Chicago Summer Beach Reading

Taking a book to the beach is a tried and true summer pastime. Chicago has no shortage of beaches and there’s certainly no lack of Chicago books. So, with Memorial Day just passed and Printers Row Lit Fest only a week away, we decided to share our Chicago summer beach reading list.

Make Me a City

Make Me a City Jonathan Carr
Marie has been deeply engrossed in Make Me a City during her commute. Photo by Marie Rowley.

Let’s kick things off with my favorite new book about Chicago. Big-hearted, brawling, grand, intimate, inquisitive, and full of judgment – Make Me a City is a novel that captures the dynamic of Chicago in its madcap first century of existence. The author, Jonathan Carr, structures the novel as series of interlocking short stories. Some stories will always be more stirring than others in such a collection (the stories done in an Irish brogue were my least-favorite). Still, this structure allows Carr to create a vast canvas, stretching clear across the 19th century and involving dozens of lesser-known characters from the city’s past, like Ellis Chesbrough the often unsung hero of the city’s sanitation system.

Frankly, Make Me a City scratches an itch I have long had for good historical fiction set in Chicago’s past. It’s not quite E.L. Doctorow or Hillary Mantel, but what is? The novel re-mythologizes how a prairie swamp became the city of the century. Instantly one of my go-to recommendations for books about Chicago.

Lost Restaurants of Chicago

Chicago summer beach reading lost restaurants Greg Borzo
Jen’s got so caught up in Lost Restaurants of Chicago that she just sat down on the stairs to finish it. Photo by Alex Bean.

A breezy piece of non-fiction, Lost Restaurants of Chicago romps through the past 150 years of Chicago’s dining scene. Greg Borzo, who has previously written an illuminating history of the Chicago ‘L,’ has clearly done his research. His history is not a strictly chronological one. Instead, Borzo aims for what these joints represented to the community. To quote his intro: “Restaurants feed body and soul, and the ones we’ve lost can give us a taste of where we’e been and who we are.” If you’d like to hear about his research and stories Greg Borzo will be speaking at Lit Fest.

Personally, I found it most fascinating to learn about the long-gone restaurants in still-extant buildings. For example, Pickwick Place, which we visit during the 1893 World’s Fair Tour, was once home to Abson’s English Chophouse. The steaks of “international repute” were served in the teeny 19’x19’ dining room on the second floor. 

Chicago: From Vision to Metropolis

Chicago summer beach reading Whet Moser
Ellen has been spending her lunch breaks reading on the fire escape. As one does. Photo by Alex Bean.

So, the title here is not particularly original. The sub-title gets at what Whet Moser, a former editor at both the Chicago Reader and Chicago Magazine is after. The book tackles the broad strokes of Chicago’s historical evolution before shifting to a series of chapters exploring the city of today. “[Chicago’s] story begins to reveal itself immediately to those who are new to it. The grid the El, and the lake divide it into clean lines. Its history of division by race and class, the boom and bust of its industries, are visible as scars or even open wounds.”

Chicago: From Vision to Metropolis is part of a larger series from Reaktion Books covering cities from Buenos Aires to Beijing. The concept, which Moser ably executes, is to give readers a general sense of the city’s history and contemporary contours. One can certainly find denser books out there. To wit, a chapter titled “Prohibition, Segregation, and the Blues” lasts all of ten pages. But dense books aren’t great beach reads! Moser’s work, by contrast, is exactly the sort of thing you can breeze through while sunning at North Avenue.

The Great Believers

Alex is, in fact, that guy always walking around the Loop with an open book. Carefully staged selfie by Alex Bean.

A universally acclaimed novel by a local author that’s about to be released in paperback? Hell yes, The Great Believers is on our Chicago summer beach reading list! Rebecca Makai‘s novel scooped up nearly every accolade imaginable in the past year. Finalist for the Pulitzer and National Book Award, NY Times Top Ten, and a myriad of other prizes. The Great Believers may be the most acclaimed local novel since The House on Mango Street.

The story centers on the AIDS crisis in Chicago’s gay community in the 1980s, interweaving that story with a mother’s search for her child in the aftermath of the 2015 terror attacks in Paris. Makkai, the Artistic Director of StoryStudio Chicago, etched her name in the literary firmament this past year. This is a novel definitely worth adding to your summer reading list. Makkai will also be speaking at Lit Fest 2019.

City of Scoundrels

City of Scoundrels Chicago summer beach reading
Our Business Manager, John, is catching up with City of Scoundrels at the office instead of the beach. Photo by Alex Bean.

Dedicated readers of the blog may recognize that we’ve recommended this book before. Good catch, Mom. I’m tossing Gary Krist‘s compulsively readable history book back into the mix because this summer marks the 100th anniversary of the “12 days of disaster that gave birth to modern Chicago.” Political clashes, blimp crashes, murders, mayhem, and the bloodiest race riot in the city’s history turned the summer of 1919 into a pivotal moment in the city’s history. “The Red Summer, as it would later be called, would leave Chicago a changed and chastened city, its greatest ambitions for the future suddenly threatened by the spectacle of a community hopelessly at war with itself.”

City of Scoundrels covers all of it with panache and weight. Highly recommended for your Chicago summer beach reading.

Buy Chicago Books at a Local Bookstore!

Open Books Chicago summer beach reading
Buy your Chicago summer beach reading material at Open Books! Photo courtesy of Ashley Lane at Open Books, of course.

As a small, local business, we always love giving shout outs to similar operations. Especially indie bookstores. They are the very best places on Earth. Open Books is not only one of the best indie bookstores in Chicago, it’s also a non-profit organization that funds children’s literacy programs.

All the books you buy at their West Loop (near our Fulton Market Tour!) and Pilsen locations are donated by Chicago readers. The proceeds from their sales fund literacy programs, book grants, and more. I feel noble every time I drop off two grocery bags of used books and then immediately buy another bagful to replace them. Also, I am a book-buying addict. Please call for help when you see me perusing the stacks at Open Books.

See you at Lit Fest!

– Alex Bean, Content Manager and Tour Guide

 

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Ellen

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There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

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With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.

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Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.

Marie

Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

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As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
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Alex

Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

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Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
“You can TELL Amanda is hyper-passionate about doing the research and getting the story that nobody’s heard before.”
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