Fashion commentator and New Yorker contributor Fraser (Scenes from the Fashionable World, 1987) explores literary and other lives in a collection of 13 reportorial, critical, and personal essays. Fraser's approach to feminism does not punish or exclude men; they, too, receive her penetrating attention. She tends to write about paradoxical relations between the sexes, while emphasizing women and their view of themselves. For example, her essay about Louise Colet, ``Love, Longing, and Letters,'' is also about Colet's sometime lover Flaubert, exploring how this Parisian ``daughter of Romanticism . . . came closest to getting past his guard.'' Her piece on the Dutch painter Vermeer considers him in terms of the women he painted and lived with. Even when focusing directly on one woman, as she does so elegantly with the fashion designer known as Valentina, Fraser takes care to render the larger milieu, male and female, sympathetically--without withholding characteristically spritely judgment. She is a stylist of such natural, melodious grace that one is immediately entranced. The title essay, addressing Virginia Woolf's misery as a victim of childhood incest, is particularly bittersweet and particularly satisfying, drawing from Fraser a well-modulated passion that heightens her usual verve. The Colet piece succeeds less well, perhaps because Colet is far less reachable from the factual record (her letters to Flaubert have not survived). But the book is studded throughout with the sort of joyous, alert description that is uncommonly encountered in journalism or in criticism. As an almost faultless master of tone, Fraser is able to pass from scene to scene with a selfless vitality. You don't forget her presence, because you admire her tact, her spirit, and her modesty, but she never obscures the story she wants to tell. ``Doves spread sun-pierced wing fans and looped with purring drumroll sounds overhead.'' Fraser's skill is to make such observation, while artful, feel entirely artless. Her fans will only wish that she would write more.