Mental Floss's 20 Best Books of 2019

Ecco / Hanover Square Press / Amazon
Ecco / Hanover Square Press / Amazon

We read a lot of books here at Mental Floss, and the stacks of titles piled around the office aren't contained to any one genre. So to celebrate the end of 2019, we decided to comb through the dozens of titles we've all come across over the last 12 months and list a few of our absolute favorites.

1. The Sweetest Fruits: A Novel // Monique Truong; $15

Viking / Amazon

The Greek-Irish writer Lafcadio Hearn was fearless, eclectic, and deeply imaginative, whether he was writing about ghost stories in Japan, Creole cooking in New Orleans, or murder in Cincinnati. Monique Truong's novel The Sweetest Fruits imagines the lives of three women who knew him: his Greek mother, his African American first wife, and his Japanese second wife. Each has a distinct voice, and the structure makes for an inspired look at one of the most original characters of the 19th century. —Bess Lovejoy, Staff Editor

Buy it: Amazon

2. The Lady From the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick // Mallory O'Meara; $8

Hanover Square Press / Amazon

The Lady From the Black Lagoon is a must-read for fans of horror and classic cinema. It recounts the previously untold story of Milicent Patrick, the designer of the titular monster from The Creature From the Black Lagoon. Patrick's work had been falsely credited to her male peers over the decades, but thanks to author Mallory O'Meara's in-depth research and passionate storytelling, Patrick's role in Hollywood history will never again be forgotten. —Michele Debczak, Senior Staff Writer

Buy it: Amazon

3. Because Internet // Gretchen McCulloch; $18

Riverhead Books / Amazon

Spend enough time online and you'll see that the internet has its own language. The use of emojis, abbreviations, and capitalization can provide the same level of nuance to social media posts as you'd get in face-to-face conversations. In her book Because Internet, linguist Gretchen McCulloch treats web speak like a distinct language and traces its rapid evolution. You'll never drop a period from a text or read "lol" in your head the same way again. —M.D.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster // Adam Higginbotham; $19

Simon & Schuster / Amazon

The success of the HBO miniseries Chernobyl renewed interest in the nuclear disaster this year. But a few months before the show premiered, a book on the topic was published. Midnight in Chernobyl by journalist Adam Higginbotham provides a more factual account of the event. The author pulled from letters, recently declassified documents, and hundreds of hours of interviews to reconstruct the accident and the aftermath as it unfolded 33 years ago. —M.D.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Medallion Status: True Stories from Secret Rooms // John Hodgman; $15

Viking / Amazon

Memoir master John Hodgman returns with another biting collection of first-hand experiences as a touring author and actor-for-hire, digging deep to understand his desire for elite airline status and society's obsession with exclusivity. Any book that makes a cameo from the Property Brothers worthwhile has my support. —Jake Rossen, Senior Staff Writer

Buy it: Amazon

6. Wild and Crazy Guys: How the Comedy Mavericks of the '80s Changed Hollywood Forever // Nick de Semlyen; $18

Crown Archetype / Amazon

The 1980s were a golden age of big-screen comedies, and de Semlyen's book does a masterful job of charting the rise—and fall—of some of the most influential comedy stars of the decade, from Eddie Murphy to Bill Murray. —J.R.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Nothing to See Here // Kevin Wilson; $23

Ecco / Amazon

This hilarious, satirical novel is about a caregiver tasked with babysitting two children—both of whom will spontaneously combust if they get too worked up. Kevin Wilson delivers all the laughs and poignancy of a John Irving classic, with a fantasy twist. —J.R.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Classic Krakauer: Essays on Wilderness and Risk // Jon Krakauer; $14

Anchor / Amazon

Jon Krakauer's best work from Outside and other magazines is collected in one volume, giving readers a taste of his energetic prose and hunger to explore humans' attraction to risk, remoteness, and danger—both physical and psychological. Best known for his books Into Thin Air and Into the Wild, Krakauer here recounts a deadly avalanche on Mount Everest, the possibility of colonizing Mars, a volcanic blast that could swallow the Pacific Northwest, and much more. —Kat Long, Science Editor

Buy it: Amazon

9. The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present // David Treuer; $15

Riverhead Books / Amazon

Ojibwe linguist and writer David Treuer provides a counterpoint to Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the 1970 book that chronicled the destruction of Native Americans by settlers' westward expansion. That bestseller shaped the popular view of Native cultures for the next 50 years—but Treuer argues that it missed the point. Through interviews, research, and his own experiences, he reveals the resilience, adaptability, and pride among Native communities then and now. —K.L.

