October 19, 2021

Reading Uncertainly? ‘Troubles’ by J. G. Farrell is a “Compelling Read”

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, 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 in 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 former resident of Lyme, Conn., he now lives in Peabody, Mass. He writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, a subject which 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 served faithfully as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee. His late wife, Ann, was 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 visited every summer.

Reading Uncertainly? ‘Seven Brief Lessons on Physics’ by Carlo Rovelli

Is it really possible to describe the mysteries of physics in 81 pages?

Richard Feynman tried it in the 140 pages of Six Easy Pieces, published in 1994, but some afterwards described it as “Six Difficult Pieces.” Carlo Rovelli, the Italian theoretical physicist, has raised the ante. His work is a jewel of both brevity and clarity, especially to my curious mind that barely made it through Physics I at college.

The seven lessons begin with Einstein and the Theory of Relativity. Much has been written and expressed about this work, but Rovelli’s 11 pages are a precise summary. And he reminds us that, like Einstein, we “… don’t get anywhere by not ‘wasting’ time.”

That reminds me of the 1957 lesson offered by Robert Paul Smith’s famous Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing:” exploration and curiosity are essential to progress.

Rovelli then discusses quantum mechanics and the questions of Bohr, Planck, and Heisenberg, all summarized by the phrase “And to the very last, doubt.” And uncertainty.

From the “microcosm of elementary particles” he then moves to the cosmos, the “macrocosmic structure of the universe.” Our Sun is an, “… infinitesimal speck in a vast cloud of one hundred billion stars – our Galaxy” and our Galaxy is, “… itself a speck of dust in a huge cloud of galaxies.”

Back then to the smallest particles, including the unseen but acknowledged varieties of quarks and the confirmation of the Higgs boson.

Then Rovelli moves to the “swarming cloud of probability: quantum gravity. He acknowledges that we know more now than we did 50 years ago, “so we should be quite satisfied. But we are not.” Forever the curious species, our “ … science becomes even more beautiful – incandescent in the forge of nascent ideas, of intuitions, of attempts. Of roads taken and then abandoned, of enthusiasms. In the effort to imagine what has not yet been imagined.”

The seventh lesson concerns Black Holes. We live, we think, in a world of “sheer chance,” in which “probability is the heart of physics … I may not know something with certainty, but I can assign a lesser or greater degree of probability to something.”

And Black Swans, too? How many “dimensions” really exist?

Dr. Rovelli wraps up this engaging and challenging set of lessons with – what else? – more questions. “What are we?” and should not we be aware, “… that we can always be wrong, and therefore ready at any moment to change direction if a new track appears?”

“To be free doesn’t mean that our behavior is not determined by the laws of nature. It means that it is determined by the laws of nature acting in our brains.”

“We live in “inextricable complexity,” and this means, “… we are a species that is naturally moved by curiosity … ”

Rovelli’s brief synopsis of what we think we know about the physical world and universe challenges us to renew our study and our search.

That conclusion reinforces the haiku I wrote for myself many years ago (with apologies to Robert Frost):

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

Editor’s Note:  ‘Seven Brief Lessons on Physics’ by Carlo Rovelli was published by Riverhead Books, New York in 2016.

Reading Uncertainly: ‘Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel’ by Carl Safina

What are they thinking?

Do we deliberately misunderstand other animals?

And what is the result of this “miscomprehended relationship”?

Carl Safina, a professor at Stony Brook University in New York and a most curious student of other species, writes a thoroughly loquacious and engaging view of some other sentient creatures whose consciousness may well equal or exceed our own. Arguing that “ . . . humans are not the measure of all things” (as much as we might like us to be), he relates his exhaustive studies of elephants, wolves, dolphins, orcas (killer whales), and his own two dogs, in a global travelogue from Africa to Wyoming, to the Pacific Northwest and to Long Island.

His mantra: “the greatest realization is that all life is one.”

Professor Safina begins with those remarkable creatures, the elephants: “the skin moving like swishing corduroy, textured and rough, but sensitive to the slightest touch. The grind of their cobblestone molars as, sheaf by sheaf and mouthful by mouthful, they acquire the world . . . . Bizarre protruding teeth the size of human legs astride the world’s most phallic nose.”

He acknowledges their consciousness as well as their broad hearing: “elephant song spans ten octaves,” far more than we can hear. And yet theirs is a profile of a species going extinct. Since Roman times, we (the human species) have reduced elephant density by 99 percent. From 10 million in the early 1900s, we count less than 400,000 today.

Note that elephant society is female-dominated. They are empathic to each other. Is there a moral there?

He contrasts their behavior with ours: “self-destructive behavior, for instance, seems distinctly human.” Is male-domination a possible cause? He adds, “modernity’s self-imposed exile from the world seems to have degraded an older human ability to recognize the minds of other animals.” Safina goes on to explore the habits, minds and consciousness of wolves, dogs, and, finally, dolphins and orcas (also known as killer whales).

But inevitably his thoughts turn to us, homo sapiens. We engulf this globe, “ . . . the perfect storm of rising human densities . . . .” and “ . . . most animals of the world are awash in a rising sea of Us.” Pogo had it right!

He concludes: “I don’t mean to imply that I value the life of a fish or a bird the same way I value a human life, but their presence in the world has as much validity as does our presence. Perhaps more: they were here first; they are foundational to us . . . . They enliven the world, and beautifully.”

And then: “If cruelty and destructiveness are bad, humans are by a wide margin the worst species ever to infest this planet. If compassion and creativity are good, humans are by a wide margin the finest. But we are neither simply good nor bad; we are all these things together, and imperfectly so. The question for all is: which way is our balance tending?”

So the professor comes to his conclusion: “Me, I am most skeptical of those things I’d like most to believe, precisely because I’d like to believe them. Wanting to believe something can skews one’s view.”

His final words: “I just don’t know.”

Beyond Words is a challenging and testing read.

Editor’s Note: ‘Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel’ by Carl Safina is published by Henry Holt & 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 former resident of Lyme, Conn., he now lives in Peabody, Mass. He writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, a subject which 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 served faithfully as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee. His late wife, Ann, was 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 visited every summer.

Reading Uncertainly: ‘Table of Contents’ by John McPhee

‘Bear’ with me: this review is the result of strange circumstances.

