Monday, March 07, 2011

The Mental Floss History of the United States by Eric Sass

The mental_floss History of the United States
By Eric Sass
with Will Pearson &
Mangesh Hattikudur
Copyright 2010
Harper - NF/History
414 pages

If you can't actually declare war and whup on your enemy, the next best thing is accumulating colossal military power and loudly declaring that if there were a war, you would totally whup them worse than they could whup you. The great thing about this strategy is you never have to find out if it's true or not.

--p. 297 of The mental_floss History of the United States, Advanced Reader Copy (some changes may have been made to the final print version)

It took me about 2 or 3 months to read The mental_floss History of the United States, not because it was boring (it's absolutely not) or dry (obviously, it can be very entertaining) but because I liked it so much that I decided to stretch out the reading. Plus, the book is divided into short, topical sections, which makes it a perfect book to keep in your purse, the bathroom, the car -- wherever you tend to end up reading in bits and snatches. I kept mine in one of those places until I decided I'd goofed long enough and HarperCollins would probably like me to just get the reading over with and review the book, for crying out loud. Although, to be honest, nobody nudged me or gave me a hard time. HarperCollins publicists are really patient souls.

What I loved about The mental_floss History of the United States:

Oh, baby, this is the way to make history fun. Tm_fHotUS is not just informative. It's deliciously playful. The author has a terrific sense of humor and clearly had a great time poking fun at historical figures, but there's a plain-spoken authority to the text. As Sass melted down key facts -- beginning with the first human habitation of North America during the last Ice Age -- he also clarified events about which we've typically been misinformed ("Lies Your Teacher Told You"), broke up the text with pertinent (often side-splitting) quotes . . . shoot, even the topic headings are lively.

For example:

"Mr. and Mrs. Smith (and Mrs. Smith, and Mrs. Smith)" describes the unusual beliefs that led to Joseph Smith, Jr. being chased out of a number of places he tried to settle as he founded the Church of the Latter-Day Saints. The larger sections are divided into time periods, such as "A Superpower is (Accidentally) Born: 1930-1955," subheadings like "Profiles in Scourges" describe various people who did really awful things, and "Made in the USA" sections naturally are about American inventions.

Did I tell you even the quotes are often hilarious?

We should declare war on North Vietnam. . . . We could pave the whole country and put parking strips on it, and still be home by Christmas.

~Ronald Reagan, 1965, as quoted in The mental_floss History of the United States, p. 282 of ARC

What I disliked about Tm_fHotUS:

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

The bottom line:

Whether you're history-stupid (like me) but love reading about history, anyway, or you like learning new things or you're pretty sure you missed an entire time period during your education in American History or you have a friend who has a birthday coming up, you need a copy of this book. Really. It's so fun you practically have to pinch yourself. Can history really be that entertaining? Apparently so. Highly recommended.

Oh, the utter coolness:

When we were in London, last August, we saw a performance of Les Miserables. I was in cheapskate mode and decided not to even buy a program, which I regretted. Last night, hubby was watching PBS and they were playing a 25th-anniversary performance that included an encore with original cast members. It was so awesome it literally gave me goosebumps all over, again, but it was doubly cool to see some of the cast members we fell in love with in August. I want to go back and see Les Miserables, again!!!

But it doesn't look like I'm going anywhere, anytime soon. Guess I'll have to just keep admiring and photographing kitty noses.

©2011 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery and Babble or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.


  1. My high school history classes were my most painful classes ever. In most of my other classes, I grasped concepts and memorized facts pretty quickly. Not so with history - every assignment and test was a struggle. The one time I actually enjoyed history was when I had a really awesome teacher who clearly had found his calling and wanted to infect all his students with his love for history. I loved his stories, but it didn't always translate into brilliance in essay-writing and test-taking, and I had super-sucky history retention skills.

    I think I'm going to have to put this one on my TBR list. I seem to be finding a lot of series lately that make history a little more fun (Hark! A Vagrant and Hetalia: Axis Powers), so this might make a good addition to my reading.

  2. Sounds like an entertaining way to learn. Great quotes!

    Beautiful nose. And eyes!

  3. Library Girl,

    My experience was a little different. I was a master at memorizing history, aced tests and absorbed absolutely zippo because it was all short-term memory. I think part of it was poor presentation by bored or strident teachers (one was really screechy) and the rest was the lack of perspective. History really needs to be presented in a timeline manner, in my humble opinion, at least at the early level. Fortunately, Tm_fHotUS is presented that way. It worked for me.

    Uh-oh, you're going to get me in trouble. I'll have to look up those two books you mentioned!!


    I absolutely loved the way this book was written (so tired of writing out that lengthy title!). It's not all goofy like the quotes I chose, but it's definitely clear and a great book for those who feel like they missed out somewhere in the history end of their education (me, me, me).

    Thanks! I love it that Isabel lets me put the camera inches from her nose. She has her, "Get that out of my face" moments, but she's awfully tolerant of me.

  4. I have long loved the Mental Floss magazine and would love the chance to read this book. It is so entertaining and also fun in a way that I really relish. I am glad to hear that you has such a good time with it. It looks like an excellent book! Great review!

  5. Zibilee,

    I've only read one issue of Mental Floss magazine, but I loved it. I've been thinking about subscribing via reader (so I don't have one more thing to throw away!!). I hope you'll read the book. And, thank you!

  6. "Uh-oh, you're going to get me in trouble. I'll have to look up those two books you mentioned!!"

    Maybe not so much trouble, depending on how interested you are in comics.

    Hark! A Vagrant is actually a webcomic (although there is a book you can buy - but I just read the webcomic). It's sometimes very strange and crazy, and some of the historical references go right over my head, but it's still a lot of fun. Plus, I like the occasional strips based on old Nancy Drew covers.

    Hetalia started off as a Japanese webcomic, which was collected into individual volumes, which are now being released in English translation. There is also an animation based on it (which I actually kind of prefer).

  7. Library Girl,

    Oh, good. I'm working so hard at getting rid of books that I'm actually considering shutting down twitter, unfriending book people (except best buddies) and removing myself from various publishers' updates by email and on FB to avoid temptation. Thanks so much for coming back to tell me about the two webcomics. I'll look them up when I've got a moment!

  8. This sounds like my kind of history book!

  9. Kathy,

    It's loads of fun. History made easy and entertaining is definitely a great thing!

  10. This looks very worthwhile!

  11. I've seen Les Mis two times and loved both performances. My mom had the cd (or album?!) and I listened to it before going to the first show. It helped to know the lyrics/music ahead of time. My favorite scene is right before intermission when the whole cast is out singing "Do You Hear the People Sing." Hmmm, just checked wiki and that's not the last song of Act I. However, "One Day More" is also excellent. Now I'll have these songs running through my head all day! :)

  12. Kelly,

    It is. I think even a Canadian could learn a fun fact or two. ;)


    I want to see it again!!! It's a good thing I hadn't heard the album in advance, though, I must say. I love singing and probably would have had trouble restraining myself if I knew the words. :)


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