The dark and biting "Luster," plus 5 more provocative must-reads for August

Go on one doppelganger's absurdist adventure, investigate a mysterious death, and more this month

Published August 12, 2020 5:15PM (EDT)

"Luster," "All the Right Mistakes," "A House Is a Body," "True Story," "Disappear Doppelganger Disappear," "The Death of Vivek Oji" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux/She Writes Press/Algonquin/Viking/Little a/Riverhead Books)
"Luster," "All the Right Mistakes," "A House Is a Body," "True Story," "Disappear Doppelganger Disappear," "The Death of Vivek Oji" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux/She Writes Press/Algonquin/Viking/Little a/Riverhead Books)

Summer is winding down, and even though we're done with the beach reads (sans actual beach in quarantine), must-read books are still coming. The pandemic hasn't slowed down publishing, and August has much to show for that.

Continuing the nation's education is Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson's essential "Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents" (Random House, Aug. 4) that examines America's racism and finds connections to the outcastes of India and the Third Reich. Meanwhile Morgan Jenkins' "Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots" (Harper, Aug. 4) explores how six million Black Americans left the South from 1916-1970 and the result of this displacement.

Also Salon's Amanda Marcotte spoke with philosopher Kate Manne about her new book "Entitled" (Crown Publishing Group, Aug. 11) to learn how society's tolerance of male privilege harms women. In the new book "Tomboy" (Hachette Go, Aug. 11), Lisa Selin Davis' argues for rejecting gender norms altogether, including with our children as they go back to school. 

Sarah Hendren also wants to shift thought with "What Can a Body Do?: How We Meet the Built World" (Riverhead Books, Aug. 18). In this fascinating set of stories, she looks at familiar objects and environments with new eyes and question what "normalcy" looks like.

On the fiction side, Alice Randall pays tribute to Detroit's legendary neighborhood with "Black Bottom Saints" (Amistad Press, Aug. 18), in which the author visits legendary Black artists through the lens of a local gossip columnist and jazz club emcee. Over on another continent, Nazanine Hozar's "Aria" (Pantheon Books, Aug. 25) visits Iran in the 1950s as a young orphan girl is raised by three mother figures and eventually participates in a popular uprising against the shah.

Back again to the U.S. in the 1950s, the title character in Tiffany McDaniel's "Betty" (Knopf, Aug. 18) is the daughter of a white mother and Cherokee father and finds her voice as a writer to recount horror from her family's past. Finally, David Heska Wanbli Weiden blends crime fiction with Native American identity in "Winter Counts" (Ecco Press, Aug. 25), the story of the local enforcer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Below, Salon has highlighted six more works of fiction for the month.

"The Death of Vivek Oji: A Novel" by Akwaeke Emezi (Riverhead Books, Aug. 4)

Akwaeke Emezi's electrifying novel begins with a one-sentence chapter: "They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died." It establishes a kind of score for the coming-of-age story, a heady percussive beat that underlays the vivid chapters to come. 

As readers, we don't immediately meet Vivek; we first come to know the people closest to him. His father, Chika, his mother, Kavia and Vivek's cousin, Osita. We learn how Vivek was born — to a Nigerian father who had "looks that should have lived forever, features he passed down to Vivek" and to an Indian mother, who immigrated to the country for a new start — and how he possessed the same birthmark on his foot that his paternal grandmother had. 

She died the day he was born, the birthmark a potential sign of reincarnation. It's there that we establish one of the main themes of the book, which is presented as a question: "If nobody sees you, are you still there?" 

Each chapter is told from a different perspective, allowing Emezi to immediately weave a really textured portrayal of southeastern Nigeria during the 1980s and '90s. Eventually, there are some chapters narrated by Vivek and his childhood acquaintance-turned-confidant Juju. From them, we hear how Vivek was different from many of his peers and how from early on he longed to break free of the constraints of his middle-class community. 