Buy it: Amazon

10. The Dutch House // Ann Patchett; $17

Harper / Amazon

As in previous novels like Commonwealth and The Patron Saint of Liars, Ann Patchett takes a relatively simple plot and uses it as the landscape for a rich, affecting exploration of characters—in The Dutch House, those characters are two siblings who must navigate a new life of poverty after being expelled from their childhood home. —Ellen Gutoskey, Staff Writer

Buy it: Amazon

11. Talking to Strangers: What we Should Know about the People We Don’t Know // Malcolm Gladwell; $16

Little, Brown and Company / Amazon

With Malcolm Gladwell’s characteristic narrative flair and a wealth of case studies to illustrate his hypothesis (that many of the world’s conflicts arise from our inability to understand people we don’t already know), Talking to Strangers is a riveting read for fiction and nonfiction lovers alike. —E.G.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Inland // Téa Obreht; $14

Random House / Amazon

Obreht’s latest is a sweeping tale of the American West that follows a frontierswoman waiting for her family to return and a nomadic outlaw plagued by ghosts. With magical realism, suspense, and plenty of man-versus-man conflict, Inland is the type of novel that’s hard to put down—and even harder to stop thinking about when you do. —E.G.

Buy it: Amazon

13. Daisy Jones & the Six // Taylor Jenkins Reid; $15

Ballantine Books / Amazon

Daisy Jones & the Six, which was selected to be part of Reese’s Book Club, tells the story of the rise and overnight demise of a fictional rock group through a series of interviews with all the band members, producers, and their spouses. It’s an interesting way to weave together a narrative as it shows that sometimes there are many versions of the truth. —Kristen Richard, Associate Editor

Buy it: Amazon

14. Long Bright River // Liz Moore; $23

Penguin Publishing Group / Barnes & Noble

I haven’t read many mystery/crime novels, so when I picked up Long Bright River, I wasn’t sure what to expect or if I would even enjoy it. But after finishing the first chapter, I couldn't put it down. This book takes place in a city that’s been shaken by the opioid epidemic, and the story follows two sisters who lost many family members to the crisis. But they’re living two very different lives. Mickey became a cop, while Kacey is living on the streets struggling with addiction. When Kacey goes missing, her sister puts everything on the line to try to find her. But this story is much more than a mystery about a missing person. The book explores the numerous avenues of addiction and how it affects each person differently. —K.R.

Buy it: Barnes & Noble

15. The Little Book of Lost Words // Joe Gillard; $12

Ten Speed Press / Amazon

This delightful little book, written by the creator of History Hustle, is full of obscure words for almost every situation that are definitely worth bringing back. For example, I think we could all find the occasion to use allotriophagy, a 19th-century medical term for "a strong urge or desire to eat food that is abnormal or unhealthy." —Erin McCarthy, Editor-in-Chief

Buy it: Amazon

16. Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West // H. W. Brands; $27

Basic Books / Amazon

Beginning with the expedition of Lewis and Clark and moving through major developments like the Oregon Trail, the Alamo, and the Wounded Knee Massacre, the sprawling episodes that author H. W. Brands touches on in Dreams of El Dorado paint a picture of how extreme violence and unprecedented government action helped turn the American West from an untamed frontier into a full-fledged part of a larger society—whether the self-proclaimed rugged individuals wanted to or not. —Jay Serafino, Special Projects Editor

Buy it: Amazon

17. The Green Lantern // Grant Morrison; $14

DC Comics / Amazon

Writer Grant Morrison’s The Green Lantern is a weird one. There are battles with spider pirates, conversations with space cops with volcanoes for heads, and the Earth even gets planet-napped and put up for auction at one point. But the book accomplishes far more than just moments of absurdity. Morrison also manages to weave a complex plot throughout, demanding a bit more care and attention from readers than they may expect. And it’s all punctuated by the art of Liam Sharp, whose visuals always manage to complement Morrison’s wild concepts. —J.S.

