A grab bag of stories, winner of the 1993 Willa Cather Fiction Prize. Plunge in your hand and you could emerge with a real gem -- or a plastic ring. All of Pierce's tales feature women or girls living by their own rules. Men exist to advance plots, provide obstacles, and color the landscape, but they are generally not very active unless they are making mistakes. Fortunately, the women are consistently lively and smart, although the stories they inhabit are not always their equals. Some have an experimental air about them. ""J*e*w*e*l,"" for example -- in which the eponymous 11-year-old narrator (a chambermaid at her mother's motel) addresses readers monologue-style -- reads like character prep-work for a story. Other tales convey well the elevating mysteries of their characters' otherwise mundane lives. A device Pierce uses repeatedly (as in ""Remarkable,"" ""Star Box,"" and ""The Twins"") is to have one character dead at the onset, offering an opportunity for relatives and friends to speculate on the deceased and recover from tragedy with dignity; melodrama is scrupulously avoided. ""Remarkable"" and ""Sans Homme"" (her best story) star two of Pierce's most captivating characters: Lydie and Lily, women with ""neglected elegance"" and enviable malleability. Lydie, said to have gone mad after the death of her son, seems like a one-dimensional nut to her daughter, but shows another side upon meeting her young grandson. Lily, who appears to have stepped out of a Dorothy Parker tale, is a gossiped-about socialite who is never sans homme but always places her young daughter (her closest companion and strongest champion) before the men. ""Sans Homme"" and to a lesser extent ""The Empire Beauty Salon"" (about a Manhattan hairdresser relocated to Maine) read like whispered confidences; they are truly memorable. Enough of the sublime to make it worth wading through the so-so.