Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “chess”

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR4 Review #24 Bobby Fischer Goes to War

the real problem with protagonists runs much deeper than just whether or not he seems heroic, often times he might not even seem likable. The authors of Bobby Fischer Goes To War confront that very problem in the non-fiction treatment of the most famous chess game ever played.

Few countries offer a better host of bad guys than Russia. If given a choice between running into gang members in a dark alley or President Vladmir Putin in a well lit area…I’m really not sure which seems safer. And when it comes to the cerebral battlefield of the space race, the art race and the chess race, America languished behind for a long time.

Then into the fray leapt chess prodigy Bobby Fischer, a kid from New York whose skill was outmatched only by his fierce competitiveness. At the time that Bobby Fischer Goes to War begins, Fischer had become the tantrum throwing bad boy of the international chess circuit, even though he seemed like a straight from the Comicbook “CHESSMAN” superhero to Americans. Edmonds and Eidnow chronicle every lat drop of strategy that brought Fischer to the inhospitable climate of Reykjavik to battle then world champion, Soviet, Boris Spassky.

The authors first embrace the match as a metaphor for Cold War gamesmanship and then seek to complicate the scene by knocking down the superhero and building up the “dastardly” Soviet. But the overt recasting of these parts in later chapters seems irrelevant when the first chapters show it plainly in both men’s characters. Fischer seems unhinged at best, diabolical at worst; Spassky rises as an iconoclast uncomfortable within the Soviet regime, seeming downright American in his fiercely independent nature. Indeed, the only people who seem to need convincing that Fischer wasn’t the hero are the authors themselves.

The authors’ dedication to probing their characters comes at the expense of chess explanations. Those without a cursory knowledge of the game may feel lost. Even those who know enough to visualize the board at key moments may be frustrated by the maddeningly condescending accounts of “howlers” and “blunders” that are named, but never explained. The author’s clearly love chess, so too do the people who made the match the most popular chess spectacle in a century. But the fixation on Fischer, and attempts to complicate a person who is obviously, maddeningly complicated already, gives the reader fewer opportunities to learn to love the game.

Love you Vladdy!

Things have obviously changed since the Fischer/Spassky match in 1972. And though we’re still tempted to think of Russians as the bad guys and Americans as the good guys, the days of Rocky Balboa V.s. Ivan Drogo have been replaced by an appreciation of our shared human complexity. I still might worry about starting a brawl with President Putin, but beyond that Russia’s Rogues Gallery is running thin (though we could always posthumously loan them Fischer)

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #41: The Eight by Katherine Neville

Neville’s debut novel is a humdinger. It is two parallel stories, one taking place in the middle of European upheaval around the French Revolution in 1790, and the other in 1972. Neville’s book is a dramatic tour de force, not only crisscrossing the globe and weaving in sophisticated themes on virtually every subject from religion, philosophy, mathematics, music, astronomy, architecture, game theory, economics, the politics of war, and much more, but also sprawling across multiple genres of writing, including historical fiction, romance, thriller/adventure, and fantasy. Her characters, apart from a handful of main protagonists, are drawn from every realm and age as well, including Catherine the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Robespierre, Talleyrand, Voltaire, Frederick the Great, Benedict Arnold, Johann Sebastian Bach, Leonhard Euler, William Blake, even modern heads of state Muammar Qaddafi and Houari Boumediene.

Her modern story centers around Catherine (“Cat”) Velis, a brilliant young computer specialist working in NYC who gets swept up into a global hunt for the mysterious Montglane Service, a fabulous chess set hidden for many centuries, which supposedly carries the code, or formula, for immense power. How she gets chosen by strange and unknown forces into taking up the search—her birthdate and the mystical figure eight into which her left hand’s lifeline falls—is as contrived as the unlikely characters she gets thrown together with, and unfortunately, despite her repeated near-death adventures and general spunkiness, this half of the novel is Neville’s weakest, by far.

But, oh my, the historical portion of her novel had me mesmerized. Two teenage cousins, sent as orphans into France’s distant Montglane Abbey, are abruptly deployed into Paris by the wily Abbess when she learns that church lands and properties are about to be seized by the French revolutionaries. The Abbess has been charged, as have her predecessors through the ages, with protecting the Montglane Service which was buried within the walls of the Abbey, and terrified of allowing its power to fall into the hands of “evil forces,” she scatters its pieces with her nuns when she sends them home and closes the Abbey. The cousins Valentine and Mireille take eight of the pieces with them to Paris, and become a collection point for any of the other pieces that might come under threat of capture. And here the story begins.