In mid-April I received an email from some Lyme neighbors, announcing a new resident with a photograph – a black bear strolling unceremoniously along Ely’s Ferry Road. As it happened, I had just started a re-read of one of my favorite authors, John McPhee, and his 1985 series of essays.

The very first two described the growing advent of black bears into eastern Pennsylvania and northern New Jersey, and the second the efforts of a New Jersey biologist and bear-trapper, Patricia McConnell, at work in her home state.

Black bears are curious, vegetarian, nocturnal creatures, as interested in human beings as we are instinctively afraid of them. What I learned in McPhee’s essays made me wish I was still living in Lyme!

But black bears are also cavorting up here in Massachusetts — my physical therapist reported one in her family’s back yard just a few days ago. How interconnected we are!

McPhee’s essays continue with a lengthy dissertation on the growing interest in doctors becoming “General Practitioners” (GP’s), as he relates their efforts, travails, and joys in the northern extremes of the State of Maine. He extols the “omniscient, ubiquitous” GP as a real aberration in the growing specialization of taking care of us fragile human beings.

He determines that the greatest skill of the GP is a willingness to sit and listen to our stories of our ills and ourselves. How many docs these days really sit and listen?

McPhee then moves quickly to a story of following ex-Senator Bill Bradley in a campaign stroll along seaside towns on the Jersey Shore. In it he displays his unique capability of describing what each person is wearing, from hat to shoes, as well as distinctive facial expressions. “He wears a blue-and-white striped shirt with a button-down collar. His tie is brown and has small New Jerseys all over it like sea horses.” It is a perfect, yet brief, follow-up to his best-seller, A Sense of Where You Are”.

Another essay relates the growth of “mini-hydros”, the resurrection of eroded old dams, their waterways and ancient turbines to take advantage of new legislation requiring power companies to buy small bits of electricity produced by these revived facilities. Again, curious and ambitious entrepreneurs willing to take a chance. And risk their modest funds.

And finally, the author’s last essay describes his meeting, and working with a Northern Maine bush pilot, named, of all things, John McPhee (better known as Jack.)

As the author explains, “ There is a lot of identification, even transformation, in the work I do – moving along from place to place, person to person, as a reporter, a writer, repeatedly trying to sense another existence and in some ways to share it.” What an extraordinary thing to meet a State of Maine Bush Pilot with your name!

If you’ve seen a black bear recently, do read John McPhee. With the continuing chaos in the daily news, reading this author is a distinct relief.

Editor’s Note: ‘Table of Contents’ by John McPhee was published 1985 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York. 

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 former resident of Lyme, Conn., he now lives in Peabody, Mass. He writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, a subject which 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 served faithfully as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee. His late wife, Ann, was 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 visited every summer.

Reading Uncertainly? ‘And Yet . . . ‘ by Christopher Hitchens

Here is yet another compendium of literate, acerbic, often hilarious, and thoroughly opinionated essays from Christopher Hitchens, the UK-expatriate who moved to Washington for freedom from monarchy and amusement.

He died in 2011 at the youthful age of 62 but these essays will long outlive him.

He dissects both people (Che Guevara, Edward Kennedy, George Orwell, Barack Obama, Gertrude Bell, Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie, Ian Fleming, Edmund Wilson, and more) and places (Ohio, the Parthenon, Armenia, London, the South, and especially Washington).

His views and ideas always poke fingers into your mind.

Consider: (1) Turkey is “an army that has a country.” (2) “We live in a culture that’s saturated with the cult of personality and with attention to private life.” (3) “ . . . the great soap opera of our existence . . . .” (4) Leaders are “as much the prisoners of events as the masters of them.”

No holiday is exempt from his derision. Twice he lectures us against the celebration of Christmas. His favorite Protestant fundamentalist (Hitchens himself is an outspoken atheist) is Oliver Cromwell, who “banned the celebration of Christmas altogether.”

Hitchens also skewers himself, with three riotous chapters about his attempt toward self-improvement, readily acknowledging his three major flaws: smoking, drinking and gorging on fat food.

Yet he often sheds some new insight. He compliments Barack Obama’s rare qualities as, “…an apparently very deep internal equanimity, and an ability to employ irony at his own expense.”

Even while seeming certain, he acknowledges this, “… age of uncertainty which has now definitively become our age. It seems that there are no rules, golden or otherwise, even natural or otherwise, by which we can define our place in the universe or the cosmos.”

Do read these challenging essays, plus, if you are ambitious, try two of his earlier works, The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever, and god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. That is correct, the word “god” is deliberately not capitalized.

Hitchen’s conclusion: “ …  internationalism is the highest form of patriotism.”

Editor’s Note: And Yet . . .’ by Christopher Hitchens was published by Simon & Schuster, New York in 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, Conn., he has recently moved to Peabody, Mass.
Felix now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, a subject which 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, while living in Lyme, served as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee.
His late wife, Ann, was 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 visited every summer.

Reading Uncertainly? One Old Man Reads Another — Kloman Reviews Angell’s Latest

What can I say? One old man reading another!

Roger Angell, the prolific editor and author from the pages of The New Yorker, begins by calling his latest book “a dog’s breakfast, because that’s what this book is. A mélange, a grab bag, a plate of hors d’oeuvres, a teenager’s closet, a bit of everything. A dog’s breakfast.”

Letters, essays from the magazine, the odd haiku, baseball memories – Angell paints an engaging “portrait of my brain at ninety-four.” And, best of all, he repeats a few of the immortal rhymed Christmas couplets started by Frank Sullivan in 1932 and that he continued from 1976 to 2012.

These annual odes to the known and the unknown inspired me to try my hand at a “Greetings, Friends” in 1954 for the Daily Princetonian and again in 1956 for my shipmates on the U.S.S. Zelima, a Navy refrigerator ship moored in Yokosuka, Japan, for the holidays. They were my last Christmas chanteys, deferring to far better poets.

And Angell gives us the perfect conclusion: his report on the fan-less Oriole-White Sox baseball game in Baltimore in April 2015: two teams playing at the soundless Camden Yards in the aftermath of that city’s disruptions.

