Thursday, December 6, 2012

Night of the Caribou

It sounds like a nasty fairy tale -- a grandmother, a caribou, and a laughing cow circling each other in a dance of death.

But in fact it was a real-life tragedy that took place during WWII when Germany sent its U-boats deep into Canadian waters.

As a result "ships began going down in flames within sight of people living along the banks of the St. Lawrence." One was just 173 miles below Quebec City.

Another was the Newfoundland passenger ferry Caribou and the subject of this book.

Told in the present tense, it's a heart-wrenching account. We meet various crew members, passengers, and servicemen as they board the ferry and nervously try to settle in for the eight-hour trip from Sydney to Port-Aux-Basques.

The captain, Ben Taverner, is uneasy about the night-time crossing, while the commander of the escort vessel, HMCS Grandmere, is not pleased by his orders, which are to follow the ferry rather than precede it.

Worse, the Grandmere is a minesweeper ("hardly the best choice as an escort") and when the ferry is torpedoed the Grandmere's primary duty is to engage the enemy. Saving lives -- says the director of naval operations later -- is secondary and "not really a commitment of the navy at all."

The ferry sinks so fast that some people go into the water in their skivvies. They sing hymns as depth charges are dropped around them. Three hours pass before the first survivors are picked up. Of the 237 men, women and children, only 101 remain alive, and none of the 50 head of cattle trapped below deck.

The story does not get any easier to read. Clouds of misinformation accompany the disaster, in part because a news blackout must be maintained to avoid providing useful information to the enemy.

The government dare not reveal that its naval resources are so thinly stretched that adequate protection simply cannot be provided to domestic shipping. Those resources are being poured into a conflict much more strategically important -- the Battle of the Atlantic.

The identity of the submarine remained unknown until 1964 when German authorities revealed that it was the U-69 -- aka the "Laughing Cow" because of the emblem on its sail, which was taken from a well-known French cheese, "La vache qui rie." It had escaped unharmed after hiding below the Caribou's survivors. Four months later it was sunk by a British destroyer with the loss of all hands.

The book contains 14 pages of B&W photos and illustrations.

The incident plays a central role in Howard Norman's novel What Is Left the Daughter.

A memorial to the Caribou at Port-Aux Basques

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Postmodern Selfhelp

Two dazzling but very different forays into metafiction, yet with curious similarities. In each the protagonist is searching for his father, and in one he is also searching for his son.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is the name of a self-referential manual that the protagonist writes in the future and gives to himself in the past. It is "a copy of a copy of a copy" containing excerpts from itself, such as:


[this page intentionally left blank]


How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive takes its title from a 1969 repair manual of the same name. It uses actual chapter titles from the original manual. More recursion appears in the chapter subheads, one of which is always the chapter title.

Metafictional Transport

The protagonists tool around in vehicles seemingly worlds apart, a time machine and a 1971 Volkswagen. Both however are based on similar concepts.

The TM-31 Recreational Time Travel Device is powered by a six-cylinder grammar drive with temporalinguistics architecture. It navigates within "a story space and, in particular, a science fictional universe." "Running out of fuel" is another way of saying "we're running out of book."

The Volkswagen runs on stories which can either be read to it or scanned in, and its mechanical components include a narrapedal, storypump, pagewheel, scene clutch, and engineheart. Its wordoil has to be changed every 50 pages.

Strange Characters

The author and protagonist of How to Live share the same name: Charles Yu. The author of How to Keep is Anthony Boucher, whose protagonist has pawned his name and has to go by __________. All he can remember about it is that it's French Canadian.

The vehicles are also characters with whom the protagonists have a relationship. The Volkswagen is __________'s son, while the time machine has an operating system named TAMMY whom Yu flirts with. The paradoxical nature of these vehicles is evidenced by __________ being able to climb into the Volkswagen (his son) and drive it around, while Yu shoots/gets shot by himself when he exits/sees himself exiting the time machine.

Two of __________'s girlfriends are the Lady from the Land of the Beans, and the Lady Made Entirely of Stained Glass. His friend is a Chest of Drawers and his boss a cheese named Louise. The police are dogs.

Two of the characters in the other book are named the Woman I Never Married and the Woman My Mother Should Have Been. Yu's boss Phil is married to a spreadsheet program. He has a dog named Ed, "a weird ontological entity" who "doesn't even know he doesn't exist."

Humour

Both books have a terrific sense of playfulness.

How to Live:


Had a one-night stand with something cute a couple of years ago. Not human exactly. Humanish. Close enough that she looked awesome with her shirt off. We hung out a few times, tried messing around but in the end I couldn't figure out her anatomy, or perhaps it was the other way around. There were some awkward moments. I think she had a good time anyway. I did. She was a good kisser. I just hope that was her mouth.


How to Keep:


Step 6. Open the sufferoil and pour it in. Don't touch it or contaminate it in any way. And again, make sure that it is good oil. Good sufferoil will be fine, almost cocky, when you pour it in. You want it to be saying things like, "No sweat" or "Fuck it--this is no problem." If it's hedging (talking about a loved one, asking questions like, "Are you sure this is a good idea?") don't use it.


Get Serious

But it's not all fun and games. The books also have a serious side.

How to Live:


At some point in your life this statement will be true: Tomorrow you will lose everything forever.


And in How to Keep, __________ is a single parent. Before she left, the VW's mom would...


...stay in bed until one or two in the afternoon, completely unresponsive. Even before she was gone, she was gone.



Links

The original version of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive.

Third Class Superhero is a great short story collection Charles Yu.

Calvin and Hobbes time travel machine.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Tex and Molly in the Afterlife

Middle-aged hipsters Tex and Molly drive a rusty Saab and live in a houseboat whose decor falls "somewhere between Hiawatha and Jimi Hendrix."

They've donned Bear and Raven costumes to celebrate Beltane, a pagan planting festival, along with a group of ecology-minded strolling players. Afterwards they smoke up and visit a boulder formation – left by Druids, Tex insists – in the middle of which is a bottomless well.

Perhaps not the best place to go when you’re stoned, a fact amply demonstrated when they both fall to their deaths.

End of book? Nope, we’re only on page 19.

Tex and Molly managed to invoke a pair of ancient deities as they fell. Now they awaken back at their houseboat and hang around for a while as spirits, in the course of which they become acquainted with the designs of a large corporation to turn the forests of Maine into a monoculture using a genetically modified tree, the "Dawkins spruce".

