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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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