14 Books To Read in February 2023
This month's Bar\Heart Book List takes us behind literary marriages, gives us three campus novels, explores climate change migration and considers cultural history from caves to K-Pop. And more!
It’s time for the Bar\Heart Book List, my roundup1 of all the books I’m anticipating each month. There are 14 titles in February, including several nonfiction works and three campus novels from very different perspectives. There are also a few thrillers/mysteries, some big-hearted fun and a cultural history of the world.
Just a reminder that these are my anticipated books. I have not read them yet — unless I was lucky enough to get a review copy. So let’s compare notes: Leave a comment below telling me which ones most interest you.
And if you’re curious about what other Bar\Heart subscribers are recommending, check out this week’s Sunday Community Thread. There are some great suggestions.
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History | Philosophy
Culture: The Story of Us from Cave Art to K-Pop by Martin Puchner
W.W. Norton & Co.; Feb.7, 2023
Plot: In Culture, acclaimed author, professor, and public intellectual Martin Puchner takes us on a breakneck tour through pivotal moments in world history, providing a global introduction to the arts and humanities in one engaging volume. More than a work of history, Culture is an archive of humanity’s most monumental junctures and a guidebook for the future of us humans as a creative species
Why I’m Excited: I like the title and am interested in hearing Puchner’s line of history that goes from cave art to K-Pop. Plus, I like books that fit previously disparate pieces together in a way that their relationship suddenly becomes obvious.
Critics: "Exhilarating....elegantly written and full of erudite lore, this vibrant history illuminates the inveterate human yearning for expression." - Publishers Weekly
Historical Fiction | Black Women
The House of Eve by Sadeqa Johnson
Simon & Schuster; Feb. 7, 2023 | Read an Excerpt
Plot: 1950s Philadelphia: fifteen-year-old Ruby Pearsall is on track to becoming the first in her family to attend college, in spite of having a mother more interested in keeping a man than raising a daughter. But a taboo love affair threatens to pull her back down into the poverty and desperation that has been passed on to her like a birthright.
Eleanor Quarles arrives in Washington, DC, with ambition and secrets. When she meets the handsome William Pride at Howard University, they fall madly in love. But William hails from one of DC’s elite wealthy Black families, and his parents don’t let just anyone into their fold. With their stories colliding in the most unexpected of ways, Ruby and Eleanor will both make decisions that shape the trajectory of their lives.
Why I’m Excited: The stories of ambitious women and narratives about womanhood and motherhood are too often inhabited only by white women. I was excited to see that “women’s” novel from a different perspective and set of experiences.
Critics: “If you’ve read Sadeqa Johnson’s other books, you’ll know her extraordinary talent for writing historical fiction that breaks the mold by challenging dominant narratives and encouraging readers to rethink their assumptions. Her latest offering is a powerfully moving story of womanhood, motherhood, race and redemption.” — Ms. Magazine
Biography | Literary Figures | Women
The Lives of Wives: Five Literary Marriages by Carmela Ciuraru
Harper; Feb. 7, 2023
Plot: Lives of the Wives honors the women who have played the role of muses, agents, editors, proofreaders, housekeepers, gatekeepers, amaneunses, confidantes, and cheerleaders to literary trail blazers throughout history. In revisiting the lives of famous writers, it is time in our #MeToo era to highlight the achievements of their wives—and the price these women paid for recognition and freedom.
Why I’m Excited: I’m interested in the subject matter – all stories of women behind the scenes really. Whether this one becomes a fave/rave like Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women, will depend on the writing and narrative. She previously wrote Nom de Plume about the history of pseudonyms.
Critics: “While the stories of betrayal and suffering might not exactly ruin literary heroes, readers beware: The reality is often harsh—but also fascinating. An illuminating, well-rendered literary biography.” – Kirkus (starred review)
Fiction | Campus Novel | Sexuality
My Last Innocent Year by Daisy Alpert Florin
Henry Holt; Feb 14, 2023 | Read an Excerpt
Plot: An incisive, deeply resonant debut novel about a nonconsensual sexual encounter that propels one woman’s final semester at an elite New England college into controversy and chaos—and into an ill-advised affair with a married professor.
A coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, My Last Innocent Year is a timely and wise portrait of a young woman learning to trust her voice and move toward independence while recognizing the beauty and grit of where she came from.
Why I’m Excited: I love a campus novel, and I'm interested in how this pairs with The Laughter, another campus novel coming out this month. This one is from a student’s perspective; the other is from an aging faculty member. Both deal with shifting identity and culture.
Critics: “A brilliantly crafted campus novel for the generation before #MeToo...Florin’s prose is gorgeous and enthralling, and her imagistic portrayal of New England campus life—from divey college town bars to Winter Carnival to English department parties to skinny-dipping in the river—is pitch-perfect. She also succeeds where many stories of dubious sexual consent fail: She avoids heavy-handed moralizing in favor of ambiguity, however uncomfortable...Florin’s debut is not to be missed.” — Kirkus
History | Social Science | Economics | Tech
Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World by Malcom Harris
Little Brown & Co.; Feb. 14, 2023
Plot: In Palo Alto, the first comprehensive, global history of Silicon Valley, Malcolm Harris examines how and why Northern California evolved in the particular, consequential way it did, tracing the ideologies, technologies, and policies that have been engineered there over the course of 150 years of Anglo settler colonialism, from IQ tests to the "tragedy of the commons," racial genetics, and "broken windows" theory. The Internet and computers, too. It's a story about how a small American suburb became a powerful engine for economic growth and war, and how it came to lead the world into a surprisingly disastrous 21st century.
Why I’m Excited: A sweeping, epic history of an industry I’ve long covered as a journalist? Sign me up. I can’t wait to see how he pulls all the threads together into a cohesive narrative – and what I can learn to ground my study of entrepreneurship and culture in the Midwest.
Critics: "Extraordinary. In lucid, personal, often funny, and always insightful prose, Malcolm Harris finds the driving thrust of reaction not in capitalism’s left-behind regions but in its vanguard: California, and specifically Silicon Valley. We have not yet felt the full force of the shit storm that the titans of tech have been conjuring. We soon will. If you want to understand what’s coming, you need to read this book." — Greg Grandin, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The End of Myth
Fiction | Thriller | Women Con Artists
Stone Cold Fox by Rachel Koller Croft
Berkeley; Feb. 14, 2023 | Read an Excerpt
Plot: Like any enterprising woman, Bea knows what she’s worth and is determined to get all she deserves—it just so happens that what she deserves is to marry rich. Filthy rich. After years of forced instruction by her mother in the art of swindling men, a now-solo Bea wants nothing more than to close and lock the door on their sordid partnership so she can disappear safely into old-money domesticity, sealing the final phase of her escape. When Bea chooses her ultimate target in the fully loaded, thoroughly dull and blue-blooded Collin Case, she’s ready to deploy all of her tricks one last time. The challenge isn’t getting the ring, but rather the approval of Collin’s family and everyone else in their 1 percent tax bracket. Will it be like mother, like daughter?
Why I’m Excited: It just sounds fun and dishy. Plus it’s getting good reviews and the author has a rescue pitbull.
Critics: “This delicious, twisty tale of deception and daughterhood will have everyone holding onto their wallets.” — Good Morning America
Fiction | Campus Novel | Power
The Laughter by Sonora Jha
Harper Via; Feb. 14, 2023 | Read an Excerpt
Plot: Dr. Oliver Harding, a tenured professor of English, is long settled into the routines of a divorced, aging academic. But his quiet, staid life is upended by his new colleague, Ruhaba Khan, a dynamic Pakistani Muslim law professor. After protests break out on campus demanding diversity across the university, Harding finds himself and his beliefs under fire, even as his past reveals a picture more complicated than it seems. As Ruhaba seems attainable yet not, and as the women of his past taunt his memory, Harding reacts in ways shocking and devastating.
Why I’m Excited: The author’s previous books of essays, How to Raise a Feminist Son, was great. Plus, Celeste Ng blurbing this book is a good sign since I love her work.
