FICTION

A Feast of Snakes , by Harry Crews (Atheneum, $6.95). The small town of Mystic, Ga., has the reputation of being a good place to hunt rattlesnakes. So good, in fact, folks come from all over to drink bootleg whiskey and hunt rattlesnakes. On the eve of the great rattlesnake hunt, former high school football star Joe Lon Mackey -- now married and saddled with two children and become the sole bootlegger in Lebeau County -- is angry to the point of exploding at the disappointments of his life. To make matters worse, Berenice, his high school sweetheart, is coming back from the University of Georgia and wants to see him. The cast of characters includes Buddy Matlow, the peg-legged sheriff, and Joe Lon Mackey's alcoholic father, Big Joe, who trains pit bull dogs and is a deacon in the Church of Jesus Christ With Signs Following.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice , by Charles Johnson (Penguin, $6.95). The world depicted in this collection of short stories is a world in flux; the people who populate it all in the process of changing. In the title story, the young sorcerer, his boyhood apprenticeship ending, despairs of ever being able to use his powers instead of being used by them. In another story, "China," a postal worker becomes enamored of the martial arts and gains peace of mind, while his frightened wife would rather see him continue overweight and out of shape. In a third story, "Aletheia," a college professor accompanies a student on a journey to a Chicago nightclub, a journey that teaches him things he would rather not know about himself. Charles Johnson is also author of the recently republished Faith and the Good Thing (Atheneum, $9.95), the story of a young woman's mythic quest for something -- she's not quite sure what -- that represents the good and the true.

November , by Gustave Flaubert; translated by Frank Jellinek (Carroll & Graf, $7.95). This short novel, composed when its author was 21, recreates the yearning -- for love, beauty, the exotic -- that suffuses the soul of many a romantic young man. In a graceful and informative introduction Francis Steegmuller describes the genesis of the story, but seems rather out of sympathy with its youthful character. Read at the right age, about 15 or 16, November could be a revelation, almost a bible, for its prose possesses the wistfulness possible only to the very young. The plot, as traditional as every other aspect of the book, blends elements from such European classics as Adolphe and Werther: the sensitive young man, the older, more experienced woman, a love affair doomed from the start. Listen to its opening: "I love autumn: the sadness of that time of year agrees well with memories . . ." Certainly not a major work like Madame Bovary, this is nonetheless a thoroughly French nouvelle, and its themes echo through the pages of Colette, Gide and such contemporary writers as James Salter.

Under the Banyan Tree and Other Stories , by R.K. Narayan (Penguin, $6.95). In his introduction to this collection, R.K. Narayan, one of India's best known writers, notes that "the short story is the best medium for utilizing the wealth of subjects available" because the story can present "concentrated miniatures of human experience in all its opulence." The varieties of human experience presented in these 28 stories include that of a young man whose parents promised to have his head shaved and his hair pledged to God when he was 2 years old and deathly ill. He is now 20, and his parents feel it time to honor their vow. In another story a boy, deathly afraid when he is made to sleep alone, becomes a hero when he catches a burglar. And in the title story, a village story teller finds himself the victim of advancing age and decides to end his tale-telling before he loses his audience.

Kristin Lavransdatter: The Bridal Wreath ,

The Mistress of Husaby ,

The Cross , by Sigrid Undset (Vintage, $6.95 each). The masterpiece of Sigrid Undset, the Norwegian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928, Kristin Lavransdatter is an intricate study of passion and character. Set in 14th-century Norway, the trilogy is replete with war, plagues and infant mortality. At its heart, however, lies something more mundane -- illicit love and its repercussions. Ironically, as Kristin herself grows wise with age, her husband Erlend remains erratic, impetuous -- and much the most interesting character in the saga.

NONFICTION

The Collage Handbook , by John and Joan Digby (Thames and Hudson, $14.95). This book, the authors write, is "intended for all readers, from artists to collectors, who might be interested in the current practice of collage." Thus The Collage Handbook begins with a chapter on the history of collage, proceeds through two chapters on the materials used, and then gives a step-by-step example of making a collage that includes de-acidifying and repairing paper. The last chapter, "Collage in Current Practice," presents brief biographies of a cross-section of modern collagists, together with descriptions of their work and their techniques. The book includes more than 120 illustrations.

