FICTION

The Call, by John Hersey (Penguin, $8.95). In 1905 New Englander David Treadwell goes to imperial China as a missionary and for the next 50 years struggles to convert, to teach and, above all, to improve. In the end, he loses his Christian faith but not his devotion to the great country to which he has pledged his life. Hersey tells in human terms the appalling price of China's poverty and records in magnificent detail the pragmatism and idealism the best of the American missionaries brought to their task. A long novel (771 pages) and a passionate celebration of the human spirit.

The Beans of Egypt, Maine , by Carolyn Chute (Warner, $3.50). Carolyn Chute first startled the fiction readers of America with this latter-day Cold Comfort Farm early last year. Residents of Maine haven't gotten over it yet, so scathing is her depiction of the deprived rural underclass of that state. We meet the swarming tribe of Beans, "the Bean kids and the Bean babies," Cousin Rubie, Marie, Aunt Roberta and the doomed crazy Beal through the auspices of respectable little Earlene Pomereau, who is so messmerized by Beal that she finally marries him and becomes a Bean herself. The Beans' existence is squalid, violent and degraded but the novel itself is as exhilarating as a shot of whiskey.

Hard Money , by Michael M. Thomas (Warner, $4.95). In this tale of high finance and high society, a retired television mogul tries to regain control of the giant network he founded, in the process defying his son and the president of the United States. The glittering scenes of the super-rich at play are particularly juicy. The author wrote Green Monday.

The Only Daughter , by Jessica Anderson (Random House, $5.95). This Australian novel of manners and morals, set in 1970s Sydney, is interesting on two levels. First, there is the page-turning intricacy of its plot, advanced by trenchant dialogue and a full house of wrangling characters. Old Jack Cornock has suffered a massive stroke and his extended family gathers around to speculate, behind his back, about the disposition of his will. To nearly everyone's dismay, his only daughter and favorite child, Sylvia, returns home after 20 years in Europe; but Sylvia becomes the quiet moral center of the book. On another level, The Only Daughter offers a profound, bitter and intelligent debate about contemporary Australian urban life, from its architecture to its ethics, and is not always sanguine in its conclusions.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey , by Thornton Wilder (Harper & Row, $4.95). This well-loved novel, winner of a Pulitzer Prize nearly 60 years ago, begins with one of the classic opening lines of modern American fiction: "On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below." For Brother Juniper, a little monk who witnesses the tragedy, the great question is "Why did this happen to those five? . . . If there were any pattern in a human life, surely it could be discovered mysteriously latent in those lives so suddenly cut off." The rest of the novel chronicles Brother Juniper's researches in Wilder's incomparable, lapidary prose.

The Snowblind Moon: Part One: Between the Worlds , by John Byrne Cooke (Tor, $3.95). The author's heroic novel about the last days of the Plains Indians is being published in three sections. In Part I, frontier Wyoming, from its remote cattle ranches to its scattered Indian villages, awaits the arrival of federal troops. They march to compel the Indians to return to their reservations, but meanwhilefierce winter storms force all parties to endure the terrible hardships. THis is the real West, not the romantic one, as chronicled by a knowledgeable and superior storyteller. NONFICTION

* Castles of Ireland, by Brian de Breffny; photographs by George Mott (Thames and Hudson, $12.95). There are literally hundreds of castles in Ireland; some are grim fortresses, now crumbling, from the days of the Anglo-Norman Ascendency; others are the castellated Gothic Revival "toys" of the 19th-century landed aristocracy; still others are hybrids, like Dublin Castle, once the seat of British administration in Ireland, a hodgepodge of architectural styles. Many have literary associations, like Malahide, where James Boswell's journals were discovered, or Ballylee in County Galway, Yeats' famous tower. All have blindingly romantic names: Carrigafoyle, Clonmines, Dunsany, Trim. Here are 100 Irish castles, gorgeously illustrated.

Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone With the Wind' Letters, 1936-1949 , edited by Richard Harwell (Collier Macmillan, $12.95). The publication of Margaret Mitchell's novel catapulted its author to fame and plunged her into a lifelong correspondence with the famous, the cranky and the merely curious. Here is a selection of letters from the Mitchell papers now in the University of Georgia Library. Many shed fascinating light on minor aspects of Civil War history, while others reveal how Mitchell wrote her deathless tale. There is of course much trivia: here Mitchell writes to Vivien Leigh on January 30, 1939, after learning that Leigh was to star in the film of the novel: "I have read that some people have protested your selection because they believe that an American girl, and not an English girl should portray Scarlett. You will be pleased to know that I have encountered none of this sentiment in Atlanta."

Perfect Symmetry: The Search for the Beginning of Time by Heinz R. Pagels (Bantam, $4.95). Written for the layperson, this summary of what is known -- and theorized -- about the origin of the universe is notable not only for its clarity and well-illustrated succinctness but also for the author's metaphysical reflections. "The fact that the entire universe is governed by simple natural laws," Pagels writes, "is remarkable, profound, and on the face of it, absurd." In an epilogue he epitomizes the way personality impinges on one's view of the universe by comparing it to a "perfectly neutral screen onto which I can project any passion or attitude, and it supports them all." The failure of science to deliver absolute answers, he suggests, is the source of both its strength and weakness. Pagels himself is strong in his view that the universe is "strangely coherent."

In Banks We Trust, by Penny Lernoux (Penguin, $7.95). Penny Lernoux, who has written extensively about Latin America, and the role of the Catholic Church there, recently turned her sights on the American banking industry, in particular its Latin American connections. Her study of what is happening to banks in this country is enough to convince some people that money is best kept under the mattress. Increasingly American banks, according to Lernoux, are being run by irresponsible business people, if not by actual crooks. They are more and more being used to launder dirty, make that drug, money, and many of them are in danger of collapse as the Latin American debt situation becomes more acute.