It's a weird world; Skip Over "Soledad" 

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It's a weird world

Wendy Brenner's "Phone Calls from the Dead," (Workman Publishers, $21.95), a collection of 10 short stories, opens auspiciously with "The Anomalist," about an encyclopedist tickled by the unusual. Professionally the main character catalogs unexplained phenomena — from "electric trees in Chicago" to "stone-swallowing by seals" — while privately he delights in "examples of simple human error, mundane malfunctions, and mechanical glitches." Fittingly, a freak incident in his own childhood — getting his head stuck in a fence at a scenic overlook — is used for arresting comparison in this story of the anomalist's burgeoning, unlikely romance with his assistant. It makes for an intriguing, strangely subtle introduction.

But a few disappointments follow. "The Nipple" toys with overly parodied teen-age Valley-talk, while "Four Squirrels" unhumourously depicts furry varmints as crass, paranoid and otherwise annoyingly human characters. "The Human Side of Instrumental Transcommunication," in which the narrator soberly believes he can tape-record messages from his deceased son, is ruined by flippancy that elbows out an eerily affecting climax.

Fortunately, the remaining stories are original and readable. In "Are We Almost There" a woman connects striking events of her childhood to an unseen soulmate; in "Mr. Puniverse" an overmetabolized weightlifter pines for his scrawny, former-mental-patient coworker; and "Remnants of Earl" peaks when an unemployed woman, her charismatic but suffering friend, and a strange dog commune during a power outage. The author resists pushing her plotlines into pure ridiculousness and instead displays them with interesting, intelligent prose.

Clearly "The Anomalist" echoes throughout the entire collection. Possible encyclopedia fodder — strange afflictions, hypersensitivities and the like—pop up regularly. Yet "Earl," in particular, represents the more skillful moments of Brenner's work, those that instead nod to the anomalist's casual tastes for the merely quirky, accidental, unexpected elements of human interaction with the world. The refusal to rely on "ordinary" details — hers are often the furthest from reality — strengthens this largely enjoyable volume. — Travis Wheeler

Skip Over "Soledad"

From Page 1, "Soledad" (Simon & Schuster, $23) suffers from juvenile writing style, choppy plot development and an overall sense that perhaps this manuscript should have spent a bit more time on the editing table. The setup is interesting: The title character moves from her West 164th Street home in New York City under the pretense of going to college. She spends two years living in a walk-up across town in the East Village, leading the "hip" life of an art student working at a gallery. When her mother lapses into an emotional coma, Soledad is summoned back to the life she would rather forget, and forced to deal with the proverbial skeletons in her mother's closet.

First-time novelist Angie Cruz makes a valiant effort to make the reader care about Soledad's struggle with her oppressive Latin American roots. Unfortunately, she merely succeeds in reinforcing the stereotypes common to contemporary portrayals of Latinos — the overbearing mother, the leering neighborhood men, the obnoxious young women. While these characteristics may seem necessary to tell this story, they are, quite simply, boring. In addition, Cruz's grasp of basic story foundations, such as building tension and use of metaphor, are surprisingly poor. All told, we've heard this story before, but told with more warmth and backbone than Cruz is able to summon. Throughout the book, the reader feels claustrophobic, wanting the characters to break loose from their stifling one-dimensionality.

One can't help but feel that the text was ripped from a high-school diary, or at best a first draft. Despite Cruz's effort to raise this book to epic levels, she has inadvertently cranked out an utterly forgettable novel.

Matthew King


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