FICTION

The Perfectionists and The Odd Woman, both by Gail Godwin (Penguin, $5.95 and $6.95 respectively). The Perfectionists, Gail Godwin's first novel, concerns a marriage. Entered with self-conscious earnestness by both parties, it is now, a year later, beginning to show its fault lines. In The Odd Woman Godwin gives us a glimpse of southern womanhood as Jane Clifford, having transplanted herself north to teach college English, returns to her southern home town for the funeral of her grandmother, there to confront her past and her self.

Concluding, by Henry Green (University of Chicago, $7.95). Over the past three decades readers as diverse as John Updike, W.H. Auden, Rebecca West and Eudora Welty have singled out Henry Green as the most original and neglected novelist of modern times. His novels are easy to distinguish, for most of their titles end in "ing": Living, Loving, Party Going, Nothing, Doting and, of course, Concluding. (There are a couple outside the series: his first book, written while he was an undergraduate, Blindness, and his novel about a returning veteran, Back.) Six of his books are available in Penguin, including Loving, that marvelous fairy-tale of the romance between a chambermaid and a butler in an Irish castle: It is one of the great reading experiences, an eternally spring-like novel. Concluding may be only slightly less good because it is an autumnal book, wistful and wise, a late string quartet. The action is purposely unimportant: a girl disappears from a private school, an aging scientist named Mr. Rock is hounded by its headmistresses, and his granddaughter falls in love. Nothing happens really, but to read these pages is to experience a sad beauty that recalls -- and this is hardly exaggeration -- Mozart and Watteau. NONFICTION

The Simon and Schuster Book of the Opera: A Complete Reference Guide -- 1597 to the Present (Fireside,$14.95). Arranged chronologically by year, this handsome compendium traces the history of operatic production from the staging of La Dafne, a fable based on Ovid's Metamorphoses, at a Florentine Palazzo during the 1597 carnival, to the performance of Napoli Milionaria by Nino Rota, at the Spoleto Festival in 1977. The book, which includes synopses and lists the original casts of about 800 operas, is a useful reference book for opera buffs.

Great Getaway Guide, by Jim Yenckel (Andrik Associates, $6.95). This guidebook to weekend escapes from Washington presents -- besides descriptions of the scenery, food and inns -- a practically encyclopedic range of activities from cave exploring to banjo picking. The author is the "Fearless Traveler" columnist for the Travel section of this newspaper.

Californians: Searching for the Golden State, by James D. Houston (Creative Arts Book Company, 833 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, Calif. 94710, $8.95). The novelist James D. Houston (Love Life) here submits the fruits of his journeys through his native state, a place he describes as leading the nation in "pornography, divorce, suicide, home burglary, mind- meddling cults, and skateboard accidents." In the next breath, however, he notes that it also leads in "micro-electronics, solar energy, accredited law schools, Nobel prize-winners, women mayors, Olympic medalists, library use, salad lettuce, dates, figs, and nectarines." For those who revile the state's largest city, he has a chapter called "Six Reasons Why I Love Los Angeles."

Points for a Compass Rose, by Evan S. Connell (North Point, $12.50). Imagine Walt Whitman as an omnivorous reader living in California during the years of the Vietnam War and you'll have some idea of this gnomic book's tone and method. Author of Son of the Morning Star, the recent best seller on Custer's Last Stand, Connell is a prose-poet who injects himself into his musings on culture, mysticism, magic (he has a special interest in alchemy) and war. The bursts of text are short or long as the mood strikes. A short entry reads simply, "Treblinka: 731,000. Can you guess what this means? The forces of destruction are superbly organized." A longer one tells the story of Albertus Magnus, the bishop who left his luxurious palace to live in a spare cloister "because the duties of a prominent ecclesiastic seemed to him less flattering than onerous." Toward the book's end, Connell suggests that the reader write out, in colored ink, this saying: "Each of us is meant to rescue the world."

A Tour on the Prairies, by Washington Irving (University of Oklahoma Press, $5.95). Like many another American writer after him, Washington Irving sojourned in Europe. It was a long time away -- 17 years, nearly equaling Rip Van Winkle's absence -- and he returned itching to assimilate the changes occurring in the interim. With friends that included a newly appointed Indian commissioner, he toured Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma. It was the era when the Pawnees were the scourge of the Plains, and a false sighting of a war-party put the travelers in frenetic motion. Though in his text Irving affects unruffled curiosity, in reality, a scholarly footnote informs us, "He was as pale as he could be, and much terrified." Even so, his colorful account of the frontier is a worthy companion to Parkman's The Oregon Trail.

A Passion for Sicilians, by Jerre Mangione (Transaction/Rutgers,$14.95). The Sicilian-American writer Jerre Mangione here portrays a Sicilian activist whose life encapsulates the island's troubled state. He is Danilo Dolci, who has challenged the Church, the Mafia, and the peasants with their loner ways to organize for social and material improvement. Often compared with Mahatma Gandhi, Dolci is one of those leaders who specialize in "nonviolent aggression." Among the book's surprises is a glimpse of Donnafugata, the summer palace of the aristocrats in Lampedusa's novel The Leopard, "now a slummy apartment house with scores of ragged children running about in the courtyard."

