1. The Washington Post's Sunday literary supplement Book World is indeed being discontinued. I'll have something to say about this in my weekend write-up of the New York Times Book Review, aka "Last One Standing".
2. Dostoevskaya Station (not in St. Petersburg but in Moscow).
3. Can you read with music? When I was a kid, I always read with music on. Now I prefer not to.
4. A surprisingly good map of heavy metal band names.
5. Grace Paley: the Film
6. Stanley Kubrick wanted to make a Holocaust film.
7. Archie Andrews of Riverdale. You know who I'm talking about.
8. Mad Magazine is going quarterly. Hmm.
9. I'm going to be participating in a Israel/Gaza peace/aid event at McNally Jackson bookstore in New York City on Saturday, February 7. More on this soon ...
10. John "Jim" Krasinski's David Foster Wallace Brief Interviews with Hideous Men film debuted at Sundance! Very cool.
11. Richard Brautigan's great short novel In Watermelon Sugar is now a dance.
12. Does literary fiction suffer from dysfunctional pricing?
13. The mysterious etymology of Oh Snap.
14. The last is definitely not the least: Kurt Vonnegut Motivational Posters.
I've been scanning old photos and documents for my memoir-in-progress, and going a bit scan-crazy as I dig into my archives. Here are a few interesting literary items I've found.
Does This Happen To Other Litbloggers?
I have no idea why this happens, but I get letters from kids to famous writers. But they don't send the letters to the writers, or to their publishers (which would probably be the best approach). They send the letters to me. Over the years, I've received letters about various writers we've covered here on LitKicks, including Chuck Palahniuk (above), S. E. Hinton, Kurt Vonnegut and Lemony Snicket. I feel terrible about the fact that I never write back. But really, what are these kids thinking? Chuck Palahniuk does not live in my basement.
If any other litbloggers have experienced the same thing, I'd love to hear about it.
Damn! This Was Some Cast
I haven't posted about it as often as I'd like, but I love the New York Shakespeare Festival. Many famous actors and actresses paid their dues there, including Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, William Hurt, Raul Julia, Christopher Walken and many more. Still, when I dug up this old program for a 1981 Delacorte Theatre production of King Henry the Fourth Part One, starring the fairly unknown Stephen Markle as King Henry and Kenneth McMillan as Falstaff, I was surprised to discover that the supporting cast included then-total-unknowns John Goodman, Val Kilmer and Kevin Spacey, not to mention the then-slightly-known Mandy Patinkin as Hotspur. I vaguely remember Patinkin's Hotspur, and Goodman, Kilmer and Spacey left no impression at all. Damn, that was some cast! I wish I could go back in time and enjoy the play more than I did.
Me Being Pretentious
I always wanted to be a writer. Around ninth grade I composed an apocalyptic novel called The Rain God. I remember that I liked the title very much, and that I had some good ideas for the novel's cover artwork (above). I didn't have a very clear idea what the story would be about, though, as is obvious from this pained first page:
"It was a dry dark beginning. My town is a little town, a farming based society. My father planted Yams. That is, before he died in a flash fire last week."
Forget what those kids who send me letters to writers were thinking ... what was I thinking? My father planted Yams? Hmph.
Then again, on the other hand, is this much worse than Cormac McCarthy's The Road? That's the real question. I guess I should have stuck with the project.
1. The horrific Franco-Prussian War of 1870 (which begat World War I, which begat World War II) began because of an intercepted letter called the Ems dispatch. With this in mind, it's pretty scary to hear that our current State Department -- those geniuses who helped bring us the Iraq War -- can't figure out not to do "reply-to-all". Jesus freaking Christ ... January 20th just can't come soon enough.
2. FYI, the above link is via Sarah Weinman, who recently talked to Jacket Copy about her amazing ability to read 462 books a year. Sarah explains:
A lot of it has to do with my music background. I studied voice and piano fairly seriously during my elementary and high school days, and as such, I became very attuned to rhythm and cadence and voice. So what happens when I read is that I can "hear" the narrative and dialogue in my head, but what's odd is that I'm both aware of the book at, say, an LP rate (33 1/3 revolutions per minute) but in my head it translates to roughly a 78.
