Reading Outside the Genre

 

By Louise Ure

 

By now, most of you know that I shelve my books in a rather esoteric fashion – one that puts me at odds with the vast majority of collectors, librarians and booksellers. You see, I categorize them not by author, but by geography. Specifically, where the murder took place.

Dana Stabenow is up there on the Alaska shelf. Craig Johnson practically owns Wyoming. The San Francisco shelf is huge, with writers like Joe Gores, Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini. The Florida shelf is giving San Francisco a run for its money. And the international crime fiction collection on the north wall now outnumbers the Southern mysteries in the room.

I’ve been known to walk into bookstores and say, “I’m a little light on rural Illinois. What have you got?”

The writers who plagued me the most in my shelving were those inconsiderate travelers, Martin Cruz Smith, Lee Child, Nevada Barr and our own Zoe Sharp and Cornelia Read.

I was pleased to discover the other day that there is at least one bookstore that agrees with my cataloguing: Daunt Books in London, where the offerings are arranged by country.

My decision to sort geographically was probably easier than theirs. First of all, I find a strong sense of place to be one of the most compelling parts of mystery fiction. And secondly, since I only collected crime fiction, I didn’t have to also plan on where to put all other kinds of literature.

But all that may have to change, as I’ve now discovered (or rediscovered, I suppose) the joys of reading outside the genre. 

I consider myself fairly well rounded and certainly well educated in the classics, but when I started reading purely for pleasure, I dove headfirst into crime fiction and didn’t come up for air. After all, the genre — with all its degrees of lightness and darkness, fantasy and reality, hopefulness and despair – is a big enough canvas to satisfy any reading tastes.

And yet, for some reason, few mysteries have held my interest in the past couple of months and I’ve ventured outside the genre for that spark.

Here are three recent reads that held me captive in that big leather chair in the front room for hours at a stretch:

 

  

 

In an extraordinary tale spanning almost seven decades, “The Warmth of Other Suns” describes the migration of over six million blacks from the South to the cities of the North and West. Wilkerson brings the migration to life with the revolving stories of three of those travelers: Ida Mae Gladney who was compelled to leave Mississippi for Chicago, George Starling who had to flee Florida for New York, and Robert Foster, a doctor from Louisiana who found success in California. If all non-fiction was as beautifully and evocatively written as Wilkerson’s book, it would be all I need.

 

  

 

I told you a couple of weeks ago that I had a chance to have dinner with this US Poet Laureate. This last two weeks I’ve gotten to know her better as I had more of a chance to read her work. Like Isabel Wilkerson (who won in journalism), Kay Ryan is also a Pulitzer Prize winner, and she did it with this book: “The Best of It”.

One particular favorite of mine is “After Zeno,” a poem she wrote at the age of 19, when her father died:

 

When he was

I was

But I still am

and he is still.

 

Where is is

when is is was?

I have an is

but where is his?

 

Now here –

no where:

such a little

fatal pause.

 

There’s no sense

in past tense.

 

(And I’ve forgiven her for her barb that night – “I love reading murder mysteries. They generate such an empty mind.” – She’s a better poet than she is a comedian.)

 

 

 

 

“The Sisters Brothers” is a western. And I love westerns of all stripes, from Zane Grey and Elmore Leonard to more recent cousins like Steve Hockensmith and his characters Big Red and Old Red Amlingmeyer.

But “The Sisters Brothers” is also the anti-western. Charlie and Eli Sisters, two killers for hire, are contracted to kill Hermann Kermit Warm. This is their story. It is droll and grotesque and very human and very funny. In some ways it reminds me of Rabelais’ “The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel” which had an equally gay and whimsical approach to violence and crudity.

One reviewer said that “if Cormac McCarthy had a sense of humor” this would be the book he would write. Another called deWitt “a character conjurer.” They are both right: the voice and the characters are pure magic. 

Give yourself a treat this week and go buy “The Sisters Brothers.”

I’ll be traveling again for the next month or so and will have lots of time to read. My question to you today, my ‘Rati pals, is: what should I be reading next? Any genre. I’m probably ready for more mysteries, too. Do tell. My download trigger-finger is getting itchy.