Memorable names appear on almost every page: his step-father, E. B. (Andy) White, Harold Ross, John Updike, John McPhee, Saul Steinberg, Fiorello La Guardia, James Thurber, Chas. Addams, William Steig, Peter Arno, John Hersey, Vladimir Nabokov, all of whose stories, ideas, and cartoons remain engraved in our memories (at least if you are old enough!)

On aging: To his son on his birthday – “One always tries to weigh the meaning of these ten-year chunks, and the only answer is mortality.” Or: “the rule about age is never to think about it.”

On writing:  “Writing is a two-way process and the hard part isn’t just getting in touch with oneself but keeping in touch with that reader out there, whoever he or she is, on whom all this thought and art and maybe genius will devolve.”

On glee:  “ . . . us people over seventy-five keep surprising ourselves with happiness.”

On reference books: Angell still uses the Eleventh edition (1911) of the Encyclopedia Britannica, while I, some 12 years his junior, refer almost monthly to the Thirteenth.

Why is it that we derive so much pleasure from something written by an author near our own age? I do recall from a few years ago the advice to read a book when you are the same age as when the author wrote it. In this case, sound counsel!

This Old Man is a proper memory stimulant, just when I need it! I’m 88 … on to 94!

Editor’s Note: ‘This Old Man’ by Roger Angell is published by Doubleday, 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, Conn., he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, a subject which 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 late wife, Ann, was 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 visited every summer.

Reading Uncertainly? ‘American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence’ by Pauline Maier

Have we over-sanctified the American past in the last 50 years? It may well be, argues Pauline Maier, a professor of history at MIT, in her now-classic analysis of the creation of our Declaration of Independence.

Three key documents epitomize the start of “these” United States: the Declaration, the Constitution, and its following initial amendments, the Bill of Rights. They are indeed worthwhile documents to study, but are they as perfect as we have been led to believe?

Professor Maier argues the Declaration was a product of “the grubby world of eighteenth-century politics,” with contributions from “a cast of thousands.” Its impetus came from a growing belief that monarchy and hereditary rule were “major constitutional errors.”

The simple distance from Great Britain had much to do with their dissatisfaction, too, coupled with insensitive colonial taxation.

She recalls the history that led to the Declaration. First came the English Declaration of Rights that permitted the nobility to restrain the monarch in 1689. But a short sequence of events in 1775 pushed the Continental Congress to action: the Battle of Lexington on April 18-19, 1775, the capture of Fort Ticonderoga by some out-of-control colonials on May 9, Bunker Hill on June 17, the British destruction of Falmouth (now Portland), Maine on Oct. 17, and a similar assault on Norfolk, Va., in January 1776.

By then many states had already declared their removal from English authority, creating enormous pressure on the delegates In Philadelphia during the spring, that pressure spurred the delegates to take joint action. Many state and local governments had already declared their “independence” by July 1776.

As Professor Maier notes, “ . . . the society that adopted Independence was national to a remarkable extent considering that before 1764 the North American colonies had no connection with each other except through Britain.” After 1764 they expressed their “sense of shared grievances.”

While the prime movers of the rushed Declaration in Philadelphia were indeed Thomas Jefferson and his designated “committee,” including John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Thomas Pickering, and, belatedly, Benjamin Franklin, the author argues that many others contributed to its phraseology through prior words and documents, and indeed the Congress altered the Committee’s draft afterwards, before it was published.

It is a fascinating story, especially in that the Declaration seems to have been largely disregarded after it initial acceptance, only to become sanctified when the Federalists and Republicans tussled with each other in the 1820s.

And only more recently have we tried to deify both the words and its creators.

Professor Maier carefully dissects words, phrases, and their contributors, creating a convincing thesis that the Declaration was the work of hundreds, not a few, and that, as a “peculiar document,” it hardly deserves its later sanctification.

She concludes: “The symbolism is all wrong; it suggests a tradition locked in a glorious but dead past, reinforces the passive instincts of an anti-political age, and undercuts the acknowledgement and exercise of public responsibilities essential to the survival of the republic and its ideals.”

By all means read the Declaration, but let’s move on and deal with the present using all that we now know.

It is not “scripture.”

Editor’s Note: ‘American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence,’ by Pauline Maier is published by Vintage Books, New York 1998.

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, Conn., he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, a subject which 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 late wife, Ann, was 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 visited every summer.

Reading Uncertainly? ‘The Survival of the Bark Canoe’ by John McPhee

John McPhee, the ever-curious observer, listener, and recorder, has written and published some 30 books, exploring almost every facet of human existence. I’ve just re-read one of his earliest, and best, from 1975, an ode to, of all things, the canoe.

Attracted to the water at an early age, he confesses “the canoe … is the most beautifully simple of all vehicles.” So it is natural that he is attracted to Henri Vaillancourt, a New Hampshireman with Nova Scotian blood, a builder of birchbark canoes, for a mid-life story (McPhee was 44 when he wrote this book.)

McPhee introduces himself, establishes a connection and persuades Vaillancourt to join three of his friends for a lengthy excursion in the far north of Maine’s lakes and rivers. This is the story of that trip.

It begins with no-see-ums, those pestilent creatures that sneak through almost any screening. And as they paddle north, we learn almost everything there is to learn about bark canoes.

What is a wulegessis? It’s a “flap of bark that forms a deck over the bow (or the stern) and extends a short way down the sides of the canoe.” But this is an essential piece of knowledge if you are building your own birchbark canoe, assuming you have the time, energy, and patience!

McPhee recounts the conversations, frictions, stories and favorite words of this group (“bummer” is Henri’s normal), even while diverting to history: how the native Americans developed the “vehicle”, and the story of Thoreau’s similar trip to Maine a century earlier.

He lets the reader know that it is indeed possible to travel in a canoe from New York City to Alaska, and down the Yukon, to the Bering Sea (with, perhaps, a few portages …)

And we learn a few new word meanings: “to frog it” is to manhandle a canoe through shallow, rushing water, standing on its side. And how five men manage their “acute propinquity” during several weeks in the wilderness? Their “continued sense of motions, the clear possession of a course to follow, the sense of journey” bring them all closer together.” Plus the loons forever laughing at them …

The end? They finally reach the conclusion of their travel, disappointed that they have seen not one moose, predicted at their start. Then, as they are driving south, they are forced to the side of the dirt road to let a moose rush by, going north, pursued by a huge truck.

