The Trial – Franz Kafka

Albert: The Trial was not an enjoyable reading experience for me. There were a few scenes that were mildly interesting, but I was rather bored most of the time. I think the main problem was that even though the protagonist K. was in trouble right from the beginning of the story, I never really cared about what was going to happen to him. In addition, I was also not in the mood for absurdist writing. The story exhibited many strange qualities — every situation felt excessively long, things happened inexplicably, and K.’s attention shifted abruptly and randomly from one thing to another, all of which created an unsettling reading experience. Rating: C-

Kevin: Apparently this novel was never completed, and Kafka didn’t even want it published. For me, The Trial was definitely too opaque — I’m sure there’s a lot to interpret (if somebody really wanted to), but I didn’t get much out of this. I’d almost rather read a book about modern law, or what to do if you get arrested, than follow the absurd legal adventures of a banker. Perhaps it would be more enjoyable to read this book as part of a larger unit on political/historical fiction, but now I’m really craving something fun. Rating: C-

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The Life You Can Save – Peter Singer

Albert: I appreciated the mix of philosophy, psychology, and real-world examples in this book. The guidelines at the end for how much Singer believes you should donate were helpful from a practical perspective (long story short, 5% of your income). However, I wonder whether writing a book was overkill for his message. I feel like most of the people who read this book are those that are already going to be in agreement with Singer — that there’s a moral necessity to give aid, especially to the world’s poor. Having said that, I am surprised that there isn’t more of a public commitment to alleviating extreme poverty (we’re always talking about politics and social issues in the news!). Perhaps this book was one attempt to rectify that and I have to admit that it kind of worked for me. Rating: B+

Kevin: Overall, this book makes a solid attempt at getting readers to give more to charity. The gist, as I take it and as one can imagine, is that we (people who are living comfortably) are not giving enough, that’s wrong, and if we all just gave a little more, then plenty of people around the world would be much better off.

I can’t help but remember the first time I heard about TOMS shoes. The company would donate a pair of shoes for every purchased pair, but apparently this perpetuates stereotypes, hurts local markets, and possibly has other unintended consequences. The book does address similar concerns, such as the need for population control, among other common objections to giving. But it’s hard getting entirely convinced, because there are no magic words. Perhaps after a point, we just have to have faith in our moral intuitions and hope nothing really “bad” happens. Rating: B+

Siddhartha – Hermann Hesse

Kevin: Not long after I started reading this short novel, I regretted not reading it high school, when I first heard about it. It takes place during the time of the Buddha and follows the journey of a young man, Siddhartha, as he seeks enlightenment. Siddhartha is never satisfied with what he finds and makes several major lifestyle changes in an attempt to quench his spiritual thirst. I found the ending fairly satisfying, and overall, the book is quite easy to read.

I wish there was a modern-day Siddhartha that centers around my own life — something I could live by and turn to for answers. But of course, such a book cannot exist, and ultimately, I suppose it’s up to each of us to figure things out for ourselves. This process is quite individualized (and can be entirely unclear), but for me, reading Siddhartha was a helpful step. Rating: A

Albert: While reading this book, I sensed that at another time or place in my life, I might enjoy this book more. But at this point in time, I wasn’t so interested in Siddartha’s quest to find “enlightenment.” I found the arc of the story to be disappointingly mundane and Siddartha to be rather unlikeable. I also wished that the reasoning behind Siddartha’s choices and the causes for his moments of illumination were more clearly expressed — at times, they seemed to come out of the blue. However, the ending is a surprisingly interesting bit to read. Rating: C+

Blindsight – Peter Watts

Albert: I found this book difficult to read. The prose was not difficult, but the style was atypical and I had trouble following where the story was going most of the time. In particular, I felt like I never had a good grasp of who each character was, which made it hard for me to care whenever the characters were interacting with the narrator. However, the fictional world in this book was commendably more sophisticated than those in most science fiction books I’ve read. And on the rare occasion I was able to focus on the story, there were some interesting philosophical tidbits. I just lacked the patience to read the story more slowly and be invested in it. Rating: C

Kevin: I read this book rather quickly, because for the most part, I find the narrator too wordy. I’m positive this diminished what I got out of the book, but I’d rather finish stumbling than exhaust myself reading. Also, I often didn’t completely understand what was happening; I suspect this was a problem on my end, but maybe I shouldn’t blame myself.

Anyway, this book surely qualifies as “hard” science fiction, and it presents many thought-provoking ideas, as science fiction should. But somehow, my favorite moments were the narrator’s interactions with his ex-girlfriend; a lot of his thoughts there resonated strongly with me. Rating: B-

Short stories 1

“All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury, “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut, “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway, “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, “We Can Get Them For you Wholesale” by Neil Gaiman.

Kevin:

  • “All Summer in a Day” – A touching tale that might inspire you to appreciate our world a little more. It also offers a glimpse into human nature, particularly the unkindness of children. Rating: A-
  • “Harrison Bergeron” – If I hadn’t read AnthemFahrenheit 451, or 1984, I might have found this sadder than I actually did. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting read that I enjoyed. Rating: B+
  • “Hills Like White Elephants” – I really didn’t get this one, though I had a pretty good idea of what the two characters were getting at. But the SparkNotes entry for this story is quite interesting, particularly the bit on the Iceberg Theory, which I had never heard of. Rating: B-
  • “The Lottery” – This story immediately reminded me of The Hunger Games, though the former precedes the latter by roughly 60 years. I enjoyed the suspense and pacing, and I would probably enjoy a classroom discussion on the ideas presented. With stories like these, I sometimes wish an analysis was included at the end. Rating: A
  • “We Can Get Them for You Wholesale” – Quite amusing, though it does have dark undertones. For me, this story strikes a strange, somewhat unsettling balance between comedy and tragedy. Rating: B+

Albert:

  • “All Summer In a Day” is a sci-fi short story containing some beautiful prose, but I didn’t quite get the point of it. Rating: B
  • “Harrison Bergeron” read like what a dyspotian society would be for a conservative/right-winger/anti-communist. It asks the intriguing question, is it moral to handicap people for the sake of equality? At what point does the value of equality cause harm to society? Rating: B+
  • “Hills Like White Elephants” is something I read before in college. The understatedness of the story is interesting when you’re analyzing it, but not so much when you’re a casual reader. Rating: B-
  • “The Lottery” is the kind of suspenseful narrative I probably enjoy the most. The problem with nearly all good short stories, however, is that I wished I got to know the characters and the setting better. Rating: A-
  • “We Can Get Them for You Wholesale” is absurd and funny and consistently surprising. The plot works well as a short story. Rating: A-