NONFICTION

Portrait of the Artist: 25 Years of British Art, by Jorge Lewinski (Carcanet/ Harper & Row, $24.95). It is always fascinating, though purists may not admit it, to glimpse the faces of the artists behind the masks of their paintings, drawings or statues. Photographed, as 77 British artists have been here, by master portraitist Jorge Lewinski, their images become themselves works of art. Lewinski shoots his subjects casually, in their studios or workshops, men and women representing a solid cross-section of British art in the last quarter-century. Here we find Henry Moore among his massive, chthonic sculptures; a scarecrow-like Ivon Hitchens framed by sunny leaves; Ceri Richards musing at the piano; David Hockney with dyed platinum-blond hair and outsize glasses; and beautiful Bridget Riley in black and white to match her own striking graphics.

The Fatal Shore, by Robert Hughes (Vintage, $10.95). This splendid history tells of Australia's founding as a penal colony 200 years ago. For many readers, it was the nonfiction book of 1987: immensely readable, elegantly researched, teeming with affecting characters. Incredible as it seems, the island continent lay unknown by the West until 1770. Seventeen years later Britain began dumping forlorn convicts at Botany Bay, the site of modern Sydney. There in a sense they remained imprisoned, "locked in {an} historical immensity of blue heat, bush, sandstone and the measured booming of glassy Pacific rollers." But they founded a nation. The author, an Australian, was the narrator of the PBS series on modern art, The Shock of the New.

Ascher: Fabric, Art, Fashion, by Valerie D. Mendes and Frances M. Hinchcliffe (Victoria and Albert Museum/Faber and Faber, $35). The terminally elegant, avant-garde textiles produced by the Prague-born, British husband-and-wife team of Zika and Lida Ascher have been a huge influence in the fashion industry for 40 years. As this richly illustrated catalogue of both textiles and fashions shows, their work represents an unusual meeting of fashion and art. Among the artists who designed for the Aschers were Henri Matisse, Christian Be'rard, Graham Sutherland, John Piper and Alexander Calder. Imagine yourself in a Henry Moore silk dressing gown, decorated with an all-over print of horizontal lines of barbed wire in yellow, violet, black and red. Or resplendent in a screen-printed silk twill scarf from the 1940s designed by Ben Nicholson or Felix Topolski. The final shot is a very up-to-date one of Diana, Princess of Wales in a black-and-white brushstroke-pattern blouse by Zika Ascher.

The Alligator's Life History , by E.A. McIlhenny (Ten Speed Press. $7.95). A classic in print again after almost 50 years, The Alligator's Life History was for many years one of few sources on these great reptiles. E.A. McIlhenny (of the McIlhenny Tabasco sauce family) grew up in Louisiana and studied alligators throughout his life, finally publishing his observations, facts, folklore and personal reminiscences. "In those days the alligators in the streams about the place were more than numerous," he wrote of his boyhood. "We had no fear of them and would swim around the big fellows, dive under them and sometimes treat them with great disrespect by bringing handfuls of mud from the bottom and 'chucking' it in their eyes . . ." Photographs taken by the author include "a twelve-foot Male Alligator Taking a Sun Bath" and "She Rushed at me With Mouth Open."

The Female Autograph: Theory and Practice of Autobiography from the Tenth to the Twentieth Century, edited by Donna C. Stanton (University of Chicago Press, $12.95). This scholarly series of essays focuses on self-writing -- autobiographies, memoirs, letters and diaries by women -- a rich body of work that had until rather recently been neglected. The scope is grand, ranging from little known and unpublished texts to analyses of the introspective diaries and poetry of l0th-century Japanese women (which according to this essay's author, Richard Bowring, "elaborate a sexual grammar in which woman is the passive center, the unfulfilled text/sex waiting to be opened and read by an ever-absent, wandering man."); to Madame de Se'vigne''s letters to her daughter; to l9th-century black women's texts, recounting the troubles of working women; to contemporary French writing.

Mindtools: The Five Levels of Mathematical Reality, by Rudy Rucker (Houghton Mifflin, $9.95). If Martin Gardner is the king of popular mathematics (and he is), then Rudy Rucker must be the clown prince. A professor at San Jose State University, he also writes funny cyberpunk science fiction novels about matters like Hilbert space (White Light, Software, The Sex Sphere); he brings both his disparate professional skills to bear in this engaging, easy-going (but still somewhat technical) survey of what's happening in modern math. Here are chapters on fractals, Godel's theorem, Turing machines, set theory, and much else.

A Dickens Companion, by Norman Page (Schocken, $11.95). If Santa brought you the handsome Oxford edition of Dickens, or if you have always felt a little overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the Victorian novelist's writing, you may welcome a little guidance to his fictive world. This companion provides virtually all the scholarly data that an ordinary reader might require: A history of the composition of each book, lists of characters, the critical reception, selected illustrations, and all kinds of background material. Very handy and authoritative.

