August 2022 books read

  • Hot Money – Dick Francis, 1989. Re-read but maybe only for the second time as I think I got it towards the end of my first Francis deep dive. He’s shrinking on me as I age, but I went on to:
  • Longshot – Dick Francis, 1991. This one is still a winner. The relationship between survival writer John Kendall and the family he accidentally falls into is charming, and the plot is good.
  • Detransition, Baby – Torrey Peters, 2021.
  • Summer World: A Season of Bounty – Bernd Heinrich, 2009. Quotes pulled, TBD.
  • Le côté de Guermantes – Marcel Proust, 1920-1921. Quotes pulled, TBD.
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values – Robert M. Pirsig, 1974.
  • Over Sea, Under Stone – Susan Cooper, 1965. Re-read for Annabookbel’s #TDiRS22
  • The Stand – Stephen King, 1978. Umpteenth comfort re-read of the original edition, as I think the updated/uncut version is worse in many ways. But I notice the racism of the original sticks out more each time, and I wonder to what extent he fixed that in the 1990 edition. (I read it once, but that was more than 20 years ago – I agree with the GoodReads reviewer who calls it “probably the single greatest argument for a good editor in publishing history.”)
  • Ex Libris – Matt Madden, 2021. Intriguing meta graphic novel.
  • The Secret to Superhuman Strength – Alison Bechdel, 2021. Much better than Are You My Mother? – equally pretentious, but it worked for me and I very much identified with Bechdel’s love for workout gear and athletic fads.
  • When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi, 2016. I heard a lot about this touching memoir when it came out and finally got around to reading it – it is very good.
  • Wild Boy: My Life in Duran Duran – Andy Taylor, 2008. Unfortunately not very well-written or interesting, especially compared to In the Pleasure Groove, but that one had a co-writer (Tom Sykes). If AT had a ghost for this, they didn’t do a very good job. He doesn’t seem very self-aware or to have thought about what readers would want to know. Nonetheless I’m a big enough Duran Duran fan that I’m glad I read it. And this comparison is making me change my mind a bit – perhaps AT has more good bits scattered in there, hidden in the thicket of cliches…
  • Mistress Masham’s Repose – T. H. White, 1946. Another many-times comfort re-read. I shared the especially funny bits with Jonathan so I’ve compiled them.
  • The Talented Mr. Ripley – Patricia Highsmith, 1955. I finally read this after watching Purple Noon with the Far Out Film group (I also saw the 1999 film early on) and liked it OK – not my favorite genre and so dark, but I can see why it’s a classic of its kind.

And a short story: “Cold Clews,” one of Erle Stanley Gardner‘s stories featuring Lester Leith, recommended by Jonathan. Leith is a con man who simultaneously solves thefts and gets the goods for himself by incredibly baroque con jobs, and this was the wackiest one in the collection Jonathan read. I see this format is described as “puzzle plots.”

Mistress Masham’s Repose – T. H. White, 1946 – the funny bits

Not a proper post, just a listing of some place-names:

  • Biggle
  • Bishop’s Boozey
  • Bumley-Beausnort
  • Duke’s Doddery
  • Dumbledum-Meanly
  • Dunamany Wenches
  • Gloomleigh
  • Idiot’s Utterly
  • High Hiccough
  • Maid’s Malplaquet
  • Malplaquet-in-the-Mould
  • Malplaquet Middling
  • Malplaquet St. Swithin’s
  • Mome
  • Monk’s-Unmentionable-cum-Mumble
  • Ort

And the sequence of interactions between the Professor and the Lord Lieutenant:

The Professor had found the Lord Lieutenant out of bed. The latter happened to be the Master of the Malplaquet Hounds, the one with the electric bell-indicator which Maria had coveted for Gull Island, and he had evidently been having a Hunt Ball or a Farmers Dinner, for he was dressed in a scarlet tail coat with violet facings, and was wearing the buttons of the Hunt, awarded only For Valor. He had changed into mauve carpet slippers with his monogram worked in gold.

He was a tall man with an anxious expression, and he had a walrus mustache which he had to lift with one finger, when he wanted to eat.

He took the Professor into the Dining Room, and gave him a glass of port, while the latter told his story.

The Dining Room had a polished mahogany table with a sideboard to match, and fourteen chairs ranged round the walls, where the servants had to say their prayers every morning. The wallpaper was dark red and there were oil paintings on the walls. There was a picture of the Lord Lieutenant on a Borzoi-looking horse, by Lionel Edwards, with a lot of hounds wandering about among its legs. There was one of the Lady Lieutenant, on a roly-poly one, by Munnings, and another of some of the little Lieutenants, on anatomical ones, by Stewart. There was a baby Lieutenant, on a rocking horse, and several generations of Grandpa Lieutenants, on mounts called Mazeppa, Eclipse, or the Arab Steed. Some of the pictures were of mares and stallions by themselves, and these included honest creatures by Romney, fiery creatures by Delacroix, sagacious creatures by Landseer, and dotty animals with distended nostrils by anonymous eighteenth-century artists. The only person not on a horse was the Hon. Lettuce Lieutenant, the eldest daughter, who had made the mistake of being done by Augustus John. He had left it out on purpose, out of spite.

