RIF’s Favorite Reads of February 2017

Helping you sort out the best from the rest published this month.

Favorite Reads of February

February has been… Let’s say an interesting month? We’ve seen the mess that was the travel ban and its overturning by the courts; we’ve seen continued action in the streets, on the phone, and in social media; we’ve acknowledged Black History Month while knowing that it’s also too little, too late and that there’s so much more we can be doing; and we’ve also, of course, weathered Valentine’s Day and its mostly inevitable disappointments. Still, we’re here, and we’re loving our literature as much as ever, especially when it provides perspective and comfort. So, without further ado, please enjoy the books that kept us afloat this February!

Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

Favorite Reads of FebruaryIn Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s gorgeous debut (which has now thankfully crossed the pond over to us!), her main characters Yuki and Jay are separated by very little—they’re mother and son, after all. And yet their stories are in a sense totally separate. Yuki’s story starts long before she gave birth to Jay, when she is a 16-year-old in New York City and her parents want to return to Japan. Jay’s story starts much later, when his father has died and he has to figure out what to do with his house, while also balancing a newborn and a wife who dislikes his therapy cat. With beautiful descriptions and a tightly woven plot, the characters in this novel are worth spending as much time with as you can. (W. W. Norton)

Abandon Me by Melissa Febos

Favorite Reads of FebruaryIn Melissa Febos’s incredible new collection of essays (aptly subtitled as “memoirs” rather than the singular “memoir,” as each essay is truly like its own little book), she does what we already know she does best: she rips her heart out, peels her scalp open to expose her brain, and shares every bruised, broken, and beloved body part with her readers. She is able to simply flay herself on the page while never alienating the reader and always making us feel like we somehow are included in her life’s journey, even when we have nothing (or everything) in common with her. The prose is mesmerizing and smart, and we hope you take the time to savor it. (Bloomsbury)

The Refugees by Viet Than Nguyen

Favorite Reads of FebruaryIn this collection of short stories, Viet Than Nguyen does what he does best: he gives voice to issues that haunt both us as individuals and the world at large today. From home to host countries, birth to host families, the characters in these stories experience culture shock, discover new homelands, meet the people coming back from faraway places, and live in ways surprising to both them and those around them. Whether they are refugees in a new place or returning home as heroic and accomplished, Nguyen’s characters showcase the breadth and depth of humanity as well as of the author’s imagination and talent. (Grove Press)

All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai

Favorite Reads of FebruaryElan Mastai’s debut novel poses a truly novel idea: what if we’re the dystopia? This is the main “thesis” of a book that reads as both an extremely fun romp and a philosophically-challenging tale. There is so much to admire here, from the readable, page-turning prose, to the developed characters, to the very concept of how time travel works. Oh yes, this is a book about time travel, dimensions, and alternate realities, but it is also a book about family, about a disappointing son and an angry father, a reality-crossing love, a time-altering covert affair, and so much more. Follow Tom Barren, Mastai’s charismatically schlumpy narrator, into a whole new world… Ours. (Dutton)

The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak

Favorite Reads of FebruaryTired of our contemporary economic, political, social, and environmental climates? Take a trip down memory lane or nostalgia road with Jason Rekulak’s wonderful new book and join the teenage Billy Marvin of New Jersey. He and his friends set off to try to buy the newest issue of Playboy, which features Vanna White, of Wheel of Fortune fame. Of course, being 14 means it’s a little hard—nay, impossible—to get the issue, since no one is going to sell it to a bunch of underage boys… But meanwhile, Billy is distracted by a fellow gamer and programmer that he meets, comparing her to Picasso in her talents. As his friends set off on a more dangerous caper to get the Playboy, Billy is falling in love… just as readers will with the 1980s setting. (Simon & Schuster)

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Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

Favorite Reads of FebruaryClaire Fuller’s newest book is a kind of love letter to the complicated relationships that are part of the real world rather than the romantic fiction we build in our minds. It’s fitting, then, that the book itself uses letters as a part of its plot: Ingrid Coleman writes letters to her husband and hides them in his books, waiting for him or someone else to find them, read them, and understand her through them. When she’s finished writing all the letters she can write, she leaves, and her husband lies to their daughters, telling them that Ingrid drowned. Years later, one of the daughters, Flora, is back at her childhood home, believing still that her mother is alive—not knowing yet that the answers to all her questions are all around her, buried in the literature of the house. (Tin House)

