The best books whose writing falls between the cracks of genre

Why am I passionate about this?

I am an aficionado of lost objects, lost time, afterlives; of writing which never “fitted” its era. Examples would be that of John Aubrey, Herman Melville, Fernando Pessoa, Djuna Barnes, Elizabeth Hardwick, Ralph Ellison… the list goes on. I look for writing that has stood the test of time, not celebrated for the fame and bling of the moment. I look for the futile products of those who possessed genius, but who never earned enough readers until decades or centuries later, once they were released from the prison-house of genre. I look for the posthumous brilliance of language; the phosphoric glow of its offerings and of the buried treasures found therein.


I wrote...

The Garden Book

By Brian Castro,

Book cover of The Garden Book

What is my book about?

The Garden Book is the “biography” of Swan, a Chinese woman living in regional Australia during the 1930s in a climate of racism, depression and impending war. She writes enigmatic, calligraphic poems on leaves, never intending that they would last. Struggling through an unhappy marriage, she meets an American who has intentions of publishing her work. Will this happen without compromise, or will she fall through the cracks into the everlasting unknown?

I lived for 12 years in a mountainous rainforest full of tree ferns and giant ash trees. One day I stumbled upon an old schoolhouse that someone had turned into a museum. The first teacher there in the 1920s was Chinese.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Notebooks of Joseph Joubert

Brian Castro Why did I love this book?

Joubert (1754-1824), was not published until 114 years after his death. These notebooks are neither diaries nor memoirs, neither essays nor aphorisms, but enigmas worthy of much ponder. He was uncompromisingly seeking an afterlife for the source of his writing and language, and he pretty much discovered that in the cracks of insight. For example: those who make laws can’t plant crops. One has to apply names to things: I have many forms for ideas, but not enough forms for phrases.

He is a writer’s writer, since he insists on close and silent and above all, slow reading. 

Book cover of Canzone di Guerra

Brian Castro Why did I love this book?

I just love the way she is so contemptuous of people telling false “stories”. Her writing falls between every genre imaginable, a collage of well-researched facts and the indelible list of the horrors of war. She makes lists as monuments to dead victims; she names names; she calls out nationalism and racism. Wry and ironic, she has composed a battle-hymn against the barbarity of the Yugoslav wars between 1991 and 2001. To my lasting regret, I missed meeting her in Melbourne not long before she died. 

By Daša Drndić,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Canzone di Guerra as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Tea Radan, the narrator of the novel Canzone di Guerra, reflects on her own past and in doing so, composes a forgotten mosaic of historical events that she wants to first tear apart and then reassemble with all the missing fragments. In front of the readers eyes, a collage of different genres takes place - from (pseudo) autobiography to documentary material and culinary recipes. With them, the author Dasa Drndic skillfully explores different perspectives on the issue of emigration, the unresolved history of the Second World War, while emphasizing the absurdity of politics of differences between neighboring nations. The narrator…


Book cover of The Secret Heart of the Clock

Brian Castro Why did I love this book?

Someone once said that novels were for light summer reading by bourgeois ladies. W.G. Sebald may have shared this opinion. The latter preferred letters, notes, fragments and diaries. Similarly, Elias Canetti, Bulgarian-born, of Sephardi ancestry, German-speaking and winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize for literature, only ever wrote one novel. But his aphorisms, both long and short, are remarkable. He unearths forgotten writers, important ones that he had met, and he meditates on literary gossip and the remaining time in his life. Here’s an example: Klaus Mann’s last proposal: a mass suicide of writers (of the great names).

By Elias Canetti, Joel Agee (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Secret Heart of the Clock as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From one of the preeminent intellectual figures of the twentieth century, a highly personal testimonial of what Canetti himself chooses to term "notations," bits and pieces: notes, aphorisms, fragments. Taken together, they present an awesomely tender, guiltily gloomy meditation on death and aging.

" A mosaical portrait of an old body's mind determined to do its exercises and not lose a step--and fascinating for that." - Kirkus Reviews


Book cover of Memoirs

Brian Castro Why did I love this book?

