How Not to be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg

how notBook – Jordan Ellenberg, professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has written a book about math: not how you learned it in high school, but how it really is. We’re not talking about addition and subtraction here, or even algebra or calculus. (Well, a little calculus.) What Ellenberg is talking about in this book is the way math works, the way math shapes the world, and the way we can use math to change how we understand the world.

As a bonus, Ellenberg is pretty entertaining while he’s teaching. Examples range from baseball statistics to politics to con artists, and the book is liberally scattered with amusing footnotes. For example, from a description of how not to add percentages, using the Florida 2000 election results as an illustration:

Yes, I, too, know that one guy who thought both Gore and Bush were tools of the capitalist overlords and it didn’t make a difference who won. I am not talking about that guy.

This is a massively enlightening and entertaining book, and if you like having your mind blown but always suffered through trig by looking things up in the back of the book and praying you’d remember the formulas long enough to get through the test, you may enjoy How Not to be Wrong more than you might think.

The Toyotomi blades : a Ken Tanaka mystery by Dale Furutani

toyotomiReading mysteries set in interesting locations is one of my favorite forms of armchair travel. In this whodunit Ken Tanaka, who became an amateur detective when he solved a murder involving a samurai sword in California, is invited by a Japanese television show to an all-expenses-paid trip to Tokyo to share the story of his adventure. Descriptions of the nuances of his travels were especially entertaining.

Despite being a third-generation Japanese American, Ken experiences some culture shock as he interacts with the television studio team. He also learns something about himself and his identification as an American regardless of his ethnicity or minority status. His humble sense of humor is likable and the overall tone of the story is light.

In addition to traveling among the sights in Tokyo, Ken’s sleuthing propels him into a treasure hunt in rural settings near Kyoto. Japanese history and legends color this mystery nicely. The historical embellishments as well as some code deciphering are slightly reminiscent of a Dan Brown novel. However, descriptions of humorous missteps that occur while traveling in a foreign land lighten the tone of this book.

The Matchmaker by Elin Hilderbrand

matchmakerBook – Dabney Kimball Beech is the enthusiastic Director of Nantucket Island Chamber of Commerce. Married to a famous economist  and professor, she has built a full life promoting the island and making a home for her husband and daughter, Agnes. She also has a gift for matchmaking, as over forty couples can attest. She sees a mysterious pink haze for a loving match and a bilious green haze when trouble will follow. When Agnes falls for the rich and controlling CJ, she ignores her mother’s warnings against the match. Then, Dabney’s first love, Clendenin Hughes, arrives back on Nantucket after being gone for more than twenty years. Dabney is forced to confront feelings she thought were behind her, even as events around her begin to spiral out of control. This novel explores love, friendship and second chances. I enjoyed spending time with these characters. It’s a great book to bring to the beach. Hilderbrand has written several novels, including Beautiful Day and Silver Girl.

Muscle Shoals (2013)

muscleMovie – This is the new documentary history of the Muscle Shoals, Alabama recording studios. It is the story of how Rick Hall founded FAME Studios in the unlikely small town of Muscle Shoals, along the Tennessee River, and a group of white farm boys (known
as the “swampers”) became The Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section session musicians. Countless major hit songs and great albums were subsequently recorded in these studios – as amazing as it seems. Many great recording artists are interviewed in the documentary, such as:  Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bono, Alicia Keys, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Gregg Allman, Lynyrd Skynard, Elton John, Boz Scaggs, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan and many more. It is the remarkable story of how initial successes in soul and R&B led to the arrival of more mainstream rock and pop performers, and how the Muscle Shoals vibe produced so many great hits. Literally every big name wanted to record in Muscle Shoals, and to “get down and get greasy.” Filmaker Greg Camalier premiered Muscle Shoals at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013, and the soundtrack alone will give you goosebumps. I loved this documentary and all the incredible vignettes, such as how Aretha Franklin just blossomed for the first time, when she got into the Muscle Shoals studios.

The Other by Thomas Tryon

otherBook – I came across this book through Tor.com’s Summer of Sleaze, a series of reviews of old horror novels, where the writers refer to Tryon’s work as “a third of our horror roots,” along with Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. I’d never heard of Tryon before, so I was intrigued. And I was not disappointed. In fact, I’d say my expectations were set unfairly low – after all, the review series is called “Summer of Sleaze.” There’s nothing sleazy about The Other. A little purple, maybe, but not sleazy.