What follows is a rambling, hugely entertaining tale that veers between the scientific and the magical. The writing is clever, literate, and whimsical both in form and content, incorporating headings, stage directions, lists and diagrams, "afterlife factoids," bits of verse, chunks of playscript, and the narration from a corporate slide show.

If you like Cheech and Chong, you'll like Tex. He's delightfully unfazed by the various deities he meets, including a "Primal Entity" known as the Bishop of Worms, who according to Tex is missing the big picture, without which "It's the roomful of monkeys with typewriters all over again." The Bishop responds by devouring him.

But it's still not the end because Tex is already dead, right? And we're not even halfway through the book. Tex wakes up in a squirrel's nest. He's an acorn.


You could see the roots of the yew tree overhead, swollen with vital humors they were pumping around, and huge flakes of leaf mold, rotten wood disgorged by beetles, worm castings, fractally intricate fungi, nematodes squirming through the gaps, and a ceaseless oozing of dark teeming water.


Partial List of Characters

This sampling gives a good idea of the book's comic, semi-serious intent.

1. Cold Bay Street Players:

Rainie Moss – a shade gardener
Deep Herb – a Taoist waiter
Pippa Rede – a welfare witch
Sarah Clump – a self-realized electrician
Indigo Jones – a community radio station manager

2. Other Humans:

Syzygy Prague – "some kind of gypsy"
Jesse Openhood – a Passamaquoddy Indian
Burdock Herne – Gulf Atlantic's CEO
Thistle Herne – his runaway daughter
Saintstephen Bax & Shadow Malqvist – teenage eco-hackers
Hoot Banebook – reverend at the Church of Mankind’s Destiny Among the Stars

3. Non-Humans:

Idho – a yew woman
Beale – a homeless dryad
Goblin the Cat-person – Tex and Molly’s cat
Neman & Arth Vawr - raven and bear deities invoked by Tex and Molly
Bishop of Worms – "sort of like a cross between a white hole and that thing in Dune"

Cultural References

A lot of the fun comes from the many references to music (the band Love being a particular favourite), books (Tibetan Book of the Dead, of course), and cultish consumer items ("frankincense from India imported by the good sidhas of Farifield, Iowa"), as well as quotes, signs, aphorisms, bumper stickers, and loopy sayings:


Hack the rich.
I'm OK, You're DOA.
Quoth the raven: "Never mind."
The antichrist always rings twice.
Agriculture is mechanized land-rape.
If you don't like it, you can't have any.
Randomness is a statistical hallucination.
Beatrix Farrand Memorial Refrigerator Walk.
Some days you eat the bear, and some days the bear eats you.
Ban firearms – make the streets safe for a government takeover.



The End

The only thing I didn't dig about the book was the rather apocalyptic ending, but that hasn't stopped me from eagerly seeking out more books by the author. It also reminded me of somewhat similar books: The Paper Grail by James P. Blaylock, The Magic Journey by John Nichols, and Little, Big by John Crowley -- all of which I highly recommend.

Let me leave you with a final quote:


Beale spat into the dust of the roadside. Where the saliva spattered on the gravel, a tiny seedling sprouted, grew rapidly, fattened and matured, spread its limbs, showered acorns, began to decline, rotted, and vanished.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Salterton Trilogy

The first batch of novels by Robertson Davies makes use of his interest in theatre, journalism, and opera. They are united by setting (the fictional Ontario city of Salterton and seat of Waverly University), and by their exposure of people whose lives have been emasculated by a lack of feeling and culture.

Tempest-Tost 1951

An amateur outdoor production of The Tempest results in comedy due to an inept, egotistical, and misguided cast and crew.

Ferdinand and the assistant director (Solly Bridgetower) get into a fist-fight over Ariel, and the makeup artist (Puss Pottinger) is so old she needs a magnifying glass to apply her greasepaint. Caliban is a practical joker who crashes a rehearsal on horseback with unfortunate consequences. On opening night a seedy musical trio shows up just before the play begins: "Can we just have a little run over the play before we start? You tell me where you want the music to come in, and we’ll fit it in somehow." Prospero (Professor Vambrace) defies the director by eating grapes while reciting his lines, Juno gets sloshed, and Gonzalo tries to hang himself.

One of the central characters is a schoolteacher named Hector Mackilwraith, aka Old Binomial, who hands out negative marks to students who had "fallen into mathematical sin." Though outwardly successful, he has not been able to escape a chilly upbringing. Aged forty and living at the YMCA, he suspects something is missing in his life.

His opposite number is a raffish musician named Humphrey Cobbler, one of the few characters who, along with Solly, Solly's mother, Puss Pottinger, and Professor Vambrace's daughter Pearl, appear in all three books. Cobbler's appearance "was of the sort which causes housewives to lock up their spoons and their daughters." Yet he was "so alive, and so apparently happy, that the air for two or three feet around him seemed charged with his delight in life."

The funniest of the three novels, Temptest-Tost had me laughing throughout.

Leaven of Malice 1954

A notice in the Salterton Bellman announces the engagement of Solly and Pearl, but the announcement is a hoax and reopens an old feud between the two families.

Professor Vambrace takes particular offense. In Tempest-Tost he was portrayed as little more than a pompous boob. Now he is revealed as a domestic tyrant, "immoderate in self-esteem," who terrorizes his wife and daughter. He perceives the hoax as a blow aimed at him, and launches a libel suit against the newspaper.

Likewise Solly’s mother, who in the first book was merely a tiresome hypochondriac, is now revealed as a person for whom "pouring salt into wounds was a specialty…and the older the wound was, the better she liked it."

Caught in the middle is Gloster Ridley, the newspaper’s editor, and through whom we learn some of the tribulations of running a small-market newspaper. Due to a slip-up in record-keeping, the identity of the person posting the false announcement is unknown. Until it is discovered the issue cannot be resolved. Ironically Solly and Pearl are the least concerned and quite willing to let the whole thing drop.

Two of the best scenes in the book involve Professor Vambrace: first when he engages Ridley in a superb verbal duel, and later when he vanquishes a young half-baked psychologist who tries to foist an Oedipus complex on him.

Leaven of Malice won the Leacock Medal in 1955, but its humour is darker than in Tempest-Tost, many of its characters being malicious rather than merely foolish.

A Mixture of Frailties 1958

This book is markedly different from the other two, for while not lacking in wit, it is not a comedic novel. It has a larger cast of characters, deals with weightier situations, and more closely resembles the rich and complex novels that are to follow. Though it begins and ends in Salterton, most of it takes place outside of Canada.

