The mental_floss Summer Reading List

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There is no shortage of summer reading lists, but none of those lists include the personal recommendations of Chris Higgins, Ethan Trex and your other _floss favorites. Here's what we think you should be reading this summer. We hope that you'll use the comments section to provide suggestions of your own.

Adrift by Steven Callahan

Subtitled 76 Days Lost at Sea, this is the true story of Callahan's shipwreck and subsequent survival ordeal in an inflatable life raft. Callahan is the only man known to have survived for more than a month in such circumstances, and his first-hand account of the experience is riveting.

While lost at sea, Callahan used the minimal resources available to him—a few items grabbed from his sinking ship, the raft itself, and a lot of ingenuity—to collect fresh water, spear and otherwise trap fish, gather barnacles, plot his position using a sextant made from pencils, and much more. As he drifted, Callahan spotted at least nine ocean liners, but none picked him up.

Callahan's story is gripping and immediate, full of fear and shocking reversals of fortune, but it's ultimately a tale of survival and hope—he does make it to the other side, and today he's a survival consultant and a leading designer of life rafts.

Recommended by Chris Higgins, a daily contributor to mentalfloss.com and a mental_floss magazine regular.

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The Half-Mammals of Dixie by George Singleton

Half+Mammals.jpgShort stories are perfect for the beach. Even if they've got some genuine literary merit, they're short enough that you can whip through one and then focus on more pressing issues, like how to throw a jellyfish at your friend while making it look like an accident.

Singleton's short stories in this collection, which are all set in the fictional small town of Forty-Five, South Carolina, often feature quirky characters in darkly comic contexts. While the stories are often laugh-out-loud funny, particularly "This Itches, Y'all," the tale of a young boy who acts in a head lice documentary and is subsequently ostracized from grade-school society, Singleton doesn't just play the characters for their comedic value. Instead, he uses his delightfully warped voice to present them affectionately and explore what it means to live in the rural South. The results are often thrilling, and even if you don't normally like short stories, the blend of humor and emotional depth will suck you in and keep you giggling.

Recommended by Ethan Trex, who writes about business and sports on Tuesdays and Thursdays. He also wrote the cover story for our current Olympic issue.

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We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

kevin.jpgI'd highly recommend Lionel Shriver's novel We Need to Talk About Kevin if you're looking for a thoughtful addition to your summer reading list. At times almost too painful to read, the novel is built around a series of letters from Eva Khatchadourian to her husband that tell the heartbreaking story of a teenager who commits acts of unspeakable horror.

In the hands of a lesser talent, this story might be just another "ripped from the headlines" tale of pointless violence, but with Ms. Shriver's sharp eye for detail and thoughtful observations, its characters will stay with you long after you turn the final page. There are no easy answers for the provocative questions that this former journalist and gifted novelist raises. The content might be too intense for some readers, but if you stick with this beautifully written novel, you'll be rewarded for your efforts.

Recommended by Toby Maloney, who heads up our business development efforts and serves as a handler for our newest mascot.

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Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

TreeOfSmoke.jpgEveryone needs to finish a big book during the summer to help them feel productive. At an evenly-paced 614 pages, Tree of Smoke can serve as your "big summer read."

Johnson's novel covers two subjects that I find positively fascinating—the Vietnam War and CIA counterintelligence operations in psychological warfare. This sweeping story follows several compelling characters from before the escalation of violence in Vietnam through the termination of war, and beyond. Written in a unique style reflective of the chaotic atmosphere of the times, Tree of Smoke will keep you conning pages when you should be applying more sunscreen and shifting tanning positions. Johnson offers a stirring examination of why war exists at all...just the type of contemplative romp you'll need between cookouts and trips to the beach.

Recommended by Brett Savage, frequent contributor of high and low culture quizzes.

