The Best Books of 2003
















The Clearing by Tim Gautreaux (Knopf)

The instant I finished reading Gautreaux's novel, I turned to the beginning and started again -- the mark of a truly great book. This is the kind of novel that so completely transports us to another time, another place -- the cypress forests of Louisiana in the 1920s -- that we emerge on the other side of the story blinking and not quite sure of our surroundings. Gautreaux achieves what John Gardner called "the vivid and continuous dream" of fiction. The story and characters -- a man tries to redeem his brother from a swamp of corruption and finds himself getting pulled into the mire as well -- will be familiar to readers of Dostoevsky, Steinbeck, Faulkner and countless others who've brought us tales of sibling salvation. In Gautreaux' hands, however, the plot transforms into a lyric, epic experience and we feel as if we're hearing it for the first time. -- David Abrams

Darwin Alone in the Universe by M. A. C. Farrant (Talon)

No one else writes like M. A. C. Farrant. Her latest collection of short fiction overflows with vibrant energy and crackles with originality. Various labels have been applied to her work: surrealist, alternative, postmodern. But in the final analysis, Farrant is Farrant, venturing into territory no writer has discovered before. Darwin Alone in the Universe is made up of 42 stories, some of them brief vignettes, that reflect the angst and peculiarities of 2003 with shivering accuracy. This is a world of "coffee at five dollars a pop," "intravenous Buddhism," and a belief that "ferrets are spiritual." Blurs of fast-moving illusion stand in for reality. Her satire can bite hard, but at the same time there is no meanness or sourness, just a kind of bewilderment at the strangeness of today, the decade that has no name. Her reflections reveal a kind of tender curiosity: "Why is it, she wondered, that we have difficulty experiencing what is before us? We're always sliding into somewhere else, someplace imaginary, second hand, unreal; it's like an experimental tic, as if lucidity were something to be taken only in small, furtive doses, as if present experience isn't worthy of our attention." These small gems are consistently worthy for what they reveal about our puzzling times. And the author photo is, I guarantee you, the most unusual one you've ever seen. -- Margaret Gunning

The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger (Doubleday)

Debut novelist Lauren Weisberger did a stint as legendary Vogue editor Anna Wintour's assistant. At the time of The Devil Wear's Prada's publication in the spring of 2003, a lot of readers were hoping to get the skinny on the fashion industry, since Weisberger's protagonist is the assistant of a powerful, well known and eccentric editor of a fashion magazine. This is perhaps what got The Devil Wears Prada published and what focused a lot of editorial ink on the book when it first came out, but Weisberger's story -- and storytelling -- stands on its own merit. Unlike the other big fashion novel of 2003, Candace Bushnell's pallid Trading Up, The Devil Wears Prada is warm, funny and memorable. And, after a while, you don't even care if Anna Wintour might be lurking inside Weisberger's faintly evil Miranda Priestly.-- Monica Stark

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer (Riverhead Books)

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere was one of the most anticipated books of 2003 -- Packer had been touted in The New Yorker as the Next Best Thing. As it turns out, she lives up to our expectations. These eight short stories arrived on the already-crowded short fiction market with all the fiery energy of Flannery O'Connor on a good day. Nothing is wasted in a ZZ Packer story; every word relentlessly moves the reader forward to climaxes that sometimes leave us dangling in midair and sometimes bring us crashing down with, in the case of "Our Lady of Peace," three final, devastating words ("C'mon. Make me."). -- David Abrams

Fabulous Small Jews by Joseph Epstein (Houghton Mifflin)

These short stories are as steeped in Jewish culture as the tales of Sholom Aleichem, yet startlingly contemporary. Epstein creates small masterworks that sneak up on the reader slowly, then hit hard, delivering a powerful human message in a manner that takes your breath away. This is Epstein's 15th book, and though he is perhaps best known for his essays on modern culture, he is so completely in command of the short fiction form that he owns it. Set in his home town of Chicago, the stories probe subtle class distinctions among his characters, a cohesive yet unrelated clan of middle- and upper-middle-class Jewish men, most in their 50s and over. Though it is never overstated, the Holocaust hangs over this book like a cold shadow, influencing the characters in ways they can barely comprehend. It's a world in which fathers exhort their sons to go to medical school, old men get up at funerals to excuse a reprobate with "his brudder vas even woise," and shrinks tell their clients things like, "I sense deeply repressed rage in you, Arthur." A kind of old-world wisdom (not to mention wry and canny humor) keeps shining through in casual but weighty statements like, "Who was it said that a man is likely to hang himself on the loose threads of his life?" Though Epstein's world is a very particular one, his characters seek universal things: love, honor, meaning, truth. And in so doing, they somehow manage to speak for us all. -- Margaret Gunning

The In-Between World of Vikram Lall by M.G. Vassanji (Doubleday Canada)

