Sunday, May 31, 2020

Chess Story by Stefan Zweig

Here is Max Bruch's Symphony no. 2

Chess StoryChess Story by Stefan Zweig

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This moving story reaches humanity on a number of levels.

Spoiler: I'm not giving away the ending but I do describe the essence of the story.

A man from Austria is on a ship to South America. On the ship is a young Russian man who is a Grand Chess Master and is on his way to play a tournament with another master.

Zweig spends the first chapter or so focusing on this young Russian. An ignorant peasant boy, orphaned at an early age is raised by the village priest. While watching the priest and another man play chess, he shows his own aptitude for the game. He soon rises among the ranks until he is a world champion.

What is interesting about the Russian is how Zweig makes him out to be little more than a savant. He has no interest in any other intellectual pursuit, reading, math, philosophy etc...he apparently is as concrete as a cinder block. His only talent is chess, which seems to be a natural ability. His only strange defect in the field is that he has to see the players on the board. He cannot imagine games in his head.

This one talent makes the youth insufferably arrogant. Like many stupid people, he treats everyone else with contempt, but is careful to engage only people on his intelligence level, knowing that if someone were to try to speak on any subject out of his league, he'd be at a loss. And since chess is the only thing he knows, any other topic of discussion would be beyond him.

At this point I have to wonder. Other than an idiot savant, is it really possible to be intelligent at only one thing? I would think that the mental skills required of chess strategy would transfer over into other areas.

Yet I do know some people like this. And I have found it a mistake to think that because someone is brilliant at, say, math, that they are interested or capable of delving into art, music or philosophy. Of course it could also be argued that someone like, say, me who is a professional musician is even slightly adept at math. I am very much a right-brained musician.

But for most of us, or at least a lot of us, we don't hold to any delusions of grandeur. We enjoy what we know, we accept what we don't and we are not so ignorant as to look down on others, or, as a couple of odious people I know, think that putting down other people would disguise a mediocre mind.

But that is a major digression. I merely wanted to relate what thoughts the first part of the novel provoked.

The story then takes a turn as the Austrian narrator relates how he and a group of men on the ship came to challenge the Russian Chess Master. It looked very bleak for them, made worse by the fact that the Russian was so insolent about beating them.

Then, out of the blue, another man who was watching the game started telling them where to go. I should mention the Russian would play and then walk across the room so the men could discuss among themselves their next move.

That game ended in a draw. Later the Austrian looked up the man who had helped them win. He was also from Austria. In his cabin he told his story.

He had been held by the Nazis to divulge information. This he refused to do. Their form of torture was to keep him in a room by himself without any stimulation. His only contact with others was during interrogations. He found this maddening, but one day while waiting to be interrogated, he came across a book on chess.

The man goes on to describe how he committed all the games to memory and when he became bored with that, he began playing games in his mind against himself. This eventually led to a form of madness. In fact he told our narrator that he feared if he played another game of chess, he would succumb to permanent insanity.

I'll stop there, but I must say what I value most about this story was the character sketches of both men. Both suffered from a type of mono-mania, but for different reasons and their outcome was dramatically different as well.

There's so many things to analyze in this story. The Russian man was free but limited by his mental narrowness. The Austrian man was brilliant and his imprisonment stretched his mind to even greater heights, but at the cost of his own sanity.

This story will stay with me for a long time.

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Sunday, May 24, 2020

Treasure Island and The Rajah's Diamond by Robert Louis Stevenson

I like to listen to music while I paint and I happened upon Frederick Delius.  I hope you learn to enjoy him as much as I do.  This work is called, timely enough, "A Song of Summer."

I told you last week I lost my precious Sophie.  Last Thursday I came home to a note on my door that said, "fellow Bird Lady."  A woman wanted to give me her cockatiel.  I didn't have to think about it.  I've never had a cockatiel before and I would like to get a couple more, because this one is so cute.  His name was Roosevelt, but to me he looks like a Percy so that's what I've been calling him.

The lady told me he needed to stay in his cage a week before meeting the other birds.  He was so agitated in the cage I couldn't stand it.  Here is Percy after letting him out of the cage.  He stayed there for most of the day.

Naturally he took to my husband first.

But the person he immediately bonded with and would not leave, just singing and chirping and preening her hair all afternoon, was my friend Felicia.

He was not happy when she left.  I would consider giving Percy to her, but she has three dogs, two of which would not mind eating a little bird.

Treasure IslandTreasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had read this story years ago to my son when he was a boy and I either did not realize or had forgotten what a rollicking good adventure story this was.

Stevenson knows how to create tension, suspense and relief where in the end evil loses and goodness wins, but it's quite a gauntlet to race through to get there.

