August 23, 2017

Reading Uncertainly? ‘The Tide’ by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

A present from a New Hampshire daughter, The Tide is a delightful, entertaining, and thought-provoking mix of lucid, often poetic, language with numerous literary quotations plus detailed scientific explanations of the tides that embellish our lives on this earth. It is Aldersey-Williams’s thought-experiment.

It is also his history of the oceanic tides, mixed with a bit of mathematics. But not more than you can handle. As he notes, “You may be relieved to know that I will leave the mathematics aside here.” And, given that many tell us the world’s tides are soon to be much higher, this is a most worthwhile book.

It is, as he states, “not a book about the sea” (sailors, ships, and winds), but rather a book “about the seas” and the ever-changing space between land and water. The tide, he explains, “offers an irresistible mathematical tease” as we attempt to understand and predict it. It is both a horizontal and a vertical force. That is a “scientific challenge” and “a physical; and psychological influence on our culture.” The classic story of King Canute’s (or Cnut, as the author spells it) attempt to stem the tide may have altered the English view of nobility.

This is the author’s story of watching tides around the world, from the English Channel to, of all places, Griswold Point on the Connecticut River, with a cousin, David Redfield. Tides are entrancing: they give us slow, relative motion that produces a “hallucinatory feeling.” Water is, after all, “an inelastic fluid (that) cannot be compressed or expanded.” I too have been mesmerized: by the 10-foot tides in Tenants Harbor, Maine; by the rising waters in Bosham, West Sussex, England, that regularly swamp cars in the local bar’s parking lot; and by the rushing tidal currents in the Straits of Shimonoseki, between Honshu and Kyushu, Japan, through which we once sent our Navy ship (at slack water, of course!)

He acknowledges the inevitability of climate change and global warming, and the fact they will lead to rising seas: “The greatest impact of rising sea levels and the changing tides that may accompany them will be on human habitation.” After all, we easily succumb to the human drive to cling to shores. “In the long term, if not the short, ‘managed retreat’ is our only option. The sea always wins in the end.”

Trying to ‘stop the sea? “It is a futility that Sisyphus would understand all too well.” So New York is a potential Venice … and New London too!

But do not be deterred by such pessimism. The Tide is full of rich, poetic language, as in this description of birds above the sea: “Once aloft, the birds first coalesce as an egg-shaped cloud low over the water, before gaining height and taking on ever more extravagant, twisted shapes like a pixelated flamenco dancer.”

It is enough to send me down to the end of Ely’s Ferry Road to watch the Connecticut River slip by the marshes of Essex.

Editor’s Note: ‘The Tide’ by Hugh Aldersey-Williams was published by W. W. Norton, New York 2016.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Being Mortal’ by Atul Gawande

Here is a challenge and a question.

The challenge: “Our decision-making in medicine has failed so spectacularly that we have reached the point of actively inflicting harm on patients rather than confronting the subject of mortality.”

The question: Can the medical profession change from its former “priestly doctor-knows-best” and its current “informative” models to a more jointly-responsible “interpretive” model in which patients and physicians work together to mold priorities and decisions?

Atul Gawande, a professor at Harvard Medical School and one of the most thoughtful and articulate observers of the medical scene today (frequently in The New Yorker), asks us to “ … confront the realities of decline and mortality,” not with fear but with intelligence and realism. Too often “the waning days of our lives are given over to treatments that addle our brains and sap our bodies for a sliver’s chance of benefit.”

It has not always been that way. In the past “elders were cared for in multi-generational systems” when we died much sooner and faster, but now we must endure multiple failures in our bodies during “long retirements. … We are already oddities living well beyond our appointed time.” Institutionalization means loss of privacy and control, too many medications whose combined effects we don’t understand, and too much passive entertainment. Even the advent of the much-heralded “assisted living” mechanism has been watered down and often corrupted.

Gawande proposes a future in which “geriatrics” will be taught to all physicians who, in turn, will discuss options with us realistically. For example, his illustration is the simple use of living plants, birds, dogs, and cats, plus smaller groupings of the aged to reduce “the plagues of nursing home existence: boredom, loneliness, and helplessness,” so that we can “renew the joy of life.”

But the good doctor seems to equivocate when it comes to the idea of “death with dignity,” or the option of physician-assisted suicide, now permissible to some degree in five states in the U. S. and in The Netherlands. “I am leery of the idea that endings are controllable,” he writes. Must we insist, legally, on palliative care for the terminally ill? Don’t we/they have an inherent right to select our own course of action, not only for terminal physical illnesses where courses of painful (and costly) procedures may give us only a few extra months, but also for forecasts of mental deterioration, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s?

An inability or unwillingness to take our own early action when capable may create enormous costs (mental and financial) to all of us. I am an advocate of considering options early enough, working with our physicians, but retaining the right to final decisions, including death.

(Read, for example, Derek Humphry”s Final Exit, Random House, New York 2002)

Doctor Gawande’s goal makes eminent sense, “The battle of being mortal is the battle to maintain the integrity of one’s life – to avoid becoming so diminished or dissipated or subjugated that who you are becomes disconnected from who you were or who you want to be.”

Editor’s Note: ‘Being Mortal’ by Atul Gawande is published by Henry Holt and Co., New York 2014.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly: Chaos Monkeys: ‘Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley, by Antonio Garcia Martinez

Let’s face it, we are all, every one of us, irrevocably married to this new and all-pervasive technology. We are computers and they are us. So isn’t it time that we learn something more about its source?

Antonio Garcia Martinez takes us on a four-year, inside-tour of Silicon Valley and San Francisco, an autobiography of life in the Valley: long-winded, discursive, sarcastic, cynical, opinionated, and always hilarious.

Martinez, an admitted “gleeful contrarian,” presents fascinating characters with enormous egos, from Zuck (Mark Zuckerberg), Sheryl (Sandberg), and Gokul (Gokul Rajaram); from start-ups to abrupt shutdowns; along with the organizations that shaped his life: University of California-Berkeley, Goldman Sachs, AdCharm, AdGrok, Facebook, Twitter, and, at last, Ayala, a cutter at anchor at Orcas Island in Puget Sound, prior to her escape into the Pacific Ocean. And people as well — since he is also a human being — including several female partners and two young children.

So exactly what is this “Valley?”

“It’s a society,” the author explains, “in which all men and women live in their own self-contained bubble, unattached to traditional anchors like family or religion, and largely unperturbed by outside social forces like income inequality or the Syrian Civil War.

‘Take it light, man’ elevated to life philosophy. Ultimately, the Valley attitude is an empowered anomie turbo-charged by selfishness, respecting some nominal ‘feel-good’ principals of progress or collective technological striving, but in truth pursuing a continual self-development refracted through the capitalist prism: hippies with a capitalization table and a vesting schedule.”

Wow!

His characters display both greed and credibility: they “ … spend their lives in a blizzard of meetings interspersed with email breaks.”

And what are the “chaos monkeys” of his title? They are the “software tools to test a product or a website’s resilience against random serve failures.” Beware the system!

