the author of another fascinating book, The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Imagining Mars

A Literary History

A scholarly work with 30 pages of footnotes, this book wades through many obscure volumes before arriving at ones that modern readers will be familiar with. Yet it’s a necessary journey in order to provide context to those later works.

Especially helpful is the correlation between fiction and scientific knowledge of the day, as well as portraits of two influential astronomers, Camille Flammarion and Percival Lowell, whose writings incorporated as much fancy as fact.

Their work stimulated the first outpourings of fiction about Mars late in the 19th century. So potent was Lowell's romantic notion of a heroic but dying Martian civilization that it remained a modern myth, even after it had been discredited scientifically.

The space age put to rest such “obsolete fantasies,” especially with the Mariner flybys in the 1960s and the Viking landings in the 1970s. Fiction about Mars became energized by a new realism, with terraforming a major theme.

Dozens upon dozens of novels are investigated in the book, with the following authors given the most prominence: H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, Frederick Turner, and Kim Stanley Robinson. Below are a few scattered observations and quotes.

The War of the Worlds

Wells's portrayal of Martians as inimical non-humanoids was meant as a rebuke to the Victorian attitude of cultural superiority. "...for the first time, the inhabitants of Mars are depicted not as kindlier and nobler versions of ourselves but as monsters..."

John Carter

ERB’s John Carter books belong to a group of “masculinist fantasies” that became popular early in the 20th century. They portrayed Mars as a frontier outpost and Martians as savages needing to be pacified. Such books reflected the racist and imperialist attitudes of the day.

The Martian Chronicles

This 1950 novel represents "the last flowering of a romantic vision of Mars," yet remains "one of the half-dozen or so fictions about Mars that are central to the imaginative tradition." Bradbury is quoted as saying, "Mars is a mirror, not a crystal."

Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein's "send-up of American sexual Puritanism and fundamentalism" is "full of his customary libertarian doctrines and cartoon characters masquerading as personalities."

Frederick Turner

An author I was not familiar with. His 1978 novel, A Double Shadow, and 1988 epic poem, Genesis, are discussed in some detail. Genesis is “the most original treatment of Mars produced in the 1980s."

Final Thoughts

In any survey such as this it’s inevitable that some books will be left out. In my case I regret the absence of Desolation Road by Ian McDonald, especially since one of his short stories, “The Old Cosmonaut and the Construction Worker Dream of Mars,” is mentioned as a possible new direction in Martian fiction, able to mesh the literary heritage of a canaled Mars, which seems embedded in our imagination, with the reality of a harsh and lifeless planet.

The book includes eight colour plates. As the subtitle indicates, this is a literary history, so only a few films are mentioned.

Certainly, a huge undertaking with many valuable insights.