The Lord Lieutenant said: “But I say, I mean to say, do you mean to say, old boy, that this vicar of yours and that charmin’ Miss What’s-her-name have been maltreatin’ the gel in the what-do-you-may-call-it?”

“I have been trying to tell you …”

“But, good Lord, my dear chap, you can’t do that sort of thing in the nineteenth century, or the twentieth, or whatever it is. I mean, you take the first two figures, and add one, or subtract one, I forgot which, for reasons I never could fathom, possibly owin’ to these X’s which those chaps are always writin’ on monuments, and then it is different. Now, take horses …”

The Lord Lieutenant poured himself a glass of port, inserted it neatly under his mustache, and eyed the Professor warily across a silver horse full of walnuts.

“There you are, you see. All hearsay. Now, take horses. You are always meetin’ chaps who say they know of a horse that trotted thirty miles an hour, but when you ask them was it their horse, they say it was some other chap’s horse, and there you are. Now …”

“Good heavens …”

“Here, have a cigar. We keep them in this filly here, for parties. Look, you just press her tail down, like this, and the cigar comes out of her mouth, like that, oh, I’m sorry, and at the same moment her nostrils burst into flame, so that you can light it. Neat, isn’t it?”

The cigar shot out of a gold-plated steed, hitting the Professor on the nose, while a musical box inside the creature’s stomach played the last bars of “A-Huntin’ We Will Go.”

“I came to ask …”

“My dear old boy, look here, be advised by me. You drop the whole thing. You’ve got it muddled up. Perfectly natural, of course; no criticism intended. Anybody could get muddled on a thing like that, I should have done myself. But when you’ve been a Lord Lieutenant as long as I have, or a Chief Constable, or whatever I am, you’ll know that the first thing a Lord Lieutenant has to get hold of is a motive. Can’t have a crime without it. I assure you, it’s an absolute fact. First thing a criminal must do is get a motive. It’s in a book I read. Printed. Now what motive could Miss What-you-may-call-it possibly have for wanting to hand-cuff young Thingummy in the what’s-it?”

“Whereabouts, eh? Gypsies, I daresay. Wonderful chaps with horses. Now …”

“Not roundabouts!” shouted the Professor. “Whereabouts …”

“Here, have some coffee. We keep it in this copper horse here, with the methylated lamp under its tummy. You just twist his near fore, like this, and it pours out of his ear, like that, oh, I’m sorry, and the sugar is strewed about in this silver-plated stable here, to represent bedding. Pretty, isn’t it?”

The Professor mopped the coffee off his knees despairingly, while the coffeepot played “John Peel.”

“I have a right as a citizen of this country to ask for police protection, and it is your duty, as the Lord Lieutenant, to investigate the grounds …”

“Good Lord, old boy, you can’t have police protection here. What’s the good of sending old Dumbledum to protect you? Besides, I happen to know he has a lumbago. His wife sent up to borrow a smoothing iron only this evening. And who, may I ask, would stop all the motor cars, and take their licenses and that, if Dumbledum was protecting you all the time?”

“Dumbledum …”

“Here, have a chocolate. We keep them in this china hunter here, for convenience. You just lift its tail, like this, and the chocolate comes out there, like that, oh, I’m sorry, and he plays the ‘Meynell Hunt,’ only some of the notes are missing. Useful, isn’t it?”

The Professor fished the chocolate out of his coffee with fury.

“And another thing, old boy. What about witnesses? That’s one of the first things you have to have in a crime, believe me, as a Lord Lieutenant—unless you go in for circumstantial evidence, as we call it, or whatever they call it. Witnesses! It’s vital. You can’t do anything, hardly, without them. Look at that fellow who blew the other fellow up, unless it was himself, in the garage, or the swimmin’ bath, or whatever it was, only the other day. He had dozens of witnesses. Blew them all up as well. You see? I mean, you could almost say that you can’t do a crime without ’em. And where are yours, do you suppose?”

“I have a witness, Mrs. Noakes.”

“And who is Mrs. Noakes, when she’s at home?”

“Mrs. Noakes is the cook at Malplaquet.”

“Good Lord, not Mrs. Noakes! Mrs. Noakes is Mrs. Noakes? Why, I know Mrs. Noakes as well as me own mother. That’s an extraordinary thing, I must say, I mean that she should be her! Well, I remember her quails in aspic, in the old Duke’s day, poor fellow, yes, and her oyster soufflé. An invaluable woman. Often we tried to get her to come over to us, but she preferred to stay. Family feelin’. Now, take horses …”

“Not horses!”

