Celebrate Pi Day with these Math-ical Books, Movies and Music

March 14 is the day everyone in the world, or at least everyone here in the U.S. (where we put the month before the day), pauses to celebrate that most constant of mathematical constants, that most transcendental of transcendental numbers. Of course, I’m talking about Pi, also known as “π,” also known as the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, also known as 3.14 (give or take a trillion digits). 3.14…3/14…March 14. Get it? Yeah, me neither. Never had much of a head for math.

Nevertheless, this Pi Day thing seems to be real. They even have a website where you can buy a t-shirt and watch a rap video.

All this hubbub got me thinking about my favorite books, movies and even songs that feature a heavy dose of math. You can look for these at your local HPB and do some math when you calculate how much money you’re saving.

Life of Pi bookLife of Pi
This 2001 novel by Yann Martel and its 2012 film adaptation tell the story of Piscine “Pi” Patel, an Indian boy who adopts the nickname Pi after kids make fun of his real name. That’s a pretty great story right there, but things get more interesting when Pi is stranded on a lifeboat with a tiger, a hyena and a zebra. Okay, there’s actually not too much math in this story, but it’s a great read, the movie has amazing animation and the kid’s name is Pi.

Hidden FiguresHidden Figures
This is a book about human computers. No, it’s not sci-fi; it’s the non-fiction bestseller by Margot Lee Shetterly that inspired the acclaimed movie about female African-American mathematicians at NASA. They were called human computers because, like, they did computations. Set during World War II, the Space Race and the Civil Rights Movement, the book profiles four ladies who were among the space program’s unsung heroes. Continue reading

50 Facts About How The Grinch Stole Christmas and The People Who Made It

It can’t be denied that the mid-1960s was the golden age of the animated TV Christmas special. You could deny it, but you’d be wrong. The stop-motion Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer premiered in 1964, and A Charlie Brown Christmas debuted twelve months later. The next year, in 1966, How the Grinch Stole Christmas aired for the first time.

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To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the animated Grinch, here are 50 facts about the classic TV special and the people who made it.

1. The Dr. Seuss book on which the special is based was published by Random House in 1957. It also appeared in an issue of Redbook magazine at the same time.

2. Dr. Seuss was the pen name of Theodor Geisel. His dozens of children’s books have spawned 11 TV specials, four feature films, four TV series and a stage musical. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984.

3. While attending Dartmouth College, Geisel got caught drinking gin with friends in his dorm room. As punishment, he was forced to stop all extracurricular activities, including writing for the school’s humor magazine. To surreptitiously keep writing for it, he began using the pen name Seuss. (Dartmouth gave him an honorary doctorate in 1956.)

4. His first book, And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street, was rejected by anywhere from 20 to 43 publishers, depending on which time he told the story.

5. An early version of the Grinch character appeared in 1955 in a Seuss story called “The Hoobub and the Grinch.” Continue reading

10 Classic LPs for Your Growing Vinyl Collection

The improbable resurgence of vinyl records began around 2007 and hasn’t slowed yet. In 2015, vinyl sales rose 32% to $416 million, their highest level since 1988, the year the format was overtaken by the compact disc. Why is vinyl being embraced by millennials and revisited by older types who sold their collections 20 years ago?

Sure, vinyl has a warm sound and a retro appeal, but there’s something else that makes it ideal for true music lovers: vinyl is wonderfully inconvenient. It forces you to interact with it—to lovingly take an LP out of its sleeve, put it on the turntable and flip it over 25 minutes later. And since skipping tracks is a pain, you’re more likely to listen to an album straight through, with the songs in the order the artist intended.

There’s also the satisfying physicality of records and sleeves, with big, beautiful artwork, liner notes, lyrics and credits, none of which you get with a digital download.

All of this makes vinyl perfect for those who crave a deeper listening experience and a stronger connection with the artists they enjoy.

If you’re looking to start or add to your vinyl collection, consider giving the ten classic albums below a spin. They’re undeniably great on any format, but they beg to be experienced on vinyl. Note: While lots of new music has been released on vinyl in recent years, for this list I’m focusing on the original era when the vinyl LP ruled.

