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17 Good Books We Read This Year

Judith Lewis: Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi (2003). A secret women’s book club led by deposed English professor Nafisi in fundamentalist Iran lends new urgency to classics of English-language literature.

Brendan Bernhard: The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers (1903). A brilliant, and very early example of the novel of international intrigue and espionage, celebrating its centenary this year. And Judge Savage, by Tim Parks (2003). When is this man going to win the Booker?

Tom Christie: Any Human Heart by William Boyd (2003). An intelligent, emotionally gripping, thoroughly enjoyable fictional passage through 20th-century life and culture from one of our most consistent novelists. When is this man going to win the Booker?

Deborah Vankin: How To Breathe Underwater, by Julie Orringer (2003). A potent — and even painful — debut collection of stories about wicked children, suffocating loneliness and the sting of adolescent alienation.

Jonathan Gold: Cooking by Hand, by Paul Bertolli (2003). Not just homemade pasta, but homemade pasta prepared with home-milled organic wheat and boiled in water seasoned with coarse sea salt that is 83 percent sodium chloride. The least compromised cookbook of our generation, and conceivably the best-written.

Libby Molyneaux: Drop City, by T.C. Boyle (2003). It totally succeeds at capturing the 1960s hippie days and not only makes you glad you weren’t there, but leaves you feeling in serious need of a hot shower.

Robert Jaffee: The Spooky Art — Some Thoughts on Writing, by Norman Mailer (2003). Comparing himself to an aging boxer training for one last fight, longtime fistic fan Mailer endures the punishment and produces what may be the most insightful book written about writing.

Sheila Beaumont: Sunshine, by Robin McKinley (2003). An enchanting, “Buffyesque” vampire fantasy written by an author best known for her novels based on fairy tales such as “Sleeping Beauty” and “Beauty and the Beast.”

Erin Aubry Kaplan: Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, by Robin D.G. Kelley (2002). Kelley is to black political theory what Mike Davis is to L.A. history — passionate and freethinking but intellectually anchored, a master illuminator.

Ella Taylor: Everything Is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer (2002). A wonderfully mad trek through the Ukraine’s inglorious history, laced with the funniest crucifixion of the English language I’ve ever read.

Steven Mikulan: Running With Scissors, by Augusten Burroughs (2002). This adolescent memoir is a New England family tale of mental illness, pederasty and rotting dog food — The Lord of the Flies with a laugh track.

Greg Burk: Constantine’s Sword, by James Carroll (2001). After falsely blaming the Jews for killing Christ, the Christians found a thousand ways to kill the Jews (and feel pious about it); here’s the dirt of millennia, irrefutable.

Ben Quiñones: Hearts and Hands: Creating Community in Violent Times, by Luis Rodriguez (2001). In times of destruction and death, this book is a powerful healing alternative.

John Powers: Learning Human: Selected Poems by Les Murray (2000). Sometimes too prodigious for his own good, a spectacular collection by a world-class Australian poet who reminds us, “Nothing’s free when it is explained.”

Joe Donnelly: Joe, by Larry Brown (1992). Brown is an underappreciated voice in American literature, and this is the one that puts him there with the greats.

Ron Stringer: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925). After revisiting this classic for the first time since high school, I discovered a richer, darker, more resonant work than my 17-year-old mind had been prepared to comprehend.