Posts Tagged ‘John McMurtrie’

Matching wits with Marilyn Yalom in Palo Alto: a game of chess in 2004

Friday, November 22nd, 2019

How did the queen become so powerful? (Photo: Chris Stewart//San Francisco Chronicle)

No sooner did I tweet the news of author and French scholar Marilyn Yalom‘s death on Twitter, than lit critic John McMurtrie, formerly book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, tweeted right back. (See below.)

Since her death, a few people have asked me which is my favorite of Marilyn’s books. After John’s tweet, I think the answer would have to be the one I haven’t read yet: The Birth of the Chess QueenThat’s because of his story in the Chronicle fifteen years ago.

His charming tale of a memorable match in Palo Alto begins:

The chessboard before me is full, and my mind, it so happens, is suddenly a blank.

“My, these are nice-looking pieces,” I think to myself in a daze, scanning the dignified Nordic figures in this replica of the famous “Lewis chessmen” set from the Middle Ages. My pieces have their backs turned to me and they’re ready to enter the breach at my command. Now if I can only pull my thoughts together and put these little warriors in the right squares.

My opponent makes her first move. Here we go – time to kiss my kingdom goodbye.

On the opposite side of the board is Marilyn Yalom, the author of “Birth of the Chess Queen: A History” (HarperCollins, $24.95). The book explores the rise of the game’s queen vis-a-vis the rise of real queens in Europe. Yalom says she doesn’t play the game well, but surely she must be understating her prowess: She’s a senior scholar at Stanford’s Institute for Women and Gender who just wrote an entire book on chess. My knowledge of the game, on the other hand, never progressed much beyond childhood “matches” on the beach, when all it took to put an end to a game was the arrival of another game – any other game.

But there was no getting out of this match today. A challenge was laid down (silly me), and e-mail and phone calls were exchanged. As with war, once the plans have been drawn up, there is no easy way to back down. This battle was going to be waged.

Yalom, 72, stumbled upon this bit of knowledge six years ago and was intrigued. Many historians have written about the game’s evolution, she says, “but they’re not asking the questions that I’m asking.” Namely, what outside forces helped put a woman on the board, then made her the most powerful piece in the game?

In the midst of the chess game, John recalls “getting lost looking out the big back window of Yalom’s spacious house, taking in the soothing sounds of a nearby rooster. Amazing that one can be in Palo Alto, not far from Stanford, and still hear farm animals.” And it’s still that way. The redwood-and-stone home is where a reception after was held after her funeral today. She will be much missed. Read the rest of John’s story here

Matching wits at the July 23, 2004, game. (Photo: Chris Stewart//San Francisco Chronicle)

NBCC does more than hand out book awards: a report from the forefront of book culture at a San Francisco fête

Monday, July 9th, 2018

Jane Ciabattari introduces “Emerging Critics” Jennie Hann, in San Francisco from Baltimore and Bay Area’s Chelsea Leu.

Most people know the National Book Critics Circle from the prestigious annual awards for authors, handed out every year in New York City. For those of us who are members, it offers collegiality, professional resources, and of course opportunities to talk books, books, books.

Not that I would know. I have been the quietest member of the NBCC for the last several years, as I’ve labored away on Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. But now that the book is out, I thought I’d poke my head out above the trenches.

Jane Ciabattari at Zyzzyva

So I joined friends earlier at a cocktail party on June 28 in the tony offices of Zyzzyva in the historic Mechanics’ Institute Building in downtown San Francisco. The occasion was simply a get-together, and a rare chance to chat with colleagues. It was my first time in the quarters of the San Francisco journal of arts and letters that, years ago, spirited away my San Francisco Chronicle book editor Oscar Villalon. (He had taken over the helm after David Kipen‘s departure.) He’s now Zyzzyva‘s managing editor and a former NBCC board member. I hadn’t seen him face-to-face since, except for one occasion at Litquake, a San Francisco literary institution, and another at Stanford’s Green Library for the Saroyan prizes.

Oscar was a energetic and reliable presence for books at the San Francisco Chronicle, and his legacy continues with John McMurtrie. I’ve never reviewed for John, but I hassle him regularly for publicity on Another Look book events at Stanford.

Another guiding presence at NBCC is smart, kindly, and resourceful Vice President Jane Ciabattari. Jane has been a friendly, constant, and reliable source of information and advice for free-lancers, this one included.

At the gathering Jane spoke about about the “Emerging Critics” program to foster and polish the next generation of those who devote themselves to the written word. That’s a lesser known aspect to the NBCC, apart from the celebrated prizes. See what else NBCC does on the calendar here.

I met so many people at the event I can’t remember them all (my mental attention is greatly diminished nowadays). But I returned to Palo Alto in the evening, thanks to a lift from Susanne Paria fascinating Iranian-American writer who dropped me off in front of my waiting car at Kepler’s, and then disappeared into the night.

Oscar Villalon discusses books with a colleague.

Mark Twain in the Monkey Block … plus a San Francisco joke

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

The Monkey Block then…

Here’s a local riddle:


… and now.

Questioner: What’s the best vantage point for viewing San Francisco?

Respondent:  I don’t know, Book Haven, what’s the best vantage point for viewing San Francisco?

Questioner: The Transamerica Building.

Respondent: Why the Transamerica Building, Book Haven?

Questioner: Because it’s the only vantage point in San Francisco where you won’t see the Transamerica Building.


Local boy makes good.

On the other hand, you could enter a time machine and go back to oh, say, about the mid-19th century. Then you’d avoid it completely. Above, you can see what the Montgomery block, at 628 Montgomery Street, looked like when it was the home of a slew of literary Bohemians, among them Bret Harte and Mark Twain. According to the caption, “Lovingly known as the Monkey Block, the 1853 building was demolished in 1959; the Transamerica Pyramid now stands in its place.”  Before and after, which is better?  You decide.

