The Sense of an Ending, winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, might be — paradoxically — Julian Barnes' slenderest and most emotionally forthcoming book to date. It's the story of Tony Webster, a retiree in his 60s, who learns that the mother of his college girlfriend, Veronica, has left him a bequest, which sets off a chain reaction. Tony tracks down Veronica and other long-forgotten classmates — including the inscrutable Adrian. To his horror, he discovers that he had cruelly wounded his friends years ago, and he must now radically revise who he thinks he is. In Barnes' previous novels and short stories, emotion has been stifled, concealed or tucked behind technical devices (as in Flaubert's Parrot); but in this latest book, feeling is laid bare and imbued into Barnes' long-standing intellectual preoccupations with authorship, authenticity and mortality.
NPR book critic and former librarian Nancy Pearl says she found Michael Parker's seventh book, The Watery Part of the World, "all but impossible to put down." She explains, "Parker's novel takes off from the two historical facts it's grounded in: In 1813, Theodosia, Aaron Burr's beloved daughter, who was married to the governor of South Carolina, disappeared off the coast of North Carolina while she was traveling by ship to New York to see her father. 150 years later, the remaining three residents of a tiny North Carolina barrier island decide to leave their homes and property and move to the mainland. Through the lives of its characters, this elegantly written tale reflects on the nature of race, love, regret, dependence, fear, sorrow, honor and envy — the eternal challenges of being human. The characters, even the minor ones, are fully formed, the setting is so vividly described that you feel you know it intimately, and Parker's writing is purely wonderful."
In The Year of Magical Thinking, writer Joan Didion contemplated how the rituals of everyday life were fundamentally altered after her husband died suddenly in 2003. The book was published in 2005, just months after Didion's only child, her daughter, Quintana Roo, died at age 39 from complications of pneumonia. Didion pieces together her memories of her daughter's life and death in her new book, Blue Nights. For Didion, Quintana's months-long illness brought back the fears she had as a new parent. "She was adopted and she had been given to me to take care of," Didion tellsFresh Air's Terry Gross. "And I had failed to do that. So there was a huge guilt at work." NPR book critic Lawrence Frascella sums up, "There is an aching desperation in this book's need to reach some sort of shattering revelation about mortality. And this determination — this ferocity — more than compensates for Didion's sometimes suffocating self-consciousness."
When it comes to boxing, few can claim to have been both feared in the ring and loved outside it like Sugar Ray Leonard. He won a gold medal at the 1976 Olympics. In two decades as a professional boxer, he became a champion in five different weight divisions. He's also credited with keeping boxing relevant to a new generation of fans. But behind that bankable personality and magical smile was a far more complicated personal story, which comes out in Leonard's new autobiography, The Big Fight. Leonard tells NPR's Michel Martin that what distinguishes a great fighter from a fighter is the will to win. "It's that individual who's able to reach down into that hidden reservoir of strength that we all have but rarely activate," he says. He also sharply recalls the physical pain he bore inside the ring: "It's like someone sticking an ice pick in your hands. You either quit or you continue. Then all of a sudden, it's something you live with. It's excruciating, paralyzing pain, but in the end, you get through the day."
Your brain doesn't like to keep secrets. Writing down secrets in a journal or telling a doctor your secrets actually decreases the level of stress hormones in your body, according to studies at the University of Texas, Austin. Keeping a secret, meanwhile, creates stress hormones, which your brain doesn't like. So when you have a secret, the part of your brain that wants to share it is constantly fighting with the part of your brain that wants to keep the information hidden, says neuroscientist David Eagleman. Eagleman's new book, Incognito, examines the unconscious part of our brains — the complex neural networks that are constantly fighting one another and influencing how we act, the things we're attracted to and the thoughts that we have. He tellsFresh Air's Terry Gross, "All of our lives — our cognition, our thoughts, our beliefs — all of these are underpinned by these massive lightning storms of [electrical] activity [in our brains], and yet we don't have any awareness of it."
Charlotte Abbott edits "New in Paperback." A contributing editor for Publishers Weekly, she also leads a weekly chat on books and reading in the digital age every Friday from 4-5 p.m. EDT on Twitter. Follow her at @charabbott or check out the #followreader hashtag.