Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones): If I could transform into anyone this year (and many other years, for that matter!), it would be William Trevor. His new novel, The Story of Lucy Gault, is just so beautifully written . . . When I closed the book, after two evenings reading it, I thought, This man doesn't just write a novel, he composes a symphony. Note builds upon note, and you are swept up by someone who knows how to use the passing of time and the events of history in a specific and devastating way.
T.C. Boyle, the forthcoming (Drop City): The book is Ian McEwan's stunning Atonement. At first I couldn't imagine what Ian was up to, opening with a child — Briony — putting on a play for a group of adults at her family's summer home; but then (as is the case in good as well as great novels), things take a gripping turn for the worse. The narrative leaps are pure genius — as the long set piece detailing our male hero's involvement in the retreat from Dover — and the novel's final surprise is as satisfying as it is clever and right. What is that surprise? I'm not telling.
Gioconda Belli (The Country Under My Skin): Although my choice is a book written in 1942, it didn't come out in the U.S. until this year. It's by Sandor Marai, a Hungarian writer, and is called Embers. I loved it. It is a study in friendship, passion and restraint, all built around a flashback the protagonist has while preparing a revenge he's been planning for 41 years. It has the narrative tension of a thriller and the depth of a philosophical novel — all packed into 224 pages.
Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything Is Illuminated): I wish I had written Nowhere Man, by Aleksandar Hemon, but I couldn't have written it, because no one can write like Hemon. He has the most unusual, poetic vision of the world. This book is moving and beautiful.
Cristina Garcia (Dreaming in Cuban): I don't use the word ravishing lightly, but that's the adjective that comes to mind for The Selected Poems of Miguel Hernandez, edited by Ted Genoways. With this brilliantly edited, translated and annotated volume, the shepherd-turned-revolutionary poet, a contemporary of Garcia Lorca's, should finally get the attention he deserves.
Chitra Divakaruni (The Vine of Desire): My book of choice is Rohinton Mistry's Family Matters — a deftly handled treatment of a family tragedy that reaches beyond the walls of the home to throw light on aging, illness and the fragility of the human condition. I particularly appreciate Mistry's ability to be compassionate without descending into sentimentality.
Henry Bromell (Little America): I can honestly report that I wish I had written any one of the following three novels: Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami, The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald and Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee. I realize they weren't all published this year, but I read them this year. All three, being foreign, allowed me to brilliantly escape These Shores for a while. All three exhibited smart and sneaky formal eccentricities, weird angles in the carpentry. All three were Beautiful, in the voice, in the language. All three had Mystery — the stories never went where you thought they were going, they were filled with surprise. And of course they were serious — all three books seemed to me to partake of both Literature and the magical Here-and-Now, a combination I don't think any writer can help envying.
Peter Gadol (Light at Dusk): I want to be Magnus Mills for a day. I can't imagine how he concocts such elaborate plots around such simple things — high-tension fences, tin houses, and now minivans — nor, for that matter, can I figure out how he uncoils one lean, wiry sentence after another. With this year's novel, The Scheme for Full Employment, Mills once again delivers a wry, deceptively simple, ultimately moving modern parable about the perfect ploy to earn good steady wages doing nothing much of anything. You will be rather annoyed at yourself for reading the book in one sitting.
Joyce Hackett (Disturbance of the Inner Ear): Were I a physician, I would love to have written Atul Gawandé's Notes on an Imperfect Science, a moving, elegant collection on the topic of how doctors bring themselves with them wherever they go — bring their quirks, their traumas, and even, simply, their past experience — and how these can collaborate to cause them to miss the path of best care. Gawandé's sensitivity and depth make it impossible to look at your doctor and not see the human being beneath the jacket.
Diana Wagman (the forthcoming Bump): I only ever wish to have written books that are beyond my capabilities. Death in Venice. Ulysses. This year it was Darlington's Fall by Brad Leithauser. I will never be able to write a historical novel that is completely compelling even though it is told in verse with 10-line stanzas and a complicated internal rhyming scheme that someone else had to explain to me. I'm not smart enough to write rhymes about a lepidopterist and his tug of war between Darwinian and Wordsworthian visions of nature while roiling in a love story of epic proportions. I devoured this book with joy and absolute admiration, but without envy: something like how I feel about Yamila Diaz. I can't be jealous of her thighs — no matter what, they will never be mine.
Jerry Stahl (Plainclothes Naked): Forget literature. The lushest, most hardcore, beautiful and flat-out soul-expanding book of the year for me was Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge. Cheech Marin's collection both transcends and defines the barrio, exposing the culture that thrives beyond the timid eyeballs of yuppie Anglos whose idea of Mexican art is limited to gang graffiti on retaining walls visible from the 10. Everything you need to know about America is right there in Gronk's savage masterpiece, La Tormenta Returns. This painting and dozens of others show a raucous civilization filtered through the prism of Aztlán, limning the dark heart of our country — and the country that was here before it was “ours.”