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A Chicago book that holds special meaning to me

Michael Burke

If you asked me at different times in my life to name my favorite work of Chicago literature, I’d give you different answers.

“Ordinary People,” by Judith Guest, is the coming-of-age story that most resonated with me back in the days when I was coming of age myself. The 1976 novel spotlights a teenage protagonist wrestling with life and death on Chicago’s North Shore. There’s nothing quite like the zing of reading about adolescent angst when one is rattled by one’s own adolescent angst. “Ordinary People” was the first book to tell me: “You are not alone.”

“Done in a Day: 100 Years of Great Writing from the Chicago Daily News” told me something else: “This is how it’s done.” This is how you craft stories — in this case, real-life stories— to convey the victories, defeats, stalemates, and suspense of everyday life. This book, too, found me at just the right time. I was a college student with journalistic ambitions — and there is no better guide to the craft of writing concise, compelling human stories than “Done in a Day.”

These days, my favorite work of Chicago literature is “The Great Believers,” by Rebecca Makkai. The novel is a deeply moving, surprisingly funny page-turner about love, loss and reconciliation. The story is told in alternating chapters; half occur during the start of the AIDS crisis in Chicago in the 1980s, half occur in Paris today. This book tells me: “This is life. For better, for worse. Fasten your seatbelts.”

Julia Borcherts, who is at the center of so much of literary life in our toddlin’ town, was the person who tipped me to Rebecca Makkai’s novel. We were talking books one evening at a Chicago Literary Hall of Fame event at the Cliff Dwellers Club. “‘The Great Believers’ is very good,” Julia said. She paused, pondered, then added: “Actually, it’s the best book I’ve read in a long time.”

Makkai’s novel turned out to be, for me, all of that and more — the kind of story that had me abruptly laughing aloud late one night at home (which scared our cat) and sobbing unconsolably an hour later. And “The Great Believers” became the book I’ve most often recommended and given as a gift over the past year.

What’s your Chicago favorite?


Michael Burke is the author of the short story collection, “What You Don’t Know About Men.” He and his husband, magician Robert Charles, are supporters of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. They live in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood.

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