October 2008

Jennifer Johnson

magazine whore

Mental Floss

I should start this by saying that I'm sort of a trivia fiend. My friends and I have had violent battles over drunken trivial pursuit (it's not so trivial to us, I suppose). I record Jeopardy every night and play along with my husband over dinner. Very romantic. So, Mental Floss, the magazine devoted to so-called "knowledge junkies" is right up my alley.

Mental Floss
is a bi-monthly trivia extravaganza. It is food for the intellectual’s soul. It's like a class with that really great professor who would regale the class with stories of the sexual quirks of the Founding Fathers or use the Matrix movies to discuss philosophy. Mental Floss is about making learning fun and appealing to the inner geek in all of us -- you know, that little part of you that wants to prove that you’re an intellectual while still seeming somewhat cool.

The core of Mental Floss is divided into four distinct sections: Right Brain, Left Brain, Scatter Brain and Spanning the Globe.

Right Brain covers stuff that appeals to, you guessed it, the right side of the brain (art, literature, music), while Left Brain (the more logical and analytical side) covers science and technology. Specifically, this issue's Right Brain section is a closer look at Miles Davis's masterpiece Kind of Blue (did you know that the whole album was recorded in nine hours?). This issue's Left Brain column covers the amazing unknown powers of chili peppers. (They might cure cancer. Talk about a good reason to try that super spicy salsa.)

Like it sounds, Scatter Brain is sort of like the outtakes you find in the special features section of a DVD -- it’s the stuff that doesn't really fit in anywhere else, but is still pretty damn entertaining. In this issue, the Scatter Brain items include a list of famous filibusters in history, a piece on the history and evolution of the sneaker, and the "big question" of the issue: Can men breastfeed? (The answer? Yes. Freaky.)

Spinning the Globe is a travel section like no other. Each issue focuses on a specific country (in this case Ukraine) and gives you a crash course in every aspect of that country’s culture. This is more than a travelogue, it's nine pages covering the demographics, history and politics of the Ukraine. It’s all here: everything from a closer look at the Chernobyl crisis to Ukrainians’ love of U.S. romantic comedies to a who's who of Ukraine's major political movers and shakers.

The September/October issue was also the Election Issue, so it was filled with features covering all aspects of the U.S. political machine. This included “The Four Wildest Rides to the White House,” coverage of the four toughest political battles for the presidency. The Obama-McCain fight is nothing compared to the stunts pulled by Nixon’s hatchet men or the mudslinging between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson that culminated in the accusation that Jackson’s wife was a bigamist.  The section also includes a list of the 10 greatest campaign slogans (my favorite is Franklin Pierce's pun: "We Polked You in '44, We Shall Pierce You in '52." Sure beats "America First" doesn't it?) and "When Political Conventions Go Wild: Four Knock-down Drag-Out Convention Floor Fights,” which really speaks for itself!

And, what trivia magazine would be complete without everyone’s favorite Mormon trivia maven: Ken Jennings, the most famous champion in Jeopardy history? Jenning’s column is sort of a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon inspired trivia adventure (literally, it’s called “Six Degrees of Ken Jennings”) where he gets two completely unrelated topics (this issue’s combo: Coleridge and Coleslaw) and he needs to connect the topics in six little trivia nuggets. It’s a bit of a stretch sometimes, but fun nonetheless.

Basically, Mental Floss is all about putting a new spin on your basic trivia. It’s perfect for any trivia buff, or anyone who needs a few quirky anecdotes for their next cocktail party. The writing is engaging and conversational and the stories are entertaining. More importantly, reading this issue dramatically improved my Jeopardy skills. Ken Jennings, I’m gunning for your record!
Here’s to making learning fun again.