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Insights from an omnivorous eye

REMOTE FEED, by David Gilbert (Scribner, $21).

If you read one short story collection all year, promise me it will be Gilbert's. He's cynical, acerbic and surly _ and therein lies his charm. He's also just about the funniest social commentator since Fran Lebowitz (who was kind enough to grace Gilbert's debut jacket with a uncharacteristically gushing quote.)

He writes scathingly of the privileged in despair like the Hollywood movie mogul who flees his chaotic life in "Anaconda Wraps." Or the gin and tonic-thirsty suburbanite at the trendy booze-free neighborhood party in "Cool Moss." The party hosts have hired a popular self-help guru to motivate everybody to walk on hot coals. The narrator gets into it "against all my group hug instincts."

To call Gilbert insightful is an understatement. Like a cinematographer, he can see a scene from every angle. In his stories, men have mid-life crises, college women act out their twisted rape fantasies with their boyfriends in their dorms, couples dose their relationships with cruelty and games. Gilbert focuses on all of it with a harsh and uncompromising glare.

This guy misses nothing.

LOTERIA & OTHER STORIES, by Ruben Mendoza (Buzz, $12.95).

Mendoza's debut collection marries the traditional Latin American magic realism a la Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez to the hipness of contemporary Los Angeles. The 25-year-old Mexican-American author writes with a laconic sophistication, using Mexico's popular Loteria card game and its picture cards as a motif for his intertwining stories. Beginning each story with a different Loteria card, he weaves their subjects _ el musico (music), la luna (the moon), la muerte (death) _ into each tale's theme.

Mendoza's stories vary both in length _ some are two pages, some are 20 _ and tone. He writes with startling wisdom. In the eerie "Second Thoughts" he captures the rambling thoughts of a dead man or perhaps one on his deathbed, who is tantalized by the mingling scents of formaldehyde and the perfume of his wife.

He also writes playfully: In the title story a grandmother refers to her gray-haired husband as "Gris Lightning."

Using the Loteria cards as springboards, Mendoza writes of passion, jazz, food, sex, heartbreak. In short, he writes of life.

Gina Vivinetto's First Time Out column appears monthly.

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