Some favorite reads of 2015

Another year, another goodreads challenge crushed. This year I read 79 books, including re-reads, which goodreads won’t allow you to track in any kind of sensible way. I keep thinking I”ll give up on using GR as a tracking system, but in the end, I just can’t give up the stats counter. I also find the “You are 5 books behind schedule” nudges very helpful.

Usually I read much more over the holidays when I’m home with my parents, but this year a combination of exhaustion and the discovery of Midsomer Murders made that pretty impossible.

Nonfiction

In a move that will surprise no one who knows me, some of my favorite nonfiction reads this year were books about the First World War or histories about combatant countries. A late entry in this category was Geoffrey Wawro’s A MAD CATASTROPHE: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Hapsburg Empire, which I finished it on the plane back to Texas. Wawro is funny and indignant (and indignantly funny) by turns, and he makes a compelling case for laying a large portion of the blame for the outbreak of WWI at Austria-Hungary’s feet. Wawro has a deft hand with the horror and senselessness of the war and the megalomania of the leaders who brought the world into it.

I also highly enjoyed Frederick Morton’s THUNDER AT TWILIGHT: Vienna 1913/1914, which is basically what it says on the tin. It takes a look at some historical figures that don’t normally come up in these histories – Stalin, Trotsky, Hitler, as they try to make their fortunes in that glittering city. Robert K. Massie’s DREADNOUGHT is a triumph. Massie’s strength has always been personalities. He’s brilliant at the foibles and failings of his subjects, and I definitely laughed out loud several times, which you wouldn’t think would happen in a book about the naval arms race between Britain and Germany in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its sequel, CASTLES OF STEEL, was less fun, mostly because I had the problem that I always have with naval histories: “Then this ship went here, and this ship went here, shooting at this other ship, and then they all sailed to Norway.”

This was also a year where I read a lot of writers writing about writing. I read MFA vs NYC, which I didn’t get much from, as it mostly concentrated on the world of high-literary fiction, but I also read the first volume of Virginia Woolf’s diaries and the first two volumes of Susan Sontag’s journals that are being released. I find it fascinating to read the to-do lists and resolutions of writers I admire. Famous Writers: They’re just like us! I also highly recommend Vivian Gornick’s THE ODD WOMAN AND THE CITY, which is kind of indescribable and also indescribably lovely.

Adult Fiction 

I love all my children equally, as they say, and it’s hard to pick a favorite from this year. I made an effort to read books that were published recently rather than digging back into the archives for my favorites, and this year was a cracking good year for fiction.

Hard to pick a favorite, but the one I spent the most time thinking and talking about was N.K. Jemisin’s majestic THE FIFTH SEASON. She is such a talented writer and I was in awe of the way the book unfolded. Secrets on secrets, all wrapped up tightly together, and that ending- it still gives me shivers. You can read a somewhat amusing storify of my Yellin’ about FIFTH SEASON with Sunil Patel here.

This year I also read the first two volumes in C.S. Pacat’s CAPTIVE PRINCE series. I’d been hearing about this online for years but had never gotten around to reading it. More fool me, as now I have to wait till February to read the final volume. It’s a fantasy where the prince of one country is betrayed and then enslaved to the prince of another, but that’s a rather facile description. The characterization in these books is top-notch, and the tension between the two princes is absolutely captivating. I have already pre-ordered the third book.

I also very much loved John Darnielle’s debut novel WOLF IN WHITE VAN. He’s the lead singer of the Mountain Goats, and as a lyricist he’s top-notch, so I knew that it’d be marvelous on a sentence level, but it ended up being incredibly moving and beautiful.

I very much enjoyed the first 700 pages of SEVENEVES, but thought it lost its oomph at the end. I also read the first five books in Ben Aaronovitch’s marvelous RIVERS OF LONDON series, which are fucking fabulous. They’re half-procedural, half-urban fantasy, and the city of London is practically a main character. The sixth book comes out later this year.

I bounced off some of this year’s biggest books – I enjoyed SORCERER TO THE CROWN but didn’t love it, and UPROOTED didn’t do too much for me although it was an enoying, beautifully-written read. Not hard bounces, but still.

YA

My favorite YA reads this year all featured strong female characters that were strong in their separate ways. THE WRATH AND THE DAWN by Renee Ahdieh is loosely inspired by the thousand and one nights, and plays a lot with ideas about who has power, and who exercises it. DUMPLIN‘ by Julie Murphy (who, full disclosure, agreed to blurb one of my clients’ books) features a fat heroine who marches to her own tune (Dolly Parton, naturally.) So charming, so much fun. And apparently there is going to be a sequel, which warms my cold little heart. And my friend Bridget’s client Emma Mills published FIRST AND THEN, which is so charming. Jane Austen meets Friday Night Lights. SO CHARMING.

