11 of February 2015's Best Books To Fall In Love With This Month (Because A Great Read Is The Best Valentine)
I know I said this last month, but I’M SERIOUS THIS TIME: February’s new titles are incredible. Narrowing this slew of awesome reads down to this list of 11 was, as my editor astutely stated, akin to choosing a favorite child. We take our books very seriously here.
Because February is the month of *love,* and it’s also ironically (or not) the most depressing month of all the months, your book choices are of the utmost importance: you want something warm-blankety, but that’ll still get your blood pumping with a strong plot. You want something challenging, but that won’t test your waning patience as the temperatures drop below human-appropriate levels. Essentially, you want a book to which you can pledge your undying February love and devotion. (I swear I’m talking about books. Not a person. Well, maybe both.)
This month features a resurgence of some old favorites: Neil Gaiman fangirls will be thrilled with Trigger Warning, the prolific writer’s anthology of poems and tales. Nick Hornby, that other devilishly charming Brit, also makes his cheeky return with Funny Girl, featuring a plucky heroine to boot. But February also offers a solid showing from new writers: Laura van den Berg’s chilling dystopian novel Find Me may be a classic in the making; and Asali Solomon’s profound coming-of-age novel Disgruntled is capital-I Important.
Get ready to live in your PJs (as if you weren't already), snuggle under a blanket (duh), binge-eat those so-gross-they're-kinda-good conversation heart candies (naturally), and fall in love with the best new books that February has to offer.
Disgruntled by Asali Solomon (Feb. 3; Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
I will never not find it amazing that, often, the most affecting novels are the ones most grounded in reality. For that reason, the coming-of-age novel will always occupy a special place on the literary continuum, and also, I think, in our own hearts and minds; but it’s gotta be done just right. Asali Solomon’s first novel (she also wrote 2008's Get Down, a short story collection), Disgruntled, is one of these remarkable stories, a bildungsroman for a modern age. It opens with our shy but joyful heroine, Kenya, at age eight. The daughter of a zealous black rights activist and a librarian, Kenya is an outcast: even in her mostly-black West Philadelphia neighborhood, Kenya’s upbringing (which has her celebrating Kwanzaa, not reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and makes her privy to her parents’ colorful coterie of political activists) renders her just not right. As the sensitive Kenya grows up; her parents split up; and she’s shuttled from urban West Philly to a suburban private school, that uncomfortable condition of not-quite-rightness continues to plague her. Disgruntled offers a compassionate portrait of a bright young girl conflicted by identity: What does it mean to be black? What does it mean to be a girl? What does it mean, ultimately, to be a woman?
Single, Carefree, Mellow by Katherine Heiny (Feb. 3; Knopf)
When her lover’s wife accuses her of being a home wrecker, of “having no morals at all,” Sasha — the 26-year-old writer who appears in "Dive Bar," the first of Heiny’s short stories — realizes that, actually, she doesn’t care. “Having morals is never something she’s aspired to. Successful writer, loyal friend, pretty girl; those have been goals, but she can’t say moral person has ever made the list.” You’ll find this startling, but strangely endearing, lack of morality to be a common thread among Heiny’s women (none of whom are particularly carefree or mellow, or totally single). There’s the detached 17-year-old girl who’s sleeping with her history teacher; Maya, a librarian, who cheats on her loving fiancé; Nina, a Florida housewife who’s having an affair with her trainer. They’re rather awful on the surface, but, actually, each of these thoroughly modern women are neither good nor bad; they’re somewhere in between, like most of us are. You’ll love Heiny’s clean, subtle prose, which is often hilarious and always uncannily insightful.
Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman (Feb. 3; William Morrow)
In Trigger Warning’s Introduction (which is just as lovingly crafted, and is just as gleefully enjoyable, as are the 24 ensuing short stories and poems), Neil Gaiman extols short stories as “the places where I get to fly, to experiment, to play.” Far from a “vanity project” — which Gaiman admits short story collections are often received as in the literary world — in Trigger Warning we see the gifted author flying effervescently, playing creatively, and exploring those sinister and charming worlds he’s known and loved for inventing. Gaiman is a master of genre writing, equally adept in experimental science fiction (“Orange”); haunting, meditative modern fairytales (“A Lunar Labryinth”); and subtle magical realism (“The Thing About Cassandra”). Most of these stories and poems — one of which includes “Nothing O’Clock,” set in the world of Doctor Who (during the Matt Smith era, thankfully) — were first published elsewhere. But loyal Gaiman fans will be thrilled with the collection’s new story, “Black Dog,” which re-enters the mythological world of American Gods.
How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis (Feb. 3; Vintage)
We all know what it’s like to idolize a fictional character. And, if you, too, are a diehard reader, you’ll know what it’s like not only to crush hard on your heroine of choice, but to actively shape your life to look a little bit more like Jane’s/Hermione’s/Lisbeth’s. Samantha Ellis, a British playwright, has certainly been in that half-real, half-imagined position. In How to Be a Heroine, the writer chats with us across a collection of personal essays, all entitled after one of Ellis’s coterie of literary gurus, relating in her bloggy voice how these heroines have informed her character. She recounts how Scarlett O’Hara’s plight endeared the teenaged Ellis to feminism — and also how the hope of achieving Scarlett’s infamous 17-inch-waist led her to subsist off of celery sticks. In the throes of a religious breakdown, the usually cool and quirky Franny Glass resonated with Ellis, the spiritually conflicted daughter of Iraqi-Jewish refugees who yearned, like the Glasses, to “find meaning outside religion.” Even if you’re not such an obsessive reader, you’ll love Ellis’ enthusiasm and humor, which makes reading these essays feel just like chatting with a particularly eager friend.
Funny Girl by Nick Hornby (Feb. 3; Riverhead)
Nick Hornby may be better known, at least on this side of the pond, for the star-spangled film adaptations of his novels (About a Boy, High Fidelity, Fever Pitch, A Long Way Down…) than for the novels themselves. But Funny Girl, Hornby’s newest release since 2009’s Juliet, Naked, reminded me that Hornby is, in fact, an excellent writer and a compassionate storyteller. In Funny Girl, Hornby brings his angular modern neuroses — that self-deprecating Anglo wit that Hornby does so well — back to the swingin’ ’60s. Barbara from Blackpool is a buxom blonde bombshell, but this uncommon beauty is also uncommonly sharp, funny, and ambitious: she wants to be a comedienne, to succeed in a dude-dominated field penetrated only by that other sharp, funny, ambitious star, Lucille Ball. Barbara moves down to London, finds an agent, changes her name to Sophie Straw, and falls in with a team of talented young comedy writers who, smitten Sophie’s fearless wit, write a sitcom just for her. You’ll love this behind-the-scenes look at early pop culture. But, more than just a romp, Funny Girl offers a heartfelt profile of the real-life characters behind the television.
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link (Feb. 3; Random House)
In a 2008 interview with the Los Angeles Times , Kelly Link shared the method to her studied madness: "You can get a lot of effect by making somebody feel at home, then knocking them a little off balance." It’s that balance between the familiar and the fantastical that makes Link’s stories so irresistible, sort of masochistically so: as you read her collections, like her excellent fourth anthology Get in Trouble, you’ll find yourself settling somewhere between the brink and the dip of the uncanny valley. Which, it turns out, is not such a terrible place to be. (But it’s not quite comfy, either: this is the place where washed-up Hollywood vampires, ghost hunters, and humanoid dolls go to thrill and haunt.) These nine stories further prove Link’s unparalleled imagination, but they also demonstrate her mastery of this deceivingly complex narrative form.
My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh (Feb. 10; Putnam)
In his stunning first novel, Baton Rouge native M.O. Walsh evokes a languid Southern Gothic atmosphere, rife with a hazy, heat-drenched poetry. Walsh harbors a deep reverence for his home state, and he writes about his honored subject — which, more than a setting, takes on the life of an animated character — with attention and care. Reminiscent of Pat Conroy’s sweeping family epics and Jeffrey Eugenides’ folkloric intrigue, My Sunshine Away recounts a tragic crime that shook a peaceful Louisiana community during the summer of 1989. My Sunshine Away achieves a rare feat: both a page-turning mystery and literary-quality novel, you’ll be charmed, impressed, and engrossed in this meditation on memory’s ambiguity, and how a childhood tragedy can affect us more deeply than we consciously know.
