NONFICTION

Red Hot Mamas: Coming Into Our Own at Fifty, by Colette Dowling (Bantam, $23.95). "Women entering their fifties today are better educated, more independent, more financially self-sufficient and more involved in community and political life than midlife women have ever been before," writes the author, who is the mother of three grown children. The title of her book comes from a term applied to female blues singers who, no longer young and perhaps more well-upholstered than formerly, had the style and courage that come with age: Sophie Tucker, it may be recalled, billed herself as the last of the breed, but Colette Dowling believes that the traits of red hot mamahood are worth reviving. "Red hot mamas are on the cusp. We are changing the future for women once again."

A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment: From the Journals of Alfred Kazin (HarperCollins, $26). Now in his early eighties, critic and essayist Alfred Kazin has been keeping a journal since the late 1930s. A denizen of New York City and, during the summer, of the literary colony at Wellfleet, Mass., Kazin can dismiss a whole movement with a sniffing quip: "Jews on the American scene. The neoconservatives have made it right with the boss their grandfathers used to picket." There is plenty of bookchat and gossip here -- for example, Brendan Gill teasing Saul Bellow at a literary gathering to the point where Bellow "went white with shock." And Kazin can imbue an ordinary phenomenon with a lifetime of reading: "The flight of birds in Homer, in Dante, in Virgil: the prime symbol in classical literature for movement in the world, for unsettlement, for change. The flight of birds: No other symbol has ever meant, can ever mean, so much to the mind for which the world is never simply here and now, and to which the breath of life is a dark line moving away from everything we have in this world."

A Planter's Republic: The Search for Economic Independence in Revolutionary Virginia, by Bruce A. Ragsdale (Madison House, $34.95). If the rhetoric of the American Revolution was mostly high-minded, with its clarion calls for the defense of inalienable rights and the homage to eternal verities, the underlying strains were primarily economic, suggests Bruce Ragsdale. The revolutionary impulse in the Old Dominion "rested on the assumption that Virginia's agricultural production was so valuable that it might be traded with advantage throughout the Atlantic world and support a free society, unencumbered by the ties of Empire." The author, who lives in Washington, is an historian with the Federal Judicial Center.

The Anatomy of Memory: An Anthology, compiled by James McConkey (Oxford, $30). Here is a volume that mixes not only memory and desire, but also memory and nature, memory and creativity, memory and identity, memory and old age, etc. etc. McConkey has written a superb novel about Chekhov's journey to the prison island at Sakhalin (To a Distant Island), but he is best known for his autobiographical works, collectively titled Court of Memory. In this anthology -- and why isn't it "The Oxford Book of Memory"? -- McConkey provides brief introductions to reflections by novelists, scientists and philosophers, each of whom consider some aspect of that most precious of all the brain's activities. The result is an entertaining and exhilarating volume, certainly one that's hard to forget.

The New York Public Library's Books of the Century, edited by Elizabeth Diefendorf; illustrations by Diana Bryan (Oxford, $14.95). Last year the New York Public Library opened an exhibition of some 150 of its bibliographic treasures: first editions of some of the most influential books of the century. This companion volume reprints the brief notes that accompanied each chosen volume, explaining its particular significance. The result is at once an attractive browsing book, a useful reading list, and a memento of this notable bibliographic event. The titles chosen represent all fields and genres, not just standard literary masterpieces: Among others, here are Jack Kerouac's On the Road, E.F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful, Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, Jim Bouton's Ball Four, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, and P.G. Wodehouse's The Inimitable Jeeves.