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Our 25 Favorite Books of 2003

 Actress in the House
By Joseph McElroy
OVERLOOK, 432 PP., $26.95
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It begins with a stage-slap, witnessed by a man named Daley, then spirals into cul-de-sacs of memory, ruminations on love and aging, ever returning to the linear narrative—the coupling of the actress and the man—before setting out again. Imbued with the peripatetic rhythms of consciousness, Actress's dazzling syntax configures language as the tension between repression and discovery, coaxed forward by McElroy's tantalizingly patient hand.

Jim Woodring's The Frank Book shows the hole truth.
image: ©2003 Jim Woodring
Jim Woodring's The Frank Book shows the hole truth.

American Woman
By Susan Choi
HARPERCOLLINS, 369 PP., $24.95
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Choi's second novel fictionalizes Patty Hearst's stint as a fugitive, winding a hypnotic route through the scorched landscape of 1974. At the start, Hearst's fictional alter ego, Pauline, and two of her former captors seek shelter at an East Coast farm. There she meets Jenny Shimada, a young Japanese American woman who becomes infatuated with the cadre's "lofty ideals." The intense friendship between these two women rises through the novel's sophisticated, drifting structure, resulting in a brief Thelma and Louise-style lost weekend before reality intrudes on their exile, and they're forced to pay their debt to society.

Any Human Heart
By William Boyd
KNOPF, 498 PP., $24.95
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Excise the title page, ditch the jacket, and hope that a century hence, someone will pull a copy of Boyd's book from the stacks, turn to the index, and figure she's stumbled upon the vast, entertaining, melancholy journals of one Logan Mountstuart, a minor writer and gallerist who knew everyone. Intimate with ambitions and infidelities, it's very funny, monstrously sad, and amazingly vivid. Any Human Heart, for all its titular generality, is that rare thing: a book so good that one foolishly hopes—as one does with life—it will never end.

The Book of Salt
By Monique Truong
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This sumptuous debut weaves cooking, language, cravings, and cruelty around a pseudo-historical figure: the mysterious Vietnamese chef, Binh, who worked for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas and recounts his life in deliciously acid tones. For over three years, Binh lives with the Mesdames, viewing them with a queasy mix of awe and resentment. Truong leaps between scenes of Binh's pleasure and humiliation, using the language of gastronomy to communicate the daily indignities of servitude and colonialism.

Brick Lane
By Monica Ali
SCRIBNER, 369 PP., $25
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Nazneen, 18, leaves Bangladesh for London to become the dutiful wife of a hapless striver, and by the adroit hand of first-time novelist Ali, the door to Nazneen's home soon opens onto intergenerational strife, community racial chafings, and nettlesome questions of how immigrant Islam and olde England can get along like cordial in-laws. Brick Lane effortlessly dissolves the gendered false barrier between the social-political and domestic novel, often without ranging far from Nazneen's cluttered flat and the pangs of her increasingly adventurous mind.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
By Mark Haddon
DOUBLEDAY, 226 PP., $22.95
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A radical experiment in empathy, Haddon's canine murder mystery filters the confusion of adolescence and family betrayal through an autistic point of view. Or unfilters, as the case may be. The sleuthing narrator, Christopher, is a 15-year-old with Asperger's syndrome, and Incident meticulously imagines the frustrations of an autistic's world, where sensory intake is heightened but the capacity to process information diminished. The hero's brain chemistry is the book's best safeguard against cuteness. He keeps his distance because he has no other option, an unwitting hardass to the end.

Elizabeth Costello
By J.M. Coetzee
VIKING, 230 PP., $21.95
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Poor Elizabeth C., old and tired of traveling from one conference to another to lecture on topics which call for reassuring pieties. Heroic Elizabeth C. for staking her ground at the very edge of the speakable—and sometimes past it. Through arguments sometimes muddled and occasionally of piercing authority, the reader enters a dialogue that gives the lie to any suspicion that the novel of ideas is a thing reeking of chalk and formaldehyde. The questions it asks bring us relentlessly back to fundamental difficulties of being in the world, and incidentally remind us of the unique power of fiction—even while extending its borders to "the far territory, where we want to be."

The Fatalist
By Lyn Hejinian
OMNIDAWN, 84 PP., $12.95

Hejinian distinguishes her own other tradition ("Language writing rejects the notion of genius and the New York School embraces it")—yet she returns with an Ashbery blurb and a book that constellates brightly with his epic, Flow Chart. Characters and memories bear concepts toward a devastatingly patient understanding: that philosophy isn't an abstract empyrean, but the daily act of language. The Fatalist may be a poem; it's certainly a phenomenological daybook wherein attention alters the world utterly, so that one might watch "a crow/becoming something else/in this case/a crow."

By Andrew Joron
BLACK SQUARE, 115 PP., $12.95

What does one expect of a book that titles itself after a forgotten meaning ("outstretched arms"), gives a section over to gravestone tracings of the relationship between Yvan Goll and Paul Celan, and then a couple pages to a poem called "Dolphy at Delphi"? Everything or nothing—and one isn't disappointed. Joron's second book is a startling series of language games and meditations, committed to the political possibilities of new poetry and the terrors of a long fall where "the last line listens to its endlessness." Hermetic as in Hermes, of the swift and mysterious messages.

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