Buy it: Amazon

18. Elvis in Vegas: How the King Reinvented the Las Vegas Show // Richard Zoglin; $19

Simon & Schuster / Amazon

Before Las Vegas became the capital of kitsch, it was a town where criminal empires were out in the open and the entertainment favored smoke-filled nightclub shows headlined by Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack and other crooners. But for Vegas to survive, it needed to change its tune—it needed to become a bright and colorful vacation spot for tourists and families. It needed its entertainment to become more vibrant and theatrical. Frankly, it needed the King. In Elvis in Vegas, author Richard Zoglin recounts how Elvis Presley helped change the town’s image by putting on bombastic, larger-than-life stage shows for all ages, ushering in an era of corporate-friendly glitz and glamour that continues to this day. —J.S.

Buy it: Amazon

19. Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense: The Courtroom Battle to Save His Legacy // Dan Abrams and David Fisher; $17

Hanover Square Press / Amazon

There were few things Theodore Roosevelt hated more than corruption, and he didn't hesitate to call it out when he saw it. In 1914, that got him into trouble with Republican machine boss William Barnes, who ended up suing TR for libel. Naturally, TR didn't take that lying down, and defended himself to the end in a 1915 trial that saw the former president spend more than 30 hours on the stand. This rollicking courtroom tale, told by Dan Abrams and David Fisher, is a must-read for Tedheads, and a page-turner for all. —E.M.

Buy it: Amazon

20. Murder by the Book: The Crime That Shocked Dickens's London // Claire Harman; $13

Knopf / Amazon

I couldn't put down this book, which covers the murder of Lord William Russell in 1840. The very real crime was inspired by fiction, and the likes of Charles Dickens, William Thackarey, and Queen Victoria all make appearances. Author Claire Harman weaves the story of the murder into the story of the rise of the novel form, making for completely compelling reading. —E.M.

Buy it: Amazon

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8 Great Gifts for People Who Work From Home

World Market/Amazon
World Market/Amazon

A growing share of Americans work from home, and while that might seem blissful to some, it's not always easy to live, eat, and work in the same space. So, if you have co-workers and friends who are living the WFH lifestyle, here are some products that will make their life away from their cubicle a little easier.

1. Folding Book Stand; $7

Hatisan / Amazon

Useful for anyone who works with books or documents, this thick wire frame is strong enough for heavier textbooks or tablets. Best of all, it folds down flat, so they can slip it into their backpack or laptop case and take it out at the library or wherever they need it. The stand does double-duty in the kitchen as a cookbook holder, too.

Buy It: Amazon

2. Duraflame Electric Fireplace; $179

Duraflame / Amazon

Nothing says cozy like a fireplace, but not everyone is so blessed—or has the energy to keep a fire going during the work day. This Duraflame electric fireplace can help keep a workspace warm by providing up to 1000 square feet of comfortable heat, and has adjustable brightness and speed settings. They can even operate it without heat if they just crave the ambiance of an old-school gentleman's study (leather-top desk and shelves full of arcane books cost extra).

Buy It: Amazon

3. World Explorer Coffee Sampler; $32

UncommonGoods

Making sure they've got enough coffee to match their workload is a must, and if they're willing to experiment with their java a bit, the World Explorer’s Coffee Sampler allows them to make up to 32 cups using beans from all over the world. Inside the box are four bags with four different flavor profiles, like balanced, a light-medium roast with fruity notes; bold, a medium-dark roast with notes of cocoa; classic, which has notes of nuts; and fruity, coming in with notes of floral.

