AN ORNITHOLOGIST'S GUIDE TO LIFE

By Ann Hood

Norton. 237 pp. $23.95

Sometimes the "literary" life can get a little depressing. I've been reading and writing for around 65 years now, and how can it be that I've never read anything by -- or even heard of -- somebody as wonderful as Ann Hood? The woman's written seven books before this -- maybe eight if you count her spiritual work -- so how can I explain my ignorance? I suppose the convenient, standard place to point the finger of blame is at the publishing industry itself, which so rigorously divides this country into regions: Hood's tour for this collection of stories is limited to Boston, Providence and Washington, D.C., which kind of leaves out 99 percent of this country.

But you in Washington will get to see her, and I wish you would. "An Ornithologist's Guide to Life" is, for one thing, a collection of short stories that makes it possible to be proud to be human; it's an antidote to the vulgarity, love-of-violence and bone-dumb stupidity we tend to encounter every day. (Or, maybe I just hang out with the wrong crowd.) These tales are unpretentious, sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking, but all written from a position of tenderness so profound that at any moment, on any page, feeling bursts, explodes, into painful knowledge or knowledgeable pain.

In "The Language of Sorrow," a bus bringing a grandson to visit his grandma Dora gives "a heavy sigh" as it pulls into the station. The bus is carrying heartbreak: The kid has gotten his girlfriend pregnant and has been banished from the scene until the girl has the baby and gives it up for adoption. The kid is bitter for another reason: He thinks his dad committed suicide while he was high on cocaine. But it was "an accident," Dora insists. "I call it an accident." We (and he) learn that her husband and lover have both died, and her daughter is a lesbian. Over months, grandma and grandson form a cautious relationship, and the kid comes out of himself enough to say, "Boy, you've had a sad life, haven't you?" Again, she denies it. But the end of this story made me burst into tears.

Other stories are more easygoing. In "Joelle's Mother," the Joelle in question is a sister, a half sister, and daughter to a dad who left Joelle's mother to take up with another woman who has three more children by him. These three girls are boisterous, goofy, cheery Italian Americans. They're absolutely crazy about their half sister, who comes for periodic custodial visits and brings with her a slightly acrid aura of what is -- and what is not -- correct. Her clothes are perfect. Her mother belongs to a country club. Joelle calls a chaise lounge a "chez"; their Italian American mother refers to that piece of furniture as a "chase." Joelle carries a bitterness the little half sisters can't begin to understand, and a domestic tragedy -- later rectified -- occurs.

Children are fated to live with the sins and terrible mistakes of their parents. In "Escapes," Caryn, sister to a man who has committed suicide, is persuaded by her drug addicted sister-in-law to take in Jennifer, Caryn's teenage niece. The two live together for a few weeks having (what passes for) a good time in San Francisco doing tourist things. But Jennifer has a couple of problems. She shoplifts a lot of costume jewelry and sports some pretty bad scars on her wrists. No one has told Jennifer what happened to her father. What's the right thing for Caryn to do?

What, indeed, is the right thing to do in any circumstance? In "Dropping Bombs" a mother who is childish and terrified by nature visits her grown son, who is gay. Maybe she's so childish and terrified because of the big lie that stays between them. She knows, of course, and does everything but stand on her head to get him to talk to her. He can't. She finally makes a little speech: "I think it's a shame that people can't be who they are. Whatever that is. If someone loves you, they don't care who you are. They love you no matter what. You have to be yourself. Be happy with who you are." Finally, after moments of silence, he is able to say, "Thank you," but only that.

There are chipper stories here: In "After Zane," Beth, a brokenhearted woman, mourns the (insert expletive here!) husband who's left her to go back to his first wife (whom he left after a nine-year marriage). Beth is pregnant: She can't drink, smoke, do drugs, pick up strange men or indulge in any of the other consolations of the dumped wife. She passes her time cooking sweet concoctions. There's a very happy ending here. It made me laugh, against my will.

And Hood is capable of writing horror. In "New People," Marjorie Macomber (fictional descendant of Hemingway's famous bitch-on-wheels, Margot Macomber?) is thin, rich, tan, beautiful and 49. She lives in a lovely old house in a neighborhood encroached upon by "new people," poorer, chubbier and with far less taste than the Macomber family. Marjorie's daughter, Bonnie, also well married, is pregnant, and Marjorie doesn't take to the idea of being a grandma. She does take to the gorgeous teenage tattooed yard boy. Oh, gee! That's bad! She's risking everything. But the little girls next door are hiding from someone, something, and it turns out another member of this seemingly perfect family has done something really bad, risked everything and lost.

These are wonderful stories! Ann Hood is a wonderful surprise. And judging from the dedication here -- "In loving memory of my daughter Gracie Belle, September 24, 1996-April 18, 2002" -- one of the bravest women in the world.