Home » Hot Type for Savvy Travelers — The Best Books For August 2021

Hot Type for Savvy Travelers — The Best Books For August 2021

by Our Editors
Best Books of the Month August 2021

Best Books of the Month August - New York, New York, New York: Four Decades of Success, Excess, and TransformationFor a bracing post-pandemic reengagment with the most resilient of American cities, turn to Thomas Dyja’s masterful and marvelously readable New York, New York, New York: Four Decades of Success, Excess, and Transformation (Simon & Schuster. $30. www.thomasdyja.com). At first, Dyja plunges the reader into the urban squalor of the 1970s, when Times Square slithered with vice, the Bronx was a bombed out wasteland, and the president of the United States famously expressed a willingness to let the city “drop dead.” Then, gracefully explaining the intricacies of urban planning and politics while studding his text with tasty anecdotes about New York’s movers and shakers, Dyja paints a portrait of a dynamic, sometimes frenetic metropolitan organism that has continually rebuilt and reimagined itself, for better and for worse. Dirty politics and divine artistry mix and mingle through the Koch, Dinkins, Giuliani, and Bloomberg eras as the city reimagined itself again and again, from a onetime workers’ paradise, to a terrorist target, to a playground for plutocrats. The enormous impact of the queer community on the city (and vice versa) are given detailed attention, from Stonewall, to the Factory, to AIDS. Dyja goes as far as any historian toward definitively identifying Ed Koch as a gay man; and, in a story that feels particularly disturbing in light of recent events, he suggests that a young Andrew Cuomo may have supported his father’s mayoral campaign against Koch by propagating the slogan “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo.” Dyja’s prose sparkles and sings, revealing endlessly fascinating details while never bogging down or losing an overall sense of forward momentum. This is brilliant work on a broad canvas.

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Best Books of the Month August - DUMBO: The Making of A Neighborhood and the Rebirth of BrooklynFor a zoomed in look at one small section of the New York history chronicled by Dyja, dive into architecture critic Paul Goldberger’s DUMBO: The Making of A Neighborhood and the Rebirth of Brooklyn (Rizzoli. $65. www.paulgoldberger.com). To a large extent, this is a story of real estate development, not normally a topic of interest to general readers, but here it is also a story of adventure and imagination. In 1979, the young developer David Walentas took a gamble in acquiring blocks of largely abandoned industrial buildings then owned, and largely ignored, by the Manhattan developer and hotelier Harry Helmsley. Then he slowly and cannily cultivated a mix of cultural and business tenants over the course of decades. Goldberger makes the wheeling and dealing surprisingly readable, but it’s the trove of photos and maps that make this volume a treat for anyone who has watched the neighborhood’s slow and spectacular evolution.

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Best Books of the Month August - The GuncleAuntie Mame is back for a new generation of gay readers to fall in love with but this time she’s known as The Guncle (Putnam. $27. www.stevenrowley.com). The titular character of Steven Rowley’s third novel is an endearingly flamboyant former sitcom star by the name of Patrick O’Hara (Notabene: The author and narrator of 1955’s Auntie Mame was Patrick Dennis) who takes in his six- and nine-year-old nephew and niece after their mother, who was his best friend and sister-in-law, passes away. The grieving East Coast kids head out to Palm Springs to stay with their GUP (Gay Uncle Patrick), while their floundering dad does a spell in drug rehab. Predictably, but charmingly with lots of laughs and a couple good weepy bits, the gay glamorpuss gets in touch with his nurturing side, the kids move through their pain and regain their balance, and a threesome proves as wholesome as Mame’s famous sidekick Vera Charles, who is here replaced with a throuple next door. Perfect light summer reading, you’ll likely find a flotilla of Guncles by the poolside this summer. “Life’s a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death,” said Auntie Mame; The Guncle makes for a delectable hors d’oeuvre, hopefully it will whet readers’ appetites for its inspiration.

BUY BOOK When you purchase a book from our curated Bookshop.org shop we earn an affiliate commission. The books are independently reviewed by our book editor and the potential commission does not influence the review in any way.