I think I have pretty good rhythm too, but I am the opposite kind of reader. I can easily take a half hour to read three sentences, not because I read so carefully but because a good sentence will start me thinking about so many other things. I doubt I finished more than 50 books in 2008. Anyway, I'm fortunate to be a good friend of Sarah Weinman's, and the one thing I'd like to add is that she reads people as quickly as she reads books.
3. The Brooklyn Academy of Music is putting on a new production of one of my very favoritest plays of all time, Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard!
4. What! Who said marketing departments were allowed to be funny? This is from Macmillan.
5. Speaking of funny publicists, I don't know if I'll ever read Sloane Crosley's I Was Told There'd Be Cake, but I like that title. Her new book will be called Show Me On the Doll, which proves that Sloane Crosley really has a way with titles.
6. Tao Lin gets some attention from New York Magazine.
7. A newspaper of blog reprints? Some have already twittered that The Printed Blog is a bad idea because the material will be stale, but I completely disagree. Why can't blog posts be timeless? To say that blog posts have no value beyond the moment is as unfairly dismissive as any other negative generalizations I've ever heard about the form. This ain't Twitter over here. And I guarantee you somebody will eventually start anthologizing tweets too.
8. Jonathan Baumbach talks about a successful experiment begun in the 1970s called The Fiction Collective.
9. Dovegreyreader talks about literary comfort food, specifically of the children's variety. I don't go back to my early "comfort food" too often, but if I did the menu would include Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary, The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill (why has this great book vanished from our sight?) and the All-Of-A-Kind Family books by Sydney Taylor.
A fictional account of Lou Salome's acquaintances with Rainer Marie Rilke, Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche, inspired by the author's own real-life family connection with Lou Salome.
It's great to see these fascinating 19th Century thinkers mined for drama (and it's interesting that a similar story is told in Irvin Yalom's novel When Nietzsche Wept, which was also made into a film.)
A charming and surreal Lower East Side romp that begins when a bemused housewife finds a dead old lady's body on the laundry room floor, decides to put the body through a spin cycle to freshen it up before notifying the family and police, and then gets into all kinds of trouble with the government. Ms Madeson has also presented this rather unique story as a one-woman play.
Largo, author of a recent death compendium called Final Exits here examines and annotates the culture of transgression in similarly clinical detail. A broadly encyclopedic but eclectic and satisfyingly intellectual sweep, ranging from Boudicca to Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Chris Farley to Franz Kafka to Tupac Shakur.
Wisely realizing that they have to spruce up their Thesaurus with value-add commentary to compete with online versions, Oxford American assembles an impressive and street-start cast of postmodern writers to contribute "Word Notes" and other inserts along with the regular indexed content. A successful effort, I think, and a nice parting gesture from David Foster Wallace.
Mahajan, a young debut novelist, turns in a comic tale about a man in New Delhi who suffers from an unsatisfiable compulsion to have more and more children (in a society that encourages small families) and finds himself pretending to be a pro-Hindu fanatic obsessed with rising Muslim birthrates in India to cover up the more personal and romantic motivations for his rampant fathering.
This is the only book on this list that I can't recommend. I try to read the Best American Short Stories (proudly published by Houghton Mifflin) every year, but I could barely sludge through most of the ruminative, chic, flat postmodernist displays that Salman Rushdie considers the very cream of the crop in 2008, and if there are a few more editions like this one (the last great Best American Short Stories selection was by Michael Chabon in 2005) I'm just going to drop the habit completely. These stories read as if Salman Rushdie chose 20 younger authors to exemplify all the worst habits of his own fiction: endless playfulness, diagrammatic conceptual plots, lack of emotion.
A chronicle of a fugitive family life in Mexico and America during the early hippie era. Bonnie Bremser travelled with her husband, Beat poet Ray Bremser, as he escaped an armed robbery charge. A stark true story in the Beat, all-too-Beat tradition, featuring an introduction by Ann Charters.
A fanciful and strange children's story about bugs, with a rich Victorian tone, beautifully illustrated by E. B. Harris.
