Whether you prefer your reading sexy and satirical, political and polarizing or simply amusing, these stand-out books in February are guaranteed to hit the spot by providing some much-needed escapism, while challenging the status quo and sparking timely conversation.
The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen
The multi-talented Nguyen knows what it means to inhabit a life radically shaped by history. In 1975, he and his family came to The United States as refugees in the wake of the Vietnam War. His debut novel, The Sympathizer, winner of last year’s Pulitzer Prize, revisited the conflict that changed the trajectory of his life and inserted a much-needed Vietnamese perspective to the largely American-driven narrative. In The Refugees, a collection of stories 20 years in the making, he gives voice to the Vietnamese communities in Southern California (where he grew up) and to those living in the country he fled, acknowledging that the ghosts of war reverberate for generations.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Saunders, the master of strangeness, celebrated for his quirky, sharp and humorous short stories, shares his first novel with the world and it does not disappoint. When Saunders discovered that a grief-stricken Abraham Lincoln repeatedly visited his 11-year-old son’s crypt in the days following his death in February 1862, he couldn’t get the image of the grieving father out of his mind. What results is a playful and poignant supernatural wonder of a novel. Unfolding over the one night Lincoln inhabits the “bardo,” the transitional place between life and death according to Tibetan tradition, Lincoln is surrounded by ghosts past and present. These ghosts are sexy, rude, naughty, haughty and shocking. (The 166-member, start-studded cast of the audio book might give you a hint of what’s in store: Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, Carrie Brownstein, Miranda July, Lena Dunham, Jeffrey Tambor, Don Cheadle, Patrick Wilson, and Ben Stiller all lend their voices to the recording.)
Abandon Me by Melissa Febos
Anyone who’s read Febos’s memoir Whip Smartâ€”about her four years working as a professional dominatrix at a midtown Manhattan “dungeon” while in grad schoolâ€”knows that her work explores boundaries as deftly as it defies categorization. In this new collection of essays, she once again obliterates convention with her erotically charged and intellectually astute recollections of family, relationships and the search for identity. In Abandon Me, Febos interrogates what it means to be the product of an aloof sea captain and a psychotherapist, how the mysteries of her childhood shaped her, and how pain, addiction, and the need for human connection forged in her such deep desires and longings.
Running by Cara Hoffman
In the 1980s, teenager Cara Hoffman ditched college and took off for Europe, occasionally sleeping in train stations and stowing away in Venetian water taxis. Just as her funds were running dangerously low, she heard about a place she could crash and earn a small commission working as a “runner” in Greeceâ€”that is, walking the length of trains and luring in unsuspecting tourists to the seedy hotels in the red-light district of Athens. Running, the novel inspired by these experiences, explores the dark, alluring intersections between love and survival. When Hoffman’s three young protagonists unwittingly become involved in an act of terrorism, the bonds they’ve formed are irreversibly fractured and each must deal with the cost.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Thirty years in the making, Lee’s sweeping, multi-generational novel is set in 1900s Asia and is informed by stories she heard about legal and social discrimination against Koreans in Japan, a history largely denied and erased. This story kicks off with an unplanned pregnancy and the promise of a less shameful life in Japan and evolves into addictive family saga packed with forbidden love, the search for belonging, and triumph against the odds.
Angela Ledgerwood is the host of Lit Up, a podcast about books, writers, and all things literary.