The Space Between

Wait, that’s the title of a Dave Matthews song? Please note that my earworm right now is Roxy Music. In fact, where’s my iPod?

I loved Pamela’s post on “Romancelandia, Overthinking, and Balance,” as well as the discussion sparked by it and on the posts she links to as her inspirations. Like Pamela, I was struck by Olivia Waite’s comments kicking off her April-long discussions of intersectional feminism in romance:

 I want something more about symbols/motifs/mechanics than the reviews at Dear Author and Smart Bitches, but something more accessible than the high-critical work being done by IASPR and academic journals. And nobody’s itching to write that kind of criticism except me.

Well, actually I am. Or I was. That was how I initially imagined my blogging: writing in the space between “professional” academic criticism (which I don’t do any more) and reviewing. Just as I think of myself as reading somewhere in the space between “fan” and “critic.” Writing with a love of books and of (over)thinking about them.

That kind of careful, thoughtful, in-depth writing (and reading) is a lot of work, and you may have noticed I haven’t been inspired to do much of it lately.

But I’ve noticed that a lot of comments and discussions on the state of romance blogging and reviewing today express the desire for more genuine enthusiasm about and deep discussion of books, less energy expended on analyzing The State of Romanceland and less buzz/hype. So I’m pledging to renew my original vision of my blog and find time for writing more book posts in that Space Between.

Tonight, however, it’s just under two weeks until my last class of the semester and I’m in the space between the beginning and the end of a handful of books. So I’m going to give you brief progress updates on them, but they will, I hope, be thoughtful ones.

1. Like Jessica, I’m reading Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch for the March Big Fat Book Readalong. I’m at 75%, so I won’t quite finish in March, but I’ve reached a point where I know I’ll finish–in fact, I’m racing through now–and I’m grateful for the push to pick up the fattest thing in my TBR.

The Goldfinch has gotten some comparison to Dickens for some of its subject matter and its sprawling nature. Structurally, it’s quite different (it doesn’t follow multiple plot lines), but there are similarities, too. The pleasure in language, particularly description, for instance. And the fearless use of “old-fashioned” techniques like foreshadowing. Somehow, Tartt makes lines like “I didn’t know then that this was the last time I’d see him” not sound corny.

This book also puts the lie to the idea that literary fiction lacks a plot. True, there are long stretches where nothing much seems to happen, or where what does happen doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, but Tartt is masterful at building tension through those sections. In the early going, I often put the book aside for several days at a time because I needed a break from the looming sense of dread. Then a big, unexpected event would stun me–despite the dread and foreshadowing, I wasn’t prepared for many of the plot turns.

This book feels very “now” in some ways. I’d say it captures a weird mix of paranoia and obliviously-going-on-just-like-before that’s one facet of post-9/11 American life. But it also reminded me of 80’s New York books like Brett Easton Ellis’ Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (ETA: thanks for correction, Janine. I confuse this and Ellis’ contemporaneous youthful drug use and anomie novel, Less Than Zero). I loved that book in college but have no interest in re-reading it now. Tartt, on the other hand, manages to make youthful drug-taking and anomie interesting to my middle-aged self.

2. I am listening to Juliet Stevenson read George Eliot’s Middlemarch. It’s a wonderful narration, and a good Big Fat Book on audio for me because I know it so well that I can dip in and out without losing the threads. Listening has made me more aware of how funny Eliot can be: in my mind, this is such a serious, sympathetic book, but there’s plenty of satire too.

I’ve always identified with Dorothea, but on this reading, I’m looking at her marriage to Casaubon in a new light. It’s unfair to him, her desire to be a devoted helpmeet and to be guided by his wisdom. She wants him to be saintly, super-human. A lot of their arguments have to do with his “failure” to welcome her devotion. Dorothea is pretty selfish in her own way, and her fantasy of marriage is no healthier than Rosamond’s more mercenary, status-conscious one. Both fail to understand the real needs of the men they are marrying, just as those men fail to understand them. So much blindness.

3. As my light/short audiobook, I’ve just started Michael Dibdin’s The Ratking, the first Aurelio Zen mystery, read by Michael Kitchen. Kitchen’s delivery is … idiosyncratic (not quite William Shatner level, but he has some odd pauses and emphases). I love him, though, and I like this style.

The prologue is incredible. It’s all dialogue (not even dialogue tags), a series of favor-trading phone calls in which, as one character says, “he leaned on you so now you’re leaning on me.” It perfectly establishes the back-scratching corruption that’s Dibdin’s vision of how Italy operates, but these are also brilliant character sketches, by both author and narrator. Each voice is clearly differentiated, and the way each person talks to the one leaning on him differs from his style when he’s the leaner. A police officer is deferential to his superior one minute, swearing at his underling the next. I am totally hooked.



