Chicago’s book world can be a quiet place. In part due to the solitary nature of the work, and in part due to the void of publishing parties that keep New York’s assorted gawkers journaling away, it’s easy to think nothing new is happening. Jeffrey Eugenides moves to town, Jeffrey Eugenides moves away, and no one seems to notice. Then, bam!, Aleksandar Hemon publishes “The Lazarus Project,” the comparisons to Nabokov resume and suddenly we’re the center of the universe again, if only for a moment.
1. Studs Terkel
“As the Titanic went down, I came up,” once said national treasure Studs Terkel on being born May 16, 1912—for those counting, that makes our beloved author a fresh 96 years old. With a career that’s spanned all those decades and seen Terkel become a legendary historian, author and radio broadcaster, Studs is inarguably the most influential “guerilla journalist with a tape recorder” to ever call Chicago home. And don’t let the years fool you, as the fight for human rights and civil liberties still burns in Studs’ heart—in 2006 he spearheaded a lawsuit against AT&T opposing the NSA’s wiretapping program. From his own perspective, his most recent book, last fall’s “Touch and Go: A Memoir,” documented an accomplished, extraordinary career.
2. Aleksandar Hemon
For someone who has only been writing in English for thirteen years, Hemon’s accomplished a significant amount in his three works. The Bosnian-born author’s staggering debut, “The Question of Bruno,” quickly gained him attention, both for the collection of stories and for his remarkable departure from his home country just before the siege of Sarajevo. “Nowhere Man” followed, as did a 2004 “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation, but with his weeks-old “The Lazazus Project,” Hemon has proven himself a master novelist, garnering the best critical reviews of his career for his era-spanning tale of these Chicago streets.
3. Audrey Niffenegger
The author of the smash hit “The Time Traveler’s Wife” (2003) has since earned a respectable reputation for her graphic novels as well, first with the Edward Goreyesque “The Three Incestuous Sisters” and then with 2006’s “The Adventuress.” She’s reportedly at work on her follow-up to “Time Traveler,” titled “Her Fearful Symmetry.” This could be the Columbia College prof’s biggest year yet, as the film version of her debut romance, starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams, is set to hit screens come Christmas.
4. Chris Ware
The highly acclaimed award-winning graphic novelist and cartoonist, best known for his “Acme Novelty Library” and “Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth,” has seen his profile rise with each passing year. In fall of 2006 his work was shown along with that of R. Crumb and Will Eisner, among others, at museums around the country in a show called “Masters of American Comics” and he’s recently guest-edited an edition of the Best American Comics series. Ware’s also contributed work for Ira Glass’ “This American Life” series on Showtime and he created the artwork (poster, whatnot) for the 2007 indie film “The Savages.”
5. Scott Turow
The author of the 1987 bestseller “Presumed Innocent”—and active Chicago attorney—has written several legal thrillers since. His most recent successes include 2005’s war tale “Ordinary Heroes” and 2006’s brief “Limitations,” which originally appeared as a serial in the New York Times Magazine. Turow, who’s also contributed to the New York Times, is currently at work on a sequel to “Presumed Innocent.”
6. Stuart Dybek
The Distinguished Writer in Residence at Northwestern University and author of three books—“I Sailed with Magellan,” the “One Book, One Chicago”-selected “The Coast of Chicago” and “Childhood and Other Neighborhoods”—had a big September in 2007; first, he was awarded the “genius” grant by the MacArthur Foundation, and then just one day later a $30,000 Rea Award for short-story writing, joining the likes of Joyce Carol Oates and Alice Munro as authors who’ve all been awarded the prize. Dybek’s also penned two books of poetry, taken home a PEN award and has had his work appear in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Poetry and the Best American Short Stories series.
7. Roger Ebert
The bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic (the first to win the prestigious award) has recently gotten back into regularly reviewing films for the Sun-Times, not to mention frequently posting on his blog at rogerebert.com, in spite of his highly publicized battle with cancer. His most recent books catalogued his best-reviewed films (“Roger Ebert’s Four-Star Reviews 1967-2007) and his career work as a whole (“Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert”), and later this year from University of Chicago Press we’ll get the movie-man’s take on the work of Martin Scorsese.
