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By Shelly Ridenour

JULY 5, 1999: 

"The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing" by Melissa Bank, Viking, $23.95, 274 pages

During what was my most voracious reading period - ages 8-12, that window before boys and the mall and baby-sitting and MTV and the telephone lured me away - my idea of summer heaven was to stay in bed all day, AC cranked, grilled cheese or a bowl of Cookie Crisp for sustenance. I could easily consume a book a day; usually, they would end up on my groaning shelves, never to be touched again. Not Judy Blume books, though.

I never wanted them to end, but I was unable to pace myself, speeding through the pages even as the increasing lightness in my right hand made my heart sink. I read "Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret" and "Starring Sally J. Friedman as Herself" again and again, always wondering what happened to those heroines after the book ended.

And so, I was immediately sucked into "The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing," Melissa Bank's new, much-hyped collection of short stories - witty, thoughtful, clear-headed and satisfying, it feels like nothing so much as a sequel to Blume's quality adolescent fiction. Despite the fact that Bank's book will inevitably be lumped with them, heroine Jane Rosenal has less in common with Bridget Jones (flighty and cartoony in comparison) and the bitch-on-wheels narrator of Suzanne Finnamore's "Otherwise Engaged" than "Blubber"'s Jill or "Iggie's House"'s Winnie or even Margaret herself.

We first meet Jane as a 14-year-old at her (functional) family's summer house; mouthy without being obnoxious, she offers up quick-wit lines and theories like "I'd concluded that breasts were to sex what pillows were to sleep. 'Guys might think they want a pillow, but they'll sleep just as well without one.'" But what most foreshadows the next twenty years of her life are her feelings after reading Fitzgerald:

"I finished 'Gatsby' and I looked out at the lagoon, hoping to see a green light. But nobody's dock was lit up. Only one house had any lights on, and the light was just the blue of a television set." From there, we follow her through jealousies and flirtations, illness, a seemingly charmed career that will inevitably stall and a rocky relationship with a much-older (and wealthy, charming and funny) alcoholic - a man who, when disappointed by her whole-life-ahead-of-me choice to leave her job, "tried to smile, but it was just a shape his mouth made." By the time I reached the final story, a hilarious tale of living by - and ruining your life with - "The Rules," I didn't want Jane to go away. As Martin Arnold wrote in The New York Times, "The collection is not like a novel, but rather like bumping into Jane at various times in her life" - a life I'll retrieve from the shelf and visit again.

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