Poets, camels, tug boats, and more

The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, selected and with an introduction by Mr. Singer. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux. 610 pp. $9.95. For narrative drive, color and variety, and sheer suggestive power, these 47 tales from eight previously published volumes are as superior to most contemporary fiction as they are distant from it. The earliest (and perhaps the best) record the material or spiritual travail of Polish village people. Singer's range includes boisterous comedy and slow, rich, patiently developed chronicles of moral crisis and redemption. It is a book so rich one almost regrets finishing it. Traveling the desert by camel

Tracks, by Robyn Davidson. New York: Pantheon Books. 254 pp. $3.95.

Robyn Davidson's first book tells of her hike across the great Australian desert with four pack camels and her dog, Diggity. By the time she sets off into the desert, she has conquered much of the inner dependency and cowardice often associated with ''being a lady.'' With fear under control, Davidson begins to replay old memories and resentments, making peace with her past and letting go of it in much the same way a snake sheds a skin too small to live in. But the trip is not all spiritual discipline: Davidson has to plan around scorpions, forage for food, and shoot down attacking wild bull camels. She learns an aboriginal language and befriends an elder of the Pitjanjara tribe, who walks with her for several hundred miles. This is an intriguing record of adventure from an imaginative new writer. Profiles of world figures

Leaders, by Richard Nixon. New York: Warner Books. 400 pp. $3.95.

The fascination of ''Leaders'' is in its profiles of those who have shaped the modern world, providing a personal perspective on leadership from a man whose failures have affected the way Americans measure their chief executives. Nixon's profiles are quite good, and the concluding reflections on the nature of power are particularly revealing. The author's sketch of Charles de Gaulle is especially vivid, for he clearly reveres the French leader's strength of character. His most memorable portrait concerns Konrad Adenauer, both a personal friend and mentor, who became West German chancellor, architect of a political rapprochement with France, and driving force behind NATO and the European Common Market. The profiles of Nikita Khrushchev and Chou En-lai, among others, are no less intriguing. Memoirs from a poet's wife

Poets in Their Youth, by Eileen Simpson. New York: Vintage Books. 272 pp. $5. 95.

In this book Eileen Simpson tells about her first husband, poet John Berryman. It is an honest and affectionate memoir of her life with this dazzling and difficult poet in his youth. She tells of the price Berryman paid over the years for his gift: of the brilliant young instructor at Harvard thrown out of work by World War II, turned down for military service because of poor vision, and driven to selling encyclopedias in a desperate attempt to support his wife and his pride. The friends included are the best poets of Berryman's generation, and the best critics of the preceding one. Her stories of critics Alan Tate and Edmund Wilson, among others, will fascinate anyone with a taste for anecdotes of the literary elite. Short essays for the savoring

The Tugman's Passage, by Edward Hoagland. New York: Random House. 209 pp. $12 .50.

These short essays have all appeared before, either in magazines like Harper's or newspapers like the New York Times. The title piece, is an account of the men who work on the tugs that tow freighters, the rare liners, and the weekly barges of garbage in and out of New York Harbor. ''On the Mushpan Man'' is a sympathetic correction to the Walt Disney trivialization of Johnny Appleseed. And there are nature pieces: porcupines that swim out to the middle of the pond to snack on lily pads; a fox transferring her pups to a new den, making sure that she also brings their favorite toys, a jay's foot or a weasel's skull. This is a book easily savored at intervals. X-ray view of struggling poet

The Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Ted Hughes and Frances McCullough. New York: Ballantine Books. 368 pp. $3.95.

Sylvia Plath - remembered too often only as a poet who committed suicide - had moments in her life when her head was triumphantly above the waters. ''Someday,'' she wrote in her journal when she was 20, ''. . . I will stop this absurd, self-pitying, idle, futile despair.'' These journals are a record of her efforts to stop. Though they don't provide any final explanation of her life or suicide, they do give an X-ray vision of the struggle to become an artist in a society that Plath believed was quite happy to let its struggling artists drown. The journals obviously lack the characteristic compression of Plath's poetry, but they may ultimately become the way a wider public - unwilling to puzzle out her many difficult poems - will come to understand Sylvia Plath. Conflicting values uncloaked

The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders, by James Oakes. New York: Vintage Books. 307 pp. $7.95.

Anyone who visits the plantation home of Thomas Jefferson is likely to wonder: How could our Southern forebears embrace a document proclaiming ''all men are created equal'' while they carried a slaveholder's whip? This paradox, according to historian James Oakes, reflected a deep-seated conflict of values in the Old South. Oakes contends that although most slaveholders never questioned their supposed racial superiority, they frequently suffered private guilt - along with fear that in the afterlife, ''while death liberated the slave , it doomed the master.'' The self-contradictory arguments Southerners conjured up in defense of slaveholding are a focal point in this well-researched portrait of the antebellum South.

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