Atlas of World History (Rand McNally, $17.95). For the child in love with maps and pictures, here is a world to dream over. The grandeur that was Rome becomes clear in a map of the Empire at its height -- virtually every bit of land adjoining the Mediterranean appears in pink (imperial purple would have been better). Other pages depict the Europes of Charlemagne, Napoleon, and Hitler, the industrial growth of the U.S., the Middle East since 1945. It's enough to make one believe that geography is political destiny.

Art and Architecture in Italy 1250-1400, by John White; The Art and Architecture of Islam 650-1250 , by Richard Ettinghausen and Oleg Grabar (Penguin, $18.95 each). The Pelican History of Art, of which these are two volumes, stakes out that difficult ground between the specialist study and the popular introduction. Each book is written by a recognized authority, is chock-a-block with illustrations, and provides a readable and reliable account of a period or style. White's book surveys the early Renaissance, the time of Cimabue, Giotto and Duccio, bringing in much apposite social history; the volume on Islamic art covers manuscript and book illumination, silver and gold work, mosques, and the decorative arts. Both are books to read as well as refer to. POETRY

All the Small Poems, by Valerie Worth, illustrated by Natalie Babbitt (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $3.50). It's not necessarily safe to assume that your children will discover poetry all by themselves; it's safer to leave subversively readable little books like this one where they will trip over them, even if they won't stand for you to read them aloud. What Worth's poems (the four original Small Poems books gathered here for the first time in one volume) do is force the reader simply to take another look at, to smell or touch or hear again, the little things -- fireworks, bells, lawnmowers, mushrooms, coathangers, dandelions, doors, pies and pebbles -- that we ordinarily take for granted. Take "mantis": "Folding/ The wrists,/ And treading/ So slowly,/ Can it/ Really be/ Wholly/ Holy,/ Pretending/ To pray,/ While intending/ To prey?" Soon the urge to try one's own hand at a small poem becomes irresistible.

American Poetry Since 1970: Up Late,

selected and introduced by Andrei Codrescu (4 Walls 8 Windows, $12.95). Seeing itself as a successor to the 1960 Grove anthology, New American Poetry, this hefty collection offers samples of the more radical, experimental and committed poetry of the past 20 years. Editor Codrescu likes mavericks, and scorns tame academic verse; the new formalism is not to his taste. Rather here are the successors to Black Mountain, the Beats, and the San Francisco Zens: Ted Berrigan, John Giorno, Bernadette Mayer, Anselm Hollo, Tom Clark, Clarence Major, Anne Waldman, Philip Lamantia, and many, many others. This is a first-rate introduction to younger poets, many as obsessed with the image as early Pound. Also of interest is A Craving for Swan (Ohio State University Press, $8.95), which gathers Codrescu's idiosyncratic and charming radio essays -- on McDonald's, space, poetry, ghost writing -- from National Public Radio.

SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY

New Destinies: Spring 1988, edited by Jim Baen (Baen Books, $3.50). Self described as "the paperback magazine of science fiction and speculative fact," New Destinies has actually been a leading forum for practitioners of "hard" sf. By this is meant writers devoted to new technology, enthusiastic about NASA and space exploration, sympathetic to Star Wars, libertarian in philosophy, and generally very up to date in their scientific expertise. The godfather of the group is Robert Heinlein, while the capos are Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Charles Sheffield. In this current issue Sheffield provides two major essays, one on NASA's space program in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster and the other on superconductors. This latter, "The Winding Road," is a first-rate explanation of just what high temperature superconductors do and why we need them. Hans Moravec's provocatively titled "Harvard Doesn't Publish Science Fiction," proffers two outtakes from a current book on futurism, the first on superfast computers and the other on exotic materials science. Good, fascinating stuff. The main stories in this issue though seem suspiciously like in-house nepotism; both are parts of on-going shared worlds projects (published by Baen Books): Larry Niven's "Brenda," from a new WarWorlds series and Dean Ing's "Cathouse" from a sequence called The Man-Kzin Wars.

The Dreaming Jewels and To Marry Medusa, both by Theodore Sturgeon (Carroll & Graf, $3.95; $2.95). Over the past year or two Carroll & Graf have been returning to print some of the very best works of science fiction: J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World, Bernard Wolfe's Limbo, Thomas M. Disch's 334, and, not least, these two books by Theodore Sturgeon. Sturgeon could be a very sentimental writer, but when he kept his emotions in rein his writing was masterly. Consider the grabber opening of The Dreaming Jewels, a kind of young adult sf novel: "They caught the kid doing something disgusting out under the bleachers at the high-school stadium, and he was sent home from the grammar school across the street. He was eight years old. He'd been doing it for years." What follows is Horty Bluett's odyssey, along with his mysterious doll Junky, to discover what makes him different; before the end, he finds the deepest humanity in a carnival's freaks and with their help battles an evil magus. The other book here gathers two unrelated stories, a novella about a strange cosmic group-mind and "Killdozer," a first-rate sf horror story about a bulldozer animated by an alien intelligence.