When M.G. Vassanji's fifth novel was released in early October, it had already been beaten to the African punch by Lewis DeSoto's examination of South African apartheid in A Blade of Grass. A mere week later, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall found itself shortlisted for the 10th Giller Prize, the first edition of which Vassanji had won for A Book of Secrets. Lightning would strike twice for Vassanji, and when the Gillers were announced on November 5th, there he was again on the podium, shaking hands with the award's founder, Jack Rabinovitch and accepting a $25,000 check. Vassanji had quite unexpectedly beaten out two of the fall season's favorites on both sides of the border, Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake and Ann-Marie MacDonald's The Way the Crow Flies. But it's not for money, glory or sentimentality that The In-Between World of Vikram Lall rates as my best read of the year. Chalk that up to more basic qualities like sheer drama of subject matter, and the author's storytelling ability. And truly, it didn't take much to be pulled into both Vassanji's and Lall's world -- just a quick bath in the distinctly disjointed world of a child in the Kenya of the early 1950s, when the British colony was still slightly enthralled at the prospect of a newly crowned queen, and independence-seeking Mau Maus trolled the communities taking blood oaths and the lives of Kenyan men, women and children. Vassanji's narrator is a Kenyan of Indian descent named Vikram Lall, who, as the novel opens, is in exile in a small rural town on Lake Ontario. "I have the distinction of having been numbered one of Africa's most corrupt men, a cheat of monstrous and reptilian cunning," he whettingly says. "I head my country's List of Shame." While the novel's four sections tell a story that progressively reveals an ever more complicated view of queen, country, family and the individual, it is the opening 145-page section that is especially well controlled and surprisingly self-contained. Here, Vassanji gives us an atmospheric and highly detailed memory play of childhood crossed with pinpoint reportage, from the point of view of the eight-year-old Vikram. -- Gordon Morash

The Mammoth Cheese by Sheri Holman (Atlantic Monthly Press)

Who knew that the story of a 1,200-pound wheel of cheese could be such a funny, moving and accurate portrait of American life? In order to revitalize their local economy, the residents of a small Virginia town decide to deliver a giant hunk of cheese to the President. Their odyssey is a gripping lesson in Jeffersonian politics. As she demonstrated in her previous novels, Holman has a keen eye for detail and even though she's painting on a big canvas here, she never loses sight of the value of the smallest brushstroke. -- David Abrams

Old School by Tobias Wolff (Knopf)

After a distinguished career in short fiction and memoir, Wolff finally delivers his first novel. The wait was well worth it. Thinly-veiled autobiography, Old School may well be the author's crowning achievement. In his story of a boy's life at prep school, Wolff gently instructs us on how to be better writers and better people. -- David Abrams

Oryx and Crake: A Novel by Margaret Atwood (McClelland & Stewart)

Margaret Atwood is in perfect form in Oryx and Crake, her latest novel of dystopia. Though the book invites comparison to 1985's The Handmaid's Tale, an earlier dystopic novel set in some unnamed future, Oryx and Crake is a very different type of book. The future Atwood evokes this time around has a different shape and feel. In The Handmaid's Tale, the woes of the world could be laid at the door of Christianity run amok. In Oryx and Crake we're dealing with technology and genetic manipulation gone so horribly awry that, as the book opens, it looks very much like the end of the world. But whatever it looks like, Oryx and Crake feels like cyberpunk, as well as it's ever been written. Skillfully distant, brilliantly dark, startlingly cold, fully realized, Atwood has created a world that looks enough like our own to be convincing -- perhaps even threatening. -- Linda Richards

Peyton Amberg by Tama Janowitz (St. Martin's Press)

Janowitz's publishers have repeatedly compared Peyton Amberg to Madam Bovary, as in: "A savvy riff on the classic figure of Madam Bovary, Peyton Amberg is a caustic and brilliant satire of contemporary marriage as it is undermined by free-floating lust and exploits of a woman yearning for fulfillment outside of rigid societal structure." And while the book is certainly caustic and brilliant. the rest of the description is about as accurate as saying that Gone With the Wind is about a girl who moves from her home. For the most part, though she has a lot of sex, Peyton isn't motivated by lust. She just knows that sex is the one thing she has that men want. What Peyton wants is so complicated, she doesn't even try to understand it. On some levels she's like a beautiful little animal: moving forward on instinct, being guided by something, but not really sure what and incapable of determining what it might be. Tama Janowitz (Slaves of New York, A Certain Age) is at her best here. In a few strokes she can create fictional realities so vivid, you can feel the grit under you eyes, taste the desperation on your tongue. -- Linda Richards

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (MacAdam/Cage)

Niffenegger's debut novel bends a traditional love story into new and unusual shapes. Henry is a time-traveler who drops in and out of various moments in his life -- sometimes back to the past, sometimes forward to the future. Clare leads a chronologically-normal life. The two of them intersect, in "real time," when Clare is 20 and Henry is 28. Their relationship turns as sweet and tragic as an Emily Dickinson poem. It's an original book which creates its own world with what seems like effortless artistry. -- David Abrams

