A brilliantly executed and altogether charming collection of linked stories, by the Croatian-born author of the autobiographical Apricots from Chernobyl (not reviewed). There's great variety in these 17 feisty narratives, several portraying the childhood and adolescent experiences of a recurring protagonist: the son of a clog-maker who, at different stages of his growth, discovers how fundamental to all living creatures is the yearning for freedom (""Yahbo the Hawk""); endures the complex rite of passage triggered by his father's death (""Apple""); undergoes a reluctant religious education (in the marvelous ""The Eye of God""), during which he progresses from the romantic wish to become ""An evangelist . . . A Billy Grahamovich"" to a warier accommodation with the Deity; and, in the climactic ""Raw Paper,"" recognizes that he's outgrown his European origins and pens a valediction to them as he prepares to leave his homeland for America. Other stories, which take place in various Yugoslavian and other Eastern European settings, introduce such vividly drawn characters as the village girl (in ""Wool"") who finally stands up to the abusive father whose mistreatment of her extends to her pet lamb; the stoical beekeeper (of ""Honey in the Carcase"") who patiently bears the violence brought by civil strife but snaps when his apiary is endangered; and (in the title story) the plain country woman, renowned for her cookery, who learns how to repay the gluttonous men who marry her to exploit her. Novakovich's essentially comic depictions of ordinary people bewildered and buffered by sophisticated exterior forces are somewhat reminiscent of the work of the Czech master Jaroslav Hasek. But his incandescent style is all his own: an exhilarating hybrid compounded of wry understatement, dazzling aphoristic wit, infusions of peasant superstition, and a deadpan, down-to-earth Central European variant of Latin American magical realism. Wonderful stories that won't be easily forgotten. It's our good fortune, and should be a source of some national pride, that Novakovich is now an American writer.