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Our 25 Favorite Books of 2003

By Andrew Lewis Conn
SOFT SKULL, 365 PP., $15
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Do you know how to spell audaciously? Conn's pornosophical debut anatomizes a skin-flick veteran's day-in-the-life, life-in-a-day odyssey via the narrative conceits of Ulysses. P's pull-out-the-stops set piece turns Disney's Times Square store into an X-rated funhouse—a stage-directed trawl akin to Joyce's rendering of Dublin's Nighttown.

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

Pattern Recognition
By William Gibson
PUTNAM, 356 PP., $25.95
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An anthropological study of Internet life, a technofantasy that impels the century-old dream of movies into a future of filmless film, and, most indelibly, an achingly sad psychic chronicle of the liminal season that was summer 2002, the original VR jockey's first contemporary novel follows trademark-allergic heroine Cayce on a transnational expedition to find the maker of phantom, cult-spawning Internet video clips. Pattern recognition, Gibson makes clear, is not just the coolhunter's job description but a survival tactic within the context of no context—dowsing for meaning, and sometimes settling for the illusion of meaning, as our accelerating now leaves us ever further behind.

By Adam Thirlwell
4TH ESTATE, 279 PP., $22.95
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The thrills in this story of a London ménage à trois lie outside the bedroom. Tracking the nervous Moshe and his cerebral girlfriend as they stumble into a cumbersome threesome, Thirlwell's debut drowns passion in the stammering minutiae of sexual politics. But in feats of delicious incongruity, he relates this awkward bacchanalia to the functionality of architecture, the sexual stamina of surrealists, and the comparative nobility of Soviet dissidents. Bad sex has never been such fun.

Random Family
By Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
SCRIBNER, 408 PP., $25
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Tracing the shifting fortunes of two young Puerto Rican women in the Bronx, LeBlanc offers a profound, multigenerational portrait of the daily toils of urban poverty. This is the work of an extraordinary journalist who, despite 10 consuming years reporting on desperate prison visits, ill-conceived pregnancies, and the excruciating bureaucracies of welfare, never lost her appreciation for the ordinary. In her hand, the bewildering otherness of poverty disappears.

By Diane Arbus
RANDOM HOUSE, 352 PP., $100
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"I see divineness in ordinary things," Arbus wrote, as a Fieldston School senior. This announcement might surprise those who think she saw only freakishness, but the photographs in Revelations prove that Arbus embraced the world in all its variety, absurdity, and pain. Although her portraits were sometimes satirical, they were never contemptuous; her subjects were the focus of a fascination that bordered on love. Revelations' broad view is deepened by its extraordinary central text, a detailed chronology, based primarily on the artist's own letters and notebooks, that her daughter Doon calls "a kind of autobiography."

River of Shadows
By Rebecca Solnit
VIKING, 297 PP., $25.95
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Besides working as a bookseller and documenting the government's war on the Modoc Indians, Eadweard Muybridge made the first record, on film, of a moving animal, and it changed everything: An age of images had begun. Shadows could be a biography, but interspersed between the Muybridge sections is an argument about how capital transformed not only the American West, but the entire fabric of the modern world, from a place where place mattered to an environment without space or time. It is the measure of Solnit's graceful, thoughtful book that she finds in cinema a "breach in the wall between the past and the present" where machines and desires are reconciled.

Swann's Way
By Marcel Proust, Translated by Lydia Davis
VIKING, 468 PP., $27.95
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As you read Davis's Swann's Way, an entirely new Proust seems to hover behind the page, a Proust who liked commas as much as semicolons, and plain words more than fancy ones—a fussy, tired, neurotic Proust, driven by the desire to get it right. Or is this how he's been all along? Self-absorption (who could be more self-absorbed than Proust?) and selflessness (who is more selfless than a translator?) meet up, in their tacit acknowledgment that the hidden reality of things lies neither in the self nor outside of it, but only in words. When the words are right, as they are in this book, author and translator alike fall aside, and what you have is a world.

Who Sleeps With Katz
By Todd McEwen
GRANTA, 279 PP., $18.95
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—begins mid-rant, apropos for this year's quintessential New York novel: the city revealed in all its luscious public babble, "that old mental capital" constructed over years of urban wanderings. The doomy premise—radio announcer MacK spends the day walking to a downtown rendezvous, where he'll reveal his just-learned terminal lung-cancer diagnosis to bosom friend Isidor—is borne aloft by McEwen's comic genius. Who Sleeps With Katz expounds on the snacks, smokes, and streets of this our town—an endlessly inventive entertainment for those of us fatally in the know.

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