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The Fateful Alliance: France, Russia, and the Coming of the First World War, by George F. Kennan (Pantheon, $8.95). A distinguished historian examines the men and motives involved in forging diplomatic ties between Paris and St. Petersburg, beginning in 1890 and leading into World War I. An illuminating and sobering attempt to understand why an alliance conceived in such high hopes should have had such devastating consequences. In a lighter vein, Susan Mary Alsop purveys the gossip, intrigue, and scandal of the diplo- matic world of Metternich and Talleyrand in The Congress Dances: Vienna 1814-1815 (Washington Square Press, $3.95). As a popular historian, Alsop may well be the closest thing America has to Nancy Mitford. This is not one of her best books, but it's still very entertaining.

The Burn, by Vassily Aksyonov, translated by Michael Glenny (Aventura/Vintage, $9.95). Widely regarded as Aksyonov's best novel, ``The Burn'' is an exuberant, freewheeling evocation of life among the Moscow intelligentsia in the stimulating 1960s. The novel was first published (in Russian) in Italy in 1980, the same year that Aksyonov, popular and esteemed but finally unable to overcome the problems of censorship, emigrated to the United States.

Exuberance abounds in Partners, by Veronica Geng (Perennial Library, $6.95). Many of these pieces first appeared in The New Yorker magazine. Geng casts a cool, satirical eye on the content, while mercilessly mocking the styles of politicians' newsletters, newspaper society pages, how-to books, film critics, and tell-all memoirists. Where else can we learn -- straight from the lips of a kiss-and-tell cocktail waitress who claims she was Mao's mistress -- that the pressure-sensiti ve Chinese leader had to caution her, ``Please, don't squeeze the Chairman''?

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Duse: A Biography, by William Weaver (A Harvest/HBJ Book, $9.95). In an age when acting was resoundingly ``theatrical,'' the great Italian actress Eleonora Duse (1858-1924) astonished audiences with her understatement and fidelity to life. Weaver's thoroughly researched and richly detailed biography of Duse impresses by these same qualities.

Conversations with Eudora Welty, ed. by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw (Washington Square Press, $4.95). Interviews spanning 40 years in which Miss Welty displays the character and grace that have long distinguished her fiction and nonfiction. Whether talking with other writers (like Alice Walker or Reynolds Price), being interviewed on William Buckley's ``Firing Line'' (along with fellow Southern writer Walker Percy), or answering a questionnaire, Welty is firm and direct without shedd ing her special aura of gentleness.

In a brief essay concluding his collection, Isaac Bashevis Singer speculates that children may well be ``the ultimate literary critics.'' His respect for their intelligence and sense of wonder is clearly evident in his Stories for Children (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $7.95). Singer's genius as a storyteller will doubtless enchant adults and children alike.

Definitely for adults is the thoughtful, slightly world-weary, but always compelling fiction of Saul Bellow, whose most recent collection, Him With His Foot in His Mouth (Pocket Books, $4.50), features four stories and one novella.

Empire of the Sun, by J. G. Ballard (Washington Square Press, $4.50). British novelist J. G. Ballard draws upon his own boyhood experiences in Shanghai and in a Japanese prison camp during World War II in this moving fictional re-creation of the dislocations, adventures, and horrors of wartime.

The Economics and Politics of Race: An International Perspective, by Thomas Sowell (Quill, $6.95). It poses this question: ``How much of any minority group's economic state depends upon their own culture and how much upon the way they are treated by the larger society around them?'' Thomas Sowell contends that the influence of the latter has been overestimated and the influence of the former underestimated, if not ignored. An economist and senior fellow at the Hoover Institutio n, Sowell draws much of his evidence from the work of social scientists who share his outlook, and the breadth of his international perspective renders him liable to the occasional overgeneralization. But he makes a low-key, reasonable, and cogent case that serves as a corrective to the tendency of other social philosophers whose automatic response is always to blame ``the system.''

Gilgamesh, translated from the S"in-leqi-unninn'i version, by John Gardner and John Maier (Vintage, $9.95). To read ``Gilgamesh'' -- even to think about it -- is to feel what Wordsworth called ``the unimaginable touch of time.'' This ``late'' version of the ancient Babylonian epic was inscribed on 12 clay tablets sometime during the 2nd millennium BC, based on stories of the 3rd. The saga of the Sumerian King Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu testifies to man's struggle to escape through heroic action the natural cycle of death and mutability. John Gardner was working on this translation shortly before his untimely death in a motorcycle accident in 1982.

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