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In the Wee Small Hours, Frank Sinatra (1955)
With a program of thematically connected songs about loneliness and lost romance, this record is often cited as one of the first-ever concept albums. Timeless tunes from the Great American Songbook, sparkling Nelson Riddle arrangements and Sinatra’s inimitable phrasing combine to create an intimacy and atmosphere perfect for late-night listening.

alovesupremeA Love Supreme, John Coltrane (1965)
Kind of Blue by Miles Davis may be “the one jazz album everyone should own,” but Coltrane’s masterwork is a more cohesive and emotional statement. The album is a four-part original suite born of Coltrane’s gratitude to God, but make no mistake—it’s not churchy or prim. On the contrary, this is deeply felt, deeply swinging, powerful music performed by Trane’s classic quartet, arguably the best band in jazz history. Supreme, sublime, essential music. Continue reading

Beyond Kind of Blue: Dig deeper into Miles Davis

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Miles Ahead, the long-awaited biographical film about Miles Davis, opens in New York and LA on April 1 and nationwide later in the month. Don Cheadle directed and stars as the influential jazz trumpeter.

Regardless of whether the movie is a critical or commercial success, its release is already bringing fresh attention to an artist who clearly still has the ability to fascinate and frustrate us 25 years after his death.

Miles’ music still sells, especially the 1959 album Kind of Blue, often called “the one jazz record everyone must own.” The sound of his muted trumpet is embedded in our collective consciousness as epitomizing a certain mid-century brand of cool.

Davis’ best music is accessible because, above all, it is reflective of his humanity. He doesn’t care about showing off his technique; he shows you himself. It’s his personality, not his virtuosity, that comes through in every note.

Miles is also inspiring to artists of all kinds because of his refusal to rest on his laurels. He reinvented himself and his music every few years, even at the risk of alienating fans. Consider that one guy did all of this: Continue reading

Leap Into a Book on Leap Day

For complicated reasons involving the Sun, the Earth, Julius Caesar and I’m pretty sure, the calendar industry, the concept of leap year was invented way back in 46 B.C. Ever since, we’ve been adding an extra day every four years in order to keep our calendars synced up with nature.

2016 is one of those years, so something special is happening after February 28: February 29. A whole day we didn’t have last year and won’t have next year. Think about it: everything you do on February 29 is something you wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do in 2016. (Actually, don’t think about it too hard. Just play along.)

What’s the best way to make the most of leap day? We recommend reading a book. A whole extra book for a whole extra day. Finishing a book in one day, or even one sitting, is a satisfying experience that everyone should try, and we figure leap day is a perfect day to try it. Fortunately, there are lots of great short books, including many classics, that you can knock out in a few hours or less. Here are some ideas.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (29,160 words)
As a kid, I always enjoyed reading, but the day I read this book straight through may be the day I truly fell in love with literature. Steinbeck’s taut 1937 novella about friendship, compassion and tragedy is immensely moving—and it moves quickly, too.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (26,601 words)
This fish tale, published in 1952, won the Pulitzer Prize and marked a comeback of sorts for Hemingway, who was pretty quiet during the 40s. Critics are divided about this novel; take a couple of hours and then decide for yourself.

The Art of War by Sun Tzu (21,080 words)
If novellas aren’t your thing, how about an ancient Chinese treatise on military tactics and strategy? This work on warfare, which dates to the 5th century B.C., has seen its principles applied to business, education, law and sports, in addition to military matters. It’s required reading in the CIA and has been championed by the likes of General Douglas MacArthur and NFL coach Bill Belichick.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (39,680 words)
Published in 1963 at the height of the Civil Rights era, this book—actually two long essays—takes a searing look at race relations in the United States. It resonates just as strongly today and served as the inspiration for Between the World and Me, the 2015 bestseller by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (37,653 words)
This entertaining long essay is based on a series of the author’s university lectures and was published in 1929. In this slim volume, Woolf skewers sexism in the arts as she famously asserts that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” A feminist classic.

What are some of your favorite quick reads?

Mark is Art Director at Half Price Books Corporate.
You can follow him online here.

Just the Facts Charlie Brown: 50 Facts for the 50th Anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas

This year marks the 50th anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas. To mark the occasion, here are 50 factoids, tidbits, quotes or observations about the little holiday special that only a blockhead could dislike.

1. Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip began in 1950 and by the early 60s was a full-blown phenomenon. The 1962 book Happiness is a Warm Puppy was a New York Times bestseller, and Time magazine featured Schulz’s characters on its April 9, 1965 cover.

2. In 1963, producer Lee Mendelson started work on a TV documentary about Schulz and Peanuts. The film included brief animated scenes created by Bill Melendez and original music by jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi. All the networks passed on it.