“Well, hounds then.”

“Not hounds!”

“Yes, hounds. Take hounds. A hound will eat almost anything.”

“Here, have a cigarette. We keep them in this platinum polo pony here, for sentimental reasons. It’s an old pony of my own, poor chap. Dead, of course. Must have been dead about forty years by now. You just lift up the polo stick, like this, and he opens his mouth, like that, and out comes a cigarette, oh, I’m sorry, use a napkin, and, as you see, he plays ‘Old Faithful.’ Sad, isn’t it?”

The platinum pony had shot out a stream of about fifty cigarettes, knocking over the coffee and the port into the Professor’s lap.

He leaped to his feet, banged the table, and shouted wildly: “I demand a hearing! I refuse to be pelted with these articles!”

Then he folded his arms and sat down on a comic cushion, which began to play “Boot, Saddle, to Horse, and Away.”

“Good Lord, old boy, what are you sitting on that for? You aren’t supposed to sit on that. It’s supposed to be a sort of trick, to catch people …”

The Professor hurled the cushion on the floor, which made it play again, swept several horses out of the way, and shook his fist under the Lord Lieutenant’s nose.

“No good browbeatin’ me, old boy. Everybody always browbeats Lord Lieutenants. Doesn’t do a bit of good. To tell you the bitter truth, I simply don’t believe a word you say. Tryin’ to pull me leg. Won’t work. Now, if Mrs. Noakes was to tell me all this about dungeons and things, I’d believe her like a shot. I’d believe her if she told me that a mince pie was a ham omelet. But when a chap like you comes along, jabberin’ about roundabouts …”

“But I tell you that Mrs. Noakes will corroborate what I say …”

“Produce her, then. Produce your witness. That’s what we say, in the Law, you know. Produce your witness.”

“How can I produce her when she’s an old woman with a bad leg five miles away in the middle of the night?”

“There you are, you see. As soon as we get down to brass tacks, you always say it can’t be done. Like trottin’ at thirty miles an hour. I say I’ll believe Mrs. Noakes, you say you can’t produce her. I say I don’t believe you, you start chuckin’ cushions about. Now, take horses …”

The Professor clutched his whiskers.

“Take horses. You can always believe a horse. I always say to everybody, Give me a horse, and I’ll believe it. If a horse says there is wire in that gap, believe me, my boy, there is wire in it. Or take hounds. I always say to everybody, Give me a hound, and I’ll believe it. If a hound says there is a fox in that gooseberry bush, or in that hatbox, or wherever it is, believe me, my boy, there is a fox in it. Always believe a horse or a hound.”

The Professor had sunk back in his chair, pulling his hair out in tufts, when there was a gentle scratching on the door.

“That’s one of the hounds,” said the Lord Lieutenant happily. “Let him in, there’s a good fellow. I suppose I must have fourteen or fifteen of them round about the house, in various places. They sit under all those chairs at dinner and wait for biscuits, like dear old Lord Lonsdale. Always believe …”

A footman, however, opened the door, and announced deferentially: “A strange dog, me Lord.”

Captain was standing politely on the mat, with a shopping basket in his mouth. When he saw the Professor, he wagged his tail and came in.

The Professor read the letter in the basket and passed it to the Lord Lieutenant.

“Read for yourself.”

“Dear me, a letter from the dog. Interesting, very.”

He produced an eyeglass from his waistcoat pocket, disentangled the ribbon from his mustache, fixed it in his eye, and began to spell the letter out.

“ ‘Kind sir come back at onct …’ Bad spelling, that. Should be an S in it. However, you can’t expect good spelling from a dog. It’s not their nature. ‘… as them as what you knows of sir is up to triks again, namely that here Vicar and his fly by nite’—Good Lord, that will be Miss What’s-her-name, just like you said—‘and have gorn off’—good heavens—‘gorn off to cut Maria’s throat’! Poor child, poor child, good gracious, this is shockin’! ‘So please to come at onct’—I should think so, too—‘as If not it may be two late and Tell His Lordship’—that will be me, I expect—‘to bring the Army’! My stars, thank heaven the hound has come in time! Always believe a hound! How clever of him to write it. Must have learned it in a circus or somewhere. Bring the Army, he says. Yes, of course. The Army. Fancy cutting a child’s throat like that! Well, we must act. Action. Let me see. Where’s Kingdom? Somebody fetch me Kingdom. Oh, there you are, Kingdom. Here, Kingdom, get me some people on the telephone. Get me the Army and the Navy and the Air Force and the Fire Brigade and the Home Guard and the Rural District Council and the St. John’s Ambulance Association. Get me. Here, get me the telephone. I’ll do it meself.”

