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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Kodak’s New Cameras Don't Just Take Photos—They Also Print Them

Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Kodak

Snapping a photo and immediately sharing it on social media is definitely convenient, but there’s still something so satisfying about having the printed photo—like you’re actually holding the memory in your hands. Kodak’s new STEP cameras now offer the best of both worlds.

As its name implies, the Kodak STEP Instant Print Digital Camera, available for $70 on Amazon, lets you take a picture and print it out on that very same device. Not only do you get to skip the irksome process of uploading photos to your computer and printing them on your bulky, non-portable printer (or worse yet, having to wait for your local pharmacy to print them for you), but you never need to bother with ink cartridges or toner, either. The Kodak STEP comes with special 2-inch-by-3-inch printing paper inlaid with color crystals that bring your image to life. There’s also an adhesive layer on the back, so you can easily stick your photos to laptop covers, scrapbooks, or whatever else could use a little adornment.

There's a 10-second self-timer, so you don't have to ask strangers to take your group photos.Kodak

For those of you who want to give your photos some added flair, you might like the Kodak STEP Touch, available for $130 from Amazon. It’s similar to the regular Kodak STEP, but the LCD touch screen allows you to edit your photos before you print them; you can also shoot short videos and even share your content straight to social media.

If you want to print photos from your smartphone gallery, there's the Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer. This portable $80 printer connects to any iOS or Android device with Bluetooth capabilities and can print whatever photos you send to it.

The Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer connects to an app that allows you to add filters and other effects to your photos. Kodak

All three Kodak STEP devices come with some of that magical printer paper, but you can order additional refills, too—a 20-sheet set costs $8 on Amazon.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

10 Fascinating Facts About Herman Melville

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Born in New York City to a wealthy and socially connected family, Herman Melville (1819-1891) chose a life as exciting as that of his Moby-Dick narrator Ishmael. He spent years at sea on whaling ships and traveled to far-flung places, but also struggled to make it as a novelist while supporting a large extended family. To celebrate his birthday on August 1, we’re diving into Melville’s adventures and fishing for some surprising facts.

1. Herman Melville's mother changed the spelling of their last name.

Despite his family’s wealth and pedigree—his mother Maria Gansevoort descended from one of the first Dutch families in New York, and his father Allan Melvill came from old Boston stock—young Herman had an unstable, unhappy childhood. Allan declared bankruptcy in 1830 and died two years later, leaving Maria with eight children under the age of 17 and a pile of debt from loans and Allan’s unsuccessful businesses. Soon afterward, Maria added an "e" to their surname—perhaps to hide from collection agencies, although scholars are not sure exactly why. "It always seemed to me an unlikely way to avoid creditors in the early 19th century," Will Garrison, executive director of the Berkshire Historical Society, tells Mental Floss.

2. Herman Melville struggled to find employment.

Thanks to a national financial crisis in 1837, Melville had difficulty finding a permanent job, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. He served as a bank clerk, teacher, land surveyor, and crew member on a packet ship before signing on, in 1841, to the whaler Acushnet of New Bedford, Massachusetts, then the whaling capital of the world. He served aboard a few different whalers and rose to the role of harpooner. His adventures at sea planted the seeds for Melville’s interrogation of man, morality, and nature in Moby-Dick. In that novel, Melville (in the voice of Ishmael) says, "A whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard."

3. Herman Melville jumped ship in the middle of a three-year voyage. 

Melville and the Acushnet’s captain didn’t get along, so when the ship reached the Marquesas Islands, Melville and a friend, Richard Tobias Greene, hid in the forests until the ship departed. They spent a month living with the Pacific Islanders. Melville was impressed with their sophistication and peacefulness; most Europeans believed that Polynesians were cannibals. He also found reason to criticize European attempts to "civilize" the islanders by converting them to Christianity. Melville drew on his South Pacific experiences in his first two novels, which became runaway bestsellers: Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847).

4. Herman Melville was inspired by a mountain.

Herman Melville's home, Arrowhead, in Pittsfield, MassachusettsDaderot/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Melville moved to Arrowhead, his charming mustard-colored home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, with his wife Elizabeth and their son in 1850, after he achieved fame as a popular adventure novelist. In the upstairs study, he set up his writing desk so he could look out the north-facing window, which perfectly framed the summit of Mount Greylock, Massachusetts’s tallest mountain. Gazing at the peak on a sunny day, Melville was struck by how much the horizontal apex looked "like a sperm whale rising in the distance." He arranged his desk so he would see the summit when he happened to glance up from his work. In that room, in early 1851, Melville completed his manuscript of Moby-Dick.