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Continue reading

These 30 Days of November Are Your Best Friends: #NaNoWriMo Chat

I had never heard of National Novel Writing Month—NaNoWriMo for short—until it started happening in my house two years ago. That’s when my daughter, Harper, a high-school freshman back then, participated for the first time.

NaNoWriMo is an internet-based phenomenon where people of all ages write a novel during the month of November. The idea is not to achieve perfection or win a contest but to set a word-count goal and meet it in 30 days. Participants register on the site and submit their work at the end of the month for verification of length. There’s a “Young Writers” division for kids under 17, and when you combine that with the main program, nearly 400,000 people participated in 2014. Many of the resulting works end up as self-published books, while some have even been released by traditional publishers.

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Back to my kid. In 2013 she wound up with My Toxic Cure, an angsty teen drama that was self-published and has been read by 15 to 20 people to date. Harper is now an 11th-grader and is tackling NaNoWriMo for the third time. We recently chatted about it via email. (How else would two people who live in the same house chat?) Continue reading

Long Reads for the Longest Day of the Year

For those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere, the Summer Solstice falls on June 21 this year. That means Sunday will be, well… sun day. The proverbial “longest day of the year.” Actually, it’s 24 hours just like other days, but it’ll have the most daylight. Here at HPB World Headquarters in Dallas, we’ll have a whopping 14 hours, 18 minutes and 47 seconds of sun.

If you’re a reader who hates spending money on electricity—or a blog writer desperate for a timely topic—that means 14.3 hours of absolutely free reading light. To take full advantage of it, we suggest skipping the Sunday paper and diving into the longest book you can find. You might not finish it all on June 21, but hey, you only lose one second of daylight on June 22.

Here are some long reads for those long sunny days.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (1996)
This 1,000+ page postmodern novel has 388 endnotes, some of which have their own footnotes. Its themes include addiction, tennis, suicide, advertising and Quebec separatism. Fortunately, it’s a joy to read Wallace’s prose, and it’s easy to see why this book made him a star in the literary world.

Endnote: Jason Segel stars as Wallace in The End of the Tour, a film out later this summer about the promotional tour for Infinite Jest.

Footnote to the endnote: the late author’s family did not cooperate in the making of the film.

The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro
includes The Path to Power (1982), Means of Ascent (1990), Master of the Senate (2002) and The Passage of Power (2012).
Caro’s masterful multi-volume biography of LBJ contains four books so far, most of which would qualify for this list on their own. Johnson, a highly skilled but deeply flawed politician, is one of our most fascinating presidents, and Caro’s work reads more like a novel despite its level of meticulously-researched detail. The fifth and final book is forthcoming. (Robert Caro, if you’re reading this, get off the Internet and get busy writing!)

Underworld by Don DeLillo (1997)
DeLillo’s sprawling non-linear novel spans several decades in postwar America and finds his characters reacting to several historical events. A New York Times reviewer called it “a dazzling, phosphorescent work of art.” The book’s riveting prologue—chronicling Bobby Thomson’s historic home run that won the New York Giants the National League pennant in 1951—is worth the price of admission alone.

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
Published in the author’s native France between 1913 and 1927, this novel in seven volumes (and 4,000 pages) helped usher in the modern era. The highly influential and massive work tells the life story of the narrator, with his everyday experiences—most famously dipping a cookie into a cup of tea—evoking recollections of the past. Current-day novelist Michael Chabon has cited it as his favorite book. Bonus points for tackling this one in the original French.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
This international bestseller tells the story of Theo Decker, a New York teenager whose life is forever changed when his mother is killed in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum. This page turner (and there are 800 of them) is a moving and mesmerizing story of loss and survival. While some critics complained about the book’s length, it went on to win the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
The musical is a big deal. The movie was a big deal. The book is big, too—655,478 words on a couple thousand pages. This French historical novel was first published in 1862 and has been hailed as one of the best novels of the 19th century. In Hugo’s words, the book constitutes “a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life, from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God.”

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
The title of this ambitious novel, first published in Japan in three volumes in 2009 and 2010, refers both to the year 1984, when the story takes place, and to George Orwell’s 1984. Set in a fictionalized Tokyo, the stories of two main characters—a woman and a man—converge over the course of the book. Murakami employs surreal elements, alternate realities, down-the-rabbit-hole digressions, and frequent references to Western composers and musicians as he explores complex themes including murder, violence, cult religion and, ultimately, the triumph of love.

Lest this blog post end up in a blog post about long blog posts, I’ll stop there. What are some of your favorite long reads?


