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Between soft covers

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

When we think of annual short-story collections, we typically think of the O. Henry Award and Best American Short Stories selections. Now, we add The Editors' Choice (Bantam/Wampeter, New York, $6.95) to this list. This anthology, compiled by George Murphy, is composed of 18 stories, stories that the editors at magazines like Esquire and The Atlantic as well as Antaeus and Shenandoah thought ``represented their editorial ideal.'' There are familiar names (Alice Adams, Anne Tyler) and not-so-familiar names (Charlie Smith, Mary Hood); Molly Giles's ``Self-Defense'' is particularly powerful. A consistently excellent collection.

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Michael Guillen wrote Bridges to Infinity (Jeremy P. Tarcher, Los Angeles, $6.95) as a prescription for those suffering math anxiety, which he calls ``the pathological dread and unabashed humility that mathematics evokes in hundreds of millions of people. Throughout history,'' says Guillen, ``most people have had this same reaction toward mathematics.'' This book is difficult but still interesting, particularly the chapter on infinity, and there is a useful glossary and suggested reading list.

``He throws a 90+ m.p.h. fastball and he hits spots with it. He throws an exceptional overhand curveball, which, during his delivery, is indistinguishable from his fastball. He is learning a changeup. . . .'' The subject is Dwight Gooden, and the book is The Scouting Report (Harper/Colophon, New York, $14.95). This thick volume gives a page to the analysis of each major league baseball player, with reports on hitting, fielding, baserunning, and an overall evaluation. This book, assembled by Dave Campbell, Denny Matthews, Brooks Robinson, and Duke Snider, and edited by Marybeth Sullivan, is one for the FAN.

The hero is Marshall Pearl, and we first meet him as a foundling, his mother killed on a boat trying to run the blockade around Palestine in the late 1940s. He is adopted, and later spends time on Long Island, out West, in the Caribbean, at Harvard, and fighting in the Middle East. Mark Helprin's Refiner's Fire (Laurel, New York $4.95) is a stunning and at times fantastic picaresque novel, a powerful book by an acclaimed short-story writer.

Paul Goldberger is the architecture critic of the New York Times, and in 1984 he won a Pulitzer Prize for his work. Eighty examples of that work appear in On the Rise (Penguin, New York, $8.95), covering such buildings as the Getty Museum in Malibu, Philip Johnson's Crystal Cathedral, the Vietnam Memorial, and the Levittown House. Goldberger says the ``real challenge'' of architecture criticism ``is to argue critically for a set of values and standards without trying to shape a city or a profession in one's own image.'' This he does; a perceptive work.

J. M. Coetzee's ``Waiting for the Barbarians'' caused a sensation when it was published three years ago, and now in paper is his Life and Times of Michael K (Penguin, New York $5.95). Michael K is helping his mother return to her hometown in South Africa, but she dies and he is left alone. He drifts through this novel, living in refugee camps, hospitals, caves, the bush -- his concern is to survive, and that he barely does. There is an almost visionary quality to this book, and it is a profound allegory for its place and time.

``Every autumn, I try to make a trip into the mountains of northern California to do some trout fishing, and this past year was no exception. I was more eager than ever, in fact, because I hadn't done any fishing for a while, and I felt an acute biological need of open spaces.'' So begins the last of the 10 essays in Bill Barich's Traveling Light (Penguin, New York, $5.95), a collection that reveals Barich's interests in horse racing and fishing, and which displays a lively, personal prose.

``It is difficult . . . to separate writer from reader: Each wants to explain to himself what has happened between him and his poem.'' What Stephen Berg, the man who assembled Singular Voices (Avon, New York, $12.95), is talking about is the many poets who have each contributed one poem and a self-interpretive essay to this book. The roster includes Marvin Bell, Carolyn Forch'e, Louise Gl"uck, Robert Hass, Czeslaw Milosz, Robert Penn Warren, and Richard Wilbur, among others. Partly revelatory, partly confusing, generally interesting.

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Thomas Berger is one of America's premier prose stylists, and he is also a funny man. Arthur Rex (Laurel, New York, $4.95) is his retelling of the Arthurian legend. Sometimes ribald but always elegantly witty, Berger handles our language with consummate skill.

Albert Einstein to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then President, started it all. Within a few years, the Bomb was more than a dream (or nightmare) -- it was dropped, the war ended. Where it all began was Los Alamos, N.M., and the story of that city is told in Los Alamos: The First Forty Years (Los Alamos Historical Society, distributed by University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, N.M., $12.95). This book collects newspaper articles, memos, and photographs, and it becomes a public scrapbook showing the growth of the city that gave us the bomb, the city where the Los Alamos National Laboratory now employs 8,000 people, a city with the highest average educational level and highest per capita library circulation in the country. Edited and annotated by Fern Lyon and Jacob Evans.

Curiosity about the inner workings of the television business may be satisfied by reading Todd Gitlin's Inside Prime Time (Pantheon, New York, $8.95). Gitlin takes a look at the evolution of movies of the week and how deals are made, examines at length and in great detail ``Hill Street Blues,'' tells us why and how TV has become what it is. What it is you can judge for yourself, but your judgment will be the wiser for reading this straightforward and thoughtful book.

A regular monthly column in the Book Review.

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