So, that’s it for the year in reading 2015! This year I became even more aware of how lucky I am to work in this industry, to get the chance to work with amazing authors and read these incredible books. I look forward to all the great things to come in 2016 and beyond.

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. 🙂

 

 

Some books that changed the way I think, or at least the things I think about

I haven’t updated this blog in a while (why do so many of my blog posts begin this way?) but while I’ve been in Texas for the holidays I’ve been tasked with the cleanout of my childhood bedroom. Not so much cleaning it out as making room for some of my parents’ things – my mom uses my room as an office when I’m not there, and given my predilection for keeping every book I’ve ever owned, she was running out of bookshelf space. And despite my dedication to the cultish but effective principles of Marie Kondo, books are the one thing that I can’t truly purge my environment of of 100%.

I did a decent job and cleared out half of one set of shelves (I really wish they still made these – they’re from Ikea, they bolt to the wall, they’re strong as hell and hold a bunch of books). While I was deciding what to keep and what to take to Half Price Books I thought it might be fun to do a little post talking about some of the books that have been especially meaningful to me over the years.

Here’s a picture:

Preparing for a special end of year blog post. #texastime #books

A post shared by Jennifer Udden (@suddenlyjen) on

They’re not in any particular order. The only thing these books have in common is that they got me thinking about things I’m still pondering today.

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: MASTER OF THE SENATE by Robert Caro
What is power? What does the exercise of power mean for a person, for a country? 

I read this in 2002. Tucked inside the title page is a receipt from The Brazos Bookstore, which tells me that I bought it on April 28th, 2002, along with THE PIANO SHOP ON THE LEFT BANK and EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED (My total was $63 – at the time, I believe I was working at an Eckerd’s, now CVS.) I read it right away. This was towards the end of my sophomore year, and my high school, which was then called Jones Vanguard, was still in its original home at Jones High School. We would move the next year to a new campus amid a lot of controversy and bad feeling, but the new campus was darling – a former elementary school, with a green lawn between the buildings that we hung out on during lunches.

To this day I haven’t read the other books in this set of biographies. I don’t know why. I own a paperback copy of the first volume, but haven’t even cracked the spine. MASTER OF THE SENATE exerted a powerful hold over me nonetheless. It was the first time, I think, that I had read about someone with drive that intense, ambition that ruthless. It inspired me to the point where I tried to become a Senate page – but, my family being Democrats in a red state, I didn’t stand a chance. (I did get a very nice letter from Lloyd Bentsen, my congressman at the time, saying he couldn’t help me out, but wishing me the best of luck.)

At the time I had a fabulous history teacher – Mr. Dewey, who taught an entire semester course on the year 1968, covering the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war and a yearly recitation of Alice’s Restaurant. He was then (and is now) a union man, and a lot of the things I think about politics were formed in his classes – AP US History, 1968. (Government? I think I took Government from him, too.) That summer I took world history in summer school so that I could take both AP World History and AP European history, and took more politics classes in college and eventually declared a major in politics. But this was the book that started it.

Kevin Brockmeier – THE BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DEAD (Spoilers)
Death & the afterlife

To this day, I cannot describe the plot of this book without getting choked up. I bought it in an independent bookstore in Knoxville, Tennessee (I can’t remember the name) the weekend I drove up with my mother to clean out a storage unit that contained my grandmother Marge’s possessions. She’d died earlier in the year, and we rented a Uhaul trailer and hitched it to the minivan and drove to Knoxville. One of the more terrifying experiences of my life, driving on winding roads in the Smoky Mountains with a uhaul trailer attached to my car!

At any rate, we stopped into this bookstore and this book was on one of the front tables. I haven’t read anything else by this author, but this book was so heartbreaking and perfect that I don’t know if I can bring myself to.

It’s told in two alternating story lines – one is set in a city where the dead go after they die, a kind of holding area where you stay as long as someone alive on earth remembers you. The city’s population grows and grows and then abruptly begins to vanish, shrinking by the day as more people wink out of existence, into the place beyond the city. Finally the population shrinks down to a few hundred. And the other storyline follows a woman on an Arctic expedition who begins to think that she is the last person alive on earth.