San Francisco Chronicle book editor John McMurtrie dropped us a line earlier today. He thought those of us on his mailing list might get a kick out of the photo gallery he’s put together on Twain’s time in San Francisco. He was inspired by Ben Tarnoff’s new book, The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature. You, too, can see the fruit of John’s labors here.

Another photo in the series: Green Street in San Francisco, looking west, during the memorial march for President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. After the assassination, Harte’s column in the Californian praised this “simple-minded, uncouth, and honest” westerner who, in Tarnoff’s words, “liberated America from the cultural choke hold of New England.”  We’re still working on that, Mr. Tarnoff. It’ll come.


@#$%! Shakespeare at his worst, and Melissa Mohr’s short history on old curses

Saturday, July 27th, 2013

Watch your tongue, sir.


Thou bawdy, motley-minded rudesby!

Thou brazen, raw-boned canker-blossom!

Thou art a sottish, clay-brained nut-hook!

Thou prating, paper-faced pantaloon!

Thou art a waggish, horn-mad dogfish!

Thou art a hideous, eye-offending, hedge-pig!

Thou vacant, lean-witted manikin!

Who knew this was William Shakespeare at his rudest?  According to the high school English teacher who runs the blog Marginalia, “I gave my students a list of his oaths and insults, garnered from the body of his plays, [which] shows a predilection for double entendres, sexual flaws, and short jokes. … Upon examining this list, my students were immediately struck by the lack of anything explicit. I had told them that Shakespeare could be quite foul, when he chose, and there was a collective disappointment when the list failed to provide them with anything particularly R-rated. It wasn’t until I began to help them weed through the euphemisms and sift through the language that they began to get a picture of the breadth and scope of Shakespeare’s curses. The average tenth-grader will probably not be aware that to call someone ‘raw-boned’ is to imply that the person in question has been having so much sex that they feel literally raw. They will not know that in Shakespeare’s day, the word ‘nothing’ also meant ‘no thing,’ ‘thing’ meaning penis, making nothing sort of a euphemism for the female genitalia. Thus, when Hamlet tells Ophelia that nothing is a fair thought between a maid’s legs, he’s obliquely referencing her vulva. And what, then, do you suppose is the real meaning of the title Much Ado About Nothing?”

HolyScoverIf you’re into antique obscenity, you might also want to check out Melissa Mohr‘s Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing – or at least John McMurtries review of it in today’s San Francisco Chronicle.  She studies the evolution of swearing from the Romans to today.  “Swearing is like the climate — it goes through cycles,” she claims.

“Ordinary people didn’t know Latin; women didn’t know Latin (with few exceptions, including Queen Elizabeth I); children didn’t know Latin. This made the language particularly suitable for talking about things you didn’t want the majority of people to understand — dangerous things such as sex.”

“In the Middle Ages, the equivalent of modern obscenity was not ‘foul words,’ but oaths. … Vain swearing [such as ‘by God’s bones’] was medieval obscenity, carrying all the power of the public utterance of taboo topics that defines obscene words.”

I take issue with her claim about the rarity of Latin – all the children in the Tudor household learned it, including Queen Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary and her cousin Lady Jane Grey, in addition to the males (Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII‘s well-educated first wife, certainly spoke it too, and his last, Catherine Parr).  Thomas More‘s household learned it.  I expect most children in the aristocratic households learned enough to fake it.  Presumably Petrarch didn’t write most of his work in Latin because he thought it would be kind of an inside joke.  And that’s just off the top of my head. Certainly it was the language of church and law, which already includes a lot of churchmen (and churchwomen, such as nuns) and lawyers, and I bet the people sitting in the pews had picked up a little along the way, though what they picked up on Sundays was not likely to include useful curses.

But “vain swearing” accounts for a lot of obscure curses, such as Shakespeare’s oft-repeated  “Zounds!”

San Francisco cheesecake and the Golden Gate Bridge

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

brogan3A few days ago, we wrote about The Golden Gate Vikram Seth‘s novel and Conrad Cummings‘s opera.

Now John McMurtrie of the San Francisco Chronicle‘s book section has sent us a heads-up about a Sunday feature on his cyberpages.  It seems that the beloved backdrop to our Bay Area lives has surfaced as a setting for a lot of book covers, too.

Some of them, he promised us, would be hilarious.  We think the cover at left for Jim Brogan‘s A Time to Live takes the biscuit.  If it’s really “a time to live,” we’d suggest this fellow get his knickers on.  As Mark Twain observed, “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”  There’s too many of them.  It’s an overcrowded market – especially in San Francisco.  Besides, it’s chilly on those rocks, year-round.

We’re also intrigued by the subtitle of John Payne‘s Three and Out – “The Saga of a San Francisco Apartment Manager.”  We didn’t know it could be that exciting.  And what does it have to do with the famous bridge?

One commenter noted that there’s a lot of death in the titles – A Pointed Death, No Rest for the Dead, Murder on the Waterfront, Madness and Murder, Dead Midnight (with a poor, luckless fellow falling off the bridge). Someone is jumping off in Blind Leap, too – and is that blood stain designed to look like a brassiere, or does it merely indicate the mind of the artist?  Or this reader?  A lot of mystery and detective novels, too.  Sex, death, mystery … all of an existential oneness in the everyday lives of San Franciscans.

As for naked people in San Francisco, somebody better tell Mark Abramson that he might want to suggest a different cover  for his next book, or perhaps a different designer.  Oh, I get it … one’s day, one’s night…

See them all here – clothed and nekkid.

abramson1 abramson2three_and_out_SF