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 The interspersed historical references were interesting, but certainly did help in this aspect.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+

Enlightenment Now – Steven Pinker

Albert: All the statistics and plots Pinker collects to show how life for humans has gotten better is an impressive effort, but also overwhelming and often uninteresting. Perhaps more troubling was how I felt like he was overreaching on his conclusions at times, with not enough attention dedicated to potential criticisms. For example, he relies a lot on apparent correlations to suffice as “evidence.” I was even more skeptical of some dubious claims, such as the idea that crime can be solved by treating its symptoms.

There are occasionally insightful observations, like his remark on how advocacy groups are dependent on stirring up panic for funding. I especially appreciated his criticisms of prevailing opinions on the issue of wage inequality or the threat of artificial intelligence, since I don’t often get to encounter semi-lucid criticisms on such popular topics. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough of these good parts and I found most of the book to be a drag to read. Rating: C+

Kevin: Bill Gates once claimed this is “[his] new favorite book of all time.” To me, this was enough to pique my interest, but now I’m kind of disappointed. The book is divided into three parts: a bit of philosophy (to me, at least), a ton of charts and figures portraying the progress of humanity in various dimensions (e.g., health, wealth, the environment, happiness), and then some more philosophy.

To be honest, I barely remember reading the first part. The second part was like drinking from a fire hose: chapter after chapter of hopeful statistics on how humans are healthier, wealthier, smarter, safer, and overall just better than ever before. It’s great to read in small doses, perhaps, but certainly not for over an hour at a time. The third part was the most interesting to me: it discussed logical biases and fallacies, moral philosophy, the roles of science/politics/media, and other ideas. Unfortunately, I was rather anxious to finish the book at this point, so I rushed. But I think the last part would make a nice book on its own. Rating: B-