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan

Favorite Reads of FebruaryWith the men gone to the front lines of World War II, the vicar of the village of Chilbury tries to shut down the town choir, but the ladies of Chilbury decide to ignore him and keep singing together, rebranding themselves as the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. Through their journal entries and letters, we enter the lives of five choir members living on the home front—two wildly different sisters, a young Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia, a timid widow who’s son is away fighting in battle and a scheming midwife trying to outrun her past. As their voices gain strength and confidence, small town intrigue and romance play out even as wartime bombs threaten the villagers’ safety. (Crown)

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Favorite Reads of FebruaryMin Jin Lee’s sophomore novel is everything we could have hoped for and more. We start with a family running a boarding house in Korea, a country annexed by Japan in the early 1900s, and with Sunja, the daughter of the couple who owns the boarding house. When she gets pregnant—after an affair with a man who won’t be a father or husband, for he is already a husband to someone else—she is given an offer neither she nor her parents can refuse: a sickly priest, a guest at the boarding house, offers to marry Sunja and take her with him to Japan. Over the novel’s unfolding, we watch Sunja’s life develop, her children grow up, her grandchildren born, all while remembering that she and her children are Koreans far from home, in their rulers’ country. (Grand Central Publishing)

A Separation by Katie Kitamura

Favorite Reads of FebruaryIn Katie Kitamura’s suspenseful new novel, a couple has decided to separate—finally—but haven’t yet told anyone. The novel’s protagonist is married to Christopher, a cheater, and so their separation comes as no surprise to her. But before she has a chance to tell others of their separation, she finds out that her wandering husband has wandered a bit too far this time—he’s missing. In Greece, of all places. She agrees, reluctantly, to go searching for him, even though she had already begun her own new life. As the search continues and mysteries she didn’t even know existed begin unraveling, this nameless protagonist discovers more and more about her strange, strained relationship. (Riverhead)

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Favorite Reads of FebruaryGeorge Saunders said many, many times that he would never write a novel, even though many wished for it. In this case, no one can tell us to be careful what we wish for because Saunders’ novel—which, yes, he ended up writing—is more than we could have ever imagined. Taken from a seed of historical truth, the novel stars Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, who dies from illness at age 11, despite doctors’ assurances that he would recover. Stuck in a strange purgatory, Willie finds himself communing with other ghosts—he’s one himself—at the graveyard where he’s buried, as they practice odd rituals and begin to fight over his mortal soul. At times irreverent and hilarious, and at others, incredibly painful (in other words, in true Saunders fashion), the story of Willie among the ghosts will grip you tightly and you won’t want to let go. (Random House)

Autumn by Ali Smith

Favorite Reads of FebruaryAli Smith’s work is hard to summarize, which makes sense for this author’s incredible, mercurial writing. Autumn is the first of the seasons Smith is planning on tackling, and in this book, she weaves time as if it were a multicolored cloth. Starting with a fantastical image of a man washed ashore who sews an outfit for himself out of leaves, we move to a hospital where he is recovering, with a visitor beside him (a woman who knew him only as a girl). As he tells stories of the past and as the present spins evermore around them, Britain’s past and present congeal and show us the cyclical nature of our actions and of history itself. (Pantheon)

All the Lives I Want by Alana Massey

Favorite Reads of FebruaryAlready mentioned as one of the nonfiction books we were most looking forward to reading, Alana Massey doesn’t disappoint. A columnist and critic, her essays are just as sharp, as she explores both pop culture figures and historical ones, looking at the women who’ve had a strong impact on the zeitgeist as well as on her personally. This book succeeds both as a work of criticism and as a work of personal storytelling, creating a blend of the two forms that is a joy to read—as well as illuminating some of the darker, more difficult parts of our own celebrity-obsessed culture and habits of thinking. (Grand Central)

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Favorite Reads of February

Readers of Neil Gaiman know that the writer has always been inspired by mythology and fairy tales. From Stardust, which was a love letter to England and its tales, to the Sandman graphic novels, which included mythical figures from all over, to American Gods, where some key Norse figures featured prominently, Gaiman has clearly been a longtime reader and appreciator of the oral and written tales of yore. Here, he presents us with his rendition of some of the most classic Norse tales that feature some of the greats—Odin, Thor, and trickster Loki. He spins his stories in such a way that they create an arc across their telling, bringing the world into being up until the end of the gods’ reign during Ragnarok. A treat for Gaiman fans, lovers of myth, and everyone else for that matter. (W. W. Norton)

