Chicago: the heart of the country, the city that rebuilt itself after a devastating fire most likely caused by a cow, the home of deep dish pizza, the place I call home. I've lived here for five years in five different neighborhoods, and over the course of that time, I've fallen in love with it. The rainbow colored El trains are the veins of the city, the skyline grows and reshapes itself everyday, and the people that inhabit this wonderful metropolis pulsate the streets with life.
The city is filled with dreamers, artists, entrepreneurs, comedians, writers — some of the best, in all honesty. Throughout history writers like Richard Wright and Stuart Dybek have captured the spunk, the struggle, and the beauty of Chicago in prose and poetry, giving the world books that will be cherished forever. There are some in particular that channel the spirit of Chicago, one that's filled with issues of race, sexuality, independence, and growth. If you're from Chicago then you've probably grown up reading some of these, and if not, I'd highly recommend putting them on your TBR list! Even if you're not a Chicagoan — maybe you're a New Yorker or a Southern gal — there are still plenty of reasons to read these sensational books that take place in the Windy City.
1. Native Son by Richard Wright
The first book I was handed when I moved to the city was Native Son, a book set in Chicago during the 1930s revealing the brutal racial divide in the city. The story focuses on Bigger Thomas, a young man whose destiny includes a prison cell, a false accusation, and a moment of panic that will define his life. This is a deeply moving novel, and even if you aren't from the heart of the midwest, I'd still recommend it to anyone and everyone who breathes.
2. The Coast of Chicago: Stories by Stuart Dybek
Just as James Joyce is to Ireland, Stuart Dybek is to Chicago. Dybek has a handful of absolutely breathtaking collections that represent the city of Chicago in a number of ways. In The Coast of Chicago, you can read his love letters to the city.
3. The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Niffenegger's first and absolutely stunning debut novel doesn't take place in the heart of Chicago, but it does explore the suburbs and some of the more well known areas Chicago natives are familiar with. Claire, an art student, and Henry, a time-traveling librarian, meet in a Chicago library — it's the first meeting for one of them, and a reunion for the other. This is a magical (and heartbreaking) tale that takes place near a magical city, and it doesn't get much better than that.
4. Hairstyles of the Damned by Joe Meno
Joe Meno has written a number of books that capture the different atmospheres of Chicago, including Office Girl and The Great Perhaps. But my favorite will always be the punk-scene coming-of-age masterpiece, Hairstyle of the Damned. The main character, a burnout named Brian, and his punk rock best friend, Gretchen, maneuver their high school life and confusing adolescence together. This novel takes place during the age of mix tapes and underground concerts, arcade games and grunge — a place and setting that'll intrigue you from the very first page.
5. Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks
Brooks gave us a raw insight on what it was like being a young black woman in Chicago during the 1950s, and it still holds relevance today. Simply put, her writing is just that timeless. This is a quick read told in a vignette style, but it is a deep and rich look at the social and racial inequalities of 1950s Chicago. It's a classic that'll stay with you long after you've finished it.
6. Bedrock Faith by Eric Charles May
Bedrock Faith takes place in a black middle-class neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, focusing on Gerald "Stew Pot" Reeves, who returns to the neighborhood after being in prison for the last 14 years. Stew Pot comes back with a more religiously induced persona, and he supplies the neighbors a never-ending chain of gossip. This novel takes on multiple themes, but at the heart of it, it's a story about the town of Parkland, a place that feels so real and reflects an important piece of Chicago most don't get the chance to see.
7. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Chicago is a melting pot of cultures, and The House on Mango Street represents that in its descriptions of the poor neighborhood where the main character, Esperanza Cordero, lives. Told in a series of vignettes, this is the story of a woman's identity, her independence, her dreams — but it's also the story of all the fascinating people who surrounded her in the neighborhood. The House On Mango Street is one that Chicagoans keep close to their heart as it perfectly captures the spirit and hope of the city.
8. Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
This nonfiction work takes you back to the early 1900s when Chicago hosted the World Fair. The World Fair brought prestige, glamour, money... unfortunately, it also brought out one of the world's most terrifying serial killers, H.H. Holmes. This book juxtaposes the story of the World Fair with the story of Holmes' murders and eventual capture. It's also an interesting look at Chicago during the turn of the century.
9. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan
Green and Levithan both bring a Will Grayson to the table in this collaboration. One of them lives in Evanston on the North Shore, and the other lives in Naperville in the western suburbs. When they meet on an unlikely Chicago street, their lives will change forever. This is a fun read about high school, friendship, and first loves, and a book that celebrates the Chicago suburbs.
10. Building Stories by Chris Ware
This is an incredibly fun graphic novel. It takes place in a Chicago apartment building, and it follows different characters and their lives within. There's a 30-something woman on the search for her purpose, a couple annoyed by the company of the other, and the landlady who has lived the same lonely life for decades. Within the beautiful illustrations is the comedy and sadness about everyday life. If you need a break from heavy novels, consider picking this Chicago-loved and -recommended piece of art.