The Life and Political Economy of Lauchlin Currie , by Roger J. Sandilands (Duke University Press, $57.50). The subject of this well written, solidly researched biography is a federal official who wielded enormous influence in his day but whose name is now virtually unknown to the general public. Lauchlin Currie, after working at the Treasury and the Federal Reserve Board, in 1939 became personal assistant to FDR, the first professional economist actually to work in the White House. His great contribution was to provide the economic reasoning behind New Deal programs to combat unemployment and increase consumer spending, even if it led to unbalanced budgets. During World War II, he directed the Lend Lease program to China. Such posts, and friendship with some alleged Communists, caused his reputation to go into eclipse during the McCarthy era. In the 1950s, the Canadian-born Currie sacrificed his U.S. citizenship, carving out a new career as a development economist in Colombia, where he lives today at age 88.

The Catholic University of America: A Centennial History , by C. Joseph Nuesse (CUA Press, P.O. Box 4852, Hampden Station, Baltimore, Md. 21211; $39.95; paperback, $19.95). It was in 1884 that the Roman Catholic bishops of the United States, meeting in Baltimore, decreed the foundation of the Catholic University of America. A $300,000 gift from Mary Gwendoline Caldwell of Newport, R.I., helped matters along. Ever since, the university has been known for the excellence of its teaching, especially at the graduate level; its immense influence on American Catholic education and the intensity and liveliness of its intramural theological debates, reflecting the stresses of the modern world on the church. This informative history, by an emeritus professor of sociology, traces the university's development, omitting no controversy of relevance to current issues.

Sonoran Desert Summer , by John Alcock (University of Arizona, $19.95). Sometimes a species's scientific name says it all. The gila monster is officially known as Heloderma suspectum and its equally poisonous relative the Mexican beaded lizard as Heloderma horridum. Luckily, the first-named creature, which dwells in the desert of zoologist John Alcock's title, rarely bothers humans -- indeed, it rarely bothers anything, being dormant about nine months of the year. In his short essay on the creatures, one of about three dozen covering the months May through September, Alcock concludes with a vivid depiction of the monsters in their off-season, "their beautiful red and black spotted torsos immobile, their black chins pressed to the dusty ground."

Culture in an Age of Money: The Legacy of the 1980s in America , edited with an introduction by Nicholaus Mills (Ivan R. Dee, $22.50). This is a collection of essays on "why the new conservative culture of the 1980s was so dominant and what we can learn from the opposition to it," from an array of left-leaning critics that includes sociologist Todd Gitlin, New Republic editor Hendrik Hertzberg, law professor Herman Schwartz, and man-of-letters Irving Howe. One of the most interesting pieces is a look at "The Literature of AIDS" by Mark Caldwell. Whereas most reviewers have praised Randy Shilts's And the Band Played On for its objective and unflinching look at the spread of the disease, Caldwell scents internalized homophobia in the author and savages the book for the "grating emotionalism of its ace-reporter language." Caldwell praises Susan Sontag's AIDS and Its Metaphors for its "more useful, less punishing approach to AIDS."

Tell Me More , by Larry King with Peter Occhiogrosso (Putnam, $21.95). Someone once quipped it was best to steer clear of any restaurant with the contraction 'n' in the title (Beef 'n' Suds, etc.), and some say the same of books written "with" or "as told to." This one, however, looks like an exception. Peter Occhiogrosso is a craftsmanlike co-author and Larry King a superb raconteur. Consider, for example, his story about the 1982 New York gubernatorial race, told to make the point that Mario Cuomo is not necessarily that mild-mannered altar boy that some critics take him for. During a debate Cuomo asked a seemingly ditzy question of his wealthy opponent, Republican Lewis Lehrman -- how much the Rolex watch he was wearing had cost. Lehrman answered truthfully: $30,000. "All watches run the same," Cuomo shot back. "Why not a five-thousand-dollar watch? Twenty-five thousand dollars could feed a whole family for a year." "It was calculated and surprising," King observes, and it devastated Lehrman."