Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940 , by David E. Nye (MIT Press, $29.95). This is a look at how electrification reflected -- and altered -- social values. World's Fairs, notes the author, were early excuses for lighting displays, with each host-city trying to outdo its predecessor in lavish megawattage. Movie theaters also entered into the display game, ranking among Thomas Edison's best early clients. Soon the country as a whole went light-crazy. "As early as 1903," writes the author, "Chicago, New York, and Boston had five times as many electric lights per inhabitant as Paris, London, or Berlin, and by 1910 the electrical displays stunned foreign visitors."
Maximum Morphonios: The Life and Times of America's Toughest Judge , by Ellen Morphonios with Mike Wilson (Morrow, $19.95). Judge Ellen Morphonios once got a letter from a convict whose sentence she refused to reduce which consisted of the word DENIED written out a hundred times, followed by the question, "Have you ever heard of the word GRANTED?" She keeps a model of an electric chair on her desk and had this to say from the bench when a witness mentioned having shot a would-be rapist in the groin: "Nice shot." In her autobiography, she defends her toughness at sentencing time and notes that the fairness of the actual trials in her Miami courtroom is widely acknowledged.
Never Say Goodbye: Essays ,by Phyllis Rose (Talese/Doubleday, $18.95). A teacher of literature at Wesleyan University and the author of Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages and of biographies of Virginia Woolf and Josephine Baker, Phyllis Rose is also an essayist. Here, 27 essays are collected from sources as diverse as the Iowa Review and Glamour magazine. The subjects range from motherhood to rude hairdressers to meditations on gift-giving and on whether animals experience love. For her title, Rose borrows the name of a Connecticut thrift shop she frequents, but the essay on the store is only partly on the joys of looking for bargains. Instead, it is an essay about value: "It seems to me typical of New England to think that good things will only get better in time, that in fact time is necessary to prove whether they are good."
Adventures of a Bystander: Memoirs , by Peter F. Drucker (HarperCollins, $25). Peter Drucker, preeminent theorist of business management of our time, is more than just a number-cruncher, bottom-line analyst or three-minute management consultant. He belongs to that great generation of German intellectuals -- including Einstein, Mann, Adorno, Spitzer and so many others -- who fled the Nazis and valued high culture and wide learning in matters other than their specialties. Drucker, for instance, has written novels, worked as a journalist, taught, collected art and known many of the most interesting people of his time. This memoir, newly reissued as a "business classic," includes sections on Freud, Henry Luce, Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan, Alfred Sloan and others, as well as evocations of Europe in the '20s, England in the '30s and post-war America.
The Quivering Tree: An East Anglian Childhood , by S.T. Haymon (St. Martin's, $17.95). Acclaimed for her five mystery novels and for the volume of memoirs, Opposite the Cross Keys, to which this book is a sequel, S.T. Haymon continues in The Quivering Tree the anything but sentimentalized story of her childhood in Norwich, England. When she was 12, young Sylvia's father died and her mother moved to London. Sylvia, however, opted to stay in Norwich as a boarder in the household of two eccentric spinster schoolteachers. Outside her bedroom window stood the aspen tree of the title, whose "artistry of silvery greenery" would comfort her through the highs and lows of growing up in such unusual circumstances. More than poetic observations, though, The Quivering Tree delivers a feast of hilarious vignettes and merciless character sketches, from the "knobby" gardener and the "ginny" housekeeper to a frankly tyrannical headmistress and the unforgettably lascivious Miss Locke.
Divorce Among the Gulls: An Uncommon Look at Human Nature , by William Jordan (North Point Press, $19.95). Trained to avoid the crime of anthropomorphism -- attributing human motivatations to animals -- zoologist and entomologist William Jordan devises a novel outflanking twist in this thoroughly entertaining book. "What if," he asks, "instead of imputing human thought to the animal mind, we should impute animal workings to the human mind? If indeed we had evolved from animals, what was the human mind but an extension of the animal's urges?" Operating on the assumption of this fundamental "kinship of mind," Jordan draws illuminating parallels between the behavior of territorial-minded mocking-birds, mating medflies, threatened snakes or wrangling gulls on the one hand and human behavior on the other, humbly concluding that humans, like animals, spend most of their lives pursuing food, territory, social position and mates. Homo sapiens, in short, is less a rational animal than a rationalizing one. At the same time Jordan cheerfully commits himself to a dazzling range of philosophical speculations about the meaning of human life, somewhat undercutting his low opinion of the human mind.