Mrs. Bridgetower has just passed away, and because she resented the marriage of Solly and Pearl (now called by her middle name, Veronica), the old cow left a vengeful will. Though she had over a million in investments, the only cash she leaves her son is $100. Everything else goes into a trust to support a worthy young artist unless Solly and Veronica produce a son. Mrs. Bridgetower's friend, Puss Pottinger, who in the first book was hapless and in the second a busy-body, is now revealed as mean-spirited.

The recipient of the trust is a talented singer named Monica Gall, who is employed at the Salterton Glue Works. She goes to England where her musical development is overseen by Sir Benedict Domdaniel. Finding her suffering from "cultural malnutrition," he sends her to a vocal coach named Murtagh Molloy, who undertakes her "vocal and spiritual unbuttoning." She meets a gifted Welsh composer and "Satanic genius," Giles Revelstoke, who seduces her and treats her shabbily. She attains success when she sings in an opera written by Revelstoke, but before the novel ends she has to make several difficult decisions, one of which involves a body.

A Mixture of Frailties contains a number of things that Davies explored more fully in his later novels. For example, spirits make a brief appearance at the end of this book; in What's Bred in the Bone, they play a larger role. Davies's interest in Wales is pursued to a greater degree in Murther & Walking Spirits, as is his interest in opera in The Lyre of Orpheus.

Interestingly enough, the opera that Revelstoke writes is based on The Golden Ass. Davies himself wrote the libretto for a similar opera, which was performed after his death.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Dombey and Son

Each novel by Dickens is like a public monument around which readers gather to admire, ponder, and debate.

This one suggests a fairy tale in which a lost girl falls into the clutches of an evil witch who steals her clothes and dresses her in rags. She is rescued by an honest young swain and returned to her merchant prince father. She has a haughty step-mother and a bestial adversary whose most distinguishing feature is his teeth.

Her moral support comes from a collection of people reminiscent of the Seven Dwarves: Mrs. Toodle the nurse, a maid called The Nipper, Diogenes the dog, an insolvent shopkeeper, an honest sea captain with an iron hook, and a tongue-tied lad named Toots with a pugilistic acquaintance known as the Game Chicken.

In the end the beast is dispatched, the honest young swain marries the princess, and the icy father has a change of heart.

See, a fairy tale.

Memorable Characters

Major Bagstock is one of Dickens's most grotesque creations, a self-described "smoke-dried, sunburnt, used-up, invalided old dog of a Major" with "eyes like a prawn" and a "complexion like a Stilton cheese". He is an outrageous toady whose bluff manner gains him the confidence of Dombey.

Captain Cuttle is the reverse of Bagstock, a retired sea captain of matchless loyalty and generosity. Both have a style of speech that is instantly recognizable: Cuttle's nautical expressions match Bagstock's constant references to himself in the third person.

Dombey's manager Carker is one of Dickens's most sinister creatures, a "smiling gentleman" who is always "airing his teeth." When he speaks his mouth is "bare to the gums," and in his smile there is something "like the snarl of a cat." He is "sly of manner, sharp of tooth, soft of foot, watchful of eye, oily of tongue, cruel of heart, nice of habit..." He sits at his desk "as if he were waiting at a mouse's hole."

Finally there is Edith Granger, a beautiful widow who bitterly submits to an arranged marriage with Dombey. When the match proves intolerable, she runs away with Carker solely to humiliate Dombey. Dickens makes her defiant to the end.

Memorable Scenes

Chapter 10 serves up a wonderful contrast between Major Bagstock's shallow machinations with the simple honesty of Captain Cuttle, who approaches Dombey seeking financial aid. Dickens surprises us by meeting Cuttle's request in an original manner -- giving the decision to Dombey's young son as a sort of lesson in capitalism.

Chapter 27 describes Dombey's courting of Edith Granger. They are accompanied by three companions who are all surface, thus imbuing their interactions with a rich irony. Bagstock, the "falsest of majors," on hearing of Edith's unpleasant encounter with a vagabond, wonders why no one can have the "honour and happiness of shooting all such beggars through the head without being brought to book for it."

Also present is Carker, whose interest in Edith is already surfacing, and Edith's mother, Mrs. Skewton, aka Cleopatra, whose disrobing at the end of the day reveals a body as hideous as her morals:


...the hair dropped off, the arched dark eyebrows changed to scanty tufts of grey, the pale lips shrunk, the skin became cadaverous and loose; an old worn yellow nodding woman with red eyes, alone remained in Cleopatra's place, huddled up, like a slovenly bundle, in a greasy flannel gown.


(The resemblance here to Good Mrs. Brown, the "witch" who robbed Florence of her clothing, is more than passing. Her daughter Alice is Edith's cousin.)

Chapter 31 drops into the present tense to describe Dombey's wedding, beginning with the "vinegary face" of Mrs. Miff the pew-opener and serving up some delightful comedy at the church when Edith's cousin gives away the wrong woman, and in signing the register "puts his noble name into a wrong place, and enrols himself as having been born that morning."

At the wedding feast several servants over-indulge, resulting in the following prophetic exchange:


Words have arisen between between the housemaid and Mr. Towlinson: she, on the authority of an old saw, asserting marriages to be made in heaven; he, affecting to trace the manufacture elsewhere...


Chapters 54 & 55 show the result of a hellish marriage. Carker, after being dumped by Edith, is chased to his doom by Dombey. It is melodrama, yes, but very good melodrama.

Defects

Orwell's essay on Dickens finds his novels full of "rotten architecture, but wonderful gargoyles." Major Bagstock is a typical gargoyle, yet to my mind Dombey and his daughter Florence are equally grotesque, though far less entertaining.

Florence is the most one-dimensional of the Dombeys, a fact underscored by her endless weeping throughout the novel. She is submissive and blindly devoted to her father despite a lifetime of indifference on his part. Only after he strikes her does she rise above her cloying sweetness and run away.

Dombey's cartoon arrogance is buffered somewhat by his agreeing to Captain Cuttle's request for assistance, and by his sponsoring of Mrs. Toodle's son at school. Though the latter act seems oddly out of character, it does provide a satisfying irony when the boy becomes Carker's cat's-paw and is instrumental in Dombey's downfall. The latter is accorded a touch of complexity when, instead of skimming off what he can from the ruins of his business, he insists on paying his debts to the best of his ability. However, his transformation into a kindly white-haired grandpa on the last page is difficult to swallow.

