Such Was the Season, by Clarence Major (Mercury House, $8.95). "Last week," begins Annie Eliza, the narrator and heroine of this novel, "was a killer-diller!," and so begins this rollicking, warm tale of a week in the life of a southern black family. It is a week that includes (just to give an idea) a visit from a long-lost nephew, a son's arrest, a daughter-in-law who has decided to run for state office and an attempted suicide. All this is told in Annie Eliza's warm, rambling voice, so that reading this book is a little like eavesdropping while a favorite aunt talks on the telephone to her best friend.
Springer's Progress, by David Markson (Dalkey Archive, $9.95). Admirers of Wittgenstein's Mistress have no doubt been buying up earlier Markson titles, so this reprint is especially welcome. Springer is a married, middle-aged writer, unable to write, racked with desire for other women, especially for the very much younger Jessica Cornford. Onto this hoary plot, Markson builds a bawdy house of fiction, a playful linguistic edifice of short, machine-gun-like sentences, laced with literary jokes and allusions, Rabelaisian gusto, erotic interludes, many laughs.
The Mezzanine, by Nicholson Baker (Vintage, $7.95). Joyce needed a whole day for his most famous novel; Nicholson Baker only needs a lunch hour. A young businessman goes out at noon to buy some shoelaces and along the way daydreams about everything from the structure of milk cartons to the sociology of rest rooms, making time for an ode to perforation and thoughts about socks, the operation of escalators and much else. All this minutiae is treated with the dry, matter-of-fact style of a technical writer, complete with footnotes, but undercut by quiet irony, hyperbole and other forms of rhetorical ornamentation.
Great Plains, by Ian Frazier (Penguin, $9.95). Once called the Great American Desert, the Great Plains -- that part of the U.S. from the 100th Meridian to the Rocky Mountains -- include parts of Texas, New Mexico, Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma. Over a period of several years, Ian Frazier drove about 25,000 miles on the plains, from Montana to Texas and back again. At times, reading this account of his sojourn, one can almost see the country -- two-lane blacktop with stubbled wheatfields stretching limitless to either side, a 360-degree sky and a landscape devoid of people.
Whereabouts: Notes on Being a Foreigner, by Alastair Reid (White Pine Press, 76 Center St., Fredonia, N.Y. 14063, $10). Poet, translator and New Yorker journalist, Reid here collects seven long articles including "Notes on Being a Foreigner" "Digging Up Scotland" and "Notes from a Spanish Village." For many, though, the best piece may be "Basilisk's Eggs," an introduction to the modern Latin American fiction known as the Boom, with especial attention paid to Borges (whom Reid has translated) and Gabriel Garcia Marquez whose work up to The Autumn of the Patriarch he sensitively places in its cultural context.
American Musicians: Fifty-Six Portraits in Jazz, by Whitney Balliett (Oxford, $10.95). Not all of those profiled here are musicians -- the first essay profiles Hugues Panassie and Charles Delaunay, two early French jazz critics. Each essay is part biography, part assessment, part -- where the subject was still alive -- interview. Throughout, Whitney Balliett's writing is precise and evocative. He calls, for example, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young "the emperors of the tenor saxophone, and the inventors of so much regal, original music." On Ornette Coleman's playing: "His melodies are in odd lengths and shapes, and are distinguished for their lyrical beauty, which is often dirgelike, and for their graceful irregularity."
The Omni-Americans: Some Alternatives to the Folklore of White Supremacy, (Da Capo, $10.95). Praised by people as diverse as Walker Percy and Ralph Ellison, The Omni-Americans is Albert Murray's assertion of the strength, worth and beauty of black American culture. Lest the reader think, however, that Murray is only a '60s rabble-rouser, let it be noted that he more than once decries those who "mistake the jargon of social science for insight into the nature and condition of man." In this collection of essays, reviews and commentaries, then, the references range from James Baldwin and Andre Malraux, from Thomas Mann to the blues. Da Capo has also reissued Stompin' the Blues ($11.95), Murray's examination of black music from Leadbelly to James Brown.
MYSTERIES AND THRILLERS
Unbalanced Acts, by Jeff Raines (Avon, $4.50). New York is under siege when a group of terrorists free 12 psychopaths from a hospital for the criminally insane and threaten to turn them loose where they'll do the most damage. Finding out who freed the inmates -- and where they plan to release them -- is the job of Capt. Michael Kelly of the city's Anti-Terrorist Action Command. As Kelly and his men stalk their prey, the trail leads to a group of neo-Nazis with links to '60s political activists who bombed campuses to protest the war in Vietnam.
A Coffin for Dimitrios and Background to Danger, by Eric Ambler (Carroll & Graf, $3.95 each). Nowadays, the spy novels that Eric Ambler wrote in the 1930s -- of which these are two of the best -- are redolent of nostalgia. Consider the elements: the Levant, long cruises or train trips (often across Central Europe), secret war plans, icy Russian generals with names like Zarkoff, mysterious colonels, languorous femmes fatales, innocents caught up in games they cannot quite fathom. You can practically hear the zither music. Anyone who hasn't read the early Amblers is missing out on a real treat.
Listening Woman, by Tony Hillerman (Harper, $4.95). In addition to deft plotting and acute characterization, Tony Hillerman's mysteries offer a bonus: a running introduction to the folkways of the Navajo people. In almost every book in the series (and they run into the double digits now), the solution depends on a custom or belief peculiar to the Navajo but well-known to the tribal police force from which the author recruits his sleuths. In this one, Lt. Joe Leaphorn brings his knowledge of tribal sand paintings to bear on a brutal double murder.