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Songs of the South

Algonquin's latest anthology scores big

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New Stories from the South: The Year's Best, 2004
Edited by Shannon Ravenel
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 334 pp., $13.95
My copy of the 19th volume of Shannon Ravenel's New Stories from the South is warped with the damp that comes from a much-loved beach read. With family and friends sprawled on towels and low-slung beach chairs, I had a willing audience for the sentences and paragraphs that I couldn't help but read aloud, whole stories in so few words. Here, from Tayari Jones' "Best Cousin," is Shelly:

When my cousin, Vanessa, was thirteen I had been only eleven... .

I looked down at my plastic thongs feeling foolish and childlike. My fingernails were crusted with calamine lotion I had scratched off my mosquito bites. A scrape on my thigh was bleeding a little bit. I was ashamed of myself and angry with my cousin. She had changed over the last year, but hadn't mentioned any of these alterations in her letters. She'd sent me pages of stationary filled with details about her school, the new wallpaper and furniture in her bedroom. But there hadn't been any hint about her new figure, or her new clothes, dresses with darts to make them fit better. There I was wholly unready in my tube top of gathered cotton with elastic, tied behind my head with a girlish bow. No one had told me. And even had I known, what could I have done?

The abundance of vivid and compelling voices in much of contemporary Southern fiction makes the written word feel like an aural experience. In the Triangle, we are spoiled silly by our frequent opportunities to hear writers voice their own works. I was lucky enough to hear Jill McCorkle read "Intervention" at the N.C. Literary Festival this past April, and was thrilled to savor it again in this anthology. Her story depicts a long-time marriage and the "loyalty, faithfulness and forgiveness" that holds it together. The author bios and short essays after each story add deep enjoyment to the collection: a sense of the author's personality, reflections upon the story, and thoughts on the craft of fiction. Notable is the astonishing fact that Ingrid Hill, the author of the charming and wistful "Valor," is also the "mother of twelve children, including two sets of twins," and just had a novel published (the glowingly reviewed Ursula, Under, also by Algonquin).

Readers will emerge from this anthology with their own favorites. For me, Chris Offutt's "Second Hand" is a standout, tracing a relationship between a woman and her boyfriend's eight-year-old daughter. In the course of a few pages, Lucy, likable and self-involved, is possessed by an intense need to satisfy the desire of a young girl while it can still be named and purchased, even at great sacrifice.

Ann Pancake's "Dog Song" is astonishing and poetic, an internal language of desperation and longing made visible. George Singleton's "Raise Children Here" is laugh-out-loud funny from its opening line: "Whenever I retreat to wonderment at how my life turned to one of hoardment and obsession, I stop at the memory of a muggy June night, inside a smoke- and curse-filled beer joint on Highway 301 near the Fruitcake Capital of the World."

Out of character with the rest of the book is Brock Clarke's "The Lolita School," a satire that left me less than captivated.

One hazard of reading New Stories from the South at a beach house is that it's completely unsafe to place it down and step away to refill your glass of iced tea. By the time you get back, it's been picked up by someone else, with an entreaty to "just let me finish this one story." This is a book that will be passed around, read and reread--with much pleasure.

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