In her first collection, Circling the Drain (Rob Weisbach Books; $23), Amanda Davis delivers the stuff of good short stories: passionate writing, empathetic characters, themes of alienation and loss, and beautiful language that keeps stinging long after you read it. A daughter who runs away from her past confronts a mentally incapacitated father who no longer knows anything of it. A woman is haunted by the memory of her murdered older sister: "Lucy! I screamed and spun around. Lucy! Lucy! Lucy! The field was a green sheet cake surrounded by a ring of tiny trees and I was its centerpiece, a ballerina, a hollow figurine." The most affecting stories are simply told, with the sweet, kooky humor of Grace Paley. In one, a boyfriend once named Fred Luck pops up unexpectedly: "It's Jack now, he said. . . . Jack Luck, I asked? I was thinking with noodles. I was thinking with duck sauce and white rice."