September 21, 2018

Reading Uncertainly? “Et Cetera, Et Cetera” by Lewis Thomas,

Awhile back, a conversation at Ashlawn Coffee in Old Saybrook brought up the word “blight,” in connection with a new committee in Old Lyme.

What, indeed, is “blight”?

Is one person’s “ugly condition” possibly a delight for someone else? That brought up the word “Blighty,” a word referring to England, possibly from Urdu and no connection whatsoever with the word “blight.” So do some words we use infrequently mean the same to all of us?

That question, nagging my brain, led me back to a book I had read almost 30 years ago, Lewis Thomas’s Et Cetera, Et Cetera, in which this medical doctor explores the derivation of many of our common words, with great humor and erudition.. Consider: animus, pessimism, snare, sleep, fastidious, scrutiny, pupil, hair, googol (not Google, I might add!), free, music, ethics, and Gaia.

Fascinating.

From their origins in Indo-European, Greek, Latin, and other languages, to today’s usages, these words have evolved almost as much as we homo Sapiens.

Take, for example, the word “presently.”  Some 300 years ago, it was used by the English to mean now or at this moment. Then, in the 18th and 19th centuries in “Old Blighty,” English novelists used it in the sense of the near future. That persisted into the 20th century, but in the last 50 years “presently” seems to have begun to revert to its original sense in many vocabularies.

As Dr. Thomas notes with the word “delight,” “But there is no lasting light in delight; its cognates carry soft warnings of the shadow just ahead.”

His introduction opens our minds to the delight of language: “the mark of being human is speech and the ready use of metaphor, and the evolutionary development of this trait is told, in part, by the history of words … I keep forgetting words. But forgetting is part of the fun, allowing the pleasure of looking them up and being flabbergasted all over again … I turned into an obsessed collector, picking up and storing in the untidy attic of my mind words upon words.”

More salient quotes: “ … something over 90 percent of the remarks made in a day’s turning are essentially idle sounds …  indicating presence, politeness, interest if interest is wanted, readiness to talk,” and  “ … the immense role played by small-talk in keeping discourse going.”  As such, “language is itself the most exhilarating of games, an endless contest in which we are engaged in all our lives, pure fun for the mind.”

Can we as human beings actually learn to live together?

Thomas is cautious about our future: “Right now, because of the noisy triumph of individualism in the last two centuries, and especially because of our collective follies since 1914, we seem to ourselves to have lost the game altogether, on our way to extinction. Good. We will need a few more decades of deep discouragement, casting about for ways to change our behavior toward each other, and then perhaps the notion deep in our collective consciousness will take hold, and we will start changing without realizing that we are transforming ourselves … letting nature, at last, take her course and relying on the language for new guidance.”

His conclusion is a bit more optimistic: we have “a brain capable not only of awareness and what we call consciousness … but we do something more than this. We record the details of our past experience and make compulsive guesses about our future … More than this, and here is our uniquely distinguishing feature, we talk to each other about these things. In short, we are unique because of language.  … The really important, far and away most important thing about human beings is human society. We are … a biologically, mandatorily, ineluctably social animal.”

Step back a moment and explore words with Dr. Lewis Thomas, and then go forth and share them with everyone else.

Editor’s Note: ‘Et Cetera, Et Cetera’ was written by Lewis Thomas and published by Little, Brown & Co., Boston 1990.

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 Farm 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 village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly: ‘Writing to Learn’ by William Zinsser

Almost 30 years ago my wife bought and read William Zinsser’s Writing to Learn, with a copy autographed by the author.  It has taken all that time for me to find and read this perceptive and challenging work.

Late, but perhaps not too late!

The key lies in the title: this is not a “how to” book but rather an encouragement to write, and write, and then write some more, as the critical part of the process of learning.

Zinsser, who died in 2015, wrote for the New York Herald Tribune, The New Yorker, the New York Times, taught at Yale and New York’s Fieldston School, edited the Yale Alumni Magazine, and was extensively published.  His key point is “ … writing is a form of thinking … ”  He never stopped doing both.