A young boy, Jim Hawkins lives at an inn his parents run when an old pirate by the name of Billy Bones comes to stay. It turns out that Bones has something of great value to a lot of other pirates who are willing to get it from him.

There are many close calls and almost-caughts, almost killeds in the beginning, but finally Jim, a Dr. Livesey and the district Squire, Mr. Trelawney acquire a ship and crew and embark to the island that carries a treasure according to the map Jim, accidentally, procured from Bones.

Unfortunately, Trelawney, who is a bit of a nimbus, has not been discreet or discerning and without realizing it has hired a bunch of black-hearted pirates to run the ship, all lead by Long John Silver.

I don't wish to ruin the story for people who haven't read the book so that's all I'll say, but I do not think a movie could ever do this written narration justice. Stevenson is such an eloquent writer and so much depends on the first person narration. Movies are largely limited by showing rather than telling.

For all the youngster both child and adult, this is an adventure story everyone should read.

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The Rajah's DiamondThe Rajah's Diamond by Robert Louis Stevenson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I did not read the Kindle Edition of this book, but that's the only edition I could find in English on Goodreads.

This was a fun serial adventure told in third person-limited from a variety of people. A foolish young dandy of a man, after quite a series of episodes of fun and danger comes across, without intending to, an infamous jewel called the Rajah's Diamond.

He is chased around town by nefarious characters without realizing what they are after. But he loses the diamond after all, in an innocuous place where it is found by someone else. This person has been passed the ball and now his journey begins, although this person is not quite so innocent as the dandy.

But he's just as foolish and soon, he has been divested of the diamond as well. The diamond passes through a number of hands. Many turns and twists and as many chase scenes as a Buster Keaton silent film occur before the matter is resolved.

I've only given the bare bones of the story. If you want to read the sort of adventures our different diamond bearers have, you'll have to read the book.

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Sunday, May 17, 2020

Mata Hari: the True Story by Russell Warren Howe

Here is a youtube video called the Best of Chopin.  The first piece on it, Ballade no. 1 in G minor, was the very first work by Chopin that I learned.  What a wonderful introduction.

Mata Hari, The True StoryMata Hari, The True Story by Russell Warren Howe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is another book that started out strong, but lost its momentum somewhere in the middle.

Howe gives us chapter after chapter of Mata Hari, whose real name was Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, rose from poverty, created a legend for herself, introduced the world to the strip tease act and ultimately was executed as a German spy during WWI.

Zelle was born and grew up in Holland with a father who ruined her mother by leaving her for a mistress and ruined his family financially by his extravagant tastes for luxury.

Margareth Geertruida turned out to be not so unlike her father and one has to respect her grit. In a certain way she reminds me of the character Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind. Despite adverse circumstances she fought her way through poverty to become a notorious stripper, but ultimately was made a WWI scapegoat.

When she was eighteen she married a British Lord, Rudolph John MacCleod, and moved to Indonesia with him. There they had two children, one whom mysteriously died while still a boy. It was suspected that their servant, in revenge for MacCleod sending away her lover (so he could have her for himself) poisoned the boy.

While in Indonesia, Zelle, now MacCleod, learned the art of exotic dancing as well as the language of the people. She used this back drop after she left MacCleod for his drunken rages and blatant infidelity, to create a saucy temptress that procured for her numerous lovers.

She accomplished this by leaving with her daughter to Paris because, according to her, "Where else could a divorced woman hope to make a living?" Later MacCleod retrieves their daughter and Maragetha never sees her again.

Mata Hari, as I shall now call her, became known for her so-called Indian (she now claimed to be the daughter of an Indian Princess and a European man) dance routines, which involved taking off her scarves until she was completely naked. Well, not completely. She never uncovered her breasts because they were so flat. I think that's kind of funny, but maybe that's just me.

Her life is one of traveling from man to man and living far beyond her or any of her lovers' means. Finally, at forty, she decided she needed a cool million to finally retire and settle down. Plus she had a twenty year old Russian lover, a soldier in the Russian army, who she wanted to spend the rest of her life with.

She offered her services as a spy to the French.

To read Howe's telling, she was a complete incompetent and accomplished nothing. The Germans didn't take her seriously and the French didn't know quite how to use her, so they hired her as a "free lance" spy.

Nevertheless, she was eventually arrested and convicted of spying for the Germans.

Half of the book is not very interesting. It mainly consists of Howe describing every hotel and restaurant Mata Hari checked into, who she met, who she spoke to, who she slept with. It reads as fascinating as a grocery list.

However, Howe is convinced that as bumbling as Mata Hari was as a spy, she was not guilty of working for the Germans. She was rather a convenient scapegoat for the French who, perhaps to commander incompetence, lost thousands of French soldiers.

Perhaps this is true, but I have another biography I hope to read and see if I can glean another viewpoint before I make my own conclusion.