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18 Responses to The Space Between

  1. Miss Bates says:

    I found your comment about Dorothea so very interesting, having read Middlemarch in grad school (many many years ago) and stood stalwartly at Dorothea’s side and wholly sympathetic. On attempting a rereading, I had to put the book aside because I didn’t feel the same way about Dorothea. She seems so narrow, yes, in her own way, and mistaken and blind. I can’t say that Casaubon elicits any sympathy in me, but I appreciated what you said about him. He must have been disappointed in his marriage too.

    I read the first three of the Dibdin Aurelio Zen and loved them! (Can’t say the two? television productions I saw did them justice, but hey Rufus Sewell … who’s Ladislaw, I believe, in the Middlemarch production?)

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, he is Ladislaw! (and I quite like him) But now Zen might be forever Michael Kitchen in my mind….

      I think I tried Middlemarch in high school, but I’m not sure I finished it then. I read it once in college and several times since, but not for many years. It’s a different experience in many ways now. I should shortly be getting Rebecca Mead’s MY LIFE IN MIDDLEMARCH from my library (also in audio) and I’m looking forward to reading about how the book changed for her over time.

  2. Lucy Warriner says:

    You’ve sold me on Goldfinch, and you’ve given me something to keep in mind when I get to my planned re-read of Middlemarch. I was in my early twenties when I first read it, and, like you, I sided with Dorothea against Casaubon. Honestly, though, Fred Vincy and Mary Garth were the couple I was most interested in. My late father loved the Aurelio Zen mysteries, so you’re also prompting me to dig out his copies of them. When I watched Michael Kitchen in Foyle’s War, I thought his character occasionally used some odd pauses in speech. So maybe that’s his signature, if you will.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I love Fred and Mary! I identified with Dorothea in many ways (and still do to some extent), but if I had to pick a character to be, I think I’d go for Mary, with whom I also identify. A little cynicism and a tart tongue are needed to leaven all Dorothea’s ardor. Another character I loved was Mary’s father, and while I did not name my son after a literary character, my fondness for Caleb Garth (and for the red-headed Caleb of Sarah, Plain and Tall) is part of why he ended up with the name.

      The writing in the Goldfinch is great, and though it’s a long book, it is not dense or hard to read (except for the anxiety!).

  3. sonomalass says:

    Middlemarch is the Eliot I have not read, and I haven’t read any since grad school. I’m putting it on my list; maybe I’ll have more success than with my March BFB attempt.

  4. Sunita says:

    So glad you’re enjoying the Zen audiobook. I will watch and listen to Michael Kitchen in just about anything. He definitely has an idiosyncratic delivery (staccato?), but I think it works really well for Zen. It has this slightly distancing quality, and he communicates the irony (both in Zen’s character and in the overall setting) really well. Halfway through the first book I put the next two on my wishlist and bought them when my credits were piling up.

    You are all putting me to shame on the #BFB but I am so glad everyone has enjoyed it!

  5. Jorrie Spencer says:

    Interesting re: Dorothea! I read Middlemarch twice, in my 20s and in my 30s, but still it’s been a while. As I recall, my take on Casaubon was pretty much dislike. Though perhaps Eliot was not terribly generous with him, either. I suppose when there’s that kind of age difference, I expect some wisdom on the older spouse’s part, and he didn’t have much. (Again, as I recall.)

    I also tend to smash Rosamund and Gwendolyn’s characterizations together in my memory, even though their trajectories and personalities are quite different. But they’re both beautiful blondes who do not get what they want, though certainly G pays a much higher price.

  6. I also like what you say about Casaubon. I often have some sympathy for unattractive characters. I feel the same way about Rosamund, actually, and about other spoiled beauties in 19th century literature who are given a bad rap. I want to excuse them because they are victims of their time. Perhaps not surprisingly I am a fan of Amy March [ducks.] Also, while I wouldn’t say I loved Soames Forsyte, I don’t think Irene was exactly a day at the beach, either. His character makes me angry with Galsworthy for piling it on: come on, no one is that bad.

    It’s easy to love the Garths, but boy did Eliot assemble a fascinating cast of characters.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      One thing I love and admire about Eliot is her ability to find something sympathetic in even her most unattractive characters. They’re all human, and she makes us see some part of ourselves in all of them, I think. Which can be painful.

  7. Janine Ballard says:

    I’ll comment more later, but just wanted to make a quick correction — The author of Bright Lights, Big City is not Bret Easton Ellis but Jay McInerney.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Oh man, thank you! I knew that perfectly well. It’s just that Less Than Zero came out around the same time, and they got compared a lot, so I had brain freeze. Will edit.