Finally there is Dombey's son. It was a brave move to dispatch him so early in the novel, though his death occupies an entire chapter. Fortunately it is not a long one.

Concluding Remarks

Dombey and Son is considered an advancement in Dickens's growth as a novelist because it was his first carefully plotted book, and indeed the story hangs together very well -- better in fact than some of his later books, which he worked very hard at plotting but which often fell victim to byzantine storylines.

In the Afterword to the edition I read, Alan Pryce-Jones echoes Orwell when he says of Dickens: "His faults are inseparable from his virtues."

Online searchable version

1983 BBC TV mini-series:

Friday, July 13, 2012

Titanic Century

Media, Myth, and the Making of a Cultural Icon

We've been swamped this year by all things Titanic: postage stamps, restaurant menus, museum exhibits, artifact auctions, memorial cruises, and graveyard tours, to name just a few. There's also been an outpouring of volumes that add to those already covering the subject from every possible angle, including cookbooks. There`s even a Titanic for Dummies.

Yet there have been worse calamities at sea, so why our fascination with that particular ship? Why did it create “a scar on the very soul of Western civilization”? The author ascribes it to a number of factors, but key among them is the role played by communications media, first in the use of shipboard radio to alert the world of the disaster, next in the newspapers that feasted upon the event, and finally in the imaginative retellings in books and films that turned the story into myth.

Shipboard radio communications were still in their infancy, and the regulations governing them were just as sketchy as those regarding the number of lifeboats. The radio operators were not employees of the White Star line, but instead worked for Marconi's company. They wore their own uniforms and (except in an emergency) were forbidden to exchange dots and dashes with operators of competing firms. The lack of regulatory structure in the fledgling industry contributed to the initial confusion of newspaper reports. Was the ship safe or not? At opposite ends of the spectrum were the New York Times, which got the story right, and the New York Evening Journal, which declared all passengers safe and the ship being towed to Halifax. This confusion gave the event an immediacy that held readers spellbound.

The author provides a day-by-day account of how the New York papers handled the story, and far from being a dry rendition of facts, it communicates some of the excitement of covering a story when newspapers were in their heyday. An interesting bonus is a chapter entitled “Canadian Journalists in New York” by contributor Michael Dupuis.

Imagining Disaster

The final section of the book begins with the involvement of several literary heavyweights. Who better to render an opinion about the disaster than master mariner Joseph Conrad? George Bernard Shaw and Arthur Conan Doyle exchanged heated words in the newspapers, Thomas Hardy penned a poem (included in the appendix), and Canadian poet E.J. Pratt produced a 30-page narrative epic.

By the turn of the century several novels had appeared as well as a play and a Broadway musical, but the book's most detailed examination is saved for the six films and three TV treatments. Among the former are a Nazi propaganda effort, a box office disaster, and the most expensive movie ever made. How all these productions positioned themselves is interesting. For example, in the James Cameron blockbuster no mention is made of the role played (or rather, not played) by the nearby vessel Californian, perhaps to put some metaphorical distance between it and the movie's great predecessor, A Night to Remember.

The concluding chapter discusses the “mythic connotations” of the fated ship. One of the most interesting observations is a comparison between Titanic and Noah's Ark. The author concludes:


What began as an accident of history has become one of its enduring moral lessons – a real-life counterpart to high tragedy in literature. The works of Shakespeare, Sophocles and Melville seem as appropriate to understanding the implications of what happened as do the conclusions of any purely historical study.


Though the book has a scholarly bent, the writing is lively and the author's wry asides and observations add a personal touch. For instance, he mentions passing up an opportunity to appear as an extra in the James Cameron flick, in part because the movie while still in production was already being touted as “Cameron's folly”.

Paul Heyer is a media historian and prof at Wilfrid Laurier. Titanic Century is now in its second edition.

Titanic Historical Society
Encyclopedia Titanica
Titanic: Adventure out of Time (cult computer game)

Monday, June 11, 2012

Hangman's Beach

A young woman witnesses a British sailor being flogged around the fleet, an ordeal he does not survive. His body is put on display at "the Admiral's orchard," the gibbets on a strip of beach on the island where she lives. When she falls in love with a French prisoner-of-war, she has a premonition that he will suffer the same fate. There is good reason for her concern, for the sailor carries a secret that would surely cause him to be hanged.

The setting is Halifax early in the 19th century, when Britain was mired in the Napoleonic wars and on the verge of taking up arms against America. The first half of the book concerns itself with introducing characters, showing the effect of the war on Halifax, and describing the minutiae of daily life in a naval port: the wherries and curricles, shakos and tarpaulin hats, gunpowder mixed with wine, hornet-striped warships, dolly-shops and cod-hookers, and so on.

The characters and dialogue are engaging, and there are a couple of surprising twists in the plot. Best of all is Raddall's remarkable ability to breathe life into a scene. It is a testament to his skill that the languid pacing of the first half of the book in no way detracts from its enjoyment.

Historical events touched upon are:

-- the death of Nelson at Trafalgar
-- the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair
-- a visit to Halifax by Aaron Burr
-- American designs on Canada
-- the large number of French POWs in Halifax

A Few Good Quotes


a complexion of soiled wax
as full of talk as a parrot
hair like shredded carrots
a sunken dark eye gleaming like a candle in a pit




He plucked a dark bottle from an inner pocket, tipped his head back and tasted its contents with the deliberation of a sea officer taking a noon observation of the sun.

"Alors! That is the best way to invade the English. On the couch!"

He had a slow long-legged wary step, like a bittern stalking frogs in a swamp.

"Forever is a damn long time to be sucking the roots of a dandelion."



Then and Now

Hangman's Beach on McNab's Island in Halifax Harbour is now the site of a lighthouse rather than a gibbet, and the island itelf a provincial park. Melville Island, where the POWs were incarcerated, is now the site of a yacht club. Nearby Deadman's Island, where POWs were buried, is a civic historic park maintained by HRM. It bears an historic marker honouring the many Americans who died in captivity during the subsequent War of 1812.

Many of the fortifications mentioned in the book are still standing, though in various states. The Citadel in downtown Halifax and Fort Anne near Annapolis Royal on the Bay of Fundy are national historic sites. York Redoubt which protected the harbour entrance as late as WWII is also maintained by Parks Canada. The Split-Crow tavern is still serving customers.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Manhattan Transfer

A terrific book, absolutely terrific, with writing so energetic it's as fresh today as when it first appeared in 1925, and its message so relevant it could serve as a manifesto for the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The novel takes place in NYC early in the 20th century when America was being flooded by millions of European immigrants. It begins with the birth of Ellen Thatcher who grows up to become a chorus girl. At age 18 she marries John Oglethorpe, a flamboyant thespian, in order to advance her career. Once he has guided her to early success on Broadway, she discards him for the company of more influential people.

