Nominated for the National Book Award, Jim Shepard's stunning collection, Like You'd Understand, Anyway, is packed with a brilliantly diverse array of stories few writers would dare attempt to match. Covering a swath of time from ancient Greece ("My Aeschylus") to the Roman invasion of Britain ("Hadrian's Wall") to the present day, Shepard consistently demonstrates both a mastery of the form and a gift for synthesizing arcane research in a way that doesn't detract from his storytelling talents (just check out the acknowledgements for evidence of that fact).

Whether he's weaving grim tales of failed exhibitions to find the yeti in Tibet ("Ancestral Legacies") or Australia's inland sea ("The First South Central Australian Expedition"), recounting, with wry humor, the story of a doomed love affair between two Russian cosmonauts ("Eros 7") or sketching the tragic impact of the Chernobyl nuclear accident on one Russian family with deep ties to the nuclear industry ("The Zero Meter Diving Team"), Shepard never wavers in his focus on the painfully human qualities of his characters. The collection's most gripping story, Sans Farine, included in the 2007 edition of Best American Short Stories is the harrowing tale of an executioner during the French Revolution, chilling in its stark detail and heart- stopping in its emotional power. Shepard is the co-editor of a collection of writers' favorite pieces, entitled You've Got to Read This. That's the same magical feeling you'll have when you finish this astonishing work.

An engaging debut
The strength of Canadian writer Neil Smith's collection, Bang Crunch, lies principally in the empathy he displays for an assortment of quirky characters, most of them living in his native Montreal.

Two stories--"Green Fluorescent Protein" and "Funny Weird or Funny Ha-Ha?"--feature Peggy, a sympathetic character who's a doctor and the alcoholic mother of a teenage son. Her husband has died of a cerebral hemorrhage while participating in a curling match, and she decides to put his ashes in a curling stone that she sometime consults for advice. One of the most charming stories is "B9ers," the tale of a support group for people with benign tumors who discover the root of their problem may be that they're too nice. In fragmentary sections, Scrapbook provides the all-too-timely account of the survivor of a college campus shooting who struggles to come to terms with his guilt over fleeing the scene of the incident. Smith also demonstrates a penchant for the occasional experimental story. "Bang Crunch," narrated in the second person and in a single paragraph, tells the bittersweet tale of Eepie Carpetrod, a victim of the imaginary Fred Hoyle syndrome (named for the creator of the Big Bang Theory), who ages one month each day and whose life then implodes at even greater speed. Her poignant advice: Act quickly, act graciously. While it may take some time to expose him to a non- Canadian audience, Smith is a young writer of ample talents that are well represented in this collection.

The space between
English-born, Australian resident Cate Kennedy's Dark Roots offers 17 stories that feature as their unifying theme the myriad ways in which communications between people break down and the corresponding struggle to revive them. Kennedy relies on terse, direct prose that's highlighted by her knack for focusing on small, but essential, details that bring the stories to life.

In "A Pitch Too High for the Human Ear" Kennedy employs the sudden deafness of a family dog as a metaphor for the lack of communication between husband and wife. A couple on their way to have their wedding rings enlarged ("Resize") discover in the process the source of their original attraction, while The Wheelbarrow Thief tells of a woman's struggle with the decision to reveal her pregnancy to her lover. But Kennedy isn't an unreservedly serious writer. Her story "The Testosterone Club" deftly sketches one woman's fiendishly clever revenge on her husband and his amorous mates. For O. Henry lovers, the stories "Habit" and "The Light of Coincidence" feature clever plot twists. Dark Roots ably displays the work of a subtle and accomplished writer who has much to say about the human condition.

Southern tales
Calling a short story writer a Southern writer inevitably conjures up images of giants like Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty. While Gerald Duff hasn't reached that eminence, his collection Fire Ants is a fine addition to the genre.

Like most Southern storytellers, Duff is noteworthy for his focus on some of the more distinctive personalities who inhabit the territory below the Mason-Dixon Line. In "The Angler's Paradise Fish-Cabin Dance of Love," for example, a middle-aged oil worker kidnaps a teenager and transports her to a fishing cabin on the Texas Gulf Coast merely to watch her perform her cheerleading routine. "A Perfect Man" shifts the scene to Tennessee, where a mother desperate to free her son from jail after he's been wrongly arrested for robbing a convenience store turns to the only source she can think of to help her make bail her old lover. And in the collection's title story Duff offers the eerie tale of an aging woman who re-enacts the end of a failed love affair in grisly fashion.

Not content to limit himself to contemporary settings, Duff has an affinity for historical tales. "Maryland" tells the story of a slave who's willing to sacrifice his life to save the life of his military office master, while "Redemption" recounts a grim duel in mid-19th-century Texas. Readers from North and South alike will find much to engage them in this stimulating collection.

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