Writing, he explains, “clarifies half-formed ideas.”  It is thinking on paper.  As our thinking constantly changes, so too should our writing, and, “ … the essence of writing is rewriting,” in the form of the alteration and clarification of our thoughts.

He describes his “liberal” education: Deerfield Academy, Princeton University, the U.S. Army in the War in Europe, newspaper reporting, teaching at Yale, being Master of Yale’s Branford College; and then even more writing, as a lifelong “linear and sequential” process.

Lovely quotes: on rewriting: “I heard the scratching out of words that is the obbligato of a writer’s life,” and on academic writing:  “It’s a language squeezed dry of human juices – a Sargasso Sea of passive verbs, long and generalized nouns, pompous locutions and unnecessary jargon.”

His Chapter 5 describes his pet Crochets and Convictions: information and noise; obscurity; voice and tone; brevity (“Brevity is one sign of a well-organized mind.”); jargon; killer nouns (“the pomposity of bureaucratic language”), lifesaving verbs (be active, never passive), and the illiteracy of the elite (corporate over-writing is “scandalous in its flatulence.”)

As Zinsser considered his thesis, he said, “I would write confidently from my own convictions and experiences – take ‘em or leave ‘em – and to illustrate my points I would present passages by writers I admired.”

And so he does …

He begins with William Strunk & E. B. White’s The Elements of Style (“read once a year”) and then on to:

  • Physics and Chemistry: Einstein, Primo Levi and Richard Feynman
  • Geology:  John Muir, Rachel Carson and John Rodgers (Yale)
  • Art: John Russell (NYT) and A. Hyatt Mayor (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
  • Natural World: Darwin, Roger Tory Peterson (a former Old Lyme resident!), and Archie Carr (University of FL)
  • Music: Alec Wilder, Virgil Thomas, and Roger Sessions.

For Mathematics he extensively quotes Joan Countryman, a teacher at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia: he says music is also “a language” and advises, “keep a journal with a running account of your work.”

And for Memoirs, he cites Lewis Thomas (Lives of a Cell): “it had never occurred to me that a memoir could be pre-natal.” It’s too bad he never read Ian McEwan’s 2016 novel of life before birth, Nutshell.

William Zinsser’s reading marathon is condensed into a 100-yard dash. Read it and write on.

One further comment: William Zinsser and his wife had a summer house in East Lyme for many years, and Caroline Fraser Zinsser wrote a short study of the 1828-1851 letters of Charles and Mary Chadwick of Lyme (he was a sailing captain), which was published by the East Lyme Public Library in 2005.

Editor’s Note: ‘Writing to Learn’ by William Zinsser is published by Harper & Row, New York 1988

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 Farm 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 village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Wicked, Weird & Wily Yankees’ by Stephen Gencarella

Editor’s Note: Stephen Gencarella, the author of ‘Wicked, Weird & Wily Yankees’ will be the guest speaker at the Lyme Public Library’s Annual Meeting on Tuesday, June 26, at 7 p.m.

What a pleasure: to read an engaging book by a close neighbor (Steve and his family live just down Tinker Lane from me) and to encourage other Lymies to do the same!

Steve, a professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and the resident folklorist at the Connecticut River Museum, offers us a series of essays about unusual folk from New England, eccentric and out-of-the-ordinary men and women: hermits, healers, poets, mesmerists, fortune-tellers, prophets, reformers, bandits, visionaries, vagabonds, introverts, and misogynists.

In other words, most of us!

But what is eccentricity. The professor explains: “ … eccentricity is not an inherent quality but one always partially imposed from the outside, from the society that demarcates and gazes upon the eccentric … “[it] is always a matter of contested perspectives” and “ … tendencies to the reclusive or to the flamboyant quickly garner the label of eccentricity.”  He continues, “As tends to happen when history yields to folklore, this oddity began to grow in dimensions through the course of a century” of retelling stories of eccentrics.  And “the stories themselves are vagabonds.”

Among the locals described in these essays are a character at the Monkey Farm Café in Old Saybrook, William Gillette of Gillette’s Castle, that “Hadlyme stone heap,” and Elizabeth Tashjian, perhaps better known as “The Nut Lady” of Old Lyme.