Yet Martinez sees this mélange as being composed of human beings after all, noting, “The tech start-up scene for all its pretensions of transparency, principled innovation, and a counter-culture renouncement of pressed shirts and staid social convention, is actually a surprisingly reactionary crowd.” It is one “wired on caffeine, fear, and greed at all times.” And Facebook, Twitter, and Google have become “all-consuming new” religions. Technology is the Soma of our time.

Despite this cynicism, Martinez cannot help but admire Mark Zuckerberg: “I submit he was an old-school genius, the fiery force of nature possessed by a tutelary spirit of seemingly supernatural provenance that fuels and guides him, intoxicates his circle, and compels his retinue to be great as well …  The keeper of a messianic vision that, though mercurial and stinting on specifics, presents an overwhelming and all-consuming picture of a new and different world … the church of a new religion.”

The author suggests we consider similar leaders in history: Jefferson, Napoleon, Alexander, Joseph Smith, Jim Jones, and L. Ron Hubbard. The leaders and followers in the Valley are simply part of that natural human urge to believe and to be part of something bigger than oneself.

But the Martinez story doesn’t fade into a glowing future. Following Robert Frost’s admonition, the author in early 2016 concludes “a man occasionally reaches a fork in life’s road.”

His last sentence predicts a completely different future: “Thus do I bow off this stumbled-upon stage, hopefully forever, and disappear into the heaving swells of the Pacific Ocean, the only such sanctuary from social mediation we’ll soon have left.”

Sail on, skipper! I give you joy of your decision.

Editor’s Note: ‘Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley’ by Antonio Garcia Martinez, is published by HarperCollins, New York 2016.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Notes From Old Lyme: Life on the Marsh and Other Essays’ by Sydney M. Williams

Another neighbor turns to words, to look at where and how we live.

Sydney Williams, formerly of Smith’s Neck in Old Lyme and now of Essex, gives us an engaging and thoughtful autobiography and personal peregrination, in fits and starts (brief essays), leading us from Madison, CT and Peterborough, NH, to Massachusetts, New Hampshire again, the U.S. Army, Greenwich, CT, New York City and on to Old Lyme, with side excursions to California, Colorado and Austria.

It is, as he calls it, “a memory of mindfulness” stimulated by “time to think,” a great asset of old age!

Williams is ever humorous and self-effacing as he draws us into his history using “The Great Outdoors,” “The World at Large,” “Books” (he is a voracious reader and quoter), and “Family and Friends.”

His analogies pop up on almost every page. A marsh is a “cacophony” of sight and sound, creatures and vegetation. The sea “as calm as a toad in the sun.” That one reminds me of a recent haiku of my own:

October Reverie
Glistening green toad,
Snoozing on the hot tarmac:
Sound of tires ahead?

Often a subtle jab: “On occasion we have caught sight of weasels, which, while common in Washington, are rarely seen in our marsh.”

He apologizes for his longest essay (11 pages) of political musings in which he bemoans the excessive partisanship and incivility in today’s governmental climate, the “fiction” of representative government (he suggests term limits on all elected offices, especially those in Washington), and stresses “the importance of  confronting differing opinions” with reason, candor, and civility. We live, he suggests, in “a world marked with uncertainty.”

Sydney Williams’s essays also stimulate personal reflections: I too have experienced education in New Hampshire (Concord vs. Durham), working the the bowels of New York City (I lasted but three years!), skiing at Vail, climbing Marin County’s Mt. Tamalpais, summers on the Jersey Shore (Mantoloking vs. Rumson), and residences in western and eastern Connecticut (Rowayton vs. Greenwich). But the most remarkable coincidence is that of rowing: Williams describes his paddling a single scull on the Lieutenant River, while I have rowed Hamburg Cove, the Connecticut River, Selden Creek, and Rogers Lake. He describes his rowing as being “almost Zen-like.” My car’s bumper sticker describes it as “kinetic meditation.”

He also refers to Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, the subject of another Old Lyme writer, Richard Conniff, a review of whose House of Lost Worlds appeared on LymeLine.com on Aug. 22, 2016.

Read on, neighbors, and do check out Sydney Williams’s blog: www.swtotd@blogspot.om for his weekly observations.

Editor’s Note: ‘Notes, From Old Lyme: Life on the Marsh and Other Essays’ by Sydney M. Williams is published by Bauhan Publishing, Peterborough, NH 2016.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Divergent Paths – The Academy and the Judiciary’ by Richard A. Posner

Judge and Professor Posner explores the apparent diverging paths of our judiciary, especially the Federal, from the academies that teach our would-be lawyers, some of them advancing to become judges. This is a sobering view. Forgive me for an extensive quote, but it summarizes in one page the 400 pages of his thesis:

“ . . . at this writing the United States exhibits an unprecedented array of failed social systems. The political system is in disarray – Congress is a mess, the executive branch poorly managed. The Supreme Court bears some of the responsibility for congressional malfunction because of its refusal to allow reasonable limitations on campaign expenditures and its refusal to outlaw, as a denial of equal protection of the laws, political gerrymandering.

Likewise in disarray is the medical industry (as in matters of cost and coverage, preventive medicine, and the care of the elderly and the poor); also education (other than in the elite private and public high schools and the elite colleges and universities), public pensions, immigration, federal taxation, and the nation’s transportation infrastructure.

Our prison systems and our criminal laws (especially sentencing) are an international disgrace, and the judges, including federal judges, are complicit. A number of state and local governments are seriously underfinanced. Our foreign and national security policies are pervaded by a degree of indecision unseen since the 1930s. Although admired by most Americans, our armed forces are plagued by serious cost, competence, and leadership problems.

Economic inequality has reached a dangerous level. There are too many guns in private hands. Conflict between religious and secular views on issues of public policy such as abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, and the teaching of evolution is increasingly bitter. The government cannot get a handle on global warming or environmental regulation generally.

There are sectional tensions, racial and ethnic tensions along with sexual and religious ones, regulatory failures everywhere, bureaucratic incompetence, widespread corruption and fraud both public and private, and a weakening of family structure as reflected in the greatly increased prevalence of single-parent households. One can hardly expect the federal judiciary to be completely immune from so pervasive a national malaise, and it isn’t.

And this analysis was written before the death of Justice Scalia and the election of the loud-mouthed, newly elected president.

Is there any hope for us?

But there is!

From what he calls this gallimaufry (a confused jumble of things), Judge Posner extracts, first, notable deficiencies in our judicial system, followed later by his numerous suggestions for change. He is not an “originalist,” one who puts his faith entirely in earlier mandates such as our Constitution. “As society changes, so must the law,” is his thesis. He also acknowledges his own missteps: “Very wrong was I!” and “I don’t have a solution to this problem.”

At the end of Chapter 6, he summarizes his 55 “problems” and 48 reasonable and doable “solutions.” Best yet is his quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “certitude is not the test of certainty. We have been cocksure of many things that were not so  …  And this again means skepticism.” With this admonition in mind, Posner gives us a note of optimism.

Posner attributes much of our judicial problem to the “adversarial” nature of our system, in which lawyers tee off against one another in the courtroom, with judges as observers. He prefers the European “inquisitorial” approach, not in the sense of the Spanish Inquisition, but rather in the sense of judges acting as questioners and researchers, a third voice in the hearings.

