The PROBUS Club of Applewood
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The Next Age of Uncertainty: How the World Can Adapt to a Riskier Future by Stephen Poloz

There was general agreement that this was a challenging book, something of an uphill battle, but worthwhile because it crystallized the many forces acting upon economics.  Among these, Poloz isolated five:

- Aging population
- Technological progress
- Income inequality
- Rising debt levels
- Climate change

The image of these forces acting like tectonic plates underscores their long-term effects, unpredictability, and inexorability. 

Other forces mentioned in our discussion included global pandemics and wars.  Details regarding the author’s personal life (particularly regarding housing) added a needed leavening to material which was otherwise objective and cold:  a cheerful account of scary stuff.  The relationship between government and banks yields different results (e.g. high inflation in Argentina where the government controls banking, vs lower inflation in Switzerland where banking is separate from government).   The importance of immigration appeared in many places in the book. 

Our earlier book on Modern Monetary Theory (October 2021, The Deficit Myth, by Stephanie Kelton) was referenced by Poloz, and in some ways served as a primer for the current book.  Other sources were cited, including Thomas Carlyle “Economics is not a gay science. It is a dreary, desolate, and indeed quite abject and distressing one; what we might call, by way of eminence, the dismal science”, and Habakkuk (active around 612 BC) who forecast the destruction of oppressive forces.

The concluding chapter was felt to be weak, lacking optimism, and with few concrete policy suggestions.  The idea of taxing consumption vs taxing income was interesting, as were comments on guaranteed income and company support for mortgage/housing.

Rating for the book was 7.6

David Williams
The Next Age of Uncertainty: How the World Can Adapt to a Riskier Future,
October 2022
Barometer Rising
November 2022
Barometer Rising by Hugh MacLennan

MacLennan started writing about Canada at a time when Canadian literature  was very underdeveloped and continued to do so the rest of his life, becoming the Dean of Canadian novelists.  MacLennan studied history at Oxford and his novels have a consistent theme—the impact of geography on events and our lives. The group was agreed that the strength of MacLennan’s descriptive powers was manifest in his description of the Halifax explosion, the largest man made Explosion before the atomic bomb .  He lived through it as a child.  MacLennan’s description of Halifax in general was also clear.  In the book the aftermath, including the omnipresent broken glass, sounds like actual reporting—there’s a great immediacy to the details. There is good detail regarding the geography of Halifax, though the addition of a map of Halifax would have improved the reading experience.  The weather and the economic climate in Halifax at that time were both dismal.  In 1917, Halifax, like Canada, was working to understand its relationship with Great Britain. The author did touch on the rights of women as well as the evils of war profiteering. 

The book is well-written and has a good narrative flow. The Neil character was rather nebulous at the start of the story, but did acquire definition as the plot developed.  The Angus character was very sympathetic. 

Through this book, we encounter a quote from Virgil  “Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit,” which could be loosely translated “One day we may be gratified to remember this.”  

At the end of the book, there was one less incompetent brass hat, even though this one was fictitious.

Rating of the book: 8.8
David Williams
The Apollo Mruders
December 2022
The Apollo Murders by Chris Hadfield

There was general agreement that the book had some interesting technical details, particularly regarding space travel, but that it was not a success from the novel-writing standpoint. At times, the technical detail was obtrusive. The characters are rather thinly drawn, and they undergo no development. Many aspects of the plot could have been followed further. The ending was a page-turner, but melodramatic, with a Keystone Kops sort of feel to it. 

The author’s note at the end was helpful in providing details about the real people, places, and events in the story.

Rating of the book:  5.7

David Williams

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

There was general agreement that this was a thought-provoking book, touching on major issues such as humanity, morality, and truth.  Introspection is a hallmark of McEwen’s books.  Is the destruction of the android Adam equivalent to murder?  The human characters were not well-developed, and the narrative somewhat choppy.  The chapters of re-imagined history, while interesting, tended to detract from the flow of the story.  Setting the book in the 1980s did give the opportunity for imagined and enjoyable conversations with Turing. Two humans defined the emotional responses of an android:  doubtless this gave rise to conflicting responses.  The idea of an android being seduced is interesting, as is the idea of the android rebelling against the human ‘owner'.  On the other hand, giving a device with artificial intelligence specific rules regarding morality did lead to a very conservative attitude, unlike the human moral approaches arising from moral relativism.   

Adam’s final haiku: Our leaves are falling. Come spring we will renew, But you, alas, fall once.

