Between soft covers

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Never read a book that is not a year old -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

There are so many familiar adages about vengeance -- revenge is sweet, an eye for an eye, don't get mad, get even -- because the subject has a dark and enduring attraction, yet is discouraged by civilization. In Wild Justice: The Evolution of Revenge (Harper/Colophon, New York, $6.95), Susan Jacoby takes a long look at vengeance and its relation to justice. She begins Chapter 1 with the debatable observation: Forgive and forget. This admonition surely ranks as one of the most foolish clich'es in any language,'' and goes on to discuss revenge in life and literature at length. An ethically complex and timely book -- especially given recent events on New York subways -- it demands attention.

The desire for revenge is what starts Ike Tucker on his way to Huntingdon Beach and into a world of surfers, bikers, and sheer decadence in Kem Nunn's Tapping the Source (Dell, New York, $3.50). This novel was nominated for the American Book Award for First Fiction, and not surprisingly: the writing is first rate and reverberates with echoes of Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Ross Macdonald. The plotting is sure and the pace quick, and the Southern California landscape is omnipresent. There's nothing like a good first novel.

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Farms, farming, agriculture, and all that is front-page news these days, but farming as most of us know it is not what Masanobu Fukuoka talks about in The One-Straw Revolution (Bantam, New York, $3.95). Fukuoka's ``Do-Nothing Farming'' refers not to actual labor -- there's plenty of that -- but his feeling that ``there was no need to plow, no need to apply fertilizer, no need to make compost, no need to use insecticide.'' Modern agricultural techniques only seem to be necessary, he maintains, because ``the natural balance has been so badly upset.'' Farming is truly a way of life for Fukuoka, and the spiritual component of this book is large. Introduction by Wendell Berry.

Barbara Tuchman may well be the best of popular synthesizers of history. In book after book she has made historical epochs and events knowable without trivializing them, and two examples of her skill are out now in trade paperback. The Zimmerman Telegram (Ballantine, $7.95) explores espionage in the World War I years, and The March of Folly (Ballantine, $9.95) examines what Tuchman calls ``the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests.'' Intelligent, authoritative, best sellers.

The institution is the Eternal Church of the Believers, the setting is Florida, and the cast of characters -- some saints, some sinners, all recognizably human -- rolls out before us in classic John D. MacDonald tradition in One More Sunday (Faucett Crest, New York, $3.95). Roy Owen is a quiet mutual-fund manager who comes to Florida to search for his missing wife. She turns up dead, but the plot treating the search for her murderer runs parallel to a larger issue: the spiritual malaise of a church which has become a big business and has lost sight of saving souls. Topical, opinionated, perfectly paced, finely crafted -- MacDonald at his best.

San Francisco's Chinatown at the turn of the century was a fascinating place, another world, and it was photographed in detail by Arnold Genthe. What Genthe saw through the viewfinder, 129 plates worth, is presented in Genthe's Photographs of San Francisco's Old Chinatown (Dover, New York, $8.95), and as if his documentary imagery were not enough, each plate is annotated by John Kuo Wei Tchen. Tchen also contributes a strong introductory historical essay -- social history of a special sort.

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