He optimistically sees “the law” as a fluid, evolving instrument that “does not have a solid foundation. It is ultimately a collection of rules and procedures, highly malleable, often antiquated, often contestable, often internally conflicted, for managing social conflict – a set of aging, blunt tools.” Both we and the law can and should evolve. That is why we have judges, to help in interpretation.

But I do have a minor qualm with his writing. About halfway through his argument, he suggests a “good judicial opinion requires:

  1. No jargon.
  2. No footnotes.
  3. Forget citation form.
  4. Delete every superfluous word.
  5. Use adverbs and adjectives sparingly.
  6. Avoid section headings.
  7. Be grammatical.
  8. Brevity.
  9. Be candid as well as truthful.”

These are excellent admonitions, straight from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. But Posner often fails to follow his own advice! Take footnotes, for example. In the 403 pages of his exegesis, he gives us 453 (!) footnotes, one of which is more than a page long. They are useful, perhaps, to legal minds, but to the uninitiated?

He frequently utilizes the word “utilization” instead of the simpler “use.” And he is the archbishop of parenthetical phrases, often inserting two or three within a single sentence (I confess to doing this myself – this one being an example.) His very last and very first sentences include those diverting asides. Am I being too pedantic? No. I fully agree with Posner’s recommendations.

Despite my minor reservations, Judge Posner’s analysis of our aging judicial system should be required reading.

Editor’s Note: ‘Divergent Paths’ by Richard A. Posner, is published by Harvard U. Press, Cambridge 2016.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year-resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics’ by Richard Thaler

This is the engaging story of the development and rise to practical significance of “behavioral economics,” the recognition that we “Humans” (as Professor Thaler calls us) are inevitably flawed in our dealing with finance and the market. It is also the personal biography of the author, along with many of the most important thinkers of the past 50 years.

The idea that our financial markets are “efficient,” as suggested by the “Econs,” the gurus we followed for many years, is destroyed by the realities of the human brain. First came Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who discovered our innate aversion to loss. Thaler notes that “ … losses hurt about twice as much as gains make you feel good,” noting, “Loss aversion has become the single-most powerful tool in the behavioral economist’s arsenal.”

But, Thaler also warns that, “… people who are threatened with big losses and have a chance to break even will be unusually willing to take risks, even if they are normally risk averse. Watch out!”

We need to be far more aware of the vagaries of the human mind when trying to guide ourselves and others toward the best balance of risk and reward: “The bottom line is that in many situations in which agents are making poor choices, the person who is misbehaving is often the principal, not the agent. The misbehavior is in failing to create an environment in which employees feel that they can take good risks and not be punished if the risks do not pay off.”

Unfortunately, we all tend to follow the herd: “It is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.” Many years ago, IBM tried a better idea: it created a “Skunk Works” (from Al Capp’s L’il Abner cartoon) where employees with new and uncommon ideas could use corporate funds and help to work them out. If they succeeded, glory. If not, they could return, without blame, to their former employment.

Thaler’s sense of humor is always evident. Instead of watching our investment portfolios too closely, a uniformly bad habit, he suggests doing a crossword puzzle instead. He made a correct prediction about the collapse of the market in 2008: “Having made that one correct prediction, I am resolving not to make any more.”

And in American football, he urges teams to do the unexpected, such as “going for it” on fourth down. It changes the psychology on both sides echoing the, “And now for something completely different,” from Monty Python.

Thaler’s language is distinctly non-academic, a pleasure to read. He quotes Douglas Bernheim (2002): “As an economist, one cannot review the voluminous literature on taxation and saving without being somewhat humbled by the enormous difficulty of learning anything useful about even the most basic empirical questions.”

The last third of the book details the writing and reception of Nudge, the 2008 book he co-authored with Cass Sunstein. Their original title was “libertarian paternalism,” abbreviated, thank goodness, to “nudge,” the idea that we can encourage someone to do something that is in their best interests, by making it slightly easier.

At the end, Thaler asks “What Is Next?” He answers: “the only sensible prediction is to say what happens will surely surprise us.” Behavioral economics, the role of humans in what we do and how we live, is critical to both strategic and tactical planning.

And I did find a word I’ve never seen before: “corybantic.” It means frenzied, agitated, unrestrained: exactly how some human respond when their traditional beliefs and ideals are challenged.

Editor’s Note: ‘Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics’ by Richard Thaler is published by W. W. Norton & Co., New York 2015

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year-resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘The Invention of Nature’ by Andrea Wulf

the_invention_of_natureFor those who attended this year’s Florence Griswold Museum-sponsored Samuel Thorne Memorial Lecture, which took place on Nov. 12, this month’s book review will ring significant bells. Not entirely by coincidence, we venture, our esteemed reviewer, Felix Kloman of Lyme, selected ‘The Invention of Nature’ as his book of choice this month and its author — Andrea Wulf — was the speaker at this year’s lecture .

Who was Alexander von Humboldt, the subject of this engrossing new biography? I must admit I had only a fleeting memory of his name, but for many in the 1900s, he was acknowledged as a major icon of the previous century in science and philosophy. Humboldt was a well-born Prussian, and Wulf’s story of his life is one of an intensely curious man whose travels, meetings and writings influenced many of the key thinkers of those years.

Consider these names: Johan von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, Simon Bolivar, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Ernest Haeckel, Joseph Banks, and George Perkins Marsh. This biography is an exultation of interconnections!

And connectivity was the theme of Humboldt’s life: “Everything seemed somehow connected – an (early) idea that would come to shape his thinking about the natural world for the rest of his life.” Nature, to him, was a “web of life and a global force … with plants and animals dependent on each other.” This “urge to understand nature, globally, as a network of forces and interrelationships” generated “ferocious activity” for his entire life.

It began with his remarkable initial expedition to South America, including a climb to the top of Chimborazo, an inactive volcano in what is now Ecuador, a search for a link to the Amazon River, then walking in Mexico and Cuba, and, finally, a visit to President Thomas Jefferson in Washington. As a note on those times, it took Humboldt and his fellow traveler three and a half days to move from Philadelphia to the capital city.

While he yearned to travel again to South America, and then to Asia, and Africa, his shortage of funds allowed him only one other extensive tour, from Prussia to Russia and its border with China. But he never lost his curiosity, even while writing his journals, publishing a later masterpiece of his thinking, Cosmos, and forever trading correspondence and ideas with everyone he had met.

Wulf writes “comparison not discovery was his guiding theme,” and Humboldt issued an early warning of three ways in which the human species adversely affected the climate, based on his travels: deforestation, “ruthless irrigation,” and the “great masses of steam and gas produced in the industrial countries.” Almost two centuries later, we still have not learned …

Charles Darwin and Humboldt had frequent communication, in person and through letters. They shared, according to the author, a “flexibility perspective … telescopic and microscopic, sweepingly panoramic and down to the cellular levels, and moving in times from the distant geological past to the future economy of native populations.”

Humboldt was an outspoken critic of colonialism and slavery, but he had to be cautious as he remained under the financial support of Prussian royalty. Those years featured the turmoil of revolutions, as Europe and the Americas shifted from absolute despotisms to emerging democracies, and often back again.