The butler carried in a telephone in the form of a plastic Derby winner, and the Lord Lieutenant began to shout commands into its mouth, occasionally applying its tail to his ear.

“Is that the Exchange? Where is the Exchange? Why not? Well then, why didn’t you say so? Get me Mr. Winston Churchill. Certainly I said Mr. Winston Churchill. Give him to me at once. Who the deuce are you, Sir? I tell you I’m the Lord Lieutenant. No, I’m not. Yes, you are. An imposter? So are you. That settled him. What? My good man, what’s the use of Mr. Attlee? Get me Mr. Churchill, like I said.”

Well, they dissuaded him from recalling Mr. Churchill at last. After that, he wanted to have General Eisenhower, Field Marshal Montgomery or Scotland Yard. The Professor cunningly went aside and wrote a message, which he persuaded Captain to deliver, saying that though the Far Eastern Battle Fleet might be very useful, yet they themselves, being on the spot, would be sure to get there sooner. The Lord Lieutenant was delighted by this second example of canine sagacity, and agreed to send at once for P. C. Dumbledum. The posse was collected without further argument.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values – Robert Pirsig, 1974

Re-read for Great Books; I remember my dad reading it in the ’70s, and I first picked it up myself in college (maybe another re-read in my 20s or so? not sure). I do think it’s not aged particularly well, but I wasn’t vastly disappointed the way most of the others were.

The contrast between the narrator and his friend John, who doesn’t want to deal with technology, is still fascinating to me (see long quote below). As a hands-one person myself, I resonate so hard with the narrator. But he’s such a jerk to his poor son Chris, who is only ELEVEN! Other book group people were agitated about him taking Chris on the trip because of physical safety – that didn’t bother me, but the lack of emotional safety/support did. And the lack of understanding of a child, expecting him to act like an adult. “He’s angry and I expect we’re going to have one of his little scenes.” The contempt! Ugh.

I did enjoy the reveal of Phaedrus (the narrator’s former self), concluding with “Unusual behavior tends to produce estrangement in others which tends to further the unusual behavior and thus the estrangement in self-stoking cycles until some sort of climax is reached. In Phaedrus’ case there was a court-ordered police arrest and permanent removal from society.” It becomes like a detective story. I don’t always agree with Phaedrus, but his observations on science and teaching are fascinating. But I really trip over “Quality” as his primary value – pace Humpty Dumpty, I can’t make it mean what he wants it to mean.

Short quotes

  • “The truth knocks on the door and you say, ‘Go away, I’m looking for the truth,’ and so it goes away.”
  • “Physical discomfort is important only when the mood is wrong. Then you fasten on to whatever thing is uncomfortable and call that the cause. But if the mood is right, then physical discomfort doesn’t mean much.”
  • “Logic exists in the mind. Numbers exist only in the mind. I don’t get upset when scientists say that ghosts exist in the mind. It’s that only that gets me. Science is only in your mind too, it’s just that that doesn’t make it bad. Or ghosts either.”
  • “what old time radio men called a ‘short between the ear-phones,’ failures to use the head properly”
  • “The real purpose of scientific method is to make sure Nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something you don’t actually know.”
  • “You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.”
  • “I know how instructions like this are put together. You go out on the assembly line with a tape recorder and the foreman sends you to talk to the guy he needs least, the biggest goof-off he’s got, and whatever he tells you—that’s the instructions. The next guy might have told you something completely different and probably better, but he’s too busy.”
  • “This divorce of art from technology is completely unnatural. It’s just that it’s gone on so long you have to be an archeologist to find out where the two separated. Rotisserie assembly is actually a long-lost branch of sculpture, so divorced from its roots by centuries of intellectual wrong turns that just to associate the two sounds ludicrous.”
  • “One thing about pioneers that you don’t hear mentioned is that they are invariably, by their nature, mess-makers. They go forging ahead, seeing only their noble, distant goal, and never notice any of the crud and debris they leave behind them. Someone else gets to clean that up and it’s not a very glamorous or interesting job.”
  • “That wall in Korea that Phaedrus saw was an act of technology. It was beautiful, but not because of any masterful intellectual planning or any scientific supervision of the job, or any added expenditures to ‘stylize’ it. It was beautiful because the people who worked on it had a way of looking at things that made them do it right unselfconsciously. They didn’t separate themselves from the work in such a way as to do it wrong.”
  • “I like the word ‘gumption’ because it’s so homely and so forlorn and so out of style it looks as if it needs a friend and isn’t likely to reject anyone who comes along.” (I did not get how “gumption” was connected to Quality – more Humpty Dumpty. But I loved coming across it because it’s a byword on the wonderful Ask a Manager site.)
  • “There isn’t a mechanic alive who doesn’t louse up a job once in a while. The main difference between you and the commercial mechanics is that when they do it you don’t hear about it—just pay for it, in additional costs prorated through all your bills. When you make the mistakes yourself, you at least get the benefit of some education.”
  • “I have heard that there are two kinds of welders: production welders, who don’t like tricky setups and enjoy doing the same thing over and over again; and maintenance welders, who hate it when they have to do the same job twice. The advice was that if you hire a welder make sure which kind he is, because they’re not interchangeable.”
  • “The conversation’s pace intrigues me. It isn’t intended to go anywhere, just fill the time of day. I haven’t heard steady slow-paced conversation like that since the thirties when my grandfather and great-grandfather and uncles and great-uncles used to talk like that: on and on and on with no point or purpose other than to fill time, like the rocking of a chair.”
  • “the tendency underlying all the evil of our technology, the tendency to do what is ‘reasonable’ even when it isn’t any good
  • “When a shepherd goes to kill a wolf, and takes his dog to see the sport, he should take care to avoid mistakes. The dog has certain relationships to the wolf the shepherd may have forgotten.”

