Literary Hub

6 Audio Books to Get You Through the Oscars

Whether you watch the Academy Awards for the fashion, for the love of cinema, or to find out if you’ve won your office pool, this month’s (and Lit Hub’s first-ever) audio books round-up takes a look at six new titles guaranteed to get you ready for the 91st Academy Awards. Nielsen ratings for Hollywood’s annual celebration of itself aren’t what they once were, but the show remains one of TV’s most-viewed non-football programs.

Hollywood’s is a history of unforgettable narratives, scripted and unscripted: the lives of actors are chronicles of dreams, reinvention, ascendency and downward spirals. “Onstage everything is fake, whether it’s real or not,” observes the comedian at the center of Last Woman Standing, the new Hollywood thriller by Amy Gentry, but some of us watch the Oscars with the faint hope that what we’re seeing in the moments before the orchestra cuts off an acceptance speech is a glimpse of something real. Real or fake, if you’re inviting friends over for truffle fries and bacon-wrapped dates, watching by yourself, or have been boycotting the whole gaudy spectacle ever since Crash stole the Oscar from Brokeback Mountain, we can all agree on one thing: the book is always better than the movie.

Amy Gentry, Last Woman Standing
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Brilliance Audio
11 hours and 33 minutes

In a parallel universe in which Louis CK’s sexual misconduct remained only whispers, one could imagine the comedian on the short list of possible Oscars hosts. In this reality, Mr. CK has only recently returned to the much-smaller stage of the Comedy Cellar, a fate far less severe, to be sure, than that of Aaron Neely, the character inspired by CK in Amy Gentry’s new novel. Dana Diaz is an aspiring comedian living in Austin, Texas, licking her wounds after an aborted attempt to make it in LA. An encounter with Neely contributed to her departure, and he reenters her life as a judge in an Austin comedy competition. His own sudden exit as a judge sets in motion a series of events that put Diaz in situations she never thought possible—good, bad, and violent.

Gentry’s second novel after 2016’s Good As Gone—a gem in the subgenre of missing-girl mysteries—Last Woman Standing has plenty to say about gender, #MeToo, and inequality in the entertainment industry, but none of it slows down the page-turning revenge plot. At the center of that plot lurks Amanda, a jilted software developer who is much less a stranger than she pretends to be upon first meeting Dana.

With Amanda’s prodding, Dana finds herself donning a wig and a new persona, onstage and off, reinventing herself and taking down men who have misbehaved. The Hollywood lingo and pop culture allusions make the novel breezy fun despite its dark and fearless topicality. Read Last Woman Standing while brainstorming all the funny women Oscar producers could have asked to host this year’s ceremony, which currently has no host.

Isaac Mizrahi, I.M.: A Memoir
Macmillan/Macmillan Audio
13 hours and 9 minutes

Few names are more synonymous with red-carpet fashion in recent decades than Isaac Mizrahi. His new memoir reveals an artist with a variety of talents, among them writing. His preface notes a desire to “memorialize the tiny day-to-day rituals, even at the cost of leaving out great chunks of my career trajectory,” and one can’t help but recall the Seinfeld episode in which J. Peterman’s life is so dull he has to buy Kramer’s stories of mud-stained pants.

Those fears fade immediately as Mizrahi proves himself a charming chronicler of an awkward childhood as the gay son of Syrian Jews in New York City. “I know I sound like the gayest thing in the world,” Mizrahi says of his early love of Barbara Streisand, “but I’ll go one step gayer and say she saved my life.” A tender and vivid portrait of growing up gay in a religious home, the memoir takes flight when he enrolls at the Parsons School of Design.

From this point on, the designer shares some of the fashion philosophies and aesthetic decisions, like “a good designer is through with something as soon as he does it,” that have made him one of the most accomplished and respected people in his business. Words might not entirely capture fashion’s breathtaking possibilities, but even this reader, whose fashion sense reached its nadir with a braided belt from American Eagle circa 1991, was captivated by the author’s precise descriptions. As the narrator of the audio book, Mizrahi’s warm and wry voice provides an extra incentive to check out this version of his story. Turn up the volume of I.M. during the hours of red-carpet coverage before the Academy Awards, muting the obsequious inquiries of Ryan Seacrest and Giuliana Rancic.

Karina Longworth, Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood
Custom House/Harper Audio
20 hours and 21 minutes

To ask if the world really needs another Howard Hughes biography is to miss the point of Karina Longworth’s enthralling new take on the well-chronicled tycoon. The host of the popular You Must Remember This podcast, which delves into untold stories from classic Hollywood, the author uses Hughes’s life as a conduit for the stories of the actresses he impacted. “The female body has always been a key building block of cinema,” Longworth writes, “a raw material fed into the machine of the movies as integral to the final product as celluloid itself.”

Howard Hughes’s, as part of that machine, used money and clout to gaslight, blackball, bed, and surveil some of the most famous women in Hollywood history. “Hughes did the same things that other men did,” according to Longworth. “He just did them more crudely, and with even less of a regard for the person these actresses were before they came into his life, and what would become of them once he had moved on.”