John McPhee is now 90. I eagerly await his next set of musings.

Editor’s Note: ‘The Survival of the Bark Canoe’ by John McPhee is published by Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York, 1975.

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, Conn., he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, a subject which 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 late wife, Ann, was 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 visited every summer.

Reading Uncertainly? ‘Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science’ by Richard Dawkins

“But I digress …”

Ostensibly a continuation of his autobiography, this engrossing and superbly entertaining ramble by Dr. Dawkins, the noted Oxford zoologist, biologist, and humanist, stretches your knowledge and imagination. Is it possible to read an autobiography that is self-acknowledged as a, “Series of flashbacks, divided into themes, punctuated by digressions and anecdotes,” without losing your place, your mind and your direction?

Certainly!

And oh, those digressions: evidence of a perambulating and ever-curious mind. He drops names in his stories, recollections, and diversions, and it is fascination to follow his mind as it rambles over memory’s landscape, “… flitting like a butterfly as the interest takes me.”

Dawkins warns the reader early in his writing with a poem:

What is Life, if full of stress
We have no freedom to digress?
But if the prospect you enrages
You’d better skip the next few pages!

Neither is he reluctant to throw in a pun, trying to bridge the gap between literature and science, as in, “Où sont les C. P. Snow’s d’antan?” (a corruption of the question of one of France’s most famous poets Francois Villon’s question, Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?, which translates into English as the well-known line, “But where are the snows of yester-year?” taken from Villon’s poem Ballade des dames du temps jadis, which, in turn, roughly translates as, “Ballad of the Ladies of Times Gone By.” C.P. Snow refers to Charles Percy Snow, who was an acclaimed English novelist and physical chemist.)

Charles Darwin and natural selection lie at the core of his studies: ”Natural selection is a miserly economist, invisibly counting the pennies, the nuances of cost and benefit too subtle for us, the observing scientists, to notice,” and “gene survival” is our dominant “utility.”

Dawkins is also known for his acerbic reactions to religious dogma and beliefs, a member of a writing group that includes Bertrand Russell, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. His conclusion: “I have tried but consistently failed to find anything in theology to be serious about. Yet he is equally candid about the ever-present “limitations of science.”

I’ve read his The Selfish Gene, The God Delusion, and The Greatest Show on Earth, and fully intend to continue to be challenged as well as enlightened by his words. His penultimate chapter, some 120 pages, is a review of the themes from his 12 books:

  • Explaining the gene as a replicator and a vehicle
  • Extending the phenotype
  • Genes as a ‘gigantic colony of viruses,” both amicable and malevolent
  • Survival requires avoiding “being too risk-averse” and being “too laid-back.”
  • Using a “functional story” as a ‘powerful aid to memory.”
  • The sonar of bats (Might he have suspected the global arrival of a coronavirus?)
  • “Only changes have surprise value” and “information is a mathematically precise measure of ‘surprise’ “
  • The “power of cumulative natural selection”
  • A cooperative gene is most likely to survive.
  • The “meme” (pronounced like “cream”) is the “new soup of human culture.”
  • And religion: “We have taken on board a convention that religion is off-limits to criticism.,” something that Dawkins resists. We can and should teach about it but we should never indoctrinate children in any particular religious tradition.

Dr. Dawkins’ parting poem, which speaks volumes of the man and his mind, is:

Still time to gentle that good night.
Time to set the world alight.
Time, yet new rainbows to unweave,
Ere going on Eternity Leave.

Editor’s Note:Brief Candle in the Dark’ by Richard Dawkins was published by HarperCollins, 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, Conn., he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, a subject which 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 late wife, Ann, was 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 visited every summer.

Reading Uncertainly? ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’ by Rutger Bregman

Ah! In the midst of a global pandemic and toxic political strife almost everywhere, it is a sheer delight to be encouraged by some optimism.

Rutger Bregman, a Dutch historian, asks some serious questions: are we humans not basically bad, but innately “good? Do crises actually bring out “the best in people” rather than the reverse? Is “resilience . . . universally human”?

He readily acknowledges that we have been immersed for centuries in the idea that we are fatally flawed, an idea thrust on us by religions and many secular ideologies.

“Quite a few religions,” he argues, “take it as a tenet of fact that humans are mired in sin”; that our “news” is a daily drug of negativism, and the annals of our “history” glorifies the “winners” without acknowledging any of the ideas of the losers.

The point of this book: “ … our grim view of humanity is due for radical revision.” He argues “humans, in short, are anything but poker-faced. We constantly leak emotions and are hardwired to relate to the people around us … Our spirits yearn for connection … We are not alone. We have each other.”

His key question: Are humans naturally non-violent, and have we been so for hundreds of thousands of years, or have we evolved, slowly, to be more and more passive? He challenges Stephen Pinker’s thesis, in The Better Angels of Our Nature, that we are slowly and inevitably evolving toward pacific relations.

No, says Bregman: we have always been that way!

He illustrates his argument with numerous fresh analyses of situations and cases, such as the Stanford Prison experiment, the Stanley Milgram “shock” experiment at Yale, the facts about the settlement of Easter Island, an innovative prison modification in Norway, the case of two white South Africans who helped Nelson Mandela, and the famous joint celebration of Christmas Eve by Allied and German troops in December 1914.

So how can we support and enhance this native human instinct? Bregman argues that education continues to be the key: “the freedom to go wherever curiosity leads. To search and discover, to experiment and to create. Not along any lines set out by parents or teachers [or religious and political leaders, I will add.] But just because. For the fun of it.”

This means more contact: “contact engenders more trust, more solidarity, or mutual kindness. Does this mean we should redesign completely our schools? A challenging thought.

Bregman, following many writers, concludes this challenging thesis with “Ten Rules to Live By:” But, being an octogenarian, I find it most difficult to remember more than three things, so here are my three rules, synthesizing his ten:

  1. Doubt almost everything
  2. Be ever curious
  3. Try a different road!

But first, read this book …

Editor’s Note: ‘Humankind’ by Rutger Bregman was published by Little Brown, New York 2020.

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, Conn., he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, a subject which 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 late wife, Ann, was 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 visited every summer.

