Between Soft Covers

Never read a book that is not a year old. - Ralph Waldo Emerson No one knows the world of jazz better than Whitney Balliett, whose essays and profiles appear regularly in The New Yorker. Nineteen such pieces appear in Jelly Roll, Jabbo & Fats (New York: Oxford University Press, $6.95), and illuminate the works and lives of artists like Sidney Bechet, Fats Waller, Lee Knonitz, Ornette Coleman, and Michael Moore.

The American automotive industry is rebounding now, but for a while things were sliding downhill fast in Detroit. Just why that much-lamented and much-discussed erosion in our country's car business took place is the subject of Brock Yates's The Decline & Fall of the American Automobile Industry (New York: Vintage Books, $6.95). Yates is one of the industry's most incisive analysts/critics and in top form here.

Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos (New York: Washington Square Press, $3.95) is essentially unclassifiable, wonderfully eccentric, and irretrievably personal - random permutations of thought on our culture and mores by the National Book Award-winning novelist. This is a book you'll either like or dislike right away.

A different and more frightening look at our cosmos, having particularly to do with the secret papers of the Atomic Energy Commission, is located in The Cult of the Atom (New York: Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, $6.95). Revised and updated by Daniel Ford, the book shows, according to Ford, ''the reasons for both the meteoric rise and shattering fall of the nuclear power program - one of the most ambitious, expensive, and risky industrial ventures ever undertaken.''

Set in Ohio in the 1950s, and telling with exceptional emotional power the story of three generations of women, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia (New York: Ballantine, $3.50), Joan Chase's first novel, was unquestionably one of the best books of 1983. Affinities with Anne Tyler and Toni Morrison. A novel that will last.

What influences writers to write what they write is always an interesting issue. It is also the subject of In Praise of What Persists (New York: Harper/Colophon, $6.95), edited by Stephen Berg. ''Why not ask a range of fiction writers, poets and essayists to write about what they believe has influenced their work?'' asked Berg; among the 24 who answer are Edward Hoagland , Ted Solataroff, John Hawkes, Carolyn Forche, and Cynthia Ozick.

A. J. Liebling ''may well have been the greatest reporter of his time,'' says biographer Raymond Sokolov in Wayward Reporter: The Life of A. J. Liebling (Berkeley, Calif.: Creative Arts Book Company., 0.95). Liebling's time was the 1940s and 1950s, his place was at The New Yorker, and Tom Wolfe considered him the master of what was to be labeled ''New Journalism.'' A readable biography, with generous helpings of the wayward reporter's prose.

In Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (New York: Warner Books, $4.95) politics, history, intrigue, philosophy, and a good deal more are woven into the mystery's fabric. Eco, a famous semiotician, is obviously also a student of Medieval history as well as a fine storyteller. This novel resided on the best-seller list for weeks and weeks.

If you live on one of the Great Lakes, or just happen to like sea stories, Dwight Boyers's Ghost Ships of The Great Lakes and True Tales of the Great Lakes may be of interest. (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., $9.95 each.) The former was first published in 1968, the latter in 1971; both contain illustrations, solid history, and serviceable prose.

Most readers know Raymond Carver as one of today's best short-story writers, but he is also an essayist and a poet. Fires (New York: Vintage Books, $3.95) assembles 2 essays, 50 poems, 7 stories, and an afterword by Carver; it also contains a long interview originally printed in the Paris Review. This collection demonstrates the range and power of Carver.

T. H. White's Letters to a Friend (New York: Berkley, $6.95), selected and edited by Francois Gallix, presents many letters by the author of ''The Once and Future King'' to his Cambridge tutor, L. J. Potts. Revealing stuff.

Margaret Drabble is a very fine novelist but not nearly so well known as she should be in this country. Her best novel may be The Millstone (New York: New American Library/ Plume $5.95), the story of the typical modern young woman (modern, at least, in 1965, when the book first appeared), Rosamund Stacey, and what amounts to a rite of passage into adulthood. Drabble is roughly the English equivalent to Anne Tyler.

Death, aging, and all that goes with them is what the 15 stories in M. F. K. Fisher's Sister Age (New York: Vintage Books, $5.95) are all about. Uncompromisingly direct and powerful prose.

Miles Davis has been a sometimes impossible, often brooding, and always enigmatic figure in the world of jazz for nearly four decades now. He has also been perhaps the strongest influence on modern jazz as we know it, and he is the subject of Ian Carr's Miles Davis (New York: William Morrow & Co., $6.95). Illustrations, music examples, lengthy discography.

Fans of Mark Harris's ''Bang the Drum Slowly'' should know that a fourth baseball novel by that author is available now in paper. It Looked Like Forever (New York: McGraw-Hill, $6.95) brings the aging southpaw, Henry Wiggen, back into focus. As always, Harris expands beyond baseball.

William Kittredge's We Are Not in This Together (Port Townsend, Washington: Graywolf Press, $6.00) is the first collection of short stories to be published in Graywolf Press's new short fiction series, and if this is any indication of the standards they plan to observe, the series should do very well indeed. The precise imagery in Kittredge's eight stories is drawn from the mountain states. Something of a cross between James Crumley and Thomas McGuane, Kittredge is a real talent. Foreword by Raymond Carver.

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