5. Herman Melville fictionalized an actual whaling disaster.

While on the Acushnet, Melville had learned about an infamous shipwreck from the son of one of its survivors. In November 1820, a massive sperm whale had attacked and sunk the whaleship Essex of Nantucket in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Its crew, stranded in three small boats with little food or water, chose to drift more than 4000 miles to South America instead of 1200 miles to the Marquesas Islands—where Melville had enjoyed his idyll—because they thought they’d be eaten by the natives. Ironically, some of the castaways ended up eating their dead shipmates to survive.

Melville used the disaster to form the climax of Moby-Dick, in which the Pequod of Nantucket is destroyed by the white whale. Melville visited Nantucket for the first time only after the novel was published. He personally interviewed the Essex’s captain, George Pollard, who had survived the terrible ordeal and become the town’s night watchman. Later, Melville wrote, "To the islanders he was a nobody—to me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble—that I ever encountered."

6. Moby-Dick was a flop.

Readers who were expecting another rip-roarin’ adventure like his earlier novels Typee or Redburn were sorely disappointed when Melville’s masterpiece was published in November 1851. The British edition of Moby-Dick, or The Whale received some positive reviews in London newspapers, but American reviewers were shocked at its obscure literary symbolism and complexity. “There is no method in his madness; and we must needs pronounce the chief feature of the volume [the character of Captain Ahab] a perfect failure, and the work itself inartistic,” wrote the New York Albion. The reviewer added that the novel's style was like "having oil, mustard, vinegar, and pepper served up as a dish, in place of being scientifically administered sauce-wise."

7. Herman Melville was very fond of his chimney.

Arrowhead became the locus of Melville’s family life and work. Eventually, he and Lizzie, their two sons and two daughters, his mother Maria, and his sisters Augusta, Helen, and Fanny all lived in the cozy farmhouse. For a couple of years, Nathaniel Hawthorne was such a frequent guest that he had his own small bedroom off Melville’s study. After Moby-Dick, Melville wrote the novels Pierre and The Confidence-Man, his collection of works called The Piazza Tales, short stories including “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and many other pieces there. Melville grew very attached to the house, especially to the massive central chimney, which he immortalized in his 1856 short story “I and My Chimney.” Yet his financial struggles after Moby-Dick failed to find an audience led Melville to sell Arrowhead to his brother Allan in 1863. As an homage, Allan painted a few lines from “I and My Chimney” on the chimney's stonework, which are still visible today.

8. Herman Melville finally got a day job.

Melville’s chronic money woes prompted a return to New York City, into a brick townhouse at 104 East 26th Street in Manhattan, where the family benefited from being back in the bustle of civilization. Melville finally found regular employment as a district inspector for the U.S. Customs Service and maintained an office at 470 West Street. At the same time, he mostly abandoned writing short stories and novels in favor of poetry. In between inspections he wrote Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, based on his visit to the Middle East in 1857. Because of its length—at more than 18,000 lines, it's the longest poem in American literature—and unconventional approach to its subject, Melville once called it "eminently adapted for unpopularity."

9. Herman Melville's last major work was discovered by accident.

The centennial of Melville’s birth renewed interest in his novels and poems, most of which were long out of print by then. Raymond Weaver, a literature professor at Columbia University working on the first major biography of Melville, collaborated with Eleanor Melville Metcalf, Melville’s granddaughter and literary executor, who gave him access to the author’s papers. In 1919, while poking through letters and notes, Weaver discovered the unfinished manuscript of Billy Budd in a tin breadbox. Melville had started to write the short story about a tragic sailor in 1888 but, by his death in 1891, had not completed it. Weaver edited and published the story in 1924, but initially considered the tale "not distinguished." Other scholars asserted that Billy Budd was Melville’s final masterpiece.

10. You can see Herman Melville's personal collection of knick-knacks.

Just a short drive from Arrowhead, the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield holds the world’s largest collection of Melvilliana in its Melville Memorial Room. Along with first editions of Melville’s work and a full library of books about him, there are priceless objects owned by or associated with the author. Fans can geek out over the earliest known portrait of Melville, painted in 1848; carved wooden canoe paddles that he collected in Polynesia; his walking stick; his favorite inkstand, quills, and other desktop tchotchkes; a collection of scrimshaw, maps, and prints; and Elizabeth Melville’s writing desk. There's a section of the first successful transatlantic cable, which Melville valued as a prized souvenir, and even the actual breadbox in which Billy Budd had been hiding.