Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Chicago Author Month Wrap-Up: Chicago Literary Tour Ideas

We had a great time joining Jen Karsbaek at Devourer of Books in her month-long focus on Chicago authors. We discovered some fabulous new books, hosted some really cool authors, and added plenty of other books to our personal wish lists.

Before we sign off on this bookish adventure, we wanted to mention a few of our favorite Chicago books that present some of the best opportunities for book club "field trips." For Chicago area readers, or any other readers planning a visit to Chicago, here are some suggestions for a Chicago Literary Tour.

Sister Carrie (Theodore Dreiser, 1900) is one of my favorite Chicago novels. I recommend Sister Carrie to our local book clubs because it offers moral ambiguity, an early feminist sensibility and layers upon layers of social commentary that are as relevant today as they were 100 years ago.

Sister Carrie is ripe with opportunities for an interesting historical Chicago Literary Tour. The online version of the Pennsylvania edition includes a list of all of the locations mentioned in the book, from Carrie's sister's flat at 354 West Van Buren to Carrie and Drouet's love nest at Ogden Place. I would recommend starting your Sister Carrie tour on State Street, because Carrie was so easily seduced by the charms of department store windows. You could stroll through the old Marshall Fields (it will never be Macy's to me), and then have lunch or a drink in the historic Palmer House Hotel on Monroe Street (where Drouet and Hurstwood stayed in Chapters 24-27). If you're adventuresome, your tour should include a visit to the near west side, particularly Skinner Park (formerly Jefferson Park), where Carrie meets Hurstwood ("on a rustic bench beneath the green leaves of a lilac bush") and they first discuss the possibility of running away together.

Devil in the White City (Erik Larson, 2003) is also set in Chicago's Gilded Age, and like Sister Carrie, shows both sides of the coin. This book combines a chilling true crime story with an insider's view of the planning and building of Chicago's World's Fair in 1893. The Chicago Architectural Foundation currently offers a Devil in the White City Bus Tour. Interest in this book is likely to rise again as they begin filming the movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the serial killer.

The Lazarus Project (Aleksandar Hemon, 2008) is another great Chicago novel, a National Book Award Finalist and the winner of a Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Fiction. I first raved about this book in a blog post nearly two years ago, and have since hailed Hemon's 2009 short story collection Love and Other Obstacles.

The Lazarus Project is based on a true story from Chicago history. In 1908, Chicago Chief of Police George Shippey murdered Lazarus Averbach, a Jewish immigrant who had gained entry to the Chief's Lincoln Park home. No one really knows why Averbach was there, but Shippey erroneously believed he was a Jewish anarchist who had come to assassinate him.

Shippey's home is located on the 2100 block of North Hudson. Geoffrey Johnson of The Chicago Magazine created a video depicting scenes related to the Averbach story, including Averbach's two burial sites and the foyer of the home where the murder occurred. My dream Chicago Literary Tour would have to include a walk through the Hudson Street area of Lincoln Park in honor of both Hemon and Averbach.

Loving Frank (Nancy Horan, 2007) is based on the love affair between Frank Lloyd Wright and his neighbor Mamah Cheney. It is set in Oak Park, Illinois, where Nancy Horan lived in Oak Park for 24 years. When my book club read this book, we enjoyed an outing to the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio. If you can't get the chance to get to Oak Park, Nancy Horan has a narrated video of a Frank Lloyd Wright Neighborhood Walking Tour on her website. In addition, there is a new Loving Frank Tour at Taliesen, Frank Lloyd Wright's home in Spring Green Wisconsin, which is located approximately 2.5 hours northwest of Chicago.

Our month-long focus on Chicago area authors has shown us that just one month is clearly not enough time. The Bookstore would love to form a Chicago Area Author Book Club, with regular Chicago Literary Tours. To let us know you're interested, please add a comment below, call us at (630) 469-2891, or e-mail

For anyone who can't seem to resist adding more books by Chicago authors to their nightstand, check out this list of books that were included in five and a half years of the Gaper's Block Chicago Book Club. Our Chicago Author Month was clearly just the tip of the iceberg.