NONFICTION

Return of the Whooping Crane, by Robin W. Doughty (University of Texas Press, $24.95). In 1944 there were 21 wild whooping cranes in North America; in the late 1980s there were 200 in wild and captive flocks. The dramatic story of their rebound from near-extinction is told in this beautifully illustrated book, which provides full information on the wild flock that migrates between Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf coast and on the captive breeding programs for cranes in Patuxent, Md., and Baraboo, Wis. The birds face formidable threats: power lines, coyotes and barbed wire, but no one who sees one of these magnificent creatures in flight can doubt that their rescue is worth any cost.

An American Hero: The Red Adair Story, by Philip Singerman (Little, Brown, $18.95). It's not every firefighter whom John Wayne portrays (in a movie called "Hellfighters"), but then Red Adair does not fight ordinary fires. Oil-well conflagrations are what he puts out, like the one in Algeria that shot flames 800 feet into the air. (They called it The Devil's Cigarette Lighter, and John Glenn could see it from his spacecraft-in-orbit 200 miles above the earth.) Adair has been dousing flames for more than 50 years; this authorized biography chronicles his life and hot times.

Theoretical Perspectives on Sexual Difference, edited by Deborah L. Rhode (Yale, $25). Under the old theories, women had limited strength, and those "who diverted their scarce biological reserves to intellectual endeavors could expect a host of maladies including, in some cases, permanent sterility." Similarly, women were considered such specialists in nurturing that they allegedly found it hard to deal with, say, the concepts of abstract justice. In response, feminists have either called such differences between men and women culturally determined or rejoined that something might be amiss with abstract justice rather than women. Some of the contributors to this essay collection argue beyond both of these approaches: that the important question is what is gained (and lost) by reducing men and women to bundles of opposing qualities.

Fish Decks: Seafarers of the North Atlantic, by William McCloskey (Paragon House, $22.95). The author cajoled dozens of skippers into letting him sign on as a green mate on their fishing boats (so taxing is the occupation that the luxury of just idling around all day taking journalistic notes is out of the question). But pitching right in seems to have been exactly what the author wanted. As he picks up, say, the skill of slicing along rather than through a cod's meat, he evokes the salty tang of the work -- not to mention the old hands' disdain for a clumsy newcomer. His love for the fishing trade in all of its aspects imbues every page of this vivid book.

The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way, by Bill Bryson (Morrow, $18.95). "More than 300 million people in the world speak English," writes the author, "and the rest, it sometimes seems, try to." One of their difficulties is the language's notorious gap between spelling and punctuation -- i.e., making sense of the fact that "cough" and "rough" are not homonyms. In a thoughtful chapter devoted to attempts at reforming English-language spelling, Bryson makes the point that, while fine in theory, the movement might bog down in practice. "If we insisted on strictly phonetic renderings, girl would be gurl in most of America (though perhaps goil in New York), gel in London and Sydney, gull in Ireland, gill in South Africa, gairull in Scotland. Written communications between nations, and even parts of nations, would become practically impossible."

Don't Know Much About History: Everything You Need to Know About American History But Never Learned, by Kenneth C. Davis (Crown, $24.95). The crucial phrase in the subtitle is "need to know." Thus, when historian Kenneth Davis reaches the silver-versus-gold controversy of 1896, he balks, summarizing the contents of William Jennings Bryan's cross of gold speech as "an obscure argument over currency." On the other hand, if you've always wondered exactly what Boss Tweed bossed (the patronage available to New York City's mid-19th-century Democratic Party) and what Tammany Hall was (a Democratic clubhouse), Davis is your man. One historical nugget missing from the volume is an attribution for the title: It's the first line of "What a Wonderful World It Would Be," a circa-1960 hit song by Sam Cooke.