Wulf’s entrancing biography is reading history through the vision of one extraordinary man who saw “harmony in diversity.” Would that we had listened more closely to his words …

Editor’s Note: ‘The Invention of Nature’ by Andrea Wulf is published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2015

Felix Kloman_headshot_2005_284x331-150x150About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Master and Commander’ by Patrick O’Brian

mastercommanderWhy is it that a fourth re-reading of this magnificent story of the Napoleonic Wars seems even more delicious than the first time around? There are 21 novels in this series and I’ve embarked on another voyage. “I give you joy,” as these sailors say to each other.

From listening to Locatelli’s C major quartet, that almost causes a duel, to the concluding words of acquittal in a naval court martial, we live life at sea with Jack Aubrey, the naval commander, but not quite yet a “Captain,” and the polymath physician and spy Stephen Maturin, an Irish-Catalan.

O’Brian uses a rich language that drives you to the dictionary. Ships and boats: frigate, ship-of-the line, sloop, long-boat, cutter, gig, jolly-boat, felucca, tartan, xebec, poluccas houario, barca-longa, bean-cod, cat, and herring-bus. Birds: upupa, epop (or hoopoe), ibis, mareotic grallatore. A flower: dianthus perfragans. An ant: tapinoma erraticum. Of an acquaintance, Maturin says: “I would not call him a gremial friend” (from the Latin, not a “close” friend).

And humor: a Frenchman sailed slowly “no doubt for fear of tripping over the lines of longitude.” Jack Aubrey trying to sound literate: “Alas, poor Borwick.” His sloop “the Sophie reeked of grilled sardines and fresh paint.” The sun shone “with idiot good humor.”

Or the two page delightful description of Maturin watching the mating of two praying mantises, the female then devouring the head and thorax of the male as the male ‘copulated on!” His conclusion: “You do not need a head, nor even a heart, to be all a female can require.”

On the word “death” in the English Articles of War, to be regularly read to the ship’s crew: “ . . . death had a fine, comminatory Leviticus ring, and the crew took a grave (my italics!) pleasure in it all. . . . “ I can hear O’Brian chuckling as he wrote that line.

Jack Aubrey is always urging speed: “There is not a minute to lose.” He repeats this counsel more than six times in this novel (and it is repeated in all the rest!)

And here is Maturin’s take on the human condition: “It seems to me that the greater mass of confusion and distress must arise from these less evident divergencies – the moral law, the civil, military, common laws, the code of honour, custom, the rules of practical life, of civility, of amorous conversation, gallantry, to say nothing of Christianity for those who practise it. All sometimes, indeed generally, at variance; none ever in an entirely harmonious relation to the rest; and a man is perpetually required to choose one rather than another perhaps (in his particular case) its contrary. It is as though our strings were each tuned according to a completely separate system – it is as though the poor ass were surrounded by four and twenty mangers.”

To which Jack Aubrey commented: “You are an antinomian.”

And Stephen Maturin replied: “I am a pragmatist.” A perfect description of the chaos two centuries later!

Finally, the author tossed a delightful tidbit my way, when Jack Aubrey said “ . . . how happy, felix, you would make me.” Yes, this Felix is basking in the delight of O’Brian’s words, looking forward to his fourth re-read of the remaining twenty novels.

Editor’s Note: ‘Master and Commander’ by Patrick O’Brian,  is published by W. W. Norton & Co., New York 1990 (first published in UK 1970.)

Felix Kloman_headshot_2005_284x331-150x150About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Lafayette in the “Somewhat” United States’ by Sarah Vowell

lafayette-in-the-somewhat-united-statesThis quote describes Sarah Vowell’s new interpretation of our history: “… I like to use whatever is lying around to paint pictures of the past …”

The Marquis de Lafayette just happens to be her tool in this decidedly non-academic, irreverent, and often sarcastic interpretation of the effect that a rich 19-year-old French aristocrat had on our so-called “Revolution.”

Her prose is idiomatic, unpretentious, and humorous – two jokes a page! She sees our colonists as “state-sponsored terrorists, with French financial backing.” The Americans? “A squirming polygon of civilians, politicians and armed forces begging to differ.”

And she concludes: “That, to me, is the quintessential experience of living in the United States: constantly worrying whether or not the country is about to fall apart.”

Is it true that Justice Scalia read this book just before he died of apoplexy?

Ms. Vowell traces the rush of a young man from Paris to these shores, whose persuasive words and evident riches made him a general in the revolutionary forces, a youngster who rushed into battles with little experience and who contributed to the “patriot soap opera” that was our revolutionary period.

This is the seamy, seedy, and often-hilarious underside of “the ironically named ‘United’ States” and their Revolution, one that Ms. Vowell calls “FUBAR!” (I had to look that one up in Google: it means “f—ed up beyond all recognition”).

Hers is a re-interpretation of our past, richly intermixed with her current opinions.

For example:  “To establish such a forthright dream of decency, who wouldn’t sign up to shoot at a few thousand Englishmen, just as long as Mr. Bean wasn’t among them? Alas, from my end of history there’s a big file cabinet blocking the view of the sweet-natured republic Lafayette foretold, and it’s where the guvment (sic) keeps the folders full of Indian treaties, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and NSA-monitored electronic messages pertinent to national security, which is apparently all of them, including the one in which I ask my mom for advice on how to get a red Sharpie stain out of couch upholstery.”

She manages to get in asides on everything: Chris Christie’s “Bridgegate” at Fort Lee (the town was named during the Revolution) and “… it must quiet the mind of Bruce Willis that even though his fellow Americans never nominated him for an Oscar, the French awarded him the Legion d’Honneur.” Another one on General Washington, who was six feet four inches tall: “Still it does get on my nerves how easy it is for tall people to make a good first impression.”

Why did the French want to support us? They had just recently been tossed out of Canada, retaining only the island of St. Pierre and Miquelon (they are still part of France …) and leaving a taste of language in Quebec. So why not send some young aristocrats to these shores, along with a few troops and some naval vessels? They agreed with many of the colonists that the Brits were “pig-headed Anglo-Saxon islanders.”

Yet this historical perambulation is an animated read. No chapter breaks, so it becomes a continuous ramble through early American history using the author’s distinctly tinted glasses. Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times called it a “cutesy-pie book.” Perhaps she is right, but its melange of historical and personal tidbits, from past and present, make it a fun trip.

Editor’s Note: ‘Lafayette in the “Somewhat” United States’ by Sarah Vowell is published by Riverhead Books, New York 2015.

Felix Kloman_headshot_2005_284x331-150x150About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘The Best of Saki’ by H.H. Munro

The_Best_of_SakiYet another trip to our home library to retrieve an aging paperback read many years ago.

Hector Hugh Munro, the English author also known as “Saki,” wrote these delicious satirical skewerings of the English upper classes just before the First World War. Despite the enormous changes that have taken place since then, in Blighty and the rest of the world, these 49 short stories remain pungent, pithy and provoking, stirring regular outbursts of noisy laughter.

Do read them on your spring porch or in a secluded back room, otherwise your spouse may think you’ve lost it (again!)

Munro’s first admonition: beware all aunts: they are forever dangerous and demanding.

