Books of the Year 2021

You know you’re in a bit of a rut when you can cut and paste the header from the previous year’s Books of the Year round-up. But here it is:

I have to begin with a disclaimer. I read a lot of books in 2020, but not very many new books. And in particular not a lot of fiction (outside of SF). This is something that I’ve noticed is only getting worse. I’d like to read more new fiction, but much of it seems to be getting lost in the shuffle of pages.

In 2021 this trend continued. I shouldn’t be surprised. At some point I think every committed reader starts to think about the number of books they have left in them, which then leads to a deeper consideration of where one’s time is best spent. And that time is usually not best spent reading new books. Still, I would like to do better in 2022. There’s always hope!

Best fiction: Looking back on 2021, I guess one way of picking a winner here is thinking of the book I remember the best. I know that’s only one criteria, but I think it’s an important one. And if I had to pick the work of fiction that’s stuck in my head the most it would be Pasha Malla’s Kill the Mall, which is another working of the recently very hot field of Weird fiction in Canadian writing.

 

 

 

Best non-fiction: I will go with The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow just for its sweep, provocative point of view, and readability. I will then rush to add that it’s a book that I had a lot of disagreements with. Much of it I think is just wrong. But it’s a book of the year.

 

 

 

 

Best SF: Quite a few titles suggest themselves here but I’ll go with Izumi Suzuki’s Terminal Boredom. This is maybe stretching the idea of a new book a bit since it’s a collection of stories written in the 1980s (Suzuki committed suicide in 1986), but I think they’re mostly new translations and the book itself is new. In any event, I really liked it and even found it a bit surprising that what I thought one of the freshest and most groundbreaking SF titles of the year was actually written forty years ago.

13 thoughts on “Books of the Year 2021

  1. Since goodreports.net is commentless I’ll park this here:
    This post — https://goodreports.net/2021/10/25/the-tyranny-of-merit/ — is excellent! I expect to be quoting your eloquent paragraph on Trump, “losers,” and his strange popularity in the near future. It’s a counterintuitive, insightful take.
    One thought on why the US succeeded postwar and began failing after Reagan’s election. It was actually due in part to a system the US Republicans would say was the *opposite* of merit: the US Civil Service.
    In order to execute the New Deal programs you needed a dedicated, mostly not corrupt caste of worker bees. These people weren’t paid super-well but had good pensions and benefits.
    The US Republicans spread the propaganda meme of “lazy government workers” in order to justify dismantling and privatization of Civil Service positions, carnage that is still ongoing. As government gets noticeably less competent, this justifies further cuts.

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    • Agree completely. What the Republicans stand for more than anything today is hatred of the government. The more old-school “conservatives” will describe this as “limited government” but what it really amounts to is what Sarah Kendzior refers to as stripping the state down and selling it off as spare parts/scrap. Michael Lewis’s The Fifth Risk is a popular take on this, but it’s really everywhere. Big Government is now so evil that it can’t even be trusted to handle things like rolling out a vaccine. Meanwhile, the rhetoric of tearing down the government has always been there (Grover Nyquist’s line about shrinking government to the point where it can be drowned in the bathtub), but it’s been taken to a new level, and new seriousness with the program of people like Bannon, who talk explicitly and enthusiastically about destroying the state.

      My own theory here is that the Republicans are basically looking at what happened to post-Soviet Russia as a model to be followed. Single-party rule, one state-owned media outlet, and control of the economy by a group of oligarchs who represent a government-business partnership. It’s not far removed from China either. It’s something that a lot of the old Cold Warriors seem to be missing. These guys aren’t the commies any longer, with a godless, evil system that’s a rival of or threat to capitalism. They have a *better* system of capitalism that America’s oligarchs want to emulate.

