9 Nonfiction Page-Turners to Bring to the Beach This Summer

June 22, 2019, 11:00 AM UTC
the truffle underground-from the corner of the oval-sex lies and stardom
The Truffle Underground (Penguin Random House), From the Corner of the Oval (Penguin Random House), Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes's Hollywood (HarperCollins)
Alex Scimecca

Whether it’s hours spent waiting in an airport terminal because of an unexpected (but really, expected) delay or hours under the sun (with sunscreen) on the beach, a good book is a welcome companion. And a page-turner at that is necessary to keep you entertained and pass the time enjoyably.
Thus, here’s a list of nonfiction works you should consider packing away while traveling for business or pleasure this summer, taking you from the White House to Hollywood, with billionaires, movie stars, and one truly outrageous and now-infamous scammer.

Robin by Dave Itzkoff

There will never be anyone quite like Robin Williams, and there may never be another celebrity profile or biography quite like this again either. It’s not hyperbole to say that New York Times correspondent Dave Itzkoff’s engrossing and all-encompassing biography of one of the most beloved actors of the second half of the 20th century will change you. It will hurt you. It will make you laugh. It will make you cry. And after you are done, you will not be sure what to do with yourself. And, much like how many of us (Williams fans) felt after his death in 2014, the world will feel a bit emptier. But Robin is worth it—every single page.

Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A. by Lili Anolik

In stark contrast to Itzkoff’s approach to covering Robin Williams, Vanity Fair correspondent Lili Anolik is an active (if not obsessive) participant in her reporting of onetime Los Angeles “It Girl” and published author Eve Babitz. Normally, journalists aren’t the story—and shouldn’t let themselves become so. And yet, in this case, it works. That could be for a few reasons. For one, Anolik is transparent in her fascination with Babitz, and learning about her reporting journey (or battle, at times) is just as engrossing as parts of Babitz’s own wild history. Relatedly, given Babitz’s eventful life (putting it lightly), Anolik’s unrelenting inquiry into her life is just one more unusual tale following the rest—much like Babitz’s long string of lovers or long string of jobs and careers. Those not familiar with Babitz herself might be drawn in for the insane stories about some of their favorite stars, writers, and icons during the 1960s and 1970s, including but not limited to Jim Morrison, Joan Didion, Harrison Ford, and Steve Martin, among many—many—others. But Anolik, as a devoted fan but responsible biographer in this unique case study, stays true to her subject as Babitz is always the sun around which everyone else in L.A. revolves—at least in this retelling.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Is there anything more meta (in literature) than a book about a building that houses books? A history of a library might not seem like the most obvious choice for a fun read—but this is no ordinary library in no ordinary city. Throw in a suspected case of arson, and you have both a mystery and a tragedy—on multiple fronts. Finding a healthier balance of inserting herself as the narrator as well as a character in the story, Susan Orlean offers a fresh yet in-depth recap of the history of the Los Angeles Central Library, which serves as a mirror for the city itself as the Southern California metropolis grew from a Western outpost to the urban sprawl we know now. Gender politics, economic inequality, technology’s takeover—it’s all there, and the Central Library has gone through it all. (And some of the patron resources the Central Library offered in pre-Internet days are beyond wild.) Interwoven among it all is the story of one young man, hoping to strike it big and make a name for himself in Hollywood, and yet his own life was more Shakespearean than anything in which he could have been cast.

Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood by Karina Longworth

No one does Hollywood history better than Karina Longworth. Formerly a Vanity Fair film critic and also the host of a long-running (and outstanding) podcast, You Must Remember This, Longworth dived deep into one of the subjects who frequently popped up in her podcast seasons covering the early years—some would say “Golden Age”—of Hollywood: Howard Hughes. Maybe it seems “Golden” through a lens years later, although even pre-#MeToo, Hughes’s antics and those of other Hollywood (and all white male) executives would make your stomach churn and your face cringe. And post-#MeToo, the book serves as a reminder of just how bad it has been for women in the film industry—and how far we all have to go to rectify the sins of the past.