Yep, I’m crying. I read it in the car, weeping silently while my mother drove. When we got closer to Houston I switched to Wilkie Collins’ WOMAN IN WHITE for levity, but I will never forget this book. I recommend it all the time, to people looking for all kinds of books. Want a literary with fantasy elements? THE BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DEAD. Want a dystopia? THE BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DEAD. Want a good read? Etc.

It’s an incredibly emotional and beautiful read. Highly recommend.
THE DIAMOND AGE by Neil Stephenson what does it mean to be part of a group? of a society? 

This is the first hard scifi I remember reading, I think when I was 14 or 15. It blew my mind. I remember finding it a little difficult to get through but I’ve read it several times since then (this is my Houston copy – I purchased a copy for New York reading my second year there) and my poor mass market copy is looking a bit raggedy. I can’t bring myself to get rid of it though.

If pressed to pick my favorite parts, I basically can’t. The magical book that learns and grow, the Neo Victorians. This was my first encounter with a 3-D printer in fiction, and in November my client Emma Newman’s PLANETFALL came out. There is a thread that connects these two, from now to then.

LABYRINTHS by Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino’s IF ON A WINTER’S NIGHT A TRAVELER.
Mind bending stories 

I was recommended Labyrinths by an ex-boyfriend of my aunt’s. He turned out to be a gigantic d-bag but he pointed me towards Borges, which I suppose I will always have to be grateful to him for. Coincidentally, IF ON A WINTER’S NIGHT A TRAVELER was recommended to me by a guy I wanted to go out with – an English guy I met on a canvassing trip for the Democrats in advance of the 2004 election. He ended up having a girlfriend and didn’t mention it the entire time we were having dinner.

At any rate, my love for weird structures and twisty literary fantasy can probably be traced back to these two books. The library that doesn’t end, a book that is a different genre in every chapter. I’ve since read (mostly) everything I could get my hands on by these two authors. I’d be hard pressed to pick my favorite Borges story, but this will always be my favorite Calvino. INVISIBLE CITIES does have a special place in my heart.

THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE by Audrey Niffenegger
Just rip my heart out and leave me to die 

I read this one in college, in one big gulp in the library atrium at Mount Holyoke College. I forget what year, and which class I skipped to finish it. Probably in my top ten, all-time favorite books, though it’s another one of those heart-punchers that I haven’t had the heart to reread. And this was before I knew that Henry and Clare were based on Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. Or maybe this was before I read GAUDY NIGHT. At any rate, I love this book. From a SFF perspective, the inventiveness of the time travel and the real problems it presents are delightful and exciting. From an emotional perspective, it’s one of my absolute favorite fictional relationships. I can’t quite … describe what I feel about this book, or point to any one thing. I just remember sitting in the library and feeling like I was being carried by a wave, and that it was very important that I not resist, because it was important that I go where the wave wanted to take me.

And yes, I cried.


Charles Dickens – OUR MUTUAL FRIEND

You mightn’t think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper.  

I’m including this half for the book, and half for the amazeballs 1998 BBC adaptation. Dominic Mafhan’s Mortimer Lightwood saying “Eugene, Eugene, this is a bad business,” Keely Hawe’s otherworldly beauty as Lizzie Hexam, David Morrissey as Bradley Headstone angrily punching that gravestone – amazing! Check it out if you haven’t seen it. This is my favorite Dickens because, of the books of his I’ve read, OUR MUTUAL FRIEND has my favorite set of side characters. Silas Wegg; the lovely and illiterate Boffins; the greedy and social climbing Lammles; Mr. Venus (and his sweetheart who did not wish to be regarded in that bony light.) It’s a rich and cohesive world of characters and though I’m sure others can say more intelligent things about it, the fact that this is the only Dickens I can quote bits of is my highest compliment.

Margaret Macmillan – PARIS, 1919: Six Months that Changed the World
Oh, where to begin

I was reading this when I was on one of my trips to look at colleges in the Northeast. I remember nothing else about my interview for Mount Holyoke (where I ended up going) other than being asked by the interviewer what I was reading. I may have even pulled it out of the bag to demonstrate. As I mentioned on Instagram, this was the book that started my obsession with World War I. There are 23 books on my “wwi” shelf on Goodreads, which includes diaries, novels, military history, and books of history that focus on the various belligerents (I’m looking at you THE BALKANS by Misha Glenny.) But Paris 1919 was the one that started it all. Something about the negotiation of the Treaty of Versailles caught my imagination and my interest, and the more I learn about the first World War the more parallels I find with the world today. My latest book in this series is A MAD CATASTROPHE by Geoffrey Wawro, which looks at the Hapsburgs and Austria-Hungary’s role in World War I. Highly recommend, especially for his hilarious righteous indignation about the inefficiencies and poor decision making of people long since dead.

