The Washington Story

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Ask a Book Question: The 63rd in a Series (Chicago Stories)

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Rob writes in with this question:I’m a seventeen year old who is going to be spending five weeks this summer in Chicago (to be specific – Evanston, since I’ll be part of Northwestern’s summer high school music institute). I’m a life-long New Jerseyan, and have never been in the city of broad shoulders for longer than three days.So, since I like reading books about the place I’m visiting, I was wondering if you could recommend anything that captured the essence of Chicago – I’m looking for works that encapsulate Chicago in the same way Kavalier & Clay encapsulates New York.I was thinking about The Lazarus Project and Carl Sandburg’s work. Do you have any other ideas?Chicago has inspired some of America’s greatest fiction and continues to be a fruitful setting for contemporary writers. I’ve just completed The Lazarus Project (review hopefully forthcoming), and its twinned stories – set in Chicago 1908 and present day Eastern Europe – mine Chicago’s multicultural past and ignominious history. The book, based on the true story of the mysterious death of immigrant Lazarus Averbuch reminded me a lot of The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson’s non-fiction account of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the serial killer who lurked in its shadows (my review here). Both Devil and Lazarus vividly evoke the chaos of Chicago, a turn of the century boomtown of slaughterhouses, nascent industry, and the first “skyscrapers” that was quickly aligning itself as the country’s center after only decades earlier being its frontier.An interest in this era in Chicago will inevitably lead one to Upton Sinclair, whose 1906 novel The Jungle is a muckraking, contemporary account of the slaughterhouse workers who drove Chicago’s economic engine. The novel is a landmark among American social novels.Jumping forward in time, Chicago produced one of America’s greatest novelists, Saul Bellow, who haunted the hauls of Northwestern in the 1930s. Garth writes that “the greatest Chicago novel ever is The Adventures of Augie March, which is highly recommended for someone who liked Kavalier & Clay.” This contention is hard to dispute.Patrick points us to another, more contemporary literary lodestar for Chicago: “The poet laureate of Chicago is Stuart Dybek (I mean, I don’t think he actually is, I just think he should be). The Coast of Chicago and I Sailed With Magellan are both absolute must reads. They both entirely take place in Chicago (mostly the South Side, but not exclusively). He’s one of my favorite authors, and somebody who should have a much larger audience.”Patrick also throws a more recent selection into the mix: “Also, it’s not like a totally Chicago Chicago book, but I think [Joshua Ferris’s] Then We Came to the End is about Chicago in a really interesting way, as it encapsulates life in the Loop, full of business people commuting from all the suburbs, folks who live in Lincoln Park, people who drive up from the South Side. Plus it’s really fun.”To these I would also add Adam Langer’s well received duo of books set in West Rogers Park, a neighborhood at the northern edge of the city not far from where I used to live: Crossing California and The Washington Story. Finally, anyone interested in Chicago fiction should consider Chris Ware’s landmark graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. It’s another twinned story, with threads taking place in the near present and during 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, for so many the moment of Chicago’s emergence. Ware’s pathos is haunting and his spare, eccentric drawings are mesmerizing. Along with Devil in the White City, it is a favorite of contemporary Chicagoans.We’ve undoubtedly skipped over much worthy Chicago literature, so please enlighten us with further suggestions in the comments. Rob, thanks for a great question!

Covering the Catalogs: Riverhead

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We’re moving this summer. I’m already dreading the packing, loading, moving, unpacking part, but other than that, I’m pretty excited. In July we’ll be departing for temporary digs in the Washington, DC area as we figure out our final destination. One thing’s for sure, though, our short stint in the Midwest is coming to an end. I never quite fell for Chicago, not the way I did for LA, anyway, but I have come to see why this place has a particular hold on people. I think part of it is the way the city wears its history on its sleeve. The city also has a rich literary history that is still very much being added to.All of this brings me, in a roundabout fashion, to the Riverhead catalog, which is next in the stack that I got from Penguin not too long ago. A couple of books in there – paperbacks of hardcovers that are already out – are worth sharing, one of which is a worthy addition to Chicago’s literature. Adam Langer’s The Washington Story brings readers back to West Rogers Park, a thickly multicultural neighborhood not far from where I live. The book is named after Harold Washington, who was mayor of Chicago during the 1980s, when the book takes place. The Washington Story is the sequel to Crossing California, Langer’s much praised debut (which is in the queue). The hardcover has been out since last August and the paperback comes out in September.Also coming out in September is the hilarious The Areas of My Expertise by John Hodgman. Hodgeman is now a regular on the Daily Show, where he does a nerdy expert shtick that is pitch-perfect, and he also appears in the new Mac commercials. The book – a compendium of fake facts, essentially – is perhaps most famous for the 700 hobo names contained within. You can hear Hodgman read the hobo names to music, and you can look at illustrations people have done of some of the hobos. Hodgman also has a blog. He ends all posts with “That is all.” The hardcover came out last October.Extras: From Penguin’s New American Library imprint comes The Sinner’s Guide to the Evangelical Right. The book is by Robert Lanham creator/editor of, and author of the Hipster Handbook. This time, Lanham turns his “anthropological eye” on conservative evangelical culture. The book comes out in September and would go well – or not – with this forthcoming “Compete Idiot’s” title. Finally, as if to prove that we’re all just one silly idea away from a book deal, the International Talk Like A Pirate Day guys have a book (which is already out, but I guess the publisher wants to remind booksellers to stock up each year in preparation for the lucrative Talk Like A Pirate Day shopping season).

Adam Langer’s next book


They’re starting to get excited about Adam Langer’s next book here in Chicago. I’m not sure how much of this is new information, but it looks like the new book, Washington Story, is a sequel to his debut, Crossing California. From the Sun-Times:In it, Jill Wasserstrom and Muley Wills, the young heroes of the first novel, are now high school students. Over the five years from 1982 to 1987, the world around them expands from the boundaries of Rogers Park and changes immensely including the Chicago mayoralty (Harold Washington is a character in the story).It’s due out August 18th.

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