FICTION

In a Far Country: Jack London's Tales of the West , edited by Dale L. Walker (Jameson Books, 722 Columbus Street, Ottawa, Illinois 61350). This anthology gathers the best of London's short-story westerns, which avoid the cliche's of cowboy and shoot-out dime novels in favor of agonizing accounts of men at the end of their wits and strength. All of the classics are here: "To Build a Fire"; "Love of Life," with its exhausted wilderness traveler, who "squirmed along the ground like some monstrous worm"; "All Gold Canyon." The editor has also included some lesser-known masterpieces, such as the tersely brilliant story called simply "War."

The Sterile Cuckoo , by John Nichols (Shoreline/Norton, $7.95). Now a resident of New Mexico who writes fiction and nonfiction on southwestern subjects, John Nichols began his career at the age of 23 with this affecting college novel set in the East. It concerns the love affair between a rather ordinary college man and a manic girl who hounds him into rising above his bland, middle-class background. Norton's new quality paperback imprint has also resuscitated two other novels by Nichols, A Ghost in the Music and The Wizard of Loneliness, both priced at $7.95.

Waking the Dead , by Scott Spencer (Ballantine, $4.95). Scott Spencer is one of our finest obsessional novelists. His masterpiece, Endless Love, depicts an adolescent affair that ends in tragedy, and this, his latest novel, concerns the inability of a young lawyer to forget the love of his life, a young female radical who disappeared in the aftermath of a terrorist bombing. As the lawyer prepares to run for office, his private fixation and his public duties come into conflict, and the book propels itself toward a confrontation with the memory -- or is it the reality? -- of the woman who haunts him.

Love Child , by Jean Bedford (Penguin, $5.95) "My mother's name was Grace; she was graceful . . . I loved her, my vulgar, laughing mother; I blamed her for everything." These words pierce Jean Bedford's slight, devastating novel of love and guilt over and over, like a refrain. In blitz-shattered London, Grace meets Bill, an Australian soldier on leave, many years her senior, shy but passionate. Both abandon spouses and small children and sail for Australia, where they have a child together -- Anne -- and where their marriage gradually sours and spoils. The legacy of her parents' mutual failure to sustain love is a burden of guilt which fuels Anne's growing mental disturbance.

Girl With A Monkey , by Thea Astley (Penguin, $5.95). This early novel by one of Australia's finest fiction writers (A Boatload of Home Folk, An Item from the Late News and Beachmasters are among Thea Astley's other books), Girl With A Monkey is the bittersweet tale of another failed relationship. Elsie is a smart, bookish, young schoolteacher, desperate to get away from the small, steamy north Queensland town where she lives and the obsessive attentions of Harry -- an older, uneducated roadworker -- which together threaten to stifle her. Astley is a writer whose prose is at once flamboyant and precise ("tenebrous"; "sarmentose"; "carious"; "their bellies faintly sigillate from lettuce leaves, shredded carrot and pineapple"), so that reading her novels is to an unusual extent a matter of sensual as well as mental satisfaction.

The Song of the Forest: A Novel of Scotland in the Dark Ages , by Colin Mackay (Available Press/ Ballantine, $5.95) Colin Mackay, described here as a full-time writer who works weekends as a nightwatchman in Edinburgh, is a strong new brew to try at the bar of modern fiction. His first novel, The Song of the Forest, chronicles in wild and stormy prose one year in the life of an ancient, remote Scottish village. But this is no semi-sociological life and labor of the highland poor. Their peaceful existence continually disrupted by the invasions of forest bandits who plunder, kill and rape, the villagers, in self-defense, evoke from that same forest a strange, half-human being: "They made him of earth and wrapped him in ash bark . . . and by the time night was coming on again they had finished, and a huge manlike figure lay on the ground before them . . ."

NONFICTION

Out of This Century: Confessions of an Art Addict , by Peggy Guggenheim (Universe, $14.95). Peggy Guggenheim inherited a copper-mining fortune from her father (who went down on the Titanic) but the zest to enjoy it was all her own, and enjoy it she did, in what sometimes seems one long party that culminated 60 years later in the Venetian palazzo that houses her fabulous collection of 20th-century art. In these, her exuberant memoirs, she retells her life and loves, including intimate glimpses of some of the most revered figures of modern art. For this edition, Gore Vidal contributes a foreword.

The Wartime Papers of Robert E. Lee , edited by Clifford Dowdey and Louis H. Manarin (Da Capo, $16.95). The publisher, having already reprinted Grant's and Sherman's war memoirs, continues its excellent line of Civil War autobiographies with this new edition of the most significant dispatches and correspondence of the chivalrous commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. The military orders and reports collected here are crisp and astonishingly precise, as befits the master tactician of his age, while the domestic correspondence offers clues to Lee's elusive personality. The volume ends with Lee's dignified exchange of notes with Grant over surrender terms.