She has an affair with Stanwood Emery, son of a senior partner in the law firm of Emery & Emery. Stan is a social parasite, a reckless fun-loving alcoholic who in a drunken moment deliberately immolates himself, leaving Ellen pregnant with his child.

The war intervenes, after which she reappears with a baby and a new husband, Jimmy Herf, who was a friend of Stan. She has given up acting and works for a magazine under the byline Helena Herf, a change in direction that Jimmy, a reporter, presumably helped with. She divorces him and agrees to marry George Baldwin, a womanizing lawyer with Emery & Emery. He`s just been appointed DA and has political ambitions.

Although Ellen, Jimmy, and George are the main characters who propel the plot forward, they are sometimes almost lost from view due to a mob of minor characters ranging from the ruthless rich to the starving poor. The view of NYC is kaleidoscopic as the book jumps from character to character, sometimes slipping into the present tense and shifting without warning between narration and inner thoughts, and offering up slangy dialogue, pungent smells, menacing policemen, clanging fire engines racing to and fro, and newspaper headlines clamouring for attention. Whew!

Style

Reading this book I was reminded of Kerouac's prose and Carl Sandburg's “Chicago" and the poetry of e.e. cummings, who was a friend of Dos Passos and fellow ambulance driver in WWI. Each chapter begins with a brief prose poem, while the text throughout eschews apostrophes (dont, mustnt, hustlin) and rams words together giving them a strange appearance (hairfyhoofed, illassorted, accordionpleated, fireengines) and sometimes elevating them into neologisms (neckshave, hungersniff, hushdope, antlerhung).

People are described so vividly they seem illuminated by a flashbulb and frozen in place like images in a comic strip panel:


his face sleek as an olive
a policeman's ballbearing eyes
hats aslant on perspiring necks
a rawboned man with big sagging eyes like oysters
decks packed with upturned faces like a load of melons
a man in a checked cap with a face knobbed like a squash
his small brown eyes measure her face like antennae as he talks to her



Adding to the comic book effect are the many signs, sound effects, snatches of songs, and snippets of fractured English, all of them giving the impression of NYC as a "city of scrambled alphabets:"


Oh I'm juss wild about Harree

Say why de hell doan yous guys loin English?
The wheels rumbled in her head saying Man-hattan Tran-sfer. Man-hattan Tran-sfer
Diddledump, going south, Diddledump, going south sing the wheels...

WE BUY FALSE TEETH
BEEFSTEAK PARTIES UPSTAIRS
NIWDLAB EGROEG WAL-TA-YENROTTA



Jazzy Keroucian passages communicate the city's sprawl and rush.


In the crammed subway car the messenger boy was pressed up against the back of a tall blond woman who smelled of Mary Garden. Elbows, packages, shoulders, buttocks, jiggled closer with every lurch of the screeching express. His sweaty Western Union cap was knocked onto the side of his head. If I could have a dame like dat, a dame like dat'd be wort havin de train stalled, de lights go out, de train wrecked. I could have her if I had de noive and de jack. As the train slowed up she fell against him, he closed his eyes, didnt breathe, his nose was mashed against her neck. The train stopped. He was carried in a rush of people out the door.


Structure

The book is divided into three parts, in each of which there is a fire and a death. Bud Korpenning, a starving man with a horrible secret leaps off a bridge at the end of the first section. Stan Emery sets himself on fire near the end of the second section. Phineas Blackhead, a corrupt businessman, dies of a heart attack near the end of the book.

In the final chapter, "The Burthen of Nineveh," Dos Passos takes off his gloves and shows us what he really thinks of society's high-flyers. So far George has been portrayed as a shallow philanderer, but when Ellen keeps him waiting for 45 minutes, he "wanted to go up to her and hit her in the face."

Ellen, who has not been entirely unsympathetic, completes her transformation into a cold and heartless person. When George asks her to marry him, she says, "I guess I can stand it if you can." When a fire breaks out out at Mme Soubrine's and she sees a worker with "a seared black red face, horrible naked head," she coolly informs the other patrons that nothing serious has occured.

Later they have a dinner engagement with a "fishfaced" judge who has just sentenced a man and his girlfriend to 20 years for armed robbery. In rendering his judgement he speaks righteously of "dooty" and the "constitootion." The man is a war veteran, flat broke and unable to find work, his girlfriend pregnant.

When Blackhead dies, his servant immediately walks up to him and spits in his face.

Manhattan Transfers

The emptiness of the American dream is epitomized by a number of transformations. There is the downfall of Blackhead, and the rise to prominence of Ellen Thatcher who becomes Elaine Oglethorpe, then Helena Herf, and finally the future Mrs. George Baldwin. A French sailor known as Congo Jake starts out as a barkeep and makes a fortune as a bootlegger. He changes his name to Armand Duval (aka the Marquis des Colummiers) and marries Nevada Jones (aka California Jones), a former lover of George Baldwin. The prospect of several months in jail does not concern him because he will return to society as a millionaire.

The book ends with a reverse transformation. Jimmy Herf grew up in the Ritz, refused to follow a career path offered by rich relatives, the Merivales. Now he turns his back on NYC and leaves on foot with 3 cents in his pocket.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Dersu the Trapper

Early in the 20th century Vladimir Arseniev led a number of scientific expeditions in the Russian Far East where a chance encounter with a native man, Dersu Uzala, led to a lasting friendship.

Dersu had no permanent dwelling, carried all of his belongings in a birchbark knapsack, and possessed bush skills so extraordinary he seemed almost clairvoyant. He was able to track wild pigs by his sense of smell, and pluck grouse out trees using a stick with a noose.

He scolded a tiger for stalking them, and reproved Arseniev for throwing a piece of meat into the fire. "In taiga many sort men," he said in imperfect Russian. He was referring to any of the animals who might visit the campsite after they had left, including ants. He believed that everything had a soul, even inanimate objects.

Dersu saved Arseniev's life several times, once when a forest fire overtook them, another time when a blizzard caught them in a marshy area with only reeds for shelter. When they were starving it was Dersu who found fish heads a bear had discarded, and boiled up strips of hide to fill their stomachs.

