Brit Bennett's "The Vanishing Half" and 4 more must-read novels out in June

Bennett follows up her bestselling novel "The Mothers" with an epic family tale of race, identity and family trauma

Published June 14, 2020 11:00AM (EDT)

Death in her Hands by Otessa Moshfeigh, Self Care by Leigh Stein, Block Seventeen by Kimiko Guthrie, You Exist too Much by Zaina Arafat, and The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (Salon/Riverhead Books/Catapult/Blackstone Publishing/Penguin)
Death in her Hands by Otessa Moshfeigh, Self Care by Leigh Stein, Block Seventeen by Kimiko Guthrie, You Exist too Much by Zaina Arafat, and The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (Salon/Riverhead Books/Catapult/Blackstone Publishing/Penguin)

A look at the New York Times nonfiction bestseller lists this month shows that America is, as Boston Globe columnist Renee Graham put it, "suddenly cramming for an exam it's been failing for 400 years" in the wake of an international ongoing wave of protests against police brutality and racism sparked by the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Nonfiction books like Ijeoma Oluo's  "So You Want to Talk About Race" and Ibram X. Kendi's "How to Be an Antiracist," already acclaimed bestsellers, have shot back up the charts, along with Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow" and Robin DiAngelo's "White Fragility." To readers compiling their own lists, Salon would like to recommend two new nonfiction books due out this month: Emma Dabiri's "Twisted: The Tangled History of Black Hair Culture" (June 23) and Shayla Lawson's "This Is Major: Notes on Diana Ross, Dark Girls, and Being Dope" (June 30).

So yes, America, read up. And don't neglect fiction in your summer reading plans — here are just a handful of recently published novels you shouldn't miss: "Riot Baby," Tochi Onyebuchi's speculative novel about Black siblings with superpowers; Steven Wright's dark comedy about dark money in politics, "The Coyotes of Carthage"; the small-town secrets of Jeni McFarland's "The House of Deep Water"; Gabriel Bump's coming-of-age debut set in Chicago's South Side, "Everywhere We Don't Belong"; and Brandon Taylor's brutal and tender academia novel "Real Life."

And here's this month's short list of our recommended new fiction releases for June, starting with "The Vanishing Half" by National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree Brit Bennett, which debuted at the top of the Times' fiction list last week. 

"The Vanishing Half" by Brit Bennett (Riverhead, June 2)

Brit Bennett follows her 2016 New York Times bestselling debut novel "The Mothers" this month with "The Vanishing Half," an epic American novel of race and identity told through the diverging paths of Desiree and Stella Vignes, the "lost twins" of fictional Mallard, Louisiana. 

Founded in 1848 by the freed son of a planter on the land he inherited as a "third place" built on the idea of "each generation, lighter than the one before," the tiny hamlet of Mallard is a near-secret haven for its light-skinned Black residents, but not a bulwark against white violence: the twins witness their father's brutal lynching in their own home. Stella and Desiree, the great-great-great-granddaughters of the town's founder, are local beauties with their hazel eyes, wavy hair, and creamy skin "the color of sand barely wet" who cause a scandal when at 16 they run away to New Orleans in search of self-determined futures. But when Desiree returns home in 1968, on the run from an abusive husband with her daughter Jude in tow, the Vignes name doesn't protect Jude from the cruelty her darker skin elicits from her peers. And Stella? She disappears for good; passing as a white woman, she marries her wealthy boss and reinvents herself as an orphan with no people to speak of. She becomes a mother herself to a blonde girl who, for all she and the world know, is as white as her parents.

As befitting a story about twins, "The Vanishing Half" is full of satisfying parallels, and the paths the twins' daughters take as they come of age demonstrate how family resemblance runs deeper than the surface. Bennett has written an engrossing, tension-packed family saga about sisters who both suffer from the wound of their separation and unwittingly pass a legacy of untreated trauma down to their daughters. It's also a page-turner of an explication on how race is simultaneously a social construct and utterly real. White women in particular should study closely how Stella navigates the world of whiteness and her own embodiment of it, and the rules of whiteness which she passes down to her daughter, who can feel acutely that she's been lied to about something her entire life that she can't quite name. — Erin Keane

* * *

"You Exist Too Much" by Zaina Arafat (Catapult, June 9)

The title of Zaina Arafat's debut novel, "You Exist Too Much," quotes with scathing disapproval the mother of the protagonist, a Palestinian American bisexual DJ who, at the top of the book, is cheating sexually and emotionally on the girlfriend she met while they were both in treatment for eating disorders. To her mother, her too-muchness is measured by what she lacks: a straight, traditional life path conforming to the traditions of her culture as well as the kind of self-possession that would prevent her from sucking up attention in whatever form she can grab. Told in vignettes, "You Exist Too Much" is a compelling character study of a bruised young woman who has been treated "carelessly, callously" by the women whose care she longs for, and so turns around and treats those who seek her intimacy with the same disregard.