Amiable with Big Teeth by Claude McKay

Favorite Reads of FebruaryLegendary Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay may have died in 1948, but his literature lives on. Moreover, a few years ago, a never-before-published novel was discovered, and now it is being released to the wider world. This would have been McKay’s last novel, and we’re so glad it’s out now and we can enjoy it. The novel’s drama is focused around the Harlem literati and their organizing together to oppose the fascist government in Ethiopia. A forgotten moment of American history, McKay’s novel brings this time to life by both poking fun at the politics of Harlem and appreciating it and the whirlwind romance that crosses continents and time zones. A dazzling read from an essential American author. (Penguin Classics)

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

Favorite Reads of FebruaryIn Nina LaCour’s newest book, protagonist Marin has left everything she knows behind. “You go through life thinking there’s so much you need. . .” she says. “Until you leave with only your phone, your wallet, and a picture of your mother.” This aching sentence is part of a gut-wrenching novel, in which Marin is in college, where she is staying over winter break. Her best friend from California, Mabel, is coming to visit, and though the girls grew up together, Mabel doesn’t know what the last weeks Marin spent in California before fleeing to the east coast contained… But maybe now is the time for Marin to finally share with Mabel all that she has lost. (Dutton)

The Heart by Maylis De Kerangal

Favorite Reads of FebruaryIn this translated work from France, a difficult 24 hours are explored in vivid prose and beautiful detail. After a trio of teenage boys gets into a car accident, two remain alive—well, technically all three, but the third is declared brain-dead, even as his heart continues to steadily beat. As the decision is made to use his living heart and transplant it into a woman who desperately needs it, and as the transplant moves forward, Kerangal delves into the hearts and minds of everyone else involved, showing a range and breadth of human experience. This novel promises that we will be looking out for more of Kerangal’s work in the future. (Picador)

Hit Makers by Derek Thompson

Favorite Reads of FebruaryPopularity and virality are not as random and magical as we’d like to think they are, Derek Thompson, senior editor at The Atlantic, posits in this book. He rips apart the mysteries that cover the quick successes, trending topics and instantly viral phenomena that shape our culture and finds the agendas, the money, and the psychology that lies beneath our beloved obsessions and fascinations of the last century. Our most valuable currency is people’s attention, and Thompson investigates how certain pieces of pop culture get it and how others disappear or fizzle out quickly, and why. Prepare to be disillusioned, but fascinated. (Penguin Press)

A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline

Favorite Reads of FebruaryChristina Olson is the heroine of Christina Baker Kline’s new novel. As with Orphan Train, Kline weaves together fact and fiction here, in this case, fictionalizing the life of a woman depicted in artist Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting, “Christina’s World.” In it, a woman is leaning forward on a patch of grass, with her back to the viewer. Kline paints Olson as a kind woman with a difficult history. She grew up in the Maine house (that is just visible in the painting), has a bone disease, and was largely isolated to the world until meeting Mr. Wyeth and becoming his unlikely muse. A gorgeous, warming, sensual portrait of a formerly faceless heroine. (William Morrow)

The Perpetual Now by Michael D. Lemonick

Favorite Reads of FebruaryLonni Sue Johnson was an artist. She flew planes. She was a musician. She also contracted encephalitis in 2007 and lost her memory—her recollection is only as long as ten or fifteen minutes. She lives in a constant present tense where everything that is in the now disappears almost as soon as it becomes the then. And yet, Johnson is still artistic, her intellect is still present; it’s only her consciousness that seems to have become entirely different. Science journalist Michael D. Lemonick explores the miraculous and strange facts of Johnson’s brain, compassionately delves into how a woman without a memory lives her everyday life and presents the challenges that Johnson’s brain presents to conventional wisdom about how the brain works. (Doubleday)

Photography by Ryan Deshon.

About Ilana Masad

ILANA MASAD is a queer writer of fiction, nonfiction, and criticism. She is the founder and host of The Other Stories, an interview podcast featuring fiction writers, and is currently a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her debut novel, All My Mother’s Lovers, comes out May 2020.

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