Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner


The ratings:
5 stars  excellent
4 stars  very good
3 stars  good
2 stars  fair
1 stars  poor

Blog stats:

Navigate the site:

Books by the Blogger:

THE BATTLE OF ARGINUSAE :
VICTORY AT SEA AND ITS TRAGIC AFTERMATH IN THE FINAL YEARS OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
By Debra Hamel


Kindle | paperback (US)
Kindle | paperback (UK)

KILLING ERATOSTHENES:
A TRUE CRIME STORY
FROM ANCIENT ATHENS
By Debra Hamel


Kindle | paperback (US)
Kindle | paperback (UK)

READING HERODOTUS:
A GUIDED TOUR THROUGH THE WILD BOARS, DANCING SUITORS, AND CRAZY TYRANTS OF THE HISTORY
By Debra Hamel


paperback | Kindle | hardcover (US)
paperback | hardcover (UK)

THE MUTILATION OF THE HERMS:
UNPACKING AN ANCIENT MYSTERY
By Debra Hamel


Kindle | paperback (US)
Kindle | paperback (UK)

TRYING NEAIRA:
THE TRUE STORY OF A COURTESAN'S SCANDALOUS LIFE IN ANCIENT GREECE
By Debra Hamel


paperback | hardcover (US)
paperback | hardcover (UK)

PRISONERS OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
By Debra Hamel


Kindle (US) | Kindle (UK)

SOCRATES AT WAR:
THE MILITARY HEROICS OF AN ICONIC INTELLECTUAL
By Debra Hamel


Kindle (US) | Kindle (UK)

ANCIENT GREEKS IN DRAG:
THE LIBERATION OF THEBES AND OTHER ACTS OF HEROIC TRANSVESTISM
By Debra Hamel


Kindle (US) | Kindle (UK)

IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY TWEET:
FIVE HUNDRED 1ST LINES IN 140 CHARACTERS OR LESS
By Debra Hamel


Kindle | paperback (US)
Kindle | paperback (UK)

Advertise: Rates & stats

Authors & publishers:
I've decided to stop accepting review copies. The downside of getting buried in free books is that reading increasingly becomes an obligatory act. After some seven years of blogging books, it's time for me to return to the simple pleasure of reading only the books I want to read, when I want to read them.



  
From a random review:

  

« Gabbay, Tom: The Berlin Conspiracy | Main | Harris, Sam: Letter to a Christian Nation »

Hallman, J.C.: The Chess Artist

  

Printer-friendly page! Use print preview to see how this page will appear.

St. Martin's Press © 2003, 334 pages [amazon]
4 stars

J.C. Hallman's The Chess Artist is structured around a trip that the author took with his friend Glenn, the chess player of the book's title, to Kalmykia, a crumbling Russian Republic on the northwest shore of the Caspian Sea. Hallman was interested in interviewing Kalmykia's despotic president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a former chess prodigy and the president of the World Chess Federation (FIDE), who was using chess "as a tool to unify and mollify his people." (He had made chess instruction compulsory in schools, for example.) Woven around the story of their journey are chapters on chess history--its development and geographical migration across a thousand years, the history of its individual pieces--and Hallman's further adventures with Glenn: marathon chess sessions over the internet, formal chess competitions, blindfolded chess and speed chess, chess played in prison and in Princeton, and the various characters they ran across on their adventures--child prodigies and the denizens of Dickensian chess shops and the down-and-out chess hustlers of New York's Washington Square Park.

A germophobic 39-year-old with a genius for the game and poor grammar, he is apparently incapable of consistently making smart decisions in the real world.Part travelogue, then, and part history, Hallman's book is also an exploration of both the international subculture of competitive chess and of his traveling companion. For most of the period covered by the book, Glenn was ranked as a chess master--exceptionally good but well below the grandmasters who form the true elite of the chess world. Glenn is an enigmatic character. A germophobic 39-year-old with a genius for the game and poor grammar, he is apparently incapable of consistently making smart decisions in the real world. Divorced and perpetually broke, almost childish at times, his friendship seems to be to a great extent a burden.

"So far Glenn had managed not to drink any Russian water and had eaten little Russian food, but the effects of malnourishment and dehydration in him were still indistinguishable from laziness. I was glad to be free of him for a time."
Hallman has a tendency, actually, to write about Glenn as if he were a sort of lab animal, whose mannerisms and mode of play are alike under scrutiny.
"He shrugged and performed a gesture that was new to me, opening his palms suddenly and at the same time contorting his face to an expression of exaggerated surprise."
Annoying and strange, given to marking promising relationships with ceremonial whistling, Glenn is also a sad figure, a broken man "spiraling toward nothingness, a waste of twenty years of effort and energy." One wonders what Glenn thought of his presentation in the book.

