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Stories old, new, and true

Books marketed as "New and Selected Stories" are the literary cousins of those greatest-hits CDs that come with a few brand-new songs tacked on as a bonus.

From the book jacket of Ron Hansen's "She Loves Me Not."
From the book jacket of Ron Hansen's "She Loves Me Not."Read more

She Loves Me Not
New and Selected Stories
By Ron Hansen
Scribner. 238 pp. $25

Books marketed as "New and Selected Stories" are the literary cousins of those greatest-hits CDs that come with a few brand-new songs tacked on as a bonus.

Such compilations, textual or aural, seem to target both casual fans, who don't know quite where in an artist's body of work to start, and die-hard devotees, who devour every word written or note played.

Typically, the writers who receive the new-and-selected treatment have published numerous acclaimed collections over the years (e.g., Steven Millhauser's We Others and Charles Baxter's Gryphon, both of which came out last year).

Ron Hansen does not quite fit this pattern. Acclaimed he is, especially as a writer of novels. Atticus (1996) was nominated for both the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (1983), made into a 2007 film starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck, was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award as well. Since Atticus, Hansen has published four more novels and a collection of essays on faith and fiction, but Nebraska, his much-loved book from 1989, has remained his sole collection of stories, which makes this new book a bit of an odd bird.

She Loves Me Not consists of 19 stories - 12 new ones and seven from Nebraska. So what do we make of this? Strung together, the 12 new stories are not substantial enough to compose a collection of their own, so that may account for the older stories here, though it's hardly a satisfying explanation. But the stories from Nebraska certainly deserve no less of an audience now than they did then, and because it's been 23 years since they first were published, they should be received with gratitude by readers both familiar and unfamiliar with them.

Six of the first nine stories come from Nebraska, and it's a pleasure to read them again, especially "Wickedness." Set in Nebraska during the Bliz-zard of 1888, this story, by means of a series of linked portraits of both survivors and victims of the storm, gradually reveals its protagonist as the wickedly indifferent storm itself. In precise and hauntingly detached prose, Hansen conjures its terrible magnificence as it annihilates every living thing in its path:

A forty-year-old wife sought out her husband in the open range land near O'Neill and days later was found standing up in her muskrat coat and black bandanna, her scarf-wrapped hands tightly clenching the top strand of rabbit wire that was keeping her upright, her blue eyes still open but cloudily bottled by a half inch of ice, her jaw unhinged as though she'd died yelling out a name.

The new stories, most of which were first published in magazines such as Harper's or literary journals such as Epoch within the last 15 years, are a mixed bag. A few serve as interesting counterparts to some of the Nebraska-era stories. For instance, "The Governess" reimagines and transforms Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, much as one of the older stories, "The Killers," does with the classic Hemingway tale. Similarly, just as he did in "Wickedness," Hansen, in "Wilde in Omaha," takes a historical event - this time, Oscar Wilde's lecture tour of America in 1882 - and shapes it so we can enter at the level of the personal.

Two other noteworthy stories are "The Sparrow" and "Wilderness." The former, a poignant tale of a boy in the months after the sudden death of his mother, explores the role of faith in our lives, in a fashion reminiscent of Hansen's critically acclaimed novel from 1991, Mariette in Ecstasy. "Wilderness," a discomfiting modern-day fairy tale, makes an excellent companion to "Playland" and "True Romance," two truly creepy stories from Nebraska.

Not all - to be honest, not even most - of the new stories, however, make much of an impression (in any case, not a good one). For instance, the violent title story, which aims to be a wacky retelling of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice (at least it recycles its plot), ends the book on a sour and unpleasant note. Still, enough of the stories hold their own with the stellar older work to make She Loves Me Not worthy of a place on the bookshelf or in the e-reader.