Recommendation: J by Howard Jacobson

I just finished reading J by Howard Jacobson. That little strike through on the J should really be two lines, as per the book, where any word beginning with “j” also has the letter stricken through. But I can’t figure out how to do it on WordPress.

J is set in a world where something Has Happened – WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, is never clear in the book and is always referred to in the hypothetical. But whatever it was has caused society to turn to a great forgetting, a turning away from memory and identity so that whatever happened won’t ever happen again. This great societal effort is failing, though, and strange outbursts of violence are seizing the country anyway – we are aware of this from the beginning as Ailinn Solomons and Kevern Cohen begin their strange, tentative relationship.

It’s a love story, and it’s a dystopian novel, and it’s a novel about anti-semitism, but nothing is ever addressed head on. In J there aren’t any grand revelations or explosions, there is no courageous resistance against an oppressive government. WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, was a collective act of violence so great that to speak of it is an act of unimaginable illegality – the genius of the way this illegality is structured is that nothing is banned, so much as just not done. This elliptical style might turn some people off but for me, it made for a disorienting and almost elegiac reading experience; a sense of sorrow for things barely remembered, the knowledge that we as a society have done things that we shouldn’t be proud of and for which we should apologize, suffused every page.

So, I highly recommend! Go buy it and read it. And then tell me what you think. 

 

 

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Emma Newman release day & link roundup

Hi all! It feels weird writing here and then not tweeting about it. I wonder if I can figure out a way around that. EDITED TO ADD: I can have it automatically tweet this from the WordPress app without me having to go to Twitter/Fb/tumblr! Yay!

Anyway, earlier this week the re-released editions of Emma Newman’s first three Split Worlds novels came out! Diversion Books has done a fabulous job with these covers, and in related news, I cannot WAIT for everyone to get their hands on Book 4 in the series- A LITTLE KNOWLEDGE, coming in August 2016. 🙂 Here are the links to her website, with buying links for all three:

Between Two Thorns
Any Other Name
All Is Fair

Seriously, check them out! Currently, the first book is on sale for .99c! And if scifi is more your thing, there’s always PLANETFALL. 😉

Oh, and edited to add her awards eligibility post!

I’m editing the most recent episode of Shipping & Handling and that should be up soon. Remember to submit any questions/comments/concerns/suggestion to us via our ask box on tumblr, via email, or via twitter!

Reading wise, still making my way through SALT TO THE SEA by Ruta Sepetys, and started THE FALL OF THE OTTOMANS for my train-reading. So far, so good. And then there’s this:

Screen Shot 2016-02-25 at 8.36.52 AM

Yes, I did buy a book about a guy who after being released from a German POW camp in WWI couldn’t remember his name or where he was from because he was so shell-shocked.  Fight me. (And yes, I bought it from Amazon, but only through the marketplace because I am p sure this book is out of print.)

 That’s all for now. More soon!

Umberto Eco

I know that as an American I should be mourning the passing of Harper Lee, and I am, but another literary death has me sitting at my desk, staring into space, trying to grapple with the realization that another great author has left the world.

Umberto Eco died this week, at the age of 84 – only five years younger than Lee, and surely both of them have lived long lives. In contrast to Lee, who died in the nursing home that she had lived in for years, Eco died at home, in his apartment in Milan. his newest book, NUMERO ZERO, came out last year.

It’s a silly exercise to contrast these two authors on a larger scale. Lee produced one masterpiece; Eco seemingly couldn’t stop writing, putting out seven novels, several works of theory and probably a bajillion academic things that I haven’t read. An they certainly didn’t write in the same genres.

But on the small level of my personal reading life, Eco’s work held sway over me in a way that TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD never did. And since they’ve died within a few days of one another, I can’t help making the comparison. Eco is one of my favorite authors. I’m actually a little angry at myself that I didn’t include THE NAME OF THE ROSE or THE ISLAND OF THE DAY BEFORE in the post I made at the end of 2015 talking about some of the books that shaped my reading. THE NAME OF THE ROSE was one of the first books I read where I felt that sense in the back of your mind of things expanding – of being given a glimpse into a world of meaning that you’d previously only guessed was there.