The Chess Artist is very well researched and thick with information. And it is punctuated by some truly wonderful, sometimes poetic writing:

"The train was all lullaby, the gyroscopic jostle of the tracks, the steady click of the wheels like the eighth notes of some slower melody, the stars stationary out the small window, all of it a lull of travel nostalgia, a cradle or warm womb, Glenn and I like twins incubating in that cramped space."
In Kalmykia Hallman is served "a genocide of crayfish"; in a prison cafeteria the fare is instead "hockey pucks of meat like the leftover scrapings of a botched autopsy." The high-stress atmosphere of a chess competition approaches the cannibalistic:
"A sense of anxiety was building as well, in the way of people trapped together and beginning to starve. There was a natural tendency to look about and speculate on who was expendable and of possible nutritious value."
One player has the "eyebrows of a demon," while another is "a nondescript man who fit the profile of a serial killer--short, well-groomed, quiet, and very dangerous."

Hallman's writing is riddled with such evocative descriptions. This is both wonderful and, surprisingly perhaps, problematic: the problem is that Hallman tends to lavish his well-written descriptions on nearly every minor character who crosses his path, so that the reader is met with too much information:

"As would happen in each round, I found three or four boards that were interesting either for the player match-up or for what I could discern of the position. I amassed a cast of characters to follow: Anna Khan, a young, sexy, sleepy-eyed Latvian as well-known in the chess world for her play as her presence; Julen Arizmendi, a handsome young international master who somehow seemed to have acquired chess talent without the usual sacrifice of health and hygiene; GM Igor Khenkin, a man who looked to be teetering on the edge of an exhaustion-inspired insanity; Immanuel Guthi, a tall, bearded, and smelly Israeli whom Glenn and I knew from our casino--he was a regular--where he was known simply as 'Moses' for the likeness; GM Alexander Ivanov, who, like Epishin, went for little walks between his moves, holding his hands in a lotus-style pinch and closing his eyes as though to recall a fragrance; GM Alexander Galkin, a friendly-looking Russian who could have passed for a young literature professor in tweed and jeans; and Timoleon Polit, a thin, nervous, little old 1390 guy who would be on the lowest board all week, and who looked like the kind of man Jack Lemmon would play, the washed-up business stooge attempting to use chess to fulfill a criteria for having led an eventful life."
Hallman's flair is obvious. But we can be forgiven for not being able to keep any of these characters straight. After a time, the personalities in the book tend to blend together.

It is tempting to say that Hallman does for chess what Stefan Fatsis does for Scrabble in his book Word Freak, exposing the weird underbelly of an intellectual pastime, the obsessives who sacrifice sleep and hygiene over their chosen game. Hallman's book, though, is a more serious and more difficult read. Presumably, the more familiar a reader is with chess, the more he will get out of the book. I myself do not play, but I was able to understand and appreciate, at least on some level, most of what the author had to say. Non-chess players should not be afraid of diving in.

Review summary: J.C. Hallman's The Chess Artist is structured around a trip the author took with his friend Glenn to the Russian Republic of Kalmykia, whose president also heads the World Chess Federation. Woven around the story of their journey are chapters on chess history and accounts of Hallman's further adventures with Glenn: chess over the internet and in formal competitions, chess played in prison and in Princeton, encounters with child prodigies and the denizens of Dickensian chess shops. Part travelogue and part history, Hallman's book explores both the international subculture of competitive chess and the author's traveling companion. The Chess Artist is well researched and thick with information, and it is punctuated by some wonderful writing. The book is similar to Stefan Fatsis's Word Freak in that it exposes the weird underbelly of an intellectual pastime, but Hallman's book is a more serious and more difficult read.

Tags: , , , , , ,

< Tweet it! | Reblog
https://www.book-blog.com/2006/09/hallman_jc_the_.html
Book-blog.com reviews by Debra Hamel are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Noncommercial - No Derivative Works 3.0 License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/).

Comments




Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear on this weblog until the author has approved them.

If you have a TypeKey or TypePad account, please Sign In


About the blogger: Debra is the mother of two preternaturally attractive girls and the author of a number of books about ancient Greece, including Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.

  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  






The Sunday Salon.com



Book-blog.com by Debra Hamel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Noncommercial - No Derivative Works 3.0 License.