Things You Should Know A.M. Homes Thursday, Sep 26 Powell's City of Books

Things You Should Know: A Collection of Stories, is the latest from A.M. Homes, whose previous work includes The Safety of Objects and Music for Torching. These stories are personal, momentary plunges into one quirky tragedy after another. One of her strengths is the imagination with which she invents scenarios; the characters' trials are normalcy smudged, angled in such a way as to resonate with ungraceful truth. They document the less-considered, less-glamorized ways people suffer.

Their awkwardness makes them believably uncomfortable, drawing the reader into unprecedented confusions. Homes upsets predictable reactions by choosing unlikely perspectives: A man who has a tracking chip inserted in his mother-in-law, the lonely companion of a boy whose father accidentally runs over a 13-year-old, the Reagans, an accident victim/sperm thief, and a changeling, for instance. The stories are uniformly compassionate, divulging mutant thoughts without even a trace of condemnation. The premise is tragedy, hovering on losses, deaths, hurdles, and handicaps. Remarkably, Homes occasionally makes the pitiable feel normal, and sometimes reassuring.

The style is like taking short swims in character brains that constantly take descriptive note on seemingly mundane symbols. It almost feels formulaic. Insert kooky character plus unexpected situation plus focus on odd details. Such detailing sometimes subsumes the characters, who become entirely constructed by their problems and idiosynchracies, while the stories drag their voyeuristic entrails out of one window and into another. The disjointed specifics replace a composite or cohesive picture.

This can be frustrating, because the characters feel as though they are being described around. "My father and Cindy were sitting at the dining-room table, gnawing like rabbits on the remains of a huge salad--my father's evening grazing, as always, supplemented by a microwave Lean Eating entrée, parked by his plate like someone's morning vitamin pill." Such descriptions often come in lieu of really knowing the character, leaving them to be defined by their surroundings.

But overall, this collection is quite touching. MARJORIE SKINNER