Review: The Seven Deadly Chess Sins by Jonathan Rowson

The Seven Deadly Chess SinsThe Seven Deadly Chess Sins by Jonathan Rowson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fascinating analysis of the seven “most common causes of disaster in chess”, Grandmaster Jonathan Rowson’s book, “The Seven Deadly Chess Sins” provides virtually inexhaustible material to provoke thought and study for the serious player.

As a beginner/improver whose ratings bumble around the 1000 mark and who rarely has the patience to play through worked examples, 50% of this book was beyond me. However, it will be returned to over and again in the future and there is enough to fascinate and provoke at any level. Rowson analyses both the psychological and practical outworking of each of the “sins”.

The book is divided into seven sections dealing with problems that are loosely tied to the traditional “Seven Deadly Sins” (Pride, Envy, Gluttony, Lust, Anger, Greed, and Sloth).

Thinking – sometimes there is too much of this.

Blinking – lapses of attention that cost too dearly.

Wanting – being too focused on the result.

Materialism – thinking too much in terms of material.

Egoism – missing your opponent’s point of view.

Perfectionism – taking too much time.

Looseness – failing to maintain a grip on the game in front of you.

Each chapter begins with a discussion of the more conceptual and psychological aspects of the game. How does your personality affect your play? What do you see when you look at the board? Is it possible to be objective? How does the Chess Mind work? Are you too attached to certain lines? What is really going on? The discussion is delightfully buoyed up by quotes from Grandmasters and diverse sources such as Kierkegaard, Sartre, De Bono, and the I-Ching. There is a wonderful sense here that Chess is about life and who you are that has much wider implications. This is what really excites me about the game and it blew my mind open to new possibilities and taught me a lot about myself.

The second part of each chapter is given to the worked examples drawn from historic and lesser known matches of over 60 different players. Here Rowson’s encyclopedic breadth of detail guides the reader through the trips and turns that demonstrate each “sin” on the board.

Every chapter is worthy of at least a year’s study and application and it is small wonder it took me a few months to plough through it all. The reader never feels patronised or dictated to as the author has a way of presenting ideas in a way that encourages them to mature and stand on their own feet; to explore and develop through shedding the kind of formulaic mantras that all of us tend to have absorbed. It’s like coming under the tutelage of a Zen master.

This book will remain close to hand, a challenging resource for a lifetime of learning.

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Review: The Right to Write by Julia Cameron

The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing LifeThe Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life by Julia Cameron

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is well on its way to being a classic and an essential rite of passage for anyone who wants to write for pleasure or professionally.

Julia Cameron has set herself the mission of debunking the myth of “writers” being some special class of human being who must starve in a garret for the sake of their craft and uses her words to gently liberate and nurture the essential writer that she believes lies in every person.

The accumulated wisdom of her years as a working writer and a creative writing teacher is presented in a series of short essays (each just a few pages long) that finish with a practical “initiation tool” to bring the reader to the page with pen in hand.

This book can be approached either as a “writing course” to be worked through over a couple of months, but I suspect it will be of more value as something to dip into as an “unblocking tool” or when inspiration is flagging. If read from cover to cover, like a normal book, the author’s tendency to repeat the same themes tends to lessen their impact and there is no detectable unfolding of a journey that links the chapters; they stand alone. So, it is best considered a collection of essays that meditate upon Julia’s core convictions that the act of writing is for everyone to enjoy and it doesn’t need to be a chore.

Some of the essays really clicked with me, others didn’t seem to meet a felt need directly but may well do for another season. On this reading, I particularly enjoyed Julia’s affirmation of the writer as an observer of things that seem to enter the imagination from another source: the Divine, the Universe, something beyond ourselves. This certainly describes a dimension of my own experience.

Julia’s style is richly evocative of the senses. She always describes where she is as she is writing. She then seems to weave her message from her current experience or whatever is turning over in her mind at the time. Some of her lines have the potential to become proverbs and I found myself copying out numerous quotes into my journal. I did not attempt all of her initiation tools in any sort of disciplined way but used several over the last year and will return to them repeatedly.

The Right to Write has been a good companion over the last year and will bear returning to again, especially on those days when I feel that perhaps I should give up and get a proper job.

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2011 Reads

Here’s a quick look at some of the reading highlights of the last year for me:

Lord Of Light (S.F. Masterworks)Lord Of Light by Roger Zelazny

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a difficult book to start and to get into and I would not have persevered with it except that it was highly recommended by its Hugo Award and by a friend whose taste is unerring. It turned out to be well worth the effort, a powerful adventure in the imagination, highly unusual and, perhaps, irreverent. This was clearly the fruit of the author’s thorough assimilation of Hindu mythology and I think I would have got even more out of it if I had been better versed in Hinduism myself. It also inspired me to read the Upanishads, which is a whole other trip!