8. Joe Meno
Four years removed from the release of the Columbia College professor’s breakthrough punk-rock novel “Hairstyles of the Damned,” and the author and playwright doesn’t seem any less ambitious. (“The Boy Detective Fails” and “Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir,” two works since “Hairstyles,” were equally dreamlike and touching.) August sees the release of “Demons in the Spring,” a collection of Meno stories supplemented by drawing by various artists (including Charles Burns and Ivan Brunetti), a benefit for 826CHI. He’s crafting a stage adaptation of the David Garnett novel “Lady Into Fox” for Greasy Joan Theatre Company, and come May 2009, he’ll have a new novel on the shelves, from Norton, titled “The Great Perhaps.”
9. Elizabeth Berg
The acclaimed author got a major boost in 2000 from Oprah when the tycoon selected her “Open House” for her book club—a prolific eight years followed, which included “The Art of Mending,” “We Are All Welcome Here” and “Dream When You’re Feeling Blue.” Her most recent book, “The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted: And Other Small Acts of Liberation,” has received a significant response, and even memoirist Augusten Burroughs is a fan, recently saying in an interview, “What I love about Elizabeth Berg is that, if she were a man, she would be John Cheever—she’d have that sort of level of critical respect. She’s never written a false word.”
10. Christian Wiman
The esteemed editor of Poetry magazine for half a decade, Wiman offered “Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet” last September, a collection of personal essays about his life and career. His previous two books of poetry, the equally moving “Hard Night” and “The Long Home,” showed his endless skill as master of verses and phrases, and now with his recent work as a memoirist, it seems there’s little he can’t accomplish.
11. Garry Wills
The wildly prolific author and historian seemingly produces a new book with every passing season—his most recent, “What the Gospels Meant,” a follow-up to his bestselling “What Jesus Meant” and “What Paul Meant,” is a dissection of the four chapters of the Christian bible (nice job on “The Charlie Rose Show” last month, by the way). Wills frequently contributes to the New York Review of Books and Harper’s, and serves as Professor of History Emeritus at Northwestern.
12. Gioia Diliberto
The author broke through nearly five years ago with her inventive “I Am Madam X,” but last fall’s “The Collection” was an even bigger accomplishment, a larger work in scope set in post-World War I Paris focusing on a fictitious young seamstress who ventures to work for Coco Chanel. Extravagant fashion, competition and sweeping descriptions of Europe nearly a century ago show the work of an even more confident storyteller.
13. Alex Ross
The painter and comic-book artist originally found great success for Marvel with 1993’s “Marvels” and, later, DC’s “Kingdom Come,” and has recently branched out with work on the 2002 Academy Awards promotional poster and a series of covers for TV Guide. When it was announced he was returning to work for Marvel after a long absence, the comic-book world as a whole underwent a joyous seizure—the result was this month’s “Avengers/Invaders” release, the first of a planned twelve-part series.
14. Sara Paretsky
The bestselling author of detective fiction and creator of the VI Warshawski series went the nonfiction route last year with “Writing in an Age of Silence,” her memoir about her life as an activist searching for a greater purpose. In January she published “Bleeding Kansas,” a non-Warshawski work of fiction surrounding three contemporary families of farmers.
15. Bayo Ojikutu
The DePaul University professor is as dedicated a Chicago author as they come, first making a name for himself with “47th Street Black”—which featured a detailed story of the South Side’s mean streets—and then with his follow-up, 2006’s “Free Burning,” a work of muscular passion and eventual hope for those lost to the life of crime.
16. Luis Alberto Urrea
The University of Illinois at Chicago instructor and award-winning author of “The Devil’s Highway”—a Pulitzer finalist—and “The Hummingbird’s Daughter,” his epic based on the life of his great-aunt Teresita, the real-life “Saint of Cabora,” continues to tour and hold book-signings as well as keep up his daily blog at lavistaluisurrea.blogspot.com.
17. Bill Zehme
The highly regarded celebrity profiler and journalistic stylist—who just wrote a killer cover story on Chris Rock for Rolling Stone in April—has had success with his biographical books, which include “The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Living’” and “Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman.”
