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Monday, November 18

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Not quite one year ago, I started a book club here on Gapers Block dedicated to reading literature by writers with a Chicago connection and non-fiction books about some aspect of the city. The scope might seem restrictive, unnecessarily eliminating large swaths of worthy books. But, reading fiction by Chicago authors provides an opportunity to experience the city in unique ways, through the characters that populate the novels.

In the past year, book club participants have seen Chicago through the eyes of a Lithuanian stockyards worker, a group of Jewish teens growing up in 1970s Rogers Park, a time-traveling Newberry Library librarian, and a Bosnian immigrant struggling to find his identity in a new country, just to name a few.

And, this exploration is possible because one of the distinguishing features of Chicago writing is how many local authors choose Chicago as the setting for their stories. This is far more than a stubborn adherence to the old "write what you know" advice. Instead, Chicago writing is characterized by a profound sense of place. Local authors seem intent on probing the city from every possible angle, revealing secret lives of the imagination that seem to live in eerie parallel to our own lives as Chicagoans.

But where does one start? You may, of course, take part in the Gapers Block Book Club, and details are at the end of this article. But, to discover local authors on your own, try the following resources.

Scroll through "Chicago Fiction Writers: A Selected List" from the Chicago Public Library. The list includes more than 200 names of authors with some "significant connection" to Chicago. Although the list is extensive, it has not been updated since 2000, so it unfortunately does not include many new, up-and-coming writers.

Another good place to start is the list of Illinois authors created by the Evanston Public Library. Each author entry includes brief biographical information and titles of books published with links to the library's catalog. The list includes many recognizable names but also features plenty of lesser-known writers, making this a great discovery tool.

Then, read the annotated list of books by Illinois authors created by the Rolling Meadows Library Adult Reading Round Table. The bibliography includes brief summaries of books by dozens of current and deceased authors, most of whom do not appear on the Evanston Library list.

Not to be outdone, the Northbrook Public Library has several bibliographies of stories either penned by Illinois authors or set in Illinois, divided by genre. Check out the general Illinois fiction list, the Illinois classics list, the Illinois mysteries list, the science fiction list and, just in time for Valentine's Day, the Illinois romance list. Each bibliography includes dozens of books with a brief summary of each title. Fun to browse.

If you are interested in more regional literature, visit the excellent "Illinois! Illinois!: An Annotated Bibliography of Fiction" from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. The bibliography began as a book compiled by Thomas L. Kilpatrick and Patsy-Rose Hoshiko and published in 1979. This online edition includes all of the earlier, published entries, plus more than 650 additional entries covering titles published between 1976 and 1997. Together, "Illinois! Illinois!" includes over 2,200 entries of stories that take place in the state. Most of the writers listed have or had Illinois connections, but not all, since this is a list of stories set in Illinois, and not necessarily written by folks hailing from the state.

The Illinois Authors database by the Illinois Center for the Book is also a great source for finding writers from across the state. The directory includes published authors, illustrators and photographers who "live in Illinois, have lived in Illinois, were born in Illinois, have written extensively about Illinois or have works set in Illinois." Whew. Browse a complete list of writers by last name or limit a search to Cook County to find writers in the Chicago area.

But, for a quick exposure to a variety of local writers, consider picking up a literature anthology. Not all anthologies are alike, however. Some consist of collections of new short stories, not previously published, while others print excerpts or stories from earlier published work. The following books represent some of the anthologies of local writing available.

Smokestacks & Skyscrapers: An Anthology of Chicago Writing
Edited by David Starkey and Richard Guzman (Wild Onion Books, 1999)
This collection includes more than 100 selections of fiction, non-fiction and poetry by 71 different writers. Many classic Chicago authors are represented, such as George Ade, Theodore Dreiser, Ring Lardner and Edna Ferber. But, the book also includes current writers such as Carol Anshaw, James McManus, Ana Castillo and Tony Ardizzone. For depth and variety, if you only pick up one anthology, this is your best bet.

Chicago Stories: Tales of the City
Edited by John Miller (Chronicle Books, 1993)
Chicago Stories collects selections from 17 classic Chicago writers, including Saul Bellow, Langston Hughes and Nelson Algren.

Chicago Works: A New Collection of Chicago Authors' Best Stories
(Morton Press, 2003)
This anthology focuses on the work of contemporary writers and features more than 20 selections from authors like Aleksandar Hemon, Phyllis Moore, Achy Obejas and Katherine Shonk.

Chicago Noir
Edited by Neal Pollack (Akashic Books, 2005)
Chicago Noir features more than a dozen new short stories in the noir genre from contemporary authors such as Adam Langer, Joe Meno, Kevin Guilfoile and Bayo Ojikutu.

So, pick up a book by a Chicago author and see the city with whole new eyes.

~*~

Join the Gapers Block Book Club! Just sign up for the email list for news, announcements and more. And, visit the book club forum to discuss the book online. This month we are reading Division Street: America by Studs Terkel. We will be meeting to discuss the book on Monday, February 13, at The Book Cellar, located at 4736 N. Lincoln Ave. The meeting will begin at 7:30pm.

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About the Author(s)

Alice Maggio is a Chicago librarian. She welcomes questions and topic suggestions for her column at . Due to the volume of email received, she may not reply to every query, but you may be contacted if your question is selected for the column.

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