Hello, boys and girls. It's the first week of December, and that, more than anything, is a signal for me to start thinking about holiday gift giving. Of course, I've been unemployed since the end of August so everyone on my list is getting handmade jewelry, lovingly crafted from macaroni and dental floss, but for those of you who still have jobs, I have compiled a list of gift ideas, all of which can be purchased online so you won't have to deal with going to any madhouse stores this time of year. Bonus: the gifts on this list are all for under $20 (except one, which is still under $30), perfect for those of you who are frugal, yet still on the lookout for something cool to get for the literary nerd on your list. Here we go:
-- Eco gift wrap! This is very cool and pretty and probably, if you're clever, reusable. Who wouldn't like to get a macaroni necklace wrapped up in paper from a French text book? It wouldn't even have to be a macaroni necklace! It could be anything (well, anything on the small side). Recycled gift wrap is a good idea, and this particular gift wrap has style.
-- Continuing with the handmade theme (because handmade stuff is cool), here's a mail art-inspired book. It'll be shipped without packaging, so you could have it sent directly to the person you're giving it to.
-- How about a bookmark made from a vintage typewriter key? Pretty neat.
-- Speaking of bookmarks, here's one inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright window design. If I had a bookmark like that maybe I would try harder not to lose my bookmarks all the time.
-- The words of everyone's favorite insanely quoteable literary figure (that's Oscar Wilde, by the way), adorn this money clip.
-- Do you know any Scrabble addicts? Would they appreciate being able to play on the go?
-- Or maybe they'd like a Scrabble shirt with the worst letters ever? Oh, the game-based hilarity.
-- And here's a book for the science-loving food geek in your life. Come on, everyone knows at least one of them, right?
-- Who isn't down with OED?
-- An invisible bookshelf might be handy for someone in need of storage.
-- I really like this clock. A lot.
You see a wide variety of reading materials on the R train. Many languages, many formats, cheap novels, literary novels, lots of bibles and other religious literature, history books, tabloid reports of the day's tidings. Everybody is engrossed.
As near as I could tell, this guy was reading a C# software development guide.
These guys, who did not appear to know each other, had constructed a pile of newspapers to read from in their corner.
These kids have never seen a litblog. They don't know who won the Man Booker Prize and they don't care. But I watched this Mom hand her restless daughter a book, and I saw how eagerly the little girl began reading, her younger brother clamoring to share. Why despair of the next generation?
Yeah, people read on trains in New York City. At least I know they do in Queens.
(Note: this is not my first case of subway photo stalking.)
A few years ago, there was a meme floating around the intertubes that centered around the concept of literary speed dating, which is speed dating, except with books. The point was to list the books you'd take to such an event as a means of showcasing your personality, and also to list the books that, if you saw someone with them, you'd think were attractive picks. I never did this meme because I tend to be cranky about these things, and I'm not going to do it today, but the idea has been floating around my brain for a little while, and I thought I'd use it as a jumping-off point to write about something that's slightly related.
I have no idea how I would even begin to pick a few books as a means of showing another person who I am, because for one thing I have so many books that such an exercise would be so entirely daunting that even attempting it would most likely leave me going crazy in the middle of a massive pile of literature and I just don’t need that. Even so, it’s interesting to think that another person could judge my attractiveness or lack thereof based on what I like to read. Yet of course this is part of it, right? I mean, I try not to be overly judgmental but let’s just say that when I went out with that guy who thought Ernest Hemingway wrote Jonathan Livingston Seagull, I wasn’t terribly upset when we didn’t go out again. Is that a dealbreaker for me? I think so, yes.
Attraction and compatibility are strange beasts and I am not even going to attempt to analyze the way they work. I’ll leave that to the likes of Cosmo. But here’s a question for you: how big of a role do books play in another person’s attractiveness? I don’t know if I have an answer to this question myself, but I do know that I briefly dated someone who didn’t read and while his lack of interest in literature was not the reason things didn’t work out, it did limit our conversations. I like talking about books. Go figure.
So I wonder, and perhaps you can enlighten me: are books hot? Are all books hot? Or are only some books hot? For me, I know that I like a man who knows his Shakespeare. Who will at least give Milan Kundera a fighting chance. Who doesn’t spell it “Neil Cassidy.” I talk about Jane Austen a lot, and is that going to be a problem? Things like that.