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  2. Post-Soviet Russia had a lot of interference from Milton Friedman types in the US. That stopped under Putin and Russia seems to be evolving its own hybrid system. China has a better safety net than the US and actively funds its rural areas under Xi. Both countries are autocratic but seem to be run by a government as opposed to a handful of private corporations and CEOs.
    I mentioned the US Civil Service in response to Michael Sandel’s statement “Over the past four decades, meritocratic elites have not governed very well. The elites who governed the United States from 1940 to 1980 were far more successful.” The 1940-1980 elites created the social programs but left them for non-elites to run. I haven’t read Sandel’s book so I don’t know if he makes that distinction.

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    • The private sector in Russia and China is very much subordinate to the government. But I think that’s actually the system that the right wants in the U.S. because it’s not a communist or socialist government but one where a bunch of rich families and oligarchs own everything, whether they’re members of the (only) party or friends of people who are. Putin is reportedly the richest man in the world for being czar of what is not a wealthy country. What politician wouldn’t want a slice of that? Think of how much money can be made from dismantling the American state.

      I think the endgame the Republicans, or Western elites more generally, seem to be aiming for is something very similar to these formerly communist countries: control the media, get rid of democracy and replace it with one-party rule by a class of oligarchs who control the government, and then work together with the private sector to enrich themselves.

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  3. Trump and Bannon (I know we don’t agree on this) are bugbears for the real villains: the “liberals” that internalized Chicago School talking points about budget-balancing and the free market. There is almost no space between Bill Clinton and Paul Ryan on the issue of so-called entitlements. They think social spending threatens to drain the country and they don’t care at all about the cost of military spending. (There is actually a video somewhere of Clinton and Ryan having a tete-a-tete backstage at some event, where Clinton is assuring Ryan that on the “next vote” — whatever that was — they would have support for the cuts Ryan wanted.) Of course the right believes in “markets” but the Dems have actually been able to turn this ideology into policy. I would say on the “need” to cut Social Security and Medicare, Clinton, Obama, and the hated Trump are in near-complete agreement. Biden currently has an appointee inside Medicare (Elizabeth Fowler) who is working to privatize the system as much as possible.

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    • I’d agree with that, but what I think the Trump phenomenon revealed to the Republicans (and elites more generally) was that they could go a step further. For example, as bad as Clinton and the neoliberal Dems were (and are) I don’t think they believe in getting rid of democracy entirely and turning the U.S. into an authoritarian state run by the Party, with all other parties being ruled illegitimate. After Trump I think the Republicans saw that this was possible and it’s what they’re working toward. As for Trump himself, I don’t think he has any political ideology at all, or goals beyond using the office to get attention, make money, and stay out of jail. But he’s been useful for pushing things along in this direction faster and further than anyone thought possible. Or at least that I thought possible.

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  4. The Republicans (Trumpist and otherwise) and Democrats all benefit from the appearance of a working two party system, as cover for the orgy of looting by the oligarchs (tech, Wall Street, Pharma, etc) who back both parties. Trump’s flaw was “he gave the game away” with his flaky outspokenness (Iraq was a mistake, we’re in Syria for the oil, CNN is fake news — the latter of which is certainly true, as evident from their “Russian aggression” narratives concerning Ukraine). All those truth bombs meant Trump had to go — hence the Russiagate propaganda blitz and weak cases for impeachment.
    Hitler/Trump comparisons never persuaded me — Hitler was a fanatic and control freak; Trump likes his golf and luxury. The MAGA hat rallies apparently scare people outside the US. These are conservative people who fear change and Modernity (not without reason) — there may be brownshirts at the rallies but it’s mostly about solidarity among the working class and rural population.

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    • Yes, Trump is no Hitler. As one historian pointed out a couple of years back (I can’t remember his name), Trump is what the German conservatives wanted Hitler to be: a demagogue buffoon who would get people to vote for him but who would have no interest in actually governing. Instead he (Hitler) turned out to be something more dangerous. Trump, on the other hand, really is a moron just trotted out to play to the rubes, with no political platform at all. The tax cuts and stacking the judiciary were things he didn’t understand or care about, though he’d brag about them all the same. That was all Ryan and McConnell.