Shame is a powerful weapon; it fuels her self-destructive tendencies even as she catalogs those impulses dutifully during her 28-day stay at a residential facility where she, alongside a rag-tag cohort of fellow addicts, seeks treatment for love addiction in hopes of a breakthrough before graduate school, where another relationship later threatens to undo that work. Arafat's protagonist's self-punishment stems from a chronic deficiency of love — both absent and unabsorbed — which the novel reveals in her intense obsessions with unavailable women, her tumultuous sexual awakening and first major heartbreaks, and through flashback scenes of her childhood and adolescence, going back and forth between her suburban U.S. home and family trips to Jordan, Lebanon, and the West Bank. Her too-muchness is tied indelibly to her yearning. In one telling passage she details what she would miss from each place once she wasn't there anymore, like peanut butter from the U.S. or the smell of jasmine flowers in Jordan, "though curiously I hardly noticed them while I was there. It seemed I could only ever smell them from thousands of miles away."

We meet her at that crucial point in early adulthood when choices have to be made about how to forgive parents for inflicting their own wounds upon their children, when healing in order to be ready for a bright future is still possible. Arafat works the central tension of whether she will or won't overcome her internal obstacles deftly, avoiding casting her in pity or irreconcilable despair. Thankfully we have moved beyond tedious questions about the "likability" of fictional women, because the most interesting characters rarely are at all times. Arafat's heroine is no exception, but the author writes her with great tenderness and just enough self-aware dark humor to allow readers to become invested in this young woman's efforts to make herself whole.  — E.K.

* * *

"Death in Her Hands" by Otessa Moshfegh (Penguin Press, June 23)

"A good detective presumes more than she interrogates." This is the kind of thinking that guides Vesta, the 72-year-old amateur sleuth who has dedicated herself to solving the mystery behind the death of a woman named Magda. 

Well, the potential death. 

Vesta is a recent widow who has moved into a secluded cabin located in what used to be a Girl Scout camp. While out walking her dog, she finds a note pinned to the ground by several stones: "Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn't me. Here is her dead body." But there is no body and, after Vesta does some Googling, it's unclear if there was ever actually a Magda in the town of Levant.

However, this doesn't dissuade Vesta from pursuing a series of half-leads, informed by some articles she read online about how mystery novelists piece together their work. She becomes consumed with thoughts of who Magda could have been, what her life could have been like. It distracts Vesta from her grief and very real new life — though to be fair, there's not much to do in Levant. The recreational activities are limited to drinking and driving over to the next town to go bowling. The nearby Goodwill only has books on knitting and war. 

As Vesta plunges deeper into isolation, her obsession with Magda's murder only continues to intensify. With no one around to even gently check her unformed theories (save the voice of her judgmental ex-husband occasionally ringing in her head), she soon compiles a list of murder suspects. It's both darkly comedic and profoundly sad. We all have a general idea of how this is going to go; author Ottessa Moshfegh even writes it early into the novel. "Nobody will ever know who killed her. The story is over just as it's begun." 

But this isn't just a story of a lonely, bumbling detective; Moshfegh excels at showing readers just how Vesta's unreliability is earned and the ways in which her growing desire to solve this crime dovetail with the trepidatious freedom she's beginning to feel as her life becomes less intertwined with that of her late husband's. In the first chapter, Moshfegh describes the note Vesta finds as "a dark damning way to begin a story: the pronouncement of a mystery whose investigation is futile." 

And yes, investigating Magda's "murder" may be futile, but it becomes apparent that interrogating Vesta's life — and in turn, our own — is far more fruitful. Who among us hasn't engaged with a story that has no predictable ending, with a half-truth that, upon further examination, is more fiction than fact? 

There are moments of palpable discomfort in "Death in Her Hands," especially as we watch Vesta dive again and again into the deep end, acting on her assumptions. But that embarrassment serves as something of a mirror. For much of the novel, Vesta is simply mid-air in the jumps we hold ourselves back from making. – Ashlie D. Stevens

* * *

"Block Seventeen" by Kimiko Guthrie (Blackstone, June 23)

Jane Thompson divested herself of the name "Akiko" in childhood, rejecting the Japanese name for reasons beyond assimilation. Now she's happily in a relationship with Shiro Yamamoto and looking forward to a life together, when a series of disturbing events threaten to upset the order of her life.