In addition to Mata Hari's life, this is a good history of life before and during WWI in Europe.

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Sunday, May 10, 2020

Inside the Plaza by Ward Morehouse III

The delightful piano music of Franz Schubert.

It's been a wretched week.  Due to my lack of diligence my Quaker Sophie flew off and has not returned.  I'm afraid an owl got her.  Well, if one did, I promise you she didn't go down without a fight.  That owl will think twice before tackling a Quaker.  There's a reason why they're illegal in some states.

Hercule has been looking and calling for her.  Well, God has promised to restore the earth and I believe that includes his feathery creations.  I look forward to when the owl and the parrot can lie down together and be friends.

Enough of feeling sorry for myself.  Here's my review.

Inside the Plaza: An Intimate Portrait of the Ultimate HotelInside the Plaza: An Intimate Portrait of the Ultimate Hotel by Ward Morehouse III

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lately I have gotten interested in the historical hotels in New York. I had first read a couple of books about the Chelsea Hotel with all its hippy drippy occupants, plus its uncertain future.

Reading about the Plaza helped put the Chelsea in perspective. It seemed to me that you had to be pretty rich to live in the Chelsea, even if you were a drug addict, but now I understand that compared to the Plaza, the Chelsea would be vastly more affordable.

If I were to compare the two hotels, both of approximately the same age, both pieces of Art Deco architectural history, I'd say the Plaza was the good child who got a college education, married a doctor and has prospered ever since. The Chelsea was the rebellious child who ran off with her garage band boyfriend and has been living on that ragged edge of Bohemian disaster ever since.

While the Chelsea attracted the artsy, pop culture leaders and followers, the Plaza has always been classy and posh. Part of this would be location, but also darn, good business management by the various owners. The Chelsea had the son of the original owners manage it and he kept the reins loose and free and pretty much turned the hotel into the modern equivalent of an opium den, which may well have delighted the famous clientele that rented rooms there.

The Plaza was and is for the very, very rich. Not that it has not had its financial struggles, but so far it has been able to pull out of them.

Morehouse devotes much of the book to the business side of owning and managing a hotel like the Plaza, which I found a lot more interesting than I thought I would.

The rest is of course describing the famous people who have stayed there since its inception. Because his father, Ward Morehouse, a famous theatre critic and writer lived there with his second wife, he got to meet many of the clientele first hand. Consequently, we get more information about the people he has personally met and more second hand information about the rest.

Still, we get some fairly good stories about F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Beatles, the author of Eloise as well as several famous actors and singers who have since faded into the annals of time. Actually I found that interesting as well, learning about actors and singers I otherwise did not know about and then looking them up online to find out more about them.

Also, there were several movies that were filmed there, the most famous for contemporary audiences would be the Home Alone movies, but also Barefoot in the Park and a number of Hitchcock movies.

While the writing wasn't brilliant, it was good enough for me to give the book three stars. I liked it.

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Sunday, May 3, 2020

The Secret Lives of the Codebreakers: The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park by Sinclair McKay

Here is Edvard Grieg's Lyric Pieces.

I cannot remember if I have told my readers that my son has been living the last year and a half in China.  And as much as grandparents and aunts would like him to come home, he wants to stay.  Me?  He's a man.  He needs to do what he wants.  He teaches English there and is learning Mandarin.  Here are a few of his photos from the past couple of months.

 Derek with a student.

 Derek with friends in Guangzhou

 Walking the neighborhood where he lives in Foshan during the quarantine.  Everywhere it's deserted.  However, things are slowly going back to normal.

 Derek's hair was quite long, past his shoulders.  He felt it was time to get it cut.  Above, getting ready for the cut.  Below afterwards with a friend, both sporting new haircuts.

View outside his apartment.

The Secret Lives of Codebreakers: The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley ParkThe Secret Lives of Codebreakers: The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park by Sinclair McKay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
During WWII England's MI6 recruited men and women from every walk of life to help break the German's code Enigma, in order to find out their battle plans and hopefully save lives, not to mention win the war.

Sinclair McKary introduces us to each person and type of person that was chosen to break Germany's enigma code.

Naturally people fluent in German as well as math professors. One prominent code breaker was Alan Turing. Others were people to become famous later in life, such as Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, and Roy Jenkins, who wrote a fair biography of Churchill. I can say that because I read it. Apparently he was only a fair code breaker as well, according to those who worked with him.

We learn about the women, both aristocratic and middle class, or labor class who joined Bletchely Park to break Germany's code. We learn about living conditions, what they ate, their successes, their failures. Much of it reads like a high suspense novel.

Some of it dragged a little, but I think McKay wanted to be thorough.

I recommend this book to those interested in WWII and cryptology.

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                                   Sophie says, "Hi".