Collected Short Stories (Twentieth Century Classics)Collected Short Stories by E.M. Forster

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This wonderful collection of stories really helped me to “get” E.M. Forster in a way that I was not able to access through his more famous longer works, and sealed him to me as a kindred spirit. This is a very coherent collection where we see Forster worrying away at the same bones he digs up in Howards End, A Room With a View andA Passage to India. He was essentially a romantic with a prophetic view of where the Victorian obsession with progress, novelty and mechanisation were leading. In most of these stories it is nature and the spirits who animate her who triumph. Especially notable is “The Machine Stops”, a visionary piece of early science fiction in which he seems to foresee the deprivations of the Internet Age with disturbing accuracy. These tales are melancholic and magical and strangely accessible, a real delight.

Rama Revealed (Rama, #4)Rama Revealed by Arthur C. Clarke

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had to read this book to satisfy the curiosity for answers that the first three “Rama” books set up although I suspected that finding the answer to the mystery of Rama was bound to be an anticlimax of sorts … and it was. However, the story was saved by the grandiose imagery and complex characterisation that marks Arthur C. Clarke’s work. I enjoy his portrayal of the relationships between his characters as they struggle to resolve the agonies imposed on them by every turn of the plot. Of all the books in the Rama series, none have quite come close to the mind-blowing sci-fi scenery of the first volume, but the political intrigue and machinations of the characters become more developed. This closing story aims to tie up the grand picture and to say something about God, Humanity and the Universe in the process – ultimately it doesn’t quite satisfy (and it is hard to imagine how it ever could nail this), but it’s a good read nevertheless.

ShaneShane by Jack Schaefer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A classic, and my first introduction to the “Westerns” genre. I had never quite understood the appeal of this genre until a friend recommended and lent me this book. What stands out for me is the perfect pacing of the novel, it moves slowly (but not too slowly) and menacingly towards the climax and then punches in with a dizzying burst of adrenaline, which is completely satisfying. I read it in one go, and it left me with a whole bunch of unprocessed emotions, a sense that my compass had been jarred. Shane still haunts me. Apparently the place to go after this is Chandler’s The Big Sleep.

Placówka [The Outpost.]Placówka [The Outpost.] by Bolesław Prus

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my best discoveries of 2011, tucked away in a collection of Polish stories that I bought on a whim many years ago. The Outpost is a very funny and somewhat tragic portrayal of the “peasant mentality” that takes the reader back to rural Poland in the 1800s. The stubborn main character, Ślimak, resists the colonisation of his locality by the forward thinking and economically shrewd Germans who are buying land and building a railway nearby. The plot is populated with affectionately and humorously painted village characters: the local aristocrat, the inn keeper, the Jewish peddlar, the nagging wife, the alcoholic old lady and the slow-witted farmhand. This book is not only a fascinating piece of social history but a warmly told story and I’ll jump at the chance to read some more from Boleslaw Prus.

One Soldier's WarOne Soldier’s War by Arkady Babchenko

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a hell of book, a first hand account of an 18 year old conscript in the Chechen war of 1996, torn from his mother’s apron strings and brutalised beyond belief by both the training and the fighting. The most telling effect of the horror is that Babchenko chooses to return to the battlefield as a contract soldier to fight in the second conflict, not because he believes in the war but because it has become part of him and he cannot stay away. Later, still, he goes back as a journalist and still fails to make any sense of it. “Maybe war is the strongest narcotic in the world.” (I reviewed this book more substantially in this post)

Lila: An Inquiry Into MoralsLila: An Inquiry Into Morals by Robert M. Pirsig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a sequel to the cult classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values, and Pirsig, by his own admission, anticipated that it would stand the test of time even better than his first work. Philosophically it is more conclusive and I found it more satisfying than ZAMM. The “enquiry into morals” seems to actually lead to some more concretely applicable conclusions than the previous “enquiry into values”. We journey with the same character, Phaedrus, several years after the motorcycle trip with his son. He seems to have mellowed but is still obsessively seeking a grand unifying theory of some sort. He begins with anthropology (my home territory) and the Native American Indians, arguing that the “cowboy” philosophy and hence “white” American mores owe more to the Native Americans than they are given credit for. By degrees, Pirsig goes on to describe “dynamic” and “static” moralities and the progressive evolution of morality by means of these two types of force. Phaedrus takes a passenger on his yacht (Lila) who he is quite sure is a woman he remembers from his past. She becomes a sort of “case-study” for his enquiry. As in the previous work, not a lot actually happens in the story, but everything is dissected until the kernel of a resolution is uncovered.