Reading Uncertainly? Need a Little Light Reading for These Strange Times? Then Consider ‘Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen’ by P. G. Wodehouse

What can we do when we are besieged by a pandemic, offspring reluctant to visit, political chaos, advancing old age, and weather that no longer permits porch luncheons in a toasty sun?

Bertram “Bertie” Wooster, the English gentleman hero of many of P. G. Wodehouse’s novels about life in England many years back, had the answer: Try “the early dinner, the restful spell with a good book or the crossword puzzle, and so to bed”.

Off I went to the Lyme Library, shoving all my serious stuff under the bed. As Mr. Wooster notes in this novel, “ . . . like all village lending libraries, this one had not bothered much about keeping itself up to date,” so I went back to this Wodehouse tale from 1974. Lyme’s Library is far better endowed!

In Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen Bertie is enticed to visit an older aunt in an English village, when he becomes hopelessly enmeshed with an ex-girlfriend, her gentleman friend, her antiquated father, a cast of outrageous characters, plus, of course, a black cat!

And trying to unravel all this mess is Jeeves, Bertie’s “man”, the calmest and most highly-read person in this ménage.

When Bertie says something outrageous, Jeeves responds, “Indeed, Sir?”

When Bertie stumbles on a valid insight, Jeeves says “Precisely, Sir, Rem acu tetegisti. (Latin for “you have hit the nail on the head” – yes, I had to Google that one!). Bertie’s open-mouth reply to Jeeves’ erudition: ‘Eh?”

What comes out of each character’s mouth seldom corresponds to what is in that mind, creating a steady stream of hilarity. Here are some Bertie-isms from just two pages:

“ . . . managing to free my tongue from the uvula with which it had become entangled, I found speech, as I dare say those Darien fellows did eventually.”

“She uttered a sound rather like an elephant taking its foot out of a mud hole in a Burmese teak forest.”

“My impulse was to tell her Tolstoy was off his onion.”

“She disappeared like an eel into the mud.”

“I was reft of speech!”

“the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as someone called them.”

To Bertie, three in the afternoon is “three pip emma.”

My escape from reality ended too quickly.

I may seek what other Wodehouse books Teresa might be hiding in Lyme . . .

Editor’s Note:Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen’ by P. G. Wodehouse was published by Barkie-Jenkins, London 1974.

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, Conn., he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, a subject which 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 late wife, Ann, was 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 visited every summer.

Reading Uncertainly: “Tales From the Ant World” by Edward O. Wilson

Are ants far more important than we humans?

Probably!

That’s my conclusion after reading the latest from this illustrious Professor Emeritus of Harvard with some 33 books to his credit, many of which relate his life-long interest in these creatures

Ants, or the study of myrmecology using the proper scientific terminology, have existed on this earth for some 150 million years, 10 times longer than Homo sapiens. They are survivors of ice ages and hot spells. They operate on this globe in both extreme heat and cold.

Significantly for these times, they are not disease carriers.

They create societies in which females are in complete control (“benevolent matriarchies.”) Males are second-class citizens, primed to exist for one act of reproduction and then depart this life. Ouch!

And, like us, they have traveled from Africa to almost every other spot on earth. They are also “virtuosos of chemical communication,” working together soundlessly. To top it off, they will probably outlive our species by another 50 million years, or at least as this earth exists.

“Ant colonies possess superb resiliency,” suggests Professor Wilson, arguing that we humans should study them more seriously. Compared to the bulk of a human body, an ant is tiny but “ … all the living ants weigh about the same as all we living humans. We don’t go to war against ants, nor do they war against us.”

To Wilson, this proves “an important principle of parasite biology … that the most successful parasite is the one that causes the least damage.” But they are vicious warriors among themselves … very similar to human beings.

Yes, they do travel: ants are great navigators. They manage to move about, “by direct light of the sun and dead reckoning (“dead”  product of “deduced” reckoning) by the spatial gradients of polarized light, spectral composition of light, and the radiant intensity that form cover across the entire vault of the sky.” I do wish I had those capabilities when I navigated my U. S. Navy refrigerator ship across the Pacific some 60-plus years ago!

Can studying ants give us some ideas about the future of human beings? Females in total control — but the “queen” is effectively a slave of the entire colony? Incessant warfare with other colonies? But ultimately, ants are survivors, outlasting us by millions of years.

Read Professor Wilson for some challenging questions.

Editor’s Note: “Tales From the Ant World” by E. O. Wilson was published 2020

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, Conn., he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, a subject which 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 late wife, Ann, was 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 visited every summer.

Reading Uncertainly? ‘Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security’ by Sarah Chayes

What happens when you see blatant corruption first-hand?

Is this the world we now inhabit?

Sarah Chayes, a former NPR correspondent, entrepreneur and foreign policy specialist, now with the Carnegie Foundation, has seen it all and has fought it, not always successfully.

She describes her personal experiences in Afghanistan, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Uzbekistan and Nigeria, with further stories from Europe, England and the United States.

Corruptions (including shakedowns, extortions, favors, subsidies, graft, “lubricities,” and those famous “services” of Don Corleone) are the stimulants of inevitable upheavals. Yet many warned us against its practice: Machiavelli, William of Pagula, and Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali, among others, but we never listen.

Others write that “corruption” is an inherent, genetic inclination of our human brains. Francis Fukuyama, in Political Order and Political Decay, suggests “reciprocal altruism” enabled our species to work together for growth and progress.

Yet that “altruism” is easily subverted into “patronage, clientelism, and the creation and extraction of rents.” So Chayes concludes: “acute government corruption may in fact lie at the root of some of the world’s most dangerous and disruptive security challenges.” The anger at blatantly corrupt “systems” often leads to radicalizing young people.

Revolutions result.

She describes three levels of corruption:

  1. functional (“small-scale palm greasing”)
  2. higher-level (at middle and top levels of government), and
  3. predatory (practiced by police and the military).

The latter may be the most insidious.

A uniform often “removes a person’s individuality; its wearer becomes a faceless member of a mass movement . . . “ easily led by other lemmings. That is why “military-to-military relationships” are so potentially corruptible.

Have we inadvertently drifted into this problem here in the U. S.? Are we being “bulldozed by an over-weaning military?”

Chayes notes our “almost instinctive reflex to lead with the military in moments of international crisis.” Government may be both the cause and the solution to corruption. The Founding Fathers warned against a standing national army, yet that is exactly what we have now.