Maybe once again I am letting my inner nerd become way too outer, but there’s something kind of sexy about finding someone who likes books and can hold his own in an intelligent discussion about them. I don’t think it’s the top of the list, because, I mean, there are other more important things, such as a sense of humor and a lack of heinous B.O., but it’s still in the running. Somewhere.
I’ll leave you with still more questions, and I hope you answer them, because I think it could be fascinating or at least mildly amusing. Is it possible to tell by someone's reading habits if that person is worth dating? Say before deciding whether or not to date someone you're already generally attracted to, you got to look at that person's bookshelves. Would this be a telling exercise? Would the presence (or absence) of certain books be a turn on or a turn off? Which ones?
Hey, remember when I said I was going to read Ulysses? I have to say I'm still not quite ready to admit that this book has kicked my ass. (I maintain that it's really not that hard once I get into the rhythm of it, but it's just that every time I think about picking it up, I look at it and say "Why the fuck is this book so long?" I don't like reading a few hundred pages of something and looking at my overall progress in terms of total pages and feeling like a failure.) I'll finish it at some point because I'm stubborn, but yes, I've been cheating on it with other books. It happened gradually. At first I pretended that I was still reading Ulysses, except I really wasn't reading Ulysses, and so for awhile, I wasn't reading anything at all. But I got bored with that soon enough and started picking up other books. Out of those, here are five:
1. The Big Sleep - Raymond Chandler
Oh sure, I saw the movie ages ago, but I figured it was time I actually read the book. This decision may or may have not been partly made for me by the fact that I was looking for something to read and this was lying around the house. I'd pretty much forgotten most of the story (I said I saw the movie ages ago), so I was easily able to go along with it, and it was a good time.
2. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson - Emily Dickinson
Like Ulysses, this is a very long book. In fact, it's much longer than Joyce's novel (and also rather heavy and awkward to read). The upside is that it's broken into many small pieces. I've read many of Dickinson's poems over the course of my life, and so this time I picked things I hadn't gotten to before, of which there still were plenty. Now I've read them all.
3. Eat Pray Love - Elizabeth Gilbert
I felt like I had to read this book so I'd know what other people were talking about, but are people still talking about it? I don't know. What I do know is that for the most part it was a light read, and it was definitely an easy one. Perfect for beach reading, if I were one to go to the beach. Sometimes books like that are necessary.
4. Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair - Pablo Neruda
Okay, yes, I'd already read this one before, but sometimes Pablo Neruda is a necessity of life. "I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees." Ah.
5. Persuasion - Jane Austen
Despite my status as something of an Austen nerd, I'd actually missed this one up until now. It had been awhile since I'd read any of her books, and I was reminded again of what a masterful writer she was, and this is now my favorite book of hers.
A couple of weeks ago, I had a grand idea: I should ask people about their reading habits, namely, if they read at all, and what they do read. The reason I had this grand idea was because I was having one of those 1 a.m. thought sessions, which are usually about really deep and important things, like where I left my keys, if I want to get up and get a glass of water, or why I can't get that godawful Mariah Carey song out of my head. But this particular thought session was about how I kept reading that nobody reads anymore, and if they do read, they certainly don't read fiction or short stories or poetry. And if they are among the rare who read any of those things, they don't buy these types of books. So I wanted to see if it was true or not. And I figured the only way I could see if it was true or not was by conducting a study, so that's what I did. The results are interesting, if I do say so myself, even if tabulating the results was decidedly not interesting and I often mentioned how irritated I was with myself for having the idea in the first place while I spent warm sunny afternoons entering data into a spreadsheet. But now that I'm done entering data into a spreadsheet, I'm happier about the whole thing.
I am not a scientist nor a statistician and complex math makes my brain curl up in the fetal position and cry, but I do like data and asking people for their opinions. I even (in theory) like making spreadsheets, and I definitely like charts and graphs. So even though this is in no way scientific, and I'm certain the results won't end up being quoted on the evening news, I did the best I could.
