Books

Our 27 favorite books of the year

THE AGE OF SINATRA
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.

APRIL FOOL'S DAY
By Josip Novakovich
HarperCollins, 226 pp., $23.95
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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."

BLOOD AND SOAP
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.

CHRONICLES: VOLUME ONE
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.

CUBA AND ITS MUSIC
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.

FIDELITY
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."

GRAB BAG + THE HAUNTED HILLBILLY
By Derek McCormack
Little House on the Bowery, 203 pp., $14.95 (image Buy Grab Bag); Soft Skull, 112 pp., $11.95 (image 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.

THE HALF BROTHER
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.

HAPPY BABY + LOOKING FORWARD TO IT
By Stephen Elliott
MacAdam/Cage, 191 pp., $21 (image Buy Happy Baby); Picador, 306 pp., $14 (image Buy Looking Forward to It)

Elliott's twofer may seem schizoid, but his novel Happy Baby and campaign journal Looking Forward to It both hang on the Faulknerian notion that history—be it personal or political—is a thorn in the side of human progress. Happy Baby explores the ways that institutional violence shapes its victims, but the contradictions of the people who abuse its gentle protag, Theo (who, like Elliott, was an adolescent ward of Illinois), evade easy categorization. Indeed, his own actions are a mystery to him. Multiply that motivational murk on a mass scale and you have Looking Forward to It, in which Elliott tracks the 2004 Democratic presidential race and encounters a seriously mixed-up American electorate. Elliott (a Voice essayist) applies his clear-eyed, heartbroken aesthetic to the absurdities and seductions of politics without resorting to self-aggrandizement or—miraculously, given the circumstances—abandoning all hope.


IN PRAISE OF BLANDNESS
By François Jullien
Zone Books, 169 pp., $26
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"How, we might ask, can one speak of blandness?" asks Jullien. "Would it not be more in keeping with the very logic of this subject to simply decline to develop it verbally . . . ?" His paradoxically stylish treatise on Chinese aesthetics identifies the quality of blandness as an entrée into the Daoist/Confucian ideal of detachment; suddenly, exquisitely, an inert landscape or bland broth is revealed as a way to contemplate the beauty of becoming versus the fixity of being. Like a zitherist about to pluck a note, Jullien positions his ideas on the threshold of our imagination. Blandness is a sub rosa self-help book and a map to the sublime.

JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL
By Susanna Clarke
Bloomsbury, 782 pp., $27.95
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Call Jonathan Strange the fantastic Bleak House to Rowling's wizard Stalky & Co. Susanna Clarke's great fat tale of the rebirth of magic in 19th-century England has a rambling ground plan, a decorous diction, and a politely crazed investment in ornate cornices (lesser writers could mine her footnotes to inaugurate their own franchises).

Here is a writer who remembers that true fairy tales carry a sting and the creatures themselves were never properly domesticated to the nursery. Her uncanny book is an object lesson in the pleasures—and risks—of enchantment.

LIFE ON THE OUTSIDE
By Jennifer Gonnerman
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 350 pp., $24
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In this expansion of her work for the Voice, Gonnerman exposes the human toll taken by America's incarceration industry. She looks beneath the appalling statistics that typically fill such books to illuminate what they only hint at: the character-depleting effects of confinement, the continuation of its injustices after parole, and the tenuous resilience of the prison system's castoffs. Her subject, Elaine Bartlett, served 16 years for a first-time drug offense, and attempts to resume her life once sprung. But as Gonnerman's scathing, compassionate account reveals, the odds against her are virtually insurmountable.

THE LINE OF BEAUTY
By Alan Hollinghurst
Bloomsbury, 438 pp., $24.95
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Woe to Nick Guest, the callow, social-climbing grad student of The Line of Beauty, who is writing a dissertation on "style" in Henry James's late novels, yet ignores the Master's warnings about innocence doomed. The story opens in 1983 in London, where middle-class Nick lodges with the snobbish family of an Oxford friend, whose father, Gerald Fedden, has just been elected a Tory MP. Hollinghurst's Booker winner illuminates the glossy optimism of the cocaine decade, even as it exposes the reckless vanity behind the wide lapels. It's a beautiful book about ugly people.

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Whatever you do, don't drink the zeerstum.
photo: Overlook Press
MOLVANIA: A LAND UNTOUCHED BY MODERN DENTISTRY
By Santo Cilaura, Tom Glesiner, and Rob Sitch
Overlook, 176 pp., $13.95
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File next to "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," then go laugh your ass off. Book-length parody often fails just a few pages in, but the authors of this "Jetlag Travel Guide" limning "one of Eastern Europe's best-kept secrets" with screamingly depressing photos and the dead-on use of boldface: "The most commonly grown grape variety is the plavec, a small dark fruit with enormous pipsunique to the area." You will carry a little Molvanîa with you wherever you go—say, that bizarrely upholstered diner on Broadway that gives you two sad-looking baked goods and an orange slice to accompany your humongous, inedible omelet.

MR. DYNAMITE
By Meredith Brosnan
Dalkey Archive, 175 pp., $13.50
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Or Jarleth Prendergast and the Overactive Imagination, in which the 37-year-old Dublin-born New Yorker, experimental filmmaker manqué, and ex–Cum Jerks manager, rejects "shameless fibs and worn out Irish-American clichés!!!" while trying to play the Eire card, as when he tries to convince an Indian cabbie to put the pedal to the metal ("Mindful of the centuries of suffering inflicted on both our peoples by British imperialism—"). Brosnan's head-rush style nods to Gaddis, and our hero's initials allude to that expat in reverse, J.P. Donleavy. This debut's bruising, bawdy, and built for speed.

OCCASIONAL WORK AND SEVEN WALKS FROM THE OFFICE FOR SOFT ARCHITECTURE
By Lisa Robertson
Clear Cut Press, 288 pp., $12.95
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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.

OLD FRIENDS
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.

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She reads Simone de Beauvoir in her Iranian circumstance: Satrapi's Persepolis 2
photo: Marjane Satrapi/Pantheon Books
PERSEPOLIS 2
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.

SAYONARA, GANGSTERS
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.


THE SEAS
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.

SNOW
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.

(SOME OF) THE ADVENTURES OF CARLYLE, MY IMAGINARY FRIEND
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)."

WAKE UP, SIR!
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.

WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS?
By Thomas Frank
Metropolitan, 340 pp., $24
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As we agonize over "values," What's the Matter With Kansas?will stand as the political book of 2004. Up-to-date yet historical, theorized and researched and reported and reminisced, it's pungent, mordant, and gratifyingly concrete. Thomas Frank's contempt for the lifestyle and morality of the exploiting classes is detailed and enraging. His focus on the galvanizing force of anti-abortion sentiment and the continuing political utility of America's embattled labor unions pinpoints two crucial issues for progressives. And his habit of blaming the entirety of right-wing reaction on the culture industry is as tendentious as ever, especially for someone whose last book was financed by BMG.

YOU HAVE TO BE CAREFUL IN THE LAND OF THE FREE
By James Kelman
Harcourt, 410 pp., $25
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The awful beauty of Kelman's You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free lies in narrator Jeremiah Brown learning, forgetting, and relearning that he may be the "wrang" guy for marriage, work, writing, life. Forever offending people with cross-cultural comparisons and what Kelman might call wee stereotypes, Jeremiah, a writer, rejects "man," "woman," "character," and "it" as names, settling on "being" because "being from bonné Skallin" is how he describes himself. Being is the one thing that he has yet to lose. Read this book if you need more ways of saying no, or saying yes and no at one.

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