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Best Books by Chicagoans, About Chicago

Plenty of local authors looked elsewhere for inspiration, but there’s something special about writers tackling their hometown.

Obviously, Chicago authors don’t always write about Chicago. Ernest Hemingway, who lived in Oak Park until he was 18 and returned for a few years in his 20s, virtually never turned his pen back in our direction. Luckily, for every Hemingway there is a Gwendolyn Brooks, or a Richard Wright, or a Sandra Cisneros — writers who strive to capture the city’s sense of place.

In 2017, some local authors looked elsewhere for inspiration. Kathleen Rooney wrote about New York, Augustus Rose wrote about Philadelphia, and Nnedi Okorafor wrote about Nigeria. Still, there’s something special about writers tackling their hometown. Here are the year’s six best books about Chicago, by Chicagoans.

The Wrong Way to Save Your Life: Essays

By Megan Stielstra (Nonfiction)

If you’ve ever seen Stielstra perform, you know she’s a force of nature—bold, funny, smart, and unstoppable. In these essays on fear, she loses her Uptown apartment (and all of her belongings) to a fire in the middle of the night, dissects deer hearts to confront her anxiety, and describes the pros and cons of teaching at Columbia College. By the end of the collection, you’ll feel less alone in your state of constant terror.

Chicago Renaissance: Literature and Art in the Midwest Metropolis

By Liesl Olson (Nonfiction)

Everyone’s familiar with the Harlem Renaissance, but did you know Chicago was home to two “renaissances” before and after the Jazz Age? First, there was a predominantly white literary movement during the 1910s, featuring the likes of Harriet Monroe, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, and Carl Sandburg. And then, spanning the late 1930s and 40s, the great Chicago Black Renaissance centered in Bronzeville, where Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansberry, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, and Fenton Johnson ushered in a new wave of social realism. Olson, the director of Chicago studies at the Newberry Library, has a knack for turning history into a compelling series of stories.

Electric Arches

By Eve Ewing (Poetry)

You already know Ewing. You’ve read her cultural criticism, you’ve seen the Gwendolyn Brooks play she co-wrote, and you’re probably one of the 100,000 people who follow her on Twitter. But if you haven’t read her debut poetry collection, Electric Arches, you’re missing one of the most powerful, unique portrayals of Chicago to ever grace the page. Inspired by her childhood in Logan Square, Electric Arches is an Afrofuturist spin on Chicago’s South and West Sides. In these poems, artwork, and short prose, lunar aliens invade the city, a time machine allows a child to speak with her ancestors, and South Side children escape the police on flying bicycles.

A People’s History of Chicago

By Kevin Coval (Poetry)

How many Chicago poets have been on The Daily Show? Coval has been a part of the city’s hip-hop and poetry scenes for more than a decade, but A People’s History of Chicago may be his magnum opus. I’m not exaggerating when I say Chicago Public Schools students will be studying this book (and Ewing’s) 100 years from now. A riff on Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Kevin’s latest book is a series of 77 poems—one for each Chicago neighborhood—that honors the unsung heroes, underdogs, and martyrs of city history. From the Potawatomi displaced by Chicago’s first white settlers to contemporary hip-hop activists, Coval’s bold voice challenges the “single story” narrative of Chicago.

A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun

By Angela Jackson (Nonfiction)

As Chicago celebrated what would have been Gwendolyn Brooks’s 100th birthday this year, Jackson published what should become the definitive biography of our patron saint of poetry. A poet herself, Jackson traces Brooks’s life through her formative years in Bronzeville, her encounters with Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, and her role in the civil rights and black arts movements of the 60s and 70s—all while shedding new light on some of Brooks’s poetry, correspondence, and personal writing.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

By Erika L. Sanchez (Fiction)

Sadly, Sanchez left Chicago this summer for a two-year teaching fellowship at Princeton. Her debut novel, inspired by her own young adulthood in Cicero, was shortlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is the moving story of Julia Reyes, a snarky, 15-year-old, Mexican-American immigrant who loses her older sister to a tragic accident. Chicago has a long history of brilliant Latinx novels with a strong sense of place—The House on Mango Street, Caramelo, Peel My Love Like An Onion—and Sanchez’s young-adult debut definitely earns a place among the city’s best fiction, period.

Adam Morgan writes about culture and history for Chicago magazine. He is the editor-in-chief of the Chicago Review of Books, a book critic at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and his writing has appeared in The Guardian, Poets & Writers, The Denver Post, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, and elsewhere.

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