"Picture: the boy, shirtless, placing necklaces against his chest, draping them over his silver chain, clipping his ears with gold earrings, his hair tumbling over his shoulders," Osita reveals to readers. "He looks like a bride, half naked, partially undressed…he was so beautiful he made the air around him dull."

That's when the percussive beat established in the first chapter begins to intensify, rapidly propelling the narrative forward. We as readers know the ultimate destination, but Emezi expertly guides us there. 

Vivek starts to slip into fugue states, due largely to the stress of concealing his true gender identity. He loses weight and has a breakdown while at university. Once he begins to wear his hair long, some of his anxiety is alleviated, but it introduces new problems in the forms of an aunt who thinks he's possessed by a demon and young men who toss broken bottles at him as he walks through town. 

Just as he's beginning to live openly, the drum beat stops — and the market is burned down. 

Emezi's "The Death of Vivek Oji" is a masterful contemplation on gender identity and fluidity, the heavy weight of shame, and the importance of having friends and family who accept you rather than attempt to "fix" you. 

* * *

"All the Right Mistakes" by Laura Jamison (She Writes Press, Aug. 4)

If you enjoyed our July recommendation of "Want: A Novel" by Lynne Streger Strong, Laura Jamison's "All The Right Mistakes" is a spiritual sequel (though with perhaps a little more "beach read" levity). 

Both novels center on women who appear to have everything, and are thankfully largely aware of that privilege, but are forced to interrogate whether at their respective stages in life it's everything they actually wanted. 

"All the Right Mistakes" centers on five 40-year-old women who became fast friends as Dartmouth undergraduates. They've stayed close for decades through career changes, births, deaths, marriages and divorces. Their friendship seems like a kind of bland given — that is until self-centered dynamo of the group, Heather Hall, releases her first book. 

It's an advice book titled, "Four BIG Mistakes of Women Who Will Never Lead or Win." As her friends read it, they realize that they are the thinly veiled basis for each of the chapters.

There is "Mistake No. 1: Opting Out," which is based on the life of Carmen Jones, whose career was interrupted by an unplanned pregnancy and subsequent marriage. After her professional plans were so thrown off track, she dreamed of having other children — a wish that never came true. 

"Mistake No. 2: Ramping Off" is Martha Adams'. She's a physician with two children and she and her husband, a doctor named Robert, are planning on another. But she isn't sure she actually wants to return to work after the new baby is born. 

Sara Beck is the basis of "Mistake No. 3: Half-Assing It." She is frazzled and frustrated trying to manage her household of four young children and her full-time job as an attorney. Sara constantly feels pulled between the responsibilities of both work life and home life, and never feels that either are being attended to correctly. 

Finally "Mistake No. 4: Ignoring the Fertility Cliff," based on Elizabeth Smith, another "big-firm attorney" with a 3-year-old son and distant stay-at-home husband. She thinks she wants a second child, but keeps pumping the brakes on ultimately making that decision. 

The four friends who were written about are deeply wounded by Heather's callousness, but the release of the book (which becomes a bestseller) also makes them deeply consider their "mistakes" and whether they are actually as bad as they're made out to be — and if so, what can be done to remedy them. 

"All The Right Mistakes" isn't an incendiary commentary on women's labor, both seen and unseen; but it also doesn't set out to be. It succeeds as a story of well-paced and engrossing story friendship with a pleasing dash of '90s rom-com cattiness.

* * *

"Luster" by Raven Leilani (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Aug. 4)

Since Zadie Smith teased Raven Leilani's "Luster" in an essay back in February, hailing it as a novel that, "with the lightest of touches, skewers our contemporary moment, and announces a writer of exhilarating freedom and daring" anticipation has been high for this debut. Every minute of the wait for this intimate coming-of-age story about a young Black artist caught up in a middle-aged white couple's open marriage has been worth it, and then some.

