MAKE LEMONADE (Realistic Fiction) - Wolff's latest novel stretches her considerable talents in a new direction. Written in a riveting, stream-of-consciousness fashion, with the lines laid out on the page as if they were the verses of a poem, the book plunges into the depths of inner-city poverty. But instead of focusing on the gangs that spread fear in city tenements, Wolff writes about ordinary folks trying to get by as best they can. Fourteen-year-old LaVaughn, clever yet still naive, wants to go to college, a word that bears such weight in her home "you have to walk around it in the rooms like furniture." To earn money, she takes a baby-sitting job with 17-year-old Jolly, a proud young woman with two small children. LaVaughn's reactions to Jolly and the children, described in her colorful personal idiom, are mixed with the stories that anchor her own life and enriched by a strong sense of place. There's humor as well as anguish in the tableaux she sets before us, with some of the funniest and most stirring scenes revolving around Jolly's children, both fully realized characters. Revealing as well are interactions between LaVaughn and her single-parent mother, from whom LaVaughn has obviously inherited stubbornness and a healthy measure of good sense. Jolly's problems provide the book's drama. Barely more than a child herself, she has no idea how to "take hold," as LaVaughn's mother says, and it's ironic that it is someone younger than Jolly, an outsider, who shows her the way. Rooted not in a particular culture, but in the community of poverty, the story offers a penetrating view of the conditions that foster our ignorance, destroy our self-esteem, and challenge our strength. That education is the bridge to a better life is the unapologetic, unmistakable theme, symbolized by the sprouting of the lemon seeds LaVaughn plants for Jolly's children.