Nonfiction

The Change in the Weather: People, Weather, and the Science of Climate, by William K. Stevens (Delacorte, $24.95). Was the balmy beginning of the current winter in Washington just a fluke or part of a pattern? This examination of whether global climate is undergoing a change begins with a close-up on the Chicago heat-wave of July 1995, when temperatures of 120 degrees were recorded in some dwellings -- mostly those of the poor and scared, who lacked air conditioning and in some cases had nailed their windows shut for fear of criminals. According to a city spokesman, it was "the city's biggest mass disaster." "The climate system is very volatile," declares a meteorologist quoted by the author. It is "an angry beast, and we are poking it with sticks."

Churchill Wanted Dead or Alive, by Celia Sandys (Carroll & Graf, $25). "I have faith in my star," a young Winston Churchill wrote to his mother in 1897, "that I am intended to do something in the world." He penned those lines from India, where he'd managed to land a position as war correspondent and officer with a British force fighting Pathan rebels. Three years later, he was off to South Africa to cover the Boer War for the Morning Post. Accompanying a British armored train -- known as "Hairy Mary" or the "death trap" to the soldiers aboard -- Churchill apparently egged the commanding officer on "to within firing range of the Boers, intending to teach them a lesson." It was a lesson that backfired; the train was taken, and Churchill and others wound up as prisoners of war. Churchill staged a daring escape and went on to distinguish himself at Spion Kop -- a bitter British defeat, though the young correspondent nearly managed single-handed to turn the tide of battle, as Celia Sandys, his granddaughter, tells the vivid story.

Polk's Folly: An American Family History, by William R. Polk (Doubleday, $29.95). The author, a respected scholar and former State Dept. official, has a long and varied family tree. This book is his attempt to connect the story of his family's struggle on these shores to the history of the nation itself. He begins with Robert Pollok, a Scot who brought his family to the New World in 1680. Pollok attempted to settle a swampy patch of land in Chesapeake, Md., an unpromising parcel that came to be known as "Polk's Folly." The Polks eventually prospered and diversified. The author's relatives, whose lives and careers he dutifully explores, include James, who became the nation's 11thpresident, and William's brother George, a legendary Navy pilot and journalist. As Polk tells their stories, he utilizes a range of source materials -- including letters, journals and wills -- to depict various eras in American history and how his family members were affected by them. He writes of his relatives, "All grew with the country and helped to form it by their actions, their thoughts and their feet."