The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst (October 1, 2004)

Sometimes a book just feels monumental. The Line of Beauty follows a young gay man, Nick, who lives with the family of a Tory MP under Thatcher — who makes an unforgettable cameo appearance. This is the story of two initiations. It’s about a loss of innocence coinciding with social success, but also about a coming in of sorts: Nick’s entrance into London’s gay subculture. He is always seduced by beauty, but as AIDS looms — along with the threat of discovery by his conservative hosts — Nick can’t outrun the politics of his aesthetics or the contradictions in the social structures to which he clings. —Alice Bolin                                            

Veronica, by Mary Gaitskill (October 11, 2005)

Like her first novel, Two Girls, Fat and Thin (1991), Gaitskill’s second revolves around a friendship between two women. Alison Owen, a former model living with hepatitis C, reflects on her complex closeness with Veronica Ross, a woman we learn died alone with AIDS. How we care for people in pain is at the heart of this moving, unsentimental look at our fragility, written with remarkable metaphorical and lyrical power. In a book not about living through hardships but about living in their aftermath, Gaitskill’s Alison is indelible, as is her memory of her lost friend. —Wyatt Mason                        

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy (September 26, 2006)

Here is the author of Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men still trafficking in his primordial themes — good vs. evil — but locating it tenderly within the relationship between a father and son (as they journey through a post-Apocalyptic hellscape). The father knows he is dying and, in a world overrun by cannibalism and violence, he’s trying to teach his son how to tell the “good guys” from the bad. This is McCarthy at his most restrained, and consequently most resonant. There is no fiction subject more trendy (and more urgent) than the multifarious possible ends of the world; McCarthy led the way, and might be impossible to surpass. —Edward Hart                  

Ooga-Booga, by Frederick Seidel (November 14, 2006)

“The title is Kill Poetry, / And in the book poetry kills.” The poems in Frederick Seidel’s 12th collection, Ooga Booga, don’t kill but they come awfully close. Some poets are easy to love; Seidel is so good you revere him despite yourself. Born in 1936 and still living in New York, he’s the heir to a family coal fortune, a famously dapper dresser, and a writer of odes to Ducati motorcycles. He also captures the absurd melancholy of modern existence in dark, crystalline stanzas. “The poet the 20th century deserved” is how one critic put it, and it’s not clear if that’s a compliment or not, or if it matters. At 82, he’s the poet the 21st century deserves, too, and still desperately needs. —Adam Sternbergh                                  

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz (September 6, 2007)

Junot Díaz’s first novel not only affirmed the vitality and the talent displayed in his first book, Drown, in a resounding way, it expanded the idea of what is possible, and what American literature could be. It could be written for an audience in ascendancy, told in vernacular but expertly formed and composed. It could concern the intensely personal, but telescope out to the historic and the political. The astounding Oscar Wao did all of that, leaving us with a lasting understanding of the American experience as encompassing lives beyond our blinkered borders. —Oscar Villalon                                            

                                   
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel (April 30, 2009)

Any writer could have done the research that informs this remarkable historical novel. But only genius, gimlet-eyed, wicked Hilary Mantel could have created the animating intelligence at the heart of it: Thomas Cromwell, adviser to Henry VIII, antagonist to Thomas More, brilliant and ambitious, heartbroken and ruthless. “As some men have an eye for horseflesh or cattle to be fattened,” Mantel writes, “he has an eye for risk,” and as a novelist she shares this quality, taking unlikely narrative leaps that always pay off. No book this learned should be so wildly entertaining. —Dan Kois


The Possessed, by Elif Batuman (February 16, 2010)

The best essay collections are about the writer’s strange and hungry mind groping around the contours of the world, but this one is also a hilarious book on a famously grave subject: Russian literature. Batuman creates a memoir of her time in Stanford’s PhD program obliquely, writing about authors first and herself second. She mimics the forms of fiction — a Sherlock Holmes–style detective story in “The Murder of Leo Tolstoy,” an old-school travelogue of studying abroad in Uzbekistan — to better comment on them. The Possessed and Batuman’s novel, The Idiot, together form a body of work that queries the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction — and between books and their readers. —Alice Bolin                                            

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender (June 1, 2010)

All of Bender’s stories are written in a mode that is not quite fantasy, certainly not realist, and somewhat fairy-tale-ish (in other words a style that is all her own), offering beautiful, profound stories about, for instance, a six-inch-tall man who lives in a bird cage in his wife’s house; or, as in the title of another collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. It really doesn’t matter which of her books you pick up first; you’ll be immediately hooked and read them all. —Tom Lutz


Mr. Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi (June 1,2011)

Not since Angela Carter has a writer subverted classic fairy-tale tropes the way Helen Oyeyemi does, to transformative effect. Mr. Fox is perhaps the first brilliant work of romantic metafiction, a novel that tells the story of a few characters over and over again in pitch-perfect iterations that reveal volumes about love and loneliness and violence. Undeniably clever — but not so clever as to obscure the sentiment embedded in Oyeyemi’s shrewd structure — Mr. Fox has the brains and the heart to win over both those who enjoy unraveling how fiction works and those who just seek pure enjoyment. —Maris Kreizman            

Lives Other Than My Own, by Emmanuel Carrère (September 13, 2011)

The sui-generis French author of fiction, nonfiction, and works that bridge the two has published many excellent books, among them the true-crime account The Adversary (2000) and The Kingdom (2014). My favorite by a nose is Lives Other Than My Own, a book that defies tidy summary, but which, though preoccupied with the very saddest human experiences — the deaths of a young child and a sibling — is also believably a book about happiness, one which earns its happy ending. —Wyatt Mason

DISSENT: The Kingdom (August 29, 2014)