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-

The Rosie Effect – Graeme Simsion

Albert: The sequel to The Rosie Project was quite disappointing. I found both Rosie and Don to be more irritating than endearing throughout the story. The story also moved slowly and the supporting characters were unmemorable enough that I had a hard time keeping track of them. While there were some comical scenes here and there, it was still an overall letdown from the first book. Rating: C+

Kevin: I guess it’s tough writing a story that’s realistic, yet also engaging and unique, especially as a sequel to a popular book. Unfortunately, The Rosie Effect supports this claim. Don’s (initially endearing, perhaps) behavior got old really quickly, and Rosie was very annoying in her rare appearances. A reviewer on Goodreads classified this as “dick-lit,” which I think is understandable. Finally, everything felt both contrived and generic, nothing was particularly funny or touching, and the ending did not resonate with me at all.

But the thing is, I don’t read a lot of romantic comedies, so I find even the most generic (and cheesy) plot lines to be engaging. And I finished it pretty easily, which is a good thing. Rating: B

The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion

Albert: This book reminded me of another good book, The Pleasure of My Company, as they both center on highly idiosyncratic male protagonists. In The Rosie Project, we follow a professor named Don Tillman whose life is disrupted by a beautiful woman named Rosie. That sounds like the premise of every romantic story, but due to Don’s Asperger’s-related social ineptitude, the course of events that follows is unconventional and entertaining to read. You can’t help but root for Don and Rosie. Rating: A-

Kevin: As many online reviewers have noted, the plot is basically “Sheldon Cooper Finds a Wife,” and Bill Gates really likes it. I had no trouble finishing this book. The dialogue flows smoothly, the short chapters push the plot nicely, and there are exciting and touching moments. I especially like the narrator’s speech patterns and admire his learning abilities. And I definitely understand the premise of his “Wife Project.”

(Spoilers ahead!)

What bothers me is this: the ending is sweet and predictable, yet frustratingly unsatisfying. It seems like Don betrays his own principles and rationalizes it by saying he’s in “love,” which just isn’t enough for me. He starts off with one extreme viewpoint and ends with another; a more nuanced conclusion would have been more satisfying (and useful for my personal life, I admit). But I guess what I’m looking for can’t be found in a short novel, so I shouldn’t be too bothered. Rating: A-