18. Ivan Brunetti
The Italy-born comics artist and 2006 Ignatz Award-winner for Outstanding Comic of the Year has designed covers for The New Yorker, but is well known mostly for his ongoing comics series “Schizo,” as well as his 2007 Fantagraphics collection “Misery Loves Comedy.” In 2006 he edited “An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons and True Stories” for Yale University Press, the sequel to which is scheduled to be released this fall.
19. Elizabeth Crane
As the creator of quirky, oddly touching and wickedly witty story collections “When the Messenger Is Hot” and “All This Heavenly Glory,” Crane has established a reputation as a whip-smart storyteller. Her newest work, “You Must Be This Happy to Enter,” continues the trend. She keeps up a blog at elizabethcrane.com where she’s begun to post longer non-fiction pieces, including one last month titled “How To Be Lloyd Dobler.”
20. Paul Hornschemeier
The accomplished graphic novelist first gained attention in the comics world with his “Forlorn Funnies” and “Sequential” series, and made another leap with the book-length “Mother, Come Home” in 2003. His quietly moving and self-reflective “The Three Paradoxes,” from 2006 via Fantagraphics, showed that the artist is only getting better. Come January 2009, he’s set to publish “Life with Mr. Dangerous” with Random House, a collection of his ongoing series published in issues of the serial MOME.
21. Laura Kipnis
The Northwestern University professor and critic of gender studies and sexual politics caused quite a stir in 2003 with her “Against Love: A Polemic,” which argued that adultery keeps the marriage wheels spinning, rather than the opposite. Three years later she followed with “The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability,” a controversial look at modern femininity.
22. Joseph Epstein
The bestselling author of “Snobbery: The American Version” has grown more productive in recent years, with a book about friendship (“Friendship: An Expose”) and envy (“Envy: The Seven Deadly Sins”), plus last fall’s essay assembly, “In a Cardboard Belt!: Essays Personal, Literary and Savage.” In October from Yale University Press he publishes a book on Fred Astaire.
23. Alex Kotlowitz
The New York-born, Chicago-adopted author of “Never a City So Real” has kept himself busy writing for publications like the New York Times Magazine since that book’s 2004 release. A playwright and journalist, his early work “There Are No Children Here” was selected by the New York Public Library as one of the 150 most important works of the nineteenth century and he serves on the faculty at Northwestern’s Medill School.
24. Father Andrew Greeley
The author, sociologist and Catholic priest is the writer of countless books of fiction and nonfiction as well as a frequent columnist for the Sun-Times’ Daily Southtown. His most recent novel, spring’s well-reviewed “Irish Tiger,” continues his acclaimed “Nuala McGrail” series. And if that’s not enough, you can keep up with his multi-topic blog at andysword.com.
25. Rick Kogan
The veteran journalist for the Chicago Tribune and WGN Radio has made a splash in the book world, first with Northwestern University Press’ “Sidewalks: Portraits of Chicago” (with photographer Charles Osgood), “A Chicago Tavern: A Goat, A Curse and the American Dream” on Lake Claremont Press and recent e-book, “America’s Mom: The Life, Lessons and Legacy of Ann Landers.”
26. Reginald Gibbons
The co-founder of Northwestern University Press imprint TriQuarterly Books and highly regarded poet, translator, fiction writer, critic and professor at the school delivered “Creatures of the Day,” his eighth collection of poems, in March, from Louisiana State University Press.
27. Achy Obejas
The Cuban-born novelist, poet and journalist—who’s taught at both the University of Chicago and DePaul University—has been part of a Pulitzer-winning team at the Trib, won several Lisagor awards and two Lambda Literary Awards. The multi-faceted writer is the author of acclaimed works “Days of Awe” and “We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?” as well as the editor of “Havana Noir.” She has an as-yet-untitled new book set for release in spring of ’09 and is translating Junot Diaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” come fall.
28. Carol Felsenthal
The biographer has crafted a handful of biographies over her illustrious career, including “Citizen Newhouse: Portrait of a Media Merchant,” “Power, Privilege and the Post: The Katharine Graham Story” and “Princess Alice: The Life and Times of Alice Roosevelt Longworth.” Last month she published what could be her biggest book yet, “Clinton in Exile: A President Out of the White House,” and her book on Graham is being adapted for the screen by HBO.
