Saturday, January 6, 2018

What I'm Reading: Winning Chess Tactics

I reviewed former US chess champion Yasser Seirawan's Play Winning Chess a couple months ago and found it to be a good book, if a little too basic for my level of experience as a chess player. This book, Winning Chess Tactics, is the next in the series and perfect for where I am as a player.

This book is a gold mine. It explains all the basic chess tactics, at least some of which I was already familiar with (pins and skewers), as well as more advanced ideas (deflection, decoys, and the rarely-seen windmill), with plenty of examples and mini-tests at the end of each chapter. Seirawan (and his co-author, Jeremy Silman) explain each concept clearly, thoroughly, and with a bit of humor.

I've already seen a great improvement in my game from this book and expect to continue to get better as I apply these ideas. If there's one thing I have a complaint about, it's that there aren't enough practice problems--perhaps four to six at the end of each chapter, plus three pages at the end of the book. I think it could really benefit from more exercises.

To that end, I've also bought Winning Chess Exercises for Kids, which is just that--900 tactical exercises of increasing difficulty. Despite the title, it is by no means a book only kids would benefit from. I believe it pairs beautifully with Seirawan's Winning Chess Tactics.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

What I'm Reading: Perdido Street Station

Perdido Street Station is a book by China Mieville sent to me last Christmas by my brother, who's getting his Master's in English literature and recommended this highly. (I have previously, and quite positively, covered a comic series China Mieville wrote, here.) It's a little bit hard to describe the book because there's a lot going on in it, but I'll make a brief attempt to summarize it.

The book follows Isaac de Gimnebulin, a plump, middle-aged scientist of sorts who's been kicked out of the local university for conducting forbidden experiments and is dating a khepri woman (khepris have the bodies of humans but insect heads). You can probably tell this fantasy, and specifically in the sub-genre known as steampunk, where magic and industrial-era technology work side-by-side. The city where the story takes place, New Crobuzon, is a sprawling, polluted, Dickensian nightmare of factories, slums, and coal-belching railways.

When Yagharek, a garuda (a humanoid hunting bird) who lost its wings in a horrible way, comes to Isaac with a request for help in flying again, Isaac realizes that the problem could further his own research into crisis energy (sort of a link between magic and physics), and agrees to take Yagharek on as a client. Unfortunately, for his studies into flight, Isaac acquires a kind of caterpillar he's never seen before, one that seems to have psychic powers. When he finds the sort of stuff the caterpillar eats--a powerful hallucinogenic drug that's recently arrived in the city--it soon grows into a Slake Moth, a huge, dangerous, predatory insectoid creature that escapes and threatens all of New Crobuzon.

This is a good start to what happens, but this novel is so chockful--Isaac and his companions must travel through nearly all of the numerous neighborhoods of New Crobuzon throughout the book in their fight against the Slake Moth, encountering all the city's strange races and their varied customs, and every social stratum, from the poorest of the poor, to all the workers of its jobs, both wondrous and mundane, to the political elite, that it reads a little like a guidebook for the fictional metropolis.

In fact, my final impression after finishing reading, is that it's a love letter to urbanity, an ode to cities in all their grimy complexity, and how geography, industry, politics, crime, and recreation combine in endless combinations to make a distinctive urban environment. There's more than a little Victorian London in New Crobuzon, but it's more than that. When a woman at my son's fencing class was asking about the book, and I showed her the map of New Crobuzon at the beginning, her daughter exclaimed, "It looks like a brain!" And she was right--the map of the city looks like a brain, with its hundreds of connections and different functional areas. I think in the end, that might be exactly what China Mieville is getting at.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Ranking Thor: Ragnarok

My family went to see Thor: Ragnarok last weekend and a good time was had by all. Oddly, the first Thor movie was lackluster but each sequel has only gotten better--not the usual progression for movies.

I have previously ranked the Batman movies, the Superman movies, the other DC movies, the Avengers movies, the X-Men movies, the summer 2015 comic movies, the Spider-Man movies, the non-Marvel and non-DC comic moviesCaptain America: Civil WarDr. StrangeGuardians of the Galaxy 2, the Man-Thing, and Wonder Woman.

