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Fall Books: Short Takes 

More new Chicago-related books

Cute Eats Cute C.B. Murphy (North Star Press)

The novel's title is essentially a swipe at eco-liberals for their bleeding-heart refusal to embrace the food chain. But the skewering would be substantially more effective if Murphy himself weren't buried up to his lingam in gushy new-age crap. His social commentary is mostly just background filigree, intended to set off the bildungsroman of his kinda smart, kinda confused, cynical on the surface but, deep down, deep teen narrator, Sam—a Holden Caulfield bleached of personality by the magical borifying power of Murphy's pedestrian imagination.

Murphy tries to compensate for the thinness of his narrative voice with compulsive spasms of quirkiness: a town improbably roiled by a deer culling, an eco-therapist, manly Christian bow hunters, and a hippie with a thing for ancient Aztec sacrifice. He also offers movie-of-the-week revelations involving pregnancy, abortion, alcoholism, marital troubles, and so on. It all leads up to Sam achieving manhood in traditional style, with sex, blood, and deer. The target audience appears to be aging boomers who want to pretend they're still in the market for young adult fiction. Here's hoping that's not a big demographic. —Noah Berlatsky

How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior Laura Kipnis (Metropolitan Books)

Shortly after New York governor Eliot Spitzer was caught visiting hookers and forced to resign, Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis went to dinner with someone who expressed an "everybody does it" attitude about prostitution. The comment gave Kipnis the idea for her new book, which explores the whys and hows of scandal.

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Society hasn't formulated any "real theory" of scandal, Kipnis writes—an "unending barrage of material," shifting standards, and the growth of America's confession industry all make for a moving target. Yet Kipnis tries to hit it anyway. She studies various "scandal protagonists" like loved-by-Oprah, shamed-by-Oprah writer James Frey and New York Court of Appeals chief judge Sol Wachtler, whose attempted blackmailing and extortion of an ex-lover cost him his job and got him 11 months in prison. Based on these and other case studies, she finds a "prodigious talent for self-destruction" at a national level.

A perceptive and masterful writer, Kipnis avoids armchair psychology in favor of indulging her curiosity about what led her subjects down tragic roads. She also warns against smugness. Poor timing, a mental blind spot, and cloudy judgment can happen to anyone, she writes: "At any moment you can be kicked out on your ass simply for being clumsy at the social adaptation business, which doesn't always come easily given the self-awareness problem. And the endless prohibitions, both unwritten and unwritten." So watch yourself. —Lauri Apple

Kingdom Under Glass Jay Kirk (Henry Holt)

Carl Akeley was one of the world's few taxidermy prodigies. The subject of Jay Kirk's novelistic biography went from preparing birds and feathers to adorn ladies' hats to stuffing P.T. Barnum's famous elephant Jumbo, after which followed gigs for the 1893 World's Colombian Exposition in Chicago and a position at the Field Museum, where his skill at creating lifelike tableaux served him well. "Chicago had grown too small for this taxidermist's ambition," Kirk writes, and Akeley was poached from the Field by New York's American Museum of Natural History. There he hoped to achieve his ultimate dream: a massive diorama consisting of every animal on the African continent.

That required many specimens, and the real drama of the book lies in Akeley's many safaris. Along with various pestilences, he survived a leopard attack by strangling the cat as it tried to gnaw off his arm. Another time he was gruesomely mangled by an enraged bull elephant. His supportive but only so-long-suffering wife, Mickie, in effect left him for a pet monkey. Yet he remained undeterred.

Akeley killed representatives of dozens of vanishing species in his quest to preserve them, sometimes simply discarding the bodies because he didn't consider them perfect enough to be mounted. But in 1921 he had a sort of epiphany after shooting a mountain gorilla. Examining its humanlike features, he cursed himself as a "cold-blooded killer" and began work on a new dream—a gorilla refuge in the Congo. He died of a fever during yet another African expedition—this time to see gorillas, not hunt them—and was buried on the mountain where he fell. The Akeley Hall of African Animals opened at the American Museum of Natural History ten years later, on May 20, 1936. Only 15 of Akeley's planned 28 dioramas were complete. —Jerome Ludwig

Shock of Gray Ted Fishman (Scribner)

In 1900 the average person lived to be 30, and the world was awash in people we'd consider young. Since then the percentage of humans over 65 has exploded, and birthrates are plunging. Our planet's population is aging at a historically unprecedented rate. An unintended consequence of social policies, economic development, shifting social norms, and medical advances, the phenomenon is reshaping every aspect of our public and personal reality.

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In accessible, insightful prose, Ted Fishman's Shock of Gray explores the causes and consequences of this massive shift. The book's scope is vast: Fishman (author of China, Inc.) looks at changing familial and economic roles in China, where by 2050—due in part to the one-child policy—438 million citizens are expected to be over 65. By then 40 percent of Japan's population should be in the same category thanks to factors ranging from a healthy diet to the easy availability of abortions. In Spain, Europe's lowest birthrate is drying up towns and producing a vacuum for young immigrant labor to fill. Closer to home, formerly affluent Rockford, Illinois, is struggling to respond to a youth exodus while Sarasota, Florida—where 33 percent of residents are seniors—is finding creative ways to embrace old age. Fishman also travels into the mind, exploring the root of prejudice against the old and the emotional toll of age-induced isolation. He even explores aging on the cellular level, profiling scientists working to engineer it out of existence. —John V. Santore

The Universe in Miniature in Miniature Patrick Somerville (Featherproof Books)

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Patrick Somerville's collection of loosely intertwined short stories is full of fresh ideas that demand to be spun out at greater length. But he dispatches each of them quickly, in somber prose. Matriculating at the School of Surreal Thought and Design, the young people in the title story are each absorbed in some bizarre project that's monitored from the school's secret underground headquarters. That's a fine premise for a novel (and already a pretty neat spoof of places like the School of the Art Institute). "The Peach" hints at an Area 51-like base hidden on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Another novel. The mad mercenary failing spectacularly at civilian life in "People Like Me"? I could do with another 300 pages. And the situation described in "No Sun"—the earth has stopped spinning, leaving the western hemisphere in permanent night while the eastern burns—well, that would have to be a very short novel, the end being so near and all.

Mostly featuring humdrum urban citizens and salt-of-the-earth types, the stories in The Universe in Miniature in Miniature seem to form an earnest, extended attempt to describe what I might as well call our shared humanity. For all of Somerville's wacky sci-fi plot devices—like the unwieldy gadget in the book's final tale, "The Machine of Understanding Other People"—it's the random stabbing death of a young man on a Chicago street that resonates among disparate characters across multiple stories. Whether his subject is a teenage crush on a high school teacher or a monster made of smoke, Somerville insists that the story is about the people. —Pat J. Daily

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