Longer quotes

In this Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated. “What’s new?” is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question “What is best?,” a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream.

But what struck me for the first time was the agreement of these manuals with the spectator attitude I had seen in the shop. These were spectator manuals. It was built into the format of them. Implicit in every line is the idea that “Here is the machine, isolated in time and in space from everything else in the universe. It has no relationship to you, you have no relationship to it, other than to turn certain switches, maintain voltage levels, check for error conditions…” and so on. That’s it. The mechanics in their attitude toward the machine were really taking no different attitude from the manual’s toward the machine, or from the attitude I had when I brought it in there. We were all spectators. And it occurred to me there is no manual that deals with the real business of motorcycle maintenance, the most important aspect of all. Caring about what you are doing is considered either unimportant or taken for granted.

John is horrified at the idea of fixing his motor with a shim from a beer can – this is one of my favorite sections in the whole book:

He was actually offended at the time. I had had the nerve to propose repair of his new eighteen-hundred-dollar BMW, the pride of a half-century of German mechanical finesse, with a piece of old beer can! … I should say, to explain this, that beer-can aluminum is soft and sticky, as metals go. Perfect for the application. Aluminum doesn’t oxidize in wet weather—or, more precisely, it always has a thin layer of oxide that prevents any further oxidation. Also perfect.

In other words, any true German mechanic, with a half-century of mechanical finesse behind him, would have concluded that this particular solution to this particular technical problem was perfect.

For a while I thought what I should have done was sneak over to the workbench, cut a shim from the beer can, remove the printing and then come back and tell him we were in luck, it was the last one I had, specially imported from Germany. That would have done it. A special shim from the private stock of Baron Alfred Krupp, who had to sell it at a great sacrifice. Then he would have gone gaga over it. …

I had been seeing that shim in a kind of intellectual, rational, cerebral way in which the scientific properties of the metal were all that counted. John was going at it immediately and intuitively, grooving on it. I was going at it in terms of underlying form. He was going at it in terms of immediate appearance. I was seeing what the shim meant. He was seeing what the shim was. That’s how I arrived at that distinction. And when you see what the shim is, in this case, it’s depressing. Who likes to think of a beautiful precision machine fixed with an old hunk of junk?

I should talk now about Phaedrus’ knife. It’ll help understand some of the things we talked about.

The application of this knife, the division of the world into parts and the building of this structure, is something everybody does. All the time we are aware of millions of things around us—these changing shapes, these burning hills, the sound of the engine, the feel of the throttle, each rock and weed and fence post and piece of debris beside the road—aware of these things but not really conscious of them unless there is something unusual or unless they reflect something we are predisposed to see. We could not possibly be conscious of these things and remember all of them because our mind would be so full of useless details we would be unable to think. From all this awareness we must select, and what we select and call consciousness is never the same as the awareness because the process of selection mutates it. We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.

Once we have the handful of sand, the world of which we are conscious, a process of discrimination goes to work on it. This is the knife. We divide the sand into parts. This and that. Here and there. Black and white. Now and then. The discrimination is the division of the conscious universe into parts.

The handful of sand looks uniform at first, but the longer we look at it the more diverse we find it to be. Each grain of sand is different. No two are alike. Some are similar in one way, some are similar in another way, and we can form the sand into separate piles on the basis of this similarity and dissimilarity. Shades of color in different piles—sizes in different piles—grain shapes in different piles—subtypes of grain shapes in different piles—grades of opacity in different piles—and so on, and on, and on. You’d think the process of subdivision and classification would come to an end somewhere, but it doesn’t. It just goes on and on.

