NONFICTION

Populuxe

, by Thomas Hine (Knopf, $16.95). With sections called "The Age of the Tailfin" and "Just Push the Button," this is the definitive book on the look of the 1950s and '60s, the era of barbecue pits, Tupperware parties and babies a-booming. "The essence of Populuxe is not merely having things," writes author Thomas Hine. "It is having things in a way that they'd never been had before, and it is an expression of outright, thoroughly vulgar joy in being able to live so well." One of the movement's most perfect expressions was The Space Needle, symbol and cynosure of Seattle's 1962 World's Fair. By the end of the next year, Hine suggests, in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, the party and the innocent vulgarity were over. While it lasted, however, it was an era of visual unmistakability, if not distinction, and Populuxe celebrates it all, from ranch houses to "ovoid" furniture, from TV dinners to corrugated potato chips.

Comic Lives

, by Betsy Borns (Fireside, $8.95). Few mortals are braver than those who stand up in front of jaded, sometimes drunken audiences and try to make them laugh. Among the comedic successes profiled in this paperback original (much of which appeared in different form in Interview magazine) are Jay Leno, who has gone from playing strip joints to subbing for Johnny Carson; Carol Siskind, who used to perform free in Central Park because "One thing I realized early on is that the only way you get good at this is by doing it"; and Emo Phillips, who claims to have been so shy as a child that "I would write down 'fire' on a piece of paper and pass it to the teacher."

Life: The First Fifty Years 1936-1986

, by the editors of Life magazine (Little, Brown, $24.95). Originally published last year in celebration of Life's golden anniversary, this handsome and compendious volume will be a nostalgia trip for anyone who remembers the magazine's glory days between the late 1930s and early 1960s. It contains reproductions of each year's cover pictures and of many other photographs -- some of which have found their way into American popular mythology. The book's one shortcoming is that its editors' attempt to be inclusive means that many of the reproductions are small and do insufficient justice to the original pictures.

White Town Drowsing

, by Ron Powers (Penguin, $7.95). How Mark Twain would have loved it! To celebrate the centennial of his masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the town of Hannibal, Mo., where he grew up, decided to hold a bash. A slick New York promoter insinuated himself into their midst, and such atrocities as a Good Golly Aunt Polly rock festival resulted. What would have pleased the cynical humorist the most is that the whole affair was a great, money-losing fiasco. CBS media critic Ron Powers, who was himself raised in Hannibal, tells the story with cackling brio.

High Albania

, by Edith Durham (Virago/Beacon, $10.95). Part of the latest installment of rediscovered travel classics written by women and published by Virago Books, High Albania takes the reader where few outsiders can follow in real life. On advice from a doctor intent on curing her of depression, Edith Durham journeyed to this small Balkan country at the turn of the century, before it became a communist republic closed to virtually all outsiders. The cure obviously took: Durham found so much exhilaration and vividness there that she returned to Albania several more times and became known as "Queen of the Mountain People."

Into the Heart of Borneo

, by Redmond O'Hanlon (Vintage, $6.95). An account of the author's expedition to check on the survival of the Borneo rhinoceros, this is one of the funniest travel books ever written. O'Hanlon drank and danced with the Indonesians and, most important, listened to and faithfully recorded their inimitable way with English. "Ouches, ouches," yells his bitten-on-the-buttocks guide. "Ants! very bloody ants!" O'Hanlon's companion on the trip is poet James Fenton, who frequently takes refuge in a paperback edition of Les Mise'rables when the going gets excruciating. Subsequently he helped adapt the French musical of the same name into English, and the rest (as they say) is box office history.

The River That Flows Uphill: A Journey from the Big Bang to the Big Brain

, by William H. Calvin (Sierra Club, $12.95) A neurobiologist at the University of Washington, William Calvin is also an elegant essayist. In this extended work, he draws upon his experiences while rafting down the Colorado River with fellow scientists in several fields. The result is a blend of adventure with tutorials and speculations on some of the most salient issues in contemporary science. Well-stocked with maps, tables and drawings, this book makes raising one's scientific consciousness a pleasure.

How to Identify Birds: An Audubon Handbook

, by John Farrand, Jr. (McGraw-Hill, $13.50). You say the birds you're watching are spinning around on the water, "stirring up small aquatic bugs, which they then seize in their bills"? Chances are the birds in question are phalaropes, of which such behavior is characteristic. This is a sample of the aids to identification offered in a new guidebook prepared under the supervision of the National Audubon Society. The most efficacious method of telling one bird from another, however, may be simply to keep looking from one's binoculars to the exquisite color photographs included in the volume.