Neville adopts an effective technique, modeled on that of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, of filling in a great deal of the history and significance of the Montglane Service through individual “tales” told by many of the historical figures that are scattered throughout her novel. She has done her homework well, and manages to brilliantly capture much of the political intrigue of the different periods about which she writes while weaving them into her plot. The two scenes I found most powerful were her nightmarish depiction of the day the “Terror” erupts in Paris, and her brilliant characterization of Johann Sebastian Bach’s genius through a virtual treatise on the mathematical science behind musical composition.

I think Neville somehow managed to produce a blockbuster of a book, which despite many serious flaws in both characterizations and plot contrivances, is riveting in its rich complexity. This book isn’t for everyone—you have to be willing to sit through the intricacies of a chess game, a detailed explanation of the Pythagorean Theorem, and the political machinations of monarchical succession in 18th century Russia, among other gems—but if you’re game, it will be worth the effort.

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #28: The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte

This novel uses the complex game of chess—literally and metaphorically–as both the foreground and backdrop of a complicated multi-murder mystery. The story takes place in contemporary Spain but is rooted in the political intrigues of the 15th century.  Art restorer Julia is cleaning a piece of Flemish art known as “The Flanders Panel,” depicting an intense chess game between two noblemen, when she discovers words buried under layers of paint. It turns out that it was the painter himself, one Pieter Van Huys, who hid the enigmatic “Who killed the knight” in a corner of his painting, and it is Julia who sets herself the challenge of solving the ancient mystery.

With the help of historian and former lover Alvaro, Julia learns that it is two close friends–the young Duke Ferdinand of Ostenberg and dashing war hero Roger de Arras–who are the chess players depicted in the painting, but that De Arras had been murdered by an unknown assailant two years before “The Game of Chess” was ever painted. Ferdinand was in a marriage of political convenience with Beatrice of Burgundy, who in turn was in a clandestine love affair with De Arras when he was killed. In the painting, Ferdinand has just captured the white knight , and Julia suspects that Van Huys—a close admirer of De Arras–was attempting to reveal the war hero’s murderer through this visual metaphor. However, Julia also learns that Beatrice and Roger de Arras were actually championed by two opposing factions vying for control of Ostenberg, with broad implications for the political chess board (get it?) that was Europe at the time. Was Roger de Arras’ murder the act of a jealous Duke, or an act of political intrigue?

Just when Julia and her long-time friend and mentor Cesar think they’ve solved the murder mystery embedded in the painting, Alvaro is murdered and Julia discovers that there is a bloody-minded “chess master” trying to finish the 500-year-old game, and that she and her friends are literally the pawns. Cesar brings in reticent chess genius Munoz to try to “reverse engineer” the game depicted in the painting, to try to determine who made which moves and hopefully thereby to outwit and identify the present-day murderer.

Julia is unfortunately the least interesting of the characters in this novel, despite her lengthy and uninspired musings, while Cesar, Munoz, Alvaro, and a host of other more exotic personalities all vie for our attention, and for the role of the villain or hero in our minds.  The real protagonist of the story, of course, is the painting, which comes to life for us on a multitude of levels—aesthetic, historic, philosophic, even romantic—while the game of chess entwines itself in the reader’s psyche, never again to be looked at merely as a “game.”

I must confess that I didn’t care for Perez-Reverte’s surprise revelation at the end; I found it forced and unconvincing and an unfortunate break with the tone and quality of the rest of the novel. Nonetheless, this sophisticated novel—loaded with chess plays, philosophical theorizing, and literary metaphor and allusion–is a brilliantly conceived and mostly successful “thinking person’s” book. Think Edgar Allen Poe and you’ll get a bit of the flavor. It’s not an easy read, but it’s definitely worth the effort.

Quorren’s #CBR4 Review #14 The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez- Reverte

Just a disclaimer, the book was written in 1990.  I took me yelling at the main character, “JUST! USE! GOOGLE!”, at least three times to figure that out.

The titular panel refers to a (fictional) painting depicting two nobles playing chess with a woman in the background reads a book in 1471.  The painting has come into art restorer Julia’s hands.  As she is restoring the painting she uncovers an inscription – Quis Necavit Equitem, or, who killed the knight.  Julia brings her old caregiver, Cesar, to help her solve the mystery.  Soon a murder occurs and Julia is drawn into an intricate chess game where those close to her become the pieces; it appears the murderer wants to continue the game of chess going on in the painting.

It’s a pretty good read, especially if you are into art history.  The story Perez-Reverte weaves out of the figures in the painting might actually be more intriguing than the murder mystery.  The two nobles, a duke and his knight, are both in love with the woman in the background, the duke’s wife.  Later, the knight is murdered.  Was it due to the Duke’s jealousy or the knight’s ties to France?


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