The Best Books I Read This Summer

Oh, hi! Welcome to a new installment of The Best Books I Read This Season! Although summer doesn’t officially come to an end until mid-September, I think we can all agree that our mindsets shift into autumn mode as soon as the clock strikes midnight on September 1st. So even though the warm weather might linger for a bit longer, we know that fall—you know, the best season—is on the horizon.

I’d like to say this summer was a bit different for me vis-à-vis a global crisis keeping me locked inside, but I tend to do that every summer anyway, since the season’s oppressive heat and tendency to give me allergies makes me want to lock myself up in an air-conditioned room and throw away the key. Is it any wonder I experience seasonal depression in the summer? This year was, in fact, especially bad in that department, just because it’s hard to function on a somewhat normal day-to-day routine when there’s still a lot of collective uncertainty and previously established structures that have to change. Online learning, anyone?!

Thankfully, my local library started to reopen in June with a “contactless loan” service, and by the end of July was allowing people back into the building (I wrote about the absence of the library from my life this year for Book Riot here and here). And while there were some books that I reserved during quarantine that I no longer had any interest in by the time they were ready for me, I was also giving my credit card a good exercise by buying new books—books about movies, books about pop culture, books about things I love. Achieving a good distraction has been hard, but I did manage to get my hands on a few titles over the last few months that got the job done pretty well. Alas, here are the best books I read this summer.

Fifth Avenue, 5 AM: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman by Sam Wasson
Audrey Hepburn is an icon like no other, yet the image many of us have of Audrey—dainty, immaculate—is anything but true to life. Here, for the first time, Sam Wasson presents the woman behind the little black dress that rocked the nation in 1961. The first complete account of the making of Breakfast at Tiffany’sFifth Avenue, 5 A.M. reveals little-known facts about the cinema classic: Truman Capote desperately wanted Marilyn Monroe for the leading role; director Blake Edwards filmed multiple endings; Hepburn herself felt very conflicted about balancing the roles of mother and movie star.

With a colorful cast of characters including Truman Capote, Edith Head, Givenchy, “Moon River” composer Henry Mancini, and, of course, Hepburn herself, Wasson immerses us in the America of the late fifties before Woodstock and birth control, when a not-so-virginal girl by the name of Holly Golightly raised eyebrows across the country, changing fashion, film, and sex for good. Indeed, cultural touchstones like Sex and the City owe a debt of gratitude to Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Highly recommend for any fans of Breakfast at Tiffany’s large or small! Reading this book was also the inspiration for this article I wrote for Book Riot all about the story’s sordid history.

Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A True (As Told to Me) Story by Bess Kalb
Bess Kalb, Emmy-nominated TV writer and New Yorker contributor, saved every voicemail her grandmother Bobby Bell ever left her. Bobby was a force—irrepressible, glamorous, unapologetically opinionated. Bobby doted on Bess; Bess adored Bobby. Then, at ninety, Bobby died. But in this debut memoir, Bobby is speaking to Bess once more, in a voice as passionate as it ever was in life. There’s Bobby’s mother, who traveled solo from Belarus to America in the 1880s to escape the pogroms, and Bess’s mother, a 1970s rebel who always fought against convention. Then there’s Bess, who grew up in New York and entered the rough-and-tumble world of L.A. television.

Her grandma Bobby was with her all the way—she was the light of Bess’ childhood and her fiercest supporter, giving her unequivocal love, even if sometimes of the toughest kind. In Nobody Will Tell You This But Me, Bobby reminds Bess of the experiences they shared, and she delivers—in phone calls, texts, and unforgettable heart-to-hearts brought vividly to the page—her signature wisdom: “If the earth is cracking behind you, you put one foot in front of the other.” Recounting both family lore and family secrets, Bobby brings us four generations of indomitable women and the men who loved them. With humor and poignancy, Kalb gives us proof of the special bond that can skip a generation and endure beyond death.

Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind by Gavin Edwards
In Last Night at the Viper Room, author and journalist Gavin Edwards vividly recounts the life and tragic death of acclaimed actor River Phoenix—a teen idol on the fast track to Hollywood royalty who died of a drug overdose in front of West Hollywood’s storied club, the Viper Room, at the age of 23. Through in-depth research, the author provides a minute-by-minute account of the night Phoenix died of a drug overdose and explores the world the young actor lived in, painting a vivid picture of a talented and dedicated yet troubled young man.

This biography-turned-cultural analysis also explores the somewhat controversial aspects of Phoenix’s upbringing, including his childhood in Venezuela growing up under the aegis of the cultish Children of God. Putting him at the center of a new generation of leading men emerging in the early 1990s— including Johnny Depp, Keanu Reeves, Brad Pitt, Nicolas Cage, and Leonardo DiCaprio—Edwards traces the Academy Award nominee’s meteoric rise, couches him in an examination of the 1990s, and illuminates his lasting legacy on Hollywood and popular culture itself.