 

 

31 thoughts on “Reading Outside the Genre

  1. Kane Gilmour

    Louise,

    You could fill nearly a whole shelf with Archer Mayor for Vermont, and C.J. Box could be edging Johnson out your Wyoming section. πŸ™‚

    -Kane

  2. Sarah W

    I just finished *The Dead Detective* by Lorene Roberts, which was an impulse snag off the New Shelf on my way to lunch last week.

    If you enjoy lighter fare, I can *highly* recommend *Agnes and the Hitman* by Bob Mayers and Jennifer Crusie. You wouldn't think a romance writer and a hard core thriller writer would mesh so well, but they do.

    And if you'd like to venture into urban fantasy procedural, Laura Anne Gilman's Paranormal Scene Investigations series (Hard Magic and Pack of Lies, so far) is terrific. Gilman's world building is superb and the magical system is grounded (pun intended) in hard science. It all works. And the cases are gritty and emotionally affecting, too. Good reads!

  3. Louise Ure

    Kane, I haven't read any Archer Mayor but the Vermont shelf needs help. Thanks for that!

    Three great new directions, Sarah. Thanks. (And the first author is Lorene Robbins, not Roberts, yes?)

  4. Sandy

    For something WAY outside the genre, try THE WAVE: IN PURSUIT OF THE ROGUES, FREAKS, AND GIANTS OF THE OCEAN, by Susan Casey. I learned more than I knew I didn't know… And living in San Francisco, you may find some of the information invaluable. Safe travels, Louise!
    Sandy

  5. Rae

    Have a fabulous month of traveling!

    I just enjoyed a biography of Audrey Hepburn by Barry Paris. And if you haven't read The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester, you should.

    πŸ˜‰

  6. Murderati fan

    I recommend 84 Charring Cross Road by Helene Hanff. You remind me of her. Intelligent, witty, well read and delightfully opinionated in the best sense. Also her other book Apple of My Eye about New York. Both charming. Where are your travels taking you this time?

  7. Sarah W

    Drat, Louise, you're right: ROBBINS, not Roberts.

    Note to self: no commenting without caffeine and proofreading.

    My apologies to Ms. Robbins!

  8. Louise Ure

    Hi Sandy. My step-sister recommended The Wave as well, saying that it was both engrossing and instructive.

    Rae, why does it not surprise me that you've got two gems as recommendations? Thanks.

    'Rati fan, I haven't read the Hanff book, but based on your sweet compliments, I will now. I'll be in Seattle again. My father-in-law is declining quickly and this looks like it will be the end.

  9. Allison Davis

    Louise, LOVING Warmth of Other Suns…there's another book on Harlem called "Harlem is Nowhere" that is also good. I am reading a lot of short stories lately, the most recent book, "Brief Encounters with Che Guevara" by Ben Fountain that was most amazing and eye opening. I am reading through all the plays of August Wilson (Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Ma Rainy's Black Bottom, Fences, etc.), which are all great. And my favorite living poet is Tony Hoagland. I would start with "What Narcissism Means to Me: Poems. Enjoy your travels. Hope to see you soon.

  10. Louise Ure

    Great suggestions, Allison. I'm going to download the "Brief Encounters" book now. Short stories are probably ideal for my short attention span these days.

  11. Jenni Legate

    Location: Paris. Fiction. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery is intelligent, humorous, and touching. I loved the ideas in this book.

    Location: New Orleans. Non-fiction. Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, tells the story of Katrina through one man's eyes with a twist. What happens to him in the aftermath of the storm, solely because of his heritage, is frightening. This is a gripping and important story.

    Location: Belgian Congo. Non-fiction/travel. Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart by Tim Butcher, is a modern-day exploration of the Congo, retracing the steps of H.M. Stanley through a frightening landscape spun out of control from the era of colonialism through the ravages of war in the past decade.

    Location: India. Fiction. Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. An adventure story full of unique characters, pirates, and opium traders. I did not want this one to end. (Thankfully, it is part of a trilogy).

    Location: Rhodesia. Memoir. Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller, is the story of an English girl's African childhood growing up during the Rhodesian civil war. It is a good story as well as an interesting insight into the racial issues of that time and place.

    I love mysteries, cut my teeth on Agatha Christie as a child, but when I'm not reading mystery, I love non-fiction – memoir, history, biography, exposes. Just about anything by Bill Bryson is humorous, intelligent, and informative – A Short History of Nearly Everything. (Writer's should love him solely because of his immense knowledge of the origins of so many words!) I loved Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. Also, Guns Germs and Steel by Jared Dimond about the rise of civilizations and it's companion Collapse! about why societies fail are both interesting examinations from a biologist's perspective. Our Turn to Eat by Michela Wrong about Kenyan politics is fascinating, as is her book about Mobutu in the Congo – In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz. If you are looking for inspiration for dark characters in a mystery, these would do it.

