Secret Philly

10 underrated Philly books to devour in the quarantine era

Buy them online to support local independent booksellers.

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Books about Philly, set in Philly, written in Philly, about Philadelphians. They are many and underrated, and there’s no time better than the present to pick one up from a local bookseller.

First, this obligatory preamble, with the knowledge that yes, there’s a pandemic. We’re stuck inside. The list begins shortly, I promise.

Truth is, I’ve always wanted to take off my cretinous reporter hat and compile a list of my favorite locally significant books. Philly has been largely ignored as a place with literary merits for most of its existence. The city, in true form, does not care.

However, it has been pointed out to me that my taste in books might not be for everyone. Strange. I was under the impression all Philadephians enjoyed oral histories of 19th century textile mills, Milton Street fan fiction, or found poetry from WIP callers. Alas, another dream for the burn pile.

In the interest of a more balanced smorgasbord, I crowdsourced book recs from my well-read newsroom colleagues. The following is a list of 10 imprints that paint a more rounded portrait of our little greene countrie towne. Novels, biographies, essays — there’s something to stoke the literary embers in everyone.

I encourage you to shop local if you can. Independent bookstores have seen a resurgence over the last few years. But these small businesses were not deemed “life-sustaining” under Gov. Tom Wolf’s coronavirus emergency decree, and many are trying to stay afloat and support employees during the shutdown.

Shops taking online orders or making local deliveries include:

Now, get reading.

“Travels in Philadelphia,” by Christopher Morley

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The walker’s literary companion to Philly. Morley’s essay collection turns a century old next year, but his jaunts through the city are as delightful today as they were in 1921. His turn of phrase is still sharp (Main Line commuters “stroll trainward like a breed apart, with an air of leisurely conquest and assurance”); his observations still ring familiar (“Christian Street breathes the Italian genius for good food”); and, oh yeah, he’s actually funny, in his curious, wandering uncle sort of way. On a sojourn down Ridge Avenue, Morley meditates on having a “sense of surprise in one’s hometown that one would have in a strange city.” He would know best. — Max Marin, Billy Penn reporter

 

‘Book of Delights’ by Ross Gay

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Poet Ross Gay resolved to write an essay about something delightful every day for a year. The result is a catalogue of varied and specific joys: light-up sneakers, Black vernacular, botan rice candy, writing by hand, carrying a tomato plant through the airport. Many of them are based in Philly, where Gay lived during his 20s and early 30s.

“The discipline or practice of writing these essays occasioned… the development of a delight muscle,” Gay writes. “Something that implies that the more you study delight, the more there is to study.”

Anyway, reading this book (in coronavirus-induced isolation) felt like a study on delight. I am developing my own delight muscle. Gay’s clear, conscious attention to quotidian life makes me more aware of the many things in the world that I, too, find delightful, and compels me to taste them and turn them over and treat them with wonder. — Hannah Chinn, WHYY environment reporter

‘The Cop Who Would Be King,’ by Joseph R. Daughen and Peter Binzen

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The only unvarnished account of Frank Rizzo’s tenure as Philadelphia’s mayor. An unauthorized bio that was written before his term was up, it traces Rizzo’s life back to his family’s roots in early 20th century Philly, following the changes in the city along with his rise through the ranks of the police and into the mayor’s office. — Ryan Briggs, WHYY data reporter

 

 

 

‘With the Fire on High’ by Elizabeth Acevedo

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This coming-of-age novel centers around Emoni Santiago, a teenager in Philly who is trying to juggle it all — pass her senior year, be a good mom to her 2-year-old and support her abuela. Emoni, who finds comfort and joy through cooking and aspires to work in a professional kitchen, is suddenly presented with an opportunity to invest in cooking skills and take them to the next level. But will it be too much for her to manage? Lovers of young adult fiction, of food and fans of “Like Water for Chocolate” will surely devour this book. — Elizabeth Estrada, PlanPhilly engagement editor

 

