R29 Reads: The Books We’re Reading This August

Alicia Lansom
·6-min read

Often, the best stories are the ones based around real-life events. Whether traumatic or joyous, there is something richly satisfying about diving into a book that peels back the layers of intimate moments. Though there is most certainly a time and a place for fiction (see July’s reading list for recommendations), learning the truth about an individual’s life or a world-changing event can make for a fascinating read.

Our desire to unravel real-life events often plays out on screen, with recent history inspiring some award-winning films and TV series. The last few months have proven our appetite for true stories with FX's Mrs. America becoming a major hit for its depiction of the fight for women’s equality in the 1970s. Similarly, Michaela Coel’s semi-autobiographical show I May Destroy You has drawn praise for its honest and unflinching portrayal of sexual assault.

While film and television do a wonderful job of depicting true stories, books can provide an even broader narrative without the limit of a 45-minute running time. This month, team R29 is stepping into real life with a selection of engrossing memoirs and nonfiction. But if historical fiction is more your cup of tea, this month’s list also includes a handful of tales which take inspiration from real historic moments and figures.

Click through to check out exactly which titles we’re reading this August…

<strong>Katy Thompsett, Sub Editor</strong><br><br><strong>Book: </strong><em>Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told?</em> by Jenny Diski<br><br><strong>Why is it your August read? </strong>Jenny Diski, who died in 2016, was the kind of writer I aspire to be: frank, wise, always surprising. <em>Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told?</em> (named after a wonderful essay in which she lays out exactly why, as a teenager, she didn’t do what she was told – and ended up living with Doris Lessing) gathers some of her best columns from the <em>London Review of Books</em>. Whether writing about her stays in psychiatric hospitals or a friend’s eccentric offer of a shared burial plot in Highgate Cemetery, Diski is marvellous company. I’ll be taking her to the park with me throughout August (and beyond). <br><br><strong>Jenny Diski</strong> Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told?, $, available at <a href="https://londonreviewbookbox.co.uk/products/why-didn-t-you-just-do-what-you-were-told-by-jenny-diski" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:London Review Bookbox" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">London Review Bookbox</a>
Katy Thompsett, Sub Editor

Book: Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told? by Jenny Diski

Why is it your August read? Jenny Diski, who died in 2016, was the kind of writer I aspire to be: frank, wise, always surprising. Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told? (named after a wonderful essay in which she lays out exactly why, as a teenager, she didn’t do what she was told – and ended up living with Doris Lessing) gathers some of her best columns from the London Review of Books. Whether writing about her stays in psychiatric hospitals or a friend’s eccentric offer of a shared burial plot in Highgate Cemetery, Diski is marvellous company. I’ll be taking her to the park with me throughout August (and beyond).

Jenny Diski Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told?, $, available at London Review Bookbox
<strong>Vicky Spratt, Features Editor</strong><br><br><strong>Book:</strong> <em>Coming Undone: A Memoir</em> by Terri White<br><br><strong>Why is it your August read? </strong>Terri is an offensively talented writer and editor. This memoir is not an easy read but it is powerful and necessary. "Every morning when I wake up," she writes, "I'm always surprised, sometimes crestfallen, to have been spat out again, tender and bruised and somehow a little less." This is a completely three-dimensional account of how childhood trauma has shaped the woman she is today. It stings and serves as a reminder that life’s loose ends can never be tied up neatly and left in the past. But at the same time, she manages to do what so few accounts of women’s trauma are able: to tell us that, in spite of everything, we keep on living. <br><br><strong>Terri White</strong> Coming Undone: A Memoir, $, available at <a href="https://www.waterstones.com/book/coming-undone/terri-white/9781786896780" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Waterstones" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Waterstones</a>
Vicky Spratt, Features Editor

Book: Coming Undone: A Memoir by Terri White

Why is it your August read? Terri is an offensively talented writer and editor. This memoir is not an easy read but it is powerful and necessary. "Every morning when I wake up," she writes, "I'm always surprised, sometimes crestfallen, to have been spat out again, tender and bruised and somehow a little less." This is a completely three-dimensional account of how childhood trauma has shaped the woman she is today. It stings and serves as a reminder that life’s loose ends can never be tied up neatly and left in the past. But at the same time, she manages to do what so few accounts of women’s trauma are able: to tell us that, in spite of everything, we keep on living.

