AWM Staff Picks: February 2023

Reading Recommendations from the staff of the American Writers Museum.

We can’t recommend these books highly enough! Check back every month for more reading recommendations, from classics that we reread over and over to new favorites. If you’re looking for your next book, you came to the right place.

Our February staff picks are also available on, which benefits independent bookstores. We also strongly encourage you to support your local bookstore by visiting them in person or ordering online through them directly.

Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee book cover

Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee

From the publisher: “Rebecca Lee traverses the terrain of infidelity, obligation, sacrifice, jealousy, and yet finally, optimism. Showing people at their most vulnerable, Lee creates characters so wonderfully flawed, so driven by their desire, so compelled to make sense of their human condition, that it’s impossible not to feel for them when their fragile belief in romantic love, domestic bliss, or academic seclusion fails to provide them with the sort of force field they’d expected.”

—Kaleena, Development Manager

Dark Testament: Blackout Poems by Crystal Simone Smith book cover

Dark Testament: Blackout Poems by Crystal Simone Smith

From the publisher: “With poems found within the text of George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, Crystal Simone Smith embarks on an uncompromising exploration of collective mourning and crafts a masterwork that resonates far beyond the page. These poems are visually stark, a gathering of gripping verses that unmasks a dialogue of tragic truths—the stories of lives taken unjustly and too soon. Bold and deeply affecting, Dark Testament is a remarkable reckoning with our present moment, a call to action, and a plea for a more just future.”

I am looking forward to our upcoming program with Smith on February 19. She will read from and discuss this extraordinary collection, followed by a hands-on erasure poetry activity for attendees to create their own art within the form.

—Nate, Digital Content Associate

Hitting a Straight Lick With A Crooked Stick: Stories from the Harlem Renaissance by Zora Neale Hurston book cover

Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick: Stories from the Harlem Renaissance by Zora Neale Hurston

From the publisher: “An outstanding collection of stories about love and migration, gender and class, racism and sexism that proudly reflect African American folk culture. Brought together for the first time in one volume, they include eight of Hurston’s ‘lost’ Harlem stories, which were found in forgotten periodicals and archives. These stories challenge conceptions of Hurston as an author of rural fiction and include gems that flash with her biting, satiric humor, as well as more serious tales reflective of the cultural currents of Hurston’s world.”

Tayari Jones wrote the foreword for this short story collection and I recently had the honor of interviewing her about Hurston’s legacy for the latest episode of our podcast Nation of Writers. Listen to the episode here or wherever you listen to podcasts!

—Nate, Digital Content Associate

Photo of Lin Brehmer

“Lin’s Bin” by Lin Brehmer

This is a bittersweet recommendation because Chicago recently lost local radio personality, Lin Brehmer, who spoke to the city for decades from WXRT airwaves. Lin wrote amazing essays in response to listener questions in a segment called Lin’s Bin. What made Lin’s writing so incredible was that although the listeners’ questions were the prompt, his responses merely used the proposed questions as a jumping off point and he would wax poetic and philosophical on a variety of subjects. Simply put, Lin spoke to the soul of his listeners and they loved him for it.

—Christopher, Director of Operations

The Missing by Daisy Pearce book cover

The Missing by Daisy Pearce

From the publisher: “Teenager Edie Hudson was nobody’s little darling, which made vanishing all too easy. Two decades later, she’s been forgotten by everyone except her mother, Samantha. And the person who knows what happened to her. Samantha has had a long time to remember, and to regret. Having seen how little her daughter mattered to the community in the months following her disappearance, she wonders if Edie was lost before she was even gone. Or was it guilt, not indifference, that made the locals turn a blind eye? When she meets Frances, she at last starts to hope for answers. Because Frances is obsessed with the mystery too, after finding a photo of her husband with the girl who disappeared. What really happened all those years ago? And just how dangerous could it be to find out?

—Sam, Storyteller

Other People's Rejection Letters edited by Bill Shapiro book cover

Other People’s Rejection Letters edited by Bill Shapiro

Welcome to the rejection letter hall of fame! Bill Shapiro has brought together an incredible collection of rejection letters from the famous to the infamous. From Jimi Hendrix to Andy Warhol, this book is a fantastic reminder that we are never alone in our rejections.

Have a rejection story of your own? We’re hosting a Rejection Open Mic at our Upcoming GET LIT event! Join us on February 14 for this very special event. Whether you’re sharing a rejection letter, breakup text, or a story of your own, we hope to see you!

—Matt, Social Media Coordinator

Pentiment by Obsidian Entertainment game cover art

Pentiment by Obsidian Entertainment (video game)

This might sound antithetical to a reading recommendation, but the video game Pentiment by Obsidian Entertainment is a reading adventure. The gameplay action is minimal, instead you are tasked with solving mysteries in 16th century Germany via gathering clues by conversing with people and seeking out evidence. The look of the game is a 2D illustrated manuscript and the characters write all their dialogue in script, as the printing press was just coming into its own. The times are amidst the cultural upheaval of the church reformation and what you say and how you respond to people can come back to haunt you. This game is all about reading and storytelling.