Steve concludes with the counsel, “but that is precisely the challenge of eccentrics: to demand respect for the integrity and for the unique and unusual demands of every individual and to refuse to allow authority – however minor – to get away with discouraging people who hear a different drummer.”

We are all story-tellers!

But I was most impressed by the author’s continued use of the word “passing” as his euphemism for death: he uses it 31 times, by my count. It reminded me of that famous “Dead Parrot” skit from Monty Python, in which John Cleese presents an inert parrot nailed to a stick to Michael Palin, the man who had just sold it to him.

“E’s passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! ‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed ‘im to the perch, ‘e’d be pushing up the daisies! ‘Is metabolic processes are now ‘istory! ‘E’s off the twig! ‘E’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!! This is an ex-parrot!”

Does this usage “passeth all understanding” (Philippians)?

I pass … but do read these entrancing stories of eccentric Yankees!

About this book: ‘Wicked, Weird & Wily Yankees’ by Stephen Gencarella was published in May 2018 by Globe Pequot, Guilford, CT 2018.

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 Farm 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 village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Moonglow’ by Michael Chabon

This is, at one and the same time, a work of fiction and the author’s actual family history, selectively combined and embellished. It is the story of Michael Chabon’s grandfather and grandmother, recreated as a totally engaging novel, covering more than five decades in Germany, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York City, Florida and California.  He “recreates” these two antecedents, beginning with his grandfather’s work with the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.) in Germany in the waning day of World War II, followed by the meeting with his grandmother in Baltimore two years later, and then their fractured lives thereafter.

The key lies in Chabon’s candid Author’s Note: “In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to the facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” He went on later: “To claim or represent that I retain an exact or even approximate recollection of what anyone said so long ago would be to commit the memoirist’s great sin.” And so his imagination is unleashed …

This is a history, or really even slightly connected stories about his grandparents and their lives in these United States, as they allowed their interconnected emotions to respond to ever-changing stimuli. As Chabon confesses, perhaps there is nothing such as a defined “self”: “Maybe ‘self’ was a free variable with no bounded value.”

Chabon is rich with descriptive phrases. (1) a priest’s cassock: “White dust patterned the black cassock in big splotches like continents or the spots on a cow.”

(2) “The small room was all cross-hatchings of shadow like a lesson in shading a sphere, an arc of darkness wrapped around a circle of gray with a bright spot a bit off-center.  The bright spot was my grandmother; all the light in the sad little room seemed to be radiating from her.”

And describing his father reminded me of John le Carre’s father: ” … my big-talking, sweet-talking, fast-talking father was in and out of courtrooms, tax dodges, marriages, and my life … ” And as Chabon concludes, “That was only human, the common lot. But once your dream revealed itself, like most dreams, to be nothing but a current of raw compulsion flowing through a circuitry of delusion and lies, then that was the time to give it up.” His grandfather’s was with Wernher von Braun and space exploration.

Finally, a curious note. The chapter heads are safety matches formed into roman numerals. But two matches are lit, one in Chapter XX describing an O.S.S. excursion, and the other heading Chapter XXV, when his grandfather heads off to jail.  The connection: I do not know.

A rich and completely engrossing story!

Editor’s Note: ‘Moonglow’ by Michael Chabon was 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. 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? ‘Mountains of the Mind’ by Robert Macfarlane

Have you ever been mesmerized by a mountain?

I have … Mount Fuji, from the waters of Suruga Wan, Mounts Rainier and Baker from Puget Sound on a cloudless day, and even Mount Kearsarge in central New Hampshire when I actually climbed it with some of our family.

What is it about mountains that seem to entrance our minds?

Robert Macfarlane, a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, gives us a meditation on these heights, an enthralling “mental stimulation that explores why “the unknown is so inflammatory to the imagination.”  And why is it that almost every “prophet” of all our religions has ‘habitually been up mountains … to receive divine counsel”?

What is “the mesmerism of high places”?  He explains: “ … the urge to explore space – to go higher – is innate in the human mind” and “ … the visionary amplitudes of altitude felt like the approximations of divine sight  … the spell of altitude.”