And then after that I read everything else he’s written, including the mammoth FOUCAULT’S PENDULUM (which I have in hardcover, and which weighs approximately a thousand pounds) and the claustrophobic, dreamlike THE ISLAND OF THE DAY BEFORE. Of his novels, there are only two that remain unread: BAUDOLINO and his latest, 2015’s NUMERO ZERO. Baudolino I made a stab at when it came out, but I just couldn’t get through it. (Sorry, Berto!) Even the books of his that just didn’t work for me on a structural level (Looking at you, MYSTERIOUS FLAME OF QUEEN LOANA) or because I couldn’t get past how awful the protagonist was (PRAGUE CEMETERY, in which the anti-semitic protagonist literally invents the Protocols of the Elders of Zion) resonated for me long after I put them down.

These mammoth, ridiculous books, with their dense layers of references and allusions and twisty, complicated, baggy plots are some of the earliest books that rationalized the eclectic nature of my reading habits. I grew up in a one-genre family (two, if you count mysteries) and my bookshelves at home are covered in many genres and nonfiction of all stripes. Which sounds a bit like one of those “I’m so quirky and weird” complaints, a humblebrag of originality, but when I was in middle/high school I genuinely felt weird for my reading tastes, that even though the rest of me was weird I couldn’t conform in this one area, either.

Anyway. This is all to say that though Lee looms larger in the American literary consciousness – especially given the controversial publishing of GO SET A WATCHMAN last year – Eco’s death is the one that is with me today, looking at my bookshelves, wondering what he would have written next.

Social Media Hiatus

Hi all!

I’ll be on a social media hiatus during Lent this year (again) so here is what you can expect from me during this time:

  • I won’t be on twitter except to post information about new Shipping & Handling episodes, or if something of PARTICULAR excitement for my clients happens (they win the Nobel Prize, or get on the Times List. You know, the important things.)
  • Same goes for Facebook and Tumblr.
  • I probably WILL be updating this blog a bit more, if I’m able.
  • I will be posting photos through instagram to my various outlets without checking for the response, so if you see a picture crop up on twitter, please resist the urge to @reply  me and say “BUT YOU SAID YOU WERE OFF SOCIAL MEDIA NYAH NYAH.” Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
  • I WILL STILL BE TAKING QUERIES.

I am a little blown away that Lent and Easter are so early this year and was COMPLETELY unprepared for this to start so soon!

A few clarifications about queries: 

Currently, there are two ways floating around to query me, and BOTH are valid as we work to figure out the best way to handle queries for Barry & I at the Barry Goldblatt agency.

  • I PREFER you to follow the query guidelines listed on this blog, which means 20 pages + 1-2 page synopsis + query letter PASTED into the body of an email to query.judden@gmail.com.
  • IF you send it to the general BG query address, rest assured that I will receive it and give it equal consideration to the ones that come through my query email.

It’s been a really exciting first month working with Barry and his awesome crew (they know who they are) and I’m looking forward to telling you more about it.

More notes:

  • Bridget Smith & I have one more episode of Shipping & Handling in the can, and we’re just waiting on final approval from our awesome guest. So that should be up sometime next week.
  • Next MONDAY, the 15th, which is a holiday, Bridget & I will be recording a BRAND NEW episode, so be sure to send us your questions via the many different ways you can do that so we can answer them on-air!
  • Thank you for bearing with us during our long-ass hiatus. Rest assured that the podcast has even more exciting things in store this year.

I think that’s it! 😀

New computer!

Thanks to some generosity from parties unnamed, who were tired of hearing my old laptop wheeze and burble as it attempted to keep itself powered on, I am now the proud owner of an incredibly shiny new MacBook. I was skeptical of the new macbook design mostly because of the idiotic move towards only having one port. Sure, the future is wireless, but the future isn’t here yet, apple! I need a USB port! So I also ponied up for the (ridiculously expensive) adapter so that I can, you know, use USB stuff.

So far I really like it. I had heard that the new keyboards were weird, but I actually like the new macbook keyboard better than the one on my old air – it’s pretty responsive but you have to give the keys a good tap, which I like. (I’m a person who voluntarily used one of the spring-loaded keyboards on my office computer for a long, long time because I hated the HP keyboard so very, very much.)

I don’t have a lot of technical knowledge about computers, despite having worked for a year and a half at the Fifth Avenue Apple Store, but I am impressed with the power and speed so far of this little machine. Transferring everything from my old computer (over a USB-USB cable that my dad had to go out and buy at Radio Shack) has been a fairly fast endeavor, and the screen is SO PRETTY OMG. Can’t wait to watch YouTube makeup tutorials on this sucker.