The Realists , by C.P. Snow (Collier/Macmillan, $9.95). Hardworking writers sometimes make the best critics. Think of V.S. Pritchett's The Living Novel, or -- to name the book The Realists most resembles -- Somerset Maugham's Great Novelists and Their Novels. What all these books share is sheer readability and an insider's knowledge of craft. They entertain as well as instruct. Here Snow offers brief accounts -- part biographical, part critical -- of Stendhal, Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Galdos, James and Proust. None of what he says about these masters is particularly original -- for that a reader will need to turn to scholars -- but every page demonstrates enthusiasm, intelligence, and sympathy.

The Best of Maledicta , edited by Reinhold Aman (Running Press, 125 S. 22 St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19103, $9.95). Maledicta -- meaning bad words -- is an independent journal devoted to the study of profanity, blasphemy, vulgar slang and all those words that send mothers looking for Ivory soap. We are talking seriously dirty here, with an equal emphasis on the serious and the dirty: This is, for all its scatological, racist and sick subject matter, a genuine scholarly endeavor, an attempt to chronicle and understand the way people actually talk and think. There are chapters on the pet names for private parts, AIDS jokes, euphemisms for intestinal gas and lots, lots more, none of it repeatable in a family newspaper. Naturally, this gathering of some of the journal's articles is a bit shocking, very funny and virtually unputdownable.

You May Plow Here: The Narrative of Sara Brooks , edited and photographed by Thordis Simonsen, foreword by Robert Coles (Touchstone, $6.95). Sara Brooks was born in 1911 in Alabama, the daughter of a black farmer who owned his own land. This is her story, in her own words, of growing up in a rural black community, marrying and then leaving to go North to escape an abusive husband. Much of it centers on Brooks' childhood, her relationships with her brothers and sisters and on the details of a vanishing way of life where people churned their own butter and canned their own preserves, picked cotton and harvested corn and looked forward to hog-killing time in the fall.

Running in Place: Inside the Senate , by James A. Miller (Touchstone/Simon and Schuster, $6.95). Here is a week in the life of what used to be called the greatest deliberative body in the world. In April 1983 members of the U.S. Senate and their aides battle over the budget, Central America and immigration policy. In the clash of personalities, ambitions and opposing ideologies, the national interest is tugged in several directions, a process vividly and exactly chronicled by the speechwriter to then Majority Leader Howard Baker.

For Bread Alone , by Mohamed Choukri, translated from the Arabic with an introduction by Paul Bowles (City Lights, $6.95). In this compelling autobiography, Moroccan writer Mohamed Choukri writes of his life growing up in slums of Tangier. His family was desperately poor and several of his brothers and sisters died for lack of proper food. Choukri himself survived by stealing and by eating food that had been thrown onto garbage dumps. This account of his struggles ends with Choukri aged 20, and about to embark on the struggle to become literate by buying a book on reading and writing Arabic.

In Search of the Forty Days Road , by Michael Asher (Penguin, $5.95). This account of a young man's travels in search of an ancient trade route through the Sudan is made all the more intriguing by its author's subsequent history. After spending vacations from his job as teacher with various desert tribes, he went to live with one tribe. Then, when drought and famine afflicted the Red Sea Hills region, he led the camel expedition that brought relief to isolated groups of nomads living there. Asher is also an artist, as witness his description of the sun rising over the desert like a "flaming halo." This is a book to put alongside Thesiger's desert classic, Arabian Sands.

Bali and Angkor , by Geoffrey Gorer (Oxford University Press, $9.95). Those who have been there claim for Bali the title of Most Beautiful Spot In The World. Geoffrey Gorer, who was there in the early 1930s, concluded that the Balinese were "a very happy people": one of their secrets, he felt, was to entertain "a mythology which is accepted for artistic purposes, but is not of emotional importance." Such inspired insights characterize this reissued travel classic, which also includes the author's observations on Sumatra, Java, Thailand, and Cambodia -- with a special appendix, out-of-date now but nonetheless interesting, called "Hints to Trippers."

African Safari: The Complete Travel Guide to Ten Top Game Viewing Countries , by Mark Nolting (Global Travel Publishers, P.O. Box 2567, Pompano Beach, Fla., 33072, $15.95). It's Rwanda for gorillas, Zimbabwe for elephants, and Uganda for tree-climbing lions in this unusual guide. But author Mark Nolting does not recommend this last country for everyone: "Although I have traveled through many parts of Uganda and have only been met with kindness, as of this writng, travel there is still very risky." Other helpful recommendations include bringing along old clothes to barter with and resisting jogging in game parks, where a person on the run looks to a wild animal like "meat on the hoof."