Twenty-one Stories (Vintage Classics)Twenty-one Stories by Graham Greene

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was my first exposure to Graham Greene. I very quickly found myself reading (and more or less enjoying) these perfectly crafted stories as items of social history and examples of wonderfully understated prose in which no word is wasted. (Click here for my fuller review)

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Java Apps that Make my Little Nokia (almost) a Smartphone

I have had a Nokia 6303, described as “no-nonsense easy-to-use handset” for about 3 years now. I have looked at upgrading to a Blackberry, iPhone, or high-end HTC but I’ve never found a good enough reason to switch to something that costs three or four times as much as this reliable classic. I’m quite sure that some people who think they need a top gadget to do what they want to do don’t realise the potential of these Java enabled handsets running on Symbian 40.

Here’s a few things that give it the edge over  the buggy rushed-to-market do-everything other phones that I have come across:

  • It’s cheap to replace and free on a lot of low monthly tariffs.
  • It’s frightfully robust. I have dropped it on hard floors and in wet grass countless times.
  • The battery life is exceptional. I charge it once a week, which is usually more of a top-up than a full charge. Although I use it only occasionally for longer conversations, I use it constantly for browsing and for twitter, texting and email.
  • GPRS coverage (although a lot slower than 3G, of course) seems to be available absolutely everywhere in the British Isles.
  • There are a huge range of Java apps out there for any purpose and they are generally very reliable.
  • Memory card slot gives me more storage than I need for music on the go.

Here’s my pick of Java apps that give me an almost-smartphone – all of them are also FREE:

Browsing: Opera Mini.

With the slowness of GPRS you need a light and lean browser that is perfectly adapted for a smaller screen. Of all the ones I have tried, Opera wins by a long way. It is very customisable, you can specify the quality of images or eliminate them altogether for faster browsing. Tabbed browsing is supported, too, and works well. Bookmarks can be synchronised online with an Opera account on other machines and it has a built in feed reader – sweet!

Social Networking: Snaptu.

Snaptu has an iPhone like menu of icons and a number of its own internal apps. I use it all the time for Twitter as it handles lists and multiple accounts very smoothly. It’s great for Facebook, too (although I’m not on there any more). Multiple useful tools within Snaptu also include several feed and news readers, a weather app which can be set for multiple locations, and a neat little Google Calendar interface.

Calendar: Gsync.

Synchronises the internal calendar with an online Google Calendar.

Task management: Mobile Task Manager.

This little gem by Tommi Laukkanen has become the final answer to my list-making habit. A lightweight and simple app that manages any number of lists embedded (if you want) to three or four levels. I have my daily to-do list on here as well as shopping lists, gig set lists, project planning outlines e.t.c. It is elegant and unfussy and does the job very nicely thank you.

GPS: Mobile Trail Explorer (MTE).

Again, although these phones don’t have built in GPS, they will connect to a bluetooth GPS unit (of which there are many to choose from) like the BN901S. Mine cost £16 on eBay and I keep it in the car. Mobile Trail Explorer is a fully featured and very flexible GPS tracker once again by the brilliant Tommi Laukkanen. It uses OSM or Google Maps if you need them, caches maps to save data calls, allows you to record and save KML files and various other waypoints systems as well as having a navigation function.

QR Code Reader: Bee Tag.

Using the phone’s built in camera to read QR codes. Seems to work 90% of the time and is certainly adequate to the job although it struggles with tiny codes, this may be more a limitation imposed by the 3.5 megapixel camera.

E-Reader: WattPad.

Thanks to the adjustable smooth scrolling screen, I use WattPad to plough through classics that are free to download (in the public domain). Perfect for reading after lights-out. Most of the contents of Project Gutenberg are available, no shortage of good stuff.

Bible: YouVersion.

Most people I know with Android use this but, the marvelously handy YouVersion is available for Java, too. Unfortunately it doesn’t cache so can be a bit slow sometimes, but there are a wealth of translations to use.

In addition, for email, most of these S40 phones have their own email reader embedded with the texting and messaging menus and they can be set up to synchronise with any POP and SMTP accounts for sending and receiving. Synchronisation can be scheduled or on-demand.

So … er … yep – I don’t see why I should bother putting up with the sort of trouble (and expense) that smartphones have been giving people lately.