He writes “when we look at a landscape, we do not see what is there, but largely what we think is there … We read landscapes” as interpreted “in the light of our own experience and memory, and that of our shared cultural memory.”  In other words, landscapes are “romanticized into being,” mountains most of all.

“Contemplating the immensities of deep time, you face in a way that is both exquisite and horrifying, the total collapse of your present, compacted to nothingness by the pressures of pasts and futures too extensive to envisage … [plus] the appalling transience of the human body.”

Macfarlane’s chapters explore geology, fear, glaciers, heights, maps, theology, and conclude, inevitably, with Mount Everest and the attempt of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine in 1924. The author himself is also a climber as well as a student of mountains.

He cites John Ruskin with the idea that “risk-taking – scaring yourself – was, provided you survived, a potent means of self-improvement.”

“This is the great shift which has taken place in the history of risk.  Risk has always been taken, but for a long time it was taken with some ulterior purpose in mind: scientific advancement, personnel glory, financial gain.  About two and a half centuries ago, however, fear started to become fashionable for its own sake.  Risk, it was realized, brought its own reward: the sense of physical exhilaration and elation which we would now attribute to the effects of adrenaline.  And so risk-taking – the deliberate inducement of fear — became desirable; became a commodity.”

Macfarlane concludes, “mountains return to us the priceless capacity for wonder.”  He continues, “In ways that are for the most part imperceptible to us, we all bend our lives to fit the templates with which myths and archetypes provide us. We all tell ourselves stories, and bring our futures into line with these stories, however much we cherish the sense of newness, or originality, about our lives.”

Finally, “at bottom, mountains, like all wildernesses, challenge our complacent convictions – so easy to lapse into – that the world has been made for humans by humans.”

So, encourage your doubts and go climb a hill!

Editor’s Note:  ‘Mountains of the Mind’ by Robert Macfarlane was published by Vintage Books, New York 2004.

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? ‘Patrick O’Brian: A Life Revealed’ by Dean King

This is a confession of an addict.

In early 1993, I was urged by a long-time sailing friend to begin reading a series of novels by Patrick O’Brian about an English skipper and his shipboard surgeon set in the Napoleonic Wars.

I did.

By now I’ve read – three times, no less –all 21 of the famous Jack Aubrey-Stephen Maturin novels, plus six of his other books, plus King’s 2000 biography. And I’ve just finished a second read of this biography, learning even more about a compelling writer, now acknowledged by many as one of the two best 20th Century tellers of sea stories (Joseph Conrad being the other.)

A re-read is often even more enlightening than the first, and so it was this time.  For Patrick O’Brian was a consummate “storyteller” in both senses of the word. First, he was not “Patrick O’Brian”, an Irish novelist. He was Richard Patrick Russ, the grandson of a German who moved to London in 1842 to seek his fortune as a furrier. He served in the ambulance corps during World War II and divorced his first (Welsh) wife immediately thereafter, taking his new wife Mary (English, but divorced from her Russian husband) first to Wales and then to southern France, as his writing career blossomed.

Patrick was indeed a well-read and curious man, whose “ … love of nature, literature, and writing arrived early, whose love of solitude would endure, and whose obsession with privacy would infuse his eventual literary tour de force, the Aubrey-Maturin novels.”

But his worlds were mostly vicarious, experienced through his reading, not through actual sea experience. While his stories give us detailed and factually-correct stories of the sea and many of the battles, skirmishes, and life at sea during the wars between 1800 and 1820, plus the intrigues of life in England at that time, they were a result of his reading and research plus his remarkable memory.As far as we know, O’Brian never went to sea in any sort of vessel!

O’Brian avoided publicity whenever he could: As he had his alter-ego, Stephen Maturin, say in Truelove: “Question and answer is not a civilized form of conversation … It is extremely ill bred, extremely unusual, and extremely difficult to turn aside gracefully or indeed without offense.”

