February is a time for cozy wintertime escapes and, depending on where you live, quests for warmer temperatures. Below, find the best books for travelers to read this month, from a bittersweet novel about grief to a nonfiction investigation of the internet from the user’s perspective.
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Heading out of town for a romantic getaway? The short stories contained within Machado’s 2017 collection are likely to make your heart race—with both desire and unease. There’s a spin on the old campfire classic about the woman with a ribbon around her neck; memories of a writing residency gone strange; a list of one woman’s love affairs set against the backdrop of an epidemic; a surreal synopsis of Law & Order: SVU episodes; and much more. With each unexpected tale, Machado cracks open a portal to a dreamlike world that is familiar but also not, and offers a peek into the experience of inhabiting a female body unlike any other.
Lurking: How a Person Became a User by Joanne McNeil
Look around—whether you’re reading this on a train, at the airport, or in the back of a car, we’re pretty positive that people all around you are also staring at their phones. In Lurking, writer and cultural critic Jaonne McNeil investigates her years of living online and what that means for the future of all of her fellow “users.” Chapters dig into topics like the internet user’s evolution from reclusive loser to selfie-obsessed addict (thanks, Instagram); the rise of Friendster, MySpace, and LiveJournal; and who should be accountable for the spread of misinformation on sites like Wikipedia. It’s a fascinating first-person history of the online world as we’ve lived it so far—“a hell that is fun”—reminding us of where we came from and where we might dream to go.
Weather: A Novel by Jenny Offill
If soaring high above the clouds tends to spur your own existential questioning, Jenny Offill’s follow-up to her lauded 2014 novel, Dept. of Speculation, might be a match for your in-flight musings. It begins when Lizzie, a grad school dropout working at her sort-of alma mater’s library, gets a gig answering mail for a podcast called Hell and High Water. Hosted by her former professor and mentor, the podcast has gained popularity on both sides of the political spectrum. Soon, the listeners’ questions—which touch on the Rapture, late capitalism, and the climate crisis—start to wreak havoc on Lizzie’s naturally empathetic psyche. With her short paragraphs and singular prose style, Offill spins a story worthy of 2020’s complicated geopolitical climate.
Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong
At the start of this slim novel, 30-year-old Ruth has just returned to her parents’ house after her father is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It also happens to be an ideal time for Ruth to get away from her fiance who had cheated on her. With these two main stressors going on in her life, Ruth begins to reflect on her life through journal-like entries, revisiting and processing memories along the way. Yes, this novel deals with heaviness, but the tone isn’t depressing—there are so many funny moments peppered in that allow readers to laugh out loud and digest grief in a more lighthearted, but still humanistic way. This short novel is drenched in sweetness, and confronts sadness with lots of love and care.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Wallace is a microbiology grad student in a predominantly white school in the Midwest. He’s also black, gay, introverted, and his father had recently died (a fact which he kept secret from his own friends). Wallace is just getting back to assimilating into “real life”—but, of course, his reality is complicated on every level. There’s science lab stuff, friend-group stuff, personal family stuff, and romance stuff, and it all converges over one fateful weekend. Debut novelist Brandon Taylor’s words have a way of burrowing their way into the crevices of your brain and marinating there for a while.
Actual Air by David Berman
When beloved musician and writer David Berman (of the indie bands Purple Mountains and Silver Jews) died last fall, fans found solace in sharing snippets of Berman’s poems and lyrics on social media. His first poetry collection Actual Air, however, ballooned up to $400 on used books sites, making it difficult to read his lines in their full form. Luckily, his record label Drag City has made it possible to access the book in digital form for only $9.99—all you need is a device for e-reading. Download it for a curious time, and take it with you on whatever road you hit; there’s plenty to read in 94 pages. And, for the travel-minded, we leave you with a few lines from his poem “Imaging Defeat,” about a man saying goodbye to his girlfriend: “She woke me up at dawn, / her suitcase like a little brown dog at her heels. / I sat up and looked out the window / at the snow falling in the stand of blackjack trees. / A bus ticket in her hand.”