SHORT STORIES

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By Land, By Sea, by William Hoffman. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. 173 pp. $16.95. Whether they're Chesapeake Bay watermen or farm-equipment mechanics, William Hoffman's characters are intimately tied to the earth and its elements. The author's sense of place keeps the 12 short stories in ``By Land, By Sea'' anchored deep and true and allows him to explore themes that matter: father-son relationships, growing old, surviving under duress, and faith.

In one of the most moving stories, ``Patriot,'' a coal miner who loves his home as much as he enjoys hard physical labor finds one odd job after another rather than pull up stakes when the mine is closed down: ``His torso was short and thick, but he had a dignity, a refusal to back off or bow that was like rudimentary nobility....'' In ``Cuttings'' a middle-aged businessman puts his stamina to the test when he single-handedly chops down a dying oak tree; later, however, he feels a ``gentle, aching sadness entwined with a descending peace.''

And in the eloquent ``The Question of Rain,'' a minister has to find his own peace with God when parishioners ask him for a special day of prayer for needed rain for their crops. ``We don't pray to ask favors as if He's a rich uncle,'' he explains to his rebellious flock, ``but to have fellowship with Him, to achieve a feeling that we are close and in His care.''

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Author of nine novels and former writer-in-residence at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, Hoffman takes readers on leisurely strolls through well-loved Virginia backwoods and along familiar Chesapeake shores.

He introduces us to the small-town rural South of Tobaccoton and Dry Branch, to characters with names like Dip Cooley and Spud Hogge, to the sounds of mockingbirds in crape myrtle.

Readers looking for lyric scenery will find plenty, in passages where ``... minutes crept like woolly worms laboring across the rounded, moss-mortared bricks of the front walk,'' and ``tree toads squatted among lichenous branches of oaks to voice the hot pulse of the night.'' Family Attractions, by Judith Freeman. New York: Viking. 227 pp. $16.95.

Judith Freeman makes an appealing publishing debut with ``Family Attractions,'' a collection of 11 short stories that generally affirm the small, unheralded acts that hold families together in a fast-changing world.

An inviting tone is set in the title story, in which a 63-year-old bachelor marries and becomes father, overnight, to two teen-age daughters.

In succeeding stories, the point of view shifts from an adolescent who's having her first brush with sensuality in ``Pretend We're French,'' to a spinsterish traveler whose wariness of men takes center stage in ``The Botanic Gardens.''

The author's Mormon upbringing figures in two of the most effective tales: Faith is found and abandoned in ``The Death of a Mormon Elder,'' and in ``Clearfield'' a single mother, no longer active in the church, discovers how far she has come in finding her own self-worth.

Freeman's writing is warmly intuitive, and many of her stories are braced with sardonic humor. In ``What Is This Movie?'' a teen-ager watches with glee as her grandmother methodically flattens the tires on the car of her mother's former lover.

In ``Pretend We're French,'' a young girl begins to doubt that being a dutiful wife and mother is the ``highest calling'' in life - ``not because I didn't believe ... that it was ... but because I hadn't had any dates yet. I was becoming a pragmatist.'' Emperor of the Air, by Ethan Canin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 181 pp. $15.95.

``Emperor of the Air'' takes a similarly affirmative look at family dynamics but generally fails to explore relationships in much depth or to take readers beyond the pleasantries of introductions to intimate, first-name familiarity.

The nine stories are the work of newcomer Ethan Canin, a fourth-year medical student at Harvard and a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop. Canin has received surprising news media attention as the latest winner of the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship.

His families are a quirky lot, some more troubled - and more thematically interesting - than others.

In most of these stories, the voice is male, and to borrow from Tennessee Williams, Canin's most intriguing characters are those who are looking at the stars: In the title story a father teaches his son (albeit incorrectly) about the glories of the night skies; ``Star Food'' features a mother who encourages her son to stay on the roof of the family grocery store in the evening, dreaming his - and her - dreams of greatness to come.

The author is a quick study, a sharp observer of telling detail, and a storyteller of great exuberance. Canin shows stylistic promise in this collection, and with some added subtleties and nuances his future work ought to make for more lasting, more satisfying reading.

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