But he was, above all, a writer: “ … he found his most life-affirming moments in this fluid act of creation … For him, the creative process was largely an inexplicable one, some magical combination of conscious, and subconscious, of instinct and intellect, all clicking at once.” In addition to his English, he was fluid, “to some extent, in Italian, French, Spanish, German, Catalan and Irish and had a good background in Latin and Greek.” He also, “possessed extraordinary powers of retention and integrated this information into his lively ken.” King concludes that O’Brian had “ … an ego of iron beneath a surface of humility.”

My connection with O’Brian’s work goes beyond his novels and biographies.  Two of us went to the Princeton Club in New York City in the fall of 1993 to hear O’Brian talk about his novels and read from one of them. Mesmerizing, but the high point was when we asked him to autograph copies of his latest work. With an impish smile he proceeded to do so: one with his right hand and the other with his left!

Most of his novels have beguiling conclusions, somewhat abrupt, if only to lead the reader toward the next “installment.” But he explained his endings in a conversation about writing with Maturin and a friend one evening on the rail of a ship in the Pacific in the Nutmeg of Consolation: “La betise c’est de vouloir conclure (the absurd thing is the desire to come to a conclusion.) The conventional ending, with virtue rewarded and loose ends tied up is often sadly chilling; and its platitude and falsity tend to infect what has gone before, however excellent.”

I noted that passage when I first read it and used it for the end of my own autobiography.  King also cites it.

Mary O’Brian died in France in March 1998. Patrick O’Brian died, incongruously, in Dublin, Ireland, in January 2000. But his stories live on …

Editor’s Note: ‘Patrick O’Brian: A Life Revealed,’ by Dean King is published by Henry Holt & Co., New York 2000.

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? ‘Troubles’ by J.G. Farrell

When a world is collapsing all about us, how much are we willing to recognize?

J. G. Farrell’s description of a veteran of the World War I trenches going to Ireland to rejoin a young lady he had met only once in London during the War is an allegory on human inertia and lethargy in the face of rapid change.

In 1919, Major Brendan Archer travels from London to Kilnalough, Ireland, thinking to ask Angela Spencer to join him in marriage, even though he could not remember ever asking her outright to do so. He finds an elusive young lady and a scene of inertia and decay. Ireland has entered the “Troubles” with Sinn Fein pushing for complete separation from the British Empire.

And that Empire is collapsing just as the Majestic Hotel — owned and operated by Angela’s father, Edward, and the scene of the entire novel — is doing the same.

Farrell gives us the Hotel dominated by “dust.” Every page describes dust, “mould,” gloom, creepers, grime, cobwebs, collapsing floors, “man-eating” plants, and an ever-expanding entourage of reproducing cats. One room featured “an enormous greyish-white sweater that lay in one corner like a dead sheep.” The weather wasn’t any better: “it rained all that July,” and the hotel residents complained of the coming  “dreadful gauntlet of December, January, February.”

Both the hotel and Ireland exuded “an atmosphere of change, insecurity and decay.” But the residents continued to follow life’s rituals: prayers at breakfast, afternoon teas, dressing for dinner, and whist in the evening.

Add to this mordant scene the author’s interjection of gloomy news reports from around the world: White Russians and English military supporters being trounced in Russia, victorious Boers in South Africa, a mess in Mesopotamia and Egypt, rebellion in Poland, and, finally, the Indians attempting to remove themselves from British rule.

In the face of all this, the hotel’s owner and operator, Edward Spencer aggravates the Major: “ … his overbearing manner; the way he always insisted on being right, flatly stating his opinions in a loud and abusive tone without paying any attention to what the other fellow was saying.” Does this also describe the Brits in other sections of the world?

The Major remains always a drifter “with the tide of events,” never able to respond, dominated, it seems, by “the country’s vast and narcotic inertia.”

This is a story of the collapse of a hotel, descending at last into ashes, and an allusion to the similar collapse of the British Empire, with the Second World War being its enormous fire. It is a compelling read, one that suggests some connections to the events of the second decade of the 21st century …

Editor’s Note: ‘Troubles’ by J. G. Farrell is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 1970.