Then revel in his extraordinary names, such as Mavis Tellington, Loona Bimberton, Arlington Stringham, Lestor Slagby, Brimley Bomefields, Crefton Lockyer, Septimus Brope, Groby Lington, Sir Lulworth Quayne, Dora Bittholz, Framton Nuttel, Bassel Harrowcluff, Kenelm Jertom, Jane Thropplestance, James Cushat-Prinkly, Octavian Ruttle and, perhaps best of all, Crispina Umberleigh. I wish we’d had these names at hand before we named our children. Loona and Crispina for the ladies; Crefton and Framton for the boys!

Just a few quotes:

  • “It is the penalty and safeguard of genius that it computes itself by troy weight in a world that measured by vulgar hundredweight.”
  • “There was something alike terrifying and piteous in the spectacle of these frail old morsels of humanity (two old ladies) consecrating their last flickering energies to the task of making each other wretched.”
  • “ … (He) discovered how the loss of one’s respect affects one when one has gained the esteem of the world.”
  • He was “feverishly engrossed in the same medley of elaborate futilities that had claimed his whole time and energies …”
  • He was “one of those lively cheerful individuals on whom amiability had set its unmistakable stamp, and, like most of his kind, his soul’s peace depended in large measure on the unstinted approval of his fellows.”

Do step into the past of Merrie Olde England for a few hours.

Editor’s Note: ‘The Best of Saki’ by H. H. Munro was published by Picador, London 1976.

Felix Kloman_headshot_2005_284x331-150x150About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life’ by Edward O. Wilson

Half_EarthEdward O. Wilson, the remarkable professor emeritus at Harvard, who is known for his studies of ants, for the third time asks, “Who are we?” His first question was partially answered in The Social Conquest of Earth (2012) in which he analyzed the confusion of human existence, as our convoluted and introspective species tries to come to grips with our brief existence. Two years later, in The Meaning of Human Existence (2104), he described how, either deliberately or inadvertently, we are destroying other species even as we begin to recognize that we depend on them as much as they depend on us.

Now, concluding his trilogy, Wilson suggests a possible plan of action for homo sapiens. He continues his habit of short, punchy chapters, only one of 20 pages and most of 10 or less, even one of three. Instead of plunging into more verbiage, the reader must pause and think. His thesis: in order to survive we must commit “half of the planet’s surface to nature” in order to save “the immensity of life forms that compose it,” including us. A tall order, but is it possible?

Wilson begins with this earth’s extensive history of life extinctions. We’re lucky to be here! Should we worry? After all, the oldest major “extinction event,” at the end of the Ordovician period, happened some 455 million years ago and the most recent was a mere 66 million years back, when an enormous asteroid crunched into the Yucatan. Are we now coming close to a “Sixth Extinction”, the end of the current Anthropocene Era, as so clearly described by Elizabeth Kolbert in her The Sixth Extinction (2014)? Both Kolbert and Wilson recite alarming facts, plus suppositions, about our human relationships with other living creatures, large and small, on this earth. Are we the ultimate problem? They seem to think so.

To begin, “our population is too large for safety and comfort.” It is time to reduce, not expand, our footprint. “The biosphere does not belong to us; we belong to it.” But to acknowledge that, we must “… find our way as quickly as possible out of the fever swamp of dogmatic religious belief and inept philosophical thought.” We still understand too little about other species: some two million are “known” but there are perhaps some five to 100 million yet to be discovered. It is this enormous biodiversity that is the strength of this planet.

What then to do? Wilson suggests “… in order to save biodiversity it is necessary to understand how species interact with one another to form ecosystems.” But our enormous egos (and religions) tell us we are “Number One” when we are actually a small part of the action. His Solution: “Increase the area of inviolable natural resources to half the Earth or greater.” This will require a “fundamental shift in moral reasoning concerning our relation to the living environment.” We must “reduce the amount of space required to meet all the needs of an average person … habitation, fresh water, food production and delivery, personal transportation, communication, governance, other public functions (i.e. education), medical support, burial, and entertainment.” And note that this “average person” now lives in Asia and Africa as well as Europe and North America, with enormous current differences.

How will this take place? Here in Lyme, our Lyme Land Conservation Trust (www.lymelandtrust.org) has preserved in some fashion 3,000 acres of land and water resources in our small town. It and comparable efforts in this country and around the world are effective bottom-up programs. But Professor Wilson argues that these are not enough: we will need top-down guidance plus massive re-education for everyone. Is this economically possible? Do we have a choice?

Professor Wilson is obviously an optimist: “So we stumble forward in hopeful chaos.” Elizabeth Kolbert had her own conclusion: “The history of life consists of long periods of boredom interrupted occasionally by panic.”

Half-Earth and its sister volumes should be required reading for all of us. Perhaps we can wake up and change.

Editor’s Note: ‘Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life’ by Edward O. Wilson is published by W. W. Norton, New York 2016.

Felix Kloman_headshot_2005_284x331-150x150About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Rogue Lawyer’ by John Grisham

Rogue_Lawyer_John_GrishamGrisham opens with a familiar sentence: “My name is Sebastian Rudd.”  See similarly Melville and Moby Dick’s: “Call me Ishmael” or the more recent: “Je suis Charlie.”

He gives us short, pithy sentences (no Proust here), replete with a sarcastic, cynical view of the underside of American society. A political screed, too: our legal system is all fouled up. The novel confirms the basic thesis of Dan Ariely’s ‘The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty’ — that we are all basically and instinctively dishonest, at least to some degree, especially when we see dishonesty in others.

Few really likable characters and the entire scene is gloomy. Characters are also outlandish — a totally lesbian law firm; police, judges, prosecutors, jurors, defendants all easily bought; non-communication at dinner; a martial arts fighter gone berserk; a protagonist (hardly a “hero”), who himself slips into dishonesty.

And the scenes — a last-minute reprieve; a last-minute escape; militaristic police; a convoluted law case in which every string is pulled; and a protagonist who disappears into the ether at the very end, leaving many loose ends (including a son).

But, despite all these qualms, this is an utterly engrossing book for an evening reader!

Editor’s Note: Rogue Lawyer by John Grisham is published by Doubleday, New York 2015.

Felix Kloman_headshot_2005_284x331-150x150About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘The Court and the World’ by Stephen Breyer

The_Court&the_WorldShould our Supreme Court be a pragmatic, flexible, problem-solving institution or should it continue to rely on the distant past to address today’s challenges?

Stephen Breyer, perhaps our most articulate and thoughtful Supreme Court Justice, discusses in his latest study “the new challenges imposed by an ever more interdependent world,” asking how we should “interpret” our 18h century Constitution in the 21st century. He is both concise and compelling on the general themes of the rule of law and “the need for courts to listen to ‘many voices ‘. “

The judge suggests we discontinue our perpetual deification of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and its Bill of Rights, which may well have led to numerous serious mistakes: the ethnic cleansing of native Americans and war-mongering (citing the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, the Vietnam War, and the Iraq War II, among others). Is, for example, our foreign policy, including going to war and security, solely the responsibility of the executive and legislative branches of government, and not the judiciary? Is this an outmoded 18th century idea?