Lowell began this memoir in a mental hospital. He was told it may help him recover from a manic-depressive condition. But he never finished it. He sold the manuscript to Harvard University and there it mouldered away for forty years until editors Steven Gould Axelrod and Grzegorz Kosc resurrected it. Lowell had never meant it to be published. Yet, in this manuscript we discover the bones of his famous poetic work Life Studies, which virtually turned him into one of the greatest of Confessional poets. The manuscript that fell between the cracks demonstrates what a great prose writer Lowell was, and how the language of his poetry was already embedded in these prose descriptions. 

By Robert Lowell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Memoirs as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A complete collection of Robert Lowell’s autobiographical prose, from unpublished writings about his youth to reflections on the triumphs and confusions of his adult life.

Robert Lowell's Memoirs is an unprecedented literary discovery: the manuscript of Lowell’s lyrical evocation of his childhood, which was written in the 1950s and has remained unpublished until now. Meticulously edited by Steven Gould Axelrod and Grzegorz Kosc, it serves as a precursor or companion to his groundbreaking book of poems Life Studies, which signaled a radically new prose-inflected direction in his work, and indeed in American poetry.

Memoirs also includes intense depictions of Lowell’s…


Book cover of The Years

Brian Castro Why did I love this book?

Ernaux shuns the word “I”. Born into a working-class family in Normandy, she prefers solidarity, the third-person and the impersonal use of the word “one”. She documents the years of her generation and through that, the reader finds her own life. She calls her writing “the lived dimension of history” and by doing this, she recaptures Proust, who in search of lost or “wasted” time, relieves the weight of the world from its angst through a purity of observation in seeing through all the layers of social/hypocritical time. I am very much looking forward to her latest, Getting Lost (due out in English soon), a “diary” about her affair with a young man, the excavation of memory through its forgotten cracks, and the disappearance of a passion impossible to recover.

By Annie Ernaux, Alison L. Strayer (translator),

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Years as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Considered by many to be the iconic French memoirist's defining work, The Years is a narrative of the period 1941 to 2006 told through the lens of memory, impressions past and present, cultural habits, language, photos, books, songs, radio, television, advertising and news headlines. Annie Ernaux invents a form that is subjective and impersonal, private and communal, and a new genre - the collective autobiography - in order to capture the passing of time. At the confluence of autofiction and sociology, The Years is 'a Remembrance of Things Past for our age of media domination and consumerism' (New York Times),…


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A Last Survivor of the Orphan Trains: A Memoir

By Victoria Golden, William Walters,

Book cover of A Last Survivor of the Orphan Trains: A Memoir

Victoria Golden Author Of A Last Survivor of the Orphan Trains: A Memoir

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Why am I passionate about this?

Author Story teller Book fav swapper Movie buff A writer’s daughter Escapee from Beverly Hills

Victoria's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Four years old and homeless, William Walters boarded one of the last American Orphan Trains in 1930 and embarked on an astonishing quest through nine decades of U.S. and world history.

For 75 years, the Orphan Trains had transported 250,000 children from the streets and orphanages of the East Coast into homes in the emerging West, sometimes providing loving new families, other times delivering kids into nightmares. Taken by a cruel New Mexico couple, William faced a terrible trial, but his strength and resilience carried him forward into unforgettable adventures.

Whether escaping his abusers, jumping freights as a preteen during the Great Depression, or infiltrating Japanese-held islands as a teenage Marine during WWII, William’s unique path paralleled the tumult of the twentieth century—and personified the American dream.

A Last Survivor of the Orphan Trains: A Memoir

By Victoria Golden, William Walters,

What is this book about?

SHORTLISTED, NORTHERN CALIFORNIA BOOK AWARDS

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From 1854 to the early 1930s, the American Orphan Trains transported 250,000 children from the streets and orphanages of the East Coast into homes in the emerging West. Unfortunately, families waiting for the trains weren’t always dreams come true—many times they were nightmares.

William Walters was little more than a…


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