Best Books of the Month August - The World In A Selfie“Tourism is the most important industry of the century,” asserts journalist Marco D’Eramo in his new introduction to The World In A Selfie (Verso. $29.95. www.versobooks.com) a provocative take on the meanings of contemporary travel, originally published in Italy in 2017 and now available in English, updated to reflect the impact of 2020 on the tourist trade. “Why hadn’t tourism’s importance fully registered before the COVID-19 pandemic?” he asks. “Because tourists themselves are hard to take seriously. They are often comically dressed…walking in mountain boots in the middle of the city, wearing ridiculous baseball caps alongside businesspeople in suits.” And yet, he points out, 8.8 trillion dollars was spent directly on tourism in 2018—“one and a half times the GDP of Japan, the third largest economy on the planet.” In his digressive, contrarian chapters, D’Eramo provides a whirlwind grand tour of leisure travel. He takes delicious pleasure in revealing the inherent snobbery in virtually everybody’s opinion of everybody else’s vacation plans, and brashly counters conventional wisdom: “UNESCO’s ‘World Heritage’ listing is the kiss of death. Once the label is affixed, the city’s life is snuffed out; it is ready for taxidermy.” D’Eramo is brainy, bitchy, and brilliantly attuned to the absurd. Snap up his Selfie.

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Best Books of the Month August - Gay Bar: Why We Went OutThere’s more cutting intellectual observation on hand in Jeremy Atherton Lin’s simultaneously thrilling and melancholy Gay Bar: Why We Went Out (Little, Brown and Company. $28. www.jeremyathertonlin.com). A randy elegy to a golden age of social life that’s been bulldozed, or, more accurately, grinded into dust by the online era. Lin’s book is a potent cocktail of personal essay and cultural history. Not the faintest blush or twinge of guilty conscience taints Lin’s kaleidoscopic exploration and celebration of queer spaces. Whether writing about labyrinthine underground tunnels where man-on-man sex flourished in 18th Century London, or giddily recounting his own early 20th century adventures in damp, dark armpit-scented leather bars in the UK and the U.S., Lin points out the tight braids of simultaneous alienation and community, escape and belonging, self-acceptance and self-obliteration that have made gay nightlife such a thrill. “The closing of gay bars,” writes Lin, “had me thinking about the finitude of gay. The American activist Harry Britt once said, ‘When gays are spatially scattered, they are not gay, because they are invisible.’ The question becomes whether that dissolution of identity is the ultimate civil rights achievement.” For all his skill at incorporating politics and philosophy into his book, Lin hits deliriously poetic heights in recounting his own nocturnal escapades: “Some nights just smell like trouble. The city at dusk carries the scent of all its citizens commingled. We head out on the dopamine. There are nights that have an audible pulse, so we dance.”

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Best Books of the Month August - What Becomes A Legend MostThree years ago, this column spotlighted Something Personal, a controversial biography of photographer Richard Avedon co-authored by his longtime studio assistant Norma Stevens. A juicy, salacious chronicle that was angrily refuted on many fronts by Avedon’s estate, it was nonetheless a fascinating reflection of 50 years of American pop culture, art, and fashion. Now comes a classier, more analytical, but just as compulsively readable Avedon bio from an author with no personal scores to settle. Philip Gefter is a gifted photography critic, whose work has appeared in the New Yorker and Aperture, and who won the Lambda Literary Award for his biography of Sam Wagstaff, patron and mythologizer of Robert Mapplethorpe. His new book counterbalances the gossipmongering of Stevens’ book with the more coolly observed and meticulously researched What Becomes A Legend Most (HarperCollins. $35. www.philipgefter.com). An art historian at heart, Gefter places the rollercoaster personal life and psychology of his subject within a larger cultural frame. Avedon’s rise came as the world’s art museums, curators, and critics were in a roiling debate as to whether photography should be considered a legitimate artform, or whether it was forever to be regarded as a lowly stepchild, tainted by its commercial uses and inherent reproducibility. Less that a century later, it may be difficult for some readers to imagine a time when photography was not taken seriously, which may make it easier for them to understand the bitterness Avedon felt about his work being treated with a faint air of dismissiveness even at the height of his career. Avedon also stepped into the spotlight at a time, the mid-20th century, when homosexuality was also marginalized, which put him in yet another realm of quietly disdained secondary status. While Gefter deftly depicts the dovetailing of Avedon’s career path with changing mores in American society as a whole, his book also effervesces with wonderful anecdotes: from photo shoots with the Rolling Stones, the Warhol factory crew, and Marilyn Monroe to Avedon’s celebrity-clotted social life which included friendships, and perhaps romances (Gefter is a bit too coy), with Mike Nichols, James Baldwin, and other boldfaced names of the era. Like Avedon’s own work, this book maintains a fine balance of smarts and style.

