My Favorite Books I Read in 2019

Friday Black: Stories by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Ever since I read Civilwarland in Bad Decline and Pastoralia, both by George Saunders, I have been searching for that sort of literary voice, and I think I’ve found it in Adjei-Brenyah. The most obvious connection is the short “Zimmer Land,” a theme park where people come to act out their aggressive fantasies while mostly ethnic minority employees (wearing high tech protective gear) become human punching bags. “The Finkelstein Five” continues that exploration of contemporary race conflict as the narrator becomes caught up in the reaction to the acquittal of a child murderer who took the lives of four black children with a chainsaw. There’s a duo of stories about the Thunderdome like conditions of a future shopping mall, where customers kill each other over insulated parkas. My favorite was the closing story, “Through the Flash” and it brought me to tears while reading it. That tale features a teenage girl caught in a dystopian time loop where she and her neighbors have lived the same days for thousands of years. It was an oddly hopeful and heartbreaking story. Of all the fiction I’ve read this year Friday Black gets my most enthusiastic recommendation.

Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia E. Butler
You know how there are those lists of books you have to read, and you tell yourself I’ll get around to it eventually. Bloodchild was always coming up on science fiction must-read lists, and I told myself I would pick it up finally. Why didn’t I do this sooner? Damn, Octavia Butler is fantastic. From the title story, I knew I was going to love this collection. Butler seems very interested in disease and the spread of things both sinister and beautiful through viruses or parasites. It’s hard to pick a favorite here, but I was blown away by the storytelling and worldbuilding in “Amnesty.” The alien “invaders” were totally unique in their physiology, and the way humans reacted to their presence long-term was painfully true to life. I am very tempted to pick up some of her novels, but don’t dig book series too much. For Butler, I will likely make an exception!

Wounds: Six Stories From the Border of Hell by Nathan Ballingrud
The biggest selling point of this collection is that it repackages the novella The Visible Filth, which I previously reviewed here. However, this book has some of the most fantastic horror stories I’ve read all year, revolving around the intersection of our world and the forces of Hell. “The Maw” is a horror story that brought me to tears. The ground opens up, and demonic forces emerge that cordon off a portion of a city. Oscar escapes with his only friend, his dog. At some point, his dog runs off, and Oscar is convinced she’s gone back to his old apartment in the occupied area of the city. He employs a teenage guide, Mix, who keeps trying to get Oscar to turn back. This story combines the best of Clive Barker’s hellish imagery with heart-aching pathos about love and not having that love returned. The collection is bookended by stories that create a cycle, “The Atlas of Hell” and “The Butchers Table.” The first story is in contemporary New Orleans, where a mob boss forces a man to journey out into the swamp and recover an artifact. The second story is a magnificent novella that is the story of that artifact and how it came to be. “The Butchers Table” is Pirates of the Caribbean through a demonic filter with so many tense triggers that lead to a Grand Guignol of a finale. We follow a group of Satanists who have chartered a pirate vessel to take them to the borders of Hell. Everyone has a secondary motive, and it all culminates in something so nasty and satisfying. It’s a bunch of bad guys getting everything they deserve, described deliciously.

North American Lake Monster: Stories by Nathan Ballingrud
I first discovered Ballingrud through Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year collections and went on to read his novella The Visible Filth, which hit all the right buttons for subtle, nuanced horror. Ballingrud managed to consistently and satisfyingly subvert my expectations with every story. No, he will not reveal the grand horror to you because what’s worse are the humans involved. “S.S.” is a starkly relevant story about a young man courting the white supremacy movement. His dark secret is his decrepit mother he keeps locked up at home who may or may not be a vampire. “Wild Acre” opens with a werewolf attack and the monster is never seen again. Instead, the narrator, a building contractor finds his business crumbling and the widow of one victim watching her life fall apart. It’s a very disconcerting story about the powerlessness of the narrator to fix anything after this one event in his life. Ballingrud presents stories about traditional modes of masculinity failing, and his male characters are confronted with the horror of the system they thought would always work falling around their heads.