 

 

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.

Feelings About Superheroes, Part 1

I saw Age of Ultron last night and like much of the Internet, I have Some Thoughts. But I thought that instead of doing a straight up review, this could be a Learning Moment ™ for all of us. Of course those thoughts ballooned and now this post is nearly five thousand words, so in the interest of time, I’m going to split this up. And there are massive, massive spoilers throughout for Avengers: Age of Ultron and the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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October 2014 Reading

Books Bought

Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600-1947 by Christopher Clark
His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik
Anathem by Neal Stephenson
The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson
Briar Rose by Jane Yolen
After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie by Jean Rhys
War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Kraken by China Mieville
The Kill Order by James Dashner
Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner
Songsmith by Andre Norton
Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War by Robert K. Massie

Books Read

Clean by Dr. Alejandro Junger
The Balkans, 1804-2011: Nationalism, War, and the Great Powers by Misha Glenny
His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik
Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
Unnamed self-help book
City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett (partial)
Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War by Robert K. Massie (partial)

Ah, October. My birthday month! Month of Halloween! This year, month of two back-to-back conferences, another book sale that I can’t talk about, a cold, and a gnarly case of bronchitis that I am still dealing with. (Sorry, Atlanta Writer’s Conference! I promise I will sound better if you invite me back sometime. 🙂 All in all a better reading month. I mentioned in September’s entry that I’d be having a lot more plane time – this was true, but less true than I’d hoped. The trip to Oregon for Sirens is one of the big highlights of my year. If you’re not familiar with it, Sirens is a conference focusing on women in fantasy, and it’s a small (nearly intimate) gathering of around 100 people to just talk about books for two days. There’s a bit of a focus on writing, and I am always scheming to find new authors there. But mostly it’s talking about books, and why we love them, and what we love about them, all with handy access to a hot tub.

(On the way to Sirens I finished up with The Balkans, though I doubt that the Balkans are finished with me. I think my assessment of it from September stands – it’s an informative book, but a little hard to tell everyone apart, and the post-WWII years were not nearly as fleshed out as I’d have liked. The war in Bosnia in the 90s is the first war I remember, though I don’t remember it very well. Like many women my age I read Zlata’s Diary around that time – Zlata Filipovic was a little older than I at the time, and her diary was a harrowing account of war from a child’s point of view. I’m pretty sure she makes documentaries now, which is awesome.)

This year the group at Sirens was a little smaller, and Ellen Kushner wasn’t around to sing us Thomas the Rhymer songs on her guitar. I highly recommend that if you ever have a chance to experience Ellen Kushner playing the guitar, or reading, or doing anything at all, that you make all possible effort to do so. It was at the wonderful bookstore that the conference runs that I picked up the first book in the Temeraire series, His Majesty’s Dragon. Confession time: this is a series that I am forever recommending to others without actually having read. I, like you, am human, and I, like you and everyone else, am always trying to feel smarter and more connected than the people around me, so yes, sometimes I lie about having read things, and yes, I realize that makes me a bit of a shit. However! Usually I get around to rectifying my untruths and this is a time that I’m glad I did. The Temeraire series is about dragons helping to fight the Napoleonic wars, which basically makes it a winning card in the game of “Things Jen Loves Bingo.” The language is suitably Jane Austen-esque and the friendship between the dragon Temeraire and Laurence, his rider, is just beautiful. I’ve heard mixed things about the rest of the series, but am now mad at myself that I didn’t pick them up for $5 each at the Sirens bookstore just so I could have kept going.

As it was, I ended up at Powell’s after the conference ended, so I can’t exactly say that I am lacking for reading material. Powell’s is one of those places that, like every branch of Half Price Books I have ever been in, I can spend all day in. Divided over several buildings and multiple floors they have every possible subject you could ever consider reading. I’ve worked out a foolproof strategy for getting the most out of a visit:

Arrive. Grab a basket.
Start in Science Fiction/Fantasy (the Gold room). Grab anything that looks interesting, Consult the list I make beforehand to make sure I don’t forget anything.
Head down to the YA section (the Rose room, I think.) Start at the beginning of the alphabet and work my way down. It’s usually somewhere around the middle of the YA section that the first basket gets filled up, so I check it when I’m done with YA and go get lunch, usually at Deschutes Brewery around the corner.
In the afternoon I get a new basket and head to general fiction, which is usually a more haphazard search. At some point I text my parents to see if there’s anything they’re looking for. Then I head to history and tool around there for a bit. I have a friend in Portland that I try to see when I’m there, so I usually check out around 5 and go grab a drink or coffee or something before heading to the airport. They ship the books for you, which is really convenient.