The religious connection is also present: “the link between kleptocracy and violent religious extremism wasn’t just an Afghanistan thing. It was (is – my italics) a global phenomenon.”

And the visibility of corruption stimulates an inevitable response: “the visible daily contrast between ordinary people’s privations and the ostentatious display of lavish wealth corruptly siphoned off by ruling cliques from what was broadly understood to be public resources.”

But Ms. Chayes’ suggested “remedies,” at the conclusion of her polemic, fall short.

Charters, laws, and an independent judiciary, all of which may have worked in the past, can be co-opted “by some tight-knit network, intent on its own enrichment.”

She lists 10 “tools” we can use (anti-corruption policies, independent regimes for dispensing funds abroad, new laws, cost-benefit analyses, cautious military aid, and flat refusals to pay bribes overseas), but too many of these have already proven susceptible to gaming.

The best, I think, continues to be complete transparency: the access of an independent press and an open Internet. In the end transparency may be our best tool to “forestall extremism that is born of desperation,” a desperation and frustration at the corruption, which is a part of our human nature.

Editor’s Note: ‘Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security’ by Sarah Chayes is published by W. W. Norton, 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, Conn., he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, a subject which 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 late wife, Ann, was 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 visited every summer.

Reading Uncertainly? ‘The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine Watcher’ by Lewis Thomas

There is nothing quite like reading about the advances in medicine in the middle of a pandemic, especially when those advances were first reported to me some 37 years ago.

Lewis Thomas wrote his fluid, literate, and candid autobiography back in 1983, when I first read it. It is his personal story of curiosity, experimentation, failures, and successes. He confirms how much we humans have learned about ourselves … and yet how little we really know.

He describes how medicine has evolved from a doctor holding your hand, prescribing placebos, and murmuring assurances (almost religious rituals) to the start (only a start) of understanding how we tick.

Back in that distant past (before World War II, medicine was “ … bleeding, cupping, violent purging, the raising of blisters by vesicant ointments, the immersion of the body in either ice water or intolerably hot water, endless lists of botanized extracts cooked up and mixed together under the influence of nothing more than pure whim, and all these things were drilled into the heads of medical students …”

Have we improved? Yes, argues the good doctor!

In the past, “ … medicine, for all its façade as a learned profession, was in real life a profoundly ignorant occupation.” Dr. Thomas does suggest that we have actually made progress toward “a genuine science”. Yet even though in the years from the 1940s to the 1980s, we have seen the “mechanization of scientific medicine” with its pluses and minuses, “talking with patients remains a critical element.”

Dr. Thomas goes on: “In real life research is dependent on the human capacity for making predictions that are wrong, and on the even more human gift for bouncing back to try again.  Predictions …  are pure guesses. Error is the mode.”

He also confirms an experiment that I tried some years back. “Sabbaticals are designed not for resting but for getting into new ground for a while.” I took my family to rural England for four months in 1978 and to Australia and New Zealand in 1988, writing both periods. Expansions of understanding …

In almost every chapter, the doctor offers challenging insights.

On latent ignorance: “I am as much in the dark as ever.”

On the role of women in family education: “I believe that this is something that women are better at than men.”

On our ability to work together: “It seems to me that there are solid biological advantages in behavior that result in cooperation and collaboration.” He calls this his “Panglossian bias.”

The author’s conclusion: “ … we are, to begin with, the most improbable of all the earth’s creatures, and maybe it is not without hope that we are also endowed with improbable luck.”

Lewis Thomas died in 1993 but I do heartily recommend any and all of his writings, including The Lives of a Cell, The Medusa and the Snail, The Fragile Species, Et Cetera, Et Cetera, and his best title of all, Late Nights Thoughts While Listening to Mahler’s Third Symphony.

What is a pandemic when we have Lewis Thomas to entrance our minds?

Editor’s Note: ‘The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine Watcher,’ by Lewis Thomas was published by Viking Press, New York, in 1983.

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, Conn., he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, a subject which 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 late wife, Ann, was 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 visited every summer.

Reading Uncertainly: ‘Talking to Strangers’ by Malcolm Gladwell

I admit that I am easily drawn to the words of Malcolm Gladwell, having already absorbed his The Tipping Point (2002), Blink (2007), and Outliers (2011).  I was not disappointed!.

This is yet another intriguing and challenging mental exercise about the way in which our brains tend to mislead us,

Consider meeting someone new and engaging in conversation: afterwards, we think we have understood each other, but have we really?

Gladwell cites many past meetings that have resulted in gross misunderstanding: Cortes and Montezuma; Hitler and Chamberlain; Sandra Bland and the Italian police; Bernie Madoff and investors;, Sandusky and the Penn State authorities.

He suggests the fallacy lies in “… the assumption that we all follow in our own effort to make sense of strangers. We believe that the information gathered from a personal interaction is uniquely valuable.”

It is our instinctive desire to believe what a stranger tells us: our latent bias to trust what we hear. But the emotional responses to others can be and often are misleading.  Gladwell says, “We tend to judge people’s honesty based on their demeanor.” Hesitancy, looking away, stammering, all lead us to doubt, but even those traits are misleading.

We are inevitably a species, “a society (that) does not know how to talk to strangers.” When we look differently, act differently, dress differently, we create instinctive wariness, alarm and natural aversion. When the stranger looks, acts, dresses and sounds like us, our natural sympathies are aroused.

Gladwell’s conclusion? Misunderstandings are entirely natural. “We will never know the whole truth,” so “… what is required of us is constraint and humility.”

So take heed … listen; pause, and think!

Editor’s Note: ‘Talking to Strangers’ by Malcolm Gladwell is published by LittleBrown, New York 2020.

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, Conn., he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, a subject which 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 late wife, Ann, was 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 visited every summer.

Reading Uncertainly: ‘Voyaging with Marionette’ by Ron Breault of Old Lyme


A quarter century ago, an elderly sailor glimpses an attractive middle-aged lady relaxing on the shore of the Connecticut River.  She’s a bit disheveled; her skirt is torn, revealing a bit of what’s underneath, but she’s lovely! He’s immediately smitten, and, like Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, the sailor decides he must have an affair.

