#tobyreads: Impressions of Culture, Delivered With Style


Reading the right book–or essay, or story, or interview–can help point you in the direction of other notable work, either through deft writing about the work of another writer or through an acknowledged influence or homage. It might go without saying that, after reading What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, Lynne Tillman’s new collection of nonfiction, my to-read list increased exponentially. As did, come to think of it, my to-reread list.

Tillman’s book abounds with Tillman’s observations on culture and the people who make it. Her work on Jane and Paul Bowles is perceptive and occasionally wrenching to read; having read the former’s work not long ago, I was compelled to revisit it before too long, and vowed to become more aware of her influence on subsequent writers whose work I admire. There’s also a fascinating interview with Harry Mathews, which reminded me that I need to read the copy of his The Case of the Persevering Maltese that’s been sitting atop one of many to-read piles in my apartment. And her impressions of Edith Wharton’s writing–both her prose and how her fiction overlaps with her writing on her era’s aesthetics–is fantastic.

Another window into culture came via Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, which came highly recommended. I picked it up after seeing Mead on a panel with Kathryn Schulz and Michele Filgate, in which all three shared their impressions on George Elliot’s novel, and of reading it across decades. Mead’s is the sort of book where the balance between the critical and the personal seems effortless, which is all the more impressive. But for all that it’s a celebration of Middlemarch, there’s also an underlying sense of melancholy, of roads not taken and the way we age, which mirrors and perfectly compliments its subject’s themes.

I’d picked up Elena Poniatowska’s Lilus Kikus a year or so ago, in the course of researching a piece on the writer and artist Leonora Carrington. (The two were friends; Carrington provided illustrations for Poniatowska’s book, and Poniatowska recently wrote a book about Carrington.) It’s a deceptively simple narrative about a young woman’s life, moving from precociousness to a fateful encounter with the stifling forces of certain institutions. Poniatowska moves from sharply-rendered realism to dreamlike surrealism over the course of this short novel, ultimately dismantling the reader’s expectations and pushing back against the reactionary tropes of the narrative.

The best of the stories in Eileen Gunn’s collection Questionable Practices also subvert expectations, taking tropes of fantasy and science fiction and turning them on their head. Elves emerge at the start of one story, only to bring violence rather than enchantment with them; two campers’ encounter with a sasquatch moves from the uncanny and into the romantic. Certain stories riff on existing stories and settings, from Star Trek to Bas-Lag, and these didn’t click quite as much for me. But when this book does click, it does so impressively, bringing with it an impressive sense of wonder.

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