Breyer goes on to dissect the “worst Court decisions in U. S. history:” Dred Scott (confirmation of slavery), Plessy vs. Ferguson(confirmation of state racial segregation), and Korematsu (approving the interning of Japanese-Americans).  These show we require some external ideas to modify our domestic prejudices.

Since 1787 we’ve entered into many international agreements, such as the Geneva Convention, the United Nations, NATO, and the World Trade Organization.  “In an intensely interdependent world facing global threats that are likely to last a generation or more (particularly terrorism), special security needs are no longer as intermittent or short-lived as they once were.” Our Afghanistan War is the longest in our history …

Add to this the growing complexity of international commerce: “ … the reality of modern-day commerce: national markets are now so interconnected and integrated that the most ordinary commercial transactions can involve a host of different activities and entities across the globe.” This leads to a “judicial need for information about foreign practices, rules, laws, and procedures.” We should try to stimulate the “laws of different nations” to “work together in harmony.” Better to argue than shoot each other.

Judge Breyer concludes, “Today’s Court should not base its answer to the kinds of questions illustrated here by reference solely (my italics) to the facts and conclusions of eighteenth century society.” The goal of the “rule of law” is to acknowledge that it is always in flux: “ … the rule of law prevents the opposite – namely the arbitrary, the autocratic, the despotic, the unreasonable, the dictatorial, the illegal, the unjust, and the tyrannical.” The reviewer in The New York Times had a succinct observation — “Democracy has never been a nativist straitjacket.”

History is the “sustained struggle against arbitrariness.”  So the good judge gives us no conclusion. “There are no easy answers to this question.” We must continue “our conversations,” as our Court does.

A most thoughtful and stimulating read.

Editor’s Note: ‘The Court and the World’ by Stephen Breyer is published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2015

Felix Kloman_headshot_2005_284x331-150x150About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘The Medusa and the Snail’ by Lewis Thomas

medusa&SnailStep back, once again, to read the questions posed by a thoughtful physician. Dr. Thomas presents us with some 29 brief, challenging, curious, skeptical, and often humorous essays on the human condition. They inevitably raise more questions than answers:

  • Why do we feel euphoria when watching small animals going about their work? (I ask this after sitting on our deck, wondering why our squirrels and chipmunks are forever so industrious.)
  • Do ants as a group “think?’ (Edward O. Wilson may answer than one)
  • Where do we fit in this “inter-collaborative system” called earth?
  • Why are mistakes the essential elements of life?
  • Should we play Bach before all committee meetings?
  • Why do we meddle so much?
  • Why are commas useful?

Those questions along should encourage a re-reading of the good Dr. Thomas, who died in 1993 after serving many years as head of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

Some further jewels:

  • “All the forms of life are connected.” The earth is a “system of interacting, intercommunicating components that, as a group, act or operate individually and jointly to achieve a common goal through the concerted activity of the individual parts.”
  • “We are components in a dense, fantastically complicated system of life; we are enmeshed in the inter-living, and we really don’t know what we’re up to.”
  • “We are … worrying animal. We worry away our lives, fearing the future, discontent with the present, unable to take in the idea of dying, unable to sit still.”(Doesn’t this describe our responses to world events in 2015?)
  • “Man has always been a specifically anxious creature with an almost untapped capacity for worry; it is a gift that distinguishes him from other forms of life.”
  • On human surprise: “ … we have a whole eternity of astonishment stretching out ahead of us.” “It seems to me the safest and most prudent of bets [is] to lay money on surprise.”

If these brief quotes intrigue you, read this book, plus some of his other works: The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974) and Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983).

Editor’s Note: ‘The Medusa and the Snail’ by Lewis Thomas is published by Viking, New York 1979.

Felix Kloman_headshot_2005_284x331-150x150About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘The Wild Places’ by Robert Macfarlane

The_Wild_Places_by_Robert_MacFarlaneLast year, at our son’s suggestion, I read and reviewed with enthusiasm Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways (2012), his recounting of extensive walks in Great Britain, Spain, Palestine, and Tibet (see LymeLine.com review of Oct. 12, 2014.) That led me to his Landmarks (2015) and now to an earlier work, The Wild Places.

What begins as a eulogy for our disappearing wilderness becomes an elegy, even a celebration of remoteness, privacy and “the wild.” But the reply of the wild, wherever he finds it, at the remote corners of the British Isles or in his own Cambridge backyard, is “reports of my demise are premature!”

Macfarlane, a don at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, mixes remarkable research, reading and language, to explore both geographic and intellectual wildness. On his perambulations, he is always picking up small rocks, leaves, stems, feeling them, admiring them, and saving them for his library. He links every trek with apt, far-ranging quotations from a global entourage of writers. And his words, what words …

Consider:

  • “ideas like waves have fetches.”
  • The sky a “slurless blue”
  • The “grain of the mind”
  • “a row of hawthorns quaffed eastwards by the onshore winds”
  •  the “krekking of a raven”
  • “small waders – knots, plovers, turnstones – form their palping jellyfish-like shoals”
  • “a gang of rooks chakked over the corn stubble”
  • “I had a heptic memory, too.”
  • A rock that was “knapped out.”

Do you recognize any of the places he visited: Ynys Enlli (Scotland), Coruisk (Isle of Skye), Rannoch Moor (near Glencoe), Black Wood (east of Rannoch Moor), Cape Wrath (Scotland north coast), the Holloways (Dorset), Orford Ness (Suffolk), and Burren (north of County Clare, Ireland)? Macfarlane comes to acknowledge that wildness is often found close to home. How many of us know Hog Pond (the old name), Cedar Pond, Brown Hill, Joshua Rocks, Whalebone Creek, Nickerson Hill, Moulson’s Pond, Oliver’s Hole or Rat Island?

Wildness, to this professor, is “a quality to be vanquished and to be cherished.” It has “implications of disorder and irregularity” but it is also “an expression of independence from human direction … containing an energy both exemplary and exquisite.” Wild places remind us “of the narrow limits of human perception, of the provisionality of (our) assumptions about the world.”  Our response: “a brief blazing perception of the world’s disinterest” in what we humans have created — they give us “this sense of the human presence as being something temporary.”

Fellow wanderers appear.  Macfarlane asks a “Helen” to join a walk seeking birds: falcons, tiercels, ospreys, goshawks, and peregrines. None other than Helen Macdonald, also a professor at Cambridge, whose H Is For Hawk I enjoyed earlier this year.

The Wild Places reminded me of my own traipsing along the public footpaths of West Sussex and the South Downs, in the fall of 1978, and along the wanderwegs of St. Gallen and the Appenzell in Switzerland in the 1980s and 1990s. Plus the trails of Nehantic State Forest in the 1990s …

Macfarlane suggests wildness is an attribute to be carefully enjoyed, with both sight and sound: “rooks haggled in the air above the trees … the noise of the wood in the wind; a soft marine road. It was the immense compound noise of friction – of leaf fretting on leaf, and branch rubbing on branch.”

His admonitions: listen and look. Wildness may be close at hand.

Editor’s Note: The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane was published by Penguin, New York, 2007.