The novel opens with Edie — a painter frustrated in her position as an underemployed editorial coordinator, one of only two Black employees in her division — furtively sexting at her desk, her fear of "yet another disciplinary meeting with HR" overridden by her desire for Eric, a white forty-something Volvo-driving archivist ("a total daddy") in an open marriage who corrects the typos in her dating profile. Blocked in art and stifled at work, Edie's life — pest-ridden Bushwick apartment, aching loneliness, and all — is stripped of the adorkable basic-cable gloss typically applied to fictional millennial women working in New York's creative industries: "My salary is very low. I have trouble making friends, and men lose interest in me when I talk. It always goes well initially, but then I talk too explicitly about my ovarian torsion or my rent."

On her second date with Eric, at a wine bar — the first is Six Flags, his mortifying choice — he presents a list of rules he must follow when stepping out, written by his wife Rebecca. He later ghosts Edie but she refuses to fade quietly, showing up in his suburban New Jersey house and inadvertently crashing their wedding anniversary party, where she meets their daughter, who is Black and adopted. When Edie loses her job, her precarity juxtaposed mercilessly against their suburban comfort, she becomes even further enmeshed in the family unit; more than a friend, not quite a sister-wife, her relationships with Eric's wife and daughter, both intriguing characters themselves, become much deeper and more interesting than her affair with him.

The lines blur further as Eric and Rebecca lean on Edie to inject at turns excitement, companionship, and discomfort into their home, demand she bear witness to their lives in a way that is impossible to separate from their whiteness: The feeling never quite shakes that they welcome her only as long as it serves them to, as long as she can fit herself into the corners of their well-appointed rooms.

Sinking into the pleasures of Leilani's darkly funny and bitingly insightful prose over an aimless shut-down weekend is a treat you deserve. With a highlighter in one hand and "Luster" in the other, chapter one alone becomes a riot of yellow stripes: "I think to myself, you are a desirable woman. You are not a dozen gerbils in a skin casing," and "Of course, there is still the business of trying to look sexy while hurtling through the sky," and "The last time I painted, I was twenty-one. The president was black. I had more serotonin and I was less afraid of men," and this gut-kick of a closer, "It's that there are gray, anonymous hours like this. Hours when I am desperate, when I am ravenous, when I know how a star becomes a void." Edie is at times hungry, reckless, unsparing, and aching to be remembered, but always unforgettable. — Erin Keane

* * *

"True Story: A Novel" by Kate Reed Petty (Viking, Aug. 4)

"Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter," Christine Blasey Ford testified at a Senate hearing during Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation proceedings, in which she alleged that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted and humiliated her when they were both teens at a house party in a tony suburb of Washington, D.C. "The uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense."

How much power does a story like that have? Who should get to harness that power? What does it mean to be a reliable narrator? What are the consequences of burying the truth? In "True Story," Kate Reed Petty's genre-bending page-turner of a novel about sexual assault, trauma, the disputed events of one evening and its long aftermath, there are no tidy answers.

The callous and cosseted, beer-pounding jocks of "True Story," with their blunt-force coach worship and dips**t posturing, will certainly sound familiar to those who followed the Kavanaugh hearings, or who grew up in any given sports-thralled American suburb, tony or otherwise. That the novel devotes more than half of its narration to such a flat and boring dude — sidekick Nick, a bystander who seems haunted, or even cursed, by what his teammates did or didn't do after one fateful high school lacrosse party, "the whole thing with the private school girl" as he so horrifyingly dismisses it — at first seems like a narrative injustice. Seriously, we have to spend how much time with this dim bulb, rather than with Alice, the girl wronged, or Haley, the girl adjacent to the story who pushed for the truth to be known? But what first seems like misplaced attention ripens into something like a revenge tale, before transforming into something else entirely in Petty's skillful hands.

