If you’re a Chicagoan who loves to read, 2016 was a hell of a year. At least two new independent bookstores opened their doors (Volumes Bookcafe and Curbside Books & Records), the American Writers Museum broke ground on their Michigan Avenue headquarters, and scores of Chicago writers published books—many for the first time.
Chicago has a long history of authors writing about the city they call home, from Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks to Audrey Niffenegger and Aleksandar Hemon. Adding to that ever-growing list, here are 2016’s six best books about Chicago, by Chicagoans.
The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America
by Ethan Michaeli (Nonfiction)
Before I read The Defender, I had no idea that a single newspaper was largely responsible for the Great Migration of African-Americans throughout the twentieth century. Ethan Michaeli’s fascinating narrative nonfiction didn’t just change my perspective of history, it changed the way I see Chicago. From 1991 to 1996, Michaeli was a reporter and copyeditor at the Chicago Defender, where he covered politics, culture, and crime on the South Side and in Cabrini-Green. His book traces the entire history of the newspaper, from the 1893 World’s Fair to its pivotal role in the Obama presidency, highlighting the newsroom’s unforgettable cast of characters and resurrecting some of Chicago’s lost treasures.
by Jessica Chiarella (Fiction)
Chiarella’s debut novel is like a Chicago-centric episode of Black Mirror. What if Northwestern Memorial Hospital could transfer your mind into a brand-new body—a perfect copy of your own—free from all imperfections and diseases? Instead of dying, four terminal patients in the “SUBlife” program get a second chance: a tetraplegic mother, a conservative congressman with brain cancer, an actor with AIDS, and an artist with cancer. Of course, all science fictional medical procedures have consequences. The artist whose entire life was built around painting? Her new body doesn’t know how to hold a brush.
The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation
by Natalie Y. Moore (Nonfiction)
If you’ve ever wondered how and why Chicago became one of the most segregated cities in America, Moore’s book is an eye-opening read. In a compelling blend of memoir and reportage, WBEZ's South Side bureau reporter demonstrates how redlining, food deserts, public school failures, and blatantly racist housing and banking policies over the past 100 years have turned Chicago into a tale of two cities. She also confronts the depictions of all 42 neighborhoods south of I-55 as a “war zone” in the media. Moore grew up in Chatham, moved to Bronzeville as a young adult, and today lives in Hyde Park—three middle-class and upper-middle-class communities she calls the most “magical” in the city. If you’ve never truly explored, understood, or appreciated the South Side, Moore is your muse.
Every Kind of Wanting
by Gina Frangello (Fiction)
Do you watch Love Actually every Christmas for the intertwining storylines, tragicomic characters, and themes of love and family? Frangello’s new novel has all of that, minus the Hollywood sentimentality. When a wealthy gay couple in Chicago borrows the egg of a sister and the womb of a friend to have a baby, the lives of four families are suddenly entangled in an ever-twisting knot. Told from five different perspectives and moving from Chicago and the North Shore to the barrios of Caracas, Every Kind of Wanting is grand in scope but intimate in detail. Like Love Actually, people cheat on each other, harbor secret loves, resent members of their own family, and confront the worst parts of themselves. Just don’t expect a happy ending in the London airport.
Algren: A Life
by Mary Wisniewski (Nonfiction)
Sixty years ago, Nelson Algren was one of the most famous writers in America: author of Chicago: City on the Make, champion of the working class, and haunter of West Town dive bars. And yet, as the city has changed, so has Algren’s legacy. Today, he’s remembered more for his affair with Simone de Beauvoir than for The Man With the Golden Arm, which was popular enough in the 1950s to be adapted into a Frank Sinatra movie. In an attempt to put Algren back where he belongs on the midcentury Mount Rushmore of American letters, Chicago Tribune reporter Mary Wisniewski spent the last 20 years writing the first biography of Algren in a quarter-century. The result is a captivating book that reads like a novel, full of new surprises about Algren’s life and his shifting attitudes toward Chicago.
by T. Sean Steele (Fiction)
Tacky Goblin started as a blog before local indie publisher Curbside Splendor turned it into a novella. When a man-child in Chicago makes a cross-country trip to live with his sister in Los Angeles, a bunch of weird, hilarious, and horrific things happen in between. It’s semi-autobiographical—“I sat down to write the first blog entry and I realized I had to make things up to make it interesting,” says Steele—and a quick read. But it comes well-recommended by some of Chicago’s literary giants, like Stuart Dybek, who called it a “wonderful debut by a talented, comic writer,” and Joe Meno, who called it “the future.” According to Volumes Bookcafe in Wicker Park, it’s so popular with locals that they can’t keep enough copies on the shelves.