Classical understanding is concerned with the piles and the basis for sorting and interrelating them. Romantic understanding is directed toward the handful of sand before the sorting begins. Both are valid ways of looking at the world although irreconcilable with each other.

What has become an urgent necessity is a way of looking at the world that does violence to neither of these two kinds of understanding and unites them into one. Such an understanding will not reject sand-sorting or contemplation of unsorted sand for its own sake. Such an understanding will instead seek to direct attention to the endless landscape from which the sand is taken. That is what Phaedrus, the poor surgeon, was trying to do.

To understand what he was trying to do it’s necessary to see that part of the landscape, inseparable from it, which must be understood, is a figure in the middle of it, sorting sand into piles. To see the landscape without seeing this figure is not to see the landscape at all. To reject that part of the Buddha that attends to the analysis of motorcycles is to miss the Buddha entirely.

[Phaedrus pursued] a ghost which calls itself rationality but whose appearance is that of incoherence and meaninglessness, which causes the most normal of everyday acts to seem slightly mad because of their irrelevance to anything else. This is the ghost of normal everyday assumptions which declares that the ultimate purpose of life, which is to keep alive, is impossible, but that this is the ultimate purpose of life anyway, so that great minds struggle to cure diseases so that people may live longer, but only madmen ask why. One lives longer in order that he may live longer. There is no other purpose. That is what the ghost says.

An untrained observer will see only physical labor and often get the idea that physical labor is mainly what the mechanic does. Actually the physical labor is the smallest and easiest part of what the mechanic does. By far the greatest part of his work is careful observation and precise thinking. That is why mechanics sometimes seem so taciturn and withdrawn when performing tests. They don’t like it when you talk to them because they are concentrating on mental images, hierarchies, and not really looking at you or the physical motorcycle at all. They are using the experiment as part of a program to expand their hierarchy of knowledge of the faulty motorcycle and compare it to the correct hierarchy in their mind. They are looking at underlying form.

I don’t think the conclusion here is entirely correct, but it’s interesting:

The more you look, the more you see. Instead of selecting one truth from a multitude you are increasing the multitude. What this means logically is that as you try to move toward unchanging truth through the application of scientific method, you actually do not move toward it at all. You move away from it! It is your application of scientific method that is causing it to change!

Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself. This leaf has jagged edges. This rock looks loose. From this place the snow is less visible, even though closer. These are things you should notice anyway. To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow.

Mu as “no thing,” neither yes nor no:

The dualistic mind tends to think of mu occurrences in nature as a kind of contextual cheating, or irrelevance, but mu is found throughout all scientific investigation, and nature doesn’t cheat, and nature’s answers are never irrelevant. It’s a great mistake, a kind of dishonesty, to sweep nature’s mu answers under the carpet. Recognition and valuation of these answers would do a lot to bring logical theory closer to experimental practice. Every laboratory scientist knows that very often his experimental results provide mu answers to the yes-no questions the experiments were designed for. In these cases he considers the experiment poorly designed, chides himself for stupidity and at best considers the “wasted” experiment which has provided the mu answer to be a kind of wheel-spinning which might help prevent mistakes in the design of future yes-no experiments.

With nuts and bolts you’re in the range of large mechanical forces and you should understand that within these ranges metals are elastic. When you take up a nut there’s a point called “finger-tight” where there’s contact but no takeup of elasticity. Then there’s “snug,” in which the easy surface elasticity is taken up. Then there’s a range called “tight,” in which all the elasticity is taken up. The force required to reach these three points is different for each size of nut and bolt, and different for lubricated bolts and for locknuts. The forces are different for steel and cast iron and brass and aluminum and plastics and ceramics. But a person with mechanic’s feel knows when something’s tight and stops. A person without it goes right on past and strips the threads or breaks the assembly.

In this book I learned about:

Summer World: A Season of Bounty – Bernd Heinrich, 2009

Read for Nature and Environment. We liked it, although not as much as Winter World – it’s not as focused; it rambles all over the map. It’s a beautifully designed book, with green print on cream paper, but not quite enough contrast for easy reading.


The possibility of individual caterpillars to generate amazingly different forms makes me appreciate what is possible in the debate over nature versus nurture. Much of what we are and become depends on minute subtleties, and that gives me hope in the reality of free will, and its power if we choose to exert it.

The sugar borers have achieved, or are held to, something enviable. They are in a world of plenty, so none go hungry, destroy their habitat, or jostle and interfere with each other. Somewhere there is a check on their natural rate of increase, and you can be sure of one thing—that if they could tell us what they wanted at any one time, they would vote to obliterate the forces that hold them in check, the forces that ensure their long-term benefits. And so, probably, would we, if we voted merely on the basis of our individual interests.