      • Janine Ballard says:

        I never read McInerney’s book but I did read all of Less Than Zero, a remarkable achievement in light of how much I disliked it. I haven’t read Bret Easton Ellis since then, though. (This topic ties in in more than one way– Ellis and Tartt were classmates at Bennington).

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          It’s been many years sense I read either of them, but as I remember McInerney’s book is less . . . nasty and more optimistic than Ellis’s. I knew that about Bennington, but I’d forgotten.

  8. Janine Ballard says:

    I’m only 32% of the way through The Goldfinch so I’ll have to devote more time to it this week to try and catch up in time for your spoiler-filled discussion post– if you still plan to have one. I’ve been dreading picking it up though, for me Part II has been harder emotionally than Part I. I feel so acutely for Theo and the situation he’s in is difficult to read about. This is also where having no expectation of a happy ending ties in; knowing there won’t necessarily be any light at the end of this tunnel makes the darkness inside it all the more frightening.

  9. pamela1740 says:

    I’m following The Goldfinch readings with interest since I am also one of those who was captivated years ago by The Secret History. That was during the one period in my life when I read significant amounts of literary fiction, including many books with no hope of a happy ending. I find it much harder to approach such books now and have gravitated almost exclusively to romance novels. I don’t think I can do dark and looming with no HEA these days.

    And yes, I also share your urge to carve out and occupy that space between, where writing about books is part of the pleasure and the analysis deepens the enjoyment, rather than feeling too much like work, or spoiling the fun of a good read. The challenge is always finding the books that allow me to dwell in this sweet spot. Janet’s recent Jo Beverley posts are a good reminder of the kind of novels– in the historical romance subgenre — that do this so well for me: here’s an author who pushes the limits of romance conventions and throws challenging themes and problematic characters into the mix, but does so thoughtfully and with the kind of depth that stands up to critical reading at the same time that she delivers emotionally satisfying romance. Or, rather, an emotionally satisfying reading experience, even when the HEA is conditional or controversial (eg. when it’s hard for readers to believe / accept a flawed hero’s redemption, etc.).

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      There are a lot of “dark” elements in The Goldfinch, but I don’t find it depressing (tense, yes)–there’s such exuberance in her writing and story-telling. Not that I’m urging you to read it, because I understand completely what you’re saying here.

      I’ve been thinking about my own reading choices a lot lately, in part because I’ve been so disaffected with romance fiction. I just haven’t wanted to pick one up. I think I’ve always been primarily a genre reader–mysteries first; starting 10 or so years ago a lot of children’s/YA lit because I was teaching it; then romance when I really “discovered” it about 5 years ago. The consolation of a happy/hopeful/tidy ending is important for me as a reader.

      But if I try to read exclusively any one genre, or genre period, I get frustrated, because every genre, however broad, has limits on the kind of stories it can tell. So lately I’ve been seeking more variety. I had been finding many romances kind of predictable–not just the HEA, but that I could see most of the major emotional beats coming (now there will be a Big Mis, etc.). Blah. I needed a break. I’m not saying [all] romance is formulaic or predictable, BTW, just that I got a little over-immersed or maybe wasn’t choosing the right books for my current reading mood. I need to rediscover my love of romance or I won’t have a blog readership/subject! Besides, I miss feeling joy in reading it.

      The Goldfinch actually opens at the ending, so in some way I know where it’s going (and I’ve arrived again at the hotel room in Amsterdam so I know I’m in the endgame). But I have no idea what is really going to happen, or how exactly we’re going to get back to that opening scene. And I’m really enjoying the openness and uncertainty, though I wouldn’t want that in everything I read.

      Thanks for your comment, and for your inspiring post!

  10. Liz Mc2 says:

    I finished The Goldfinch last night. I hesitate to say anything at all about the ending, because not knowing if it was going to be “OK” was part of what made the book so gripping for me. But I will just say I didn’t find this book depressing.

    • Lynnd says:

      Thanks for that tidbit about the ending not being depressing. I have been hesitating on trying The Goldfinch because of that, but I will put it on my TBR wishlist and will hopefully get to it sometime this summer.

      I would also like to see more reviews “in the space between”. For me, the best reviews are the start of a discussion about the book and I’d love to see more of that happening. I don’t think that it “can” happen on the big blogs because there are too many things going on and it’s hard to drop in and out of discussion as time permits (which isn’t very much these days). Also, a lot of the books being reviewed at the big blogs are just not what I’m interested in reading these days. I was so pleased that I actually finished three books and one novella last month and I have actually moved on to another new one. That is the most I have completed in many, many months.

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