Paperbacks: The Cook's Encyclopedia<br></br>Stiff<br></br>Grandes Horizontales<br></br>Albion<br></br>Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People<br></br>Day After Day<br></br>Nowhere Man

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The Independent Culture

The Cook's Encyclopedia by Tom Stobart (GRUB STREET £14.99 (457pp))

Though Alan Davidson's Oxford Companion to Food (1999) is commonly regarded as the best British encyclopaedia on culinary matters, many experts prefer Stobart's more concise, technically more precise, reference work, first published in 1980. Davidson himself wrote that it was not only "serious and important" but "extremely readable". Previously a BBC producer of natural history, Stobart garnered knowledge about a prodigious cornucopia of foodstuffs. He informs us that collecting the material for bird's nest soup from caves is "like scraping a cathedral roof while balancing on a sweep's pole". Brawn is "best made from a young pig". Caviar is at its best "three days after making". The mango "can well claim to be the world's most delicious fruit... After eating a good mango you need a bath." Stobart is particularly good on the science of cooking. In his entry on fats, he lucidly explains the distinction between saturated and polyunsaturated fats. On many topics, he goes into detail - three pages on clams, almost six on rice. The book shows little sign of its age, though there is no pesto and the section on oysters antedates the appearance of Pacific oysters on fish stalls. For anyone interested in food, this fine reprint is an obligatory acquisition. CH

Stiff by Mary Roach (PENGUIN £7.99 (304pp))

Andrew Marr described it as "probably the most disgusting book I have ever read", yet many will see this book as a welcome assault on the greatest taboo. Try a taste yourself: "By and large the dead aren't very talented. They can't play water polo or lace up their shoes... [but] they're very good at handling pain." This is how US journalist Mary Roach introduces her chapter on the use of cadavers as test crash dummies. She also sees 40 heads used to practise cosmetic surgery and discovers how decaying corpses are, "in their mute, fragrant way", furthering criminal forensics. Funny, shocking, curious, it is a breath of fresh air. CH

Grandes Horizontales by Virginia Rounding (BLOOMSBURY £8.99 (337pp))

Impeccably researched, this is a flirt of a book, enjoyable and sexy. Rounding explores four poules de luxe in the unbuttoned era of Napoleon III. Marie Duplessis plucked Alexandre Dumas fils as one of her daisy chain and was beatified in La Dame aux camélias. Apollonie Sabatier cut a swathe through haut Bohème, inspiring an orgasmic statue and adolescent verse by Gautier. The Russian La Paiva accumulated palaces like other courtesans gathered jewellery. The English femme fatale Cora Pearl was a force of nature, despite "common manners and the tone of a stable boy". Great gals. CH

Albion by Peter Ackroyd (VINTAGE £12.99 (516pp))

As in his masterpiece London: the biography, Ackroyd takes a bitty, thematic approach in this cultural history of England. Unsurprisingly, he notes how bad weather was a continuing concern from the Anglo-Saxons ("It was rainy and I sat weeping") to Keats ("pattering the sharp sleet"). Ackroyd suggests that similar continuity has been inspired by dreams, melancholy, the mystical, the sea and 50-odd other themes. Whether it all adds up is debatable (does "a passion for decoration" really link Anglo-Saxon verse with the Lloyds Building?), but there is no denying that this dynamo of a book is packed with interest. CH

Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People by 'Amarillo Slim' Preston / Greg Dinkin (YELLOW JERSEY £7.99 (271pp))

Even if you're not intrigued by weird gambling exploits - table tennis with Coke bottles as bats, pool with brooms for cues - this book is an irresistible exercise in Texan demotic by a practitioner who "could talk the nuts off a motorbike". In the great Runyonesque tradition, Slim explains how gamblers can't resist extending their work beyond the gambling table. One bet: "There ain't nobody in the world that can eat a quail a day for 30 days." The most anyone has managed is 17 days on the trot. But he still won. Maybe it's even true. CH

Day After Day by Carlo Lucarelli (HARVILL £10.99 (225pp))

This latest chiller from an Italian master of noir rings striking changes on a hunt-the-multiple-killer plot. Lucarelli captures the emotional weather of middle-class northern Italy uncommonly well. In a rootless milieu of online chat-rooms and service-stations, drifting people cast off old ways yet feel uneasy with the new. Aptly enough, the malign slayer whom Inspector Negro seeks (forsaking her blind boyfriend, Simone) picks a fresh persona for each hit. Strongly-written thrills (translated by Oonagh Stransky) fuel a tense tale of identity in crisis. BT

Nowhere Man by Aleksandar Hemon (PICADOR £6.99 (242pp))

Aleksandar Hemon's second book, written in the English he taught himself, is another playful, postmodern meditation on war and exile. Skipping between Chicago in the Nineties and Sarajevo in the Eighties, it tells the tale of Jozef Pronek, an accidental nomad, obsessed by his fantasies and his belief that "there was a hole in the world, and I fit right into it". Hemon's prose gifts match an imagination that dazzles as it soars. CP