Shoe Dog – Phil Knight

Albert: Shoe Dog is a memoir by the founder of Nike. That might not sound like the most interesting premise, but I actually quite enjoyed the story. Phil writes with an engaging voice and the story proves to be an entertaining read. It was fascinating, for instance, to read about how technology and society was different 50 or 60 years ago (they communicated with business partners by literally sending physical mail!). It was also interesting to read about the very humble beginnings of a company that is now ubiquitous and inspiring how Phil and his partners (all of them with their own unique personalities) had to constantly believe in the impossible to keep their vulnerable and tiny company alive in the early years. Rating: A-

Kevin: I think many people have mixed feelings about Nike. On the one hand, it’s the biggest sports company in the world and sponsors a ton of hugely successful athletes. But it’s also surrounded by controversy — its Wikipedia article has a section devoted to it, and this section has seven subsections. This was my impression going in.

I don’t know if my impression has changed, but I think this memoir has given me an additional perspective that’s more illustrating than the usual narrative. At the very least, it describes how this company evolved, including the parts we see (e.g., products, celebrities) and the parts we often don’t (e.g., legal battles, financial woes). I also enjoyed the storytelling aspect. Rating: A-

Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic – Matt McCarthy

Albert: I don’t think I was ever entirely convinced that the length of this book was necessary. I think I would’ve preferred to read an article about superbugs rather than an entire book. It was a lot of stories about random patients, woven into a narrative without much of a clear structure. While I’m sure each patient must have meant a lot to Matt for him to include them in the book, I’m not sure any of them ended up making much of an impression on me. Overall, it always felt like a bit of a chore to read this book. Rating: C+

Kevin: I guess this book is like the medical version of Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, which we recently read (see here). It’s filled with numerous anecdotes about antibiotic resistant bacteria, along with historical context and present-day challenges. It also provides some prospective into the challenges of being a doctor, especially when recruiting volunteers for clinical trials. I appreciated all of this, but unfortunately, I didn’t find the book as a whole to be very gripping. Rating: B

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-