12 Must-Read Books of February – Chicago Review of Books


Didn’t we just do this, dear reader? Weren’t we just here? Is it really February again? If it’s beginning to feel a little bit like Groundhog Day out there, the repetitions piling on and the monotony wearing you down, take heart. Even if you can sense another existential crisis coming on and you’re becoming afraid of your own shadow, to borrow from good old Sonny and Cher: you’ve got books, babe! Below are twelve new titles dropping this month that should help you break out of whatever cycle you’ve found yourself in.

Cover of The Books of Jacob

The Books of Jacob
By Olga Tokarczuk; Translated by Jennifer Croft
Riverhead Books

A new translation of 2018 Nobel honoree Olga Tokarczuk constitutes a bona fide literary event, and that may be more true of The Books of Jacob than any other release of this still-young year. Billed as the Polish author’s magnum opus, it clocks in at a whopping nine-hundred-and-ninety-two pages, and may well take many of us the rest of 2022 to finish. But that task will be far from a chore — Tokarczuk’s signature humanism and boundless curiosity are both on display here, making for a read that’ll reward your brain as much as your biceps.

Cover of String Follow

String Follow
By Simon Jacobs
MCD x FSG Originals

The daylight may be lasting a bit longer this month, but if you’re of a disposition more inclined to darkness then look no further than Simon Jacobs’s terrifying second novel String Follow. Set in suburban Ohio, it’s a Midwestern gothic etched in blood, following a group of disaffected teens beset by an insidious destructive force. As punishing an experience for the reader as its characters, it’s not a book for the faint of heart, but those adventurous enough to descend into its madness will find one of the most bracing experiences of the year.

Cover of Lesser Known Monsters

Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century
By Kim Fu
Tin House Books

Author of the highly decorated novel For Today I Am a Boy, which won the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction, Kim Fu returns this month with her first collection of short stories that should find a natural home on the shelves of Kelly Link and Carmen Maria Machado fans. A writer of prodigious imaginative gifts, Fu spins twelve fantastic tales of Sandmen and sea monsters and girls sprouting wings on their ankles, the familiar rubbing elbows with the uncanny in ways both surprising and deeply touching. 

Cover of The Employees

The Employees
By Olga Ravn; Translated by Martin Aitken
New Directions

The latest from Danish writer Olga Ravn is already an International Booker Prize nominee, and diving into this brief but intoxicating novel, it’s easy to see why. A riotous space-opera satire for the 24-hour-grind era, The Employees melds the world-building skills of Ursula K. LeGuin with the spiky black humor of Ottessa Moshfegh as it follows along with the crew of the Six Thousand Ship as they go about their quotidian tasks. While the setting might not be recognizable, the collegial grumbling and inane corporate-speak definitely will be.

Cover of Rise and Float

Rise and Float
By Brian Tierney
Milkweed Editions

Selected by Randall Mann as the winner of the Jake Adam York Prize, Brian Tierney’s Rise and Float is the sort of universally-affirming work that’s born from very private pain. The loss of a father to cancer and friends to overdoses and suicide, the daily agony of mental illness and disordered eating — all of this and more is laid bare in these pages like ululations. As haunted as it is haunting, Rise and Float isn’t an easy read, but it earns the levity promised in its title through the cathartic power of its language, gesturing towards something like hope.

Cover of Home/Land

By Rebecca Mead

New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead has written deftly over the years about topics that have varied from exotic cuisine to facial surgery to George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Now she turns that keen eye onto her own life with this memoir of departure and relocation as she uproots with her family from her adopted city of New York City to her birth country England after thirty years away. A stirring examination of what it means to make and honor a home, it’s sure to speak to anyone who’s questioned where they’ve found themselves and wondered what else is possible.

Cover of Very Cold People

Very Cold People
By Sarah Manguso

Sarah Manguso has been a fixture of the literary scene for so long that it’s hard to believe Very Cold People marks the publication of her first novel. It’s been well worth the wait, though. The precision and compression that makes her nonfiction work so unique is on dazzling display in this story of a young girl coming of age in a poverty-stricken small town. Unafraid to engage with tricky topics like race and class in America, Very Cold People may not warm your heart, necessarily. But it will pick you up after it knocks you down, and leave you stronger for it.

Cover of Pyre

By Perumal Murugan; Translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan
Grove Press, Black Cat

One of India’s most respected and highest selling writers, and twice longlisted for the National Book Award in Translation, Perumal Murugan’s readership in the states is set to expand even further with the release of Pyre, pitched as one of his most beloved works. Seamlessly translated from the Tamil by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, it’s an evocative and stunning tale of young love chafing against the impossible circumstances of the country’s caste system, rendered with the sort of timeless prose that belies its toughness. Perfect for fans of books like Home Fire.

See Also

Cover of True Story

True Story: What Reality TV Says About Us
By Danielle J. Lindemann
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Author Danielle J. Lindemann is an associate professor of sociology at Lehigh University who’s written about domestic life and dominatrixes in the past. She’s also an avowed fan of reality television and brings her expertise to bear in this insightful study of what she calls the “funhouse mirror” of the genre. You don’t have to be a regular Kardashian keeper-upper to enjoy Lindemann’s dissection of such public figures, which is not only rigorous and erudite but entertaining as well, wringing scholarly treasure out of so-called cultural trash. 

Cover of The Treeline

The Treeline: The Last Forest and the Future of Life on Earth
By Ben Rawlence
St. Martin’s Press

Fans of the dearly departed Barry Lopez’s compassionate environmentalist epics will want to take note of this new work from a former researcher for Human Rights Watch. Both a work of careful reportage and sustained attention, The Treeline hones in on the boreal forests of Norway, Siberia, Alaska, and other northern frontiers, which are a critical barometer for our warming world. By tracking the resilience of these species, author Ben Rawlence implores us to engage more deeply with the natural world and heed its evolutionary lessons.

Cover of Moon Witch, Spider King

Moon Witch, Spider King
By Marlon James
Riverhead Books

The first installment in Marlon James’s planned trilogy was both a National Book Award finalist and New York Times bestseller, so the second has a lot of hype to live up to. Luckily James is more than up to the task with Moon Witch, Spider King which refracts the events of its predecessor through a new lens, enriching and expanding his ancient African world in the process. More than just an experiment in the fantasy genre, James’s project is a vibrant and forceful reclamation of it as an arena where all histories and people can be made mythic.

Cover of Ultramarine

By Wayne Koestenbaum
Nightboat Books

A trilogy continuation of a quite different sort, Ultramarine marks the conclusion of cultural critic, poet, and prolific experimenter Wayne Koestenbaum’s trance poem cycle, drawn from four years of his personal notebooks spanning 2015 to 2019. As agile and candid as its creator, it’s a work that feels more congealed than collected, pulled straight from a roving and amorous mind. Through his stream-of-conscious constructions, Koestenbaum invites the reader to free themselves from their rational forms and seek the beauty that can be found in society’s scraps.


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