First, I needed some people to complete a survey. So I asked people on my blog and in a Flickr group I am active in, and I had some friends ask their friends to participate as well. I was shooting for 100 participants, but when all was said and done, I ended up with 90 who agreed to let me e-mail them a survey. I sent out an 18-question survey to people, asking for them to be returned by May 30. Of the 90 surveys I sent out, I received 67. I was a little annoyed about that, mainly because I like nice, round numbers and 67 is pretty much the antithesis of nice and round, but even so, 67 responses were way more than I had been expecting so I was generally pleased. Anyway, the 67 responses came to my e-mail and I hand-entered them into a spreadsheet I created specifically for entering survey data. This was very boring. Once I was done entering the data, I had to decide what to do with it. I'd already promised Levi that I was going to make graphs, and I decided that although it's nerdy enough to make graphs from data about people's reading habits, it would be even nerdier (and at least 10 times more awesome) if I made the graphs by hand. Since I am all about awesome nerdiness (why am I still single? It's a mystery), I went and bought some graph paper. (One of the joys, or pains-in-the-ass, rather, of small-town living: I had to go to another town to buy the graph paper. May the environment forgive me.)
And without further ado, let's get it on. I mean, let's learn about reading. I mean, here, have some charts and graphs. (You can click on any of the graphs to make them bigger.
Of the 67 respondents, 56 were from the United States, and 11 were from other countries: Canada (4), Italy (2), Germany (1), the Czech Republic (1), the United Kingdom (1), the Philippines (1), New Zealand (1). I know it's lame that the graph is broken up into "United States" and "Other" but a) the arcs for each individual country would've been pretty small, and b) I'm kinda lazy.
There were 29 men and 38 women.
The majority of respondents (25) were in the 18-30 age group; 18 were 31-40, 11 were 41-50, and 13 were 50+.
The Things We Read
Since it's possible to be a reader without reading books, I next asked what types of things people read on a regular basis: books (94%), print newspapers (42%), print magazines/journals (75%), online newspapers (67%), online magazines/journals (58%), and other websites/blogs (97%). As you can see, the front runners are books and websites/blogs, with websites/blogs edging out books by 3%.
When asked which one type of publication people read the most (on a monthly basis), the battle still remained between books (36%) and websites/blogs (37%), with websites/blogs just barely coming out on top by 1 point. Coming in third was online newspapers (12%), fourth was print magazines/journals (7%), and web magazines/journals and print newspapers tied for last place with 4% each.
I was interested in seeing if reading habits had anything to do with the age of the respondents, so I made a couple of extra graphs to illustrate this. Or at least I think it illustrates this. The first graph shows each type of publication read, broken down into different age categories. Don't freak out about the fact that the percentages here add up to more than 100. People were allowed to choose any or all of the listed choices, so each line on the graph is its own percentage of 100. I hope that makes sense. My point is that if you tell me that these add up to more than 100, I will say "I KNOW. That's the point."
As we can see, books average highly across age groups: 92% of 18-30 year olds read books regularly, 94% of 31-40 year olds do, 100% of 41-50 year olds do, and 85% of those in the 50+ age group do. The only other type of publication faring more highly was Other Websites/Blogs, with 96% (18-30), 100% (31-40), 100% (41-50) and 92% (50+). The type of publication type with the lowest regular readership was print newspapers, with 16% of 18-30 age group, 44% of 31-40 age group, and 46% of the 50+ age group. The only group that scored print newspapers over 50% was the 41-50 age group, coming in at 82% stating that they read them regularly.
The second graph again illustrates the various types of publications people read, though in this case, respondents were asked to select one that they read the most:
The only age group with a higher percentage of website/blog readers than book readers was the 18-30 year old group, with 44% answering that they read websites/blogs the most compared to 32% who read books the most. Otherwise, books edge out websites/blogs, by 5 points in the 31-40 group (44% for books, 39% for websites/blogs), by 10 points in the 41-50 group (37% for books, 27% for websites/blogs), and by 12 points in the 50+ group (35% for books, 23% for websites/blogs). Among 18-30 year olds, 0 answered that they read print newspapers the most, compared to 5% in the 31-40 group, and 9% each in the 41-50 and 50+ groups.
In the battle between fiction and nonfiction, fiction comes out victorious by a landslide, with 72% of respondents stating that they read it more, compared to the 28% who chose nonfiction.