Of course this system is now worthless now that Sirens is moving to Denver, but hey, I’m sure I’ll be back someday. *sniff*

This year I spent about $70 at Powell’s, not including the shipping, which was an exercise in admirable restraint on my part. I was overjoyed to find Dreadnought in hardcover. It’s enormous and unwieldy, but the paperback is even more enormous and unwieldy and I figure it might as well be sturdy and unwieldy. Plus it was only $9.99. Robert K. Massie has an extraordinarily deft hand at personalities, illuminating foibles and feuds in a way that few histories are able to do. For instance, did you know that Kaiser Bill had one arm that was shorter than the other, and that he was forever holding a pair of gloves to hide it, or that he thought his mother, Queen Victoria’s eldest child (and the smartest of all her children) was an interfering shrew, when all she wanted was for him not to be an enormous self-aggrandizing doofus all the time? I didn’t! Fascinating stuff! So if you only read one 1000-page book about the naval arms race between Germany and Great Britain, let this be it. (I bought Iron Kingdom earlier in the month but haven’t started it yet – it’s another Christopher Clark doorstopper, and I have the feeling that when this year is over I will have learned and forgotten a great deal about pre-WWII Germany.)

The rest of my haul from Powell’s was a bit of a mixed bag – some fantasy that I’ve been meaning to read, including another attempt at late-stage Stephenson (I could not,for the life of me, get through the Baroque cycle. Or Cryptonomicon. Does this make me a bad person?) I picked up Kraken because giant sea monsters, hello, even though Mieville is usually a bit of a mixed bag for me. I could not finish Perdido Street Station but I passionately love The Scar and The City & The City. And Rae Carson is going to be one of the guests of honor next year at Sirens (along with Kate Elliot and Yoon Ha Lee!) so I figured I should finish reading the trilogy.

A quick note on War & Peace. I read it when I was sixteen and doing a summer volunteer program in Paraguay, though it must be said that I technically read only the peace parts (and skipped anything involving Napoleon. What can I say? I was a teenager, and teenagers make mistakes.) Last year I saw an amazing show called Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812!, which is based on a 100-page stretch of War & Peace and was one of the most thrilling theatrical experiences of my life. With lyrics and music by Dave Malloy (who also wrote one of my other favorite shows, Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage), Comet was moving, exhilarating, and mesmerizing, and that isn’t just all the free vodka talking. You can listen to some of my favorite songs from it here, and the whole album is on iTunes. So I found a really nice used copy at Powell’s and am planning on reading it when I go to Houston for Christmas.

But it can’t all be huge Russian novels and dense histories about World War I, though I know that’s what you all come for. This month I read the first volume in Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy, Shadow & Bone. It’s a YA fantasy with elements of Russian fairy tales and magic. The characters felt a bit thin, but damn if I didn’t read the whole thing in one day’s worth of commuting. I’ll definitely be reading the rest of the trilogy.

Clean is a book that my roommate recommended. Dr. Alejandro Junger is one of Gwyneth Paltrow’s advisors (he thanks her in the acknowledgments) and this is a book about fasting. Reading it made me hungry, and I think the night I finished it I ate pizza for dinner. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running was lent me by my sister, who does actually occasionally run outside, for exercise and pleasure, if you can imagine such a thing. When I run I do it inside, on a treadmill in an air conditioned environment, as God intended. Instead of a treatise on the joys of running, however, this book is more about the meditative benefits of running for Murakami as a novelist. He compares writing and running as being basically the same process, though they result in different outcomes. Each is a choice you have to make every day. At the end of one you get a novel, at the end of the other, a marathon. This was a short but lovely read.

Wrapping up the month I’m about 300 pages into Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs (full disclosure: he’s a DMLA client) and ZOMG IT’S SO GOOD. It combines two of my favorite things: weird cities and police procedurals, so basically I’m in heaven. Will have more coherent thoughts for you next month, because I’m probably finishing this sucker tonight.

November has a lot going on as well, mostly because of Thanksgiving and World Fantasy Con. I will be starting up recording Shipping & Handling with Bridget Smith again this month (and finally getting it onto iTunes!) so stay tuned for that.

Happy Halloween!