RIF’s Favorite Reads of February 2018

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

February reads

Ah, February: the month of love. Well, okay, we both know it’s the bitter cold that brings out the need for a fuzzy, warm Hallmark holiday like Valentine’s Day. But that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate love anyway. It’s just that this particular love isn’t for other people. It’s for books, because that’s what we tend to adore here—though it should be said that loving books also implies loving writers (which we do!) and loving humanity (as most books are, in one way or another, about the human condition). That said, we’re here to recommend the best of the best February releases, and you’re here to add to that TBR pile. You ready? Let’s go!

Educated by Tara Westover

In 2018, when so many of us are constantly connected to events happening everywhere from the world stage to the Kardashians’ backyard, it’s hard to believe that someone might not have heard of 9/11, the Holocaust, or the Civil Rights Movement. But that’s the kind of thing Tara Westover’s family didn’t want to talk about or expose her to. A fierce survivalist group, Westover’s Mormon family lived virtually cut off from the world in rural Idaho. After one of her brothers went to college, she decided she’d try to do so as well. Westover’s harrowing, loving, difficult memoir looks at her transformation from accidentally ignorant to purposefully informed. (Random House)

Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot

You may know Terese Marie Mailhot as an editor for The Rumpus; in this memoir, she shares the depth of who she is beyond that. Raised in the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in British Columbia by her grandmother, Mailhot hasn’t had an easy life, to say the least. With an abusive and difficult mother and an alcoholic, artistic father, Mailhot didn’t have the best parenting role models—and when she married young and had children of her own, she ended up losing one in a custody battle. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder and PTSD, Mailhot spent some time in a psychiatric institute, but it was her life experiences that taught her most about how to love, how to lose, and how to let go. In gorgeous prose and with searing honesty, she shares her fight for both love and independence. (Counterpoint)

Feel Free by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith is a powerhouse of prose, and her newest essay collection only strengthens our steady love for her. In these pieces, some of which have been previously published in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, Smith examines topics including our apparent need for social media, our love of libraries, and famous dancers like Fred Astaire and Michael Jackson. Thinking about freedom in all its permutations—within marriage, family, politics, society, race, class, and more—Smith’s intelligent musings are always incredibly well-crafted, and her thoughts diligently organized. Whether it’s her views of Joni Mitchell you’re after or a commentary on Key & Peele, there’s something for everyone here. (Penguin Press)

White Houses by Amy BloomFor fans of both Amy Bloom and historical fiction, her newest novel is a thing of beauty. Lorena Hickock, known as Hick to some, was a journalist in 1932, when she began to cover Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidential campaign. It’s then that she meets Eleanor, Mr. Roosevelt’s wife, and though Hick’s not entirely taken by Eleanor at first, the two slowly develop a friendship and a deep love for each other. Hick moves into the White House, her relationship to Eleanor an open secret—as FDR’s affairs were as well—but things aren’t all hunky-dory. The emotional complexity of the women is at the heart of this book, and Bloom does a wonderful job exploring it. (Random House)

A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong 

If you’re at all into Law & Order: SVU—and even if you’re vehemently against it—this is a book relevant to today, the #MeToo movement, and the general atrocity of how rape victims are treated. In 2008, a young woman named Marie reported a rape, but her story was inconsistent, and she ended up tearfully recanting it when the police meant to be helping her turned on her instead. A couple of years later, another detective began to see a pattern in the rapes she was investigating, and she reopened Marie’s case. The rapist was classified as a serial rapist, and Marie’s story ended up being more true than anything, despite her recanting. Miller and Armstrong expanded on their reporting for ProPublica and turned their Pulitzer Prize-winning article into a full accounting of what really happened with this case, as well as the state of investigation into rape cases in the U.S. today. (Crown)

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What Are We Doing Here? by Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson is well known for her stirring novels such as Gilead, but in this collection of essays—many of which were originally delivered as lectures—she waxes poetic about the nature of faith, history, nostalgia, and the fear of disagreement. While a self-professed Calvinist, she also rejects the un-nuanced, and in her essays about our current culture and the history of the U.S., she emphasizes the plurality of peoples, faiths, creeds, and accomplishments over the small-mindedness of racism and the greed of capitalism. At times sharp, at others ruminative, Robinson’s views are worth considering. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

 An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Roy and Celestial are the perfect couple. He’s an executive from a working class family who works hard to climb the economic ladder. Celestial is an artist on the verge of making it big. But then something comes between them: the American criminal justice system. Roy is tried and found guilty of a crime that Celestial knows he didn’t commit—and this isn’t just a trusting wife; it’s absolute certainty. Nevertheless, Roy spends several years in prison, and Celestial must try to keep her core belief in their love alive, while turning to a childhood best friend for comfort. When Roy comes back, his case finally overturned and his innocence proven, everything should be the same as it was. But five years, prison, loneliness—all these take a toll. Jones’s new book ripples with powerful insight on human connections, as well as the reality of being black in America. (Algonquin)