Recollections of My Nonexistence by Rebecca Solnit
Definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year that I can’t recommend enough. In Recollections of My Nonexistence, Rebecca Solnit describes her formation as a writer and as a feminist in 1980s San Francisco, in an atmosphere of gender violence on the street and throughout society and the exclusion of women from cultural arenas. She tells of being poor, hopeful, and adrift in the city that became her great teacher; of the small apartment that, when she was nineteen, became the home in which she transformed herself; of how punk rock gave form and voice to her own fury and explosive energy.

Solnit recounts how she came to recognize the epidemic of violence against women around her, the street harassment that unsettled her, the trauma that changed her, and the authority figures who routinely disdained and disbelieved girls and women, including her. Looking back, she sees all these as consequences of the voicelessness that was and still is the ordinary condition of women, and how she contended with that while becoming a writer and a public voice for women’s rights.

We Are Lost and Found by Helen Dunbar
My So-Called Life meets When We Rise in this heartbreaking coming-of-age tale. Michael is content to live in the shadow of his best friends, James, an enigmatic teen performance artist who everyone wants and no one can have and Becky, who calls things as she sees them, while doing all she can to protect those she loves. His brother, Connor, has already been kicked out of the house for being gay and laying low seems to be his only chance to avoid the same fate.

To pass the time before graduation, Michael hangs out at The Echo where he can dance and forget about his father’s angry words, the pressures of school, and the looming threat of AIDS, a disease that everyone is talking about, but no one understands. Then he meets Gabriel, a boy who actually sees him. A boy who, unlike seemingly everyone else in New York City, is interested in him and not James. And Michael has to decide what he’s willing to risk to be himself.

The Way We All Became the Brady Bunch: How the Canceled Sitcom Became the Beloved Pop Culture Icon We Are Still Talking About Today by Kimberly Potts
Whether it’s the show you watched growing up, or the one your parents did—whether adored, or great to poke fun at—The Brady Bunch is unarguably one of the most enduring and inspiring television series of our time. It has lived a dozen lives, from its original comedy debut and big-screen movies, to the Emmy-winning TV auteurs it has inspired—everyone from Vince Gilligan to Jill Soloway—and promises to live many more.

In The Way We All Became the Brady Bunch, TV and pop culture writer Kimberly Potts draw upon her deep knowledge of and appreciation for The Brady Bunch and television and pop culture history to provide an industry insider narrative of the beloved series. With fresh interviews, the novel examines the show’s lasting effects on its audience and takes readers behind the scenes and into the lives of some of pop culture’s most beloved characters, all to document why The Brady Bunch was one of the most groundbreaking series of its time—and why it remains, to this day, unforgettable.

Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books by William Kuhn
I decided to seek out this fascinating biography after reading Steven Rowley’s The Editor, a fictitious story of a gay man and his professional relationship working with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis as his editor. Jackie O never wrote a memoir, but she told her life story and revealed herself in intimate ways through the nearly 100 books she brought into print during the last two decades of her life as an editor at Viking and Doubleday. Based on archives and interviews with Jackie’s authors, colleagues, and friends, Reading Jackie mines this significant period of her life to reveal both the serious and the mischievous woman underneath the glamorous public image.

Many Americans regarded Jackie as the paragon of grace, but few knew her as the woman sitting on her office floor laying out illustrations, or flying to California to persuade Michael Jackson to write his autobiography. Reading Jackie provides a compelling behind-the-scenes look at Jackie at work: how she commissioned books and nurtured authors, as well as how she helped to shape stories that spoke to her strongly. Jackie is remembered today for her marriages to JFK and to Aristotle Onassis, but her real legacy is the books that reveal the tastes, recollections, and passions of an independent woman.

The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History by Nathalia Holt
In The Queens of Animation, bestselling author Nathalia Holt recounts the dramatic stories of an incredibly influential group of women who have slipped under the radar for decades but have touched all our lives. These women infiltrated the all-male domain of Disney Studios and used early technologies to create the rich artwork and iconic storylines that would reach millions of viewers across generations.

Over the decades—while battling sexism, domestic abuse, and workplace harassment—these women also fought to influence the way female characters are depicted to young audiences. Based on extensive interviews and exclusive access to archival and personal documents, The Queens of Animation tells the story of their vital contribution to Disney’s golden age and their continued impact on animated filmmaking, culminating in the record-shattering Frozen, Disney’s first female-directed full-length feature film.

Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran
This book had been on my TBR for years, and only this summer did I finally decide to buy it—and I’m so glad I did, because it’s certainly a masterpiece. One of the most important works of gay literature, Dancer from the Dance is a seriocomic remembrance of things past, and still poignantly present. It depicts the adventures of Malone, a beautiful young man searching for love amid New York’s emerging gay scene. From Manhattan’s Everard Baths and after-hours discos to Fire Island’s deserted parks and lavish orgies, Malone looks high and low for meaningful companionship. The person he finds is Sutherland, a campy quintessential queen, and one of the most memorable literary creations of contemporary fiction. Hilarious, witty, and ultimately heartbreaking, Dancer from the Dance is truthful, provocative, outrageous fiction—and required reading for gay men from any generation.

If we aren’t already, let’s be friends on Goodreads! What were the best books you read this summer?

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