6 Books To Read In February 2024, From A 1978 Classic To A Modern Romance

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If I have one consistent rule as a reader, it’s that when I travel, whether it’s to a small town a couple hours away or a city on the other side of the globe, I will check out as many local independent bookstores as I can find. Each one is uniquely indicative of the area’s vibe; you can assume the inventory — not only the books but also the merch — has been refined according to locals’ interests and sensibilities. And once I select a title to add to my personal collection, that specificity never leaves it: Whenever I open a book I’ve bought while traveling, I’m immediately transported to the place and time that I found it. (It helps that last year, I stole writer Matt Ortile’s habit of jotting down info about where I got a book inside the actual book.)

While I’m always excited to find any indie bookstore, used bookstores reign supreme in my heart. A fruitful trip to these establishments requires the abandoning of expectations, an open mind, an adventurous spirit, and, hopefully, a lot of time. When all those boxes are checked, what a thrill! Inspired by two recent visits — to Book Gallery in Mesa, Arizona, and Jeffersonville Bake Shop in upstate New York — most of the titles below are books that found me in unkempt aisles around the world. And in honor of Valentine’s season, a few will get you in the mood for love.

(P.S. I do not gatekeep. If anyone wants bookstore recommendations, feel free to hit me up.)

Something Old

The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch was a widely celebrated 20th century British and Irish writer-philosopher, but she wasn’t on my radar until the tagline on the cover of The Sea, The Sea — “A rich, crowded, magical love story” — got my attention a few months back. The 1978 Booker Prize–winning novel is written from the point of view of retired “demigod of the theater” Charles Arrowby, who has left London for an old, secluded, possibly haunted, house on the North Sea coast where he plans to write his memoirs. The task is hindered by distractions both real and absurd: Charles unexpectedly runs into one of his many scorned lovers; he thinks he might have seen a sea monster; he simply must describe every revolting meal he creates. It’s no wonder Murdoch remains so notable. Not many writers would be able to infuse purposefully overwritten details about daily life with such insight, beauty, and humor; Charles is somehow simultaneously self-obsessed, un-self-aware, and un-hateable. It’s a brilliant examination of relationships, morality, and art, and I loved every minute of it.

A Summer Affair by Elin Hilderbrand

If you enjoy smart, comforting, juicy stories about love triangles and family drama, you must—I repeat, you must—get on the Elin Hilderbrand bandwagon. I hate that it took me learning she’s an alum of two of the country’s most prestigious writing programs to finally listen to the friends who’d been recommending her bestselling romances, but what matters is I did eventually listen and my life is better for it. My favorite is an oldie, 2008’s A Summer Affair, which follows Nantucket artist Claire who, despite struggling to juggle the many responsibilities she’s already volunteered for, agrees to co-chair a local charity gala. Frustrated by marriage, motherhood, and middle life in general, she inevitably succumbs to the electric attraction between her and the billionaire who requested her presence on the committee to begin with. It’s sexy! It’s scandalous! It’s impossible to put down!

Something New

Neighbors and Other Stories by Diane Oliver

Despite having died at just 22 years old in 1966, Diane Oliver created remarkable, prescient work. Collected here for the first time (with an intro from the one and only Tayari Jones!) Oliver’s stories are intimate snapshots of African Americans navigating the tensions and dangers of a rapidly changing world. The heartbreaking title story shows a young woman on the night before her little brother’s first day as the first Black student in an all-white school, bringing the reader so close to her anxieties and doubts—is it right to put such huge weight on such small shoulders?—that you ache for this family like it’s your own. The core issues in these stories resonate still, and I’m grateful that Grove Atlantic has given Oliver’s work new life.

The Fox Wife by Yangsze Choo

Set in early 1900s Manchuria and Japan, The Fox Wife follows Snow, a grieving fox on a mission, in human form, to avenge the murder of her daughter. At the same time, Bao, a private investigator especially interested in fox spirits (and who happens to have the supernatural ability to detect lies) is hired to identify a young woman found dead behind a restaurant. The story’s tension doesn’t come so much from these mysteries as it does in anticipating their collision—in waiting to see how, if at all, Bao’s and Snow’s missions are connected. Snow’s narration is both fanciful and brutal—she notes it isn’t safe to be either a fox or a woman “in a world run by men,” and we see multiple examples of that abuse, and she and Bao provide windows into the region’s political and spiritual upheavals of the time. It’s a darkly magical, stirring look at humanity through the eyes of two outsiders.

Wandering Stars by Tommy Orange

I’ve been eagerly awaiting Tommy Orange’s follow-up to his critically acclaimed debut There There from 2018, and it does not disappoint. Wandering Stars is a kind of sequel-plus (though you don’t need to read the first to understand and appreciate the second), which jumps back in time to a Red Feather family ancestor, Jude Star, who survived the U.S. Army’s murder of over 200 Native Americans in the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre. Orange follows the family tree through Jude Star’s imprisonment to his son’s forced assimilation and eventual pill addiction to 2018, where Jude Star’s descendent struggles in the aftermath of the violent attack that closed out There There. It’s a tough read, devastating in its depiction of brutality and intergenerational trauma, but it’s also a work of art—an arresting and poetic ode to the enduring Native identity and community.

Something Out of the Blue

Japanese Gardens by Matsunosuke Tatsui

From 1934 to 1942, the Japanese Board of Tourism Industry published the 40-volume Tourist Library series, comprising slim booklets on what they refer to as “various phases of Japan’s peculiar culture.” When I found the fourth volume, Japanese Gardens, in the Tokyo used bookstore Dessin, it felt like I’d won the antiquarian book lottery. The book itself is one of my most prized possessions—so old, so delicate!—but I didn’t fully appreciate it until I took it off the shelf after six years and actually read it. In short chapters interspersed with photographs, detailed blueprints, and dreamy illustrations, the book outlines the rich history and significance of Japanese gardens and walks us through different types and features—perfect for those with an interest in Japan, nature, or both. (FYI: A very rough scan of the entire book is available for free.)

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