Good Neighbors by Joanne Serling

In Joanne Serling’s debut, a suburban neighborhood attempts to become a family—but falls rather short. Several couples, self-made and moneyed, become friends in this Boston suburb, and their closeness at first appears wonderful. But the friendships begin to unravel and become more complicated when one couple adopts a young child from Russia. The narrator, Nicole, is utterly charmed by Winnie, the new adoptee, but the girl’s new parents seem to only see her flaws, causing the rest of the clique to wonder about the sinister ways they see Winnie being treated. With sharp observations about suburban life and privileged attitudes, Serling’s book is sure to engage as you follow the mystery of what’s really going on in Winnie’s new family. (Twelve)

The Woman in the Water by Charles Finch

Charles Finch’s well-known and much-beloved Charles Lenox series gets a prequel in The Woman in the Water, so if you’ve never read a Lenox mystery, this is a great place to start. Here, we meet a young Charles Lenox in 1850 as he attempts to become a private detective by searching the newspapers for a case. When he comes across an article that initially seems like a hoax, he figures out that it’s actually connected to a weeks-old murder. Lenox isn’t as cold as Sherlock Holmes—actually valuing the humans dying at the hands of an apparently perfect murderer—but his deduction is Sherlockian in a way that charms and keeps the narrative flowing swiftly. (Minotaur)

Woman Last Seen in her Thirties by Camille Pagán

In Camille Pagán’s newest novel, the unimaginable happens. Or at least, it’s an impossible thing for Maggie to reckon with: Adam, her husband of many years, leaves. Of all the crises she’s imagined—and there have been plenty—this was not one of them. Maggie realizes that now, in her fifties, she’s unsure of exactly who she is, what she likes, and what she wants to do with her life. She tries her best to rekindle things, but even with international travel, a romantic fling, and a new career, she can’t stem the flow of disaster coming her way. How will she handle the next crisis without Adam by her side? Maggie, like many of us, must learn how to handle things herself, and we glide along with her as she figures out that it’s possible to do so, even amidst heartbreak. (Lake Union)

Back Talk by Danielle Lazarin

Danielle Lazarin’s new collection has an apt title: the stories in this book talk back to the white male power that tends to rule our lives and dictate how we’re supposed to feel and act. The women and girls in these stories are trying to shed those shackles and live on their own terms. Whether that’s a babysitter befriending the widower whose kids she’s watching, the connection between two women who are neighbors and in different stages of their lives, or the way a girl mourning her mother falls in love for the first time, these stories each contain self-expression and the effort to define oneself. Read this book to feel heard, seen, and understood. (Penguin)

As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner

At the tail-end of World War I, Pauline and Thomas Bright leave Quakertown, Pennsylvania, and their family tobacco farm in hopes of a better future, along with their three daughters and the memory of their recently deceased son, Henry. In Philadelphia, the Brights begin to train with Thomas’s uncle, Fred, who owns a mortuary and plans to bequeath it to the Brights after his death. Pauline, obsessed with death since her son’s departure from the living, becomes far more adept at the work than Thomas, who soon leaves to volunteer in the Army. When influenza hits Philadelphia hard, the family is faced with more death than they could have ever imagined, but find and adopt an orphaned boy among the dying. As the family struggle against death, they also try to celebrate life in small ways. It’s a moving work of historical fiction. (Berkley)

Only Child by Rhiannon Navin

Narrated by a 6-year-old boy whose brother is killed in a school shooting while the narrator hides in a closet with a teacher, Only Child is a difficult, important book. Zach, the narrator, thinks at first that maybe it’s okay his big brother died—he was a pain in the ass anyway. But slowly, Zach begins to understand the consequences of the shooting, the way his parents are changing, and the way his own routines are disappearing as the family sinks into grief. But Zach is resilient, and even as he internalizes the loss of his brother, he’s determined to continue being a 6-year-old boy. He begins to figure out how to occupy and soothe himself in the absence of his parents, and his ways of doing so will make your heart twist in both love and pain for him. (Knopf)

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

In Kristin Hannah’s new book, a family comes to a boil in the frigid Alaska winter. When Ernst Allbright returned from the Vietnam War after being held as a POW, he was a changed man. He and his family move several times, his daughter attending five schools in four years. But when one of his fellow soldiers bequeaths him a cabin in Alaska, Ernst thinks he’s found the answer. The long, summer days seem to be doing him good, and the people of Alaska are hardier than anyone he’s ever met. Ernst’s wife, Cora, and his daughter, Leni, think perhaps they’ve found a good place where Ernst can find peace. But as winter descends and the nights grow longer and longer, they must contend with themselves and one another. (St. Martin’s)