We can still compete with cheetahs, lions, and leopards in running down antelope, but we can do it only in the midday heat. And the reason is that we have the mental capacity to pursue a goal that we can neither see nor smell but that we can imagine. Additionally we have a unique suite of adaptation to deal with internally generated body heat under the blazing sun. They include our nakedness, our ability to route blood to the surface of our extremities so that our veins bulge at the surface of exposed skin, and our ability to sweat profusely over the skin. These are capacities needed by hunters who get their edge through endurance in the heat.

In this book I learned

  • Reason for separate leaf/flower buds (which I learned to distinguish when doing spring observation of “Order of Bloom” at the Botanic Garden): strategic time-wise separation, for example wind-pollinated before leaves, bee-pollinated in late summer when insect activity is peaking
  • Woodfrogs “often freeze solid, and in that condition they don’t have a heartbeat, breathing, digestion, or activity of the brain cells. A reputable human pathologist … would conclude that they are dead.”
  • Red-eyed vireos decorate their nests with bits of hornet nests – not as insulation, not structural, and “hornet paper is hard to come by.” Heinrich theorizes maybe it deters squirrels (e.g.) from approaching the nest?
  • Additionally, he says wood thrushes incorporate snake skin, catbirds line their nests with rootlets and decorate with grape bark, and ravens and chickadees use fur – no speculation as to why.
  • In his studies of bumblebees, Heinrich found that individual bees became specialists in particular flowers – “they developed ‘search images’ of what flowers to look for.”
  • Some caterpillars eat leaves selectively so they look the same but smaller (rather than full of holes) – to avoid giving away their presence
  • Longhorn beetles can detect tree injury – “when I chop down a pine, fir, or spruce, one group of these beetles, the sawyers, Monochamus, come flying in—within minutes!”
  • Before flower nectar is available, hummingbirds rely on the insects that yellow-bellied sapsuckers draw to their weep holes
  • “We breed ’em, you feed ’em” — bumper sticker of the Maine Blackfly Breeders Association
  • “Sand grouse in Africa have special feathers on the breast that soak up water so that it can be easily carried back to the nest. The young sip the water from the tips of the feathers, like baby mammals suckling on their mother’s teats.”
  • Cicadas are active when it’s too hot for their predator, cooling themselves with the equivalent of sweat glands.
  • Welwitschia – I love visiting the big one at Smith Botanic Garden!
  • “Perpetual summer species” – long-distance migrating birds. “They can always live in a summer world, thanks to energy-rich berries and heroic sustained exercise. … We manage the same trick of living in perpetual summer, although not by strenuous biannual migrations but by creating and retreating into ‘climate bubbles.'”
  • Heinrich claims humans are unique because we have 3 species of lice (head, body, pubic) and no other bird or mammal does. Really??? Is it possible they just haven’t been looked at closely enough? Why would that be? It only took a minute of searching to find that great apes in general have lice of both Pediculus and Pthirus genera, so I’m a little disappointed in the scholarship there.
  • “We still [post-DDT] release about fifty new chemicals into circulation per week. They are tested on lab rats—animals that never experience summer or winter, that live in dumps, and that when tested have no relation to any ecosystem except a sterile cubic plastic box.”
  • Some tree species “time their blooming by not blooming, and thereby control the seed predator population.”
  • “What we observe now is a result of evolution over hundreds of millions of years. But the selective pressures that have acted on some features in the past are now unlikely to occur every year and may be seen only rarely. Instead, they are probably witnessed only at bottlenecks.” That’s like what Beak of the Finch described.
  • I compared notes with my book group on Heinrich claiming he didn’t know rhododendrons rolled their leaves in the cold until he read it in a 2007 paper about rhodys in the mountains of northern China. “I could not believe my eyes when I saw the leaves of rhododendron of two species planted on our campus also rolling up.” We all knew that from first-hand observation. Plant blindness?

Detransition, Baby – Torrey Peters, 2021

Read for Second Monday group. I had heard a lot about this book… I did not love it, but it was both interesting and funny (very dark, though). I very much appreciated that it centered the trans viewpoint, but the behavior of the one cis character wasn’t believable at all.

Short quotes

  • “Danny was a good boyfriend to have when I was younger, when we were in college. Like, in the same way that a Saint Bernard would be a good dog to have if you were lost in the mountains. A big amiable body that a girl could shelter behind.”
  • Ugh but I understand what she’s saying: “His controlling behavior confirmed how badly he wanted her. Anyone who needed her so close, who assumed the right to know where she was at all times, whom she saw, what she wore, was someone who wasn’t going away, someone who could be counted upon, not just despite her trans-ness, but for it.”
  • “the guillotine of sadness would slam down upon her, severing her from her pride”
  • “All my white girlfriends just automatically assume that reproductive rights are about the right to not have children, as if the right and naturalness of motherhood is presumptive. But for lots of other women in this country, the opposite is true. Think about black women, poor women, immigrant women. Think about forced sterilization, about the term ‘welfare queens,’ or ‘anchor babies.’ All of that happened to enforce the idea that not all motherhoods are legitimate.”
  • “According to Reese, units of disappointment should be measured in the difference between a good mango and a bad mango.”
  • “Cream is even less forgiving than white; a single stain on cream and the whole skirt looks vaguely dirty, whereas a single stain on white just looks like a single stain.”
  • “Not a windowpane remains unbroken in the facade, already so vandalized and graffitied that to deface it further would only waste effort, the delinquent equivalent of pissing in the ocean.”
  • Beyond dark to pitch black: “Q: What do you call a remake of a nineties romantic comedy where you cast trans women in all the roles? A: Four Funerals and a Funeral.”