In other news, I’ve been meaning to do a blog post about the move to a new agency in January, but haven’t had the time since I’ve been home. Rest and recreation with one’s family is always so much more time consuming than I remember and I have accomplished maybe 2 of the 340 things I wanted to do in the three weeks I’ve been in Texas. But I HAVE –

-watched six and a half seasons of Midsomer Murders
-written half of my holiday cards
-gone through my old online bookmarks and made sure all of them were tagged (1500 out of 2000, go Jen)
-started reading like four books before setting them down
-eaten a lot of Mexican food
-lost like 10 pounds

So not an *entirely* wasted vacation. I’m excited to get back to New York on Wednesday and hit the ground running! More news on the move to the Barry Goldblatt Agency soon. 🙂

 

 

New query address

Hello, all!

I finally bit the bullet and created a dedicated query inbox for myself. If you are interested in querying me, you should first visit my about page to see what I am looking for and my query guidelines, then you can send that query to:

query.judden@gmail.com

Anyone who has sent a query to my regular email address will still get an answer, don’t worry!

Feelings about Superheroes Part 2

HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE NATASHA

You’ll have to pardon the Sound of Music reference, but it drives me crazy when the only female avenger is described as a problem. But I think in this case there is a problem with Black Widow’s characterization in A:AOU, and it all stems from one source: she is the only main Avenger that hasn’t had a solo movie.

The audience has had at least two movies each for the other Avengers, not counting their first group outing. So that’s at least six hours of individual storytime for the audience to get to know someone. With Natasha Romanov, aka Black widow, we have far less time with her – she appears in Iron Man 2 and Cap 2 as a supporting player, and a team member in Avengers. So this trip down backstory lane in A:AOU doesn’t have as much to build on- she has fewer developed points of care.

That’s not to say that she doesn’t have any points of care: In Iron Man 2 she works closely with Tony and Pepper. In Cap 2 she develops a close friendship with Steve Rogers, and we see her genuine grief at Fury’s “death.” And in the first Avengers we have the relationship between Nat and Clint Barton, as I discussed in Part 1. So clearly even though we haven’t had a solo Widow movie yet, she does have relationships within the MCU universe.

So with this in mind, I don’t object wholesale to Black widow’s major points of character development in this film – the relationship with Bruce Banner and the revelation of her forced sterilization at the hands of the Red Room. I object to these things happening in what is essentially a characterization vacuum.

You know were would have been a great place to introduce Widow’s feelings about her sterility?

A solo Black Widow movie.

But since we don’t have a solo Black Widow movie, we have to go on the points of care we have previously been introduced to for Natasha. And this is where Part 1 of this post comes in. Natasha’s feelings about being unable to have children are given to the audience as a result of two weaker points of care storylines – the out-of-nowhere relationship with Banner and the out-of-nowhere Barton Family Farm.

Some people are saying that the Banner love story is actually foreshadowed in the Avengers, when she tries to talk him down from his green pedestal during the attack on the Helicarrier. I’m just going to throw it out there that “trying to convince a dude to calm down so that he won’t kill you” is not really a solid foundation for a relationship. And the way she interacts with Banner in this movie is just confusing – suddenly Black Widow is the one who gives Banner the “lullaby” that brings him down? This is another instance of something “cool” – the development of team strategies and tools offscreen, then introducing them to the audience with no exposition – being wasted on something that doesn’t uite earn it. Yes, it’s cool that Natasha can talk the Hulk down. But why does it have to be Natasha? I think the answer would probably be along the lines of “Well, she’s got more of an emotional connection, and her efforts in the first Avengers movie…”

Blah blah blah. She’s the only woman; she gets to be the one to calm Banner down.

The Russo brothers, who directed Cap 2 and steered much of the writing, understood what to do with Natasha. In one article about their vision for Black Widow:

“There were debates about whether Rogers should have a romance with Romanoff, but they opted not to do it because it would sell out both characters. In particular, they felt that if that happened it would appear that the only reason to have Black Widow in the film was as a love interest, and there was so much more her character could offer the story.”

Ahem. In the wake of A:AoU, this interview looks like prophecy. What did Widow contribute to this move? She was there:

-to calm the Hulk down
-to fall in love with Banner
-to introduce verisimilitude to the Clint Family Farm story
-“I’m always picking up after you boys.”