Regarding the score for the book: 7.34

Other books/authors mentioned during the meeting: Sara Seager, The smallest lights in the universe:  a memoir Robert J Sawyer

David Williams

Machines like Me
January 2023
1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows: A Memoir, by Ai Weiwei

First, some dates from Alan Lytle, as members found the timeline confusing:

1949:  People’s Republic of China established
1957:  Ai Weiwei born (a contemporary of Xie Jinping, b 1953)
1976:  End of cultural revolution
1989:  Tienanmen Massacre

Clearly, the author has lived through much of the turbulence of recent years in China, including the moving of his family to the nether lands of China.  The writing of the book is fluent and straightforward, though it is long and not an easy read.  Members felt it was a good learning opportunity.  Although Ai’s family has been treated outrageously, there is no sense of rage in his writing:  he gives us the facts and leaves the anger to his reader.  The book provides numerous instances of totalitarian control of the large population of China. 

Although there is little detail on Ai’s artistic process, clearly he has a strong sense of self and has been able to mount large, ambitious exhibits in various Western countries.  The funding for such projects is not discussed in the book. Ai’s time in New York clearly had an influence on his art.  Ai’s ability to live his life while under heavy surveillance was remarkable.  His decision to live in Portugal at present is quite understandable. 

Rating for the book:  7.3

Additional books mentioned: Disunited Nations, by Peter Zeihan; The End of the World is just the Beginning, by Peter Zeihan

1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows: A Memoir
February 2023
There is Nothing For You Here
March 1, 2023
There is Nothing for You Here, by Fiona Hill

The importance of family, friends, and mentors is clearly shown throughout the book. With these supports, Hill was able to overcome difficulties such as financial need*, educational prerequisites, and her accent. The book incorporates a memoir, a history (US, UK, Russia), and a prescription for policy development. A sequence of events leading to the rise of populism is shown:  Thatcherism/Reaganomics -> industrial decline -> cultural despair -> need for a saviour -> Brexit/Trumpism. 

Hill’s wry humor shows in her accounts of experiences in the White House and in Russia. The enormous number of people in her acknowledgments underscores the importance to Hill of their support and guidance.  Hill emphasizes education as the best way of closing the gap between the haves and the have-nots, and eliminating the space within which populists operate.

*significantly, the US Supreme Court was debating financial relief for students as our club met on March 1,2023.

Rating for book:  8.8

Book referenced at meeting: Windswept & Interesting, an autobiography, by Billy Connolly
The Next Civil War: Dispatches From The American Future, by Stephen Marche
April 5,2023
The Next Ccivil War: Dispatches From The American Future, by Stephen Marche

There was general agreement that the book is thought-provoking.  At the start of the book, the author makes many sweeping, unsubstantiated statements, which gave the appearance of sloppy writing.  The blending of fictional dispatches (as by a journalist) and analysis of real situations in the first half of the book was not appreciated by all, although the description of right wing militias was disturbing.  The book appeared to be aimed at a New York audience.  The discussion on secession was good, particularly regarding the geographic divisions of the US, and constitutional arguments against secession. The political fault lines in the US were well exposed.

Rating for the book:  7.15   

Books referenced during meeting:

How Civil Wars Start, by Barbara Walters

On Tyranny, by Timothy Snyder

How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky (I think this is the one referred to)
Barney's Version by  Mordechai Richler
May  03
Barney's Versdion by Mordechai Richler
An interesting question emerged from our discussion:  does a satirical novel need to be long?  Certainly the length of this book was a problem for some, although the detailed descriptions of characters and locale (particularly the community of writers in Paris) were appreciated. The Barney character was rude, arrogant, manipulative and quite self-aware.  Richler’s references to hockey and Stanley Cup playoffs were particularly resonant.  The book is studded with historical figures, literary references, and laugh out loud humor.  The style and structure of the book were excellent. 

Rating:  7.27

Rating for movie:  9.5
The Book of Eels, by Patrick Svensson
June 7
The Book of Eels, by Patrick Svensson

We agreed that this was a departure from our usual run of books.

The alternating chapters of autobiography and science stood somewhat in the way of a complete coverage of either:  there could have been more detail on the author’s father.  Clearly, fishing for eels was a channel of communication, maybe the only one, with his father.  The oceanographic details of the book were appreciated, although the inability to find eels with reproductive capability within the Sargasso Sea has left us in the dark about a complete life cycle.  Dogged scientific research included the fruitless dissection of hundreds of eels by the young Sigmund Freud, and the decades-long search for the smallest (~5 cm) early forms of the eel.  The book was an amazing ramble through time, life, and death, including 5 extinctions, and the possible beginning of the 6th.

