Our 27 favorite books of the year

A pocket-size extravagance, a decoder ring, a gorgeous megadose of genius prose and apposite quotation: This book will make you smarter and more beautiful. Robertson's essays are at once elegantly succinct and impossibly, even hilariously dense. We say, on almost every page and with utmost reverence, Holy shit. You will never think of scaffolding the same way; chances are you have never thought, as Robertson has, "If architecture is writing, the shack is a speech." We picked this up in March, carried it around the city for a day, stopping by the meat market where our counter number came out the same pink as the dust jacket. We reeled and still reel. Ever since, we have wanted to think like Robertson, write like her, maybe even be her. Occasional Work is the exact color of our preposterous desire, and the Baedeker of our vertigo.

By Stephen Dixon
Melville House, 220 pp., $22.95
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Two writers aver their friendship through the infrequent exchanges that compose this beautiful, restrained book. Grafs (most represent a phone call) are long, but not long enough when one begins "Twelve years after," and suddenly babies are born, wives discarded. In the last 70 pages (a single day), Dixon stretches time with a Memento-like flourish ("Before that," repeated), building back and up to Irv's visit to Lenny at the dementia clinic. Lenny urges Irv to steal his material 'cause he's at "What happened to my life?," admittedly, a "lousy line, but what has to be said." It's a rare moment of pathos—one Dixon's earned.

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.

She reads Simone de Beauvoir in her Iranian circumstance: Satrapi's Persepolis 2
photo: Marjane Satrapi/Pantheon Books
By Marjane Satrapi
Pantheon, 153 pp., $17.95
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In 2003's Persepolis, the Iranian-born Satrapi arranged her war-torn childhood into bite-sized episodes, rendered in thick-inked drawings. The sequel focuses on her teen years—the first four spent in a pot haze at a Vienna boarding school, the rest back in Tehran. Satrapi fancies herself a Simone de Beauvoir in dark, sexless drapes—although peeing standing up, like a real "emancipated woman," turns out to be too messy. A charismatic, unsentimental storyteller, she's as interested in war and revolution as she is in the "banal story" of adolescence.

By Genechiro Takahashi
Vertical, 311 pp., $19.95
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Coming out of the gate like a delirious cross between Mumbo Jumbo and Les Vampires, Takahashi's stateside debut is a devilishly unhinged perpetual-motion machine that careens from somber to silly. The least that can be said is that you never know what's coming next. The poet Virgil doesn't simply materialize as a refrigerator, but also recounts the choice insults hurled at a rowdy bash: "Where's Aristophanes?

Your comedies suck, you hear that? S-U-C-K spells SUCK, and man do your comedies SUCK." Man does this comedy ROCK.

By Samantha Hunt
MacAdam/Cage, 192 pp., $23
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This urgently real and magically unreal reworking of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" sinks an anchor into the soul of its lost young protagonist. Is she delusional, or just extremely imaginative? Through kaleidoscopic prose infused with typographical games—messages written backward, dictionary entries, and single-sentence pages—Hunt describes a girl straitjacketed by the sea, swimming forever in its tides, wading and waiting.

By Orhan Pamuk
Knopf, 448 pp., $26
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Ka, a Turkish poet in German exile, returns home to the isolated outpost of Kars, ostensibly to report on a rash of politically motivated teenage suicides, but really to machinate his way into the boudoir of a recently divorced old friend. A doozy of a blizzard provides the atmosphere for Pamuk's deeply European fourth novel—a profound, Chekhovian investigation into the mysteries of happiness and an encapsulation of intractable divides: between East and West, Islam and secularism. Part political thriller, part farce, Snow is his most dazzling fiction yet.

By Dainis Hazners
Iowa, 109 pp., $14
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Behold the great poetry mash-up of 2004—a Dream Song with Carlyle as an ever curious, mutable alter ego who trumps a ghoul, keeps the moon in a box, and tends to the dead. It's as much L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E as it is Charlie Olson or Celan, but when weird logic fails, delight carries us through. And empathy: "(sometimes)/(Carlyle thinks)/I must be made of straw/& bluster. One little huff . . . /(one little match)."

By Jonathan Ames
Scribner, 334 pp., $23
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Draw a Venn diagram representing admirers of Ames's work and fans of P.G. Wodehouse. If you're in the football-shaped middle bit, you need this novel, the former's fond homage to the latter, which channels the master's zippy vocab and plops the action into a Yaddo-like writer's colony. Our Amesian hero, dipsomaniacal horndog novelist Alan Blair, has a very possibly hallucinated valet named Jeeves and a keen eye for writerly self-loathing and tricks of the trade (he keeps a notebook called "My Random Thoughts That Can Perhaps Be Given to the Narrator"). Rigorous as a dream and well ventilated with wit, the book has a perfect metaphor in the model of Alan's car: id est, a classic of caprice.

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