An uneven collection of stories, from an author (The Perfect Place, 1989) whose very best writing creates high expectations though also disappointment. Ranging through exotic settings in Europe and Africa and written in a tone of arch alienation, here are ten stories and a short novel, though they might better be described as meditations than traditional stories. Kohler continues to write in the languid, softly focused style of her first novel; sometimes, though, the smoothness of that style lulls the reader into sleep--as in ""The Apartment,"" for example, where the vagueness of a woman looking for an apartment remains only that: vague. Or there is a simple failure of taste and judgment as in ""The Tokolosh,"" which has the sense of a weird colonial gothic tale about it (""There are times, however, when the native boy does not call the child by the name he has given the child, when he does not call her by the name her mother gave her, does not call her anything at all""). On the other hand, ""Absence"" is a complex original take on the death of a sister while the narrator is being massaged--the physical manipulation is both erotic and has the clinically precise tone of an anatomist describing a dead body. In the ""Via Delle Rosa,""a woman leaves her husband and takes up with a teen-age boy--all told with a delicious sense of humor. The novella, ""Permutations""--fragmentary in form--is a small, creepy song to the pleasures of voyeurism: ""in ever-increasing complexity, insatiably, her demands inexhaustible, commanding them to occupy simultaneously all the sites of pleasure, like a sentence. . ."" A collection as an anticipatory holding action.