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2014’s Best and Worst in Chicago Books

Stuart Dybek   Photo: Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune

Sure, the biggest book stories that came out of Chicago in 2014 had less to do with books themselves than the tent-pole movies they inspired. But while Gone Girl continues to be the tome of choice for long el rides and Ben Affleck acolytes, Chicago lit still had some great moments this year. Here are some highlights:

The Best

Best all-star

Stuart Dybek released not one but two short-story collections—Ecstatic Cahoots and Paper Lantern—that showcase both his elegant turns of phrase and intense love of this city. Chicago was proud to include the 72-year-old short-story writer among the 2014 Chicagoans of the Year.

Best breakout genre

It was a great year for essay collections, and two local writers were partly responsible.

Eula Biss, whose voracious intellect imbues all her work, wrote one of the best books of the year, On Immunity, a probing, detailed look at the history of immunization and the fears that drive some people against the practice.

Megan Stielstra, longtime live lit performer, published Once I Was Cool, a collection of essays on topics as disparate as Jane’s Addiction and postpartum depression. On the surface they go down easy, yet they offer much insight into a warm, generous lit personality.

Best thriller

Roxane Gay got a lot of attention for her New York Times best-selling book Bad Feminist, but it was her novel An Untamed State, about a young woman’s horrifying kidnapping, that made for can’t-put-down, must-read-to-the-last-page reading. Her unflinching look at sexual violence and its psychological aftermath is hard to forget.

Best breakthrough

Sometimes the third time really is a charm. Hinesdale author Cristina Henriquez had written two books, a novel and a short story collection, but it was her third, The Book of Unknown Americans, a tale of two immigrant families and their attempts to achieve some semblance of the American dream, that gave Henriquez some overdue attention and demonstrated her exceptional writing chops.

The Worst

Lack of diversity in live lit crowds

The curators of live lit shows have definitely made inroads to achieve more diverse lineups, but it would be nice if the crowds these shows attracted followed suit. With a few notable exceptions, live lit crowds tend to attract a predominantly white audience. Here’s hoping that an all-white edition of Story Club South Side becomes a thing of the past.

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