Felix Kloman_headshot_2005_284x331-150x150About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History’ by Francis O’Gorman

Worrying_“What if … ?” This is the key question that confronts all worriers, their dominant question about an ever-uncertain future. Professor O’Gorman, who teaches at the University of Leeds (U.K.) readily admits he is a worrier, and, in this slim volume (163 pages) he deftly probes, with humility plus good humor, the various definitions, strategies, relevant observations, advantages, and consolations, concluding with some fatalism that there may be little he can do about his condition. He actually begins with his end, “If we can’t ‘cure’ worry, we can venture to understand it – for better or worse.”

Here is his definition: “Worry is a form of fretfulness, of mental uncertainty and persistently tremulous bother,” the “fretful evaluations of the options in our life.” English has many synonyms: fretting, anxiety, bother, concern, fidgeting, doubt, nervousness, apprehension, and perplexity. Rodgers and Hart expressed them well in their hit song from Pal Joey (1940), “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered.”

The dictionary’s verb is defined as “to feel uneasy or concerned about something,” but it also has an alternative “to pull or tear at something, as with the teeth.” It is when normal worry disintegrates into the dog’s work that we become concerned.

So is worry abnormal? For many of us it is a compulsive habit, “part of the fabric of life,” as O’Gorman argues, but too often seen as anti-social. He suggests: “Life is overflowing with opportunities to fret!”

For some of us who are trying to manage organizations facing numerous “risks,” “worry’s primary concern is about an uncertain future or, more exactly, about a future that has some element of the uncertain in it.” Our problem is that one “worry leads to another, and consequential worries.”  And that is unhealthy as too many of us have a “fixed belief that there is, today, something risky about tomorrow.” We end up fearing, not relishing, the future.

Indeed, “daring to be happy is a risk” in itself to a worrier.

Dr. O’Gorman suggests that “worry” also breeds ritual: routines, religions, compulsive habits, not all pleasant.  “The fundamental tenets of the major world religions will look delusional to the skeptic atheist, while seeming the brightest of reality to the believer.” So who is right? What is sanity? The author suggests a re-statement of Descartes’ mantra: “I worry; therefore I am.”

His arguments are ripe with the pertinent and often amusing citations of an enormous range of writers: Bronte, T.S. Eliot, George Eliot, the Bible, Shakespeare, Trollope, Kipling, Auden, Woolf, Joyce, Hardy, Darwin, Gladstone, Descartes, Homer, Mill, Sebald, Boswell, Frost, and, above all, Bach. Plus, of course, numerous academics.

Is reason an antidote for worry? “Reason can gather information. It can enumerate the issues. It can search out matters pertinent to the problem in hand. But the worrier’s reason is notoriously bad at suggesting a way forward.” “Worry’s a kind of mental risk assessment that regularly fails to result in an action plan …”

O’Gorman elaborates, “Our reasoning mind has come, in the contemporary world, to be bogged down in debilitating conditions of fretful decision-making and persistent blame, the grim and politicizing consequences of the apparently innocent and cheering pleasures of choosing.” And, “We run through options, assimilating and listening for the give-away signs of ideas we haven’t listened to. We’re always alert to the snuffling in the undergrowth of bristly problems we’ve not already imagined. We’re analysts who are genuinely good at analyzing even if we take little pleasure in our gifts and frequently fail to adjudicate on the most likely outcomes.”

What is the alternative? Should we all become Doctor Panglosses who exist in this, the most perfect, world? O’Gorman does offer the idea that the “arts” (painting, poetry, and especially music) can divert the worrier, but not permanently. They are, to him, a temporary distraction.

His book was a temporary but thoroughly engaging distraction for me, a non-worrier. I think like Alfred E. Neuman, the cover cartoon character for MAD Magazine, who persistently stated, “What? Me worry?”

I’m also reminded of the classic folk song of the Carter Family, first sung in 1930, “It takes a worried man to sing a worried song.” The last line is the best: “I’m worried now but I won’t be worried long!”

Editor’s Note: Francis O’Gorman, Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History, Bloomsbury, London 2015.

Felix Kloman_headshot_2005_284x331-150x150About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? Ruminations on Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, 1854

With the advent of a new year, this seemed the perfect time to publish this wonderful review by our resident book reviewer and aspiring poet Felix Kloman. Felix looks back at a book published 161 years ago and yet finds contemporary wisdom among its pages, some of which is especially pertinent as we enter 2016.

Walden_by_Henry_David_ThoreauAs my stack of reading dwindled recently to nothingness, by chance I was drawn to my ancient copy of Thoreau’s story of his two-year-long self-proclaimed “exile” to the shores of Massachusetts’ Walden Pond. My re-read was well worth the time.

Some stimulating thoughts from the Massachusetts monk, who sought solitude but could not refrain from talking and writing about it:

  • On a Lyme summer evening’s solitude: “This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore.” I considered this observation as I, too, sat quietly on our Lyme porch, overlooking meadows, our Ely’s Ferry Road, and, closer to hand, our orange-embossed cyphea (pronounced like “goofier,” I am advised by my resident horticulturist), whose juices were being avidly sucked away by several hummingbirds. They actually seemed to squeak after each tongue-licking. As Thoreau concluded “… my serenity is rippled but not ruffled.”
  • On the delights of quiet conversation with a few intelligent friends, reminding me of my regular Friday morning “communions” at Ashlawn Farm Coffee: “Having each some shingles of thought well dried, we sat and whittled them, trying our knives, and admiring the clear yellowish grain of the pumpkin pine. We waded so gently and reverently, or we pulled together so smoothly, that the fishes of thought were not scared from the stream, nor feared by any angler on the bank, but came and went grandly, like the clouds which float through the western sky, and the mother-o’-pearl flocks which sometimes form and dissolve there. There we worked, revising mythology, rounding a fable here and there, and building castles in the air for which earth offered no worthy foundation … To converse with whom was a New England Night’s Entertainment. Ah! Such discourse we had …”
  • On spending too much time worrying: “A man sits as many risks as he runs.” Thoreau went on to explain: “The old and the infirm and the timid, of whatever age or sex, thought most of sickness, and sudden accident and death; to them life seemed full of danger – what danger is there if you don’t think of any? – and they thought that a prudent man would carefully select the safest position.” Has anything changed in the past 161 years? Doesn’t seem like it …
  • As I am an aspiring yet amateur poet, contributing occasional haiku to the Ashlawn Farm cognoscenti, I found reassurance in this from Henry David: “… but nothing can deter a poet  … Who can predict his comings and going?”
  • And, finally, Thoreau’s concluding advice: “ … explore your own higher latitudes … Open new channels, not of trade, but of thought … There are continents and seas in the moral world, to which every man is an isthmus or an inlet, yet unexplored by him …“

Surprises can be enthralling and energizing, if only we anticipate them with pleasure. This is just how I found my re-reading of Walden.

Do try your own re-read.

Felix Kloman_headshot_2005_284x331-150x150About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘The Social Conquest of Earth’ by Edward O. Wilson

SocialConquest_Mech.inddWho are we?