The Castle on Sunset: Life, Death, Love, Art, and Scandal at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont by Shawn Levy

Speaking of sins of the past (and present, and most definitely the future), there is nowhere in Hollywood more synonymous with infamy and intrigue than the Chateau Marmont. It’s almost unbelievable how much has happened in one hotel and cluster of bungalows on Sunset Boulevard—how many A-listers have stayed there, how many A-listers have died there, and how the place has stayed open for more than 90 years despite it all. (Can you imagine the insurance bills?) And this is all based on public knowledge. New York Times bestselling author Shawn Levy promises readers even more behind-closed-doors details, all of which are so wild that even Hollywood’s best screenwriters couldn’t make this stuff up. And if they did, it was probably inspired by something that transpired at the Chateau Marmont.

Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World by Tom Wright and Bradley Hope

Perhaps now all but forgotten after the presidential election swallowed 2016, there was another whale of a story that rocked the finance and entertainment worlds simultaneously. That was 1MDB, a fraudulent web spun by a social-climbing con artist that would make Jay Gatsby blush. This isn’t just crisscrossing the globe on private jets and yachts (although, naturally, there are those, too), but this young Wharton graduate is now credited with swindling $5 billion from Goldman Sachs, a money-laundering link to the financing of Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, and even taking down the Prime Minister of Malaysia with him in the fallout.

The Apprentice: Trump, Russia, and the Subversion of American Democracy by Greg Miller

Given how fast the news cycle runs these days, this title was almost outdated by the time of its release late last year—and it’s practically historical narrative in a post–Mueller Report world. But never mind all that given Washington Post reporter Greg Miller’s deft and sharp storytelling in fleshing out secret back channels, cyber-espionage, and corrupt officials on both sides—and that’s just in the opening pages. Covering the period from the hacking of the DNC to Trump’s disastrous appearance alongside Putin in Helsinki, the amount of material unearthed and laid out clearly for the reader here would make someone from the future assume this all happened over the course of a decade (or two) rather than a few years.

From the Corner of the Oval by Beck Dorey Stein

These days, reading a book from the Obama era might seem like something out of ancient history (if not another planet), but former White House stenographer Beck Dorey Stein’s memoir of her tenure at the White House is a fun throwback. It might be a bit odd for someone under the age of 35 to already be writing a memoir, but Stein’s book is quite compelling, thanks to the thorough explanation of day-to-day activity at the White House and among the President’s core team. This is as close to a sequel to The West Wing as you’re going to get. (There is no reboot; get over it.) And for those of you who like to read about traveling while traveling, there are plenty of domestic and international trips that you might recall as a headline long ago, and that you can learn about from behind-the-scenes now, from Vietnam to Martha’s Vineyard. There’s romance, too, although for Stein’s sake, you almost wish there wasn’t. More intriguingly, for the political readership, as a White House stenographer, Stein was not employed as part of the Obama administration but rather as a permanent member of the White House staff. Thus, she was one of the few employees left behind to continue working through the transition to the Trump administration. While that in of itself is something worth reading (and will also make you cringe), Stein’s book is as light a political read as you’re going to get these days. To characterize it as “breezy” might be too simple, as it is rare to hear about the inner workings of the Oval Office from a younger and female voice—and based on the current administration’s demographics, we won’t hear anything similar for some time.

The Truffle Underground: A Tale of Mystery, Mayhem, and Manipulation in the Shadowy Market of the World’s Most Expensive Fungus by Ryan Jacobs

Picture an organized gang of burglars, speeding away in getaway cars along tree-lined roads in the dead of night as the local police scramble to catch the culprits. But these thieves haven’t stolen jewels, artwork, or even drugs. They’ve poached truffles.

This isn’t the truffle salt or truffle oil you find on brunch menus, aiming to make your mac and cheese sound more posh. These are the real deal, straight from the ground, fresh tubers only found in parts of southeastern France and northwestern Italy—some species of which can sell for thousands of euros per kilo.

Who knew mushrooms could cause so much drama? But as investigative reporter Ryan Jacobs unearths, the truffle supply chain is a dangerous—if not lethal—business involving fraud, sabotage, and downright cruelty. What started out as a long read for The Atlantic is a full-fledged mystery and exposé about a luxurious delicacy that comes at a far higher price than you ever imagined.

A fair warning (without spoilers): There are some gruesome scenes of animal treatment revealed in this book, which will be particularly disturbing to dog owners and dog lovers.

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