The Taiga

Arseniev's affection for Dersu was matched by his love of the taiga, and he recorded with an eager eye the plant and animal life they encountered. There were poplars three centuries old and so immense that two or three bears could hibernate inside. Garganey, hazel hen, and eagle owls were a few of the birds he observed, while mammals included roedeer, fanged muskdeer, raccoon dogs, and herds of wild pigs, some of them weighing as much as 600 pounds.

He witnessed a battle between ants and bees, and a chipmunk airing out its cache of food to prevent rot, and a Tibetan bear shaking acorns out of a tree. When they spotted fur seals at the coast he commented on their love of music.

There were moments when even the Cossacks who accompanied him were silenced by the taiga's beauty.

The People

Living in the Russian Far East was an uneasy mixture of Russians, Chinese, Koreans, and various native groups. They hunted and trapped, gathered fungus and ginseng, and cultivated poppies for opium, but it was non-natives who so ransacked the forest that "on every side one sees nothing but robbery and exploitation."

Arseniev provided some amazing glimpses of those natives not yet "in a complete state of slavery." They lived in cedar bark huts and wore moccasins made of fish skins. In the winter they armed themselves with spears and hunted wild pigs on skis. They set nets beneath the ice in small streams, and at night herded fish into them by torchlight while pounding on the ice with mallets.

The End of Dersu

When Dersu's eyesight began to fail, he reluctantly agreed to stay with Arseniev in Khabarovsk. Unfortunately he was unused to living in "a box" and could not understand the restrictions necessary for living in a settlement.

It was not permitted to fire off a gun or pitch a tent in the street. He thought Arseniev was being swindled when he paid money for firewood. When he cut down a tree in a park, he was arrested.

Eventually he left Khabarovsk but did not get far before he was murdered. Arseniev visited the unmarked grave only once. Two years later he was unable to find the spot due to changes brought about by development.

Notes

In the introduction to this edition, it is stated that Dersu is a composite character.

When Arseniev died in 1930 there was a warrant out for his arrest. His widow was shot as a Japanese spy and his daughter imprisoned for 10 years in a gulag.

The graceful translation is by Malcolm Burr, whose life was no less interesting than Dersu's or Arseniev's. He was an entomologist with an abiding interest in the Balkans and the author of several books. He died in Istanbul in 1954.

The cover photo is a still from the motion picture by Kurosawa.

A free audio version is available in the Audio Archive section of the Internet Archive.

The book takes place in the same general region as John Vaillant's enormously readable The Tiger.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Dynamite Fiend

The Chilling Story of Alexander Keith Jr., Nova Scotian Spy, Con-Artist and International Terrorist

Alexander Keith is an icon in Nova Scotia, his name celebrated whenever someone knocks back a beer with the picture of a red stag on it. The brewery he founded in 1820 is still standing, and Haligonians celebrate his birthdate by leaving empties at his grave.

There is, however, another Alexander Keith, a nephew nicknamed Sandy who took a different route to wealth and influence. He began as a clerk in his uncle's brewery and used the position to launch an extravagant lifestyle financed by forgery and embezzlement.

When the American Civil War brought to Halifax "a literal mountain of gold," Sandy set himself up as a broker for Southern blockade-runners, but was not satisfied with simple war-profiteering. The turbulent times made it possible to engage in swindles with few consequences, and allowed him to pocket money for shipments that he never honoured, the goods as diverse as pork, cotton, and a pair of locomotives.

His corrupt dealings brought him into contact with others as unsavoury as himself, including Confederate agents plotting to spread yellow fever in the Northern states. One of his business partners was conspiring with John Wilkes Boothe.

As the war wound down, Sandy fled Halifax with a small fortune and went to ground in Germany. When his money finally ran out, he concocted a desperate plan -- to blow up a passenger liner crossing the Atlantic and collect on a bogus insurance claim -- but what actually happened was a bizarre tragedy of errors. The time-bomb he constructed blew up prematurely on the docks at Bremerhaven, killing 81 people and injuring many more.

His head, which was preserved in a jar, vanished during an Allied bombing raid during WWII.

Author's Approach

The Dynamite Fiend is a work of "narrative nonfiction" fueled by much original research, the key document being a Pinkerton report discovered by the author in the Bremen State Archives. It unravelled the web of aliases and cover stories that Sandy had woven around him.

The author states that one of her goals is to "offset blindly romantic portraits of the past." She certainly does this in her unflattering portrayal of Halifax as "a town almost Southern in its hatred and ill will toward the Union."

But she is wrong, I think, when she describes Nova Scotia as a "hostile colony." Although its people fought on both sides of the Civil War, they had close ties with New England and predominantly sided with the North. Thomas Raddall in his history of Halifax says that "not less than ten thousand Nova Scotians had fought in the blue ranks of the North."

Overall, a gripping and wide-ranging but also unsettling read.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Inner Game

This account of the 1993 world championship match between Kasparov and British challenger, Nigel Short, makes a great companion to Fred Waitzkin’s Mortal Games, which describes the 1990 match between Kasparov and Karpov. Where Waitzkin writes as an insider to the Kasparov camp, this book comes from the opponent's side.

It begins with Short’s qualifying victories against Gelfand, Karpov, and Timman, then describes in intimate detail each of the 20 games of the match with Kasparov. Though the champion retained his title with a decisive score of 12½ to 7½, the contest was far from dull. “Unlike almost all previous world championship matches, every game had been fought, as Kasparov himself put it, ‘to the last pawn.’”

Some highlights:

Game 1 – Short, ahead by a pawn, refused the offer of a draw mere seconds before running out of time.

Game 2 – Short playing white ”let slip the one clear winning opportunity...and the position ebbed away toward a draw.” Short said afterward, “I can tell you, he was frightened. When I doubled my rooks against his king I smelt it.”

Game 3 – “Its climactic moments were of a complexity and ferocity that reduced the spectators...to gasps of astonishment.”

Game 4 – Short unveiled “an unexploded bomb from Kavalek’s work as Bobby Fischer’s coach in the 1972 match against Spassky.” For the second time he refused a draw and lost the game.

Game 5 – “Short, armed with a brilliant new concept in the Nimzovitsch defence, had achieved a draw using only twelve minutes, while Kasparov had sweated at the board for one and a half hours.”

Game 6 – Early in the game Short played a move so surprising that American champion Patrick Wolff literally fell off his chair. Kasparov appeared to have the advantage but had eventually bluffed his way out of defeat to a draw. “The audience burst into thunderous applause.”

