Despite the fact that it’s been well over a decade since I left formal schooling, my reading habits still stubbornly follow the ghostly traces of the grading calendar year. The days get longer, the sun gets hotter, and all I want is to wander into a Barnes and Noble and wander out with a combination of lightly educational and absolutely pulpy books in formats friendly to watery environments—the pool, the lake, the beach, a sprinkler, a small plastic bucket, whatever.
Once May hits, I want reading to feel like languorous summer nostalgia: flipping through a vintage People magazine, circa 1993; those first two weeks of summer when my time became gloriously unstructured and I could stay up until nearly dawn tearing through fantasy novels; and a light sprinkling of “improving” reading, taken off the teacher-provided handout—selecting for the juiciest options, of course. (A special shout-out to the teacher who put Forever Amber on the list one year.) In my current life, that translates to a big stack of nominally work-adjacent books that truthfully are an attempt to channel being a preteen and knowing that weeks and weeks without homework stretched before me.
Hence I set the tone for the next three months the week before Memorial Day by picking up How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood, by William J. Mann. I told myself this one was work-related; I’ve been writing so much about royals and, consequently, thinking a lot about celebrity, public image, and PR, and it’s hard to think of a bigger case study than Liz Taylor at the height of her fame. But really I zipped through it because the book is a delight, and absolutely perfect for the season—breezy enough to evoke the feeling of paging through a glossy magazine, but Mann also has great sources who are truly insightful on the work of making and maintaining a star. He talks to agents, publicists, assistants, which is to say, exactly the type of people who know where all the bodies are buried.
Now, every book I read this summer needs to evoke this same feeling or I’ll be disappointed.
The bits about Liz and Richard Burton in Rome put me onto the book I’m currently working through, Shawn Levy’s La Dolce Vita Confidential, which is a chronicle of how Rome became ultra-hip in the 1950s. It’s sort of a Universal Studios tour of the cultural moment, and unfortunately prone to sentences like, “Hollywood on the Tiber wasn’t built in a day.” But it’s a good overview and I’m particularly enjoying all the bits about Hollywood epics filmed in Italy. (Quo Vadis, more like Sorry, Who?)
At some point later in the summer I will be circling back to Liz ’N Dick, however tangentially, maybe by picking up Melvin Bragg’s Richard Burton biography—which I had no idea existed, despite my In Our Time superfandom—and maybe a biography of Vivien Leigh, if anybody has any suggestions for a good one. What I really want is a smart history of the Jet Set that isn’t too enraptured and is incisive about media trends in the era. This is where one of those summer reading lists for upcoming classes would be so helpful. Could some kind teacher point me in the right direction?
I am also trying to read and—this is the tricky part—actually comprehend Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality. Fortunately he cracks a lot of droll jokes and is very, very funny when describing absolutely unhinged wax museums.
My other big project for the summer is slowly working my way through a big box of romances from the mid 1980s, which I ordered off Ebay specifically for an original copy of Adam and Eva
by Sandra Kitt, the rare early contemporary romance written by an African American woman, featuring African American protagonists. (Also, the cover features them looking sexy at a beach and I couldn’t resist it for summer reading.) The whole box is Harlequin American Romance, a line that was launched and in its early days edited by Vivian Stephens, who is a very influential figure in the history of the genre for having really led the way in the creation of sexier contemporary romances featuring modern women—you know, who had jobs and didn’t read like pale, timid imitations of the second Mrs. deWinter in Rebecca. (Though if you are looking for a summer read, that’s really the granddaddy of them all. Skip the modern “girl who” thrillers and go straight to the original.)
I call this my “project” because I have a professional interest in the history of the romance genre, but really, I just cannot make it through a summer without returning to mass-market paperbacks. I can zip through one of these in an evening if I don’t have to work the next day, and it’s such a rare pleasure to come to any piece of pop culture having no idea what to expect and without its already having been thoroughly digested by the Discourse, and that’s the case with many of these books, which never quite made it into the eternal romance canon. That makes them fascinating.
I also just love their perfect small-scale specificity, like cameo paintings, with their dedication to heroines with fascinating jobs and funny quirks and extremely 1980s outfits. So far I’ve read two books by somebody I wasn’t familiar with named Elda Minger: Touched By Love, about the lead singer for an up-and-coming rock band and her manager, and Seize the Fire, about a woman trying to direct a movie starring her dying father and her long-lost love, a man named “Mogan Buckmaster.” I’m pretty sure it features oblique reference to an IUD, which amazed me for a book published in 1985.
I’m also enjoying revisiting the early works of Anne Stuart, who is fascinating because she started out writing old-fashioned gothics—the ones with the girls running away from houses in nightgowns—and has written steadily across several subgenres for the last 40 years. (Also, I’m pretty sure she wrote pre-Internet fanfic.) Turns out she really loved a secret baby plot in the 1980s and also was clearly going through a big quilting phase—every single book she wrote in the decade seems to mention quilts. (So thanks, Anne, for the vintage quilt buying spree I’m about to embark upon.) Over Memorial Day weekend I read Heart’s Ease, in which a lab assistant is accused of falsifying test results when in fact it was her sexually harassing dirtbag boss, setting into motion some quality time with the her romantic interest. I’m saving like a precious treasure for my Maine summer vacation Rocky Road:
After two years of devouring mystery novel and acting as a part-time cook for the Musctaoon Inn, Jeannie MacPherson realized her vacation from her sensational ice-cream empire was definitely losing its charm. So how could she ignore the arrival of Matthew Connelly?
His forbidding demeanour aroused Jeannie’s curiosity, and his obviously painful limp piqued her sympathy. Clearly Matthew needed a friend, and as his own neighbor on the island’s eastern shore, Jeannie naturally elected herself to the post. She did not question the wisdom of her lighthearted decision or wonder about the reasons for Matthew’s arrival on the remote little island until it was much too late.
I can scarcely describe the joy that the words “her sensational ice-cream empire” bring to me. I cannot imagine any vibe more perfectly summer than reading a romance novel set in a vacation town about a woman who’s reading mysteries while playing hooky from her own job.
I also recently raced through an ARC of Sarah Maclean’s latest, Brazen and the Beast, set in and around 19th century Covent Garden and the London Docklands and starring a curvy heroine and therefore extremely relevant to my interests, and I’m mad at myself for already reading the latest Lucy Parker, The Austen Playbook, before summer ever even got going. But I’m currently enjoying Teach Me by Olivia Dade, featuring a slightly older pair of teachers who are just adorable.
Next up I’m supposed to be reading Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975, which is on its last renewal from the library, but I will most likely get sidetracked, possibly by Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America or by Maureen Orth’s Vulgar Favors, thanks to having recently watched the Versace season of American Crime Story.
What I really, really want is some zippy nonfiction book about some specific aspect of the 1980s that nicely plays off all those category romance novels I’m reading. Something Dynasty adjacent but very smart about the broader cultural forces at work. Almost investigative business reporting in the vein of Den of Thieves, but not quite. The Diana Chronicles, but more American. I don’t know what it looks like, exactly, but I’ll recognize it when I see it. So if anybody’s got a particularly good piece of nonfiction that explains the rise of Judith Krantz or something, hit me up, please.