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Best Books of the Month August - Why Labelle MattersAs much an amalgam of prose forms (essay, history, love letter, critique) as its subject was a hybrid of sounds and styles, Adele Bertei’s Why Labelle Matters is a bracing treasure trove of pop revelation (University of Texas Press. $18.95. www.adelebertei.com). Bertei, herself a prolific musician and film maker, makes a powerful case for the watershed cultural importance of early 1970s rock-funk trio of Patti Labelle, Nona Hendryx, and Sarah Dash. Foundering as the Bluebelles, whose repertoire and performances were squarely in the realm of traditional ‘60s girl groups, the group was reinvented and rechristened under the canny tutelage of Vicki Wickham, the business and romantic partner of Dusty Springfield. With a raw, gospel-tinged, sexually empowered sound, Labelle exuded genrebusting, gender-bending confidence. They opened for the Who on tour, and recorded albums that combined rollicking covers of songs including the Stones’ “Wild Horses” and Cat Stevens’ “Moon Shadow”; New Orleans-influenced R&B; and change-the-world protest stompers like “Shades of Difference.” The trio’s album with white pop star Laura Nyro crackled with lesbian subtext, and their outrageous sci-fi fashion sense helped build a cultish following of queers and glam rockers. If your main impression of Patti Labelle comes from the overproduced studio versions of her later solo hits, and your knowledge of Labelle, the group, is limited to “Lady Marmalade”, this punchy little volume will open your ears to a progressive past that still sounds like the future.

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AIRPLANE READ OF THE MONTH

Best Books of the Month August - Bath HausOver the top. Trashy. Ridonkulous. And utterly unputdownable! For suspenseful, sleazoid summer fun, this year’s gay beach book non pareil is Bath Haus (Doubleday. $26.95. www.pjvernonbooks.com). Riding the crest of this tawdry tsunami are Nathan and Oliver, a despicably codependent couple. Nathan is a Washington, D.C. trauma surgeon with a bad case of materialism rivalled only by his Mommy issues. Younger ex-addict Oliver has for years willingly sacrificed his independence to serve as helpmate and arm candy. But the relationship is fraying and, on a night when Nathan is out of town, Oliver treats himself to a night at the titular sex club. Why the gothy Germanic spelling, you ask? Perhaps because a Rutger Haueresque serial rapist/snuff killer lurks within, preparing to slit young Ollie’s throat. That’s it. After managing to escape, the guilt-ridden (well, a little) Oliver decides he must hide the evening’s events from Nathan. But soon enough, The Villain adds stalker to his resume and the twists and tension pile on. Readers won’t be able to predict the hidden secrets and fast-paced double-crosses ahead; the jawdropping dysfunctionality of the leading mens’ relationship is perverse beyond belief. And if you need some comic relief amidst this viper’s nest, well, there’s author P.J. Vernon’s prose: “It’s like wrapping my head around the sarin-soaked rubble of Syria and a tennis court in Connecticut”; “Toxic snippets spoken or whispered or shrieked from behind copper Moscow mules and martinis screaming for help through olive eyes.”

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