Tripmaster Monkey, His Fake Book, by Maxine Hong Kingston (Vintage, $9.95). The hero of this wildly energetic first novel from Maxine Hong Kingston is Wittman Ah Sing, a Chinese-American living in San Francisco in the 1960s. As we follow Wittman through his adventures, we watch him find a girlfriend, get married, get fired from his job. We learn of his mission to reform American theater by creating plays that show the Chinese as more than stereotypes: "Wittman wanted to spoil all those stories coming out of and set in New England Back East . . . A new rule for the imagination: The common man has Chinese looks. From now on, whenever you read about those people with no surnames, color them with black or yellow skin."
A Different Drummer, by William Melvin Kelley (Anchor, $8.95). Initially published in 1962, A Different Drummer was William Melvin Kelley's first novel. It is the story of Tucker Caliban, a black farmer who salts his fields, kills his animals and leaves with his family. These seemingly destructive actions set off the exodus of the entire black population from the state, to the confusion of most of the whites. Like other Kelley novels (Dem comes immediately to mind), A Different Drummer is both realistic and fabulous, with hidden meanings beneath the visible surface of the story.
The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom, by Tobias Smollett (Penguin, $7.95). Dickens said he loved and learned from Smollett's literary example, and his rambling early novels owe much to his predecessor's picaresque works. The typical Smollett protagonist is, however, a hard-wenching rogue rather than a virginal innocent. This 1753 novel is a case in point: Its portrayal of the eponymous nobleman prompted Sir Walter Scott to call the book an exercise in "disgusting pollution of the imagination." Others have valued it, however, for its satirical inventiveness and for the character of Joshua Manasseh, the first sympathetic Jew in English fiction.
Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath, by Anne Stevenson (Houghton Mifflin/Peter Davison, $10.95). In 1963 the poet Sylvia Plath gassed herself to death in a London kitchen, leaving behind two small children, a shocked though estranged husband, the poet Ted Hughes, and a number of brutally powerful poems that, published posthumously, established her immediately as one of the really distinctive American poets of her generation. This authoritative biography shows an immensely talented woman, driven by tremendous ambition, yet prey to neurotic fears of failure and irrational rages and jealousies. The discussion of the poetry is especially illuminating.
The Most Beautiful House in the World, by Witold Rybczynski (Penguin, $8.95). The answer to the question implied in the title is the house that one builds oneself. This an account of architecture professor Witold Rybczynski's plan to build a boat, which entailed building a workshop in which to build the boat. Over the course of the book, Rybczynski relates how the plans for the boathouse became plans for a house. While the book contains much that is mundane and practical, it is leavened by discussions of the evolution of the barn, architecture and food and architecture and clothing.
Stone Work: Reflections on Serious Play and other Aspects of Country Life, by John Jerome (Penguin, $8.95). Stone Work is not so much an account of a year spent building a stone wall or a how-to book as it is a meditation about working with stone. John Jerome did build a stone wall, and so there is much here about what it is to wrest a stone from the earth, transport it and then fit it into the existing pattern of the wall. There are also "detours" -- meditations on nature, weightlifting, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and much more.
The Use and Abuse of the English Language, by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge (Paragon, $10.95). Originally titled The Reader Over Your Shoulder, this handbook was abridged a few years back -- to make it somewhat more streamlined -- and is now reprinted under a new, more descriptive and pedestrian title. In any incarnation it is a superb guide to clear, logical prose, albeit a cranky one. The opening chapters lay out the principles of good writing and clear statement, with plenty of examples; the later chapters dissect passages from some of the better known writers of the early 20th century. Nearly all of the selections are found to suffer from such errors as faulty connection, a confused sequence of ideas, over-emphasis, unintentional contrast, mispunctuation or ambiguity.
Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, by David Hume (Penguin, $5.95). Next to Plato's these are perhaps the most lucid and beautifully written of all philosophical dialogues. In them Hume attacks the theological argument from design -- i.e., that the existence of the natural world implies the fatherhood of a loving God -- as sentimental wishing. His purpose in writing these dialogues was not so much to discredit religion as to demonstrate that its chief tenets are matters of faith, not reason -- and thus that persecuting anyone for espousing a different creed is irrational and cruel.
MYSTERIES AND THRILLERS
The Bridesmaid, by Ruth Rendell (Mysterious Press, $4.95). The cover by Mel Odom (whose stylized and seductive art almost dares the browser not to dip into the books it adorns) figures in the plot of this eerie thriller by a reigning master of the genre. It features the head of a statue -- a rather commonplace statue at that, except that its depiction of an idealized young Greek woman happens to be replicated in a living person, Senta, the bridesmaid of the title. After meeting her at a wedding, Philip Wardman becomes so obsessed with her marble-like beauty that he closes his eyes to her cruelty. Eventually he must choose between keeping her love and abiding by his own powerful instincts toward nonviolence.
Muscle for the Wing, by Daniel Woodrell (Signet, $4.50). The Wing in the title of the novel is a prison gang led by one Emile Jadick, who has come to the town of St. Bruno to take over the gangs that run the already corrupt bayou town. Accompanying him are Dean Pugh and Cecil Byrne, two fellow ex-cons with a taste for the seamier things life has to offer, and Wanda Bone Bouvier, one-time waitress and full-time sweet thing. Enter police detective Rene Shade, on assignment to locate the members of the Wing. As Shade continues his investigation, he must ask himself who he is working for: the city? or the gang bosses who really run things?