Critics: “Sonora Jha expertly inhabits the perspective of a man so terrified of the old world slipping away, he can’t see the ground shifting beneath his feet. A deliciously sharp, mercilessly perceptive exploration of power, The Laughter explores how ‘otherness’ is both fetishized and demonized, and what it means to love something—a person, a country—that does not love you back.” — Celeste Ng, New York Times-bestselling author of Our Missing Hearts
Fiction | Family Saga | Humor
Varina Palladino's Jersey Italian Love Story by Terri-Lynne DeFino
William Morrow; Feb. 14, 2023 | Read an Excerpt
Plot: An utterly delightful and surprising family drama—think Moonstruck and My Big Fat Greek Wedding set in New Jersey—about a boisterous, complicated Italian family determined to help their widowed mother find a new boyfriend. Three generations of Paladinos butt heads and break one another’s hearts as they wrestle with their own Jersey Italian love stories in this hilarious and life-affirming ode to love and family.
Why I’m Excited: It sounds like a balm to challenging times, something joyful and funny and sweet. Maybe it’ll be great; maybe it’ll just be a few days of mental candy. Either way is fine by me. I’ll take a Moonstruck meets My Big Fat Greek Wedding any day.
Critics: “There are a lot of laughs despite the mayhem and drama, and of course, many family dinners (with recipes!), but it is love that permeates and elevates this terrific Italian family saga.” — Library Journal
Fiction, Mother-Daughter Story, Immigrant
A Country You Can Leave by Asale Angel-Ajani
MCD; Feb. 21, 2023 | Read and Excerpt
Plot: When 16-year-old Lara and her fiery mother, Yevgenia, find themselves homeless again, the misnamed Oasis Mobile Estates is all they can afford. In this new community, where residents are down on their luck but rich in humor and escape plans, Lara navigates what it means to be the Black, biracial daughter of a Russian mother and begins to wonder what a life beyond Yevgenia’s orbit—insistence on reading only the right kind of books (Russian), drinking the right kind of booze (vodka only), having the right kind of relationships (casual, with lots of sex)—might look like.
Why I’m Excited: I’m a Russia-phile, I guess? And with Xochitl Gonzalez’ endorsement, this went from “maybe” to “yes.” I guess those blurbs on the backs of books do work!
Critics: “From page one, A Country You Can Leave is a riveting, exasperating, and deeply heartbreaking tale of mother-daughter strife and resilience. Asale Angel-Ajani is an explosive talent and her story of Afro-Cuban Lara coming of age in a ruthless headlock with her survivalist Russian mother, Yevgenia, will disintegrate your strong-held emotional walls, down to her very last act of resistance." — Xochitl Gonzalez, author of Olga Dies Dreaming
I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai
Viking; Feb. 21, 2023 | Read an Excerpt
Plot: A successful film professor and podcaster, Bodie Kane is content to forget her past—the family tragedy that marred her adolescence, her four largely miserable years at a New Hampshire boarding school, and the murder of her former roommate, Thalia Keith, in the spring of their senior year. But when the Granby School invites her back to teach a course, Bodie is inexorably drawn to the case and its increasingly apparent ﬂaws. As she falls down the very rabbit hole she was so determined to avoid, Bodie begins to wonder if she wasn’t as much of an outsider at Granby as she’d thought.
Why I’m Excited: Normally I don’t put big names on my list – because they are already getting a ton of attention – but I really loved Makkai’s last novel, The Great Believers, and so I’ve been patiently awaiting this book.
Critics: “A beguiling campus novel . . . Chilled as the deep New England winters during which it takes place and twisty with the slowly found and then suddenly illuminated branches of memory, Makkai's rich, winding story dazzles from cover to cover.” —Booklist (starred review)
Science, Environment, Public Policy
The Great Displacement by Jack Bittle
Simon & Schuster; Feb. 21, 2023 | Read an Excerpt
Plot: Over the next fifty years, millions of Americans will be caught up in this churn of displacement, forced inland and northward in what will be the largest migration in our country’s history. The Great Displacement compassionately tells the stories of those who are already experiencing life on the move, while detailing just how radically climate change will transform our lives—erasing historic towns and villages, pushing people toward new areas, and reshaping the geography of the United States.
Why I’m Excited: I am very interested in the idea of belonging and community, and how people are beginning to face that as they are forced to move due to climate change. This promises intimate portraits of people experiencing the change – not just public policy talking heads.