As for independent literature (which I defined as small press or self-published work), 39% say they read it, and 61% say they don't. Had I thought about it at the time I was writing up the survey, I would've asked the reason why people don't read indie lit (if they don't). Despite my not asking, some people said it was because they didn't know it was out there or where to find it, but for the ones who didn't, I'm wondering if this was the case, or if in any way, it has anything to do with a stigma that is often attached to indie lit, in that if it was really worth reading, it would be published by a big publishing house. I should've asked the question and I didn't, so if any of you would care to shed some light on this, that would be swell. And here is a graph:
I got really sick of drawing graphs by hand at this point (I guess there are limits to my awesome nerdiness), so I'm just going to give you numbers for readers of short stories and poetry, and that's totally okay, isn't it? I know. Right.
So, of those surveyed, 64% say they read short stories, whereas 36% say they don't. Of those who read short stories, the majority of them (70%) read those stories in collections (either by the same author or various authors), 13% read stories online, and 17% read them in magazines or journals. As for purchasing short stories, 58% buy them occasionally, 35% seldom buy them, 2% often buy stories, and 5% never buy them.
When it comes to reading poetry, 63% of people say they do and 37% say they don't. 23% read poetry online, 19% read it in magazines/journals, and 57% read it in books (collections either by the same author or various authors). As for purchasing poetry, the numbers are entirely unsurprising: 2% say they purchase it often, 24% purchase it occasionally, 55% purchase it seldom, and 19% never purchase poetry. (I actually thought the "never" percentage would be higher, because I'm like that.)
How Much We Read
In terms of how many books people read per month, most people (22%) average 2 books a month. The rest, from highest percentage to lowest:
- 4: 21%
- 3: 18%
- 1: 15%
- Less than 1: 7%
- 6: 6%
- 7: 4%
- 10 or more: 3%
- 5: 2%
- 8: 2%
- 9: 0%
Why We Read
The majority of people (73%) read for entertainment. 20% read for education, 6% read for something to do while traveling/commuting, and 1% read for another reason, that other reason being, and I quote, "Enjoyment. Watching two ducks fight over a hunk of bread is entertaining, but not particularly enjoyable. Know what I mean, Verne?" (To which I reply, fair enough. And way to quote Ernest!)
Purchasing and Borrowing
Other than occasionally or seldom or never buying short stories and poetry, I asked people what type of thing they would purchase from a bookstore or borrow from a library. By far, the most popular thing to get was contemporary (non-genre) fiction, with 34% choosing it. The rest, in order of popularity:
- Genre fiction (mystery, horror, science fiction, romance, etc.): 21%
- Other (most frequent choices were science, history, sociology): 12%
- Classic literature: 10%
- A how-to book (cooking, gardening, photography, etc.): 10%
- Short stories: 4%
- Biography of a famous person: 4%
- Poetry: 3%
- A magazine: 2%
I asked people, if they were reading something, what it was that they were reading. I was mostly curious to see if there was going to be any overlap in people's choices, but there overwhelmingly wasn't. Not a bit. So, instead of providing you with a hideously long list of titles and authors, I'll just tell you I found out that almost every person who responded was reading (or had just finished) something, and out of those people, more than half were reading more than one book. Though I didn't look up individual books listed on Amazon or someplace like it to see if each title was indeed fiction or nonfiction, it looked like the split between the two was a bit more equitable.
I think there is one major flaw in the application of this survey, in that it doesn't deal with a random sample, and instead I got people to participate by asking if they'd like to take a survey about reading. While I made it clear that the survey was equally open to readers and non-readers alike, I think the nature of the question led to the sample being heavily skewed toward readers. This is fine, and I learned a lot, though I did include a section of the survey for people who didn't read in their spare time, and only one person completed this section (citing lack of interest as a reason for not reading books for pleasure). I know that there must be more people out there who don't read for pleasure, and while I was interested in finding out their opinions as well, it pretty much didn't work out that way.
All in all, I think it was interesting to learn more about other people's reading habits (and I was especially fascinated by the people who say they read 10 or more books a month -- where do you find time? I'm a little envious). I don't think I've ever written a blog post with a calculator and a spreadsheet in my lap before, but there's always a first time for everything. And I'm pretty sure I am never going to draw graphs by hand again as long as I live, or at least not for another year or so, whatever comes first.