The Town That Forgot How to Breathe by Kenneth J. Harvey (Raincoast Books)

Kenneth J. Harvey's weirdly wonderful The Town That Forgot How to Breathe is lyrical, haunting and (forgive me) quite breathtaking. The denizens of a fishing village fall, one by one, to a strange illness. As they sicken they, quite literally, forget how to breathe automatically. As they succumb further to the mysterious malady, they find themselves fighting dark urges and despair. As the illness spreads, fisherman find their nets filled with the creatures that have inhabited the villages' fables for generations. The Town That Forgot How to Breathe is brilliant. Harvey's 14th novel: here comes overnight success. -- India Wilson


Tropic of Night by Michael Gruber (William Morrow)

Tropic of Night is dense and the story is sometimes twisted but Michael Gruber's debut novel is brilliant. If the book actually got less attention in 2003 than expected, it might be due to the fact that it's a tough tome to slot. One of the main characters is a cop, and we spend a lot of time with him while he tries to solve a crime, yet Tropic of Night is not crime fiction. Another protagonist is an anthropologist so affected by mystical experiences she's dropped out of her life, yet the book is not magic realism. Gruber also lost some readers with page upon page of his meticulous research. I loved all of this background material, but some readers did not. In the end, however, it doesn't matter: Tropic of Night is epic in the range of emotions and actions it brings us. I couldn't get enough. -- Linda Richards

Verandah People by Jonathan Bennett (Raincoast)

Bennett is a real find, the author of the haunting novel After Battersea Park and master of the short fiction form. These stories exude the very breath of Australia, that mysterious yet earthy place of steaming bush and broiling outback, weird mammals, screeching exotic birds and men exclaiming to each other, "Strewth!" Raised in Sydney, Bennett is able to plumb sense memories and atmospheric impressions going back to early childhood. There are subtle links between the stories, overlap in characters and details that join them into one humming tale. Danger lurks even in the most innocent places. In the eerie "About Walking," Devlin looks on as his sister Sue joyfully tries on shoes for her wedding. Just then, horror strikes: "The body falls from the sky accompanied by a spray of glass shards and a single, baritone scream." Dazed by the bizarre event, Devlin wanders off alone: "Around him the bush is alive. Cicadas and birds, trees smelling of hot eucalypt." A sense of steadily-growing panic escalates as Devlin realizes he is hopelessly lost. Wedding joy dwells just a hair's-breadth away from tragedy. Bennett has a way with a sentence ("Heat waves shimmer as if Australia is having a migraine") and ordinary but sense-stirring detail. A minimalist with a deft, sure touch, he does a lot with a little, flinging a swaying bridge between the realm of ordinary prose and incandescent poetry. -- Margaret Gunning

The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

My year began with a symphonic cymbal crash when I cracked open Powers' massive portrait of one family coming of age in the mid-20th century. The patriarch is a German Jewish refugee physicist, the mother is a young black woman studying classical music; together, they raise prodigal children and teach them the ways of the world. Using classical music as a springboard, Powers surgically dissects America's race relations. -- David Abrams

Wonder When You'll Miss Me by Amanda Davis (Morrow)

Perhaps the saddest literary news story of the year came when 32-year-old Davis died in a plane crash while on tour promoting her first novel. Sad, not only because the world was robbed of a rising literary star; but also because Davis couldn't be around to receive the near-universal praise deservingly heaped on her book -- a tender story about Faith Duckle, the overweight teenager who's assaulted under the bleachers during her school's Homecoming game then later runs away to join the circus. Just as the Big Top transforms Faith into a girl with a sequin-speckled future, Davis turns her descriptions of circus life into small parables about how it's possible to find beauty, even among the sawdust and elephant dung. -- David Abrams

The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (St. Martin's Griffin)

Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow anthologies include this year's Swan Sister: Fairy Tales Retold, collected for children, which followed up A Wolf at the Door and Snow White, Red Blood: similarly themed books collected for adults. This year marks the 16th that the duo has edited The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, an anthology that is really so much more. Each of the co-authors does a lengthy summation of the year -- Windling does fantasy and Datlow covers horror. Other contributors offer up summations in various areas: Edward Bryant on "The Year in Media of the Fantastic," Charles Vess on "Fantasy and Horror in Comics," and Joan D. Vinge on manga and anime. James Frenkel covers obituaries within the genre. And then, of course, on to the stars of this little undertaking: the stories. This year, 49 in all. Each story is prefaced with a brief, informative bio on the writer by the anthology's editors. As appropriate to a book of this nature, the contributors list here reads like a whos who and a who-will-be in the twinned genres of fantasy and horror. China Miéville, Kelly Link, Bentley Little, Carlton Mellick III, Neil Gaiman, Theodora Goss, Elizabeth Hand and many, many others. Sadly, Windling writes that this will be her last year co-editing this anthology, though Datlow will continue her end. -- Monica Stark

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