Terri White Coming Undone: A Memoir, $, available at Waterstones
<strong>Georgia Murray, Fashion Editor</strong><br><br><strong>Book: </strong><em>Eve's Hollywood</em> by Eve Babitz<br><br><strong>Why is it your August read?</strong> I won’t be going anywhere further than the Kent coast this year but looking back through my camera roll has given me a serious dose of holiday nostalgia. My Californian road trip has been put on hold so listening to HAIM’s new album and reading <em>Eve’s Hollywood</em> by Eve Babitz is the closest I can get to the sun-soaked West Coast. A memoir of sorts, it’s told through snapshots of the author’s life and has all the indulgent glamour, celebrity and excess you could want from the bohemian worlds of LA’s coolest. A total escape read, I look forward to getting lost in the dark underbelly of Hollywood. <br><br><strong>Eve Babitz</strong> Eve's Hollywood, $, available at <a href="https://blackwells.co.uk/bookshop/product/9781590178904?" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Blackwell's Books" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Blackwell's Books</a>
Georgia Murray, Fashion Editor

Book: Eve's Hollywood by Eve Babitz

Why is it your August read? I won’t be going anywhere further than the Kent coast this year but looking back through my camera roll has given me a serious dose of holiday nostalgia. My Californian road trip has been put on hold so listening to HAIM’s new album and reading Eve’s Hollywood by Eve Babitz is the closest I can get to the sun-soaked West Coast. A memoir of sorts, it’s told through snapshots of the author’s life and has all the indulgent glamour, celebrity and excess you could want from the bohemian worlds of LA’s coolest. A total escape read, I look forward to getting lost in the dark underbelly of Hollywood.

Eve Babitz Eve's Hollywood, $, available at Blackwell's Books
<strong>Alicia Lansom, Editorial Assistant</strong><br><br><strong>Book:</strong> <em>The Feminine Mystique</em> by Betty Friedan<br><strong><br>Why is it your August read?</strong> If you haven’t devoured all nine episodes of <a href="https://www.refinery29.com/en-gb/mrs-america-fashion" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Mrs. America" class="link rapid-noclick-resp"><em>Mrs. America</em></a> yet, you’re seriously missing out. Focusing on the fight for women's rights in the US in the 1970s, the FX series details the lives of some of the women’s movement’s biggest players, including Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. The latter is depicted as the mother of the movement, who broke down barriers with her 1963 book <em>The Feminine Mystique</em>. While the series proves Betty to be a complicated character and an enemy of LGBTQ+ rights (although she later changed her stance), I’m interested to discover what exactly made the book so influential and see how it compares with today’s feminist voices. <br><br><strong>Betty Friedan</strong> The Feminine Mystique, $, available at <a href="https://www.waterstones.com/book/9780141192055?" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Waterstones" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Waterstones</a>
Alicia Lansom, Editorial Assistant

Book: The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

Why is it your August read?
If you haven’t devoured all nine episodes of Mrs. America yet, you’re seriously missing out. Focusing on the fight for women's rights in the US in the 1970s, the FX series details the lives of some of the women’s movement’s biggest players, including Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. The latter is depicted as the mother of the movement, who broke down barriers with her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique. While the series proves Betty to be a complicated character and an enemy of LGBTQ+ rights (although she later changed her stance), I’m interested to discover what exactly made the book so influential and see how it compares with today’s feminist voices.

Betty Friedan The Feminine Mystique, $, available at Waterstones
<strong>Jess Commons, Lifestyle Director</strong><br><br><strong>Book:</strong> <em>The Mountains Sing</em> by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai<br><br><strong>Why is it your August read?</strong> I’m trying to read more historical fiction from other countries at the moment and the first English language novel from Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, which came out this spring, has given me a devastating lesson in Vietnam’s scarred history. Narrated by Huang, a teenage girl living in Hanoi at the end of the Vietnam War, and her grandmother Diệu Lan, who is telling Huang about her life, the historical events of the 20th century provide a terrifying backdrop for their tales which unfold side by side. From the French and Japanese occupations to the Indochina wars, The Great Hunger, land reform and the Vietnam War, it’s a story of resilience, determination, family and hope in a country blighted by pain.<br><br><strong>Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai</strong> The Mountains Sing, $, available at <a href="https://amzn.to/2P8Ph6m" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Amazon" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Amazon</a>
Jess Commons, Lifestyle Director