So Thor:Ragnarok could just as easily have been called Thor/Hulk Team-Up, because the Hulk plays a major part in this movie. There's also a great cameo appearance by Dr. Strange. I think one reason the movie works well is because it takes two of the best and most grandiose stories for both Thor and the Hulk and combines them--Walter Simonson's run of Thor comics from the 1980s, and Greg Pak's Planet Hulk from 2006-07, plus elements from the 1980s Contest of Champions mini-series. It tosses them all together and adds in a hefty dose of humor. What comes out at the end of the process is one highly entertaining movie.

Another thing that struck me is that Loki in the movie is not a bad guy. Sure, he's self-serving and can't be counted on, but he does help his brother Thor when it's in his interests. And I found it interesting that at the beginning, when Thor returns to Asgard after a long absence and finds Loki has banished their father, Odin, and ruled in his stead, Asgard has not turned into some dystopian nightmare. Actually, it's a pretty fun place, with lots of drinking and funny dramatic works to honor Loki, and the people don't seem too put upon. Of course, Loki hasn't been vigilant about protecting Asgard from external threats, which is a problem, but he's not some awful tyrant. I think a simpler movie would not have had such a nuanced portrait of the trickster God.

The first Thor movie rated an avoid, and the second one was okay, but with this third one, the Thor franchise has reached pretty good.

As ever, my ranking system is
Green=excellent  Blue=pretty good  Black=Okay  Red=avoid

_______________________________________________________________________________

Here's the master list of all comics movies I've rated so far, in order from best to worst:

Crumb
American Splendor
Iron Man
Heavy Metal (1981)
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Avengers
Superman (1978)
Captain America
Wonder Woman (2017)
Batman Begins (2005)
Captain America: Civil War
Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
Spider-Man (2002)
X-Men 2: X-Men United
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Superman II
Batman (1989)
Ant-Man
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Dr. Strange
The Dark Knight (2008)
Iron Man 3
The Wolverine (2013)
Guardians of the Galaxy 2
Sin City (2005)
X-Men: First Class
X-Men (2000)
Avengers 2: Age of Ultron
Swamp Thing (1982)
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Iron Man 2
Watchmen (2009)
Batman Forever (1995)
Superman Returns (2006)
Thor 2: The Dark World
Incredible Hulk (2008)
Mystery Men (1999)
Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Man-Thing (2005)
Superman III
Supergirl (1984)
Thor
X-Men 3: Last Stand
Hulk (2003)
Fritz the Cat (1972)
Batman and Robin (1997)
Batman Returns (1992)
Superman IV

Amazing Spider-Man (2012) (Haven't seen)
Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) (Haven't seen)
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) (Haven't seen)
Batman (1966) (Haven't seen)
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Haven't seen)
Catwoman (Haven't seen)
Constantine (Haven't seen)
Deadpool (Haven't seen)
Green Lantern (Haven't seen)
Hellboy (Haven't seen)
Judge Dredd (Haven't seen)
Man of Steel (Haven't seen)
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014) (Haven't seen)
V for Vendetta (Haven't seen)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Haven't seen)

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Scary Movies: Carrie

Working through a backlog of horror movies we watched this past October, and now we come to a personal favorite of mine, Carrie, directed by Brian De Palma and released in 1976. I haven't seen it since I was a senior in high school, but it was near the top of my list at the time, and remains so after this viewing.

Carrie (Sissy Spacek) is in high school and lives with her religiously fanatical mother who believes that all sex is sinful. She refuses to let her daughter date boys or really hang out with any other kids in school, and even the smallest signs of rebellion on Carrie's part result in her mother dragging her into a dark closet and locking the door on her. It's during one of these sessions that Carrie discovers when she is under extreme emotional duress, she is capable of moving objects with her mind.

The movie starts in a girls' locker room when Carrie gets her first period and, not knowing what it is or that menstrual blood won't hurt her, believes she's dying and starts screaming. The other girls stand around and make fun of her (shouting "plug it up!") until the gym teacher intervenes. One of the girls, Sue (played by Amy Irving, the future Mrs. Steven Spielberg), feels bad about what happened, and decides to ask her boyfriend, Tommy, to take Carrie to the prom. Tommy is captain of the football team, but is actually really sensitive and kind of likes Carrie, and agrees.