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Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra &
The United States of Arugula by David Kamp

sacred-arugula.jpgSacred Games is like The Sopranos meet Bollywood: the story of a foul-mouthed gangster who gets tied up in something much bigger than himself, and the Sikh policeman trailing him. A phenomenal read, if difficult to get through sometimes with the dialect. I'm sure I missed some nuance in there because the language was challenging. But overall, a wonderful book with a lot of interesting characters.

The United States of Arugula is an interesting wander through American and French culinary history that starts with the immigrant experience and ends with the complete understanding of why "arugula guy" can be such an insult to modern politicians.

Recommended by our brilliant designer Terri Dann. Among (many, many) other things, Terri designs all those quiz banners.

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How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes by Will Cuppy

apes.jpgIf you are looking to do some light educational reading between dips in the pool this summer, consider Will Cuppy's How To Tell Your Friends from the Apes. Cuppy (1884-1945), a renown literary critic and satirist who was part of the original New Yorker crew, gives nuanced and annotated descriptions of the difference between humans and our simian counterparts, and indeed digresses wonderfully into mentions of other members of the animal kingdom (most notably in the section "Perfectly Damnable Birds," which follows the chapter "What I Hate About Spring").

Imagine Cuppy as a cross between Dave Barry and David Attenburough, with a hefty bit of Wodehouse thrown in for good measure. Take his advice on Tigers: "Tigers live in Asia in nullahs and sholahs. They seldom climb trees, but don't count on that. Young normal tigers do not eat people. If eaten by a tiger, you may rest assured that it is abnormal. Once in a while a normal tiger will eat somebody, but he doesn't mean anything by it."

And what more convincing do you need than the introduction, which is penned by none other than this master of perfectly pleasant pretentious pith, PG Wodehouse himself, who writes, "[Cuppy] says things boldly, regardless of how they may be conflicting with vested interests. 'What this country needs,' he says, nailing his colors to the mast, 'is a good medium-priced giraffe.' If I have thought that once, I have it thought it a hundred times." Haven't we all?

Recommended by Allison Keene, who writes two regular features for mental_floss: 'Dietribes' and 'The Weekend Links.'

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Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

calamity-physics.jpgI usually see summer as a time to expand my knowledge. Don't worry, though, Pessl's book isn't a textbook, and there are no equations to be memorized—it's an impressive novel that's somewhere between a murder mystery and the movie Mean Girls.

The story, concerning a year in the life of Blue van Meer—whose usually nomadic college professor father has temporarily settled in Stockton, North Carolina, while she finishes high school—starts off as any other teen novel. That quickly changes after a series of inexplicable events, concluding with Blue discovering her family's past while investigating the death of a teacher. The unexpected conclusion and amusing wordplay throughout makes Pessl's book a complex and interesting read. While it's a bit longer than most other summer reading choices (at just over 500 pages), the book is an enjoyable and page-turning read. So, if you're looking for something you can't finish in one sitting this summer, Special Topics in Calamity Physics won't disappoint.

Recommended by Ben Smith, one of our intern all-stars.

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The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America by Thurston Clarke

last-campaign-kennedy.JPGIf you love politics but need a break from the exhaustive coverage of the 2008 race, I highly recommend Thurston Clarke's meticulously researched book. The day-by-day recap makes you feel like you're following the story in real time, from the campaign's humble origins in March through its tragic ending at the Ambassador Hotel.

When I mentioned to a friend that I was reading this book, he said he could save me some time and tell me the ending. But Clarke doesn't close with Kennedy's death. The postscript imagines the next ten days of the campaign, June 7-June 17, based on an eleven-page schedule aides had prepared. Clarke calls this artifact "perhaps the most heartbreaking in the Kennedy Library, and there are numerous contenders for that title."

The postscript will have you asking the obvious 'What if...?' questions. But the book also leaves you with a better understanding of how the campaign unfolded, how the assassination affected those who worked for and covered RFK, the mark he left on the country, and why—forty years later—people are still devouring books about those 82 days.

Recommended by Jason English, who'd like to thank his co-workers for agreeing to participate. He encourages everyone to share their own summer reading suggestions in the comments.

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June 21, 2008 - 11:11am
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