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As an unperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put besides his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart.
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,
And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,
O’ercharged with burthen of mine own love’s might.
O, let my books be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast;
Who plead for love, and look for recompense,
More than that tongue that more hath more express’d.
O, learn to read what silent love hath writ:
To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.

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sonnets-fronticpieceA bit of a departure from the usual fare, but in honor of the 400th birthday of the first edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets I thought it would be fun to write about a different one each day this week. These aren’t going to be essays, really — just the kind of responses Jess and I always write, straight from the hip.

So much has been said about the Sonnets that I don’t need to add anything — no contextual stuff or hypothesizing about the poems’ objects. Who really cares who the dark lady was, or the youth, or the whoever? They’re poems — maybe the most jewel-like and exquisite poems we’re lucky enough to have. They’re packed, speaking to feelings we’ve all had in such simple phrases they sound like coded messages right from the subconscious. And they’re fun, with bouncy rhythms and that dangerously nursery-like Elizabethan ABAB rhyme scheme that only the most talented writers can drive towards literature without veering off the cliff into aphorism.

I’ll break my own rule about contextual stuff just this once, to say that the one theory of these I like the best (I think it was Wordsworth’s) is that they are purely Shakespeare’s thoughts, without the filter of characters in a play. So much of what he wrote was based on history and folklore that I like to believe the sonnets were his respite, a chance to write directly about what he had felt and experienced himself in life. For all our kvetching about Shakespeare’s thin biography, I think we can learn all we need right here, and through them learn a little about ourselves.

I hope you’ll take this anniversary week as an excuse to grab your favorite pocket-sized edition and give yourself a couple hours of a sunny afternoon to read a handful of Sonnets and let them sink in, play with them for a bit, and reap the rewards it’ll bring to the rest of your day.

We spend much time writing about the books we’re reading here, and little time about how awesome books are in general (and that’s a good thing — no one would want to read that all year round). But Christmas got me thinking about it so I wanted to give thanks to books.

My Christmas morning was full of books. Here’s what I found under the tree, along with a stocking full of an unconscionable amount of candy:

I also gave folks loads of books and indie self-published comics because they would like them, it would help keep bookstores and writers and artists going in these trying times, and because it’s fun. I can’t think of a better Christmas day then one where we are all sprawled out on the couch or living room floor reading our presents while the snow falls outside. That’s how Christmas was when I was a kid and how it still is today — for that day at least I’m only having an adventure, not just reading when I can on the subway or before I fall asleep at night. Books are awesome. So is getting them as gifts.

Here’s a beautiful video via the New York Times book blog that captures everything I just wrote in a much more eloquent way. Enjoy, and Merry Christmas!

I’ve never had any interest in novel-writing. I’m more of a script guy (comics, screenplays, little notes directing me to write something later that I never will) and I’ve always bristled when people ask me when my first novel will be finished upon learning that I’m a writer. A novel is a very specific art form with many rules and traditions. It’s not simply the default setting for writers.

Then my friend Melissa signed up for National Novel Writing Month last year and it sounded like too much fun. The premise? You just write 50,000 words in 30 days. They don’t have to be polished or good or even (I’m assuming) very novel-like. It’s a writing exercise, really — the kind that reminds you what it was like when you were a kid and writing was as simple as looking out the window in the morning and writing about the snow coming down until you got bored. Writing should be, as Neil Gaiman put it, making stuff up in your head and then writing it down. National Novel Writing Month is basically a hammer to break the emergency glass and get back to that. I’m looking forward to it.

The race began today and I’ve got a few words in the bank. You can check out my progress in the little gadget at left and on the NaNoWriMo site. And you should do it, too! Sign up here.

You too, Jessica! Write a novel!

SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! Do not — I repeat, DO NOT keep reading beyond this point if you don’t want it revealed that Richard Nixon won the presidential election of 1972. You’ve been warned!

Considering the fact that I obviously knew how this book was going to turn out, the ending was surprisingly disturbing. I guess I was hoping that Dr. Thompson would reveal some ancient secrets about why it happened that way. But it turns out that, no, you could have written this ending as well, even without knowing anything substantial about the election. We’ve seen it all again, a thousand times since.

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There’s a reason why I think Hunter S. Thompson is one of the best political writers we’ve ever had in America, and why I think this is by far the most insightful and honest book about presidential campaigning I’ve ever read. It’s hard to pin down, but here’s what I mean:

“By half time, with the Rams trailing by six, I had established a firm scientific basis for the paranoid gibberish I had uttered, an hour or so earlier, while standing in the hotel driveway and talking with Bobo the night pimp.”

And yes, that does mean I’m still reading this book two months later. Hey now, come on! That’s why Jessica is Jessica and I’m just me!

Wrap-up on this one coming soon as I careen headlong towards the end of Dr. Thompson’s wild ride.

Hunter Thompson does something unique in this book that I wish more political journalists tried. He’ll spend almost an entire chapter writing about the campaign like gripping sports commentary and then, just as you’re caught up in the excitement, he whips out a trail of hopeless vitriol about the sham of the entire process. He’s doing his job, but he’s tired of it, and that exhaustion is worth noting. We can pretend this is a contest or a race, or any of the other terms journalists use to trivialize the most sacred act of our democracy, but we should remember that it’s much more serious than that.