The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara

In this incredible historical novel based on real-life drag culture, communities, and centerpiece figures, Joseph Cassara uses imagination to enter into the all-too-real history. In 1980s New York, Angel finds ballroom and drag culture to be both a balm to her wounds and a chance for love and acceptance. She falls in love with Hector, and the two of them found the House of Xtraviganza, the first all-Latinx house in the ballroom circuit of Harlem. Together, Hector and Angel provide a kind of home-base for a variety of characters—Venus, Juanito, Daniel—each of them lost in their own way, but also finding themselves. As AIDS casts a shadow over the ballroom circuit and the queer community of Harlem, this chosen family takes care of its own. A gorgeous novel of queer joy, glitter, tragedy, and love. (Ecco)

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

Maggie O’Farrell is still with us, despite the many, many times she almost disappeared from this plane of existence. In this memoir, organized by body part and year, she walks us through the multiple times she almost died. Although not organized chronologically, there’s a clear through-line as O’Farrell traces her life across the moments when it almost ended. From a childhood illness she was never expected to survive to an encounter with a man who might have killed a woman just hours after meeting O’Farrell, the stories are diverse in type, but all emotionally pack a punch. And, of course, you can’t talk about near-death without also talking about life—the importance of choice and the moments of regret. A beautiful new book from the already beloved author of This Must Be the Place. (Knopf) 

The Queen of Hearts by Kimmery Martin

Zadie and Emma have been best friends for a long, long time. They met at summer camp, and have since gone through almost everything together. From getting into medical school to the attendant horrors and difficulties of actually going to med school, to breakups and marriage and kids and careers, they’ve seen each other through it all. Now, a man from their past re-enters their lives, a man who’s tied to a secret that Zadie thought was hers alone, but which—she’s discovering now—Emma might have known more about than she let on. The narrative moves between their current lives and the year that secret came into being— their third year of med school—and the emotional suspense is riveting. (Berkley)

The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantú

Francisco Cantú was raised along the border between the U.S. and Mexico, but it wasn’t until he was so far removed from it while working in academia that he felt called to know the border more personally. He decided to join the border patrol, and for five years he upheld U.S. law, tracking people for miles in order to apprehend them, and tried to ignore the nightmares. Eventually, he left the border patrol and returned to the academy. But when a friend of his went to visit his mother in Mexico and didn’t return, Cantú felt he had to get involved, familiar as he was with the border patrol and their ways. A searing work of nonfiction about the border, the trouble it causes on both sides, and the reasons cooperation—rather than segregation—is needed. (Riverhead)

Call Me Zebra by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi

Born to a family of self-defining atheists, anarchists, and autodidacts, Bibi Abbas Abbas Hosseini was only a child when she and her parents fled Iran during the worst of the Iraq War. Now a young adult and calling herself Zebra, she decides to go on a trip to trace her family’s journey backwards. Using literature as her connection to the world as well as her barrier from it, Zebra’s mind is full of philosophical ideas and literary devices, and she makes for a fascinating narrator. When in Barcelona, she meets an Italian philologist named Ludo, and once he enters the picture, Zebra must contend with someone else’s thoughts as their lust for one another outweighs her disgust for some of his ideas, and his impatience with hers. Both are self-absorbed, smart people, and their intelligence clashes in a fantastically sexy way. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

Tom Hazard has gone by many names, and this is only his most recent one. Unfortunately, living for a very, very long time tends to cause that kind of problem—you can’t stay in one place too long, or else people will notice that you never age. Tom is part of the Albatross Society, which protects people with his rare condition, and though he’s discovered that his daughter from the 1600s shares his long-living state, he hasn’t found her yet. He returns to London and begins to work as a history teacher there—a perfect job for a man who was on speaking terms with Shakespeare, Captain Cook, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald—but he begins to fall for the French teacher, who thinks she’s seen him somewhere before. The problem is, the Albatross Society has one rule: never fall in love. Oops. Haig’s newest is both a fantastic ride and a touching look at the human condition. (Viking)

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Ada was moody and sometimes violent as a child, but that’s nothing to what she discovers inside herself when she leaves her home, Nigeria, and travels to a college in the U.S. The ogbanje, evil spirits that plague families with misfortune, have settled in Ada, and after she’s sexually assaulted, they begin to take over her mind more and more often. One especially forceful spirit, Asughara, drives Ada into a terrible marriage that ends in divorce and pushes her to commit suicide, as Ada cuts her arm to appease the spirits but finds no luck in silencing them. A dual look at mental illness and the metaphysics of the mind, Akwaeke Emezi’s brilliant first novel is both poetic and painful. (Grove Atlantic)

Featured Images: Sergio Speroni

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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