2021: It’s a Wrap

Book-wise, this was a great year, and here are the highlights.

Best of 2021:

A Kiss Before Dying: Ira Levin

One of the most enthralling, creepiest crime books I’ve read, this is the story of Bud, a psychopath who returns from WWII a hero, but finds that the normal route to success (hard work, starter jobs, college) is not for him. A stint as a gigolo for an older, wealthy widow is just the ticket, but it comes with an expiration date. Bud calculates that the next move is a wealthy, young bride, so he enrolls in a college known as “a country club for the children of the Midwestern wealthy.” The plan works well until the girl gets pregnant….

Nightmare Alley: William Gresham.

This gritty noir story follows the rise and fall of Stanton Carlisle, a carnie worker who moves up in his trade from mind reader, to medium to reverend. Along the way, he manipulates, steals, defrauds and murders. His weakness is sex and women. He uses women, but eventually stumbles into the life of a woman who’s nastier than he is. There’s a film version of this just released.

The Beggar’s Pawn: John L’Heureux

A well-to-do older married couple allow their lives to be invaded by a manipulative, resentful would-be writer, Reginald Parker. The couple, a professor and his independently wealthy wife, have warning signals about Reginald, but they are ‘nice’ people, burdened with their own sense of privilege and constantly under siege, financially, from their 3 awful children.

The Paper Lovers: Gerard Woodward

Arnold Proctor, a professor and poet, is happily married, or at least thinks he is, when he finds that he’s attracted to one of his wife’s friends, Vera. Arnold becomes fascinated with Vera–yes there’s a strong sexual attraction, but she’s religious and somehow, Arnold can’t align Vera with her strong religious beliefs. A sexual advance leads to almost instant coupling. Again Arnold can’t align Vera’s actions with her beliefs. This is adultery, right? Doesn’t she feel guilty? Arnold finds out the hard way (not that we feel sorry for him) that transgressions for the religious have a certain trajectory.

Wives and Daughters: Elizabeth Gaskell

A wonderful novel which traces the life of Molly Gibson whose father, a country doctor, marries a silly, selfish, vain widow. Dr. Gibson has no idea what he’s dealing with when he marries the snobby, ridiculous shallow widow, Mrs. Kirkpatrick, but Molly doesn’t know what she’s dealing with when her capricious step-sister, Cynthia, arrives.

Oh William!: Elizabeth Strout

This is the story of a man in crisis who calls upon his ex-wife to cushion him from life. Lucy Barton and William have been divorced for some time when the story begins, but she still cares about William. By the time I finished this, I wanted to shake Lucy Barton and ask her why William’s needs were sooo important–even to the exclusion of her own. The tale is told by Lucy who divorced William for his (as it turns out) numerous affairs. Lucy may have left the marriage behind but not apparently the need to ‘care’ about William. When William’s much younger wife dumps William (shock!) Lucy becomes re-involved with William. Their relationship is an example of Amy Witting’s ‘the diners and the dinners,’ and we all know who the diner is here.

The Bachelors: Muriel Spark.

This very funny story strings together several London bachelors who become involved, in various ways, with the sticky tendrils of a forgery and fraud case which involves a male medium who has murderous designs on his pregnant girlfriend.

The Barsetshire Series: Anthony Trollope.

Six novels. The Warden, Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage, The Small House at Allington, The Last Chronicle of Barset. The series follows the lives and tribulations of various characters who live in Barsetshire. With countless subplots, Trollope delves into the squabbles between clergymen, ecclesiastical hierarchy, love affairs, the vagaries of marriage, the power of the press, snobbery, debt. Barchester Towers has long been a great favourite, but The Last Chronicle of Barset comes a close second. Throughout the series, Trollope reveals petty behaviour, but towards the end of the series, petty behaviour yields to much more serious transgressions. But Trollope oversees all with his customary good humour and generosity.

