Reading lists

…and the award for best Oscar-related book goes to

To celebrate Hollywood's big night, we've created a 5 stars-only reading list inspired by each of 2020's Best Picture nominees.

Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Sony Pictures
Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Sony Pictures

The red carpet has been hoovered, the trophies have been polished, the spontaneous speeches have been delivered... the Oscars is over for another year.

In the race for Best Picture a surprise was sprung as Bong Joon-ho's South Korean black comedy thriller Parasite beat off the best efforts of heavyweights Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese.

Whichever film in the Oscar's most prestigious category was your preferred winner, there's a book to go with it – or in the case of this list, two. 

The Irishman

I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt (2004)

‘I heard you paint houses,’ is the first thing Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) asks Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) in The Irishman. ‘I also do carpentry,’ replies Sheeran. What viewers are never quite told, is that Sheeran does neither. Not unless you count festooning rooms with the blood spatter of people you shoot and building their coffins. The real-life Sheeran explained all this to prosecutor Charles Brandt on his deathbed. The result of those interviews was I Heard You Paint Houses, that became Scorsese’s source material in making the Irishman.

Mafia: The Final Secrets by Bill Bonanno (2012)

If fate had dealt him a straighter hand, Bill Bonnano might have been a politician. But instead, he was the first-born to Joseph Bonanno, among the most powerful and ruthless Mafia bosses of the mid-20th century. Coming of age in the ‘golden era’ of the Mafia (around the same time much of The Irishman is set) he is widely recognised as the historical basis for Michael Corleone's character in the Godfather trilogy. Read this for the nuts and bullets of the mafia way. 

Ford v Ferrari

Motor racing is, as one character puts it in Ford v Ferrari, just people ‘turning left for four hours.’ Well, Go Like Hell is the real-life account of the story that inspired Ford v Ferrari, and it rarely veers far from brilliance in its telling of one of the biggest wars in motorsport history.

Enzo Ferrari was so valuable in life that in death, an Italian crime syndicate tried to grave-rob his remains for ransom in 2017. Police thwarted the plan but it shows just what big news the auto legend was. Yate’s electrifying biography tells you all you need to know about the hot-tempered megalomaniac who, as he once put it, had ‘a talent for stirring up men,’ and his nearly decade-long feud with Henry Ford II. 


All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1929)

How often do we hear what it was like for the German soldiers who fought in those trenches? The way history is taught in Britain, they’re rarely more than the glint of a periscope or flash of a rifle. All Quiet on the Western Front is a gut-wrenching tale told from the other side of no-man’s land – a ground-breaking classic that changed how the world saw the First World War. There is little glory to be found there, either. War is hell, whatever side you’re on.

Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves (1929)

Goodbye to All That provides a vivid and haunting account of life and death in the trenches, and is widely credited as one of the finest books about war ever written. Eloquent, angry and, at times, darkly comic, it charts Graves’ early life in England and his post-war experiences. But the meat of his story unfolds amid the mud and mayhem of the First World War. It provides as good a description of trench warfare as you could hope to find – the sights, the smells, the pain – including the tragic incompetence of the Battle of Loos and the sheer awfulness of The Somme.


The Outsider by Albert Camus (1942)

‘In our society,’ once said Albert Camus, ‘any man who doesn't cry at his mother's funeral is liable to be condemned to death.’ The parallels between Camus’ 1942 existential classic and Joker are palpable. Two social misfits who struggle to conform to society's whims, both lose their mothers and descend deeper down a tunnel of madness and psychopathy. 

The Collector by John Fowles (1963)

Frederick Clegg is a loner. Withdrawn from society, he kills his time trapping butterflies in jars and watching them die. Then he falls in love with a student named Miranda Grey, and the stage is set for his graduation from trapping butterflies to girls. Alone and desperate, Miranda must struggle to understand her captor if she is to gain her freedom… This is a thrilling meditation on time, power and obsession by one of Britain’s masters of storytelling.


The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (1955)

It’s better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody – that’s the ticket on which the protagonists ride in both Parasite and Patricia Highsmith’s wonderful social-mobility masquerade thriller. In The Talented Mr Ripley, Tom Ripley, a likeable psychopath who’s down on his luck, connives his way into well-to-do Dickie Greenleaf’s life. Everything goes swimmingly for him until, suddenly, it doesn’t. Aside from it being a riveting story, it is also an astute meditation on class and the con of upward mobility.