29. Joseph Parisi
The former editor-in-chief of Poetry magazine made a mark when he edited 2005’s “100 Essential Modern Poems,” and just this April he edited, along with Kathleen Welton, another installment, “100 Essential Modern Poems by Women.” Welton and Parisi are currently on tour.
30. Sean Chercover
The former private investigator around these parts and in New Orleans debuted in 2007 with his gritty, wickedly entertaining crime story “Big City, Bad Blood,” from William Morrow. He’ll follow with “Trigger City,” due in October, but in the meantime you can check him out online as part of The Outfit, a collective of Chicago crime writers that also includes Marcus Sakey and Sara Paretsky.
31. Jen Lancaster
The essayist and author of epically named titles like “Bitter is the New Black: Confessions of a Condescending, Egomaniacal, Self-Centered, Smartass, or Why You Should Never Carry a Prada Bag to the Unemployment Office” saw her most recent collection of funny, touching stories published just last month, called (deep breath) “Such a Pretty Fat: One Narcissist’s Quest to Discover If Her Life Makes Her Ass Look Big; Or, Why Pie is Not the Answer.” If you couldn’t have guessed, she also likes “Sex and the City” and is excited about its movie release—check out her frequently updated blog at jennsylvania.com.
32. Jeffrey Brown
Everyone’s favorite girl-nervous comics hero Brown, whose detailed accounts of social awkwardness and lack of self-esteem with books “Unlikely” and “Clumsy” immediately gained him a devoted fan base, has also made a video for indie-pop band Death Cab for Cutie, launched a superhero alter-ego in “Bighead” and, just this April, published a new book of true tales, titled “Little Things.”
33. Jonathan Messinger
A rising star in the local lit world, Messinger co-founded Chicago independent press Featherproof Books, launched the popular reading series The Dollar Store, is the books editor at Time Out Chicago and just last year published “Hiding Out,” his debut collection of stories, to warm reviews from the Trib and Booklist.
34. Anne Elizabeth Moore
The author and journalist unleashed her epic criticism and analysis of the mainstream’s infiltration of the underground in last year’s angry, smart “Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing and the Erosion of Integrity,” following up her work as an editor at the now-defunct Punk Planet and as editor for the Best American Comics series. She recently spent time in Cambodia—learn about it at camblogdia.blogspot.com.
35. Haki Madhubuti
The accomplished poet and founder of Third World Press and the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing at Chicago State University released “YellowBlack: The First 21 Years of a Poet’s Life,” a memoir about his rough upbringing a few years back, a work that still resonates. “Liberation Narratives: Collected Poems 1966-2007,” a collection of his poems, was published recently, as was the collection “Freedom to Self-Destruct: New and Selected Essays.”
36. Li-Young Lee
The poet, author of the bestselling “Rose” and “Book of My Nights” collections, saw his “Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee,” a book of Lee’s best interviews, published in 2006, and his new collection of poems, “Behind My Eyes,” hit shelves in January via W.W. Norton.
37. Stacey Ballis
The local chick-lit author of “Inappropriate Men,” “Sleeping Over,” “Room for Improvement” and, most recently, “The Spinster Sisters,” has also contributed to a handful of nonfiction anthologies. (She also had frequent appearances on the first season of CBS’ “The Rachael Ray Show,” offering lifestyle tips.) She’s currently at work on a new work, “Good Enough to Eat,” for Berkely/Penguin.
38. Anders Nilsen
An Ignatz-winner in 2005, the graphic novelist’s most famous work is the “Big Questions” series for Drawn & Quarterly (issue number ten was published in October 2007) and book “Dogs & Water,” but his monumentally heartbreaking “Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow,” his deeply personal book about the death of his fiancée, is his greatest accomplishment and a showing of the power a great graphic novel can achieve.
39. Steven Levitt
The now widely known economics professor at the University of Chicago sold three million copies of his radical economics book “Freakonomics” (2005), co-authored by Stephen Dubner. He blogs frequently, along with guest bloggers, on an array of topics at freakonomics.blog.nytimes.com, and it’s been reported that he’s at work on another book of economic theory.