Book: The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

Why is it your August read? I’m trying to read more historical fiction from other countries at the moment and the first English language novel from Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, which came out this spring, has given me a devastating lesson in Vietnam’s scarred history. Narrated by Huang, a teenage girl living in Hanoi at the end of the Vietnam War, and her grandmother Diệu Lan, who is telling Huang about her life, the historical events of the 20th century provide a terrifying backdrop for their tales which unfold side by side. From the French and Japanese occupations to the Indochina wars, The Great Hunger, land reform and the Vietnam War, it’s a story of resilience, determination, family and hope in a country blighted by pain.

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai The Mountains Sing, $, available at Amazon
<strong>Sadhbh O’Sullivan, Health and Living Writer</strong><br><br><strong>Book:</strong><em> Lote</em> by Shola von Reinhold<br><strong><br>Why is it your August read?</strong> As far as I’m concerned, Goodreads is the only good social media platform left (sorry) and is where I get a lot of inspiration for what to read next. It’s where I stumbled on <em>Lote</em>, the debut novel from Shola von Reinhold, described as a "deliciously queer" novel that was inspired by a forgotten Black modernist poet and which acts as a rallying cry against Eurocentrism. I ordered it immediately. It follows the solitary Mathilda whose obsession with the Bright Young Things of the 1920s leads her to discover the Black Scottish modernist poet, Hermia Druitt. In her bid to learn more, the narrative is an exploration of aesthetics, beauty and the ephemeral realm in which they exist.<br><br><strong>Shola von Reinhold</strong> Lote, $, available at <a href="https://www.jacarandabooksartmusic.co.uk/products/lote" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Jacaranda Books" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Jacaranda Books</a>
Sadhbh O’Sullivan, Health and Living Writer

Book: Lote by Shola von Reinhold

Why is it your August read?
As far as I’m concerned, Goodreads is the only good social media platform left (sorry) and is where I get a lot of inspiration for what to read next. It’s where I stumbled on Lote, the debut novel from Shola von Reinhold, described as a "deliciously queer" novel that was inspired by a forgotten Black modernist poet and which acts as a rallying cry against Eurocentrism. I ordered it immediately. It follows the solitary Mathilda whose obsession with the Bright Young Things of the 1920s leads her to discover the Black Scottish modernist poet, Hermia Druitt. In her bid to learn more, the narrative is an exploration of aesthetics, beauty and the ephemeral realm in which they exist.

Shola von Reinhold Lote, $, available at Jacaranda Books
<strong>Jessica Morgan, Staff Writer</strong><br><br><strong>Book:</strong> <em>How To Disappear</em> by Gillian McAllister<br><br><strong>Why is it your August read?</strong> I’ve been wanting to dive into a book that hasn’t been forcing me to read it for the last six years (see <a href="https://www.refinery29.com/en-gb/book-recommendations-july-2020#slide-6" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:July’s read" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">July’s read</a> to feel my pain) and what better choice is there than a good old crime thriller? Gillian McAllister, who is best known for her unpredictable twists and turns, gives us a dark and tense human experience of the witness protection programme and its emotionally devastating impact on a blended family living in London. It’s a rollercoaster that will leave you gasping and turning the pages for more. <br><br><strong>Gillian McAllister</strong> How To Disappear, $, available at <a href="https://amzn.to/318ka0r" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Amazon" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Amazon</a>
Jessica Morgan, Staff Writer

Book: How To Disappear by Gillian McAllister

Why is it your August read? I’ve been wanting to dive into a book that hasn’t been forcing me to read it for the last six years (see July’s read to feel my pain) and what better choice is there than a good old crime thriller? Gillian McAllister, who is best known for her unpredictable twists and turns, gives us a dark and tense human experience of the witness protection programme and its emotionally devastating impact on a blended family living in London. It’s a rollercoaster that will leave you gasping and turning the pages for more.

Gillian McAllister How To Disappear, $, available at Amazon

Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?

Tyler Mitchell's New Book Showcases Black Joy

Books To Buy To Support #BlackPublishingPower

The Book That Inspired Netflix's Epstein Doc