"True Story" told in a mash-up of genres, Nick's increasingly paranoid and horrifying tale interspersed with a pastiche of essay drafts, screenplays, and emails written by Alice, "the private school girl" who grew up to be a ghost writer who can't bring herself to tell the story that changed her life, and almost ended it. It's an engrossing and provocative meditation on the power of a story to shape, destroy, and even redeem. — E.K.

* * *

"Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear: A Novel" by Matthew Salesses (Little a, Aug. 11)

Matt Kim is disappearing. How else to explain why people are ignoring him or bumping into him? Besides, every night he passes out, and things vanish from his apartment. His family left him, leaving an empty purple bedroom. And his cat also just died, but he can still hear its ghost from between the walls. 

The sense of disappearing is all in his head, his girlfriend Yumi insists. Except she then meets her doppelgänger . . . who once dated someone who was a cooler, more successful version of Matt. But this double actually did disappear. Is this what lies in store for our fading protagonist?

"Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear" is an absurdist work of fiction in which the events feel inspired by the mind of David Lynch . . . if he were Asian American. Both wildly funny and horrific in its observations, the novel is an unsettling examination about identity and one's place in the world.

As an Asian American, Matt Kim lives in the liminal world of citizen and foreigner. But that's not his only ambivalent status: he's also a father and husband but rejected as both by his ex-family; in trying to uncover the mystery of the other Matt, he becomes predator and prey; and in the office "as a hetero Asian male, employment always made me feel sexless and shenanigan-less." 

Even his daughter Charlotte – who's hapa and therefore is both white and Asian – is a teenager, neither child nor adult and somehow both simultaneously. And in science fiction, to be Asian is to both possess ancient wisdom but also alien technology. 

Salesses, who also wrote the bestselling novel "The Hundred-Year Flood," piles on the many ways that Asian Americans are marginalized and Othered, but infuses dark humor into every line as he embraces the absurdity of that imposed dichotomous existence. He even plays with puns, a form of wordplay that embraces duality, and therefore is touted as the "language of rebellion." (And yes, our humble author is also a "Matt," which is no mere coincidence.) 

With sly references to presidential candidates endorsed by the KKK, men wearing red hats, and finding purpose through protest, "Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear" is a novel for our present moment in America, a moment that has been centuries in the making. It's a story that asks what lengths one must go to in order to be seen. – Hanh Nguyen

* * *

"A House Is a Body: Stories" by Shruti Swamy (Algonquin Books, Aug. 11)

In the title story of Shruti Swamy's debut, a mother watches as a California wildfire encroaches on her home and muses, "A house is a body, a body houses the soul."  This is one of the rare times that the author makes the connection of the physical to the spiritual so explicit, but it's a pervasive presence throughout her work.

Whether it's a closeted lesbian couple attending a cousin's wedding or a student who is studying the art of laughter, in the dozen brief but impactful short stories, every moment and every observation has weight, giving a vibrant sense of atmosphere and emotion using an economy of words. 

The settings range from the humid rooftops of India and a cool university town in Germany to the cookie-cutter suburbs of the U.S., but always it's the unflappable characters who anchor the action. Swamy writes each protagonist (all female except for one) as tackling life with a brisk matter-of-factness that rarely allows for the luxury of slipping into the sentimental, despite an intense yearning for more. Instead, the stories celebrate the sensual – the sluicing of ocean water over one swimmer's body – and the frankly sexual interactions detailed without flowery romanticism or moral judgment. 

With the exception of one detour into the fantastical when an artist begins a relationship with the god Krishna, the characters are unabashedly mammalian in their needs and experiences. Death makes an appearance almost as much as sex or pregnancy does. What appears to be missing are the motivations, but all the clues are given in the actions.

Swamy is deliberate in her use of words and scenes to capture the essence of anger, mourning, frustration, and anticipation. The tales sometimes end abruptly, on the precipice of revealing all. It's a testament to Swamy's writing that the reader knows what comes next, whether it's hope or bleakness. No matter what, one is left with the sense of having partaken of a precious morsel of life. – 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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