Paperbacks: The Cook and the Gardener<br/> The Orientalist<br/> American Mania<br/> La Vie en Bleu<br/> Alex Katz<br/> Selected Poems<br/> Dead Horsemeat

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The Independent Culture

The Cook and the Gardener, by Amanda Hesser (ABSOLUTE £12.99 (632pp))

This book is the result of a year-long sabbatical that the food editor of the New York Times magazine spent at a château in Burgundy. Though Hesser's memoir-cum-cookbook won two awards and was serialised on Radio 4, you might think she overdid her account of crème de cassis, which starts on page 194 ("Monsieur Milbert collected the cassis the first week of July") and ends on page 480: "While the sprouts sizzled in the butter, she gave me a rundown of how to do it - a glass of this, a litre of that and don't forget to crush the blackcurrants." The reason is, of course, that the narrative has moved on to December while the blackcurrants have been steeping in eau-de-vie. Hesser brilliantly captures not only the foods but also the moods of the Burgundian year. In summer, her artisan hosts "hole up in the heat... They close the shutters, they talk in hushed tones, they move slowly." Following in the shuffling footsteps of the laconic Monsieur Milbert, Hilbert has written the most seasonal of cookbooks. This reaches an extreme with a salad that can only be made on "two or three days a year". Where can we get the ingredients for this lovingly tended terroir? CH

The Orientalist, by Tom Reiss (VINTAGE £7.99 (433pp))

Thrilling, exotic and mysterious, the life of the writer Lev Nussimbaum (1905-1941) has many resonances for our own time. Born in Azebaijan, he was a Jewish Orientalist, obsessed with the desert roots of his forebears. Adopting the identity of a Muslim prince, he produced 15 books in 12 years, most notably Ali and Nino, a love story across the religious divide. Reiss tracks this literary rocket through Persia, Weimar Berlin and Mussolini's Italy. As mind-boggling as any fiction. CH

American Mania, by Peter C Whybrow (NORTON £9.99 (338pp))

A British-born psychiatrist who has lived in the US for 30 years, Whybrow suggests that the bubble years of the 1990s pushed "American society beyond happiness and towards the dysphoric state of mania". The social concern engendered by a sense of community is undermined by "an information-saturated, turbo-charged mercantilism that never sleeps". Whybrow says the British are following suit. But are we really "taking shorter vacations"? Though thoughtful, Whybrow's polemic is vitiated by a preachy verbosity. CH

La Vie en Bleu, by Rod Kedward (PENGUIN £10.99 (741pp))

Kedward's epic account of France in the 20th century is enhanced by his astute assessments. We're reminded that the events of 1968 were "a spring awakening, a carnivalesque revolution". Kedward is particularly able in tracing the tides of political movements that have swept France in the past century. Given his insistence that "French politics and culture might both be defined by the status given to vanguards," it is unfortunate that his survey ends before last year's urban eruption. CH

Alex Katz, By Carter Ratcliff et al (PHAIDON £29.95 (256pp))

At its best, Katz's art combines the eye-jarring quality of Matisse with a distinctively American cool. Scorning the avant-garde as "something that happened in France a long time ago", Katz has developed an influential aesthetic "involved with beauty and elegance". The increasingly formulaic portraits in this handsome survey reveal the limitations of his approach. But a lovely night-time "City Landscape" of 1992 and a vast field of buttercups from 2002 show that Katz still has plenty to say. CH

Selected Poems, by Sophie Hannah (PENGUIN £8.99 (165pp))

Sophie Hannah's sparkling, wry poems about life, love and loss adjusting are the perfect riposte to those who whinge that modern poetry doesn't rhyme. This rhymes, scans and makes brilliant use of complex formal techniques in poems that celebrate the vagaries of the human body, mind and heart. CP

Dead Horsemeat, by Dominique Manotti (ARCADIA £11.99 (175pp))

It's Paris in 1989, as 1968 rebels morph into sleek spin-doctors and free-marketeers. Manotti's multi-stranded thriller (translated by Amanda Hopkinson and Ros Schwartz) moves at a breakneck gallop between racing scandals, crooked land deals and backstairs intrigue at the Elysée. The rakishly gay Inspector Daquin fits together the shady past and present of stop-at-nothing yuppies in a socially acute crime yarn with punch and pace. BT