Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Zoran Živković: Seven Touches of Music

Saturday, February 12th, 2011

I have a list I keep in my head of things (books, musical artists, etc.) that I should love, based on the other things I like, but don’t do it for me. In some ways it’s more interesting than the opposite list, of things that you’d never think that you’d like but you love. The reason I mention it is that, as you have probably guessed, this book is on it.

Every mention I see of Živković makes me think I would adore his work, and it’s not like those descriptions are false. Seven Touches of Music is a group of vaguely related slightly fantastical minimalistic short stories, in which each protagonist fleetingly catches a glimpse into a weirder world (in each of these cases triggered by music), which then (in most of these stories) fades again, leaving an unsettling feeling. Sounds like just my thing! But somehow, as I read each one, it faded from my memory just as these glimpses of alternate reality or deeper connections underlying the world did. I don’t doubt that the fault lies in me; I have the feeling that there were some beautiful subtleties going on that flew under my radar. Perhaps I read it at the wrong time, but it somehow failed to get under my skin the way that I imagine it was meant to.

Andrew Crumey: Sputnik Caledonia

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

I discovered Andrew Crumey a while ago through his awesome novel Pfitz, about which all I really remember now is that there are lots of neat fictional-worlds-within-worlds tricks. I also really liked his next, similar, novel, D’Alembert’s Principle, and his first, more conventional, novel, Music in a Foreign Language. Some part of the appeal additionally came from the fact that his books were often not published in the US (he’s Scottish), or published after great delay, so I’d have to order them from the UK, which made it more exciting, like I had stumbled on a private secret route to great fiction.

So I’ve kept buying his novels as they are published, but the last three just haven’t done the same thing for me. Maybe it’s me; Sputnik Caledonia in particular seems to have been received very well.

Crumey is still doing a lot of the same things I really like in fiction—nested stories, parallel worlds, weird unexplained correspondences between different parts of the story—but maybe I’ve read enough of his books by now that it seems more like a formula than new. There’s also a sensibility that doesn’t always mesh with mine; in Mr Mee a lot of intended humor derives from a senile old man not understanding anything of modern life, which I just rolled my eyes at, and a lot of this book reads like an adolescent fantasy—and the fact that after a while there are hints that it actually is an adolescent fantasy doesn’t really help.

There are still a bunch of ideas in here that I liked, and it was an interesting read with an affecting ending, but maybe it’s time to stop ordering his new books from the UK and go back and reread the ones that excited me originally and which I have forgotten.

Snatching mediocrity from the jaws of victory

Saturday, April 10th, 2010

The worst possible blunder you can make in chess is to resign in a winning position. Accepting a draw in a winning position is only half as bad, but it is still pretty disappointing, especially after working hard for hours. In the Boylston Chess Club‘s ongoing Paramount tournament, I’ve already managed to accomplish that dubious feat twice — and against the same player each time!

Schmidt-Ho after 26…Kd7-c7

Against Ken Ho in the first round, I misplayed a tricky opening and he took advantage of it to win the exchange. As often happens at these levels, losing material freed me to just try to deploy my pieces actively while he hunkered down and tried to simplify at the expense of the initiative. After a little combination (which had a fatal flaw, but neither of us noticed it — welcome to chess at the 1700s level!), I had gained a pawn, put his king on the run, and had a couple of nasty passed pawns. A few checks back and forth to gain time on the clock and it was time decide whether to go for the win or accede to the perpetual.

All my attention was focused on pushing my passed pawns, but after moves like 27.e5 I just didn’t see a way past Black’s blockade, especially since his a8 rook was going to finally be able to enter the action. After using 8 of my 32 remaining minutes before move 40 to think about it, I played 27.Qe5+?? and Ken played 27…Kd7, repeating the position for the third time and claiming the draw.

But as club champion Chris Chase always says, “Check the checks!” 27.Nb5+! wins trivially. If 27…cxb5 28.Rc1+ Kb8 29.Qd6+ and mates; if 27…Kc8 28.Nd6+ picks up the queen; and if 27…Kb8 28.Qe5 Kc8 29.Nd6+ gets the queen again. Why didn’t I see it? I was tired; I was focused too much on the passed pawns; and the c-file had just been opened so the idea that Rc1+ could happen didn’t register. But with all of those things working against me, I still would have found it if I had just checked the checks.

Ho-Schmidt after 41.Kh3-g2

Our rematch occurred a few weeks later (the Paramount is a double round robin). I acquired what I thought a nice positional advantage, and when Ken sacked a pawn that was ultimately doomed anyway, I thought I would cruise to victory. But I exchanged the wrong set of minor pieces, and he ended up with a nasty outposted knight and open lines into my position. Seeing the chance for a perpetual check, I flung a few pieces forward, and it worked, as Ken saw through one perpetual check idea but not the other. Clearing the move-40 time control with minutes to spare, I accepted White’s draw offer.

But Black is winning! After 41…Qe2+ 42.Kh3, 42…g5! threatens Qf1 mate, and White has no way out. It’s a little tricky, especially since my own king is in some danger, and I think I didn’t even really think about Qe2+ since my queen had come from e4 and it was natural to move it back there. It’s also unintuitive to be able to mate with basically one piece. But I had tons of time, and worst, we were 10 minutes away from the game being adjourned, at which point I could have gone home and analyzed it at my leisure (and offered a draw over email if that didn’t turn up anything). There was nothing to lose from letting my clock run down 10 minutes, since I had the draw in hand.

What is painful about both of these situations is that it was simply a process failure, not a failure of imagination or calculation. In the first game, I had 30 minutes left and a draw in hand, and just had to check the checks, as I should be doing every move of every game. In the second, I had nothing to lose from checking out the position at home instead of immediately accepting the draw.

I would say live and learn but apparently I didn’t learn from the first game! Well, at least I didn’t resign either game…

Jeffrey Eugenides: Middlesex

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

This was high up on the list of Books I Really Should Have Gotten Around To Reading By Now. (The next highest book on the list is probably Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.) All I really knew was that it was about a hermaphrodite, which indeed it is, but there’s actually a bit less of that than I expected. First of all, the novel starts out with the narrator’s grandparents, and doesn’t even get to the narrator’s own life until maybe 40% of the way through the book – and then only really follows that life until the age of 15 or so. So we get a lot of entertaining background (though the background is interesting and continues to shed light on the narrator’s own experiences throughout the book), and then we get the narrator’s life up until the point that she 1) discovers that she’s not totally a she and 2) decides he’s a he, but there’s disappointingly little about his life after he decided how he was going to live it.

I still enjoyed it; I like these multi-generational family epics, and the science and sociology of Calliope’s condition was interesting and well written.  The artistry that is put into every sentence was especially obvious since I came to this book straight from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books, which were written extremely straightforwardly (not that I had a problem with that).  One thing that I particularly appreciated although I bet many other readers found it a little annoying was Eugenides’ willingness to make explicit the themes that kept cropping up.  Oh hey, yeah, I guess the burning of Detroit does recall the burning of Smyrna 300 pages ago, now that you mention it, thanks for reminding me.  I’m sure the actual literature readers roll their eyes at the author’s assumption that the reader needs these correspondences spelled out, but it worked well for me.

Middlesex won the Pulitzer Prize, and I must admit that having picked it up with Pulitzer-size expectations I felt that it didn’t totally live up to them.  But it was still an excellent book, and I’m happy to have read it for reasons other than just being able to cross it off the list.