Review: One Soldier’s War by Arkady Babchenko

One Soldier's WarOne Soldier’s War by Arkady Babchenko

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a hell of book, a first hand account of an 18 year old conscript in the Chechen war of 1996, torn from his mother’s apron strings and brutalised beyond belief by both the training and the fighting. The most telling effect of the horror is that Babchenko chooses to return to the battlefield as a contract soldier to fight in the second conflict, not because he believes in the war but because it has become part of him and he cannot stay away. Later, still, he goes back as a journalist and still fails to make any sense of it. “Maybe war is the strongest narcotic in the world.”

I urge that this work should become a classic. Not only does it document one of the most horrific and under-reported conflicts of our time, but its unsentimental, visceral prose simultaneously spans the great Russian tradition of Solzhenitsyn‘s Ivan Denisovich and the burning reportage of Herr’s Dispatches in a shrapnel burst of imagery that is also evocative of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. On the jacket, it is rightly ranked with Catch 22 and All Quiet on the Western Front.

Not originally intending to write a book but compelled to somehow purge and process his experiences on the page, Arkady Babechenko pieces together fragments of memory into three or four long chapters covering specific campaigns, interspersed with shorter vignettes. There is not strong sense of an unfolding chronology and there are wide gaps, alluded to, where there is a sense that whatever lies in them is too agonising to express; the author’s stint in a penal battalion and loss of a comrade called Igor may have been the most awful scenes of all if they were written with the same unflinching illumination as some of the other memories. Some of the scenes, however, will haunt the reader like a nightmare.

The first section of the book contains accounts of the first conflict, and Babchenko’s initiation into the senseless violence and hatred of the conflict by the fists and boots of other soldiers in the barracks, long before he comes under fire from the Chechens.

The second section documents some of his experiences in the second war, having completed a law degree and volunteering to go back into a place that the reader, by then, would rather not be reminded of in spite of being compelled to carry on turning the pages. Babchenko describes real people and real events with only minimal adaptations to accommodate to the style of literary fiction and keep things coherent for the reader.

In the final section, having returned to “normal” life and working as a journalist, the author returns to the same landing strip at Mozdok where he had arrived as a recruit some seven years earlier. He finds very little has changed in the atmosphere of the place and in the tormented eyes of the next generation of soldiers, even though the war is essentially “over”.There is an attempt to explain the brutality of the daily beatings at the barracks that no soldier escapes,”a male collective in a confined space inevitably assumes a prison’s model of existence.” However, he cannot find an explanation for the insanity maintains ascendancy in the region, “still they send huge bundles of rifle rounds to Grozny, and the constant gnashing of teeth is eased with litres of vodka, and there is a non stop supply of torn human flesh to the hospitals. Fear and hatred still rule this land.”

A phenomenal and impassable gulf will separate most readers from the author, “You can’t explain what war is to someone who has never been there, just as you can’t explain green to a blind person…” but I found the prose insidious enough to give me at least one sleepless night with broken dreams of lying in frozen trenches and there will ever more be a great deal more flesh and blood behind those sanitised newsreel clips on television.

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Review: Twenty-one Stories by Graham Greene (Vintage Classics)

Twenty-one Stories (Vintage Classics)Twenty-one Stories by Graham Greene

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was my first exposure to Graham Greene. I very quickly found myself reading (and more or less enjoying) these perfectly crafted stories as items of social history and examples of wonderfully understated prose in which no word is wasted.

I couldn’t say that these are the sort of stories that I really enjoy. Perhaps Greene’s brilliance lies in his ability to create characters that are so unappealing and remote that they elicited no sympathy from me as a reader. He paints them and their world in dispassionate, harsh, gaslit penstrokes and allows no glimmer of hope to creep in under the door. I should not, however, allow my personal preference for optimistic art and happy endings to prevent me from appreciating that every one of these stories is perfectly honed.

A pervasive theme of corruption is worked over repeatedly in scenarios of adultery, suicide, disease, ageing, childhood, and loveless marriage, with the occasional intervention of black humour.

The one story that will stay with me is “The Basement Room” – a desolate account of a child prematurely initiated into the world of adults and their “secrets” that was reminiscent of some of L.P. Hartley‘s rite-of-passage works.

I did enjoy the way Greene leaves a lot to the reader, allowing the stories to stand on their own, often unresolved and unexplained. In fact, stopping short of talking myself round to saying that this book was brilliant and I loved it, I’ll concede that he is a consumately masterful writer and storyteller but this is not my bag. My personal taste is for literature that is at least cathartic if not more positive about human nature.

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