Game 8 - After an “improbably violent sequence of moves” Short had a winning position but was pressed for time and Kasparov was able to gain a draw by perpetual check. “A standing ovation.”

Game 10 – Short dug himself out of a hole with a queen sacrifice, then missed the win because once again he was pressed for time and had to offer a draw. From this point on (i.e. the last 11 games of the match) Short and Kasparov were exactly even with one win and nine draws each.

Game 14 – Kasparov again bluffed his way to a draw. “I had suffered enough in this game. It was very unpleasant for me. I was losing at one point. A draw is not a bad result.”

Game 16 – Kasparov’s “pawn structure looked as though it had contracted dry rot.” Short’s only win of the match.

Game 17 – Short employed a “very well-camouflaged trick, resting on a spectacular geometric sequence of moves which was particularly hard for the human eye to anticipate, but, once seen, was completely obvious, and, somehow, very funny.” Short refused Kasparov’s offer of a draw and played on for another hour “while I still had some chances to torture him.”

The Inner Game

The book's title refers to the psychological aspect of chess which, in a world championship match, is 90% of the game according to one GM quoted in the book. Here's an example:


Kasparov...developed the intimidating stare into something approaching an art form. His technique differs from that of his Soviet predecessors. While Tal specialized in straightforward aggression, and Karpov in "look no hands" brain-scans, Kasparov's gaze is designed to humiliate.

The best example, or rather the worst, that I actually witnessed was during the eleventh game of his 1987 world championship match against old snake-eyes himself, Anatoly Karpov. Karpov fell for a sinister little one-move trap which allowed Kasparov to turn a terrible position into a winning one. When Karpov fell into it, Kasparov could have flashed out his prepared winning reply. But he did not. Instead he gazed across the board with undisguised contempt.

At that moment Karpov must have realized what he had done: his right hand, which was writing down his own last move, suddenly froze in mid-hieroglyphic. Kasparov, savouring the moment, slowly lifted his own right hand from the table, and with a sweeping gesture, like a matador putting on a cape, played the killing reply. He then sat and stared at Karpov, while clapping his now free right hand over his mouth, as if to stifle a giggle.



Unfortunately for Kasparov such tactics would not be available to him a few years later in his match against a steelier opponent, Deep Blue.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Corvette Navy

True Stories from Canada's Atlantic War

This is a collection of anecdotes and observations about the Battle of the Atlantic, most of which the author spent on the "triangle run," escorting merchantmen between Halifax, New York, and a meeting point south of Newfoundland.

Corvettes were scrappy vessels, the waist of the main deck only a foot or two above water. When at sea they were "semi-submerged," yet able to survive violent storms that sank larger vessels. "Theirs was the immunity of the cork..."

Initially regarded as a stop-gap measure and "unworthy of commands for Canada's few, and precious, trained naval officers," who were sent ashore to await the completion of more powerful vessels, corvettes were crewed by kids straight out of high school and commanded by naval reservists.


But a funny thing happened to the regular navy while it waited for the Big Ships that were to fight the Big Battle. For as the years wore on, it became clear that the little battle, the U-boat thing, was in fact the Big Battle after all, and the little ships that were fighting it were all that were going to matter.


Contents

The "stories" in this memoir are not discrete tales with a beginning and an end. Rather, the 13 chapters are organized thematically with titles like "Characters" and "Ports of Call." In them you'll find:

A beloved groundhog mascot who was "as sea-wise as any shell-backed sailor."

A one-eyed chap with a pocketful of glass eyes, which he changed periodically when drinking, each one becoming more and more bloodshot.

A "short-arm inspection" during which sailors were ordered to peel back their foreskins "with a click."

A rather astonishing account of a Walrus (an ungainly amphibious biplane) being catapulted from the deck of a British battleship.

A ship in St. John's harbour that had been torpedoed at the waterline, leaving such cavernous holes that motorboats were able to take a shortcut through the ship.

A man who died at his post of exhaustion (naval genius Frederic John Walker), and brief descriptions of many more ghastly ways to die at sea.

The Corvette Navy was first published in 2000, and such was its popularity that it is now in its third edition.

The Last Corvette

The book cover reproduces a painting called "Ready, Aye, Ready," by Yves Berube of Lunenburg. The corvette shown is the HMCS Sackville, the last of its kind. It is docked at the Halifax waterfront and open to visitors in the summer.




Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Nymph and the Lamp

A romance, not my usual fare, but so smoothly told and with such a keen command of detail that I could hardly put it down.

It begins in 1920 when Isabel marries a man on the spur of the moment and returns with him to his place of work, an island of sand dunes and wild horses off the coast of Nova Scotia. Her husband Matt, who "thinks in dots and dashes," is in charge of a wireless station there, relaying messages between passing ships and the mainland.

They share a rough building with a twice-torpedoed "moody anchorite" who plays Chopin and hates women ("what a lot of soft, empty, self-seeking creatures they are"). He is pursued by a half-wild seventeen-year-old, who roams the island on horseback armed with a rifle. A love triangle develops and there's a mystery that no one will speak of.

What keeps the book from sinking to the level of trashy romance are the vivid descriptions of Halifax and life on the island, of travelling by steamer and the business of sending and receiving in Morse code. There are also some fine portraits of people themselves, like the lightkeeper's wife whose "fierce green eyes" remind Isabel of "a farm cat gone wild and peering at her from the top rail of a pasture fence."


The woman made an extraordinary appearance, dressed as she was in her best prewar garb, even to a pair of worn high button boots, a whaleboned lace collar and a broad hat trimmed with artificial roses. She sat astride like a man, with her heavy black skirt and cumbrous petticoats tucked above her lean knees. As the pony came half leaping, half sliding down the steep sandbank her long figure rose and sank in the saddle with movements inelegant but utterly assured; and the great hat, secured to her tightly coiled hair with a pair of long jet-headed pins, flapped its brim faithfully at every leap. There, thought Isabel, go I in ten more years.


In his memoir In My Time, Thomas Raddall claimed this as his favourite book because it grew out of his own experiences. He himself was a wireless operator on Sable Island, which is the model for the island in this story.

Links

The book was first published in 1950 but has gone through numerous editions, attesting to its popularity. You can see some of the covers at The Dusty Bookcase. The cover of this edition is lovely but misleading. Isabel is supposed to be a plain 30-year-old, while the eagle is pure artistic licence.

An enthusiastic review at A Certain Bent Appeal.

