I love anthologies, particularly of short stories. But I must confess I never follow the editor’s carefully thought-out arrangement.

Certainly, I hit pay dirt with this year’s O. Henry prize collection.  The very first story I dove into “Good faith” by Colleen Morrissey wowed me on first reading and ended up being my favorite.

What made it so good? Snake handlers, religion, a summer road-trip, girls coming of age, family conflict, romance, and camping out under the stars. It tells the story of a religious family travelling the south who meet two rich young men on the road.

That night the leading character Rachel does snake handling, not for entertainment, as she tells the more serious young man, Mr. Pattinson, but as part of her faith and religious practice.

After she pulls the rattler out of its box, the young man’s stares unnerve Rachel enough that she feels fear--something strange to her snake handling. For a moment she stops convinced that she will be bitten, but then she overcomes this challenge to her faith and falls deeply into the experience, so much so, that the Spirit takes her to another place.

Mr. Pattinson and Rachel talk often, as much as Rachel’s sequestered Christian lifestyle allows, and they discuss matters of faith, and even her marriage prospects since she cannot marry outside her faith. This intriguing story totally transports you to the dusty south during a religious snake tour.

The next story, “The Right Imaginary Person” is also transformative.  Robert Anthony Siegel describes a love affair between two students: an American man in Tokyo and his Japanese girlfriend. The woman who writes wonderful scifi short stories on the side—she is interning as a kindergarten teacher—calls most of the shots in the love affair.

The reader soon realizes that it’s the clash in cultures that endangers their love the most, and a visit to the woman’s family home shows them how little they know of each other’s pasts or ways of communicating.

In another excellent story "Oh Shenandoah" by local writer and IU professor, Maura Stanton, she describes another side of touristy, romantic Venice, the quest for a new toilet seat.  Along the way the narrator and her friend have many adventures including an impromptu concert by American students singing the title classic in the beautiful city of canals.

I also really loved one of the quirkiest and most unusual stories, “The Inheritors” by Kristen Iskandrian. It describes the deepening relationship of two women coworkers in a thrift store. How they connect over a visit to one’s house where they eat squash on chipped plates and silently watch TV together.  This one night changes both their lives.

Finally, among these twenty varied but exceptionally well-written stories is the exquisite flash fiction piece “Deep Eddy.”  In only a page and a half, Michael Parker gives a lyric tribute to one of the waterways of his youth.

Don’t miss this year’s striking collection of short fiction.