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 Undoing Project’ by Michael Lewis

No, this is not the story of a baseball team savant, who doubted conventional statistics and reused them with extraordinary success (Moneyball). It is not a personal disclosure of the seamy underbelly of financial markets (The Big Short; Flash Boys; Liar’s Poker).

Rather, it is the story of learning how our minds work, of behavioral economics, and of the unusual and highly prolific working relationship of two Israeli academics, who first met in 1960. It is the story of how an extrovert, Amos Tversky, and an introvert, Daniel Kahneman, stimulated and prodded each other over almost 40 years, first in Israel and then teaching  in the United States on the West coast, then in the Midwest, and finally in the East, uncovering and describing the numerous biases that confuse our thinking.

Each challenged the ideas of the other.

As the author describes an early intellectual collision, “Theories for Amos were like mental pockets or briefcases, places to out the ideas you wanted to keep. Until you could replace a theory with a better theory–a theory that better predicted what actually happened—you didn’t chuck a theory out. Theories ordered knowledge, and allowed for better prediction … But (Amos) left Danny’s seminar in a state of mid unusual for him: doubt. After the seminar, he treated theories that he had more or less accepted as sound and plausible as objects of suspicion.”

Kahneman: his “defining emotion is doubt.”

Tversky:  his interest is psychology: “why people behaved as they behaved, and thought as they thought,” never entirely “rational.”

Kahneman:  “He thought of himself as someone who enjoyed, more than most, changing his mind.”

Tversky: “People live under uncertainty whether they like it or not.”

Kahneman:  “It is the anticipation of regret that affects decisions, along with the anticipation of other consequences. This is why we seem to be instinctively ‘risk averse’.”

Tversky: “Reality is a cloud of possibility, not a point.”

Kahneman:  “The basic rules of undoing, however, apply alike to frustration and regret. They require a more or less plausible path leading to an alternative state.”

Together these two thinkers described the numerous biases that both confuse and enlighten our thinking: hindsight, anchoring, availability, small numbers, context, framing, the endowment effect, and many others. As Lewis explains it, “ they would learn to evaluate a decision not by its outcomes—whether it turned out to be right or wrong—but by the process that led to it. He then concludes: “ … the brain is limited. There are gaps in our attention. The mind contrives to make those gaps invisible to us. We think we know things we don’t. We think we are safe when we are not.”

In 1996, Amos Tversky died. In 2002, Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize, one that almost certainly would have been awarded to Amos as well, had he been alive.

Do read this fascinating story of two thinkers, and go further and read Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011).  And consider my own personal haiku, one that forces me to rethink all the time:

Pause for a moment:
Doubt, then curiosity.
Try another path.

Editor’s Note: ‘The Undoing Project’ by Michael Lewis was published by W. W. Norton, New York, in 2017.

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? ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ by Amor Towles

“By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration – and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.” This is the theme of a compelling, engrossing, and forever cheerful story of an Russian aristocrat condemned to lifetime “house arrest” in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel in 1921.

Through the eyes and experiences of Count Alexander Rostov, in five segments (1921-22; 1923-46; 1950; 1950-53; and 1954), we are treated to a history of Russia, the Soviet Union, European literature, art, music, medicine and architecture. And dining: the Count becomes the Head Waiter at the hotel’s superlative dining room. An entire chapter is devoted to the creation of a sumptuous bouillabaisse – a foodie’s delight!

Consider this analysis: “Surely, the span of time between the placing of an order and the arrival of appetizers is one of the most perilous in all human interaction. What young lovers have not found themselves bat this juncture in a silence so sudden, so seemingly insurmountable that it threatens to cast doubt upon their chemistry as a couple? What husband and wife have not found themselves suddenly unnerved by the fear that they might not ever have something urgent, impassioned, or surprising to say to each other again?”

The good Count is forever curious, of people, events, and changing circumstances. On reading: “After all, isn’t that why the pages of a book are numbered? To facilitate the finding of one’s place after a reasonable interruption?” On how he spends his time: “dining, discussing, reading, reflection.” On history: “the business of identifying momentous events from the comfort of a high-backed chair.” On life itself: “ … life does not proceed by leaps and bounds. It unfolds. At any given moment, it is the manifestation of a thousand transitions.” And, given his confinement, also exercising: squats and push-ups every morning, plus climbing stairs to his attic rooms.

