From an author who mentions himself as a writer of ""familiar essays,"" here are 20 pieces that challenge (and for the most part do so with fruitful results) the artificial boundary between story and essay. Taking up topics that range from growing bald to raising chickens, from setting broom-balancing records (in college) to exploring reincarnation (in high school), and from hearing tall tales about the weather to teaching in creative-writing programs, Allen manages often to find the delicate resonance in his material that makes these story-essays speak for themselves and come alive. At their best, in tones reminiscent of Thoreau or E.B. White, the pieces touch on the vast and cosmic with a subtle and reverently whispered irony. On tearing down a deserted old doghouse, for example: ""Whenever a wall went down, there was a last-ditch lunge for life by inhabitants of the doghouse--mostly small bugs, but there were centipedes in there, too, as well as frogs or toads, and a lot of crickets."" ""I do best,"" writes the author, ""observing things that don't mind being observed, like plants and animals,"" and the reader is inclined, admiringly, to agree. Hornets, snakes, and century-old cannon balls in Cedar Hill, Texas, are rendered with a poised and breathless perfection (""The large rear wheel spun free, and in the hole were rattlesnakes like spaghetti in a colander""), but trips to Central America are less successfully effected, particularly when the satire becomes commonplace and shallow, and Allen's portrayals of the writer's life (""my writing--which I really do work at, sort of"") verge merely toward the thinly melancholic. On balance, though, the touch here is light, the voice engaging, and the judgment quietly humane. A book for readers of all stripes and persuasions, provided only that they're willing, as Allen is, to accept a belief in life as it is.