      I agree that fear of change is a big part of his appeal, especially among older voters. I think we have a difference of opinion on Russia. As far as I can tell Trump’s only real business for the last twenty years or so has been money laundering for Russians. I actually thought he did enough to get impeached the first time, and the second time should have been a slam dunk. The Ukraine phone call really was a hundred times worse than Watergate.

      Merry Christmas!

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  5. Merry Christmas to you and it feels like I’m trolling you I’ll stop.
    I don’t think Trump was trotted out — I think he trotted himself out in a wild card year of working class rebellions. I started 2016 with the depressing news that the media had decided the election was going to be Jeb vs Hillary — two utterly mediocre dynasties — and ended 2016 with the certainty that both those fools were gone from the world stage. I found this uplifting but by that point most of friends were far gone into Trump Derangement Syndrome and couldn’t share my joy.
    Then, Hillary and the US spooks started aggressively poking the Russian bear, which seemed needlessly stupid. I felt we did need to improve, not upset, relations with that country.
    The things you believe about Putin (I’ve never heard he’s that rich — source? — and don’t really care), Putin controlling Trump, troop movements at the Ukraine border being offensive rather than defensive,
    Trump’s “calls” to Ukraine being illegitimate (not similar calls made by Biden or his junkie son) are all standard talking points of the NYT, CNN, and MSNBC and I don’t particulary trust those sources because they blatantly pass along spook propaganda.
    I’ve been reading Grayzone, Aaron Mate, The Saker (Andrei Raevsky), Pepe Escobar, “Bernard” at Moon of Alabama, and other left skeptics for some balance on geopolitical writing. I don’t swallow it all whole but it does help to at least see a non CNN-view.
    The news outside the CNN bubble is the world is realigning to a tri-polar situation after 30 years of US control. If de-dollarization continues the US will have to act less like The Hegemon bully to other countries and will have to get its own house in order. Riots, covid, woke destruction of standards, offshoring, etc.
    Our aggressive moves into Ukraine are ginning up a major international distraction from where our focus needs to be.
    That’s my two cents worth.

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    • Not to worry about trolling. I find it interesting.

      I agree with you actually that Trump wasn’t initially trotted out. He was seen as a party crasher. I think Republicans hated him from the start, and from all the reporting I’ve read they still do. Even the ones who kiss his ass the most.

      But despite that hate they find him a useful idiot for the reasons I mentioned: he fires up the base and has no interest whatsoever in actually governing, giving the party establishment a free hand to do pretty much whatever they want. Some may grumble about trade wars and the rest, but when push comes to shove — and that was the tax cut bill — they drew a hard line in the sand. The donors were insisting on that. And after tax cuts and stacking the judiciary there really wasn’t much else on the agenda. The Republicans are a party without a platform. Building a wall, infrastructure, a big beautiful new healthcare bill . . . these were things they didn’t even attempt. It got to the point where they finally didn’t even bother publishing a platform for Trump’s second nomination. I don’t think so much because they were just deferring to “whatever Trump says” as that they didn’t have much they really wanted.

      Ah, we do part ways on Russia. I am not in the NeoCon camp and think Russia had plenty of legitimate grievances with NATO expansion etc. Nor do I think Trump is a Manchurian candidate figure. I do, however, think Putin thinks of him as (again) a useful idiot to have in the White House (he publicly stated he wanted Trump to win), and I don’t think there’s any denying that Russia did intervene in the election to help Trump. I don’t know how big a part that played in the election (Clinton was probably the very worst candidate the Dems could have put forward), but it was an issue. I’m disturbed by writing off the connections that were made as a hoax or a fraud. The two sides were meeting. They were working together. They were trying to keep it secret. We don’t know how much of it they did keep secret.

      I don’t agree that Biden was really making similar calls to Ukraine. I’m sure Hunter Biden was working his name and connections for profit, but it seems to have been just the usual soft corruption. The call we have a summary of, of Trump asking the Ukraine government to find/manufacture dirt on Biden in order to use against him in the election, and using American funds as a bribe for that material, was on another level.

      I’ve liked some of Taibbi’s stuff. Greenwald I find hard to take.

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