Just Mercy – Bryan Stevenson

Albert: This book was hard to read, not because it was bad, but because the (true) stories Stevenson tells are so emotional — I felt incredibly frustrated, sad, and angry while reading the book. Stevenson introduces the reader to about a dozen or so people he’s worked for as an activist lawyer, each with a story that provides a sobering perspective on how the justice system in America has failed due to systematic, corrupting influences (e.g. financial interests, racism, etc.). The main storyline centers on Walter McMillian, a man wrongfully convicted for murder (under flimsy evidence deliberately falsified by prosecutors). My only gripe with the book is how Stevenson likes to introduce new side stories without any sort of transition, which can be disorienting. But the book is so worthwhile and engrossing a read that I don’t think I can fairly penalize him for that. Rating: A

Kevin: I found this book incredibly sobering. In school, many of us learn about segregation, racism, capital punishment, and other related matters. We’re even aware, at least abstractly, of the shortcomings of the criminal justice system. But this book illustrates the true tragedy of these issues through compelling, heartbreaking stories supported by numerous case studies and statistics.

The writing is also masterful. I suspect the author could have easily written this book as a list of individual stories, but instead, he weaves them together with history, facts, and experiences from his own life. Rating: A

Nice Try – Josh Gondelman

Albert: There are a lot of good things to say about Gondelman as a writer. He was witty and insightful in his observations about people. He was also honest, self-aware, and shared many relatable experiences. So reading the book was almost uniformly a pleasant experience. But the book never really rose above being “pretty funny” or “fairly interesting.” And from time to time, particularly when a story he was telling didn’t resonate strongly with me, I felt like his hodgepodge of stories could use a stronger sense of direction. Rating: B+

Kevin: Most of the stories were very relatable, which made Nice Try pretty enjoyable to read. On top of that, the way Gondelman reacts to different circumstances (e.g., purchasing drugs or cooking for someone) sounded exactly like how would react. So in some sense, I almost felt like I was receiving advice from an older sibling. Of course, I don’t have the talent or guts to pursue a career in comedy, but this book allowed me to peruse the inner dialogue of somebody who has. Rating: B+

A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles

Albert: I had high expectations for this book and was quite disappointed by it. The first half of the book was a drag to read. I found the protagonist, a Count under house arrest at a hotel, to be pompous and it didn’t feel like anything was happening. About halfway through the story, Sofia, a child that ends up being taken care of by the Count, enters the story and makes the story far more interesting to read. However, that’s not saying much considering how dull the first half was. Rating: C

Kevin: The gentleman is the Count, a Russian aristocrat sentenced to confinement in a hotel. Most of his adventures are driven by two little girls—Nina and, years later, her daughter Sofia. The third main character in his life is, as far as I can tell, his occasional lover Anna, a celebrity film actress. A little unrealistic, but charming, like a fairy tale.

Unfortunately, I think the book could have been much shorter. The prose is quite elegant, but often slowed down the plot. (Maybe I don’t appreciate great fictional writing as much as I “should.”) The interspersed historical references were interesting, but certainly did help in this aspect. Rating: B-

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

Albert: This book has some similarities to The Stand, being a post-apocalyptic novel in which the main source of conflict is a “Bad Man” and the story is told from multiple points of view. Thankfully, the characters in the story are far more enjoyable to listen to and follow. I enjoyed the ways in which the storylines of each character gradually began to intertwine and develop into a fuller story. However, the overall story is at times illogical (why would there be a traveling Shakespeare theater group in an era of lawlessness?) and ultimately suffers from being rather aimless. Rating: B-

Kevin: A flu pandemic wipes out over 99% of all people, and this book follows a few survivors. It jumps around a lot, both across time and from character to character, but I think it works well. By looking at the apocalypse from various perspectives, we get a sharper image of its impact on both society and individuals. On top of that, the writing is elegant, haunting, and vivid, especially with the airport situation.

Some of my favorite scenes actually had nothing to do with the flu. Instead, they centered around pre-apocalyptic quandaries like infidelity, career changes, and the quest for a meaningful life. I always feel slightly wiser whenever I read about these issues, even as they apply in a fictional setting.

But as Albert stated, the story is rather aimless. And to me, some of the characters (e.g., a religious zealot and a Katniss-like actress) felt a bit undeveloped. Rating: B+

Brief Answers to the Big Questions – Stephen Hawking

Albert: Overall, I liked this book. True to his word, Hawking never used equations to explain anything, which he claimed would allow any reader to follow what he was saying. Unfortunately, I did not live up to those expectations and definitely didn’t understand everything he said. This was especially true whenever he wrote about his field of expertise (e.g. black holes), as the level of depth and detail would rise dramatically and much of it went over my head. However, I appreciated that he frequently repeated himself, which gave me a second chance to understand. One thing I learned was that scientific determinism, the idea that we can predict the future if we knew everything about the current universe (positions and speeds of all particles), was impossible according to quantum physics, since we cannot know both the speed and location of a particle exactly. This seems to be pretty much accepted in the scientific community, which I hadn’t known before. I also enjoyed how the scientific knowledge was interspersed into his responses to the “big questions,” which had the double effect of making the scientific facts feel more meaningful and giving his answers more weight.

However, there were some minor drawbacks about the book — some of the details about physics weren’t always that interesting, maybe because they were hard to comprehend, and whenever Hawking stepped outside his field to comment on subjects like biology or AI, they tended to be described in much broader and less refined strokes, which I felt was a bit disappointing. Rating: B+

Kevin: This book kind of serves as a popular survey of cosmology, as told by Stephen Hawking, in the context of answering big questions that loom over modern civilization. For the most part, I think I was able to glean some technical understanding of cosmology, which shows how well Hawking could teach these things. One problem was that a lot of explanations were repeated, and this might have been due to the editing, but I actually appreciated this.

I also appreciated the tangibility of Hawking’s ideas and predictions. For example, asking what came before the Big Bang is analogous to asking what’s south of the South Pole, and, according to Hawking, humans must colonize other planets to ensure long-term survival of the species. Finally, I found the afterword written by his daughter, Lucy, to be very touching. Rating: B+