The Book Club meets on the first Wednesday of each month on Zoom.  The Zoom link is sent out to all members on the morning of the meeting which starts at 10am and typically ends around 11 am.  At each meeting a member (the presenter) presents a book previously selected for discussion by the members. After a 5 minute presentation by the presenter, each attendee in turn comments for two or three minutes on the book and gives it a rating out of 10. The presenter then leads a general discussion about the book, often followed by recommendations for books to be added to our recommended list. All Probus members are welcome to join us any time.  It is not necessary to attend our discussions every month, nor to complete reading every book before coming.  Please contact the Convenor David Williams by email to ask any questions, or to be added to our roster so that you will receive a reminder/invitation to every meeting.
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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

Act of Oblivion
February 7, 2024

Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris

This novel describes the manhunt for two Englishmen, who were amongst many who had signed the death warrant for King Charles I, and the fanatical hunter on their trail. The novel is based on the true travails of General Edward Whalley and his son-in law Colonel William Goffe as they try to elude Richard Nayler (the only fictional character in the book), the royalist charged with their capture. Life in seventeenth-century New England and the tension with the court of the new King Charles II, provides a backdrop to the story. What was particularly interesting were the descriptions of their struggles to survive in constantly changing refuges. The book also illustrated the impact and power the Puritans had on the early development of America, which still resounds to this day.

The members of the book club felt the book was a fascinating and historically accurate description of the period, with interesting characters, and an intriguing story line. Most enjoyed the book, would recommend it to others, and gave it an overall rating of 7.7 out of 10.

Doug Johnston

The Rise and Fall of Dinosaurs
January 3, 2024

The Rise and Fall of Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte

This book generated considerable discussion:  three pages of notes, as well as scores ranging from 5 to 9.5 (average 7.92).  Members agreed that the book was challenging and that keeping track of the names of so many ancient creatures was difficult (not unlike a Russian novel).  The scope of time covered in the book was hard to take in.  Movement of the earth’s tectonic plates is at a rate of 1.5 cm/year, and the book covers the effect of such movement on the habitats of dinosaurs, in particular: some species were confined to the Americas as a result. 

Co-operation among paleontologists and application of the scientific method allowed researchers to deduce much, such as the weight and gait of dinosaurs, given so scant a clue as a part of one bone.  One of many clarifications in the book was the reason for the common finding of large numbers of animal remains in particular areas:  they were washed there in the upheavals following the impact of the asteroid which ended the cretaceous period. 

The author gave insights into the gravity and scale of that extinction.  The oldest forms of life are still with us (self-replicating RNA), and today’s birds retain a bony resemblance to their dinosaur forebears:  we humans are a mere blip in the chain of evolution.  A glance at recent images from the James Webb Telescope serves to remind us that we are not the lords of the universe.

Movies mentioned during the meeting:  Jesus of Montreal, by Denis Arcand (YouTube), The Bank of Dave (Netflix)

Books mentioned during the meeting:  The rise and reign of mammals, by Steve Brusatte, Horse, by Geraldine Brooks

David Williams

Red Team Blues by Cory Doctorow
December 6, 2023

Red Team Blues by Cory Doctorow

The book was regarded as a fast summer read, though it did reward a second reading.  The style was somewhat choppy, showed little character development, and had a rather noirish, choppy dialogue.  In the midst of a fair amount of techno babble (which put off some readers), there was a detective story, which included a fair amount of forensic accounting.  Nevertheless, most of the veils surrounding cryptocurrency were left intact.

Rating for the book:  6.95

Mentioned during the meeting:  The Billion Dollar Whale, by Bradley Hope

David Williams
Fifth Business by Robertson Davies
November 1, 2023

With a rating of 8.4, this is certainly one of the more popular books this season.  Some members were reading it for the first time, while many were finding it a pleasure to read again.  The characters in the book were well-developed, and the plotting of the stories was well worked out.  Some (but not all) of the women in the book were represented as stereotypes.  The caste system was alive and well in Deptford.  Clearly, being religious did not equate with being a good person.  Boy Stanton’s financial success led to his belief that he enjoyed God’s favour, and that his success was predestined.  He also blithely assumed that anyone he had helped financially would love him.  His ability to edit his memory and remove unpleasant actions was remarkable, as emerged in the final scene with the magician, Magnus Eisengrim.

Davies’ digressions into the realms of religious philosophy, capitalism, and socialism generated much discussion, as did his protagonist’s interest in Saints and magic.   

Other titles mentioned:

A prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving
What’s bred in the bone, Robertson Davies
Music by Healey Willan, organist and precentor of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Toronto (e.g. Hodie Christus natus est)

David Williams
The Smallest Lightest Lights in the Universe: A Memoir by Sara Seager
October 4, 2023

The Smallest Lights in the Universe: A Memoir, Sara Seager.

Members enjoyed this book, particularly the astrophysical portions.  Seager provides details which permit the reader partially to grasp the enormity of the universe.  Her descriptions of instruments and their design was interesting.  The recognition of exoplanets and their number developed during the span of her career as covered in the book:  her theory of detecting gases as possible signs of life was brilliant. In some ways, it seems unfair to examine the results of single-minded research, and attribute this accomplishment to a developmental disorder such as autism.  That said, it was clear that while some of her emotional responses were blunted, her description of grief on the loss of her first husband was moving.  References to the University of Toronto, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, the McLaughlin Planetarium, and the Dunlap Observatory underscored Seager’s Canadian origin.

Rating of the book:  7.82

Other books mentioned: CS Lewis, The Space Trilogy, Alex Guth, The Inflationary Universe
Slow Horses by Mick Herron
September 6, 2023

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.

How the World Really Works by Vaclav Smil
August 2, 2023

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.

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 potics or an age of crisis, by George Monbiot, The code breaker, by Walter Isaacson,
Letters across the sea, by Genevieve Graham

David Williams
Reproduction by Ian Williams
July 6, 2023

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
The Book of Eels, by Patrick Svensson
June 7, 2023

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

Barney's Version by  Mordechai Richler
May 3, 2023

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 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)
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