—Christopher, Director of Operations

The Politics of Black Joy: Zora Neale Hurston and Neo-Abolitionism by Lindsey Stewart book cover

The Politics of Black Joy: Zora Neale Hurston and Neo-Abolitionism by Lindsey Stewart

From the publisher: “During the antebellum period, slave owners weaponized southern Black joy to argue for enslavement, propagating images of ‘happy darkies.’ In contrast, abolitionists wielded sorrow by emphasizing racial oppression. Both arguments were so effective that a political uneasiness on the subject still lingers. In The Politics of Black Joy, Lindsey Stewart wades into these uncomfortable waters by analyzing Zora Neale Hurston’s uses of the concept of Black southern joy…”For those interested in examining popular conceptions of Black political agency at the intersection of geography, gender, class, and Black spirituality, The Politics of Black Joy is essential reading.”

In addition to Tayari Jones, Stewart is also a guest on the latest episode of our podcast Nation of Writers, all about Zora Neale Hurston!

—Nate, Digital Content Associate

Selected Poems of Frank O'Hara by Frank O'Hara

Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara by Frank O’Hara

From the publisher: “The first new selection of O’Hara’s work to come along in several decades. In this “marvellous compilation” (The New Yorker), editor Mark Ford reacquaints us with one of the most joyous and innovative poets of the postwar period.”

—Kaleena, Development Manager

Stealing Home: Los Angeles, the Dodgers, and the Lives Caught in Between by Eric Nusbaum book cover

Stealing Home: Los Angeles, the Dodgers, and the Lives Caught in Between by Eric Nusbaum

From the publisher: “Dodger Stadium is an American icon. But the story of how it came to be goes far beyond baseball. The hills that cradle the stadium were once home to three vibrant Mexican American communities…But before Dodger Stadium could be built, the city would have to face down the neighborhood’s families including one, the Aréchigas, who refused to yield their home. The ensuing confrontation captivated the nation — and the divisive outcome still echoes through Los Angeles today.”

—Courtney, Education Program Coordinator

This Is Why They Hate Us by Aaron H. Aceves book cover

This Is Why They Hate Us by Aaron H. Aceves

From the publisher: “Enrique ‘Quique’ Luna has one goal this summer—get over his crush on Saleem Kanazi by pursuing his other romantic prospects…There’s stoner-jock Tyler Montana, who might be just as interested in Fabiola as he is in Quique; straitlaced senior class president, Ziggy Jackson; and Manny Zuniga, who keeps looking at Quique like he’s carne asada fresh off the grill. With all these choices, Quique is sure to forget about Saleem in no time. But as the summer heats up and his deep-seated fears and anxieties boil over, Quique soon realizes that getting over one guy by getting under a bunch of others may not have been the best laid plan and living his truth can come at a high cost.”

—Matt, Social Media Coordinator

Twenty Dollars and Change: Harriet Tubman and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice and Democracy by Clarence Lusane book cover

Twenty Dollars and Change: Harriet Tubman and the Ongoing Fight for Racial and Democracy by Clarence Lusane

From the publisher: “Racist historical narratives and pervasive social inequities are inextricably linked—changing one can transform the other. Taking up the debate over the future of the twenty-dollar bill, Clarence Lusane uses the question of Harriet Tubman vs. Andrew Jackson as a lens through which to view the current state of our nation’s ongoing reckoning with the legacies of slavery and foundational white supremacy.” He places the struggle to confront unjust social conditions in direct connection with the push to transform our public symbols, making it plain that any choice of whose life deserves to be remembered and honored is a direct reflection of whose basic rights are deemed worthy of protection, and whose are not.”

Join us later this month on February 23 for an online discussion with Lusane about Twenty Dollars and Change. Register for the program here.

—Nate, Digital Content Associate

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals by Saidiya Hartman book cover

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals by Saidiya Hartman

From the publisher: “Examines the revolution of black intimate life that unfolded in Philadelphia and New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. In wrestling with the question of what a free life is, many young black women created forms of intimacy and kinship indifferent to the dictates of respectability and outside the bounds of law. They cleaved to and cast off lovers, exchanged sex to subsist, and revised the meaning of marriage. Longing and desire fueled their experiments in how to live. They refused to labor like slaves or to accept degrading conditions of work. Here, for the first time, these women are credited with shaping a cultural movement that transformed the urban landscape.”

—Noelle, Education Program Coordinator

The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom book cover

The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom

From the publisher: “A book of great ambition, Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House tells a hundred years of her family and their relationship to home in a neglected area of one of America’s most mythologized cities. This is the story of a mother’s struggle against a house’s entropy, and that of a prodigal daughter who left home only to reckon with the pull that home exerts, even after the Yellow House was wiped off the map after Hurricane Katrina. The Yellow House expands the map of New Orleans to include the stories of its lesser-known natives, guided deftly by one of its native daughters, to demonstrate how enduring drives of clan, pride, and familial love resist and defy erasure.”

—Nate, Digital Content Associate

Visit our Reading Recommendations page for more book lists.

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