Novelist Atwood writes a mild, conventional introduction to her choices for this year's Best, which themselves are mostly mild and conventional stories. Three stand out, however--Bharati Mukhergee's large-feeling-ed "The Management of Grief"; Michael Cunningham's ash-tasting "White Angel"; and Robert Boswell's semi-pulp but very effective "Living To Be A Hundred." Blanche McCrary Boyd and Larry Brown weigh in with strong works of voice, style of narration overcoming slightness of material. But the rest--even from solid performers like Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro--are not the strongest stories imaginable for a cream of the crop. Atwood reaches out to include Canadians and an Oriental writer (David Wong Louie) and a Native American one (Linda Hogan), but the fictions themselves are less than stellar and often quite predictable in angle and attack. Meanwhile, Rick DeMarinis, in "The Flowers of Boredom," does provide a context for his story--a defense contractor--that is very different, the world of work separated from the other stories' more common private emotions; and it oddly serves to make the rest seem fairly hothouse-ish by comparison.