However, one of the mean girls, Chris, gets wind that Carrie is going to the prom, and decides to play a cruel prank on her. I won't go too much into exactly what happens then, except to note that Carrie's breakdown and telekinetic revenge against her tormentors at the prom is one of the great scenes in horror movie history.

Seeing this as an adult, what strikes me is that this a feminist film. The only ones who have any real idea of what's going on are the women--the gym teacher, Sue, Chris. They easily manipulate the clueless men in the movie--the school's principal in the gym teacher's case, their boyfriends in the girls' case. I suppose you could even make the case that the problem with Carrie's mother is that she never taps into her female sexual power; traumatized by the rape that produced the daughter she hates, she has submitted herself wholly to the masculine religion of Christianity. And of course, Carrie herself, who's felt victimized all her life, takes control of the situation when she discovers her true power.

Carrie (1976)

Story/Plot/Characters--Great script, pitch-perfect acting (Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, who plays Carrie's mother, both received Academy award nominations for their roles), tight plotting based on a story by Steven King. (4 points)
Special Effects-- Not a real heavy special effects movie, at least until the climax, but pretty good once they get going. (1.5 points)
Scariness--Some tense moments but not a real scary horror movie. (1 point)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--Set in a suburban high school with lots of daytime scenes, the atmosphere is not really what this one is about. Carrie's home life is pretty freaky, I guess, and her candle-lit house on the edge of town, decorated with horrific icons of Christ's crucifixion, is a nice touch. (1 point)
Total=7.5 points (Excellent)

______________________________________________________________________________
Here's the master list of horror movies I've rated so far. (Click the title for a link to a review of the movie.)

Excellent
Alien (1979)=10 points
Day of the Dead (1978)=9.5 points
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)=8.5 points
Frankenstein (1931)=8 points
King Kong (1933)=8 points
Village of the Damned (1960)=8 points
Night of the Living Dead (1968)=7.5 points
Carrie (1976)=7.5 points
Jaws (1975)=7 points
Pretty Good
Witch: A New England Folktale (2015)=6.5 points
Aliens (1986)=6.5 points
The Birds (1963)=6.5 points
Carnival of Souls (1962)=6.5 points
Night Creatures (1962)=6.5 points
Phantom of the Opera (1962)=6.5 points
The Thing (1982)=6 points
Tales of Terror (1962)=6 points
Okay
The House on Haunted Hill (1959)=5 points
Gremlins (1984)=5 points
Lady Frankenstein (1971)=4.5 points
Man-Thing (2005)=4 points
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)=3.5 points
Avoid
Alien 3 (1992)=3 points
The Wolf Man (1941)=3 points
The Last Man on Earth (1964)=2 points

Saturday, October 28, 2017

What I'm Reading: Sachiko

Sachiko is the story of Sashiko Yasui, who was a five-year old living in Nagasaki in 1945 when the atomic bomb exploded only three-quarters of a mile from her house.That one moment became the defining event of her life, as the blast took her family from her--either immediately, in the blast, or over the coming years, from radiation sickness and cancer.

But Sachiko has lived to the present day, after a successful operation to remove her cancerous thyroid gland in the 1960s. At the 50th anniversary of the explosion of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki, she began speaking to local school groups about her experiences, and has since toured all over Japan and North America.

She is also an admirer of Helen Keller, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and has worked for a peace and anti-nuclear organization in Nagasaki for several years. It is her hope that by telling her story widely future generations will not have to go through what she did.

The author of this book is Caren Stelson, an American woman who saw Sachiko speak in Minneapolis in 2005 and thought there needed to be an English-language version of her story in print. I have labeled this as a memoir, however, because my impression is that this is more of a translation of Sachiko Yasui's own words than the collection and interpretation of multiple sources that would be correctly labeled a biography.

Though aimed at middle-grade level readers, it is quite an intense book, with accurate and detailed descriptions of the atomic bomb blast in Nagasaki and its aftermath. It might be hard to read for more sensitive readers. For those interested in the topic, though, it would be tough to find a more immediate first-hand account than Sachiko.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

What I'm Reading: Play Winning Chess

Play Winning Chess is the first in a seven-book series by former US chess champion Yasser Seirawan and international grand master Jeremy Silman. The series as a whole is highly recommended in a number of chess reviews, and they all agree you should start with the first book, even if you think it might be too basic, because it introduces you to Seirawan's system and anyway, even an intermediate player could still pick something up.

