Many roads are traveled in this sixth gathering of the best stories culled from the nation's writing programs and conferences. Novelist and critic Smiley (Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, p. 782) approvingly notes the benefits such institutions offer to both writers and readers-and there's indeed much to stimulate readers' brains in the range of subjects and effects these 15 stories encompass. Unfamiliar cultures and faraway places are explored in Matt Friedson's depiction of life in, and out of, a "Reeducation Center for Delinquent Youths" in wartime Vietnam ("Liberty") and Jessica Anthony's claustrophobic monologue spoken by a U.S. World War II soldier stranded in a South Pacific jungle ("The Rust Preventer"). In alien cultures closer to home, Melanie Westerberg delineates the complex emotions of a female aquarium worker attracted by the sleek beauty of sharks ("Watermark"), and Andrew Foster Altschul's conflicted narrator wrestles with mingled empathy and rage at a shelter for abused women ("A New Kind of Gravity"). Conventional narrative is deliberately fragmented by the sexually confused California slacker who narrates Albert E. Martinez's "Useless Beauty . . ." (a story spun from an Esquire magazine feature) and in Kaui Hart Hemmings's story of an alienated girl's attempts to describe her feelings about her drug-dealing father ("Begin with an Outline"). Realism is eschewed altogether in Jennifer Shaff's ruefully comic picture of a bereaved phys-ed teacher whose grief is healed by a "visitation" from Star Trek's Mr. Spock ("Leave of Absence"). It's equaled, perhaps surpassed by, Michelle Regalado Deatrick's beautifully paced revelation of a lonely boy's guilt over theaccident that destroyed his family and shaped his later life ("Backfire"). This little masterpiece stands out among several varied depictions of filial conflict (Amber Dermont's "Lyndon," Gegory Plemmons's plaintive "Twinless") and family unhappiness (Sian M. Jones's "Pilot," Sean Ennis's "Going After Lovely"). Impressive craftsmanship and high imaginative quality distinguish an annual that's becoming an essential.