The sailor is Ron Breault, an Old Lyme resident and a Niantic Bay racer, and the Lady is not Eliza Doolittle, but Marionette, a 24 ft. Dolphin-class sloop. This book is his enthralling, copiously detailed story of their 25-year love affair.

Today she is “a woman of a certain age” and Ron’s a septuagenarian, but the mutual attraction continues. This book recounts their love life of the past quarter century as they both ask, “What next?”

Ah, the details!

The author has collected the most intimate details of this long-standing affair. He recounts almost every moment of their life together, restoring the lady’s youth, beauty, and speed, building her separate palatial quarters at his home in Old Lyme (with, of course, the complete approval of his wife, Chris), dressing her with a new suit of speedy clothes, and, to top it off, creating a tiny offspring.

The latter’s name is ‘Teer!  I thought: charioteer? musketeer? marketeer? profiteer? Ah yes, puppeteer: the perfect name for the child of Marionette! 

Everything about this voluptuous woman is described: her finery aloft and, mirabile dictu, everything underneath and below. Nothing is left to the imagination …

This loving couple then engage in both cruising and racing, two doing the tango from the Connecticut River to Niantic Bay, Fisher’s Island Sound, Block Island, Narragansett Bay, Buzzard’s Bay, the Canal, the waters of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and, of course, the ultimate nirvana, Maine!

They detail their Penobscot Bay peregrinations from Tenants Harbor, Spruce Head, Rockland, North Haven, Vinalhaven, Isleboro, Eggemoggin Reach, Blue Hill, Deer Isle, Swans Island and on to Mount Desert, with both Southwest Harbor and Northeast Harbor. Plus numerous times in Camden, the heart of sailboat racing in Maine.

Are words insufficient for you?

Your sight is also addled with more than 700+ pictures and photos, and those who want more are directed to the author’s website: www.Dolphin24.org.

Ron and Marionette’s story illustrates superbly that famous conclusion drawn by Rat in Wind in the Willows: “Believe me, my young (and aged?) friend, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

So ease your sheets, cruise downwind a bit, pop a brew or two and enjoy this love story.

Editor’s Note: ‘Voyaging with Marionette’ by Ron Breault is published by Whaler Books, Buena Vista, VA. 2020. To order a copy of this highly recommended book, visit marinermedia.com/product/voyaging-with-marionette/.

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, Conn., he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, a subject which 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 late wife, Ann, was 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 visited every summer.

Reading Uncertainly? ‘Code Red’ by E.J. Dionne

Would you be eager to read a book that is sub-titled “How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite to Save Our Country?

If you lean to the right, probably no; to the left, sure. But as I am a determined independent, I paused.

Dionne is a well-known commentator on evening news programs, a columnist for the Washington Post, and on the faculty of both Georgetown  and Harvard Universities. Whenever I have heard him on the news he has been clear, challenging and articulate.  So I read this book.

We seem to hear nothing but complaints and savage accusations these days, gloom and potential doom; the few of “us” fighting of all of “them.” Dionne opens his treatise with “a spirit of hope, but with a sense of alarm.” Not “doom” but alarm. And that dual sense dominates his entire argument.

He writes, “In a democracy, there are no final victories – or defeats.” We simply evolve imperfectly and with stuttered steps. Dionne suggests that one possible course of action is to try and enlist two “groups” – the moderates and the progressives – to work more closely together for necessary changes in this country.

First, a problem of labels: why are we so willing to plant a defining title on almost everyone? This denies the inherent complexity of each one of us.

Far too often we are assigned a label: left; right (but not up or down!); alt-right; conservative; moderate; progressive; lefty; socialist. The Scandinavian states are labeled “socialist” but many of us might well prefer to live in those societies rather than in our tumultuous group of states.

Dionne notes “… our tendency to confuse labels and reality,” denying our natural human individuality. We are also too quick to assign each one of us to a “class,” another artificial sorting that brings confusion and increasing distance.

Well into his thesis, Dionne quotes Stephen Pearlstein, “ The wealth of nations depends on the vigorous pursuit of self-interest by individuals whose natural and productive selfishness is tempered by moral sentiments such as compassion, generosity and a sense of fair play.” That’s our continuing difficulty: dealing with our natural human altruism and selfishness.

Dionne doesn’t dump all those to his right, but he suggests a first step begin with bringing two “groups” together in an effort to change things. His three themes: First, “a more democratic political structure” reducing the power of money and “the influence of the connected”. Second, addressing “the fraying of community and family bonds”, and third, to “experiment with more ambitious regional and place-based policies”.

In other word, decentralize: more responsibility for states, cities, and towns. It is “our obligation to challenge a system that guarantees only the freedom that money can buy.” Dionne’s suggestion: “the politics of visionary gradualism.” Slow but sure …

Dionne wants to replace a nation of numerous and fractious labels, snarling at each other through social media, with “a sense of ‘we’ … belonging and connectedness … provide the fiber for a health democratic polity.” This requires mutual respect and a willingness to listen, politely, to each other.

Is this possible? Dionne concludes his challenge, “This book offers what might be called articles of conciliation … We must learn to say, ‘We’ about all of our fellow-citizens – and mean it.”

Time to start?

Editor’s Note: ‘Code Red’ by E. J. Dionne is published by St. Martins Press, New  York 2020

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, Conn., he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, a subject which 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 late wife, Ann, was 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 visited every summer.

Reading Uncertainly? ‘The File’ by Timothy Garton Ash -“A Chilling Portrait of Treachery and Compromise” (LeCarré)

Another sleeper!

A neighbor and compulsive reader — as I am too — gave me this paperback with her encouragement. As I started to read, I was somewhat dubious. After all, what is there to interest me in reading about a young Oxford grad student going to Berlin in 1978, and then on to Humboldt University in East Berlin in 1980 to continue his work.

But … it seems this student (the author) was almost immediately the focus of the East German Stasi police, which assumed that he must be an English spy. Shades of John LeCarré.

He guessed, of course, that he might be suspected, but he never realized the extent of the German suspicions and the degree of its work until after the reunion of East and West Germany, and the opening of the Stasi files to his review.

It was, as Ash describes it, “the quiet corruption of mature totalitarianism.” He then went back and first investigated the files on him, and then decided to try and interview many of those who reported on him, some of whom were good friends.

