Every year, I wonder if Chicago’s literary renaissance will ever start to ebb. No city can keep this up forever, right? But just like last year and the year before, dozens of new fiction, nonfiction, and poetry books by Chicagoans garnered national acclaim in 2021. In no particular order, here are my favorite Chicago books of the year—12 books with a strong focus on the city, and eight more by local poets and writers.
Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara (Soho Press)
Set in 1944, Hirahara’s historical mystery stars a 20-year-old woman named Aki Ito, whose family is released from a concentration camp for Japanese Americans and sent to live in Chicago, where her older sister Rose was sent a few years ago. But when they arrive in the Japanese American neighborhood around Clark and Division, Rose has just been killed by a train. Chicago officials rule her death a suicide, but Aki knows Rose would never kill herself, and searches for the truth.
Three Girls From Bronzeville: A Uniquely American Memoir of Race, Fate, and Sisterhood by Dawn Turner (Simon & Schuster)
After covering race and politics as a journalist for more than two decades, Turner left the Chicago Tribune in 2015 to work on her books. Her new memoir about growing up in Bronzeville with her sisters in the 1970s is an instant classic in a long line of brilliant books set in the neighborhood. Three Girls From Bronzeville belongs on shelves right next to books by icons of that era, like Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright, and Ida B. Wells, and won the 2021 Chicago Review of Books Award for Best Nonfiction. (Disclosure: I founded the Chicago Review of Books in 2016 and remain one of more than a dozen award judges.)
The Lost Girls by Jessica Chiarella (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)
If you liked Only Murders in the Building, Chiarella’s thriller is about a true-crime podcaster, Marti Reese, who grew up near Chicago. When Marti was eight years old, her sister disappeared. Haunted by grief for decades, Marti turns to drinking and podcasting about the unsolved case. When the podcast unexpectedly goes viral, a woman named Ava Vreeland notices similarities to a victim her brother is accused of murdering, and calls Marti to work together on solving two mysteries in one.
Refugee High: Coming of Age in America by Elly Fishman (The New Press)
In January 2017, former Chicago magazine editor Elly Fishman joined more than a thousand people at O’Hare to protest Trump’s travel ban on Muslim-majority countries. That experience led Fishman to Sullivan High School in Rogers Park, which has one of the largest populations of refugee students in America. Based on more than a year of on-the-ground reportage, Refugee High is a stunning and heart-wrenching work of nonfiction in the vein of Eve L. Ewing’s Ghosts in the Schoolyard.
This detailed visual exploration of Chicago architect Louis Sullivan’s late period is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever held. Designed and edited by Chris Ware, the Oak Park cartoonist best known for his graphic novels Building Stories, and Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, it’s a gorgeous collection of photographs, drawings, and correspondence—some of which has never been published before. An absolutely essential book for design and architecture geeks.
Doppelgangbanger by Cortney Lamar Charleston (Haymarket Books)
After a widely acclaimed debut collection and fellowships from Cave Canem and the Poetry Foundation, Cortney Lamar Charleston’s new poetry collection, Doppelgangbanger, examines his experience growing up between the south side of Chicago and the south and west suburbs in the 90s, where he “ . . . grew up too fast. / As we dark ones tend to do. / As we have to. Do.” It’s a remarkable meditation on masculinity, race, family, and community.
W-3 by Bette Howland (A Public Space Books)
In 1968, Saul Bellow returned home to find an unconscious woman next to a bottle of sleeping pills in his Hyde Park apartment. Her name was Bette Howland, a part-time librarian he’d met at a writers’ conference eight years earlier. At the time, suicide was illegal in Illinois, so Howland was sent to the psychiatric ward at the University of Chicago Medical Center for treatment. The books she wrote during the following decade warranted both MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships. But her books fell out of print and out of mind until 2015, when Brigid Hughes—the former Paris Review editor—discovered a $1 copy of her memoir at the Housing Works Bookstore in SoHo. That memoir, W-3, about her experience in the psychiatric ward, was republished this year with a new introduction by Yiyun Li, and it’s as brilliant as anything Bellow ever wrote.
Asked What Has Changed by Ed Roberson (Wesleyan University Press)
Now 81 years old, Ed Roberson lives in a Bronzeville high-rise with views of Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline. Many of the poems in his latest collection are based on his observations looking out from the windows of his apartment, as well as memories of other natural settings he’s seen on his travels around the world. But do not expect traditional nature poems; Roberson loves to experiment with form, style, and perspective in a way that makes his work utterly unique.
Bronzeville Nights: On the Town in Chicago’s Black Metropolis by Steven C. Dubin (CityFiles Press)
Lonnie Simmons, a legendary south-side jazz organist who was still performing in his 70s, collected dozens of photos and mementos during his time playing Bronzeville clubs in the 1940s and 1950s with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horn, Billie Holiday, and Sammy Davis Jr. Bronzeville Nights is a fascinating visual record of Bronzeville’s midcentury cultural renaissance that publishes Simmons’s artifacts for the first time, with a memorable introduction by the Pulitzer-winning writer Margo Jefferson, who grew up in and around the neighborhood.
