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Book Club Wed Jan 02 2008

January 2008 Selection: Never a City So Real by Alex Kotlowitz

This month the Gapers Block Book Club is reading Never a City So Real by Alex Kotlowitz. Book club staffer Brian Sobolak writes the introduction below. Read Never a City So Real, and then join us on Monday, Janury 14 at The Book Cellar at 7:30pm for our first meeting of 2008.

Who is best qualified to lead you on a tour of a place: a native-born resident or someone who's shown up later, someone who's seen something of the world and decided to stay?

Alex Kotlowitz explains in his introduction to the short and delightful Never A City So Real that he only planned to stay in Chicago for a year or two and instead stayed for twenty. And in this series of vignettes highlighting different corners of Chicago, Kotlowitz shows us the city he has come to know and love.

The city presented in Never A City So Real is very different from Kotlowitz's first draft on Chicago, the powerful There Are No Children Here, a book that followed a family in Chicago's squalid public housing. For many, it was a detailed portrait of a Chicago seen but not heard.

Never A City So Real employs the same techniques. Kotlowitz introduces us to Chicagoans who operate well outside of the traditional picture of a Cubs fan drinking beer or tourists taking pictures of the Bean. Piecing together many stories—a labor historian from the South Side, a diner owner in Albany Park, a muralist who paints panthers in living rooms, an artist who works in dive bars—Kotlowitz begins to explain the city in a way that the Not For Tourist's guide to Chicago couldn't.

Along the way Kotlowitz drops hints that slowly reveal the character of the city and its history. "There's much history here," he writes. "The Pilgrim Baptist Church, formerly a synagogue (in this city of ever-changing neighborhoods, churches adorned with stars of David are a common sight), was designed by Dankmar Adler, whose father was the synagogue's rabbi, and Louis Sullivan, with a helping hand from a young Frank Lloyd Wright (who worked for Adler and Sullivan's firm at the same time." [1]

That's a lot to pack in to a single sentence. But these breadcrumbs of history along the way show us where the city came from without forcing us to use it to define the present. Kotlowitz often reminds us of where the city came from without a nostalgia for a previous, better Chicago; it's a refreshing view and different from too many other published works about our city.

This casual blending of past and present, showing a city by revealing its characters, works well. A faithful portrait of Chicago emerges, and Kotlowitz's command of all sides of the city and his engaging prose make for a very readable portrait.

My only criticism of the book is perhaps one of the items that makes it engaging: it's short. The quick portraits of Chicagoans might not work in a longer book, but I did wish for a few more stories, or more of a meditation on some aspects of the city. (By way of comparison, Suketu Mehta's Maximum City was a length that worked.)

Did he get it right? That was what I felt myself wondering as I read through the book. While no work of a scant 150 pages can attempt to cover the lives and history of 3 million people, Kotlowitz got it about as right as you can get. It's a book certainly worth reading.

Note: I happen to live two blocks from the subject of one of the chapters, GT's Diner. For the book club, I'll bring some pictures of what this area looks like and an update on the story he writes about.

[1] An aside: The grandeur of this church is no longer, as it burned down in 2006 and awaits restoration.

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