  12. Allison Davis

    Louise, the plays are short reads as well and kind of go with "Warmth." Agree that Zeitoun is fantastic…but that's my New Orleans bent. If you are feeling like getting into it with New Orleans, Chris Rose's "One Dead in Attic" is a series of his columns in the Times Picayune during and after Katrine but warming, warning, very depressing. Chris Rose suffered greatly after that…but I just saw him at Jazz Fest so everyone bounces back. If you want to go short story land, also Alice Munroe is great.

  13. David Corbett

    Dear Louise:

    I second Allison's recommendation of Ben Fountain's BRIEF ENCOUNTERS WITH CHE GUEVARA. Superb stories with strange premises, great characters, startling prose. Gems.

    Also (following up on "brief"), THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO by Junot Diaz — a marvel: fun, smart, passionate, heartbreaking, grand.

    THE ZERO by Jess Walter (anything by Walter, frankly — loved CITIZEN VINCE).

    INCOMPLETENESS by Rebecca Goldstein — the story of Kurt Godel and his transformation of modern mathematics, and the ironic personal tragedy that represented.

    RETURNING TO EARTH by Jim Harrison, perhaps the most moving contemplation on mortality I've ever read. A stuning novel.

    TRUE GRIT by Charles Portis — since you like westerns. Portis should be in the pantheon.

    HARD RAIN FALLING by Don Carpenter — an overlooked classic, recently released by New York Review of Books (with an intro by Pelecanos).

    BELLMAN & TRUE by Desmond Lowden — okay, I cheated, this is a crime story but a brilliant one, and also brief! (A mere 187 pages.). Hard to find but well worth the search. I wrote about it for Spinetingler: http://www.spinetinglermag.com/2011/04/29/fridays-forgotten-books-bellman-true/

    I've been reading Billy Collins' poetry lately and enjoying it. Not always the deepest but always human and comical and clear.

    GOD'S POCKET by Pete Dexter — a seminal book for me — and, as it turns out, Dennis Lehane. (We once traded memorized lines from the book.) It's out of print but available on Amazon.

    And if you want to read a great book about writing, THE ART OF SUBTEXT by Charles Baxter is the best such book I've read in a long time. It too, btw, is brief.

    Sensing a theme?

    Happy reading & traveling, my dear.

    David

    P.S. You may have forgiven Kay Ryan but I'm not sure I have. One rejoinder to her "emptying the mind" remark I failed to share last time: "How zen! Do you know the famous koan — What is the sound of one hand slapping?" (Followed by demonstration.)

  14. Jenni Legate

    Oh, I forgot to mention about Sea of Poppies, there is a wonderful lexicon/dictionary of types at the end of the novel – I think he calls it a chronometry. It contains hundreds of words that were originally Hindi, Lascari, or words of other Indian dialect origin that have been accepted into common usage in the English language. Also, though the novel is fiction, the author is a descendant of one of the characters in the book. It is a fascinating look at the end of the slave trading era and the beginning of the opium era.

  15. Louise Ure

    Allison, anything about New Orleans warms my heart.

    Jenni and David, you are gems! You two have so totally tapped into my mood right now. I think I could find/order/download every single one of your recommendations and die happy. Thank you for taking the time to send such thoughtful and comprehensive lists.

    PS: Best rejoinder ever, David.

  16. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Great recommendations, Louise. And I love that poem – it's brilliant. I love the word-play and the intensity behind it. I can't believe she wrote that at age 19.
    I organize my books by the way they make me feel when I look at them all assembled in the shelves. Blocks of Jim Thomson, James Joyce, John Steinbeck, John Updike, Chuck Palahnuik, Augusten Burroughs. All the Beat Generation writers have a huge place on top of the shelves – they are their own universe. When I look at all the books assembled I feel at peace. Nothing is in order, not by title nor by author. If I want a specific book I have to look through everything. I wouldn't want it any other way.

  17. ZoΓ« Sharp

    Hi Louise

    Sorry to cause you such filing problems, but part of the joy of writing the Charlie Fox series for me is to get her view of different places.