And that's pretty much what I concluded--it was a little too basic overall for where I am, yet I still learned a few things. Especially helpful was the chapter on pawns. I knew about things like pawn chains and doubled pawns already, but Seirawan provided a more systematic way of looking at your pawn structure. I especially liked a little diagram he included about how to make sure your pawn is the one that passes and becomes a queen when two pawn masses meet.

Other helpful tidbits included some good advice on using your knights to work your way into your opponents line, how to counter an opponent who's brought out his queen too early, and some interesting profiles of famous chess masters from the past.

I would highly recommend this book to a beginning chess player who wants to improve--this is a great place to start. For an intermediate player, you will almost certainly learn some things, and I'm assured this volume will prepare you for Seirawan's more advanced books to come. Indeed, I've already started the second book in the series, on tactics, and find it is much more challenging for my level.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Scary Movies:The Birds

I assume I don't have to explain too much about Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. Starring Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy, and Suzanne Pleshette, it's one of Hitchcock's best-known movies, although it was my first time seeing it. Everybody in my family enjoyed this one, with interests held from beginning to end. In retrospect, it may have been little too intense for my eight-year old daughter, although she did comment it wasn't quite as scary as Jaws. It was fine for my twelve-year old son.

The movie takes place over a weekend in the small town of Bodega Bay, California. Melanie Daniels, a young and pretty, but rather bratty, lady meets lawyer Mitch Brenner in a pet shop in San Francisco, where he is searching for a pair of lovebirds to give to his much younger sister as a birthday gift. Melanie is another customer but poses as an employee, but when it turns out there are no lovebirds in stock, decides to order a pair and deliver them the next day herself to Bodega Bay, where Mitch returns to visit his mother and sister every weekend.

Melanie only intends to deliver the birds and go back to San Francisco, but Mitch convinces her to stay for dinner, and then to attend his little sister Cathy's birthday party the next day. Meantime, a couple odd incidents take place concerning the local birds: in one scene, a gull attacks Melanie while she's in a rowboat on the water; in another, a gull flies into a door and dies. But the movie really gets underway at Cathy's party, when gulls attack the kids as they're playing party games, and the adults have to fight off the flock and carry the screaming children inside.

I won't give away what happens from there as the characters struggle to understand why the birds have turned against humans, and how they can escape the town.

The Birds (1963)

Story/Plot/Characters--The premise is just the slightest bit silly but the script treats it as deadly serious and pulls it off. The acting is excellent and the characters completely believable. (3.5 points)
Special Effects--Dated by today's standards but effective for what they are. (1 point)
Scariness--Genuinely creepy with a few scares. (1 point)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--The small town of Bodega Bay is a good setting for a story like this--a small, foggy seaside village. I think the sense of isolation of the town is undermined a bit by several references to the freeway that passes a few miles away.  (1 point)
Total=6.5 points

______________________________________________________________________________
Here's the master list of horror movies I've rated so far. (Click the title for a link to a review of the movie.)

Excellent
Alien (1979)=10 points
Day of the Dead (1978)=9.5 points
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)=8.5 points
Frankenstein (1931)=8 points
King Kong (1933)=8 points
Village of the Damned (1960)=8 points
Night of the Living Dead (1968)=7.5 points
Jaws (1975)=7 points
Pretty Good
Witch: A New England Folktale (2015)=6.5 points
Aliens (1986)=6.5 points
The Birds (1963)=6.5 points
Carnival of Souls (1962)=6.5 points
Night Creatures (1962)=6.5 points
Phantom of the Opera (1962)=6.5 points
The Thing (1982)=6 points
Tales of Terror (1962)=6 points
Okay
The House on Haunted Hill (1959)=5 points
Gremlins (1984)=5 points
Lady Frankenstein (1971)=4.5 points
Man-Thing (2005)=4 points
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)=3.5 points
Avoid
Alien 3 (1942)=3 points
The Wolf Man (1941)=3 points
The Last Man on Earth (1964)=2 points