<preform>Paperbacks: Al Dente<br>The Measure of All Things<br>Mountains of the Mind<br>By Permission of Heaven<br>The Road to Oxiana<br>Brick Lane<br>The Average Human</preform>

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The Independent Culture

Al Dente by William Black. Anyone besotted by the most enjoyable cuisine in the world should lay their hands on three books - Pleasures of the Italian Table by Burton Anderson,

Al Dente by William Black CORGI £7.99 (368pp)

Anyone besotted by the most enjoyable cuisine in the world should lay their hands on three books - Pleasures of the Italian Table by Burton Anderson, Gastronomy of Italy by Anna del Conte and, very probably, this enjoyable gastronomic log by William Black. While eating his way from Turin to the Aeolian isles, Black painlessly imparts a host of culinary knowledge. He introduces us to real focaccia, an eight-hour labour of love utterly unlike the cushion-like stuff sold in our supermarkets. He probes the Genovese love of dried cod. He tells us what to eat in Lipari - salted capers and sea urchin gonads. No shrinking violet in the dégustation department, Black samples a "marvellously pungent" donkey sauce in Sardinia, along with casu marza (literally "rotten cheese", masticated by maggots) that proves to have "the tanginess of stilton... In fact, it was very good." In Liguria, he offers a persuasive case for lardo or cured pig's fat - "divine, delicate, herby - yes, OK, slightly fatty" - but omits to mention the euphemism used to tempt cholesterol-obsessed Americans: white prosciutto. Interwoven with this high-calorie tour are a series of entertaining notes on the Italian character and a potted history of the risorgimento. We learn about the Futurists and the mini-rabbits of Ischia. Black even includes 30-odd recipes and one or two Italian jokes. CH

The Measure of All Things by Ken Alder ABACUS £8.99 (466pp)

Ancien-régime France was hindered by about 250,000 different units of weights and measures. In 1790, the new National Assembly decided to replace this regional anarchy with a set of measures based on the size of the earth itself. As an initial step, two astronomers measured the distance from Dunkirk to Barcelona. In this stimulating book, Ken Alder tells their stories. Even more astonishing than their adventures - one escaped the guillotine by a hair's breadth, while the other was imprisoned in Spain - is the error and cover-up that led to the metre being inaccurate by 0.2mm. CH

Mountains of the Mind by Robert Macfarlane GRANTA £8.99 (306pp)

In this illuminating and, occasionally, vertiginous work, Macfarlane tells the story of mountains through their more articulate observers, including Coleridge, Goethe and that least likely of all climbers Dr Johnson ("for such a cumbersome man, he was remarkably agile"). Their reflections on the awesome are punctuated by Macfarlane's recollections of the awful - various hairy incidents ("I was almost asthmatic with fear") he experienced while scaling peaks. This book glitters with memorable phrases. One could serve as Macfarlane's motto: "From death in valleys, preserve me, oh Lord." CH

By Permission of Heaven by Adrian Tinniswood PIMLICO £8.99 (330pp)

After his excellent, if overshadowed biography of Wren, Tinniswood now tackles the event that made our greatest architect. With the Dutch fleet threatening, England was in a feverish state even before the oven of Thomas Farriner, a maker of ship's biscuits for the Navy, overheated and ignited Pudding Lane. With a cinematic sweep, Tinniswood tells the story of the Great Fire, from the Lord Mayor's initial bravado to the rebuilding of the city. His vivid narrative animates the leading players and the bit actors in a catastrophe that, amazingly, cost only six lives. CH

The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron PIMLICO £8.99 (393pp)

"Water like hot saliva, cigar-ends floating into one's mouth and shoals of jellyfish... Bertie mentioned that all whales have syphilis." The description of the Venice Lido that opens this travel classic of 1937 could scarcely be bettered. Byron's account of a meandering journey by two toffs round Persia and Afghanistan stands up remarkably well. His hilarious dialogues, deadpan irony and bathetic descriptions - a 15th-century mausoleum reminds him "of a villa in Clapham" - created a template that is still much copied. Sadly, his erudition is less easily imitated. CH

Brick Lane by Monica Ali BLACK SWAN £7.99 (492pp)

Last year's big hit, Ali's first novel is an engaging tale of East-West culture clashes and illicit love. Nazneen swaps her Bangladeshi village for a block of flats in Tower Hamlets and an arranged marriage to a man with "a face like a frog". So far, so subservient - until she meets the gorgeous Karim. Brick Laneis a warm, funny, old-fashioned story with characters you care about. While the content may be relatively unfamiliar, the narrative trappings are tried and tested. Not the Next Big Thing, but a damn good read. CP

The Average Human by Ellen Toby-Potter VINTAGE £6.99 (260pp)

Talking about degeneration: fans of bogs, incest, guilty secrets and black comedy will love this mannered but hilarious study in American Gothic. Toby-Potter's novel traces the stagnant present and rotten past of the Mayborns of Loomis, a dire backwater whose smartest locations are "the courthouse and the funeral parlour". Yes, we've been to these in-bred parts before, but seldom with this wit and flair - plus a clever evolutionary theme rooted in "this fellow Darwin". BT

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