This has been the eternal question of our curious and self-reflective species. Paul Gauguin, in Tahiti in 1897 in his final painting, expanded this question into three: D’ou Venons Nous? Que Sommes Nous? Ou Allons Nous? (Where do we come from? What are we? And where are we going?) As the weather finally begins to cool, it is time for some serious reading …

Edward O. Wilson, the noted Harvard chronicler of ants, has embarked on a trilogy to try and answer all three. The first, The Social Conquest of Earth, addresses the Gauguin threesome in short, pithy chapters, easy for today’s creatures accustomed to electronic social networks. No Proustian rambling for him!

“We have created a Star Wars civilization,” he begins, “with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.” His argument, which represents the story of the evolution of social life and its driving forces, is controversial.

It goes like this: “The social conquerors of Earth” dominate today, but they include not only homo sapiens but also ants, bees, wasps, and termites, species that are possibly more than 100 million years older than us (we emerged several 100,000 years ago, only spreading across this globe over the past 60,000 years). It is altogether probable that these other “eusocial species” — less than two percent of the one million known species — will remain long after we disappear.

Our human condition is both selfish and selfless: “the two impulses are conflated … the worst of our nature coexists with the best, and so it will ever be.” Our “hereditary curse” is “our innate pugnacity … our bloody nature (in which) individuals prefer the company of others of the same race, nation, clan, and religion.”

Wilson continues, “The biological human mind is our province. With all its quirks, irrationality, and risky productions, and all its conflict and inefficiency, the biological mind is the essence and the very meaning of the human condition.”

In answering the question, “What are we?” Wilson explores the origins of culture, language, cultural variation, morality, honor, religions and creative art, suggesting “human beings are enmeshed in social networks.” And in these networks, we express our “relentless ambivalence and ambiguity … the fruits of the strange primate inheritance that rules the human mind.”

Wilson submits that religions are logical hallucinations in response to the ever-unanswered question, determining that, “ … religious faith is better interpreted as an unseen trap unavoidable during the biological history of our species. Humankind deserves better … than surrender and enslavement.”

The final chapter of this engrossing and illuminating exploration asks, “Where are we going?” Do we have free will? Wilson answers his question thus: “We are free as independent beings, but our decisions are not free of all the organic processes that created our personal brains and minds. Free will therefore appears to be ultimately biological.” Are we social creatures? Wilson suggests, ” … group selection (is) the driving force of where we have been and where we are going.”

We, a convoluted and introspective species, live in an “extremely complex biosphere” in which we must respect the “equilibrium created by all the other species, plants, animals, and microorganisms around us.” Failure to do so may mean our collapse or even that of the entire system.

But Wilson concludes on an optimistic note, saying, “Earth, by the twenty-second century, can be turned, if we so wish, into a permanent paradise for human beings, or at least the strong beginnings of one.”

This first philosophical exploration of human existence has been followed by the second, The Meaning of Human Existence, published in early 2015, and the third, The End of the Anthropocene will follow shortly.

Together they require serious reflection.

Editor’s Note: The Social Conquest of Earth, by Edward O.Wilson was published by W. W. Norton & Co., New York 2012.

Felix Kloman_headshot_2005_284x331-150x150About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘H Is For Hawk’ by Helen Macdonald

H_is_for_HawkThe New Yorker ads trumpet admiring words: “Riveting;” “Breathtaking;” Dazzling;” “Captivating.” May I offer a modest dissenting view?

Helen Macdonald’s new novel about her response to the death of her father in England and her adoption of a goshawk to help her overcome her misery is, in fact, an orgy of compulsive introspection. She draws heavily on the earlier history of T. H. White, the author of the Arthurian novels, including The Once and Future King, and, more importantly, his own story of self-awareness, The Goshawk. 

White also tried to tame a bird, much less successfully than Macdonald.  This self-assessment actually becomes a triple biography: of Helen Macdonald, of T. H. White, and of Mabel, the hawk she trains.

Macdonald begins by arguing that “I was a different animal. . . . . Like White, I wanted to cut loose from the world.” She quotes Marianne Moore: “the cure for loneliness is solitude,” just Helen and Mabel. She sees England as “an imaginary place.”

The essence of this book is found is her words: “Sometimes when light dawns it simply illuminates how dismal circumstances have become.” But some 300 pages of gloom?

But Helen Macdonald does write lyrically. Her observant eye notes and her mind translates what she sees into phrases often reminiscent of James Joyce in Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake (the more coherent ones!). The English countryside comes alive with her descriptions: clouds, flowers, grasses, and, above all, birds..

And so does Mabel, her adopted goshawk, come alive, so much so that at the end we are rooting for her future, not Helen’s. She is in fact the one intensely interested in her outside world. The goshawks, ospreys and eagles wheeling in the skies above Lyme make me think of Mabel.

Editor’s Note: ‘H is for Hawk’ is by Helen Macdonald and was published by Grove Press, New York in 2014

Felix Kloman_headshot_2005_284x331-150x150About the author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘The Sympathizer’ by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The_SympathizerHow often do we take sides while harboring a suspicion that the other fellow’s view actually has some merit? Nguyen’s narrator, never named, but referred to as “The Captain,” states his position at the outset: “ … I am also a man of two minds … I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.”
The Captain is a Vietnamese, ostensibly working for the American forces at the tail-end of the Vietnam (or “American,” as it is called there) War, while acting as mole, an undercover agent, for the Vietcong and the northern forces. Born in North Vietnam of a Vietnamese mother and a father who is a Roman Catholic priest, he leaves for the south and is immediately enmeshed in contradictions. One of the first is the obvious double-meaning of the word “father.”
There he becomes part of an unusual three-man team, the “we” of this compelling take: Bon, an ardent anti-communist, Man, an equally committed communist, and The Captain, who deliciously equivocates through the saga. It is, in fact, a perfect elaboration of the yin and yang culture that dominates the Far East, from the I Ching, to Lao Tse and Confucius. Forces seemingly in opposition are in fact complimentary — they cannot exist without one another.
Nguyen, in the role of The Captain, argues men of “utter conviction” are “insufferable,” noting “The General”, to whom the narrator reports, “ … was a sincere man who believed in everything he said, even if it was a lie, which makes him not so different from most.” The narrator then goes on to puncture every conceivable balloon of human fatuity. We live, he claims, in a litany of contradictions.
Witness another character, “The Congressman”, who berates the “controls” of communism but then describes his “democratic” system as even more autocratic, using censorship and control, because, as he says, “Americans are a confused people.” The Captain comments: “ . that omnipresent American narcotic, optimism, the unending flow of which poured through the American minds continuously whitewashing the graffiti of despair, rage, hatred, and a nihilism scrawled by the black hoodlums of the unconscious.”
Here is a delicious story of the last days of that War and what followed in both the United States and Asia. “We are all puppets in someone else’s play.” And the story is often hilarious, too. The Captain describes, in three joyful pages, his attempt to masturbate with a dead squid!
Nguyen ends with yet another double meaning, “Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom,” as The Captain finally realizes the two senses of this phrase. But he remains “the most hopeful of creatures, a revolutionary in search of a revolution.” A thriller in one sense but a social commentary in another and a challenging counterview to this year commemorating the end of that War.
Opposite ideas are indeed complimentary!
Editor’s Note: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen is published by Grove Press, New York 2015.

Felix Kloman_headshot_2005_284x331-150x150About the author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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