The Reader's Choice Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago
There's no getting around this choice. I tried to think of a surprise, a dark horse—something a little less obvious—but in the end I just couldn't. I wasted a few days hacking through The Jungle, Upton Sinclair's fictional expose of the meat-packing industry at the turn of the century. Wouldn't it be just the thing in this year of tainted beef, poison peanuts, and capitalism run amok? But The Jungle is a blunt instrument, a relentless and ultimately unconvincing tale of woe upon woe upon woe, topped off with an improbable efflorescence of socialist utopianism. Forget it.
How about Donald Miller's City of the Century, a superbly written history of Chicago from its beginnings up through the Columbian Exposition of 1893? Here you find the stockyards described a little less hysterically; also voyageurs, industrialists, architects, reformers, and the characters behind street names like Kinzie, Hubbard, and Ogden, all rendered with a storyteller's flair. But Miller's prose, entertaining as it is, comes in the detached voice of the academic. His book is about the city, but not of it.
So I'm giving in and choosing Mike Royko's portrait of Richard J. Daley. Ostensibly it's a biography, but it's also history, sociology, and tabloid scandal, told in the wry, supercynical voice of arguably the greatest American newspaperman ever. Royko gives us cops and councilmen, petty graft and grand larcenies, neighborhood borders, ethnic rivalries, and racial shame—and above it all, the electorate's stupefying embrace of corruption and mediocrity. He's seen it all. Nothing surprises him. Yet between the lines there's quiet outrage. Give this book to a friend who's moving to Chicago. But before you wrap it, read it yourself and see how little has changed. Plume/Penguin Group, $15 —Michael Lenehan
&Our readers' choice: Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Vintage/Random House, $14.95