Short Takes | Feature | Chicago Reader

Short Takes 

Brief reviews of more local debuts

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Alinea Grant Achatz Ten Speed Press, $50

This six-and-a-half-pound coffee-table cookbook provides precise instructions for making more than 100 recipes, exactly as they're made at chef Grant Achatz's Lincoln Park restaurant Alinea. But if you think you're going to prepare them at home, you're either delusional or live in a chemistry lab with a team of sous chefs. Ingredients include Ultra-Tex 3, Pure-Cote B790, transglutaminase, and sodium alginate, and you'd better have a refractometer and a volcano vaporizer on hand. The book does offer suggestions on how to substitute for some of the more specialized equipment, but even the alternatives often aren't common in the average kitchen (instead of an antigriddle, for example, try a baking pan and dry ice). Alinea is useful, though, for the detailed look it offers at what the restaurant's all about. Essays by authors including Achatz himself cover his background, the experience of dining at Alinea, ingredients, and how and why the restaurant does what it does. And there are stunning photos by Lara Kastner of the restaurant, the chefs at work—and of course the beautiful, insanely difficult-to-reproduce food. —Julia Thiel

Things That Pass for LoveAllison AmendOV Books, $16.95

"They do choose their partners indiscriminately and seem emotionally detached from them," a grad student observes of the mice she's studying in "Carry the Water, Hustle the Hole," one of 13 short stories that make up Allison Amend's debut collection. The student, of course, behaves pretty much the same way as the mice, and so do the other characters that Amend observes so acutely. A Chicago native and University of Iowa Writers' Workshop grad who now teaches in New York, Amend displays the usual MFA mannerisms: her stories are only slightly intense and rather uneventful. But such are the lives she's describing. What passes for love among these people is usually habit—routines of tenderness or neglect, or both at once. But like the photographer snapping a lizard in "What Was Over There Is Over Here," she uses her chosen form to perfect effect, catching each character "on a pivotal moment in its methodical trajectory." Which, as they'll tell you at the Writer's Workshop, is exactly what short stories are supposed to do. —Patrick Daily

Dream CityBrendan ShortMacAdam/Cage, $22

Brendan Short's first novel follows dreamer Michael Halligan from a childhood in Depression-era Chicago through an adulthood spent trying to re-create the fantasy world of comic books he loved as a kid. The adult Michael, slowly discovering that people—especially himself—are inherently flawed, needs an escape from the real world even more than he did at age eight, when his mother died and left him alone with his harsh gangster dad. The comics he collects become an obsession, at one point goading him into theft, but also giving him a sense of purpose in an otherwise aimless life. The characters are expertly developed; even minor ones are allowed flaws and dreams. And though many of the dreams are abandoned, the tone of the book remains hopeful. The first time Michael meets his future wife, for instance, she decides he'll do as a mate, but he's slow to catch on. "She had lowered her expectations for him, and now he wasn't even going to ask her out on a date?" Short writes. "Didn't he understand that love was more about will than about destiny, and that she had enough will for them both?" —Julia Thiel

Travel WritingPeter FerryHarcourt, $24

There's some danger of metafictional whiplash when a book by a retired high school English teacher named Peter Ferry opens with a high school English teacher named Peter Ferry—who shares seemingly every fact-checkable attribute of the Evanston-based author—telling the story while repeatedly reminding his students that it's just a story, even though it's not. (Or is it?) After witnessing the death of a young Asian-American woman in an automobile accident, Ferry the character becomes obsessed with her, going to great lengths to track down her friends, family, and associates—eventually even her shrink. Interspersed throughout the narrative, but unrelated to it, are chapters that describe a bucolic time in Mexico or the prostitution rampant in Thailand. Admirably unafraid of painting his namesake as a jerk, Ferry uses these travelogues to enrich his account of Ferry's long, slow journey from callowness to greater emotional maturity. He's a skilled raconteur with a sharp sense of humor, and so is his namesake, which makes this debut novel an entertaining read even when the protagonist's obsession grows wearying. The Hitchcockian twist at the end, however, doesn't quite come off. —Kate Schmidt

The Seamstress

Frances de Pontes Peebles

Harper, $25.95

Set in turbulent 1930s Brazil, this hefty, engrossing, romantic debut novel by Brazilian-born Chicagoan Frances de Pontes Peebles centers on a couple of orphaned sisters raised by a poor aunt in the countryside. Emilia dreams of living in a fine home and dressing like the women in fashion magazines, while Luzia, disfigured with a crippled arm, has no such hopes. ("No man would want her," the neighbors say.) Their pragmatic Aunt Sofia teaches them how to sew—because a good seamstress will always find work.

But the country's political upheaval reaches into their small mountain town. A band of cangaceiros—rebel bandits to the landowners, heroes to the people—arrives, wanting goods, food, and seamstresses to adorn their fancy uniforms. Their leader, known as the Hawk because of his penchant for cutting out the eyes of his victims, is intrigued by Luzia and returns in the dead of night to "steal" her. Though tormented by the loss of her sister, Emilia achieves her dream, marrying rich and moving to the modern city of Recife.

Over the years the sisters track each other's vastly different lives through the newspapers—Emilia appearing on the society pages, Luzia, who becomes the cangaceiros' leader, in the headlines. Their converging fates lead to a shocking conclusion. Along with the its excellent plotting, The Seamstress is filthy rich with superb dialogue, description, and suspense. —Jerome Ludwig

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