Ask 10 people what they think are the top 10 books about Chicago and you’ll likely get 10 different responses.
That’s only fair because different people have different tastes and writing is subjective. Plus, there have been a lot of great (and not-so-great) books written about the Windy City.
Recently, The Guardian asked novelist Andrew Rosenheim to list his top 10 books about Chicago. His list is a roundup of classic books about Chicago. It includes titles such as Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and Chicago: City on the Make by Nelson Algren.
There’s no arguing that the books he’s listed aren’t good. But his list is very safe, one that any college English major could compile. It doesn’t take any special knowledge of Chicago to say that Twenty Years At Hull House by Jane Addams represents the poor immigrant experience in the 1890s. His list is also very dated, considering one third of his choices are books published over 100 years ago.
In the spirit of mixing classic and new books, and introducing lesser-known books to readers, here’s my top 10 list of books based in Chicago, in order of publication.
1. The Pit, by Frank Norris (1903). The wheat trading pit of the Chicago Board of Trade is the setting for Curtis Jadwin’s obsession with market speculation, with a little love and loss thrown in. Be warned: the book is written in the language of the time, so it may take some adjustment for readers not used to that style. Fun fact: historical reenactor Paul Durica last year reenacted a scene from The Pit in the Chicago Board of Trade as part of his “Pocket Guide to Hell” historical tours.
2. Division Street: America, by Studs Turkel (1967). The name represents the actual street in Chicago, but also has a metaphorical meaning. In the book he uses the stories of everyday Chicagoans and looks at the divisions between them – age, gender, race, education and class. Given when the book was published, it also focused on issues specific to the late 60s, such as the Vietnam War and urban renewal.
3. Blacks, by Gwendolyn Brooks (1987). This is the must-have collection of one of Illinois’ best-known poets; Blacks contains many of her famous and best-known poems. It includes “Annie Allen,” for which she became the first African-American poet to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1950. In addition to her poetry, Blacks contains her only novel, Maud Martha.
4. Coast of Chicago, by Stuart Dybek (1990). A masterful short-story writer, the characters in many of Dybek’s stories live in the ethnic enclaves found in every Chicago neighborhood, such as Polish immigrants whose hearts ache for their homeland even as their children become Americanized. Urban tales of intimacy are the best way to describe these tales. Dybek also released earlier this year two new books, Paper Lantern Love Stories and Ecstatic Cahoots, also worth checking out.
5. City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America, by Donald Miller (1997). Want to know how Chicago became the second city and edged out other Midwestern towns? Read this book, which covers the birth of Chicago from a fur-trading post to the metropolis that everyone wanted to see by 1900. This will give you an understanding why so many of Chicago’s problems are entrenched.
6. 47th Street Black, by Bayo Ojikutu (2003). In his debut book, Ojikutu writes of JC and Mookie, two high school dropouts. A turn of events causes the two to start working for the local mafia boss. Quickly rising up in the ranks, the pair become the rulers of 47th Street, but that’s when their paths diverge. Ojikutu also has a new book coming out later this year.
7. Hairstyles of the Damned, by Joe Meno (2004). What it was like to grow up punk on Chicago’s south side, with a healthy dose of dealing with racial intolerance, Catholic school and class divides. Often times humorous, many times touching.
8. Our America: Life and Death on the Southside of Chicago, by LeAlan Jones, Lloyd Newman and David Isay. (2009). This book contains the first-person stories of Jones and Newman living in the Ida B. Wells housing project, which were first reported on NPR and also made into an HBO show. Still packs a punch. Good companion piece to Alex Kotlowitz’s best-seller, There Are No Children Here.
9. Breakdown, by Sara Paretsky (2011). Crime fans already love Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, the star of more than a dozen of her books. Breakdown is one of her newer books and includes ritual murder, wealthy families and politics. You can’t go wrong with any of her novels.
10. Lucky in the Corner, by Carol Anshaw (2012). In another lighter novel, Anshaw uses humor and wit to tell a tumultuous mother-daughter story of Nora and Fern. Anshaw has good insight for mixed and non-traditional family stories.
Photo: Debbie Carlson