The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, by Vladimir Nabokov (New Directions, $2.45). By the time he wrote this novel (his first written in English), Nabokov was already a seasoned master of fictional style and form; read a few pages, and the characteristics familiar from his later work -- the mastery of the mot juste, the ironic detachment, the marvelously perceptive lepidopterist's eye --are all present and fully recognizable in their mature form. The story is also vintage Nabokov, a tangle of paradoxes and half-perceptions steaming lightly in a hothouse universe, raising impalpable questions about the nature of identity and even of reality. Its appearance in paperback has been long delayed and was well worth awaiting.
Birds, Beasts, Blossoms, and Bags: The Nature of Japan, by Harold P. Stern (Abrams, $12.95). The 140 works of art exquisitely pictured here range in period from the 12th to the 19th century, in size from large, multipanel painted screens to tiny netsuke, but they have two points in common: all of them deal with animate nature and all, in their diverse styles, embody a vision that includes but transcends realism, seeing the subject clearly but transforming it in the act of seeing. Abrams maintains in its new paperback series the high technical standards familiar from its more expensive hardcover editions.
Sky Ship: The Akron Era, by Thom Hook (Airshow, Ferry Farms, Annapolis, Md. 21402, $5.95). Books on heroism and disaster at sea are commonplace. Thom Hook has chosen a more exotic but hardly less exciting subject: the great, silent, slow-moving lighter-than-air craft which may still hold a promise for the future despite catastrophes in the past. Much of this study is a matter-of-fact presentation of historic and technical detail (the Akron was built as a sort of airborne aircraft carrier), but there is also drama -- for example, the incredible story of Apprentice Seaman Cowart who hung on a line in midair for two hours before he could be rescued -- and a certain mystery still surrounds the ship's loss at sea. Somewhat specialized reading, but absorbing.
The Southern Appalachians: A Wilderness' Quest, by Charlton Ogburn (Morrow, $5.95). There are bears living wild within 60 miles of Washington; the author encounters them sometimes near the farm he lives on in the Shenandoah Valley. But Ogburn has ranged far fro home in time and space in this loving, detailed study (at once personal and panoramic) of the mountains that range, under various nams from Maryland down to Georgia. Besides current fauna, he evokes dinosaurs, and the history of the region receives its due as well as the plant life. Inhabitants and casual visitors to the region alike will find their knowledge deepened by this text, their appreciation heightened by the photos.
BACK IN PAPER
Caveat emptor. Spiro Agnew's novel, The Canfield Decision (Berkley/Medallion, $1.95), is no better in paperback than it was in hardcover. But it will cost you a lot less to find out for yourself.
Legend has it that Napoleon Bonaparte had his own equivalent of the I Ching, which he used to consult for his imperial decision-making. Legend adds that Napoleon's Book of Fate, (which was marvelously popular in England in the post-Napoleonic period) was based on manuscripts found in an Egyptian pyramid, but now that we know the Chinese oracle book, it seems obvious that it was derived (remotely and simplified) from the I Ching. It is a bit m ore specific and limited in its advice, a bit less poetic and suggestive, but recognizably similar. Now reprinted in paperback with a remarkable, long introduction full of occult lore and anecdotes, Napoleon's Book of Fate: Its Origins and Uses, by Richard Deacon (Citadel, $4.95) is interesting reading. Before relying on its advice too closely, however, you might want to consider the ultimate fate of the book's original user. Scanning it, I couldn't find any entry that says, "Don't go to Moscow."
Gaudeat emptor. Michael Crichton, who has given us such light but solidly readable fiction as The Andromeda Strain, and The Great Train Robbery, proves his versatility again in Eaters of the Dead: The Manuscript of Ibn Fadlan, Relating His Experiences with the Northmen in A.D. 922 (Bantam, $1.95). This is basically a retelling of the Beowulf story from the viewpoint of an Arab diplomat who happened to be in the neighborhood at the time, beautifully done in the style of medieval travel books and wrapped in a fine parody of modern scholarly critical apparatus. This might well be given shelf room not far from John Gardner's brilliant Grendel, which tells the story from the monster's viewpoint. Those who want it from an early Anglo-Saxon viewpoint may consult the new Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition, translated with an introduction and commentary by Howell D. Chickering Jr. (Anchor, $4.95). The original and translation are on facing pages, an ideal arrangement for those whose Anglo-Saxon is rusty.