Monthly Archives

September 2016

Nerdy Special List September 2016

I’ve seen many fall-books list in the last couple of weeks, but they all seem to have the same five books on them. Well, WE’RE RECOMMENDING ALL DIFFERENT BOOKS.

(I’m not punchy, just hungry. And tired of seeing the same five books on lists.)

Here’s what we really liked and want you to read this month.

From Jen at Brown Dog Solutions:

Darktown by Thomas Mullen (September 13, 37 Ink/Atria)

darktownBlending historical fiction with a police procedural, Thomas Mullen has imagined the lives of the first eight black officers on the Atlanta, Georgia, police force in 1948. The realism tears at the readers’ hearts while the suspense keeps them glued to the plot. It’s a magnificent work of art.

When a young black woman is found brutally murdered and left in a pile of trash, partners Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith decide they are going to find the murderer. They know the white detectives won’t make any effort, but Boggs and Smith could lose their jobs for pursuing the case.

As part of the black officers unit, they don’t have a patrol car, can’t arrest a white suspect, and aren’t even allowed in the main police department; they’re relegated to the basement of the YMCA.

But not long before she was killed, Boggs and Smith had seen the woman in the car of a drunk, white man who hit her. They feel an obligation to find out exactly what happened, no matter what it costs them.

Mullen doesn’t soft play the racism or bigotry of the era, and his despicable antagonists are as complexly drawn as the conflicted protagonists. Mullen has been quoted as saying he’d like to revisit these characters, and that’s the only consolation to turning the last page in Darktown.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

The Red Bandanna by Tom Rinaldi (September 6, Penguin Press)

red-bandannaImagine losing a child in the Twin Towers on 9/11 and not knowing how or exactly where. Then imagine reading a post-attack article in which survivors describe the courage of the man who saved their lives—a man wearing a red bandanna tied around his face, a bandanna just like your son carried with him every day since he was a boy.

The story of Welles Crowther, that bandanna-wearing young man, is shared by Tom Rinaldi in The Red Bandanna. Emotional but not overwrought, Rinaldi’s writing strikes just the right tone in setting out just who Welles was and the upbringing that turned him into a man who, when faced with a raging inferno, went back up instead of out to safety.

After the first half of background, buckle up for a stirring reenactment of the events of Welles’s final moments, and the impact he had on those he left behind.

When President Obama spoke at the dedication of the memorial museum in 2014, he only mentioned one name: Welles Crowther. Rinaldi’s recounting of the story is well worth a read and one to which we should bear witness.

One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist: Stories by Dustin M. Hoffman (September 1, University of Nebraska Press)

100-knuckled-fistDustin M. Hoffman has an extraordinary voice. To be more accurate, Hoffman has many voices, as evidenced by the sixteen distinct stories in his debut collection, One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist.

Each piece is an ode to the blue-collar worker, a cross section of some of society’s most forgotten and invisible individuals: painters, hardscapers, commission salesmen, and ice-cream truck drivers (to name a few), along with the homeless and the unemployed, each trying to make their way under the pressures their lives and the world exert on them.

The stories in this collection are wonderful and weird and gross and gritty and ingenious. Some made me say, “What the hell?” Others made me silent with awe. To a one they kept me glued to the page.

Although the blue-collar theme is carried throughout, each work is idiosyncratic in its own special way. I highly recommend this collection, winner of the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize.

From Patti at Patti’s Pens & Picks:

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly (September 6, William Morrow)

hidden-figuresThis book is about black women being hired by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, precursor to NASA) during WWII to do computations as new airplanes were being designed to win the war.

Most of these women had had the opportunity to go to college and studied math. Many selected teaching as a profession as they could get jobs teaching in the then-segregated schools. Several started working at NACA as a summer job, but they stayed on as they made more money there than teaching.

The women we learn the most about are fascinated with math, and the ways they could use math to solve aeronautical problems so that airplanes, and eventually spaceships, could fly higher, faster, and more safely.

These women were very much like the women of today. They worked long days, were married, did the shopping, cooking, went to church, participated in their communities, raised children, and challenged them to follow in the women’s footsteps. They also participated in the civil rights movement, both in the workplace and out in their communities.

I admire these women so much, and the math they were capable of doing, and then how it impacted America’s progress with aeronautics during WWII, and then later with the moon landing.

[Ed. note: The movie adaptation of this book will be released on December 25, 2016.]

From PCN:

Daisy in Chains by Sharon Bolton (September 20, Minotaur)

daisy-in-chainsLast year, one of my top three favorite books was Sharon Bolton’s Little Black Lies. She’s one of those authors who, well, if I’m eating a pizza after being lost in the woods for a week and someone says, “This Bolton book for your pizza,” I’d hand over the pizza even if a slice was halfway to my mouth.

Bolton’s latest, Daisy in Chains, has that creepy atmosphere she’s so good at creating, and a strong female protagonist who intimidates or rubs everyone the wrong way—another welcome staple of the author’s work.

In this standalone, Maggie Rose is an attorney who specializes in overturning convictions, even of the vilest criminals. She’s trying to decide if she should take on the appeal of surgeon Hamish Wolfe, convicted serial killer of women. He’s charming and all, and keeps proclaiming his innocence (don’t they all?) but she doesn’t know if she can trust him. She embarks on her own investigation and of course it leads her to some pretty dark places.