Towles names the Count’s barber at the hotel, Yaroslav Yaroslavl, provoking my own recollections of travel in Russia, first to St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) at its Hermitage in 1984 and later to Moscow and Yaroslavl in 1992. And the Count also states emphatically that, “all poets must eventually bow before the haiku,” a statement which — as a modest haiku composer myself — I endorse with pleasure!

So the Metropol becomes hardly a “prison” for Count Alexander, but rather it is his own wide, wide world.

One unusual note: all chapters have titles beginning in the letter A. And the end of the story has an unnamed lady waiting for the Count. But we know her name both begins and ends with an A …

The keynote of the eminently readable novel is “Montaigne’s maxim, that the surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness.”

Editor’s Note: ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ by Amor Towles is published by Viking, 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? ‘Lab Girl’ by Hope Jahren

This month, let’s try an intensely introspective autobiography of a botanical scientist, wrapped in a biography of trees, flowers, and plants.

Hope Jahren, a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu, writes the clear, coherent, and engaging story of her upbringing in Minnesota, her education, travel and work in California, Georgia, Maryland, and Hawaii, intermixed with her study and analysis of the history and lives of plants and trees. And she apparently has a photographic memory as she recalls detailed conversations with her teachers, students, science mates and husband.

But, early on in my reading, I had a nagging question: does this intense self-analysis and self-reflection indicate something else?

Jahren finally acknowledges being a “manic-depressive woman” four-fifths of the way through her writing. She is consumed with her love of and study of plants: it dominates her life.

Fellow human beings? She acknowledges an early debt to her science-minded father, but never mentions him again after her first pages. Her scientific partner, Bill, is never granted a last name, nor is her husband, Clint. And none of those three is mentioned in her credits. She devotes one of the longest chapters to the birth of her son, but he remains nameless (mentioned only as “my toddler” and “my son.” Note he is not “our” son.)

But her often lyrical phrases continue to delight you as a reader, “a leaf is a platter of pigment strung with vascular lace,” and “vines are hopelessly ambitious,” and “being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.” Hers is a two-part, parallel story of intense curiosity – her science and her life.

Her self-analysis close to the end reads as follows:

“I’m good at science because I’m not good at listening. I have been told that I’m intelligent, and I have been told that I am simple-minded. I have been told that I am trying to do to much, and I have been told that what I have done amounts to very little. I have been told that I can’t do what I want to do because I am a woman, and I have been told that I have only been allowed to do what I have done because I am a woman. I have been told that I can have eternal life, and I have been told that I will burn myself out into an early death. I have been admonished for being too feminine and I have been distrusted for being too masculine. I have been warned that I am far too sensitive and I have been accused of being heartlessly callous.

But I was told all these things by people who can’t understand the present or see the future any better than I can. Such recurrent pronouncements have forced me to accept that because I am a female scientist, nobody knows what the hell I am, and it has given me the delicious freedom to make it up as I go along. I don’t take advice from my colleagues, and I try not to give it. When I am pressed, I resort to these two sentences: You shouldn’t take this job too seriously. Except for when you should.”

If that doesn’t arouse your curiosity to read this book, I don’t know what will!

Jahren’s conclusion, “Our world is falling apart quietly.” And her more optimistic recommendation: go plant a tree once a year! Which is exactly what my wife and I have done in our 24 years in Lyme, Conn. We’ve planted 13 Evergreens, four Red Maples, three Acacia, two Apples, one Japanese Maple, and one Witch Hazel. Yes, we’ve cut down an apple savaged by a hurricane, plus two small apples, but the latter were promptly replaced with two pears!

Do read Hope Jahren … and plant a tree.

Editor’s Note: ‘Lab Girl’ by Hope Jahren is published by Alfred A. Knopf, 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: ‘Nutshell’ by Ian McEwan

Can you imagine an entire novel, spoken through the senses of a foetus, awaiting his entry into this world?