This isn’t the flawed but loveable eccentric portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in Scorsese’s The Aviator. From Billie Dove to Jean Harlow, Ava Gardner to Jane Russell, Ida Lupino to several names we might still be talking about if Hughes hadn’t met them, the careers that entered Hughes’s orbit took wildly disparate paths. That some of these women found the success and acclaim they did wasn’t because of Hughes but in spite of him. With Longworth narrating the audio book, fans of her podcast will feel right at home. If you see an actress at this year’s Academy Awards wearing one of those Time’s Up pins and don’t know what it means, download Seduction and learn how long that clock has been ticking.

Mark Griffin, narrated by Jeremy Arthur, All That Heaven Allows: A Biography of Rock Hudson
Harper/Harper Audio
13 hours and 47 minutes

“I don’t know how long I can get away with this act,” Rock Hudson’s character in Pillow Talk says to himself. In the 1959 comedy, he’s a straight man pretending to be a gay man, and at that point in the actor’s career most of his Hollywood peers knew Hudson himself was gay. To the general public, however, his sexuality remained only a rumor throughout his life. Thoroughly dissected in Mark Griffin’s new biography, Rock Hudson’s might be the definitive tale of a closeted gay man reaching the heights of Hollywood as an icon of masculinity.

Born Roy Scherer, Jr. in Winnetka, Illinois, Rock Hudson’s story is also one of Hollywood transformation: from handsome, untrained, somewhat effeminate Midwesterner to handsome, macho, Oscar-nominated star of classics like Giant and Written on the Wind. “Moviegoers would be drawn to a certain duality in Hudson,” Griffin writes, “without realizing how deep the divide really went.”

The actor didn’t repress or resist his sexual urges, frequenting gay clubs and racking up a long list of lovers, but his costars and set workers kept his secret because he was such a genuinely nice person. Griffin charts Hudson’s 1980s AIDS diagnosis—at the time, he was the most well-known and beloved figure to die from the disease—but almost as tragic is the slow decline of his acting career.

Coming up in the heyday of the studio system, Hudson’s later years saw him plummet from screen idol to star of TV movies, from acting in a Roger Corman movie to lead actor on an NBC drama cancelled after thirteen episodes. Start reading All That Heaven Allows after the in memoriam montage, after Googling the birth names of all those actors we knew by other names.

Lili Anolik, narrated by Jayme Mattler, Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A.
Scribner/Simon & Schuster Audio
7 hours and 45 minutes

The first question many readers will ask upon picking up Hollywood’s Eve is who’s Eve Babitz? The question these readers will be asking by the end of Lili Anolik’s unconventional biography is why didn’t I know about Eve Babitz? An improbable blend of juicy Hollywood gossip and lyrical insights into fame, Anolik’s portrait of the writer, artist, and sometime frenemy of Joan Didion is also a story of obsession, namely the author’s with Eve Babitz. Lili Anolik’s profile of Babitz for Vanity Fair is partly responsible for the revival of the author and reissue of her novels by NYRB Classics.

Romantically linked to Jim Morrison, Ahmet Ertegun, and Annie Leibovitz, to name just a few, fame was to Eve, Anolik writes, what money was to F. Scott Fitzgerald. “The very famous are different from you and me, she believes. Have about them a gorgeousness, a romance, a theatricality, an air of boundless possibility and promise.”

Eve was a Jewish, West Coast Edie Sedgwick, except that around the time Edie died, aged twenty-eight, Eve Babitz channeled her celebrity fascination into writing, first for magazines like Rolling Stone and later into thinly disguised roman à clefs like Eve’s Hollywood and Slow Days. Hollywood’s Eve is engrossing for its portrait of Eve’s early years, but also for Anolik’s detective work in piecing together Eve’s origins and who she became in her later years.

Read Hollywood’s Eve the morning after the Academy Awards, when you’re feeling guilty for your own celebrity obsessions and need to remind yourself that smart people can be fans, too.

Jim Hutton, narrated by Patrick Moy, Mercury and Me
Bloomsbury/Dreamscape Media
7 hours and 39 minutes

Nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Rami Malek’s showstopping portrayal of Freddie Mercury, Bohemian Rhapsody is responsible for a resurgence in Queen’s popularity. To capitalize on that interest, Jim Hutton’s account of his relationship with the band’s frontman in the years before his death from AIDS has been rereleased on audio book. Hutton died in 2010, but narrator Patrick Moy’s Irish brogue adds some music to Hutton’s words that his straightforward prose doesn’t often provide.

Bohemian Rhapsody portrays Hutton as a former employee of Mercury who provides a loving refuge later in the singer’s life, after he’s given up drugs and promiscuity, but little of this account seems to be accurate. Hutton and Mercury met in a bar, and Hutton relates their early years together, before Mercury’s health began to decline, as passionate but at times tumultuous.

The likeable Hutton doesn’t command much attention beside his iconoclastic lover, and the memoir is more scrapbook than window into what made the legend he was. Because the years Hutton and Mercury were together only coincided with one final Queen album and some of Mercury’s solo work, not much is revealed about Mercury the artist. The partner Hutton accompanies on shopping sprees, concerts, and dinner parties is generous and sweet, and one can hardly blame the author for leaving readers wanting more of one of the last century’s most singular showmen.

Ultimately Mercury and Me is for Queen completists, but when Bohemian Rhapsody inevitably loses the Best Picture race to a more artfully made but less entertaining film, you might find yourself in need of some late-night reading.

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