A master of both the novel (Flaubert’s Parrot, Arthur and George) and the short story (The Lemon Table, Pulse), Julian Barnes may have found his perfect genre with the novella. His brief, conversational, and Man Booker Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending (Random House, $23.95) is a moving meditation on time; it’s also a meticulously constructed work that repays immediate rereading, each incident and conversation gaining meaning and resonance when seen in terms of the whole story. That story focuses on Tony Webster, retired, yet suddenly swept up again in the events of some forty years before. As he recounts his youthful friendships and an early, fraught relationship with a woman who later took up with his best friend, Tony begins to question what happened and how well he really knew the people he was involved with—let alone himself. As he revises his memories, the novel becomes a deft, subtle study of the elusive effects of time. Tony’s stream of reminiscences is akin to a succession of photos of himself, some comforting, others shocking, that constantly show him as a new and different person, yet also, somehow, the same one.
The authority and assuredness with which The Tiger’s Wife (Random House, $25) unfolds belies the fact that it’s a first novel written by a twenty-something author. Téa Obreht’s narrator, Natalia, is on a mission to inoculate children at an orphanage in a town once separated from her own by a civil war. While she’s there, she learns of the death of her grandfather, the source of her childhood stories. She informs the reader that “everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man.” Fantastic and fabulous, these powerful stories from Natalia’s grandfather’s childhood make up a large part of the novel. They embody timeless ideas: courage, honor, trust, and, in the story of the deathless man, matters of life and death. As Natalia travels to her grandfather’s hometown, she learns that the stories originated in real events. The juxtaposition between superstition and reality, between magic and medicine, contributes to the richness of this amazing novel.
The best food writing is always about more than food, and that is the case with Blood, Bones, and Butter (Random House, $26), the excellent memoir and first book by Gabrielle Hamilton, the chef and owner of Prune, a popular restaurant in New York City’s East Village. The book is part coming-of-age tale about the pluses and minuses of growing up with artistic and food-loving parents whose divorce ultimately shattered their children’s lives. Beyond recounting her family travails, Hamilton uses her considerable training and skill as a writer to describe how a succession of food experiences (including hunger) led her to open a restaurant that would transcend the faddish trends of modern American cooking. A cross between M.F.K Fisher and Patti Smith? Sort of. Hamilton’s book will appeal not only to cooks and omnivores, but to anyone who appreciates a well-told story about finding one’s passion and meaning in life.