Mark is Art Director at Half Price Books Corporate.
You can follow him online here.

And All That Jazz: Swinging Sounds for International Jazz Day

Happy International Jazz Day, everyone! We’re all celebrating, right?

As every school child knows, April 30 has been designated as International Jazz Day by UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations.

April 30 is also National Honesty Day. So, let’s be honest. Most people don’t listen to jazz or know much about it. I say that based on personal experience, and it’s backed up by recording industry data, radio station ratings and surveys on concert attendance. The reasons for this are complicated, and the jazz blogosphere is filled with thoughtful analysis.

For the sake of this post, however, let’s say you’re at least somewhat interested in jazz, but perhaps you don’t know where to start.

Admittedly, jazz can be confusing. It’s a broad genre, encompassing (rightly or wrongly) everything from noisy experimental “free jazz” to WWII-era big band music to the “smooth jazz” heard when you’re waiting for your conference call to begin. Also, most jazz greats had prolific recording careers spanning several decades, resulting in massive, imposing discographies.

For those interested in sampling this great, American-born music but aren’t sure where to start, here are a few totally-biased suggestions. First, we’ll look at some classic jazz, then at a handful of more recent recordings.

Duke Ellington: Ellington at Newport (1956)
This live album from Ellington’s triumphant turn at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival works as a great introduction to the pianist-composer-bandleader’s music. Included are some of Duke’s earliest works, dating back to the 20s, as well as new music written for the occasion. This has it all — power, humor, beauty and above all, madly infectious swing. Note: The original LP contained some music recreated in the studio, so for the best sound quality and complete performance, look for the “complete” version issued as a two-CD set in 1999.

Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong: Ella and Louis (1956)
This is the first of three utterly charming albums recorded together for Verve Records by this pair of preeminent vocalists. Backed by Oscar Peterson’s small group, Ella and Pops (only squares call him Satchmo) explore the Great American Songbook with effortless grace and class.


Bill Evans: Sunday at the Village Vanguard (1961)

Widely hailed as one of the top live jazz recordings ever, this album captures the impressionistic and highly-lyrical pianist Bill Evans with one of his best trios. His idea that the bass and drums are equal voices in the group, not merely accompanists for the piano, is fully realized here with bassist Scott LaFaro (who tragically died soon after) and drummer Paul Motian. Waltz For Debby is an equally essential album from the same sessions.

John Coltrane: My Favorite Things (1961)
The influential and incendiary saxophonist went through a few distinct periods in his too-brief career, so it’s important for newbies to jump in at the right place. While A Love Supreme from 1965 is his undisputed masterpiece, My Favorite Things may be better for the uninitiated. The hypnotic title track is Coltrane’s remarkable reinvention of Rogers and Hammerstein’s popular song from The Sound of Music.

Miles Davis: In a Silent Way (1969)
While you almost can’t go wrong with anything Miles recorded in the 50s or 60s, for today I’ll suggest In a Silent Way, which divided critics upon its release due to its use of “electric” instruments and the influence of rock music. With its otherworldly sounds and gorgeous textures, this album would prove highly influential not only in jazz and rock, but also in ambient music and electronica.

Charlie Haden & Pat Metheny: Beyond the Missouri Sky (1997)
This intimate duet record from bassist Haden and guitarist Metheny shimmers with a straightforward beauty borne of the musicians’ shared roots in the American heartland. The eclectic program mixes originals with tunes from the likes of Henry Mancini, Roy Acuff and film composer Ennio Morricone. 

Gregory Porter: Liquid Spirit (2013)
Porter, born in 1971, is one of the most lauded singers to appear in recent years, with this album winning a Grammy for vocal jazz in 2014. Porter’s rich baritone has an earthy quality perfectly suited to his highly personal style of songwriting. Like some others in his generation, he tends to favor his own material over the jazz standards of yesteryear, and while rooted in jazz, he owes just as much to R&B greats like Bill Withers and Marvin Gaye.

Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band: Landmarks (2014)
One of the busiest drummers of the last 20 years, Brian Blade has released four albums with his Fellowship Band. The music here is rich in melody, cinematic in scope and informed by Blade’s upbringing in Shreveport, Louisiana, touching on gospel, folk and rock, as well as jazz.

Want to hear some live music? There are events all over the globe, and you can catch a live webcast of this year’s “All-Star Global Concert,” featuring Herbie Hancock and others at 1 p.m. EDT.


Mark is Art Director at Half Price Books Corporate.