10 Must-Read Books for February


Can our new President even read above a certain low grade level? And if he can, does he? These aren’t exactly the first probing questions that spring to mind after a disastrous week for humanity, but tell me you haven’t wondered about Donald Trump’s literacy level. Just this morning it was revealed that the former reality TV personality who now controls the executive branch doesn’t appear to know to know who extremely important historical figure Frederick Douglass is, nor does his press secretary.

But we know how to read, dear comrades, we dratted word-loving elites with our fancy books and our snotty, out-of-touch-investment in ideas and facts. So let us shore ourselves up in the face of existential dread off by digging into these fifteen February books, ranging from highbrow thriller to family epic to sobering nonfiction. As always, lots of stories of migration, immigration and conflict can be found here — because there are no stories more human and more important than those.

A Separation, Katie Kitamura

If there’s a “hot” book of the month, this is it. A story of crime and marital estrangement (the latter being the titular separation), Kitamura’s narrator goes to find her straying husband in Greece and ask for a divorce before encountering the unexpected, both internally and in her surroundings.

Pachinko, Min Jin Lee

Ten years after her blockbuster Free Food For Millionaires, Lee is back with a family epic. “Reckoning with one determined, wounded family’s place in history, Lee’s novel is an exquisite meditation on the generational nature of truly forging a home,” writes Publishers Weekly. This one is going to be huge.

Universal Harvester, John Darnielle

Mountain Goats main man and fiction writer Darnielle returns with his second novel, whose prismatic packaging reflects the centrality of VHS tapes to its plot. “Universal Harvester is a quiet story of grief with the trappings of a Stephen King suspense-thriller — the first book through which Darnielle has really spun a yarn,” writes MTV.

Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life, Yiyun Li

Essays from the novelist reflecting on a period of deep depression, this book “effectively testifies to unbearable pain and the consolation of literature,” per Kirkus. For those of us experiencing a particularly dark winter, this book will be a good companion.

Abandon Me, Melissa Febos

The follow-up memoir from Whip Smart‘s Febos, Abandon Me is a searing look at her relationship with her father and her own sexual rediscovery. “Though the particulars are hers, just about anyone can relate to the feeling of a chasm opening up inside. Febos’s awakening to her full identity, even its ugliness, is a powerful and redemptive epic,” said PW in a starred review.

Darling, I’m Going to Charlie, Maryse Wolinski translated by Sandra Stein

The Charlie Hebdo shootings united the world in shock and the divided the literary establishment over questions of free speech. A memoir from the widow of one of the murdered cartoonists, Darling, I’m Going to Charlie reminds us that despite their being turned into political symbols by people with all kinds of beliefs, these irreverent cartoonists were human beings first, with lives, families, and daily routines that were all shattered by the gunmen.

A Piece of the World, Christina Baker Kline

The Orphan Train author examines, fictionally, the subject of Andrew Wyeth’s famously enigmatic painting Christina’s World and the young muse’s relationship with the artist who made her his inspiration. Kline’s historical and art historical blend of truth and imagination has received a glowing blurb from Michael Chabon.

I Am Not Your Negro, James Baldwin and Raoul Peck

A mixture of commentary, selected interviews, published works, and notebooks from the stunning documentary of the same name, this book is an important new arrangement of the words of one of the greatest thinkers and writers of the last century.

All Our Wrong Todays, Elan Mastai

A dystopian novel in which the dystopia is our current world, Mastai’s book may feel a little too real to readers this month. Never fear — early word is, All Our Wrong Todays is an encouraging as well as troubling portrait of our times.

Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics, Marjorie J. Spruill

American women activists live on either side of a deep schism, with pussy hats on one side and Trumpettes on the other. Spruill’s book delves into the origins of that schism, focusing in particular on the battle between second wave feminists and Phyllis Schlafly over the Equal Rights Amendment, a fight that, as it turned out, presaged the direction of social struggle right up until the present day.

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

Two resentful neighbors in post-Apartheid Cape Town must learn to live together in this novel by South African architect and novelist Yewande Omotoso. The book explores race, family, motherhood, and the personal weight of history.

Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders

Fans of Saunders’ short stories and essays are salivating over the prospect of his first novel, which looks at the death of young Willie Lincoln, son of Abraham, from the perspective of a bevy of ghosts who occupy his graveyard. Early buzz indicates it’s likely to satisfy the high hopes of Saunders-ites.

The Refugees, Viet Thanh Nguyen. Grove, Feb. 7

Though they were written over many years, this collection of stories from the author of 2015’s much-praised The Sympathizer traces families and existences that straddle both sides of the immigration divide — and the ocean. Timely and necessary.

Dance of the Jakaranda, Peter Kimani

Kimani, a popular writer in his native Kenya, is being published in the U.S. for the first time with this novel, which uses the building of Kenya’s railroad line as a metaphor and lens to look at intersecting lives and cultures in the country’s past. “I thought of those different storylines as parallel railroad lines,” he told The Gazette. “I structured the novel along that motif, shifting from the past to the present until when they finally converge.”

Schadenfreude, a Love Story, Rebecca Schuman

Schuman’s memoir uses German words to tell a story about travel, cross-cultural exploration, misunderstanding and growing up. Kirkus describes the book as a “droll, self-deprecating, wild life (so far) [that] will find particular appeal with readers who enjoy memoirs that don’t take themselves too seriously.”