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I am a high school English teacher in an urban high school in Oklahoma City. I am a member of the American Federation of Teachers, Local 2309. I am a Democrat, a union activist and a worker for social justice. I also am a Christian (Congregationalist). I play chess and coach our school chess team.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Review of "Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara

The Killer AngelsThe Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Michael Shaara won the Pulitzer for this book and justifiably so. This book examines the battle of Gettysburg from several points of view including General Lee, Longstreet, Armistead and Buford. Of most interest to me were the sections that focused on the character and actions of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the university professor turned citizen-soldier, whose heroic actions during the fight for Little Round Top saved the Union army and, quite possibly, the war itself.

Shaara's prose is highly imagistic. Pickett's charge, which was the final act in the Southern defeat, gets this description. "And then the first shell struck near him, percussion, killing a mass of men to his right rear, his own men, and from then on the shells came down increasingly, as the first fat drops of an advancing storm, but it was not truly bad. Close it up, close it up. Gaps in front, the newly dead, pile of red meant. One man down holding his stomach, blood pouring out of him like a butchered pig, young face, only a boy, a man beding over him trying to help, a sergeant screaming, 'Damn it, I said close it up.'"

What I also got from this historical novel were the various attitudes towards war in general and the Civil War in particular. Longstreet knew that the tactics were wrong and the final charge hopeless. Lee simply wanted to do right by his men and his "country" meaning Virginia. Chamberlain believed that the war was something new, people willing to fight and die for an idea, that all people should be free. Of all the characters he comes through with his ideals entact. Though he recognizes the tragedy of what is happening to the nation he loves.

Shaara's title reflects the paradox that was the Civil War. He ends the book with a quote from Winston Churchill's "A History of the English Speaking People" that calls the war the "least avoidable of all the great mass conflicts. . . ." The irrepressible conflict settled the great unsettled question of the American Revolution: do we truly mean it when we say that all humans are by nature equal and therefore equally deserving of liberty and dignity. Men like Chamberlain helped to insure that the answer was "yes".



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Monday, March 14, 2011

My Review of "Endgame" by Frank Brady

Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall - From America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of MadnessEndgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall - From America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness by Frank Brady

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Fascinating and balanced account of America's greatest chess master.

Two things are undeniable about Bobby Fischer: 1) He is the greatest American chess player of all time, perhaps the greatest anywhere, though I cannot state that categorically. 2) He was a deeply self-centered man who believe that his genius gave him entitlement to say and do whatever he pleased. This book explores both aspects of Fischer. And while it becomes at times too apologetic for his egotistical, paranoid, self-destructive behavior, Frank Brady pulls no punches in describing Fischer's dark side while acknowledging Fischer's genius.

What to make of Bobby Fischer? As some have pointed out, we regularly overlook the negative sides of many fellow geniuses to enjoy what they have produced. I enjoy the music of imperfect me like Beethoven and Wagner. I appreciate the art of Paul Gaughan knowing how he exploited women. I enjoy the movies Eliz Kazan while deploring his betrayals before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Do I put Fischer in this group of people who were great artists, but flawed humans? Yes and no.

Yes, I do believe that Fischer was a genius who produced the type of beauty Marcel Duchamp saw in chess, but I believe that Fischer's ability to play a game does not entitle him to anything but condemnation for his insenstivity to other people, his persecution complex, and his ungracious behavior to any who displeased him in the slightest.

I read one time that, "while gratitude may be the humblest of virtues, ingratitude is certainly one of the worst of all vices." I believe that Fischer's worst vice was that he could not see past his own, largely imagined hurts and attacks.

For me, this taints Fischer's remarkable accomplishments on the board.

And even though he was a great genius at it, he still was playing a board game. Would I seek to mitigate this behavior in someone who played checkers, parcheesi, or mahjong? I would not, and I cannot forgive Fischer for believing that his ability to play a game played by young children made him any better or any more entilted that the rest of us.



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