McEwan’s opening sentence sets the stage: “Here I am, upside down in a woman.” From that point, this young man extols first the “condition of the modern foetus. Just think: nothing to do but be and grow, where growing is hardly a conscious act. The joy of pure existence, the tedium of undifferentiated days. Extended bliss is boredom of the existential kind … In here I’m owed the privilege and luxury of solitude,” as his mother listens continuously, with ear-buds, to self-improvement books, biographies and world classics.

But at the same time it is a story of, first, murder, and then the revenge of his mother and of the young man himself. I realized that about halfway through this engrossing and often-hilarious tale, McEwan is embedded in a take-off on Hamlet. This youngster’s mother, Trudy, is drawn from Gertrude. His stepfather, Claude, is Claudius, a “fraud who’s wormed in between my family and my hopes.”

This leads the still-enclosed boy to conclude his “dim view of our species, of which psychopaths are a constant fraction, a human constant. ” His reaction: “Anxiously, I finger my cord.”

His brain, after listening to all that his mother hears, plus her plans with her lover, leads him to a sour conclusion about his life yet to come, “Long ago, someone pronounced a groundless certainty a virtue. Now, the politest people say it is. I’ve heard their Sunday-morning broadcasts from cathedral precincts. Europe’s most virtuous spectres, religion and, when it faltered, godless utopias bursting with scientific proofs, together they scorched the earth from the tenth to the twentieth centuries. Here they come again, risen in the East, pursuing the millennium, teaching toddlers to slit the throats of teddy bears. And here I am with my home-grown faith in the life beyond.”

Towards the end (or the beginning, his birth), he comments: “It’s already clear to me how much of life is forgotten even as it happens. Most of it. The unregarded present spooling away from us, the soft tumble of unremarkable thoughts, the long-neglected miracle of existence.” But the young man does start …

That sums up this mesmerizing story, in a nutshell: a woman’s womb for your world view.

My own coda: “To be or yet to be: that is gestation.”

Editor’s Note: ‘Nutshell’ by Ian McEwan, was published by Doubleday, 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? ‘Payoff’ by Dan Ariely

What is “motivation” and how does it affect our daily activity? Is motivation “central to our lives”? Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University, explores the human feeling of identification with and empathy for others, suggesting these two feelings help stimulate motivation, while their absence destroys it.

This brief book (103 pages) combine stories from Dr. Ariely’s personal life and his continuing work studying our strange behaviors. It continues his earlier work: Predictably Irrational, The Upside of Irrationality, and The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, all of which I’ve read with fascination.

At the very start, the author describes his own teenage accident in Israel, in which he sustained severe burns over some 70 percent of his body, leading to three years of hospitalization and slow and painful recovery. It was then he began to discover the idea of motivation, enlarged later when he helped a friend’s two teenage children, similarly injured.

As he writes, “I also realized how many of our motivations spring from trying to conquer a sense of helplessness and reclaim even a tiny modicum of control over our lives.” Any success in such an effort becomes a “feeling of accomplishment.” This then leads to the need to “look closely at the positive side of motivation,” creating pleasure and affection for your own handiwork.

But does financial reward motivate us? Ariely suggests “money matters far less than we think.” We should avoid “overemphasizing the countable dimension and beware (my italics) treating the uncountable dimension as if it were easily countable.” This skewers the old adage that if you can’t count it, it doesn’t exist!

He continues: “In short, these findings suggest that when we are in the midst of a task, we focus on the inherent joy of the task, but when we think about the same task in advance, we over-focus on the extrinsic motivators, such as payment and bonuses. This is why we are not good predictors of what will motivate us and what will crush our motivation. This inability to intuit what will make us happy at work is sad.” Trust and goodwill seem to be far better inspirations than cash … Is it possible that large bonuses are actually counterproductive?

Dr. Ariely concludes: “We are certainly far from grasping the full complexity of motivation, but the journey to understand  … (its) nuances … (is) exciting, interesting, important and useful.”

As usual, brevity enhances comprehension. A short book motivates continued reading!

Editor’s Note: ‘Payoff ‘ by Dan Ariely is published by TED Books, 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? ‘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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