Discussions of contemporary literature rarely go far without acknowledging Alice Munro as the bantamweight champion of the short story. And at the age of 81, she gives no indication of relinquishing the title. Munro has released her 13th collection of stories, "Dear Life" (Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95), and it shows this Canadian writer still perfecting the bleak but powerful fiction -- "Chekhovian" is the favored descriptor -- for which she is justly celebrated.
Set chiefly in the small towns and remoter reaches of Munro's native Ontario, the stories in "Dear Life" depict how chance events and unintended consequences shape individual destinies. In "Train," a soldier returning home from the Second World War impulsively hops off the rail car before his stop and slips into the spartan farm life of a woman he encounters, although he "had never been in a stable in his life or herded cows or stooked grain."
In "Amundsen," an inexperienced young woman comes to teach school at a tuberculosis sanitarium in the north woods -- "like being inside a Russian novel," she dreamily suggests -- again during World War II. Her sudden acceptance of an older doctor's marriage proposal, and the unexpected course of their affair, will haunt her years later.
These stories are terser than Munro's earlier work, which packed the richness of a novel into the confines of a well-ordered short story. Here everything is honed to a stark, ice-hard beauty. Munro ends the collection with a surprise for longtime readers, four tales presented as mostly autobiographical, "the first and last -- and the closest -- things I have to say about my own life." Together, they reveal the author sifting through odd pieces of her childhood -- the death of a young woman who worked for the family, a bout of insomnia and dark nighttime thoughts -- to fashion a kaleidoscopic self-portrait.
Munro is closely associated with The New Yorker magazine, where many of her stories first appeared. The British author Tessa Hadley belongs to a younger generation of New Yorker writers; her new collection, "Married Love" (HarperPerennial, $14.99 paper), would be a natural choice for any reader who loves Munro's unshowy but pitch-perfect prose.
"A Mouthful of Cut Glass" follows a young couple -- Sheila is a vicar's daughter, Neil grew up working-class -- who meet at university and discover, on visits with one another's families, just how deeply the differences cut. Observing Neil in her father's study dancing to a rock record, Sheila is "taken aback by this stranger of hers, ensconced so outrageously in the innermost sanctum of her family home. The shock of it was voluptuous; she felt with a shudder that the closer Neil came to her, the less familiar he was."
In "Because the Night," a young girl resents the intrusion of a troubled young man into her family circle, a former special-needs student of her mother's who sleeps in the extra bedroom and skulks about the house sucking up his former teacher's attentions. In "The Godchildren," three unrelated adults descend on the house of their late godmother, recalling the awkward but charmed visits they had paid her as children barely known to one another. "Licensed, leaving shame behind them in the real world, they had expanded into the place Vivien made for them, reinventing themselves, becoming in the free space of [her home] exceptional."
Hadley's touch in these stories is always light but assured; in a few strokes she sketches the emotional lives of her characters with pinpoint clarity and cool empathy.
If you haven't had your fill of stories after Munro and Hadley, pick up a copy of "Object Lessons: The Paris Review presents The Art of the Short Story" (Picador, $16 paper). It's edited by Lorin Stein and Sadie Stein, the editor and deputy editor of a literary journal that, like The New Yorker, has kept faith with short fiction in lean times. They asked a host of current practitioners -- Lydia Davis, Lorrie Moore and Wells Tower, among others -- to select a favorite story from The Paris Review archives and comment on it. There are some genuine surprises -- I loved Craig Nova's "Another Drunk Gambler," a sly story about a racetrack scam (chosen by Ann Beattie) and the sibling psychological warfare of "Lying Presences" by Norman Rush (a Mona Simpson pick). Worth the admission price alone is Jeffrey Eugenides' deft reading of Denis Johnson's dark, challenging "Car Crash While Hitchhiking."