    For westerns, I still love Robert B Parker's foray into the genre, beginning with APPALOOSA.

    I've just been reading Anne Zouroudi's mysteries set in the Greek islands, and they completely bring that country to life. I could almost smell the ouzo and taste the kalamata olives.

    Or Any of Martin Cruz Smith's Moscow-set Arkady Renko books. Nothing is quite so evocative of snow.

    For sheer prose poetry wrapped up in a travel odyssy, however, I can heartily recommend Dan Walsh's THESE ARE THE DAYS THAT MUST HAPPEN TO YOU. Just brilliant.

  18. Jake Nantz

    Louise, I'm not a big "epic fantasy" fan, but I love a good book, and my wife has introduced me to two separate series by a guy who can REALLY write a good book.

    First (and I may be the last guy on Earth to find this character, but…) I LOVE Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden series. It's a PI novel with a practicing Wizard as the gumshoe. Great humor and good storylines.

    Second, and completely different, are his Codex Alera books. They remind me a lot of the political intrigue in a fantasy world that you see in the new HBO series "Game of Thrones", but without quite so much screwing goin' on (at least in the carnal sense, I suppose).

  19. Louise Ure

    Oh Stephen, I love the notion of sorting books by feelings. Only you, sweet boy. Only you.

    And yes, the wordplay in that early poem is part of my joy in it.

    All is forgiven, Zoe. Just keep writing. I didn't know about the Dan Walsh book so I just looked it up. One reviewer said "he does our howling at the moon for us." Now that sounds fascinating.

  20. Louise Ure

    Thanks, Jake. You're not the last to know. I don't know about the Dresden series either and it sounds wonderful.

  21. Julie Kramer

    If you're looking for thrillers based in Minnesota, we have many authors to choose from – besides me.
    There's John Sandford, William Kent Krueger, Steve Thayer, Brian Freeman, David Housewright, Ellen Hart….must be the cold winters.

  22. Fran

    We do hope we'll be able to see you while you're up here, my dear, but we completely understand if we can't.

    THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY by Mary Ann Schaffer might suit you nicely. Both Bill and I adored it, and along with 84 CHARING CROSS ROAD are two epistilary (sp?) novels that have completely taken my heart. No mystery, but great people, although GUERNSEY is fiction and 84 is true.

    I do promise, though, if you do come into the shop, we've got all manner of mysteries for you to indulge in. Right off the top of my head is Chevy Stevens STILL MISSING. But there are many.

    Much love, Sweetie!

  23. Louise Urr

    Hi Fran! I hope we can connect, too. I adored the GUERNSEY book, too. And the Stevens book sounds marvelous.

  24. Shizuka

    I read, Almost Home, interconnected short stories about teenage runways in LA, last year.
    It's seared into my mind. The stories were devastating, visceral, and very rarely offered some hope.

    A great non-fiction book I read recently is Dirty Secret, a daughter's memoir about coping with her mother's hoarding. It's written with a lot of empathy and some unexpected moments of humor.

    Thanks for your post, Louise. Finding great, non-crime books has proved challenging lately.

  25. Karen Olson

    Best book I've read so far this year is Stewart O'Nan's EMILY, ALONE. It's so beautifully written and such a simple story about the life of an 80 year old woman in Pittsburgh. It's remarkable. I recommend anything by O'Nan: LAST NIGHT AT THE LOBSTER, THE GOOD WIFE, SNOW ANGELS, SONGS OF THE MISSING. The last two are sort of crime novels.

  26. Louise Ure

    Hi Shizuka. That hoarding book is pretty close to home for me. I I'd better read it.

    Long time no talk, Karen. And "Emily, Alone" sounds like another must read. Thank you.

  27. JT Ellison

    Hey Louise! I've been reading a bunch out of the genre lately too. My new fave is Sarah Addison Allen. They're happy books. Sometimes happy goes a long way. I'm reading Taylor Stevens The Informationist right now, and I must say, this is a very impressive debut novel. Enjoy your books and safe travels!

  28. pari noskin taichert

    I loved the poem, Louise. Stunning.

    I read the DOOMSDAY BOOK this year by Connie Willis and was really impressed with its sense of place and emotion. It's dark fantasy with a history researcher going back to Europe at what she — and those she works with at the university — think is a few weeks before the Black Plague hits.

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