‘Bagmen’ by William Lashner

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In 2009 I took a walking tour of Center City with William Lashner, the author of a series of best-selling crime thrillers featuring Victor Carl, of which this is the most recent. Carl is a somewhat rumpled Philly lawyer whose office is above a shoe repair shop on 23rd Street. “I needed a place that was low and dumpy,” said Lashner, pointing to the real-life shoe-shaped shingle, “and this is it.” Lashner used to be a Philly lawyer himself before turning fiction, so he knew how to send Carl along the social spectrum, from high society to lower brow: “Philly has got everything,” he said. “Its organized crime is not so big, but it’s sort of goofy and ridiculous. It has a jaunty kind of sleaziness.” — Peter Crimmins, WHYY arts and culture reporter

 

‘God’s Pocket’ by Pete Dexter

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God’s Pocket is a nasty little novel about life in a corner of South Philadelphia that, these days, would be considered part of Center City. Written by former Philadelphia Daily News columnist Pete Dexter-notorious for the near-fatal beating he took from a mob of Gray’s Ferry readers-this is a story of life in a white working class enclave in the early 1980s.

The neighborhood’s insular, tribal character is drawn in an engrossing fashion and Dexter’s barbed asides are fun. (“There were people in Fishtown and Whitman and the Pocket who never left. Who would as soon get on a bus for Center City as a bus for Cuba.”) It’s not a loving portrait of a Philadelphia neighborhood, but the writing is engrossing and the characters mordantly compelling. — Jake Blumgart, PlanPhilly development and housing reporter

 

‘The Squad’ by Dr. Michael D. Wright Sr.

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A 23-year veteran of the force, Michael Wright presents absolutely insane first-person stories of his time as a paramedic in Philadelphia — including the time a Bengal tiger jumped out at him on the job. All at once, this book is funny and suspenseful and deeply sad. You’d be hard pressed to find a more authentic look at EMT work in Philly. Also, he ends each chapter with an inspiring moral of the story. 11/10 would recommend. — Michaela Winberg, Billy Penn reporter

 

 

‘Lazaretto’ by Diane McKinney Whetstone

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I recommend this novel (a personal 4 stars out of 5) about a group of Philadelphians in the 1800s. The fact that they come together at the Lazaretto, an old hospital built on two Delaware River islands in Tinicum Township near the Philly airport, makes it even more timely. The Lazaretto was the first U.S. quarantine facility. And McKinney Whetstone, a local who’s written a half-dozen novels set in Philly (“Tumbling”, “Tempest Rising,” etc.) has a magical way of writing that helps you lose yourself. — Joanne McLaughlin, WHYY health and science editor

 

‘The Trials of Walter Ogrod’ by Thomas Lowenstein

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Published three years ago, this true-life crime novel is getting more relevant by the day. In the late ’80s, a young Northeast Philly girl was murdered, and authorities could not find the culprit. Years after the trail went cold, a pair of detectives coerced a confession out of a somewhat mentally unstable man — who ended up with a death sentence. Written by a former Philadelphia City Paper reporter based on original interviews and court transcripts, the book makes an overwhelming case that Walter Ogrod was framed.

Earlier this year, DA Larry Krasner reviewed the evidence himself, and asked judges to vacate Ogrod’s conviction. The Pa. Supreme Court countermanded that order, and kept him locked up. A few weeks ago, the Inquirer reported that Ogrod’s lawyers think he has COVID-19. Prison officials are refusing to give him the test, and he remains on death row today. — Danya Henninger, Billy Penn editor

 

‘Such a Fun Age’ by Kiley Reid

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This book was pretty much immediately optioned for a movie as soon as it came out — and it’s not hard to see why. It’s super compelling, with an explosive opening chapter that sucks you in and lots of good dialogue. It follows Emira Tucker, a young Black woman (and recent Temple grad) who gets stopped by security at a Rittenhouse grocery store when a fellow customer is concerned she’s kidnapped the little girl she nannies, who’s white. Bonus content: WHYY’s own Marty Moss-Coane interviewed author Kiley Reid on Radio Times. Bonus bonus content: Turns out, Kiley Reid is part of a group of elite female Philadelphia literati who call themselves “The Claw.” — Alex Stern, producer for WHYY’s The Why podcast

Want some more? Explore other Secret Philly stories.

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