Similarities with Jane Eyre

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Code

Mike Hammer on skates? Why not? What better training ground for a PI than the NHL where "what we do to each other on the ice would be criminal in any jurisdiction... Even the cleanest body check would be an assault."

Thus Brad Shade, aka Shadow, a former player who had to hock his Stanley Cup ring after his career washed up and his marriage fell apart.

He worked as a snoop for a few years, doing divorce and insurance work before an old teammate offered him a job as a scout for the LA Kings.

The story begins with Brad checking out a hot young prospect playing for Peterborough in the O. The one-line evaluation he sends to the GM on his Blackberry:


I heard the kid fart and it sounded like a harp.


But a team needs more than that before committing big bucks to a potential franchise player. As Brad starts digging, a murder occurs and suddenly things don't look so rosy any more. The suspects are numerous, the draft is getting closer, and Brad's job is on the line.

Still, he hangs onto his sense of humour and cracks wise as he tries to sort it all out. A Zamboni driver is a "Guy Who Turns Right for a Living." Working out at a weight room, he tosses 225 "like a salad." He meets a guy whose "green eyes looked like two basil leaves in a big bowl of tomato soup," and a couple of plainclothesmen "who took the job title too literally."

The chapters are short, the dustjacket is clever, and there are appropriate hard-boiled observations about the game:


I never once did something impulsive on the ice. I picked my spots. And I had no loyalties, no friendships. I would do to an ex-teammate and a friend exactly what I'd do to a total stranger -- in fact, I might have even gone at it harder with guys I had run and drunk with, just because I feared that I might go soft and sentimental. Players and general managers and coaches used to say that I was "greasy," which I took as the highest compliment. If you look at the names engraved on the cup, you'll find a lot of greasy guys. Greasy guys are great to play with but brutal to play against. "Greasy" is whatever it takes with a lot of liberties and lubrication. I still think of myself that way. I couldn't be greasier if I jumped in a deep fryer and started doing the backstroke.


The author has written several non-fiction books about hockey, the most recent of which is The Devil and Bobby Hull.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Finnie Walsh

Bad things happen in this book – a drowning, a severed arm, a jugular nicked by a skate blade, a fight in which an eye is lost. At the heart of it all is Finnie Walsh, decent, patient, loyal, and best friend of the narrator, Paul.

Hockey is the bond that draws them together. Finnie is a gifted goalie and Paul (born on the same day as the last game of the 1972 Summit Series and named after the player who scored the winning goal) is a stay-at-home defenceman.

They grow up playing on the same teams, but their choice of heroes, Bill Barilko and Pelle Lindberg, hints at future misfortune. Against all odds they make it to the NHL, but their pro careers are short. One ends in a surprisingly original on-ice brawl, and the other (less believably) during overtime in the seventh game of a Stanley Cup final.

Hockey, however, occupies less of the book than this brief summary suggests. There are no puck bunnies or locker-room scenes, and the NHL portion takes up only a few pages. It's more about Finnie's relationship with Paul's working-class family, which includes an eccentric father and a daughter with the gift of precognition. Finnie understands them better than Paul does and goes to great lengths to protect them. Finnie's own family is wealthy but consists of a distant father and some brutal older brothers.

What makes the book work is its calm measured tone. The brevity (165 pages) and lean prose make it readable in a single sitting. The book was short-listed for the Amazon/Books in Canada First Novel Award in 2000. It has gone through several printings, but the cover of this one is easily the most attractive.

The author’s third novel is the much celebrated The Cellist of Sarajevo.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Mortal Games

The Turbulent Genius of Garry Kasparov

The author of Searching for Bobby Fischer pals around with Kasparov during his world championship match in 1990, and provides an intimate portrait of him at age 27: charming, intense, moody, flamboyant, abrasive, haughty, impatient, intimidating, and filled with prodigious energy.

Kasparov's opponent was Anatoly Karpov, whom he made no secret of his dislike, calling him "a creature of darkness" due to his close ties with the KGB and the communist party. Kasparov had been traumatized by the massacre of Armenians in his home town of Baku earlier that year, and from which he had barely escaped with his life. He claimed the pogrom was instigated by the KGB with the full knowledge of Gorbachev.

The 24-game match began in New York and ended in Lyon. There are no accompanying diagrams, only brief but exciting accounts of the games. The author is more interested in the human side of the struggle, focusing on personalities. Of Kasparov he writes:


He is beautiful when he plays, a wild creature. His body is tense, his face taut, punishing, at times fierce, as if he is about to physically attack. I have seen top grandmasters wither from his fury, becoming dishevelled, alarmed...


Both he and Karpov played brilliantly at times, sometimes arriving at positions so complex that other GMs were unable to say who had the advantage.


"These games are like Hitchcock mysteries," said Mikhail Tal, sitting in the pressroom. "No one knows what will happen next." ... In his prime he had been known as a player able to impose complications that his opponent simply could not figure out in the allotted time, but now Tal made it clear that the depth and abstraction of games 3 and 4 were beyond anything he had ever seen before in championship play. "But for all the complications, at times these games remind me of ice hockey," he said, "fast, hard, brutal."


Yet both players also committed blunders, and after 15 games each had won only a single game. Karpov was the underdog, and Kasparov's popularity had waned recently.


A large majority of the players favored Karpov in the match, and several days before, when he had won game 17, a group of them stood and cheered. In 1984, Karpov had been much hated in the chess world, but grandmasters in Lyon were calling the new Karpov "a regular guy" and "a gentleman," claiming that when you got to know him. "he was very kind."


Still, not everyone was satisfied with the course that some games took, and during game 18 Boris Spassky put on a comical show for reporters:


...he was pompous, theatrical, funny. He imitated the high nasal voice of Karpov. Mimicking Kasparov, he lumbered around like a gorilla on speed. He grabbed his nose with his hand to signal that there was something rotten about how Karpov and Kasparov were playing, but teasingly refused to elaborate. Then he crossed his fingers to signal that the game would be a draw. "They do not want to fight." His melodic voice dripped with disgust.


When Kasparov finally came away with a one-point victory, he sold the trophy he won in order to fund a relief program for Armenian refugees.

One of the most moving stories in the book is that of a reporter named Manny Topol. His father had walked out of Poland during the lead-up to WWII and survived by hustling chess for money. Eventually he wound up in America but was never able to get his son interested in the game. Now, covering this match, Manny finally saw its beauty and uttered one of the most poignant lines I have ever heard:

"Oh, what I wouldn't give to have one more chess game with my father."