40. Jim DeRogatis
The Sun-Times pop music critic and co-host of rock ‘n’ roll talk-radio program “Sound Opinions” has been in the news recently as a witness in the R. Kelly trial (he originally turned in the infamous videotape over to police), but that hasn’t stopped him from writing multiple weekly columns and steadfastly keeping up with his blog. His most recent book was 2006’s “Staring at Sound: The True Story of Oklahoma’s Fabulous Flaming Lips,” and he’s reportedly been working on another nonfiction book about his personal life as a musician.
41. Simone Muench
In addition to publishing two works last year—chapbooks “Orange Girl” and “Sonoluminescence” (with Bill Allegrezza)—the award-winning poet garnered another accolade in recent months by nabbing the top prize from the Bright Lights Big Verse poetry contest. She recently completed her manuscript for her third full-length book of poems, “The 29th Bather,” the follow-up to her past collections “The Air Lost in Breathing” and “Lampblack & Ash.”
42. Sam Weller
The Columbia College professor and author of the authorized Ray Bradbury autobiography, 2005’s “The Bradbury Chronicles,” will have a short story, titled “The Quick Stop 5,” published in Free Press’ new superhero anthology “Who Can Save Us Now?” come July, and is currently working on a nonfiction mystery set amidst the Civil War.
43. Paula Kamen
The feminist journalist, playwright and author has penned a handful of books, including “Feminist Fatale” and “All in My Head,” and, most recently, “Finding Iris Chang: Friendship, Ambition and the Loss of an Extraordinary Mind.” Kamen’s been involved with Northwestern University’s Gender Studies Program since 1994 and has recently started working for the non-profit For Grace.
44. Cris Mazza
The University of Illinois at Chicago professor and previous Nelson Algren Award-winner published “Waterbaby” last October via Soft Skull Press, and is currently working on a short-story collection titled “Trickle-Down Timeline,” which her Web site dubs “short fiction of the 80s,” due next year.
45. Keir Graff
In his second book, “My Fellow Americans,” released last fall, Chicago journo Graff had his way with a dystopian future of America that sees a Bush-type in his third term as president and a much-suspended Constitution through the eyes of freelance photographer, his follow-up to “Cold Lessons” (which was written under the name Michael McCulloch).
46. Mark Eleveld
The teacher and journalist, who’s written for the Tribune, is foremost the editor of two slam-poetry anthologies, 2005’s “The Spoken Word Revolution” and last year’s “The Spoken Word Revolution Redux.” He’s also the co-founder of EM Press, which has published titles by Marc Smith and Kevin Coval.
47. Gina Frangello
The executive editor of the literary magazine Other Voices and its imprint OV Books, Frangello’s a notable author as well, penning the memorable “My Sister’s Continent,” released in 2006. Frangello also edited the 2004 collection “Falling Backwards: Stories of Fathers and Daughters.” She recently contributed to OV Books’ “A Stranger Among Us” collection, along with authors Nathan Englander, Amanda Eyre Ward and more. (See her read June 5 at Women and Children Bookstore.)
48. Donna Seaman
The associate editor of Booklist and host of the “Open Books” radio program pens reviews for the Trib and the L.A. Times. She also published “Writers on the Air: Conversations About Books,” a collection of interviews she’s conducted with various authors.
49. Kristy Bowen
The poet, artist and founder of dancing girl press is the author of “the fever almanac” and chapbooks “feign” and “at the hotel andromeda,” as well as the editor of online poetry zine Wicked Alice. Her new book, “in the bird museum,” came this year on Dusie Press, as will “girl show” in 2009 from Ghost Road Press.
50. Stephanie Kuehnert
To give you an idea, newcomer Columbia College grad Kuehnert prefaces her debut book, “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” with an obscure quote from Kurt Cobain: “I like the comfort in knowing that women are the only future in rock ‘n’ roll.” The novel, from MTV Books—about a punk rocker who wishes to find her long-lost mother—could be this year’s “Hairstyles of the Damned.” And any piece of art that cribs its title from a Sleater-Kinney song is alright in our book.
The Lit 50 was written by Tom Lynch, with additional reporting by Reilly Nelson