It’s Life as I See It: Black Cartoonists in Chicago, 1940-1980 edited by Dan Nadel, essays by Charles Johnson and Ronald Wimberly, cover designed by Kerry James Marshall (New York Review Books)
Chicago’s historic Black press has been widely documented in books like Ethan Michaeli’s The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America. But It’s Life as I See It is the first book to catalog how the Chicago Defender, the Negro Digest, and other publications showcased the work of pioneering Black cartoonists. There is so much to love here, including science fiction, adventure, Afrofuturism, and humor in the work of Jay Jackson, Morrie Turner, Yaoundé Olu, Turtel Onli, Charles Johnson, and more.
Mother/land by Ananda Lima (Black Lawrence Press)
As the title implies, Lima’s latest poetry book is about motherhood and immigration, and how they impact both people and places. It’s a profound collection full of wisdom thanks to Lima’s singular vision and voice: “My son doesn’t know yet / how dates work . . . I try to make him say them / in Portuguese like I do / with all the words / I can still remember . . .”
Never Come Morning by Nelson Algren (Seven Stories Press)
Algren is best known for his essay Chicago: City on the Make, as well as his novel The Man With the Golden Arm, adapted into an Oscar-nominated movie starring Frank Sinatra in 1955. But Never Come Morning, newly republished this year with introductions by Richard Wright and Kurt Vonnegut, was the closest thing Algren ever wrote to a romance novel. It’s about a Polish baseball-pitcher-turned-boxer and his girlfriend on the northwest side, and it’s got plenty of great descriptions of Chicago (and Cook County Jail).
The Upstairs House by Julia Fine (Harper Books)
Fine’s second novel is about a Logan Square woman named Megan Weiler who believes her newborn daughter is being haunted by the ghosts of Margaret Wise Brown—author of the classic (and creepy) children’s book Goodnight Moon—and Brown’s lover, a failed poet who adopted the masculine name of Michael Strange. Very few books have ever made me gasp out loud, but The Upstairs House has an extremely clever, jump-off-the-page-at-you moment in the early chapters that I’ll never forget.
There Are Trans People Here by H. Melt (Haymarket Books)
“I need to know trans joy exists in order to imagine myself living in the future,” H. Melt told the Reader in an interview earlier this year. Their second poetry collection, There Are Trans People Here, is a celebration of queer identity featuring photos from the Museum of Transgender Hirstory & Art. It finds joy in the past and present while also imagining a future “Where there are / no borders between / who we were and who we are / Becoming.”
The Kindest Lie by Nancy Johnson (William Morrow)
This debut novel from Nancy Johnson, a Northwestern alum and former television journalist, opens in Chicago just after Obama’s inauguration. Ruth Tuttle is a successful Black engineer who isn’t ready to have a child with her husband because she’s still grieving the loss of a baby she had to give up for adoption when she was a teenager. To answer questions about her past, Ruth returns to the struggling Indiana factory town where she grew up and discovers a shocking family secret. The Kindest Lie will make an excellent Netflix adaptation one day.
Blow Your House Down: A Story of Family, Feminism, and Treason by Gina Frangello (Counterpoint Press)
“I’ve come to think of this past summer as a season of death,” writes Frangello—who has taught at nearly every Chicago university with a writing program—near the beginning of her memoir. Blow Your House Down is a vivid and intimate account of some of the most difficult days of her life: the death of a close friend and the disintegration of her marriage, which leads to a love affair, a double life, and eventually a reckoning with her family and her identity. Frangello is such a gifted writer, and her intelligence and empathy shine on every page.
The Most Fun Thing: Dispatches from a Skateboard Life by Kyle Beachy (Grand Central Publishing)
While teaching creative writing at Roosevelt University, Beachy was trying to write a novel about skateboarding when he decided to try essays instead. The result of that experiment, The Most Fun Thing, is indeed a very fun thing to read, even for someone with only a limited understanding of skateboarding. But it also captures Chicago in a really compelling way, not unlike Jessica Hopper’s memoir, Night Moves.
Game Misconduct: Hockey’s Toxic Culture and How to Fix It by Evan F. Moore and Jashvina Shah (Triumph Books)
Chicago has become very familiar with hockey scandals courtesy of the Blackhawks, but Moore and Shah’s book, Game Misconduct, argues that it’s just one symptom of a pervasive problem with the sport today, including “racism, homophobia, xenophobia, bullying, sexism, and violence on and off the ice,” that goes all the way from the NHL down to the college and junior levels. It’s an eye-opening call to action for fans, players, coaches, the media, and everyone else who loves hockey.
Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala (Berkley)
The first installment in a new cozy mystery series from Chicago library worker Manansala, Arsenic and Adobo is about Lila Macapagal, a barista who returns to her hometown in the suburbs to help save her aunt’s restaurant. But then her ex-boyfriend, a food critic, is found dead and Lila’s life “quickly swerves from a Nora Ephron romp to an Agatha Christie case.” Best of all, there’s already a second book in the series, Homicide and Halo-Halo, forthcoming in February 2022.
Wolf Lamb Bomb by Aviya Kushner (Orison Books)
Aviya Kushner’s debut poetry collection, which won this year’s Chicago Review of Books Award for Best Poetry, is a haunting retelling of the Book of Isaiah that spans New York, Jerusalem, and Chicago, where a late-night walk down Wellington Avenue leads to one of the most memorable passages: “And as the wind winds / down and the bartender yells last call / I wonder if anyone is really in or if all of us / are always out, out, out, wanderers like / an unwanted prophet, an old man raving.”