Buy it: UncommonGoods

4. Lavender and Lemon Beeswax Candle; $20

Amazon

People who work at home all day, especially in a smaller space, often struggle to "turn off" at the end of the day. One way to unwind and signal that work is done is to light a candle. Burning beeswax candles helps clean the air, and essential oils are a better health bet than artificial fragrances. Lavender is especially relaxing. (Just use caution around essential-oil-scented products and pets.)

Buy It: Amazon

5. HÄNS Swipe-Clean; $15

HÄNS / Amazon

If they're carting their laptop and phone from the coffee shop to meetings to the co-working space, the gadgets are going to get gross—fast. HÄNS Swipe is a dual-sided device that cleans on one side and polishes on the other, and it's a great solution for keeping germs at bay. It's also nicely portable, since there's nothing to spill. Plus, it's refillable, and the polishing cloth is washable and re-wrappable, making it a much more sustainable solution than individually wrapped wipes.

Buy It: Amazon

6. Laptop Side Table; $100

World Market

Sometimes they don't want to be stuck at a desk all day long. This industrial-chic side table can act as a laptop table, too, with room for a computer, coffee, notes, and more. It also works as a TV table—not that they would ever watch TV during work hours.

Buy It: World Market

7. Moleskine Classic Notebook; $17

Moleskin / Amazon

Plenty of people who work from home (well, plenty of people in general) find paper journals and planners essential, whether they're used for bullet journaling, time-blocking, or just writing good old-fashioned to-do lists. However they organize their lives, there's a journal out there that's perfect, but for starters it's hard to top a good Moleskin. These are available dotted (the bullet journal fave), plain, ruled, or squared, and in a variety of colors. (They can find other supply ideas for bullet journaling here.)

Buy It: Amazon

8. Nexstand Laptop Stand; $39

Nexstand / Amazon

For the person who works from home and is on the taller side, this portable laptop stand is a back-saver. It folds down flat so it can be tossed into the bag and taken to the coffee shop or co-working spot, where it often generates an admiring comment or three. It works best alongside a portable external keyboard and mouse.

Buy It: Amazon

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How Lolita Author Vladimir Nabokov Helped Ruth Bader Ginsburg Find Her Voice

Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2016.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2016.
Supreme Court of the United States, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The road to becoming a Supreme Court justice is paved with legal briefs, opinions, journal articles, and other written works. In short, you’d likely never get there without a strong writing voice and a knack for clear communication.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg learned these skills from one of the best: Vladimir Nabokov. Though most famous for his 1955 novel Lolita, the Russian-American author wrote countless works in many more formats, from short stories and essays to poems and plays. He also taught literature courses at several universities around the country, including Cornell—where Bader Ginsburg received her undergraduate degree in the early 1950s. While there, she took Nabokov’s course on European literature, and his lessons made an impact that would last for decades to come.

“He was a man who was in love with the sound of words. It had to be the right word and in the right word order. So he changed the way I read, the way I write. He was an enormous influence,” Ginsburg said in an interview with legal writing expert Bryan A. Garner. “To this day I can hear some of the things that he said. Bleak House [by Charles Dickens] was one of the books that we read in his course, and he started out just reading the first few pages about the fog and Miss Flite. So those were strong influences on my writing.”

As Literary Hub reports, it wasn’t the only time RBG mentioned Nabokov’s focus not only on word choice, but also on word placement; she repeated the message in a 2016 op-ed for The New York Times. “Words could paint pictures, I learned from him,” she wrote. “Choosing the right word, and the right word order, he illustrated, could make an enormous difference in conveying an image or an idea.”

While neither Dickens nor Nabokov were writing for a legal audience, their ability to elicit a certain understanding or reaction from readers was something Ginsburg would go on to emulate when expressing herself in and out of the courtroom. In this way, Nabokov’s tutelage illuminated the parallels between literature and law.

“I think that law should be a literary profession, and the best legal practitioners regard law as an art as well as a craft,” she told Garner.