This is the story of what he learned. It is both compelling and fascinating.

He goes on to describe some of their excuses. “I did my job” is the most common, responding to the overwhelming pressure of a repressive and suspicious government.

But what is exceptional about this personal history is its extrapolation to all of us.

Do not many — if not most — of us have that compulsive certainty that we always face “enemies” to be identified, fought and then conquered? It is the classic “us” versus “them”, but, as Pogo correctly pointed out, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

At the same time as the Stasi was investigating both Germans and foreigners, MI6 in England and the CIA in the U.S. were hard at work doing the very same things.

Ash’s conclusion, “ … the paradox at the head of all spying: the key to betrayal is trust.”

But can we really rely on what we have read and what we think we remember?

Ash asks, “How can you ever really know what is fact, what fiction, and what still lies hidden?” The answer is we can’t — there is no such thing as “fact.”

Ash continues, “What we call ‘my life’ is a constantly rewritten version of our own past … Personal memory is such a slippery customer … Our memories decay or sharpen, mellow or sour, with the passage of time and the change of circumstances.”

His conclusion: “Now the galling thing is to discover how much I have forgotten of my own life.”

Me too …

Despite my reliance on many old records saved over the years, when I came to write my own “autobiography” in 2011, I had to acknowledge, candidly, that it was basically a work of fiction!

Editor’s Note:The File’ by Timothy Garton Ash was published by Vintage Books, New York in 1998.

Reading Uncertainly? ‘How Democracies Die’ by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

Two learned Harvard professors open this provocative challenge to many of our conventional beliefs with a brief sentence: “We feel dread  …” Their worry – that “democracy” as we have known it may be seriously threatened: “Democracies may die at the hands not of generals but of elected leaders … who subvert the very process that brought them to power.”

They cite Hitler, Chavez, Castro, Putin, and Erdogan, among past and current elected leaders who trashed democracy, even when some of them retained popular support.

What is democracy?

These professors define it as “a system of government with regular free and fair elections, in which all adult citizens have the right to vote and possess basic civil liberties such as freedom of speech and association.”

But, given the enormous explosion of human population and the way social media can manipulate many of us, are the precepts of democracy and our “Madisonian system of checks and balances,” still workable?

Our system in this country seems to be based on a desired but frequently non-existent “balance” among executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, at local, state, and national levels

They continually pose difficult questions in this book:

  • Are “political parties democracy’s gatekeepers?” Are only two the best course (as in the U.S. and U.K.), or are many better (13 now in Switzerland)?
  • Who or what is an “extremist”? Do open primary elections encourage “extremists’? Do they encourage an enormous flow of money?
  • Are we in the midst of a “collective abdication” of the rules of democracy”?
  • Do “neutral arbiters” (the judiciary, for example) even exist?
  • Do “national referenda even serve a useful purpose, when society is fractured and when social media can move large numbers of voters in different directions almost instantly?

One of the authors’ fascinating chapters is a study of elected authoritarians, citing Peron (Argentina), Correa (Ecuador), Orban (Hungary), Berlusconi (Italy), Fujimori (Peru),  Kaczynski (Poland), Putin (Russia), Erdogan (Turkey), Chavez (Venezuela) and, perhaps to come, AMLO in Mexico.

These Cambridge skeptics conclude (properly!) with more questions:

  • Is the “fundamental problem facing American democracy (our) extreme partisan division?”
  • Is a  “multiethnic democracy in which no ethnic group is in the majority” truly possible? See Switzerland now …
  • Is it possible to be “both multiracial and genuinely democratic”?
  • Is trust possible?

There seem to be two critical norms for the continuation of “democracy”: the first is institutional forbearance (don’t try to control and manage everything) and natural toleration (respecting the opinions and habits of other others), but far too often religious beliefs and ethnic habits tend to corrupt our political universe.

Editor’s Note: ‘How Democracies Die’ by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt is published by Broadway Books, New York 2018.

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, a subject which 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 late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in mid-coast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

Reading Uncertainly? “The Cockroach” by Ian McEwan

Cockroaches have successfully inhabited this earth for more than 300 million years and are like to continue to do so for millions more, so long as it exists. But what about their working relationship with Homo sapiens, we relative newcomers?

Ian McEwan, one of my favorite authors, suggests in this political satire that they may well take matters into their own hands (six each) in order to preserve their habitat. With the growing chaotic conditions in England, a group of cockroaches living in relative splendor in the bowels of the “pleasantly decaying” Palace of Westminster decide to act.

One, in particular, leaves “the floorboards, safety and solace among millions of its siblings” to make the treacherous crawl to Number 10 Downing Street, through a crack in the front door, up several flights of stairs and into the bedroom, where it (he) then takes over the body of and becomes the Prime Minister. Several of his mates also take over other government officials.

Their goal: make the United Kingdom (or what’s left if it) adopt a radical new economic policy called “Reversalism:” “Let the money flow be reversed and the entire economic system, even the nation itself, will be purified, purged of absurdities, waste and injustice.” It will be “forbidden by law to hoard cash.” “Bank deposits will attract high negative interest rates.” “The government sends out tax gifts to its workers.” You will pay an employer to take a job. You will be paid to take food and goods. In other words, spend!

The Prime Minister (appropriately named “Jim Sams” from Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, in Metamorphosis) then plans a telephone call to the President of the United States to try and persuade him to adopt this new economic policy. “It was 6 p.m. in Washington. The president would be busy watching television and might not appreciate the interruption.”

But Sams went ahead, background noise and all. The conversation was, as he reported, “all poetry, smoothly combining density of meaning with fleet-footed liberation from detail …  There was nothing more liberating than a closely knit sequence of lies.” The president is never named, but the PM is interrupted when he starts to ask, “How is Mel—“

At the end of this brief exposition, our cockroach leaves the body of the Prime Minister and crawls safely back to its compatriots at the Palace, secure in the knowledge that universal adoption of Reversalism will result in a dramatic reduction of the human species on this earth, thus assuring the continuity of cockroaches.

 A delightful, challenging, and worrisome satire.

Editor’s Note: “The Cockroach” by Ian McEwan is published by Anchor Books, New York 2019

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, a subject which 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 late wife, Ann, was 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 visited every summer.