Lullaby by Leila Slimani (2018)

How well, really, do you know your nanny? This is a book about every parent’s worst nightmare. To tell you that it’s about a family who hires a nanny who murders the kids is not a spoiler. After all, French-Moroccan author Slimani clobbers you with the outcome in her horrifying first sentence: ‘The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds.’ Thereafter unravels a story that will strike to the heart of every working parent: how do you entrust your children to a stranger, who may be treated as one of the family, but actually is not? 

Jojo Rabbit

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)

This Second World War satire follows a pilot – the inimitable Yossarian – as he tries desperately to escape his own fate. He knows war is futile and he wants out. He would much rather flirt, live his best life and get drunk, than kill strangers who want to kill him back. Only, as long as he’s sane enough to know he wants out, he can’t claim to be too crazy to fight. That’s catch-22. Bureaucracy is the real enemy in this thunderously subversive satire on the stupidity of war.

The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass (1959)

Twisted and zithering, Gunter Grass’s mid-century reflection on the trauma of war – from the German perspective - has long challenged readers. Its hero, Oskar Matzerath, refuses to grow up, thus giving the reader the perspective of the rise of Nazism, Allied conflict and the aftermath of both from the perspective of a particularly astute three-year-old. Funny and perturbing in equal measure, it makes a neat companion to the imaginative leaps of JoJo Rabbit.

Marriage Story

My First Wife by Jacob Wassermann (1934)

Despite being written more than 80 years ago, My First Wife feels surprisingly modern in its depiction of the emotional trauma of a rotten marriage. Like Marriage Story, Wassermann’s autobiographical account of his divorce doesn’t end in one filmic crockery fight and door-slam, but in a slow, painful and completely gripping descent into detachment. Warning: as with Marriage Story, anyone with personal experience of the subject are very liable to get the familiarity shivers.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (2018)

Was there even a book club in the Western World that didn’t read An American Marriage? Praised by Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, this meticulous analysis of the breakdown of a marriage gripped readers at the end of the 2010s. As with Marriage Story, the novel allows both parties their say, leaving the reader to judge the wronged party in the process. Unlike Marriage Story, An American Marriage picks up threads about race and the US prison system.

Little Women

March Sisters: On Life, Death, and Little Women by Kate Bolick, Jenny Zhang, Carmen Maria Machado and Jane Smiley (2019)

Greta Gerwig’s revisionist Little Women prompted one question among purists: was it as good as the nineties version? Furthermore, was it as good as the book? Conversations on the matter will be well-guided by this companion guide to Louisa May Alcott’s classic, with Bolick, Zhang, Machado and Smiley each taking a sister apiece – the latter tackling the long-overdue appreciation of Amy March.

The Makioka Sisters, Junichiro Tanizaki (1993)

Four sisters, ailing fortunes and a life-changing war looming on the horizon. Sound familiar? The Makioka Sisters may be set a century after Alcott’s novel, but the stories of love, loss and the quest for a good marriage make this Japanese story a parallel of the Concord story. If you lusted over costume designer Jacqueline Durran’s efforts in Gerwig’s film, you’ll adore Tanizaki’s forensic eye for beauty, too.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Eve’s Hollywood by Eve Babitz (1974)

Had Tarantino’s Rick and Cliff (Leo and Brad, respectively) existed, they would have encountered Eve Babitz. The rambunctious writer-artist-breakaway was adored by rock stars and artists, and did the world a favour by writing about them with barely any disguise or scruple. Eve’s Hollywood paints a sun-baked and tequila-soaked vision of Los Angeles in the Sixties, including that of the Manson Murders, around which Tarantino’s hopeful is based - Babitz even went to school with one of the ‘family’.

Hollywood Hellraisers by Robert Sellers (2010)

For a peek into the real world of 1960s Hollywood debauchery, Robert Sellers’ expose of the lives of four of the industry’s most outrageous stars is jaw-dropping. He turns his spotlight onto four of cinema’s most celebrated bad boys: Warren Beatty, Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson. They brawled, boozed, snorted and seduced their way into legend – but along the way they changed acting and the way movies were made forever.

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