A pair of books in the wild

These two short-story collections could become favorite pets

If you stay alert in the forest of fall books, you might spot a lovely new pair of short-story collections. These are wily books, marked by wit and tenderness. They inspire the sudden delight and apprehension of seeing a masked raccoon on the porch.

The 26 stories in Christina Adam's Any Small Thing Can Save You move from "Asp" to "Bat" to "Cat," down to "Yellow Jacket" and finally "Zoo," running through the alphabet of animals. Most are only a few pages long, just a brief but startling sighting that catches loneliness or longing in flight.

In the opening story, a retired couple in New Mexico is adjusting to themselves and all their new free time. She's full of plans for the garden, but after a lifetime of ranching, her husband would rather sit in his underwear reviewing their finances.

A little snake in the kitchen disrupts the evening, but more than that, it ignites the dry timbers of their frustration with each other. Still angry as she prepares for bed, she wonders whether to tell her husband that she's no longer afraid of snakes. "Such a small decision," Adam writes. "It would be only one moment in so many of their years together, yet she knew. It would make all the difference in the world."

Indeed, this book is a series of such little, crucial moments, each carefully arranged around the presence of an animal. In "Dove," a woman struggles to get hunters off her property before discovering that her husband gave them permission. As usual in this collection, there is no crisis, no straw that breaks the camel's back. Instead, each story spots just a single, indicative paw print in the soft soil of a marriage or a friendship.

Even the shortest stories here are surprisingly moving, but perhaps the most wonderful one is the longest. "Moose" tells the story of a divorced woman struggling to live alone, to make friends, to stay alive in an extremely harsh climate. One winter day, she startles a moose, which reacts by stomping her into the snow. It's a potentially deadly situation, but to her surprise, her friendship with a sweet old man keeps her alive in the ice, proving again that the small things in this collection are salvation indeed.

Sightings of Jill McCorkle always cause excitement. Each of the 12 stories in Creatures of Habit is also named after a different animal. A few of these are bound to be bagged and mounted in anthologies.

In a small North Carolina town, she starts with children and concludes with great gentleness in memory of a wonderful father. As a storyteller, McCorkle seems to wander randomly like a coyote through the grass, a playful jaunt that ends with a sudden, deadly pounce.

Her first story, "Billy Goats," captures the ominous freedom of kids in summer twilight. The children flutter around dull streets, excited by rumors of tragedy and depravity that their parents believe are safely concealed in whispers. "We were too old for kick the can and too young to make out," she writes. It's a story of equal parts wit and agony, designed to corrode simple nostalgia.

"Snipe" follows little Caroline and her older brother on a futile hunt with their father. McCorkle has a perfect ear for the quick-switch emotions of children as they struggle to negotiate the wonders and horrors of the world waiting for them. "Caroline froze," she writes, "part of her wanting so bad to go; it was the same part of her that wanted to be in the first grade and have a book sack to carry. But then there was the other side, the school dungeon and Mrs. Hopper's nighttime teeth and a big brown animal like a rhinoceros with wings."

Those fantasies and fears are no more reliable later in life. In "Chickens," "the honeymoon was over before it began." When Lisa and her plastic-surgeon husband arrive at a seedy hotel in the Poconos, she knows it was a mistake (even though they have a cotton-candy machine).

Her new husband is everything a girl could want: He's rich; he praises her appearance, noting that he wouldn't dream of raising his scalpel to her. But there's something annoying about the advice he offers, based on his first (failed) marriage. "Was she the first person to ever feel this way," she wonders. "This washover of sick regret?"

In "Hominids," that regret has settled into a thick slime. The story describes a reunion of old married friends. The guys are laughing over bawdy jokes as their patient wives sit by, bored and embarrassed. Finally, one of them objects and shames the guys into silence, but she knows she's being peevish and the effect is only temporary. Evolution doesn't happen overnight.

In "Cats," a woman finds herself having to return her confused ex-husband, now suffering from a brain illness, to his new young wife. Another woman, in a particularly funny story called "Toads," can only laugh at the predicament of caring for her excruciatingly dull stepfather, "an ottoman of a man."

If there's any weakness in these books, it's that the men too often come off as quiet and sullen, unable or unwilling to give the women in their lives the emotional support they need. Despite their skill with this popular cliché, both authors repeat it so many times that they risk sounding thematically monotone. (But I don't want to talk about that. So just leave me alone and stop your nagging.)

That complaint aside, these collections are infused with affection, balanced among darker emotions that are unthinkable or unbearable. Yes, they're full of animals, but they're all spectacularly human.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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