Rating for the book ranged from 6.5 to 9, with an average of 7.8.

Mentioned during the meeting:

The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig

David Williams

Reproduction by Ian Williams
July 6
Reproduction by Ian Williams

Most of the members found the structure of the book distracted from the story. The book was written in a stream of consciousness approach divided into sections and chapters based on the genetic structure and replication of DNA and cell growth.One comment was “The oddest book I have read in a long time”.

Billed as “a story about the way families are invented….Reproduction explores unconventional connections and brilliantly redefines family”. In fact, most readers felt the core story about the struggles of immigrants and their children whose lives were basically a mess, began with an interesting set up, but became convoluted and disappointing reading.  Although some felt the story of the characters rang true and described the challenges of the immigrant experience and difficult family inter relationships well, they felt most of them to be somewhat unsavoury. The final sentence in the book summed up the feelings of the group: “You were probably expecting more”.

Doug Johnston
How the World Really Works by Vaclav Smil
August 2
This book is a digest of many of the Smil’s earlier works. The author does a compelling job of bookkeeping the costs for production of food:  for example one tomato costs about 5 tablespoons of diesel fuel. Details such as this support the conclusion that humankind is a long way away from reaching CO2 emission goalposts. The five-year window of politics clearly stands in the way of programs which must necessarily take a long time, for example the creation and commissioning of nuclear power plants.  The group agreed that the start of the book was difficult;  some graphs might have made for more graspable concepts. The extensive analysis of all kinds of risks was of dubious value, as was the deep dive into measurements of energy and power.  The last two chapters were more engaging. While the author’s tone reflects despair of progress in battling climate change (especially considering growth of China, India, and future growth of Africa), he does offer a number of practicable steps which could be helpful, for example triple-glazing of windows and improved food management:  these are a much-needed part of adaptation to climate change.

Doug Gilpin

Rating of the book:  7.8

Other books mentioned:

The Limits to Growth, by Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Rangers, William W. Behrens III, 1972 report to the Club of Rome

Numbers Don’t Lie, by Vaclav Smil

Feral, Regenesis and out of the wreckage :  new politics for an age of crisis, by George Monbiot

The code breaker, by Walter Isaacson

Letters across the sea, by Genevieve Graham

David Williams

Slow Horses by Mick Herron
September 6
The book reviewed for September was “Slow Horses”, by Mick Herron, and presented by Doug Gilpin.
Slow Horses is a fictional spy novel about the British secret service organization, MI-5, located at Regents Park in London. Members who have in some way failed in their duties or fallen out of favour have been banished to a decrepit building named Slough House, and these people are derisively referred to as “slow Horses”, and are destined to perform useless tasks forever, or until they simply quit. The chief of this crew, Jackson Lamb, is fat, crude, sarcastic, funny and rather brilliant. Other slow horses vary greatly in personality and character. The MI-5 bureaucracy is set out in some detail, including management, spies ("spooks" and "joes"), a thuggish enforcement group ("Dogs), and "cleaners" who cleaned up messy scenes outside the law. One character is clearly based on ex-PM Boris Johnston.
Slow Horses is the first of a series of eight books about MI-5 and the slow horses, mostly involving the principals, Jackson Lamb and the senior MI-5 executive Diane Taverner, and some very odd "slow Horses", and a number of inept and always self-serving bureaucrats. The proposer of this book has read all eight books in the series, enjoying the humour and the challenge of guessing what was going on and where it was all headed.
The Slow Horse books are not for everyone, however. Book club reviews varied from a number of "Didn't like it at all" to "Really enjoyed the book". Criticisms particularly found the structure confusing, jumping from one set of characters or situation to another without announcing the change. There were four very low ratings (5 to 5.5) and the average was 6.2.
Book Club


 The Smallest LIghts in the Universe

 Sara Seager


 Fifth Business

 Robertson Davies


 Red Team Blues

 Cory Doctorow

January 2024

 The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaur

 Stefe Brusatte


 Act of Oblivion

 Robert Harris


 Letters Across the Sea

 Genevieve Graham


 The Code Breaker

 Walter Isaacson


All the Light We Cannot See

Anthony Doerr

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