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (Feb. 10; Knopf)
The term “sprawling generational saga” is often used to describe a particularly ambitious genre in American fiction (I’m pretty sure I’ve already used it in this write-up), but few writers have the stamina to make this narrative their bread and butter. Anne Tyler, who returns here with her 20th (!) novel, continues her tradition of creating characters, and investigating family dynamics, that are so real and raw, so mundane and poignant, that you sometimes wonder why you are so invested in such unglamorous human beings over all these expansive pages. It’s a credit to the Pulitzer Prize-winner’s celebrated talent, which in A Spool of Blue Thread she lavishes on four generations of Baltimore’s Whitshank family, “one of those enviable families that radiate clannishness and togetherness and just…specialness.” But even in this vast temporal perspective, Tyler paints a finely detailed image of the individuals who make up a family: the personalities out of which history, even of the most pedestrian kind, is ultimately made.
P.S. The audiobook of this one, narrated by Kimberly Farr, is fantastic — add it to your list for the gym or the car!
The Strange Case of Rachel K by Rachel Kushner (Feb. 10; New Directions)
If Kushner’s acclaimed 2013 novel The Flamethrowers — in which Kushner sheds a blazing light on the fringey New York art scene — is any indication, this writer has a thing for unearthing the underground, for animating the world’s mysterious misfits. With her now-characteristic fiery prose, in her newest release Kushner turns her gaze on Cuba, a land preternaturally shrouded in secrecy. A collection of three short stories, this bizarre little book clocks in at just 96 pages, but it packs enough mythology and poetry to keep you pondering long after you’ve finished the last page.
P.S. If you dig this kind of experimental short story format, check out Valparaiso, Round the Horn (Feb. 24; Publishing Genius) by Madeline ffitch. Like The Strange Case of Rachel K , the Appalachia-based ffitch asserts a quirky mythological authority over the American backwoods (a place also shrouded in mystery, albeit a little less sexy than sunny Cuba).
The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty by Amanda Filipacchi (Feb. 16; Norton)
Lest you believe the ages-old debate concerning beauty standards has reached its saturation point, give Amanda Filipacchi’s irreverent satire The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty a go. Equal parts murder mystery romp and insightful absurdist tale, Filipacchi’s fourth novel centers on a group of artistic friends in New York City who’ve rather presumptuously dubbed themselves “The Knights of Creation." While all five members are talented in their respective fields, they vary drastically in physical beauty and aesthetic standards: take, for instance, the stunning beauty Barb, whose exquisiteness is so overwhelming that she’s taken to donning a disguise in public. Then there’s musical prodigy Lily, whose face, Barb informs us, is “not disfigured… it is simply extremely ugly.” This unusual book employs a darkly funny, modern spin on what it really means to be “beautiful.”
Find Me by Laura van den Berg (Feb. 17; Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Like Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, Laura van den Berg’s hauntingly beautiful novel Find Me is a low science-fiction dystopian nightmare, but it’s rendered with the deft subtlety and human focus that’ll draw a cross-genre readership. In the frighteningly near future, a mysterious and deadly virus sweeps the nation. The symptoms begin with silver blisters, which constellate across the skin; it advances with progressively deteriorating memory loss (“What is a job? What is a staircase? What is a mother? What is a me?”); it unfailingly ends in an agonizing death. Twenty-year-old Joy, who was abandoned as an infant and spent her life bouncing between foster homes, is one of the few special cases who seem to be immune to the virus. She’s chosen to be a scientific subject at a hospital in Kansas, where she and her fellow specimens spend their days in a state of zombie-like half-life. By chance, Joy discovers her birth mother’s identity, and a glimmer of hope arises on the bleak horizon. Don't miss this remarkable book.