The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem (Doubleday)
In The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem triumphs in several different areas. He masterfully evokes the ‘70s and early ‘80s with the intimacy of someone who was there, but with the knowledge of someone who can look back. The Fortress of Solitude is also one of the best contemporary novels on race in America. Lethem tells the story of a white kid in a black neighborhood without vilifying or patronizing. Dylan Erbus, the main character, can be added to the list of terrific boy-heroes in American fiction. Although the second half of The Fortress of Solitude will perhaps always be overshadowed by the first, Lethem delivers a coming of age near-masterpiece with politics and pop culture, super-powers and sex, flight and heartbreak. Clearly one of the best of 2003.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (Doubleday)
“This is a murder mystery novel,” states the narrator of Mark Haddon’s incredibly assured debut novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. But it’s like no other murder mystery novel you’ve ever read. Besides the fact that that the victim is a standard poodle named Wellington and the culprit is revealed not on the last page but midway through the novel, Curious Incident also features a teenage sleuth with autism: Christopher Boone is a math whiz and a Sherlock Holmes devotee, but he cannot interact with other people, leave his own neighborhood, or grasp metaphors. Haddon never plays his narrator for laughs or high concept, but imbues his story with complex emotions.
A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies by John Murray (HarperCollins)
A marvelous debut collection of eight stories. What makes them so different is the protagonists are all scientists while the author, himself a scientist, is in no awe of them. We come to know his characters as very talented people damaged by their careers, their education and training, their parents, their migrations, their lives and their loves. They are tales about loneliness and alienation, about friendship and self-discovery, about the journey through a wilderness where the only certainty is of constant, relentless change. Entertaining but serious, these are the stuff of William Faulkner and Jorge Amado.
—Celia S. McClinton
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (Doubleday)
Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code contains the most necessary of all elements I believe are required for a “Best of” list—it is one of the few books from 2003 that lives up to the “I couldn’t put it down” cliche’.
American Woman by Susan Choi (HarperCollins)
In a retelling of the Patty Hearst story that is both daringly imaginative and startlingly loyal to history, Susan Choi examines what it means to be an American and what it means to be an American woman. For the author and for her characters, the United States during the mid-1970s offers countless opportunities for exploration and discovery, and this ambitious novel seems to want to take advantage of every single one and show us how they all apply to the United States during the early 2000s. Lively, inspired, and important, American Woman is the kind of Great American Novel that all authors dream of writing and all readers dream of discovering.
What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt (St. Martin’s Press)
An instance of art imitating life? In her latest novel, Siri Hustvedt introduces us to two families entangled in the pursuit of art and academics, and lets us bear witness to the wonderment and grief that embraces them. The novel shines with a quiet brilliant that creeps up on you in unexpected moments. Though Siri Hudsvedt states that her novel is purely fictional, the events that dominate the last half of the novel bears an eerie similarity to the context surrounding Michael Alig, who’s life has been recently made into the movie, Party Monster. Alig was a friend of Hustvedt’s son.
Glory Goes and Gets Some by Emily Carter (Serpent’s Tail)
Read this as a book of short stories that wants to be a novel, if only it could get its act together. Or as a novel falling apart at the seams, decaying into fragments of narratives. Either way, Emily Carter’s writing will grip you hard and not let go until the terrifying, hilarious ride of Glory Goes and Gets Some is over. Beneath the glittering surface of exquisitely handled language lurk depths appalling to contemplate, all centring on the narrator’s inability “to say no to one more of anything”. With roots in stand-up performance, stage rants and personal experience, this is the authentic voice of the post-No-Wave generation.
The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis (Vintage Contemporaries)
Originally published in 1983, a year before author Tevis (The Hustler) succumbed to lung cancer, the book originally met with public and critical indifference. The Queen’s Gambit was only finally rescued from obscurity earlier this year and re-released, presumably after hot-shot authors Michael Ondaatje and Jonathan Lethem started name-checking it here and there in interviews. Sometimes described as Rocky for smart people, the book chronicles the day-to-day trials and tribulations of a young, female chess prodigy. But don’t let the chess and loss-of-innocence theme throw you—Searching for Bobby Fischer this ain’t. Filled to the brim with drugs, booze, paranoia and desperation, the book is simply a literary thrill ride awaiting rediscovery.
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (Nan A. Talese)
I read Oryx and Crake after listening to a program on NPR about cloning. The host mentioned author Atwood’s dreary future in which animals had been reared to be organ-farms for people and were running wild in a world overrun by botched cloning experiments. One person called in and claimed that cloning was unethical, saying something like, “Some day everybody will keep a clone locked in the closet and butcher it when they need an organ transplant.” I laughed so hard I nearly drove into a ditch. But the near-future in Atwood’s novel, while more accurately informed than the caller’s scenario, is even more bizarre and frightening. Some of the creatures feel over-the-top, but they are not implausible—such as the “snat,” a creature genetically engineered from a snake and rat and having the worst characteristics of both. There are “designer people” including child sex-slaves—many of our society’s basest desires are projected forward in an eerie and unforgettable way. Throughout the novel the reader learns how the world has become overrun, and the way Atwood creates the layers of weirdness reminds me—despite all of her conscious allusions to Orwell, DeFoe, and other writers—of Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. A truly fascinating read.
