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Our 25 Favorite Books of 2003

Final Girl
By Daphne Gottlieb
SOFT SKULL, 120 PP., $12
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In this topsy-turvy de-con of the splatter-flick ethos, slam poet Gottlieb pegs familiar feminist themes on an inspired B-movie framework. Taking her title from an influential essay by film theorist Carol J. Clover, Gottlieb posits an ambivalent frenzy that infects all human intimacy, and whose violence informs sexual identity even while negating it. Evoking such disparate characters as colonial American exile Anne Hutchinson and celluloid über-stalker Freddy Krueger, Gottlieb underscores the threat inherent in female representation. It's a heart-wrenching reckoning with carnality.

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

The Fixer: A Story From Sarajevo
By Joe Sacco
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In 1995, journalistic cartoonist Sacco covered the Balkan conflict, and told the stories of the people around him in his remarkable graphic novel Safe Area Gorazde. In 2001, he returned to Sarajevo to meet up with his old "fixer," an army veteran named Neven who could set up anything for the right palm-greasing. This shorter, darker book concentrates on Neven and his stories—which Sacco notes he can't always believe—but puts them in the keenly observed (and drawn) context of smashed-up post-war Bosnia, the brutal territorialism of its local warlords, and old and young Sarajevans hustling to get by .

The Fortress of Solitude
By Jonathan Lethem
DOUBLEDAY, 511 PP., $26
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Lethem's first four novels confused the watchdogs of seriousness by refusing to distinguish between literature and genre fiction—detective and sci-fi. Far less experimental, Fortress is a literary genre novel: a bildungsroman. Lethem reconfigures his own autobiography in a book as deep into race as Invisible Man, as deep into the sidewalks of New York as Call It Sleep, and as deep into pop—comics, sci-fi again, and especially music—as everybody but the watchdogs of seriousness. Except for short-person-turned-rock-critic Dylan Ebdus, the novel's richest character is faded r&b star Barrett Rude. Since a Pulitzer is unlikely, give Ebdus's essay on Rude a Deems Taylor.

The Frank Book
By Jim Woodring
FANTAGRAPHICS, 351 PP., $39.95
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The only important statements about reality are arguably the ones that can be explained in children's picture fables, which makes this collection of 10 years' worth of Woodring's wordless comics about an anthropomorphic cat a first-rate grimoire. Utterly charming even when they're gruesome, populated by whirling "conditioned souls" and grinning demons, and set in a landscape of blobby minarets and tufted hillocks, the "Frank" stories (including the freakishly haunting "Frank in the River") lay out an intricate cosmology with the goofy grace of a Chuck Jones cartoon.

From the Atelier Tovar
By Guy Maddin
COACH HOUSE, 231 PP., $19.95
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Maddin, meticulous forger of ready-decayed cinematic artifacts, is no day-tripper in the realms of literature. He writes with an ornate elegance, humor, and (reportedly, disgustingly) ease that makes this one of the happiest book events of the year. Along with pieces commissioned by periodicals (including the Voice) you get brilliant treatments for films made and not, and the amazing, stupefyingly personal journals. Quake as Guy is taken captive by Chicago toughs! Marvel at his attempt to deflect a bat's flight through flatulence! Try to untangle the skein of his convoluted romantic relations! Fail! And obsessively return with him to the house of childhood, where ghosts walk and mysteries linger even as the wrecking ball strikes in the last entry.

Hey Nostradamus!
By Douglas Coupland
BLOOMSBURY, 244 PP., $21.95
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Forget the tin-eared Booker-nabber Vernon God Little: Coupland's latest novel, which also has a Columbine-like shooting at the heart of its story, is the more accomplished book. Coupland dares to extrapolate from the central event, allowing his characters—or the impressions they leave on memory—to develop after the aftermath, and to contemplate seriously the spiritual repercussions of the trauma. He does it all with his usual gift for dialogue and sleek description—who else would evoke an antisocial late-'80s teen by having him copy out Skinny Puppy lyrics?

Living To Tell the Tale
By Gabriel García Márquez
KNOPF, 484 PP., $26.95
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Ostensibly a memoir, this tall Tale is also a political coming-of-age story, a Baedeker of Gabo-land cataloging people and events and the fictions inspired by them, and a master class in the art of writing, as well as the art of living a writer's life, which isn't always the same thing. García Márquez lets readers peek behind the curtain to see the wizard at work, and reveals how little magic there actually is in magic realism.

Magic Circles
By Devin McKinney
HARVARD, 420 PP., $27.95
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With a white-hot prose style and a poet's instinct for metaphor, independent scholar McKinney exhumes, interrogates, and otherwise energizes the Fab Four in all their musical glory and mythic resonance. Born too late (1966) for phase one Beatlemania, he brings to the job a necessary detachment, a willingness to puncture pieties, and finally a script-flipping thesis: The Beatles were the '60s. If he gets surprising mileage out of the most lurid artifacts of that collective dream—the butcher cover, the Paul-is-dead rumor—he's also terrific at maximizing the excitement of a Reeperbahn stand or a mysterious bootleg, and always renders the music in three dimensions.

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