Holland Perry is not a nice little boy. In fact, he’s downright sinister, pulling pranks that are more vicious than funny. (We find out on page three that he killed an old woman’s pet cat.) His twin, Niles, is a much friendlier young man, but he makes plenty of excuses for Holland’s increasingly outrageous behavior. This is a slow-building novel; we spend lots of time with the characters where nothing particularly awful happens, until quite suddenly it does. And although The Other was billed as horror when it came out, it’s much less supernatural than the other evil-child stories of its day. In fact, I’d call it a psychological thriller instead, with as much in common with Gone Girl or The Dinner as with more traditional horror novels.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

unlikelyBook – Fry is a recently retired shy British man, but his ordinary life takes an unexpected and spontaneous turn upon receiving a letter from a friend from whom he hasn’t heard in 20 years. Queenie writes that she is dying of cancer and Fry’s first response is to send a kind sympathetic response back, but a chance encounter with a stranger inspires him to walk 600 miles to the hospice where she is staying. He is convinced that if he walks, then she will live. Harold embarks with only the clothes on his back, the shoes on his feet, no cell phone and only a vague idea of directions. His journey gives him plenty of time to reminisce about his own life and he encounters many people on his way that he inspires and who in turn give him insight. His bewildered wife is left behind at home, her disappointment with their marriage further strained. Harold’s pilgrimage to reach Queenie takes 87 days. Will she still be alive when he gets there? Will his absence make his wife’s heart grow fonder or break them apart? A beautiful and emotional story of humanity, this would make an excellent book club read.

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

eleanorBook- To quote Mr. Elton John, “It’s a little bit funny. This feeling inside…”

The year is 1986, in Omaha, Nebraska. This is a story about two misfit teenagers who were not looking for love, but fell into it together. Eleanor is a frumpy, fiery redhead with a broken family. Park is an  average boy who wears eyeliner, and has a father who oozes masculinity. Eleanor is new in town, and she is forced to sit next to Park on the bus. Park reads comic books and listens to mix tapes to pass the time. Eventually Park notices Eleanor reading the comics with him, and their budding romance (and friendship) begins.

This is not just another sappy young adult romance novel. It deals with issues including, racism, bullying, body image, and domestic violence. Children of the ’80s and early ’90s would enjoy this book for the nostalgic factor alone. If you’re looking for a quick, easy read, but one that will linger on your mind, this one is for you.

The Three by Sarah Lotz

3Book – On one fateful day, four planes fall out of the sky. Among the four crashes there are only three survivors, all of them children. It’s this fact – along with a rambling recording made by one of the passengers in the last moments of her life – that spawn conspiracy theories, widespread paranoia, and eventually a massive doomsday cult with connections in the highest levels of politics. What really happened on Black Friday? And could the doomsayers be right?

The Three is a book inside a book: most of the story is the fictional non-fiction account written by Elspeth, an investigative journalist, of the aftermath of Black Friday and the cults that rose up in its wake. In the end, we switch back to Elspeth’s point of view as she decides to follow up on what happened after the end of her book. I thought that some of the characters’ voices tended to blend together, but the overall pace of the narrative kept pulling me through the book anyway. I stayed up late to finish it, which turned out to be a mistake – this book has one seriously creepy ending.

China’s Great Wall (2006)

chinaMovie – China’s Great Wall is a great documentary using rare aerial shots, and lavish reenactments in high definition.  It reveals the myths, legends and technological marvels behind the massive structure, exploring construction techniques, and its history, featuring interviews with archaeologists, scientists and scholars. In 1907, Aurel Stein a British explorer and adventurer, making his way through the Taklimakan desert discovered the Jade Gate, the westernmost point of a more than 2,000-year-old fortification system. The walls, there are more than one, actually stretch for over 13,000 miles.  They were built to defend the Emperor Wudi of the Han dynasty and his people from the barbarians (Mongolians) living in the steppes to the north (around 130 BC). Other dynasties and other emperors continued work on the Great Wall and branches of it, for thousands of years, using forced labor. The purposes of the Great Wall have included border patrols, imposition of duties on goods transported along the Silk Road, and regulation of trade and immigration. The Wall includes watch towers, troop barracks, garrison stations and signaling capabilities (using smoke or fire).  The main Great Wall stretches from Shanhaiguan in the east to Lop Lake in the West, along an arc that roughly delineates the southern edge of inner Mongolia. Before bricks, the Wall was mainly built from rammed earth, stones and wood. I found this documentary fascinating as well as educational. Of course, some areas of the Wall, near tourist centers, have been preserved and renovated, but in many locations it is in disrepair.

Missing (2012)

missingTV Show – If you like action thrillers packed with spies then you should watch the TV series Missing.  The series follows Rebecca “Becca” Winstone,   a florist, widow, and mother of 18-year-old son, Michael.   Michael has been accepted to a summer architecture program in Rome, Italy and Becca hesitant about letting him go, consents knowing what a wonderful opportunity it is for her son.  Mother and son stay in touch on a regular basis, but when she doesn’t have any communication from him for over a week and is informed by the school that Michael has vacated his dorm room, Becca is alarmed and heads to Rome to find him.  As a mother, she will go to any lengths and will not let anyone or anything stand in her way to find out what has happened to her child and to get him back.  And this may work to her advantage or against her, but we find out that she is a former deadly and relentless CIA agent.  Her husband Paul, also CIA, was killed in a car bombing witnessed by their son.  Becca finds herself in the middle of an international conspiracy involving the CIA and Interpol and doesn’t know who she can trust.  Intense action and drama and beautiful scenery from Italy, Russia, Turkey, Austria, etc. will keep viewers riveted.  Becca is wonderfully portrayed by Ashley Judd, who was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie.  Sadly, there is only one season, since ABC decided to cancel the show.