Critics: “Jake Bittle draws close to those communities that are being fundamentally reshaped by climate change and he sticks around, long after the disaster declarations are over, to ask one of our era's most pressing questions: when we are forced to leave the places that have long defined us, what will we encounter on the other side?” —Elizabeth Rush, author of Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore
Essays | Nature | Folk Lore
Wolfish: Wolf, Self and the Stories We Tell About Fear by Erica Berry
Flatiron Books; Feb. 21, 2023
Plot: “This is one of those stories that begins with a female body. Hers was crumpled, roadside, in the ash-colored slush between asphalt and snowbank.” So begins Erica Berry’s kaleidoscopic exploration of wolves, both real and symbolic. At the center of this lyrical inquiry is the legendary OR-7, who roams away from his familial pack in northeastern Oregon. While charting OR-7’s record-breaking journey out of the Wallowa Mountains, Erica simultaneously details her own coming-of-age as she moves away from home and wrestles with inherited beliefs about fear, danger, femininity, and the body.
Why I’m Excited: This sits at the intersection of so many of my interests – nature, folk lore, identity, female form, etc. It’s the type of book I’ll get and then wait to read because I’m afraid for it to end before I’ve even begun.
Critics: “[A] wise and arresting debut about the wolves—real and symbolic—that haunt American life. Blending science writing with memoir and cultural criticism, Wolfish is a powerful exploration of predators and their prey delivered with an unflinching and vulnerable honesty.... a necessary environmental memoir: that which acknowledges fear in its ongoing pursuit of hope." —Vulture
Fiction | Black Women | American South
An Autobiography of Skin by Lakiesha Carr
Pantheon; Feb. 28, 2023 | Read an Excerpt
Plot: A middle-aged woman feed slots at a secret, back-room parlor. A new mother descends into a devastating postpartum depression, wracked with the fear that she is unable to protect her children. A daughter returns home to join the other women in her family waging spiritual combat with the ghosts of their past.
An Autobiography of Skin is a dazzling and masterful portrait of interconnected generations in the South from a singular new voice, offering a raw and tender view into the interior lives of Black women. It is at once a powerful look at how experiences are carried inside the body, inside the flesh and skin, and a joyous testament to how healing can be found within—in love, mercy, gratitude, and freedom
Why I’m Excited: Lisa Lucas, former head of the National Book Foundation, raved about it. And I love an interconnected story with multiple voices.
Critics: “With gorgeous prose and subtly spectral vibes … this exploration of love, courage, and desire is not to be missed.” – Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)
Fiction | Dark Humor | Queer
Your Driver is Waiting by Priya Guns
Doubleday; Feb. 28, 2023 | Read an Excerpt
Plot: Damani is tired. Her father just died on the job at a fast-food joint, and now she lives paycheck to paycheck in a basement, caring for her mom and driving for an app that is constantly cutting her take. The city is roiling in protests--everybody's in solidarity with somebody--but while she keeps hearing that they’re fighting for change on behalf of people like her, she literally can’t afford to pay attention.
Then she gives a ride to Jolene (five stars, obviously). Jolene seems like she could be the perfect girlfriend--attentive, attractive, an ally--and their chemistry is off the charts. But just as their romance intensifies and Damani finally lets her guard down, Jolene does something unforgivable, setting off an explosive chain of events.
Why I’m Excited: I like the premise of a queer feminist retelling of Taxi Driver – with a lot of humor.
Critics: "This one had me laughing loud enough to draw looks on the subway, and that takes some doing. It's a crackling social commentary on the social justice movements of our time, the gig economy, performative wokeness and who gets to speak on behalf of the disadvantaged. It's a fast-paced read that begs to be devoured." — Good Housekeeping
Don’t forget to leave me a comment about which books stand out to you! And you can discuss amongst yourselves ;-)
Every publication and blogger has its own recommendation list. Some skew very serious; others might focus on a specific genre. My list tends to be a mix of highbrow and lowbrow, and favors debut and emerging writers, particularly women. I skip horror and most fantasy unless it comes via recommendation; and I like romance but prefer “cozies” to “bodice rippers.”