I empathize with Thompson (and I bet most voters do, too). We’re involved in this whole thing because it matters, but we have to pretend that the emperor has clothes on in order to keep our sanity and not punch someone. (And that note of violence isn’t all mine — by this point in the book Thompson has talked about wanting to rip someone’s throat out, throw someone else down an elevator shaft, and a half dozen other such flare-ups. The frequency is increasing the more time he spends away from his beloved Sandy and with the pompous idjits on the trail.)

When Thompson sneaks off of Ed Muskie’s campaign train in Florida because the whole depressing business reminds him too much of a Nixon campaign, he fatefully gives his press pass to a crazy hippie so the guy can have a free ride to Florida. The mess that ensues is incredible, not just for what happened, but for what it says about American politics.

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These are the times that try men’s souls. Or, at least, mine.

I hate primary season so much it makes me rage at the wind. Nothing speaks to the absurdity of politics moreso than this load of crap. While the general election in November at least pretends to be about what the people want, the primaries are always about what the media says about the candidates, which state wants more influence over the other, which candidate is the best-looking, most well-spoken, or has collected the most money so far. Do any of them deliver messages that resonate with regular folks? Umm, I don’t know since that apparently doesn’t matter.

So it’s been nice to read the good Dr. Thompson’s book chronicling his chronicles of the 1972 presidential race. I can’t think of anyone better than him, being so outside of the establishment (he always calls members of the mainstream punditry, “the press wizards”). We read to know we’re not alone, and reading this is like having a sage old dope smoker by my side agreeing with everything I scream at the newspaper every morning.

Better than that, he is writing about a bygone era of politics I never knew existed. This year was the pivotal one, apparently. Back then, the possibility — even inevitability — of strong third parties was real. This was a time when party nominees weren’t necessarily decided upon by voters — the gruesome 1968 Democratic National Convention was evidence of that. While the pundits and the press almost single-handedly coronate or crucify nominees today (remember the Dean scream?), in ’72 reporters were still only as influential in the process as football commentators are in the outcome of the Super Bowl.

But the dirty, corporate-controlled, People Magazine-style campaigns were sown back then. It’s kind of exhilarating to read about it first-hand from someone as human and honest as Thompson.

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We all have our essential qualities that drive us forward or trip us up, that make everything in life work or break down, but we don’t notice them because we’re too busy worrying about the price of gas or whether or not someone likes us back. It takes life starting over — something that rarely, if ever, happens — to make us look inside without the usual mundane distractions.

But when you die, return from the afterlife, save the universe a couple times, and finally come back to where you were at the start of it all — that’s a grand opportunity. Only in the funny books!

At the start of Green Lantern: No Fear, Hal Jordan has returned to his former life, but nothing is the same (the details of his previous life chapter aren’t important for the purposes of this story — ain’t that nice? — and there’s a recap at the beginning of the book if you must know). Coast City, his hometown, was destroyed by a super bad guy and is only partway through a troubled, halting reconstruction. His brothers and their families hardly know him. He has to earn his way back to the top of his former career as a test pilot. We’re reading about a rebirth, a starting back from Square One, so we get to see his essentials, and see ourselves in them as well. Of course, since this is a Green Lantern comic book, fear is the biggest player in Hal Jordan’s psyche. Writer Geoff Johns knows that this is, conveniently, the biggest player in our collective real world psyche as well.

 

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Against my better judgment, I recently bought a copy of Green Lantern: No Fear. It’s a collection of the current monthly Green Lantern comic book series, and the chuckle you just allowed yourself at my expense is exactly why I at first thought it would be a waste of my time. It just sounds geeky and useless.

This isn’t an unfair assumption when you consider the state of superhero comics these days. Comics as an overall art form is very healthy — graphic novels, newspaper strips, and self-published comics ‘zines are all doing well commercially and critically. But those monthly superhero tales are such awful loads of crap. And this is coming from a die-hard superhero fan.

My overall complaint is simple: truly great literature is universal, and there is nothing universal about this stuff. Superhero comic book publishers cater to a relatively small group of fans who are thrilled by the fact that their beloved characters are treated respectfully and seriously. It’s apparently enough for these readers to read periodic updates on the ups and downs of each hero’s love life or drug addiction or family situation. Superhero comics today are, for the most part, akin to soap operas or reality shows; there to excite readers who have an encyclopedic knowledge of each character’s history with references and in-jokes. That’s not a literary experience but a feeling of clubhouse belonging.

Green Lantern might be the comics outsider’s easiest example of this. Other superheroes have successfully nestled themselves in the greater public consciousness. Batman has his dark, brooding cool factor. Superman’s sense of moral certainty and optimism has always resonated far outside the comics community. Spider-Man is the everyman outsider – an outcast with a heart of gold. Wonder Woman appeals to a mainstream American mindset of feminism and the strength of the individual.

But Green Lantern? Isn’t he the guy with the magic ring?

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