My thanks go out to everyone who participated, and to my friends for letting me complain about how long it takes to draw graphs, and for explaining effective graphing methods to me when I got stuck trying to figure out how to present multiple data sets in one place. Cheers. The end.
1. Joe Panther
The protagonist in two crime novels written by Andrew Masterson, The Last Days: The Apocryphon of Joe Panther and The Second Coming: The Passion of Joe Panther, the eponymous Joe Panther is a wickedly smart, wonderfully sarcastic, beer-drinking, drug-dealing investigator. And he's also... Jesus. You know that whole son of God thing with the dying on the cross and being raised from the dead on the third day? That's the one. Minus the ascending into Heaven and sitting at the right hand of God the Father forever and ever amen, that is. Yep, instead of that, he was inexplicably left to wander the planet and has been doing so for a couple of millennia, witnessing human folly and the uprising of organized religion and developing a bitterness toward his father. Both books are entertaining yarns, mixed with a fair bit of Christian history and theology (obviously in many ways turned on its ear) and despite the fact that their premise alone is enough to offend many people nearly to death, they make for enjoyable Saturday afternoon reads. Sort of modern-day noir with an angry, irreverent Jesus as the hard-boiled, world-weary private eye. I'm not sure that the books were ever published in the United States, and the tiny bit of research I've done suggests that they weren't (my copies were sent to me as gifts from a friend in Australia, which is the country the author hails from and where the novels are set). But when it comes to thinking about fictional characters in terms of memorability, it's pretty hard to beat Jesus, the crime-solving heroin dealer.
2. Margery Kempe
I read The Book of Margery Kempe a couple of years ago. It's still sitting on my shelf and I can see it as I type this. Or I could see it as I type this if I didn't have a voluminous feather boa hanging off of the edge of my closet door, obscuring my view. Damn feathers. Why must they be so fabulous? I don't know. What I do know is that when I'm looking at my books (sans feathers) and I notice Margery Kempe's autobiography, I always have the same reaction: I shake my head. Granted, I had to go back and read my initial assessment (linked above) to remember details of her story, but I remembered that she had a penchant for wailing uncontrollably all the time because she was just so overcome with her love of Jesus or because she wanted people to notice how overcome she was with her love of Jesus, or whatever. In any case, the thing that has stuck with me over the past two years, and will most likely continue to stick with me in the future is one tiny detail: that woman was nuts.
3. Rebecca deWinter
The title character of Daphne duMaurier's Rebecca dies before any of the novel's action takes place, and she never makes any supernatural appearances as a ghost or anything, but her presence is so fully defined in the novel that she inhabits every page, much like her memory haunts Manderley and the new Mrs. deWinter. She's the most powerful figure in the novel (though the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers is easily the creepiest) and I think it's telling that the greatest character in the book isn't even really there.
4. Trout Fishing in America
Yes, I think Trout Fishing in America is a character in Richard Brautigan's novel of the same name, mainly because Trout Fishing in America explains things. And also is responsible for one of my favorite bits in all of American literature, or of all literature, period. Seriously --
The Reply of Trout Fishing in America:
There was nothing I could do. I couldn't change a flight of stairs into a creek. The boy walked back to where he came from. The same thing once happened to me. I remember mistaking an old woman for a trout stream in Vermont, and I had to beg her pardon.
"Excuse me," I said. "I thought you were a trout stream."
"I'm not," she said.
Sometimes I think about that and giggle. Good on you, Trout Fishing in America.
5. Laura Wingfield
Tennessee Williams is often so dramatic (fitting for plays, I suppose). And I love so much of his work and the steamy humid Southern boiling heat of it all, but in all of that, The Glass Menagerie is like a tiny gentle gasp. Sure, it's probably more obvious to pick Blanche duBois or Maggie the Cat, but it is Laura Wingfield that I remember the most strongly. The first thing I read by Tennessee Williams, I picked this play up when I was 14 and by the time I got through Tom's closing speech, I was crushed. I'd reacted emotionally to things I'd read before that point, but I'm not sure I'd ever been completely crushed by something yet. And Laura, the center of the play, hangs in my memory like a beautifully delicate translucent piece of glass. I'm feeling a little crushed now, actually, just thinking about it.