Seth’s Favorite Books of 2021

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

From my review: The story begins with Lauren, still a teenager, living with her father, stepmother, and brothers in their gated community. The people have barricaded the walls and gate and, under the guidance of Lauren’s father, created a tenuous but self-sustaining system. The story begins with very episodic moments, signs that things aren’t great, and as the narrative continues getting worse. Butler focuses her themes on the balance of individual & collective survival. Lauren begins preparing in secret for the day the walls don’t hold the hungry & wanting out anymore. She learns everything she can from her father’s library about survival in the wilderness and then goes about creating a go-bag with everything she would need to set out. At the same time, there’s a strong emphasis on teaching these skills to others. Lauren knows she could be perfectly prepared, but it will be much harder for her to survive independently. While most people in this future are becoming more savage, Lauren understands life without human connection is simply not worth it.

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

From my review: I really appreciated what Zinn chose to focus on. The updated edition only goes up to the Clinton presidency, but I love that he didn’t spend much time ruminating on Nixon when he got to the Watergate era. Instead, he voices disgust at how Nixon was thrown to the wolves by a corrupt system that benefits from our focus on the individual rather than the larger structures. In the same way, the media was singularly fixated on Trump; it allowed the bloated military and the cruelty of departments like ICE to continue unabated. We see it in real-time as neoliberals Biden and Harris have taken office only to continue inhumane policies towards refugees and continue, as power has done so for generations, to address the chasm of economic inequality in America. Coronavirus has been one of those watershed moments that really peeled the mask off the system’s apathy towards the people. As I knew it would, we’ve reached the moment where those in power have decided we will tolerate people dying from the virus. My biggest takeaway from this book is that the United States excels in one area more than others in being the chief producer of savvy propaganda about itself and its adversaries worldwide. It’s why I don’t believe the American people, as they are now, can turn the tide and change things for the better. We live in a society where people are kept liminally comfortable, just enough to be happy but just so slight as to fear losing what they have. It will take a catastrophic change for people to wake up and see that what they believe is making them happy are placebos and that a better world is possible. However, something that catastrophic in scale could mark the end of the United States and humanity as a whole.

Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke by Eric LaRocca

From my review: This novella came across my radar while watching TikTok. If you’ve ever engaged in that platform, you’ve likely been led down certain nooks of interests. I have ended up in BookTok and couldn’t be happier because I am getting recommendations every time I open the app. Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke (or Things as I will call it for typing’s sake) is a novella set in 2000. This is an epistolary novel (novel in letters) with a twist. These are emails between two women on an LGBTQ online forum. The women involved are very lonely in their perspective lives, but their connection starts when one advertises on the platform that she’s selling an antique apple peeler. The buyer contacts her, and throughout their exchanges, we learn that the seller is struggling financially, so the buyer just gifts her some money to help out. They grow closer, and things get stranger until an intense dominant-submissive dynamic emerges. But it gets pretty grim as they go further. This fantastic modern horror story reads very quickly; you could knock it out in about an hour and a half or less. There’s nothing supernatural going on here, the horror is clearly psychological, and the things one of these participants does will definitely test the squeamishness of readers. Highly recommend this one for fans of horror literature.

The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell: Stories by Brian Evenson

From my review: In “Palisade,” a young man and his irrationally homicidal uncle go into hiding on a lake island after the uncle kills a man. There is a house on the island built out of the back of the building. Everything appears to indicate the desire to lock something in, but of course, these two cross the threshold. In “The Shimmering Wall,” a city’s inhabitants reach into a strange interdimensional wall to scavenge random objects to sell. Shadows on the other side will sometimes pull people through, never to be seen again. The narrator relates the story of when this happened to his parents and what brought him back to the wall as a husband years later. In “Come Up,” an unfaithful husband watches as his wife dives into a lake, never to resurface. He is seen as her possible killer, but there’s no evidence he did anything. The man becomes haunted, and it seems his wife wants him to join her. These stories perfectly set the atmosphere and deliver sharply written horror stories that are a delight to read.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

From my review: Yeong-hye is a quiet, plain woman who lives with her husband in Seoul. He becomes increasingly annoyed when she suddenly announces she’s become a vegetarian and won’t be preparing him food with meat anymore. This change comes about when her mind is suddenly overcome with violent, bloody images that nauseate her. In the latter part of the book, she describes a sinister face in her stomach that she is trying to suppress. Yeong-hye’s husband loses it and contacts her family, who promptly set up a dinner with the purpose of shaming her into eating meat again. As the story spirals out of control, the perspective shifts. There are three parts, first her husband’s pov, then her brother-in-law, and finally, her sister. With each piece, Yeong-hye is further ostracized, having fewer people there to support her. I don’t know a lot about Korean food culture, but I know that the sharing of a dish is relatively standard. Yeong-hye’s choice to separate herself during meals, not taking what is shared with her, seems to set off her family. She’s violating core pieces of their social code, and they become brutal in trying to get her to submit.

The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson

From my review: As with all collections, not every story is going to please every reader. But the ones that worked for me were outstanding. “The Lucky Strike” reimagines the atomic bombing of Japan. Captain Frank January is the soldier responsible for pressing the button that drops the first bomb, and as he comes to the realization of what will happen to the people below when that bomb hits, he just cannot do it. January intentionally messes up the launch creating an alternate history. He is, of course, court-martialed and executed but dies knowing he was a savior to so many people. This is immediately followed by a fictional history piece called “A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions” that outlines the ripple through history January’s actions would have had, a whole anti-nuclear movement rising up and changing the tide of peace in the world. You have a story like “Arthur Sternbach Brings the Curveball to Mars” that is like a slice of life about people living on a developed Mars colony, physiology changed over generations, just playing baseball. There’s the madcap adventure story “Escape from Kathmandu” about a man becoming part of a clandestine operation to save a Yeti while having to navigate Jimmy Carter’s arrival and his entourage in the area. “The Lunatics” broke my heart with its subterranean moon-mining slaves creating mythologies and monsters to try and keep their minds intact. Robinson will challenge your notions of what qualifies as “science fiction” and hopefully hook readers that might otherwise shy away from the genre.

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