Our 27 favorite books of the year

By David Ohle
Soft Skull, 169 pp., $11.95
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In this sequel to 1972's Motorman, Ohle seems to have concocted a covert Oulipian recipe regarding the fantastic versus realism. There's still a wealth of joyful, invented terminology (edible books, contraband hair), but this time around there's more reality injected into hero Moldenke's world—which paradoxically bolsters the novel's bizarro quotient. Think The Phantom Tollbooth in a head-on collision with the Book of Job.

By Josip Novakovich
HarperCollins, 226 pp., $23.95
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Soft architecture: Lisa Robertson's Occasional Work bears down on the fountainhead.
photo: Maxwell Stephens & Hadley Howes
Soft architecture: Lisa Robertson's Occasional Work bears down on the fountainhead.

The days in the life—and afterlife—of Ivan Dolinar comprise an unsentimental education so depressing it's not. Novakovich's philosophical antihero crabwalks through a brutal youth in Nizograd and med school in Novi Sad, prison and combat, marriage and adultery (a "form of biological warfare"), until he's "lost the fear of life and the fear of death." Having idolized Tito as a child, Ivan finally meets him while pickaxing rocks at a labor camp. Materializing with Indira Gandhi, no less, Tito coaches Ivan in the fine art of smoking Cubans ("Cigar is a nose sport, not a lung disease"), cheerfully doubles his sentence, and asks him to collect "anecdotes and jokes—I love prison humor."

By Linh Dinh
Seven Stories, 138 pp., $16
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"Prisoner With a Dictionary" is four perfect pages in which words and reality trade places, and Blood and Soap, chocked with such linguistic labyrinths, is the year's best nightmare subway reading. Elvis Phong is Pierre Menard as a Vietnamese rocker, famous for such songs as "Mot Ngay Trong Cuoc Doi" ("A Day in the Life") and "Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da" ("Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da"). A New York neighbor learns English by studying a single tabloid story every night—consulting the dictionary, shouting each word ("Was! Was! Was! Was! Was!"). A cookbook aficionado argues for her chosen literature's superiority over porn and even Shakespeare, though she's never sampled the delicacies described. "Words are all she'll ever eat," the narrator sniffs. Dinh's stories, pared to parable, are enough to nourish any reader's mind.

By Bob Dylan
Simon & Schuster, 293 pp., $24
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In which our intrepid hero gives birth to Bob Dylan—folk singer, music critic, master comedian, history maven, intimate fabulist. Your basic portrait-of-the-soft-shoe-artist-as-a-young-man routine, Chronicles niftily tap-dances around bushels of unspilled autobiographical beans (the making of cultural landmarks and breakthroughs, marriages, religious conversions, passing world events seen from the Neverending Tour bus, the greasepaint years toiling as an Emmett Kelly/Neil Diamond impersonator). Generous, incisive, affectionate, and disarmingly sincere, instead it's the story of how an overwhelming sensibility carved itself from the blue dismembered hills of Guthrie, Brecht-Weill, "La Vita Solitaria," Gorgeous George, and Cisco Houston's "riverboat gambler" mustache.

By Ned Sublette
Chicago Review, 672 pp., $36
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A former producer for public radio's Afropop Worldwide, Sublette has found Cuban rhythms in the unlikeliest places—from Bizet's Carmen to the not so Argentinean tango, from blues and jazz to rock and roll. His book opens, intimidatingly, in 1104 B.C. and follows the beat from its African roots to the 20th century, pausing along the way only long enough to brief us on the island's history, society, politics, and religion. It's a fascinating primer and a remarkable achievement, one of the best books about Cuba of this or any year.

By Michael Redhill
Little, Brown; 212 pp.; $22.95
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The broken couples in Redhill's stories are bored, Canadian, and plagued by "stupid but irrefutable hope." In the best pieces, the men understand what would mend their relationships, and—whether out of "rottenness" or "ineptitude"—uncomfortably watch the opportunities pass. Recalling Richard Yates's Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, Fidelity shows the barely visible traces of more than the usual number of hours and drafts. Redhill writes quietly and exactingly, never allowing that "there could be a world where sex and love weren't so gloomy a business."

By Derek McCormack
Little House on the Bowery, 203 pp., $14.95 ( Buy Grab Bag); Soft Skull, 112 pp., $11.95 ( Buy The Haunted Hillbilly)

Gay vampires. Lonely highways. Country songs. No, it's not a Stephin Merritt musical (not yet, anyway). It's the double debut of Derek McCormack, who conjures creepy worlds using little more than elliptical triads. Weird, inventive, magical, the omnibus Grab Bag features a lonely closeted teenager named Derek McCormack and a grotesque fascination with carnivals, drifters, and disease. The Haunted Hillbilly reimagines Nudie the Rodeo Tailor, who in real life dressed Elvis in gold lamé, as a bloodthirsty undead Svengali with a crush on his doomed client, c&w legend Hank Williams—perverse, mesmerizing, heartfelt. With a morbid comic vision and a delightfully twisted imagination, McCormack delivers a one-two knockout punch that establishes him as one of the best new voices of the year.

By Lars Saabye Christensen
Arcade, 682 pp., $27
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Christensen's 10th novel is the kind of book that supposedly isn't written anymore, a Big Theme literary epic in which the story matches the ambition, and the flaws are all forgivable. Narrator Barnum's reached a tragic reckoning that has him trying to "stitch [his] life together into one impossible but necessary picture"—from the violent conception of his haunted and haunting brother to the half-truths and surreal family histories that ultimately bring them together. The Half Brother is one to savor, as much for its quotable lines and cinematic detail as for its narrative lacunae, which lend it the intangible weight of myth.

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