Bolton’s prose has a mesmerizing quality, and unlike Maggie’s reaction to Hamish, I surrendered to Daisy in Chains.


Movie Review: SULLY



Like many people, I thought I knew what happened on January 15, 2009 with US Airways Flight 1549, which Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed on the Hudson River about 3 minutes after takeoff from La Guardia Airport. A bird strike resulted in the loss of both engines and the captain had no choice but to do what he did, right?

Turns out, according to Clint Eastwood’s Sully (based on Sullenberger’s memoir, Highest Duty), we barely knew the story at all.

The movie starts out with a startling scene, of a plane in trouble flying low in Manhattan. I’ll leave it at that.

The story unfolds in a nonlinear way, alternating between what happened on the flight that day, the ensuing investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, and Sully’s internal turmoil as he starts to doubt his actions (should he have tried to make it back to LaGuardia? Did he risk killing everyone on board by making that water landing?).

Tom Hanks, on a streak of playing real people (see: Captain Phillips and last year’s Bridge of Spies), is very good as Captain Sullenberger. It’s all in his eyes—the recognition that something is terribly wrong with the plane, the quick analysis of his options, his decision to do the impossible, and his courage as he does his job.

Even after landing, he doesn’t stop being the captain, wading through water in the fast-filling aircraft to make sure everyone has deplaned before being the last man off himself, then begging rescue workers to do a head count during a chaotic situation. It’s not possible due to passengers being taken to different hospitals, but later, when Sully is told simply, “One fifty-five,” Hanks’s quiet reaction, understating the immense relief the pilot must’ve felt in learning everyone has survived, makes that number seem like the most wondrous thing he’s ever heard.

sully-hanks-eckhartAaron Eckhart as copilot Jeff Skiles and Laura Linney as Sully’s wife, Lorraine, have little to do besides being supportive of the captain as the NTSB questions his decision to land on the river (the captain stresses on, not in, the Hudson), while the recovered data supposedly shows he had much safer options.

The investigation provides good conflict and an untold angle to the Miracle on the Hudson story, but I wondered how much of that was exaggerated for cinematic effect. Captain Sullenberger pulled off a remarkable feat, everyone lived—why were they trying to, well, sully his reputation and 42-year career?

The real NTSB investigators have since protested their portrayals, while Sullenberger, who consulted on the movie, stands by his account.

Though this movie is about a recent event whose outcome is well known, director Clint Eastwood still manages to make it thrilling and incredibly suspenseful. Scenes of the plane diving toward water, or coming straight toward the camera, or flying way too close to buildings made me tense. I was like Sully waiting for that head count after the landing—I could not relax.

Eastwood hired real emergency workers to give the rescue scenes veracity. Sully shows how the end result wasn’t so much a miracle, but a group of people coming together to take care of one another during 208 seconds of terror. (Stay for the credits to see some of those real people.)

Nerd verdict: Gripping Sully

Photos: Warner Bros.


Not Too Long Ago, In a Place Not So Far Away…

This past Saturday, I got to do something I’ve long wanted to do: see John Williams perform live, conducting the L.A. Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl.

hb day

I did not come dressed as a Star Wars character, nor did I bring a lightsaber, but after talking to the costumed couple next to me, it was evident that my SW nerdiness ran just as deep, or deeper, than theirs, if only because I’m old and remember seeing the very first film in the theater when it first came out, when it was called simply Star Wars without any episode numbers or subtitles attached, and collecting the Topps trading cards and owning the action figures.

After the first segment of the concert, in which composer David Newman conducted the orchestra through scores for classic Hollywood films such as Sunset Boulevard and The Godfather, the 84-year-old Williams took the stage in a white tux jacket.

The crowd went wild, and out came the lightsabers in Force (heh).

Williams first teased us by playing his more recent compositions, including the score from this summer’s The BFG. But he knew what the crowd, dressed as Ewoks and Rey and gold-bikini Leia (it was cold!), was there to hear. First came “The Imperial March.”

Williams was very personable and witty between sets. He talked about how when he first saw the original SW, he saw two beautiful lead characters in Luke and Leia, assumed they’d end up together, and composed a love theme that built to “a torrid climax, hardly appropriate for a brother and sister. I didn’t find out until two years later!”

He also said he’d already said yes to scoring Episode 8 because “I can’t bear to have anyone else write music for Daisy—Rey,” whom he’d fallen in love with after seeing The Force Awakens.

After playing more SW music, Williams performed 3 encores: music from the Harry Potter and Superman movies, and ET. I kept hollering for the Raiders of the Lost Ark theme, but no luck.

I can’t properly describe how special this experience was for me. The music didn’t bring back only memories of some of my favorite films ever, but also recollections of my time in the school orchestra when I played some of Williams’s iconic scores on my violin in school concerts. I remembered the notes and the runs and crescendos and pianissimos, my fingers tapping along on an invisible instrument.

During Newman’s portion of the concert, he played pieces by Lalo Schifrin (Mission: Impossible) and Bernard Herrmann (North by Northwest, Psycho), giants in their field who left behind unforgettable themes. John Williams is a living legend, and I was thrilled I got to see him doing what he does best.

I leave you with this. May the Force be with you.