Longer quotes

“What’s a dōTERRA?” Reese asked.

“It’s an essential oil company,” Katrina said. “We’ll have to sit through a presentation, but at the end, I think we make face scrubs.”

This information did not illuminate the situation for Reese. Making face scrubs with a real estate agent? Is this cis culture? What’s next week? Nail art with your financial planner?

…[dōTERRA] targets, with its upscale essential oils, the anxiety of those wellness-obsessed women who are just a little too beholden to middle-class propriety to permit themselves to take up crystals and anti-vaxxing screeds.

How is it, Reese wonders, that a bunch of New York men wearing flannel and slamming whiskey in a cabin is seen as a sorely needed release of their barely tamed and authentic manliness, but when she, a trans, delights in dolling up, she’s trying too hard? It’s not that Reese thinks her desire to dress up reflects some authentic self. It’s just that, unlike bros, she’s willing to call dress-up time what it is.

In this book I learned about

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – John Le Carre

A Second Monday selection. I had never read this before and loved it – I went on to watch the 2011 movie and also started the BBC miniseries (which clearly inspired the wonderful Fry & Laurie “Control and Tony” sketches).

I looked up just one thing: hibitane, a brand name for the disinfectant chlorhexidine but genericized.

Short quotes

  • “…the late Mr. Maltby, the pianist who had been called from choir practice to help the police with their inquiries, and as far as anyone knew was helping them to this day, for Maltby’s trunk still lay in the cellar awaiting instructions.”
  • Ricky Tarr: “‘To possess another language is to possess another soul.’ A great king wrote that, sir, Charles the Fifth.” (It’s widely attributed to Charlemagne but I’d love to find an authoritative source).
  • Lacon: “I once heard someone say morality was method. Do you hold with that? I suppose you wouldn’t. You would say that morality was vested in the aim, I expect. Difficult to know what one’s aims are, that’s the trouble, specially if you’re British.”
  • Connie Sachs: “Her formless white face took on the grandmother’s glow of enchanted reminiscence. Her memory was as compendious as her body and surely she loved it more, for she had put everything aside to listen to it: her drink, her cigarette, even for a while Smiley’s passive hand. She sat no longer slouched but strictly, her big head to one side as she dreamily plucked the white wool of her hair.”
  • Connie again: “‘Poor loves.’ She was breathing heavily, not perhaps from any one emotion but from a whole mess of them, washed around in her like mixed drinks. ‘Poor loves. Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away. Bye-bye, world.’”
  • The Hotel Islay: “The traffic roared past it all night. But the inside, though it was a fire-bowl of clashing wallpapers and copper lampshades, was a place of extraordinary calm.”
  • Control: “a carcass of a man by then, with his lank grey forelock and his smile as warm as a skull.” 
  • Allwyn: “an effeminate Marine who spoke only of weekends. Till Wednesday or so, he spoke of the weekend past; after that he spoke of the weekend to come.”
  • “‘I’m Joy,’ she said, in a theatrical voice, like ‘I’m Virtue’ or ‘I’m Continence.’ It wasn’t his coat she wanted but a kiss. Yielding to it, Guillam inhaled the joint pleasures of Je Reviens and a high concentration of inexpensive sherry.”
  • Mendel to Guillam: “Cheer up, Peter, old son. Jesus Christ only had twelve, you know, and one of them was a double.”
  • “in the hands of politicians grand designs achieve nothing but new forms of the old misery”
  • “I rather like Karla’s description of committees, don’t you? Is it Chinese? A committee is an animal with four back legs.”
  • Guillam when Hayden’s betrayal has sunk in: “Haydon was more than his model, he was his inspiration, the torch-bearer of a certain kind of antiquated romanticism, a notion of English calling which—for the very reason that it was vague and understated and elusive—had made sense of Guillam’s life till now. In that moment, Guillam felt not merely betrayed but orphaned.”
  • “Bill had loved it, too. Smiley didn’t doubt that for a moment. Standing at the middle of a secret stage, playing world against world, hero and playwright in one: oh, Bill had loved that, all right.”