Canceled events, publishing delays, shuttered bookstores—in many ways, 2020 was an awful year for Chicago writers. But it was a fantastic year for Chicago readers, at least when it comes to new fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. To keep this list manageable, I’ve limited it to books with a strong emphasis on the city itself. That means you won’t see books set elsewhere, like Natasha Trethewey’s Memorial Drive and Kathleen Rooney’s Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, nor books with broader subject matter, like Mikki Kendall’s Hood Feminism. Nonetheless, here are my favorite Chicago-focused books of 2020, available at an independent bookstore near you.
Everywhere You Don’t Belong by Gabriel Bump (Algonquin Books)
“I remember Euclid Avenue,” begins Gabriel Bump’s debut novel, set in the South Shore neighborhood where he grew up. Bump’s narrator, Claude McKay Love, is an anxious kid who struggles to fit in. When social unrest erupts after police kill one of his neighbors, Claude takes the Megabus to the University of Missouri, where white students ask if he knows Chief Keef. The winner of this year’s Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, it’s a spectacular coming-of-age story with the rare ability to make you smile and rip out your heart on the same page.
The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah (W. W. Norton)
Mustafah’s debut novel opens with a school shooting at a Muslim school for girls just south of Chicago. As gunshots shake the ceiling of her office, the Palestinian-American school principal, Afaf Rahman, remembers her life growing up in the city, including the disappearance of her sister and the unraveling of her family. A harrowing work of insightful fiction, it absolutely earned its spot in this year’s New York Times‘s 100 Notable Books.
Finna by Nate Marshall (One World)
Marshall moved to Colorado last year, but his latest poetry collection is still grounded in Chicago, “a town in love with its own blood, / a blood browned on its own history & funk.” Finna opens with a stunning series of poems about Marshall’s online interactions with a white supremacist who shares his name, but my personal favorite, “when i say Chicago,” is a soaring ode to the city that’s worth framing on your wall.
Too Much Midnight by Krista Franklin (Haymarket Books)
Too Much Midnight is a miracle of a book that spans centuries and continents and worlds. The accompanying essays about Franklin’s work—from Jamila Woods, Cauleen Smith, Greg Tate, and Maria Hamilton Abegunde—make this a Chicago book, since she’s one of our most remarkable living artists. A brilliant synthesis of poetry and art, Afrofuturism and Afrosurrealism, pop culture and actual history, Too Much Midnight won the 2020 Chicago Review of Books award for poetry. (Disclosure: I founded the Chicago Review of Books five years ago and still serve as one of the awards judges.)
A Most Beautiful Thing: The True Story of America’s First All-Black High School Rowing Team by Arshay Cooper (Flatiron Books)
Cooper’s 2015 memoir was republished this year to coincide with the release of a documentary film based on his story. Back in 1997 in East Garfield Park, Cooper and his Manley Career Academy classmates overcame rival gang affiliations to form the first all-Black high school rowing team. This isn’t your average sports memoir about hard-fought championships; it’s an intimate and inspiring look at race, privilege, and the bonds formed by shared traumas—and shared boats.
The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price by Rae Linda Brown (University of Illinois Press)
In 1933, when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played Florence Price’s Symphony in E minor, she became the first African American woman in history to compose music for a major orchestra. Despite her influential career, most of Price’s work was lost until 2009, when her scores were discovered in an abandoned house in Kankakee County. Brown’s book is the first-ever biography of Price, who spent the second half of her life in Chicago after her family left Arkansas during the Great Migration.
Stateway’s Garden by Jasmon Drain (Random House)
“We lived in the biggest concrete building on Chicago’s South Side,” says a character in Drain’s piercing collection of linked stories set in and around Stateway Gardens in Bronzeville, a massive public housing development (where Drain lived himself) that was demolished in 2009. “We’d move before they tore down our buildings and took my views of Chinatown and Comiskey . . . to make new condos,” the same character remembers. This is an achingly beautiful book that, like Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago, will make you mourn all the past versions of the city we’ve lost.
The Lost Book of Adana Moreau by Michael Zapata (Hanover Square Press)
In 1929, a Dominican immigrant in New Orleans publishes a science fiction novel that becomes a classic. But on her deathbed, she asks her son to destroy the manuscript for her second novel. Nearly 100 years later in Chicago, a man named Saul Drower receives a package containing that very manuscript, and sets out to solve a century-old mystery. Zapata’s debut is an utterly fascinating literary adventure for fans of 2666 and Lovecraft Country that won this year’s Chicago Review of Books award for fiction.
Campus Counterspaces: Black and Latinx Students’ Search for Community at Historically White Universities by Micere Keels (Cornell University Press)
A professor of comparative human development at the University of Chicago, Dr. Keels interviewed more than 500 Black and Latinx students who enrolled at five predominantly white colleges in and around Chicago. What she found was that “these students were asking for access to counterspaces—safe spaces that simultaneously validate and critique one’s interconnected self and group identity—that would enable radical growth.” It’s a fascinating look at why most university diversity policies still fall far short of meaningful, institutional change.
Sun Ra’s Chicago: Afrofuturism and the City by William Sites (University of Chicago Press)
Plenty of books have been written about Afrofuturist pioneer Sun Ra and his Arkestra, but Sites is the first to make Chicago his co-protagonist. “How did Sun Ra’s own music and cosmology emerge? And why did they flourish in Chicago?” Sites asks. Beginning in 1946 when Herman Poole Blount arrived on the south side until he left for New York in 1961, Sites provides crucial context on how Chicago’s Afrocentrist philosophy, religion, and jazz scenes helped turn Blount into Sun Ra. v