Louis Armstrong: An American Genius, by James Lincoln Collier (Oxford/Galaxy, $9.95). Louis Armstrong accomplished no less than a revolution in Western music, claims biographer Collier. As a jazz trumpeter he was the first to demonstrate "the possibilities in improvised music," and, since the rise of jazz, improvisation has become a central technique in music. He also sang marvelously well, in that trademark gravelly tone that he once tried to cure by having an operation on his vocal cords. When the operation failed, he resigned himself to singing in the style for which he soon became renowned. This first-rate biography includes cameo appearances by Sammy Davis Jr., lecturing Satchmo for not speaking out on racial issues, and the incomparable blues singer Bessie Smith, collaborating with him on a version of "St. Louis Blues" that is one of the pinnacles of American recorded music.

The Spy's Bedside Book, by Graham Greene and Hugh Greene (Carroll & Graf, $7.95). "For anyone who is tired of life," wrote Sir Robert Baden-Powell (founder of the Boy Scouts), "the thrilling life of a spy should be the very finest recuperator." And if circumstances prohibit actual spying, reading this book by the brothers Greene is not a bad alternative. Included are entire stories (Arthur Morrison's "The Case of the Dixon Torpedo"), excerpts from novels ("Planning a Novel" from Eric Ambler's The Mask of Dimitrios) and other excerpts, poems and miscellany. One entry makes gracious reference to another: Ian Fleming's James Bond reading a copy of The Mask of Dimitrios. The most practical advice comes from William Le Queux, a writer from the "golden age of espionage" (circa 1900): "Often most valuable clues can be picked up by spies who get beneath windows and peer in at the corners at critical times."

The New Politics of Inequality, by Thomas Byrne Edsall (Norton, $5.95). In this closely argued study of contemporary American politics, the author -- a reporter for The Washington Post -- argues that in the last decade political power in this country has decisively slipped away from the bottom half of the economic pyramid (the poor, the working and middle classes) toward the economically privileged (those in the top 15 percent of income distribution). As a result, national economic policy remains distorted, regardless "of which party is in control of the federal government." The book, among other things an analysis of trends in voting patterns, union power, corporate lobbying and the constituencies of the two major parties, was highly praised at the time of its FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION

The Year's Best Horror Stories, Series XIII, compiled by Karl Edward Wagner (DAW, $2.95). When something is done well every year, it may come to be taken for granted. For the past half dozen years Wagner has been reading everything in horror, from the biggest names like Stephen King through the smallest periodicals like Potboiler Magazine. Moreover, what he chooses for his anthology invariably demonstrates sympathy for a wide range of styles -- the juiciest bloodfest, the most ironic conte cruel, the subtlest evocation of wispy horror. This year Wagner leads off with King's "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut," one of this writer's best stories, about a woman who keeps searching for faster and faster routes to Bangor and whose shortcuts cross ever stranger landscapes; he also includes pieces by those stalwarts Ramsey Campbell, Charles L. Grant and Dennis Etchison; and he discovers a major writer named John Gordon, whose collection eted in England as a children's book. Mainstream writer Fred Chappell, it turns out, once wrote sf and horror; he is represented by "Weird Tales," which opens with this wonderfully pregnant understatement: "The visionary poet Hart Crane and the equally visionary horror writer H.P. Lovecraft met four times."

The Dragonmasters, by Jack Vance (Berkley, $2.75). This new edition of Vance's Hugo-winning novella (not novel despite the title page) runs to 136 pages of big type. Not exactly a book bargain for readers who look for words per dollar. But for readers this is nonetheless a treasure, one of Vance's most brilliant short works. The plot is simple: through genetic engineering the people of Aerlith have transformed their dragon enemies into reptilian servants; at the same time, the dragons of Coralyne have turned their human prisoners into obedient mutant warriors; the two groups clash in a final conflict. As usual, Vance's charm and strength derive from his powers of description, his baroque details, wry tone, delicous vocabulary. For more of this inimitable storyteller, look for Rhialto the Marvellous (Baen Books, $3.50), a gathering of three novellas about a group of wizards who vie with each other for power on a dying earth.

Eye, by Frank Herbert (Berkley, $7.95). The fourth volume in Byron Preiss' series "Masterworks of Science Fiction and Fantasy" gathers some dozen stories by the author of Dune. Here, on a small scale, readers will discover Herbert's fascination with ecology, conservation, religion, fanaticism, and people under stress. Among the tales included is "Seed Stock," the author's own favorite, and "Dragon in the Sea" (later expanded into a fine sf suspense novel). Inevitably, Dune itself appears, first in Herbert's preface -- about his adventures with David Lynch and Dino De Laurentiis -- and later in an unusual piece, a "walking tour" of the planet Arrakis, illustrated by artist Jim Burns.