Japan's Modern Myths: Ideology in the Late Meiji Period , by Carol Gluck (Princeton University Press, $12.50). This is "must" reading for students of Japan. The author, a Columbia University historian, tells how the Japanese ruling elites created a strong, unitary state between 1890 and 1915 by inculcating civic values that exalted the nation and the emperor. Urging the Japanese people to "yield as the grasses before the wind" before the forces of modernization, the island empire's rulers laid the ideological foundations for the rabid nationalism that propelled Japan into the disastrous 1937-1945 war.

The Great War: 1914-1918 , by Marc Ferro (Ark, $8.95). In the introduction to this analysis of World War I, French historian Marc Ferro contrasts films of men going off to war in 1914 with films of their counterparts in 1939. Whereas their "older brothers" displayed "shock and despair" on their faces, the recruits of the Great War looked elated. They thought the war would be short and bully. They were wrong. By the time this war of trench fighting, slaughterous stalemates and gas attacks was over, the romantic image of warfare was shattered, probably forever.

The Shakers and the World's People , by Flo Morse (University Press of New England, $14.95). Although the Shakers may be best known today for their furniture and primitivist art, they were in the 18th and early 19th centuries a vital religious influence and still maintain two active communities in New England. This profusely illustrated anthology of documents by and about the sect -- dating back to 1774, when Mother Ann Lee led eight English Shakers to the New World -- puts into historical context all its eccentric beliefs, including abstinence from sex and the practice of dancing and whirling in religious worship. ("Come life -- Shaker life/ Come life Eternal,/ Shake, shake, out of me/ All that is carnal.")

An Autobiography , by Edwin Muir; The Marionette , by Edwin Muir (Hogarth Press/Salem House, $8.95; $6.95) The lot of a man of letters is a hard one: often a power in his lifetime, he tends to be forgotten a generation later. Who now reads Edmund Gosse or John Jay Chapman? Or even Saintsbury or Van Wyck Brooks? Not surprisingly, then, Edwin Muir is in danger of fading from literary memory. This would be a shame. A superb poet (see his marvelous long poem, "The Labyrinth"), a first-rate literary theorist (his Structure of the Novel complements, and even surpasses, Forster's Aspects of the Novel), an important translator (of Kafka, among others), and a novelist (see the above allegorical novel about a half-witted boy), he perfected his talents through sheer hard work. As his quietly accomplished autobiography shows, he grew up very poor on the Scottish island of Orkney. At 14 he left his rural home for Glasgow, where he suffered much hardship but also discovered socialism, met his wife, Willa, and began a distinguished literary career. This pair of reissues provides a good introduction to this modest, attractive and singularly intelligent man.

The Age of Scandal , by T.H. White (Oxford, $7.95) Like Cyril Connolly (see Les Pavillons) and George Saintsbury (see The Peace of the Augustans), T.H. White looked back to the 18th century as the high point of English civilization. Addison, Swift, Pope and Johnson traded quips in the coffee houses (while Boswell traded kisses with ladies high and low); the court was a scandal; King George III was insane; Hugh Walpole lived in Gothic splendor at Strawberry Hill and Beckford indulged his taste for excess at Fonthill; letter writing had become high art, as had flirtation; Hogarth immortalized both love a` la mode and the horrors of Gin Lane; Blake saw angels in the backyard; and manners, decorum and refinement were brought to the performance of every virtue, every vice. Like its companion volume, The Scandalmonger, White's book traces the outlines of the age through its gossip, and the result is lively, diverting history -- as one would expect from the scholarly yet whimsical creator of The Once and Future King.

Van Winkle's Return: Change in American English 1966-1986 , by Kenneth G. Wilson (University Press of New England, $10.95; cloth, $18). Kenneth Wilson started his academic career as a language specialist, but then spent 15 years working as a dean. All the while English changed around him. In this book he examines some of those changes in our linguistic life during the past two decades -- and nearly all of his observations will fascinate anyone who thinks about words. Wilson offers an extremely informative chapter on the making of dictionaries; he discusses slang and its ways, the impact of feminism, educational issues like bilingualism, and much else. For instance, he shows that compared to the 1950s obscenity has become much more widespread and seemingly acceptable; at the same time, though, derogatory terms for Italians, blacks, Jews and other ethnic groups have decreased in use and number. Those who lament the fall of standards are, in Wilson's view, failing to see that as some standards decline, others improve -- in language as in society.