Sure, she did stuff in the movie, but that stuff could have been done by literally any of the extant Avengers (or Rhodey, or Falcon.) In this version of the Avengers we have a Natasha who is unexpectedly maternal, cajoling, and nurturing, which has never been the case before. And even if they were going from an arc of “Natasha only knows violence! She’s a hardcore agent of Shield with a dangerous past” to one of “Natasha is more in touch with her emotions! She’s starting to have regrets about her past!” the way it’s handled here is a waste. And it’s not Whedon’s fault that Natasha doesn’t have her own movie – though I suspect that, at this point, Marvel execs (who are already against the idea of a female-helmed superhero movie) will be able to point to the backlash against this storyline as evidence against making the Black Widow movie.

One of the frustrations has been that, in the press tour, Whedon continually talked about how exhausting it was to make this film, how the writing of it was a burden because of all the stuff that Marvel wanted him to include, that people were being hyper critical for no reason. It’s clear from Natasha’s storyline, however, that he was tired even before the movie started shooting, because this is the same storyline he has for every female character in every single world he’s built so far.

Don’t believe me about his kink for the violation of female bodily and mental autonomy as plot?

-River Tam in Firefly, whose mind was warped and twisted even as her body was trained to become a killing machine by the Alliance in Firefly.
-Whatsherface in Dollhouse, who volunteers to have her mind wiped (and her body violated) over and over, because of Reasons (I didn’t watch more than one episode of that show)
-Oh, and the non-entity character Dr. Helen Cho in A:AOU is mind-whammied by Ultron into building him a body.
-I would even argue that Buffy has some of this, in the lack of choice she has over how to be a slayer, over what her body was born to do.

This is the same well he goes to over and over for emotional motivation. River Tam doesn’t have a normal brain; Natasha Romanov can’t have children. And Wanda Maximoff volunteers for the experiments that turn her into the Scarlet Witch. At worst, this weird element of women’s minds and bodies being medically violated to make them faster, stronger killing machines is a bit of latent misogyny. At best, it’s narrative fucking laziness. It’s bad story economics.

I say laziness because of what I pointed out earlier regarding how a) the relationship that sparks this revelation was not earned by previous points of care b) how the audience is being cheated of Natasha’s character development by introducing this as a subplot rather than an element of a solo film. Some people on my dash have been very critical of the backlash to Natasha’s storyline, saying that those who oppose the sterility storyline are anti-feminist. Infertility is no joke – it’s a serious issue that many women struggle with, and forced sterilization has been used as a political tool of oppression for years (in this country, no less.) I want to make it very clear that when I criticize this storyline, I am doing it because to have used Natasha’s (canon) forced sterilization in this throwaway manner is to trivialize this issue, both for the character and also for society.

So, instead of the snarky, funny, deeply loyal and protective friend we saw in Cap 2, we get Natasha the Wet Blanket, crying out of nowhere and begging Banner to date her. What can we learn about this for writing?

All subplots should have bearing on the main plot. That’s my takeaway, at least. Compare Nat’s arc in A:AOU to Cap 2. In Cap 2, Nat had to face the destruction of the organization she had fought for for years AND the knowledge that, as part of her work for that organization, she had very likely made calls that had helped Hydra. So her emotional development fed into the plot as she helped Cap and Falcon destroy Shield. The sterility storyline has no bearing on the events of Age of Ultron. How could Nat’s storyline have been improved?

For one thing, the “graduation ceremony” idea is actually a pretty good one – train someone into doing something heinous as a test of their loyalty. The recent (ridiculously enjoyable, emphasis on the ridiculous) movie Kingsman: The Secret Service played with this idea. In that movie, at the start of their training, Kingsman recruits are given a dog to bond with. They have to take the dog everywhere, and then to become a Kingsman knight, they have to shoot the dog.

What if Nat had been forced to shoot a child as part of her Red Room training? Perhaps one of the children who she had helped train? That would have tied in nicely to the bits about Tony feeling ambivalent about destroying his own creation, even though I didn’t love that part either, and also given weight to her tenderness towards Clint’s Miracle Children. But I hope you see what I’m saying – that there are ways to do these things without introducing a ham-handed nod to an issue that is heartbreaking or so many and then never mentioning it again. In the economy of a story, a story is stronger when different parts have an effect on other parts, and when something is introduced that so clearly doesn’t have a place with the rest of the action, it feels off.