Songs for the Unraveling of the World: Stories by Brian Evenson
I have yet to read any of Brian Evenson’s novels, but I have enjoyed his short stories so far. His first collection, A Collapse of Horses was tremendous, but this volume is even better. He’s very confident in the work and can present multiple perspectives without ever being reductive about mental illness. There are quite a number of characters who could be considered mentally ill, but they never get presented as tropes. In “Room Tone” a young filmmaker is obsessed with getting the ambient noise of a filming space. However, the house he shot his movie in has a new owner that wants to be left alone. The director just can’t move past this and goes to extreme lengths to get his recording. In “Born Stillborn” a patient believes his psychiatrist is visiting him at night as he tries to go to sleep, asking the real questions. His daytime sessions are full of false questions with secret messages the doctor is sending. “Leaking Out” is a wonderfully simple horror tale about a drifter seeking refuge in an old house. The premise is classic, but the monster living in this place is nebulous and terrifying. “The Tower” is a dark fantasy apocalypse about what might be a vampire who comes to a scattered settlement of survivors. This story was one of my favorites and created such a fleshed-out world in so few strokes that it made me want to explore this world even more. “Lather of Flies is a mind-being horror story about a reclusive director’s lost film which goes to some fantastic places. This is one of the most substantial short story collections I’ve read this year, which says a lot because I’ve consumed some great ones.

Mouthful of Birds: Stories by Samantha Schweblin
Schweblin is an Argentine writer who immediately had me recalling Jorge Luis Borges, painting surreal and sometimes magical realist landscapes that walk the border of horror. In the opening story, “Headlights” we are following a jilted bride wandering down a seemingly deserted highway, the scenario quickly turns into a waking nightmare that breaks reality. The story serves to set the tone of what is to come. In “Toward Happy Civilization” a man gets stuck at a railway station when the ticket agent refuses to alert oncoming trains that a passenger is waiting. The man ends up falling into servitude with other passengers the ticket agent has pulled this same trick on. “The Digger” is a perfect little horror story about a man who comes to a rented beach house only to discover a stranger obsessively digging a hole outside and acting like he’s taking orders from the vacationer. If you’re interested in stories that have the aesthetic of the uncanny and the weird, this is one of the best recent collections you could pick up.

The Collection by Bentley Little
This is the best bang for your buck, 32 short horror stories that are all over the place. With any short story collection, you’ll find ones you love, ones you hate, and all the stuff in the middle. Author Bentley Little just straight up loves all types of horror and finds ways to give his readers a sample of everything. Little offers a brief preface before each tale to provide a note on his inspiration or how he was commissioned to write this particular story. The most visceral and potent to me was “Life With Father,” the story of a patriarch who is obsessed with recycling to an upsetting degree. It’s told from the point of view of his eldest daughter who has normalized this insane behavior along with her siblings. There’s a breaking point, and it ends on a strangely happy note. “The Washingtonians” is a delightfully bizarre alternate history that frames the first president and the founding fathers as child-eating ghouls. “Skin” sees a family stopping on a road trip and discovering the historical home they are visiting is made of human skin. This has rippling effects on them all after returning home. “The Man in the Passenger Seat” is a surreal waking nightmare coming out of the question ‘What if you got in your car and a strange man was just sitting there refusing to leave?’ Little loves mixing dark comedy with his work but also knows when a story needs to be straightforward and bleak

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace Wells
The Uninhabitable Earth is a come to Jesus book that doesn’t mince words about the ongoing global climate crisis. Like a dark travelogue, Wells takes us through what the world will be in the next decade and the next century if the global temperature average increases by 2-4 degrees Celsius. The outlook is very dire, with desertification occurring north of the equator as temperatures rise. Cities become near uninhabitable, and food production is slowed as the number of nutrients in crops and livestock deplete. There will be an unavoidable refugee migration, more massive than what we are currently experiencing, due to the inability to produce food and the environment becoming too harsh for human survival. Wells also details how we can see this beginning now, explaining that a lack of resources directly fuels the Syrian refugee movement due to the environment. It’s a great read, it won’t uplift you, but sometimes we need to be brought back down to Earth.

Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America by Beth Macy
This is the first non-fiction text in a long time that made me cry reading its final pages. Beth Macy is a writer who has spent decades living in and studying the Appalachian region and looking at labor issues. She details the history of opioids in rural areas, going back to talk about morphine prescriptions post-Civil War but mainly the rise of Oxycontin in the 1990s which has led to an increase in heroin addiction in our present time. Macy spent time getting to know the doctors, law enforcement, drug users, drug dealers, and parents personally affected by this epidemic and can tell their stories as part of a broader mosaic of an often ignored and under-detailed horror sweeping through the country. Macy keeps coming back to a young woman named Tess who was raised in a loving and supportive family but due to the spread of opioids in her community ended up addicted and caught in that frustrating cycle of recovery/relapse. During this time, Tess becomes pregnant and gives birth to a child that manages not to have too many health issues related to her drug usage. Tess can’t get things on track mainly due to a lack of truly effective treatment methods in her area. My biggest takeaway from this text is that medicine-assisted treatment (MATs) needs to be on the table rather than just offering a one size fits all drug treatments. People seem stuck on the idea that being an addict is a criminal issue, rather than health; therefore, they balk at approaches like clean needle exchanges and methadone. For me, the primary goal is to keep the addict alive so that treatment can take place. You cannot rehab a dead drug addict. There’s a profound lack of understanding by the populace of the way drugs alter brain chemistry, making it near impossible to go cold turkey. Dopesick is a fantastic text that everyone should read; it is about one of the most urgent social issues of our time, and I know I was woefully undereducated on the details.

The Courage of Hopelessness: Chronicles of a Year of Acting Dangerously by Slavoj Zizek
I am a big fan of Zizek though I’ve just dipped my toes in the shallowest of waters at this point. I’ve read this book and watched his two documentaries. He’s a socialist with some very surprising takes on contemporary economics, and his self-deprecating style and emphasis on humor as a way to connect across cultures appeals to me. In this text, he spends much time detailing the looming threat of neoliberal authoritarianism across the globe. He’s against the European Union but also thinks Brexit was a profoundly stupid idea. Zizek works hard to show the reader why China is the threat we should be worried about more than Russia. Much time is spent analyzing how the elite class has become so ideologically distanced from everyone else that the working class is viewed as incapable of ruling themselves; therefore the creep of authoritarianism is on the rise. Like myself, he sees the Trump era/Brexit/right-wing rise in Europe as a global moment where we need to think instead of acting without a plan.

The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un by Anna Fifield
This is a fantastically researched and well-written chronicle of the life of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Fifield gives a strong amount of background to understand the context of this man in the history of his troubled country. She also works to establish the mindset of the average North Korean in the same way Masha Gessen outlined the “The Soviet Mind” in The Future is History. Kim Jong Un is an intentional enigma to his own people and the rest of the world as a way to cloud the media from reporting accurately about him. His marriage was never formally announced which left his own subjects confused about a woman he was seen attending events with. Fifield also submits corrections to some exaggerated myths, particularly Kim Jong Un having his uncle torn apart by dogs. The uncle did get executed but likely by the more common firing squad method. If you want a glimpse into a nation that is vital to understand in our age, you need to pick this up.

The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale
Vitale is not out to demonize individual officers or departments; instead, he’s interested in examining the myriad roles we have assigned to police that are in direct contrast to their intended purpose. He starts by outlining how the birth of municipal police forces came to be, mainly a body of force for cities to use in reaction to labor protests, beginning in London and eventually coming across the Atlantic to Boston and New York City. He goes on to look at specific areas where police have been employed and how inappropriate that is. Vitale looks at the injuries and deaths that occur when police are expected to deal with people that have a mental illness, behavior problems in schools, homelessness, drug addiction, and border security. Vitale makes a compelling case that all of these societal issues would be much better handled by health professionals with police taking a backseat approach to only intervene in the most extreme cases. He’s able to explain how providing housing and health programs with fidelity does more to alleviate the poverty that leads to the police becoming involved in these venues. It’s a well written and thoroughly researched text that cuts through the noise of online arguments to lay out a clear case with solutions of how we can lower the number of police-related deaths in America.

Pale Horse Rider: William Cooper, the Rise of Conspiracy, and the Fall of Trust in America by Mark Jacobson
Before Alex Jones and the idiocy of InfoWars, there was William Milton Cooper. Cooper published his conspiracy theorist manifesto Behold a Pale Horse in 1991, and since then it has been quoted by people are varied as the Wu-Tang Clan and Timothy McVeigh. Journalist Marc Jacobson tells Cooper’s story from the beginning, using his influence in feeding the culture with wild conjectures as a means to talk about how we’ve gotten to the present state. However, the book never loses its focus on Cooper the human being, an incredibly complicated and unsympathetic figure who left behind a trail of wives and children before settling in Arizona. I’d consider this a vital read for anyone wanting to understand the insanity of Trump Deep State paranoia and the Pizzagate conspiracy. This is the bridge that brought the John Birch Society to the internet age.

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