In her debut novel, Kimiko Guthrie creates an alternately whimsical and nightmarish thriller in which the mystery seems to remain just out of reach of her protagonist who is stuck in a physical world that seems to be working against her. The heater keeps activating even though it's off, the distracting sounds from the apartment next door never cease, and an unknown burglar has invaded Jane's apartment — never taking anything but leaving behind an unmistakable sign of their presence. Adding to the distress is Shiro's drive to expose the malfeasance on TSA job, which would put him and Jane at risk, and the sudden disappearance of Jane's mother Sumiko, who can only be found online but never in person.

Jane narrates the novel as an address to her offspring, often referring to "your grandmother" and other relations and apologizing for more sexual confessions. It's both charmingly comic and increasingly troubling as the story progresses. As the reader navigates through Jane's murky memories, the suspicion of her being an unreliable narrator sets in, yet her perception is crucial to understanding the inexorable slide into uncovering an inherited trauma.

Other chapters are told in flashback, visiting Jane's mother Sumiko in the 1940s and unfolding the experience of a life in America that's forever shattered by Japanese internment and the acts that were necessary to survival, but not necessarily happiness. These installments also introduces hints of Japanese mythology and the Shinto religion that washes the story with a fraught animism and magical realism. 

On the flip side of that psychological and almost mystical trauma is the physical manifestation of Jane's journey as she sweats in the heat, feels confined by her apartment, ascends ladders, and tumbles down embankments. With "Block Seventeen," Guthrie has recreated the fear of the other and created a hauntingly visceral experience that will linger on the fringes of the amygdala. – Hanh Nguyen

* * *

"Self Care" by Leigh Stein (Penguin Books, June 30)

Believe women. 

This is the rallying cry of the #MeToo era, when Leigh Stein's merciless and mordantly funny follow-up to "The Fallback Plan" is set. What happens when this mantra is put to the test among a group of women who live online — in front of their selfie lenses and drowning in hashtags? 

Following the election of a blatantly sexist president, women are mobilized to uplift each other and also make time to nurture themselves, and what better way to do that than through social media? That's the concept behind Richual, a platform that allows women to share their daily self-care practices and cheer each other on in the absence of the oppressive yoke of patriarchy. Co-founders Devin Avery and Maren Gelb, along with SVP of editorial strategy Khadijah Walker, are the millennials who run this show of wellness wokeness, and nothing is beyond their abilities to spin and make better by blasting Sara Barailles' "Brave."

That is, if Maren can stop her addiction to work and alcohol, if Devin can tap into her humanity instead of her image, and Khadijah can stop looking at every situation as content and pithy clickbait headlines. The trio is tested when Maren posts an ill-advised tweet that could be construed as a threat to the president's daughter, who, last we checked, is a woman and therefore supposedly off-limits from Richual condemnation.

Bouncing between POV chapters for each of the main trio, Stein also intersperses her narrative with tone-deaf, catchphrase-heavy press releases, @tags, hashtags, text messages, and brand name-dropping. It's a dense and deliberately crafted rendering of the internet that Stein reveals is her approximation of the infinite scroll. 

Weaving in real-life celebrity names, Stein gives her ruthless romp through influencer culture an authenticity born from a genuine love of the internet. Although some of the seemingly over-the-top passages may have seemed beyond belief a weeks ago, current events show otherwise. Whether it's reparations casseroles or Instagram influencer blackface tributes, there's no phrase or action too cringeworthy when the country scrambles to performatively prove their solidarity to a cause. This is the self-aware callout culture novel that we need, but don't deserve. Don't sleep on "Self Care" (unless your Fitbit tells you to sleep more — then do that, hydrate, and add 20 minutes of Headspace before reading). – H.N.

By Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Chief Content Officer. She is also on faculty at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University and her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," was named one of NPR's Books We Loved In 2022.

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By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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By Hanh Nguyen

Hanh Nguyen is the Senior Editor of Culture, which covers TV, movies, books, music, podcasts, art, and more. Her work has also appeared in IndieWire, and The Hollywood Reporter. She co-hosts the "Good Pop Culture Club" podcast, which examines the good pop that gets us through our days, from an Asian American perspective.

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Block Seventeen Books Death In Her Hands List Self Care The Vanishing Half You Exist Too Much