Monday, April 12, 2010

Chicago pre-trip #7: five great novels about Chicago

And you thought the songs about Chicago were depressing.

Well, they ain't got nothing on the novels about Chicago, which are generally even more grim and gritty, chronicling the greed, guts, and ever-elusive glory of growing up in Chicago's mean streets.

Whether it's "the pit" or "the jungle," methinks we'll be lucky to escape Chicago with our lives and bottles of Carson's signature BBQ sauce.

1. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

A precursor to Fast Food Nation. If you've ever wanted to work in a Chicago slaughterhouse in the early 1900s, this book will change your mind. All good vegetarians start reading here:

2. The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

Depression-era Chicago sure was depressing. But this novel sure isn't - Time magazine included it in its list of "100 best novels" in 2007, and is number 81 on Modern Library's list of the best 20th-Century novels.

Read it and weep!

3. The Pit by Frank Norris

I'm just speculating, but speculating - as practiced by the Chicago Board of Trade - in the early 1900s was a mean, greedy business, as outlined in this great book about a rich guy who corners the market on wheat on the backs of the poor, who can't afford a loaf of bread.

This was supposed to be the second part of a wheat trilogy, but Norris died before he could write the third book. Please, sir, I want some more:

4. Native Son by Richard Wright

I first read this book in American Lit class at university and was blown away by its exploration of the racial divide in Chicago and America; to this day, it remains a cultural touchstone about living in the ghetto and facing the sad inevitability of what it means to be defined by others from the day you're born.

5.The Cliff-Dwellers by Henry Blake Fuller

What goes on in those skyscrapers, high above the mean streets of Chicago? Let's just say that grime begets grime.

The Cliff-Dwellers is one of the first books to chronicle what the industrialization of America means to its citizens, in terms of productivity, morality, and good, old-fashioned materialism.

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