A few years ago I went to this party in the Financial District with my boss. I forget what it was actually for but there were a ton of “creative types” skulking about so my guess is that it was probably for the opening of some gay film series. A few minutes into the party, my boss left me alone to go do bossy things and I found myself fidgeting around nervously with my drink. Scanning the room full of people, I realized I knew no one there so I did what every bored and anxious person does when they having nothing to do at a party: I pretended to text people on my phone. After doing this for about 10 minutes, this psycho old guy (who I’m 90% sure was wearing a kimono) finally comes up to me and releases me from my misery. He asks me what I do for a living. I tell him that I’m a writer and his face lights up. He asks me what kind of writing I do and I respond, “I don’t know. I write about gay stuff and having feelings and sometimes The Olsen Twins.” Admittedly, I was being a little glib with my answer but whatever. I hate it when people ask me “WHAT DO YOU WRITE?” because no matter what I say, I’m bound to look like an asshole.
This guy didn’t find my answer amusing though. He just nodded politely and started to grill me on my favorite authors. I told him my stock answer “Lorrie Moore and Joan Didion” but he wasn’t satisfied with that.
“Do you like Tolstoy?”
“I mean, sure?”
Disgusted, he hissed at me, “For a writer, you sure don’t read. Open a damn book!” And then he sauntered off into the crowd, his kimono blowing in the wind.
Even though this dude was a stranger, he really hurt my feelings. The reality is that I do read. All the time. In the past two weeks, I’ve read four books and approximately 20 magazines cover to cover. I’m never not in the middle of reading something. I’m just not clutching my worn copy of Wuthering Heights and reading it by candlelight. My taste in books is more contemporary, less intellectual, more personal and journalistic. Shocker, right? The guy who wrote “What It Feels Like To Get Effed In The A” doesn’t sit around reading the classics all day.
To be frank, reading these 1,000 page novels often bores the hell out of me. Like, I’m sorry I haven’t read Anna Karenina yet but HAVE YOU? Who the hell has really met that chick anyway? She’s so long! One day maybe we can sit and chill and get to know each other but for right now, she scares the hell out of me. Does that make me any less of a writer though? Does it give me less credibility?
The kind of books I like to read are the ones that snap, crackle, and pop off the page. They’re exciting, they’re funny, and they usually involve heroin addiction. I love them. Sure, they’re not exactly dense reads, but I don’t think a book’s value should be determined by how difficult it is to get through.
So, without further ado, here are my book recommendations for those who don’t necessarily love to read. I guarantee that these books will keep your interest and also make you rethink what constitutes as “good writing.” (Note: I really only read books by gay men and girls. Sorry, straight dudes. Love ya, just #NotClearOn ya.)
1. Ask Dr. Mueller: The Writings Of Cookie Mueller by Cookie Mueller
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Cookie Mueller, here’s her bio. In the 70s, she served as John Waters’ muse, appearing in classics such as Female Trouble and Pink Flamingos, before transitioning to writing and landing a gig as art critic for Details and penning her own column at East Village Eye. Beyond being a writer, Cookie was sort of a New York It-Girl. She palled around with artists like Nan Goldin, whose portraits of Cookie earned a place in her seminal book of photography, The Ballad Of Sexual Dependency, and basically did a ton of drugs and went to a ton parties. She represented the bohemian lifestyle, floating around the world on little to no money and having amazing experiences wherever she went. Cookie was no airhead though. Her writings, which are collected in this book, are equal parts hilarious and devastating. She provides sharp social commentary on what life was like in the 70s and 80s — a time when real artists resided in Manhattan and people were doing heroin like it was NBD. She doesn’t glamorize it. She presents it exactly how it was. Reading her stories feels like you’re hanging out with your cool aunt — the one that lets you smoke pot in the garage and gives you crystals from Sedona for Christmas. Cookie died in 1989 from AIDS but her legacy is preserved in this book. Her spirit leaps off the pages and leaves you feeling nostalgic for a time that you unfortunately didn’t get to experience yourself.
2. Dear Diary by Lesley Arfin
Lesley Arfin has the very important distinction of making heroin addiction sound hilarious. Okay, that’s kind of a stretch. She definitely doesn’t hold back when discussing the depths she sunk to while addicted to heroin but, even in the book’s most depressing sections, Arfin manages to never lose her absurd sense of humor. I’ll admit that I’m sort of addicted to reading drug memoirs — I find even the worst ones to be utterly fascinating — but Dear Diary is my favorite because it turns something that would ordinarily seem so inconceivable to many people into something totally relatable. You may have never been addicted to heroin but I bet at some point you have felt awkward, insecure, and hated yourself! Right? Well, then read this book. There’s something in it for everyone.
3. Dancer From The Dance by Andrew Holleran
I usually say “No thanks, babe!” when it comes to reading gay fiction because the books always end up being so soapy and sensationalistic. Dancer from the Dance: A Novel, however, is a different kind of gay book. Taking place in 1970s New York, the book paints an engrossing portrait of homosexuality, one that manages to still feel relevant today. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s vivid, it’s exciting, it’s quiet. It puts all of my gay feelings into a blender and spits them back out at me. Please read if you’re a person who’s interested in general human emotions.
4. A Good Man Is Hard To Find (And Other Stories) by Flannery O’Connor
I majored in fiction writing in college which meant that I had to read a bunch of short stories written by a bunch of straight white dudes. I couldn’t stand most of them, not because I wasn’t straight, but because they all seemed to say the same things: “I like whiskey; hate women; now let me describe this desert road for twenty minutes.” By the time I got to Flannery O’Connor, I was in dire need of a woman’s sensibility. I started off with her most famous short story, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” and tore through everything else afterwards. Like I said earlier, I’m more of a contemporary non-fiction guy but O’Connor’s prose was so attractive, I couldn’t help but get obsessed. Her stories are #dark slices of Southern Gothic misery. Someone is always dying and there’s always a strong religious vibe hanging over each of her stories. It’s usually not my bag but that’s perhaps why I love it so much. The best writers are able to make you interested in things you thought you couldn’t care less about.
5. Wallflower At The Orgy by Nora Ephron
I was in the New Orleans airport reading Wallflower at the Orgy when I found out about Nora Ephron’s death. The whole thing was surreal. I was just reading her hilarious thoughts on Helen Gurley Brown and now I was finding out that she had died. To make things stranger, I had just gone to BAM to see her speak in person about her writing and filmmaking career. I commented to my friend afterwards that Ephron looked so young. And she did. She looked to be about 20 years younger than her actual age, which is funny considering that so many of her essays center around her dissatisfaction with her aging appearance.
When remembering Nora Ephron’s important contributions to pop culture, I feel like her successful film career often overshadows her remarkable talent as an essayist. Wallflower At The Orgy collects the creme de la creme of her journalistic contributions in the 60s and 70s, which range from diatribes about Cosmopolitan magazine to the food industry. Nora can be scathing while still remaining utterly likable in her writing, which is no easy feat. While lesser writers could seem bitchy and gossipy in their criticisms, Nora manages to get away with everything she says with a coy smile. This book is a great indicator of her talents and once you’re done with this gem of a book, move on to I Feel Bad About My Neck, which is equally brilliant.