If Ravenel still finds it difficult to define the South in strict geographical terms, she nevertheless demonstrates a fine editorial notion of what constitutes ""southerness"" in literary terms for the fifth volume in this annual series. A strong sense of voice and place, a tragic kind of humor, a concern with race and religion, and the celebration of a distinct sort of eccentricity: these are just a few of the typically southern elements in these 16 stories, all reprinted from a wide array of literary magazines. Lewis Nordan's Mississippi white trash provide for delightfully low comedy in ""The Cellar of Runt Conroy,"" and newcomer Donna Trussell finds some poignant yucks in her narrative of a teen-aged unwed mother (""Fishbone""). Bob Shacochis and Rick Bass bring a flash of magic realism to their tales, the first about two wizened old maids living uneasy in the islands (""Les Femmes Creoles""), and the latter set in a Mississippi ghost-town (""The History of Rodney""). Elderly southern ladies chatter engagingly in a few of the finest pieces here: Greg Johnson's naive Atlanta matron invites a young professor to board with her, only to have him leave in a scandal she doesn't understand (""The Boarder""); Clyde Edgerton's cattier narrator gossips on about a local divorcÃ‰e, her new husband, and her son's accidental death (""Changing Names""); and Ron Robinson's octogenarian from Oklahoma stays alive by involving herself in the drama of her neighbor's wild dog (""Where We Land""). In Nanci Kincaid's ""Spittin' Image of a Baptist Boy,"" a difficult old Baptist woman from Georgia makes life miserable for her son in Florida, who has recently married a Methodist divorcee with kids. Reginald McKnight's ""The Kind of Light That Shines on Texas"" deals with race in its account of a black Air Force brat forced to attend an almost all-white school in Texas. Top honors, though, go to Richard Bausch's beautifully elegiac ""Letter to the Lady of the House."" This annual series has now established itself an an essential read for short-story fans.