A seventh collection of nine stories and a novella from the National Book Awardwinner (The Age of Miracles, 1995, etc.) offers an indomitable cast of characters, including the return of a favorite, the unsinkable Nora Jane. Now married to Freddy Harwood and mother to ten-year-old twin girls, Nora Jane figures in several pieces here, including the novella ``Nora Jane and Company.'' Freddy, Nora Jane, and their devoted shadow Nieman Gluuk are such endearing, gentle, happy souls that some pretty severe external forces are needed to punch up the plot. But for this Berkeley bunch, not the assassination by fanatics of a visiting poet, the bombing of Freddy's bookstore by pro-life extremists, or a visitation by the spirit of Leonardo da Vinci can puncture their charmed perspective on life. Following the novella is a story tracing Nora Jane's hectic childhood in New Orleans that throws light on the origins of her exuberant personality. There's also Dan the Golden Retriever, the title character in ``The Dog Who Delivered Papers to the Stars,'' who's caught in a domestic dispute and shot in the neck by a disgruntled husband. Miraculously, he survives, is taken in by a young man with AIDS, and serves as the catalyst for a variety of domestic rearrangements and reprisals. The best of the tales, ``A Man Who Looked Like Me,'' portrays a woman, now in midlife, reveling in the memory of her high school sweetheart. Reflections on the man she should have married, ``a young man who would never be mean, never fail at anything, never be cruel, never stop knowing life was funny,'' are nourishing but not bittersweet, for all of Gilchrist's characters have an admirable zest for life. A winning collection, filled with humor, love, and just enough human meanness to make things interesting. Gilchrist knows how to tell a story.