I’m Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti (Canongate Books)
An award-winning bestseller in Italy, I’m Not Scared has been translated into 20 languages, hitting American and Australian shores in 2003. The tale of one long, hot summer in the life of nine-year-old Michele Amitrano, the book challenges the reader on a number of levels—not least of which the idea of a father’s love. When Michele discovers what he believes to be the dead body of a young boy in a hole near his house, he decides to fix the situation by alerting his father and setting things right. His plans change, though, when he learns that perhaps Papa has some secrets of his own. Ammaniti tests Michele again and again as he leads him to the truth about his family, his community and himself. I’m Not Scared is a haunting, sympathetic, powerful achievement.
Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded by Simon Winchester (HarperCollins)
It has become a “synonym for cataclysm, paroxysm, death, and disaster,” a disaster that “left a trail of practical consequences-political, religious, social, economic, psychological, and scientific.” It, of course, is the eruption of the volcanoes of the East Indies island of Krakatoa, situated between Java and Sumatra. Using his sophisticated understanding of geology, his facile gifts as a storyteller, and his singular ability to weave together the disparate elements of a complex and wide-ranging narrative, Simon Winchester has written a compelling, highly readable tale of the explosion that rocked the late 19th century world and forever changed the way humans viewed themselves and the landscape around them.
My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey (Knopf)
Adventure! Romance! Intrigue! Poetry! Australian novelist Peter Carey bases his latest novel on a real-life literary hoax from the 1950s, but My Life As a Fake is no stuffy literary examination of the dark power of verse and the precariousness of human identity and connection. Rather, this is a thrilling literary examination of the dark power of verse and the precariousness of human identity and connection! As it races through war-ravaged Malaysia in pursuit of a golemlike incarnation of a pseudonym, the novel crackles with the gee-whiz inventiveness of an old cliffhanger serial like Commander Cody or The Phantom Creeps. Rarely does a novel that reads so swiftly take so long to shake off.
Things You Should Know by A.M. Homes (Granta)
A.M. Homes writes beautifully crafted short stories, in which characters and events are evenly matched in a battle over which can be the more deranged. At the same time the worlds she constructs are wholly plausible, grounded in a reality we suddenly, disconcertingly, recognise. “You are what you dream”, one character asserts in “The Weather Outside is Sunny and Bright”, after a rather disturbing dream has been related to him: the nightmare vignettes of the stories in this collection stay with the reader long after first encounter, and surely establish Homes as a leader of her generation.
Brick Lane by Monica Ali
The self-discovery of an immigrant woman is the focus of Ali’s novel. Eighteen-year-old Nanzeen makes the journey from Bangladesh to Tower Hamlet, London, to marry forty-something Chanu. She bears the years of a loveless marriage and a sense of alienation in a country in which she resides but does not belong. The novel, controversial for its portrayal of Bangladeshis in England, is a vivid and enjoyable read, though the theme of Brick Lane does bear some resemblance to that of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth However, Ali deserves to bear the title of being one of the UK’s most promising young writers with her acute observations and riveting writing style.
Wolf Tongue: Collected Poems by Barry MacSweeney (Bloodaxe Books)
Barry MacSweeney died in 2000, and English poetry lost one its most vibrant, remarkable voices, unjustly neglected by critical and academic orthodoxies but continually nagging away at the margins of the poetry world. Now this substantial selection is available. For sustained, traumatising honesty in self-analysis, social criticism and linguistic virtuosity these poems are almost unmatched: “Am I alone in my symmetrical vision / of this unequivocal stupidity?” he asks, in the middle of 1997’s The Book of Demons. The answer, unfortunately for poets operating in the white heat of this kind of self-destruction, is yes. Thankfully we survive to marvel at the art that results.
Dry: A Memoir by Augusten Burroughs (St. Martin’s Press)
He’s neither sanctimonious nor woeful. Instead, Augusten Burroughs is silver-tongued and as candid as ever with his latest memoir Dry. Inspired by his experience in a gay midwestern rehab center for substance abuse, the book is like doctors without borders: it delves into the author’s quirks as much as his bottle-a-day liquor habit without overlooking sometimes absurd details in the name of self help. Even more laudable is that the author never loses his sense of humor, proving that just because he may have been, at times, thrust onto the proverbial wagon, he hasn’t dried of his unique writing style that made his previous memoir Running with Scissors such a success.
—Natalie Hope McDonald
Dancing Barefoot by Wil Wheaton (Monolith Press)
With a popular weblog and the respect of gajillions of Internet users and tech-heads, actor Wil Wheaton is suddenly mega-hot. Not as an actor, but as a damn cool guy. Excerpting from his website, Wheaton put together Dancing Barefoot, a collection of true stories that have entertained and touched his loyal web audience. He pulls no punches on his site, with the honesty and candor that has made it such a hit coming across just as well in the book. Smart, funny and entirely ego-free, Wheaton is a joy to laugh with, cry with and to sing Oingo Boingo songs with. For those who have grown up with Wil, Dancing Barefoot is just really, really, really cool.
Ten Little Indians by Sherman Alexie (Grove Press)
As one of his characters says, “That’s the problem. No one wants to hear these things, but I’m thinking them, and I have to say them.” Sherman Alexie is utterly fearless in his convictions, and he doesn’t seem to care whether people like what he has to say or not. In the best of these powerful stories, Alexie writes with an astonishing energy as he moves seamlessly from point to point in a tightly structured narrative. He takes us inside the minds of his characters and with sometimes frightening clarity and an almost dispassionate directness reveals a vision of the world that many of us may be thinking, but that most of us aren’t willing to share. This is Alexie’s best writing since the critically acclaimed The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and a reason to place him among the best writers of short fiction today.