WHERE MY GIRLS AT

I talked about the lack of Pepper Potts in Part 1. What’s interesting is that even though there are technically two other female supporting characters in A:AOU, they were practically nonentities. Maria Hill and Dr. Cho in this movie are just… there. Their lines could have been said by anyone. And I don’t think they even ever have a conversation with each other, or with Nat. (If they did, the writing was so un-memorable that it has escaped my memory, and Lord knows I’m not paying to see this movie again.) The only memorable Maria line is when she complains about the testosterone. I always say this to writers – if a character is complaining about something and the reader agrees, that is a problem. This happens the most often with characters who are being written as cynical or ungrateful, in my experience. At a certain point, the audience loses tolerance for that kind of thing. So when Maria Hill did the cough*testosterone*cough thing, I could only agree with her- Yes, Maria, there are too many dicks on the dancefloor! And many others in the movie theaters I was in thought so too, if the murmurings I overheard were anything to go by.

It starts to get obvious after a while that a creator or a studio doesn’t value female participation. The problem is, half their dollars are lady dollars – and they know this, which is why they cast hotties as all their major heroes. So I’m not going to go on about this, because it’s so obvious as to be embarrassing – If you don’t have fully-realized female characters in your story, your writing is lazy!

O CAPTAIN, MY CAPTAIN

Before I wrap up, I’d like to say a few words about my very favorite Avenger, Steve Rogers.

Of all the Scarlet Witch visions, IMO, Steve’s was the only one that was truly believable given what we know about the character so far. The dance hall filled with celebrating soldiers, who begin clutching wounds in their revelry, the appearance out of nowhere of Peggy Carter, Steve Rogers standing alone—all this was rooted in what we’ve known of the character so far, and it worked brilliantly.

The problem was everything else. Why, in Whedon’s vision, is Steve Rogers a humorless soldier? Why “Language!”? I just really hate that in Whedon’s eyes, Cap is a grandpa who hates everyone and wants to go back to the 40s. Cap 2 moved him past this. In Cap 2 he’s engaging with the world, listening to Marvin Gaye and eating Thai food. He’s making new friends and tough choices. But in the Avengers, he’s sniping at Tony about language. Where is the guy that lied on his enlistment forms in five separate attempts to get into the army? Where is the guy who voluntarily wore tights and booty shorts to help his country? Where is the guy who stole a plane and parachuted behind enemy lines against orders to bring back his best friend? Did Steve Rogers serve in the only part of the European theater in World War II where no one used swear words???

This brings me to a larger point-

IT’S LIKE WHEDON DIDN’T WATCH ANY OF PHASE 2

Whedon’s vision of the characters in A:AOU doesn’t feel like moving the characters forward – it feels like a major step back.

In a lot of ways this is the same exact movie as the first Avengers – the team has to learn to work together! Personalities are hard! Cap hates Tony! There’s an enemy that they’re not strong enough to fight, but if they work together, they can beat anything!

We’ve seen that movie! But more importantly, we’ve all seen what happens in between in IM3, Thor 2, and Cap 2. We’ve see Thor deal with the death of his brother and Tony deal with his anxiety and Cap make jokes while lapping Falcon around the National Mall. We’ve seen Natasha pop giant bubble gum bubbles and call Steve a fossil. We’ve all seen this- but I’m increasingly wondering whether Whedon did.

IN CONCLUSION, KIND OF

What I’ve been trying to say over the course of these two posts is that when you’re writing something, especially when you’re writing a series or working in a shared universe like the MCU, you have to trust that the reader is going to remember what has happened up to that point in a story. And you have to trust that the reader (or viewer) doesn’t just want more of the same, however tempting it may be to deliver it. We want to se the further adventures– not the same adventure, now with a more confusing ending. (Seriously, I tuned out for about the last half hour. Thor used lightning to destroy Sokovia? Is that what happened?)

The relationships that were developed in the solo movies and the first Avengers are the economy of the MCU, a constellation of points of care that the viewer roots for. What does A:AOU mean for future installations in this universe? Will the Banner/Natasha storyline be developed? Will they forget all about the Barton Family Farm?

Basically, I’m delighted that the Russo brothers and the writers of Cap 2 are coming on for the next three Marvel installments (I’m pretending that Ant-Man isn’t happening, because Jesus Christ, we’re getting an Ant-Man movie before Black Widow? I’m being punk’d). In interviews they’ve already said things that are encouraging to me about their general ideas about the characters and the direction they’re headed in.

And who knows. Maybe at last we’ll get a Black Widow movie.