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-

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August – Claire North

Albert: This was an entertaining book pretty much the whole way through. In other stories, Harry’s lack of any real weaknesses might have made him a bland storyteller. But the narrative conflict and the love/hate dynamic between Harry and his (rather more interesting) antagonist Vincent proved to be strong enough to carry the story. The portrayal of how people might behave when they are reborn into the same life every time they die also felt realistic. While I’m not usually a fan of nonlinear narratives because they tend to make the story unnecessarily confusing, that didn’t happen here and I think it had the positive effect of making Harry’s voice feel more natural, as if he was recounting a story to someone. Overall, the book nails the most important aspects you could ask of it: reasonable sci-fi (and scientific) elements, a gripping narrative, and intriguing characters/relationships. Rating: A-

Kevin: Overall, I couldn’t quite suspend my disbelief enough to really engage with this book, and the dragging, nonlinear storyline didn’t help. The passages that explicitly discuss death, torture, and murder are engaging, but also somewhat isolated. To be fair, it seems difficult to write a solid book with this premise and plot—I imagine the movie adaptation might be a hit. Rating: C+

Being Mortal – Atul Gawande

Albert: People rarely think about how they want to die, even though it happens to everyone, so I appreciate both the space and knowledge this book has provided me to think about this uncomfortable subject. It helps that Gawande writes well and raises interesting questions (and answers). I think it will be a good idea to revisit this book in the future. Rating: B+

Kevin: Its synopsis intrigued me, and the book enthralled me. Gawande presents the struggles and decisions surrounding end-of-life care in a gentle, yet honest, manner. Each journey he recounts is illustrative, touching, and informative. Together, they give a comprehensive overview of mortality—and all the complications it brings—in modern-day America. This is the first book I’ve ever read that I would truly consider a “must-read.” Rating: A+