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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
HOUGHTON MIFFLIN, 261 PP., $24
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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."


Fathom
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.


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.


The Fixer: A Story From Sarajevo
By Joe Sacco
DRAWN AND QUARTERLY, 105 PP., $24.95
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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.


P
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.


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.


Politics
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.


Revelations
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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