The first collection in more than 10 years by Rea Award winner Joy Williams brings together 46 remarkable stories — bleak and flat, desolate and bizarre, always enthralling.

Her characters are ill, or grieving, or possibly on the verge of losing their minds. The children — there are often children — are quietly baffled, or abandoned, or simply left to fend for themselves. In "Taking Care," a minister tends to his absent daughter's newborn while his wife "no longer a woman … but a situation" undergoes weeks of arduous medical tests to determine the cause of her illness.

In "Substance," Louise is left a dog by a friend, who has committed suicide. "Louise would have preferred anything to the dog, right down to the barbells. Nothing at all would have pleased her even more." The dog, Broom, is no happier with the situation than Louise is. "The dog was clearly not habituated to riding in cars, and had no sense of the happiness it could bring."

Her friends all quietly dispose of the unwanted objects the friend bequeathed them — a pocket watch, silk pajamas, "a fairly useless silver bowl." But when Louise is given a chance to get rid of the dog, she reconsiders. "Oh, I've rather gotten used to Broom," she says.

In the title story, Donna visits her friend Cynthia in a psychiatric hospital — "she was really coming here too much, sometimes two and three times a day" — until she is finally asked to leave. She has no intention of complying.

"She would come back tomorrow and avoid Cynthia and the nurse, too. For now, she had to decide which route to take home. It was how they made roads these days; there were five or six ways to get to the same place."

"Good writing never soothes or comforts," Williams has said, and it's true, these prickly, poignant, often funny stories are anything but soothing. Williams, the New York Times noted, is a writer who "puts the dignity back into despair."

Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune.