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July 02, 2006|Susan Salter Reynolds

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Girls in Peril

A Novella

Karen Lee Boren

TinHouse Books: 128 pp.,

$10.95 paper

"THE summer we were in peril, Jeanne Macek's thumb was severed from her hand."

So begins Karen Lee Boren's haunting, electric novella (picture Jeffrey Eugenides' "The Virgin Suicides" without the humor). Five girls, ages 11 to 13, plus the narrator, spend a precarious summer in their hometown near the shores of Lake Michigan.

At first they get into some harmless trouble, ambushing the Avon lady, playing truth or dare, but suddenly the stakes are raised, the risks become greater. Sex stalks the margins of the story; Jeanne's wayward, self-destructive older brother is jilted, with disastrous consequences.

The girls, "beyond boredom" in their unstructured, languid summer days, attend their first party with beer and older boys. They play chicken with a sharp kitchen knife; they flirt with disaster in an effort to dispel some of the uncertainty in their futures.

They reach out to each other in the dark, in an effort to remind themselves that "there were still those out there who knew the girls we used to be ... and who held us steady as we reached across the water to find our other selves."

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The London Scene

Six Essays on London Life

Virginia Woolf

Introduction by Francine Prose

Ecco: 78 pp., $16.95

IN 1931, Virginia Woolf was commissioned by the British edition of Good Housekeeping magazine to write a series of six essays on London life, to be run bimonthly throughout the year. Until 2004, when the collection was first published by a small London press, the sixth essay, "Portrait of a Londoner," had been lost in the University of Sussex's archives.

Now available in the United States in their entirety, these brief essays take us from the boisterous docks to tony Oxford Street, from the homes of Thomas Carlyle and John Keats to Westminster Abbey and the House of Commons. Woolf brings her usual raven-eyed view of life to bear, as Francine Prose notes in her introduction: "[E]very sentence rings clear."

Woolf is in her element in "Great Men's Houses," her observational powers enabling her to imbue objects with their owners' personalities. In St. Paul's Cathedral, she describes feeling the "pause and expansion and release from hurry and effort which it is in the power of St. Paul's, more than any other building in the world, to bestow."

Perhaps the most affecting essay is the one that remained missing for so many years, "Portrait of a Londoner." "Nobody can be said to know London who does not know one true Cockney," she begins as she creates the fictional everywoman, Mrs. Crowe, a gossip, a "collector of relationships" who prefers conversation to intimacy. Mrs. Crowe's "great gift," Woolf writes fondly, "consisted in making the vast metropolis seem as small as a village with one church, one manor house and twenty-five cottages."

Woolf's gift, in these essays, is similar. It lies in her ability to turn the city inside out, giving a sophisticated, empathetic and artful rendition of its internal organs as well as the daily movements and inner lives of fellow Londoners.

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Virginity or Death!

And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time

Katha Pollitt

Random House: 260 pp., $13.95 paper

THE world abounds in references to Nation columnist Katha Pollitt's "mordant" or "Swiftian" wit, and these are admirable, memorable qualities in a writer of her breadth, scope and sheer rage. But the columns collected in "Virginity or Death!" also reveal her silly side.

Pollitt alternates a light touch on the evils of day care ("that old journalistic evergreen") with really hard-hitting analyses of the media response to new studies on that and other topics.

In some of these columns, it is clear that Pollitt's wit depends on the heat of the subject and the freshness of the news she responds to. But in others, she proves herself an indispensable cleanup crew for undigested information.

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