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ON AUDIO

Small shots of intoxicating fiction

Short stories are delectable bits of fiction easily digested during a lazy stroll or an afternoon of housecleaning. Sweet or scary, they are one of the genres best suited for audiobooks, since you can usually finish one quickly without having to save the leftovers for later.

Some of the more intelligent short stories in audiobook land are on the yearly release of ''Selected Shorts" by Symphony Space. The stories are culled from acclaimed authors and paired with skilled actors, recorded live at the Peter Norton Symphony Space in New York City, and aired on National Public Radio. The best of the recordings from the year are released on CD, with the focus this year on humor.

The first story in ''Selected Shorts, Volume XVIII" is by Nicholson Baker, an author known for his ability to so detail the mundane it seems positively hilarious. In the case of ''Subsoil," an agricultural historian realizes that we truly are what we eat. Reader Thomas Gibson has a slightly sardonic edge to his narration that works wonderfully; he gets the joke and runs with it. The result is blackly funny before it turns effectively creepy. You will never look at a potato the same way again.

The best in this collection of seven stories is ''Chivalry," by Neil Gaiman. The idea is very simple: A widow finds the Holy Grail in an Oxfam shop and decides it will look perfect on her mantel. All is well until Sir Galahad turns up on her doorstep, hoping to complete his quest in her modest living room. Unfortunately, this smart and sweet little gem is paired with the weakest reader in the bunch, actress Christina Pickles, who fumbles too often and does not sound prepared.

One of the delights of a live performance is the intimacy created by audience laughter and the slight mistakes that always happen onstage. And one can clearly hear the way an audience helps keep the reader's narration buoyant and lively. The downside is that if you get a narrator who is over the top, a producer cannot jump in and tone him down. Such is the case with Charles Keating's rendition of an amusing tale by John Updike about a golfer and the strange relationship he has with his Scottish caddy. Keating affects a Scottish burr for ''Farrell's Caddie" that is so thick one cannot always understand him.

Random House has gathered audio stories from their hard-copy publication ''Legends II: New Short Novels by the Masters of Modern Fantasy." The latest in the collection is ''Legends II: Volume Three," with three stories close to novella length by Robert Silverberg, Gaiman, and Orson Scott Card. Each author has won at least one Nebula or Hugo Award for his work in the genre.

Though not all the stories from the anthology have made it to audio, those that did are unabridged. In each, the author has taken established characters and spun stand-alone stories. They serve as either introductions to listeners or as adjuncts to series already heard and admired.

In the case of Gaiman's ''The Monarch of the Glen," his character Shadow from ''American Gods" is traveling through a craggy and remote Scottish village. This is the best of the three if only because it sounds the most complete as a stand-alone story. Narrator Michael Emerson conjures up a strong Scottish accent and several other British voices. Of the three tales, this is the one that lingers, leaving the listener wanting more.

Silverberg revisits characters from his Majipoor Chronicles in ''The Book of Changes." Though nominally a sword-and-sorcerer tale, it is basically about a poet's writing block and how he gets over it. It is read capably by Jason Culp, but nothing about this dazzles, though fans of Silverberg's popular series may feel differently.

The third story, by Orson Scott Card, is set in an alternate America in which there wasn't a Civil War, and Abe Lincoln and Jim Bowie play much different roles than expected. This story is imaginative but also a little confusing to those of us not familiar with the Alvin Maker series. It is, however, very well read by Peter Bradbury, who has a deep Southern voice that is smooth on the surface yet becomes slightly gravelly when he's riled up. He manages different, believable voices for various characters.

Canadian author Alice Munro's latest collection, ''Runaway: Stories," is the literary equivalent of a chick flick. That is, if the chick flick had been written by Tolstoy.

Most of the stories are detailed explorations into the pasts of several women and the circumstances that brought them to their present lives. The title story, however, is a powerful depiction of an abused young wife and her inability to leave her husband. The three-story arc about a young woman who meets a married man on a train is poignant and honest. But the standout is ''Tricks," the powerfully sad tale of a lonely nurse who meets a clockmaker. Because of a misunderstanding for which ''Shakespeare should have prepared her," any potential happiness for the two of them evaporates with a broken promise.

The reason this does not come as highly recommended as the quality of the writing would demand is that the reader, Kymberly Dakin, has a pleasant enough voice, but it is too thin and during more emotional passages can sound too timid. She isn't awful, but she's certainly not memorable.

Rochelle O'Gorman is publisher and editor in chief of audiobookcafe.com, an online magazine featuring daily reviews, interviews, and articles relating to the audiobook industry.

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