March 31, 2003 12:00 PM

By ZZ Packer

Critic’s Choice

“I’d been given milk to settle my stomach; I’d pretended it was coffee. I imagined I was drinking coffee elsewhere,” the narrator of Packer’s title story recalls of her mother’s funeral. In this debut collection of stories, the central characters are African-Americans who talk about their unease in a white-dominated world in biting, bitter and occasionally hilarious voices. They wish they were somewhere else but aren’t quite sure how to get there. Some of the stories are good (in “Brownies,” a black troop at a Brownie camp sets its sights on taking down a white troop); others are exceptional, such as “Our Lady of Peace,” about a young teacher in Baltimore at war with her students and herself. Settle in with this book and you’ll be treating yourself to a bottomless cup of longing, loneliness and real, vital literature. (River-head, $24.95)

BOTTOM LINE: An original and funny new voice

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