A Flannery O'Connor Award debut collection of 15 stories-- about half of which have appeared in small mags--that's well- written, straight-forward, and also a bit monotonous. Set in monotone landscapes--sandy, snowy, or flat--Nelson's gloomy stories are about loss, darkness, and the''burdens we carry.'' In ``Dixon,'' a 40-year-old woman finds her losses mounting--her husband leaves, her brother dies, and she must defend the latter against the local rumors concerning him. Some very short pieces pursue similar themes: ``Evolution of Words'' is an elegy for a cousin who, at 17, jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge; ``Nature's Way'' recalls a dorm mate who miscarried in the bathtub, which reminds the narrator of ``the miserable way we reconcile ourselves to our lives''; and ``Exactly Where I Am'' explicitly links the memory of a cousin slicing off two fingers accidentally with the transitory nature of things. ``The Uses of Memory'' portrays two women who deal with impending loss differently: a wife who can't bear the thought of losing her comatose husband, and her daughter, who wishes he would go gently into the night. Family provides some consolation, but it's always threatened by uncontrollable forces. In the title story, a teenager assesses her mother's stream of lovers who ``come and go according to a calendar that only my mother's heart could know.'' The 27-year-old of ``A Map of Kansas,'' who left that state ten years earlier, confronts her ambivalence at a family reunion back home. The 30-ish narrator of ``Paperweight'' bemoans her history of failed love affairs, and the confused teenager in ``Frog Boy'' lusts after his father's girlfriend. When a man's daughter appears unexpectedly in ``Wintercourse,'' neither he nor his wife can penetrate her mysteries. Other stories dwell on the desire for material things, whether unfulfilled or recklessly attained; the one glimmer of hope appears in a bizarre feminist vignette about willed (manless) conception. Competent storytelling, but cumulatively morose.