Hoke Moseley series: Charles Willeford

This is a 4-book, hardboiled crime series: Miami Blues, New Hope for the Dead, Sideswipe, The Way We Die Now, Miami homicide detective, Hoke Moseley isn’t anyone’s idea of a hero. When the series opens, he’s divorced, living in a flop house hotel, wearing leisure suits, beginning to go bald, has no teeth and is struggling to make ends meet. By the end of the series, his career is looking up and he has both of his teenage daughters after his Ex took off to California. Now he has a few stray hairs on his head, still wears those outdated leisure suits, and still has no teeth. Actually Hoke’s false teeth play a role in the books. Hoke’s career moves through the influx of Cuban refugees, Affirmative Action, gentrification and, horror of horrors, laws concerning public smoking. Hoke’s laconic attitude belies his natural born-killer instinct and his peculiar way of looking at the world lightens the darkness.

Leisureville: Andrew Blechman

Not the best book I read in 2021, but definitely the most interesting non-fiction book of the year. The book is written by Andrew Blechman who goes to the world’s largest retirement community, The Villages in Florida after a neighbour moves there. While the author didn’t approve of the ethics (if that’s the right word) of the place, I was fascinated. Why would people choose to move to a community with age restrictions? What’s it like? What are the benefits? What are the drawbacks?



Filed under Fiction, Gaskell, Elizabeth, Gresham Lindsay William, L'Heureux John, Levin Ira, posts, Spark, Muriel, Strout Elizabeth, Trollope, Anthony, Willeford, Charles, Woodward Gerard

15 responses to “2021: It’s a Wrap

  1. Your choices have a decidedly Weltschmerz tinge, except perhaps for Barchester Towers. I agree that The Bachelors is funny but I found it very disturbing – the characters are so unrelievedly nasty and their lives seemed desperately sad to me. On the other hand, I’ve always found something very funny about the idea of “the word’s largest retirement community”, as if the American population were being swallowed up by oldies, like a boa constrictor swallowing its own tail.

    • Weltschmerz: my middle name.
      I have yet to review the Bachelors. But don’t you think that Spark’s books, even funny as they are, have that sort of nasty edge? Some more than others.

      The book (and documentary) explores some of the more disturbing aspects of retirement communities (emphasis on the VIllages) of course.

  2. I own the Levin but haven’t read it yet. It sounds very similar (though it predates) Massimo Carlotto’s incredibly bleak The Goodbye Kiss.

    Glad to see the Moseley’s fare so well. I read Miami Blues off the back of your review and thought it excellent so I should clearly get back to those.

    I’ve never read any Gaskell, but I note that Wives & Daughters is unfinished, though you talk to that in the comments. Is there a better entry Gaskell?

    • I don’t know what Guy would say but I’ve read a few Gaskells, including this one, and of those I’ve read I’d definitely say North and south (which was also made into a miniseries). Cranford is delightful.

    • I agree with Gummie. Cranford. Wives and Daughters, unfinished, still reads well.Easy to tell where the plot is going.
      I”ve read that Carlotto. It’s wonderful but the Levin is (IMO from memory) more twisted.

  3. Great round up Guy, and lovely to see Gaskell and the Barsetshire novels. I remember reading your review of A kiss before dying, and have noted that as a possibility for my son. I have still to read Strout, which is outrageous I know.

    BTW I can see many benefits to retirement villages – though not perhaps the ones I’ve seen in Florida via the media. I see them as being more for in my 80s not 55+ as many promote themselves as. The main benefit I see is that when mobility starts to become difficult, you have access to a community and community activities (like age-related exercise classes, movie sessions, happy hours), you are no longer responsible for all those maintenance issues that become hard for older people to manage on their own in their own homes, and you often have transport provided for shopping or special events. Both my MIL and my parents moved into such villages in their 80s and got a lot out of them. An 83-year-old friend has just moved into the one my parents were in and is so happy there. She’s widowed and is now unable to drive because of vision issues, but she’s extroverted. The suburbs were going to be just too isolating for her. Both these villages were/are fairly small, and friendly, with not a lot of fancy resort ra-ra. The thing is, you can also engage with others as little or as much as you like. In other words, they can be like living in a townhouse or apartment complex, with some extra benefits.

  4. I think there are many benefits to retirement villages. The book gets into the sociology of the Villages–including the sex life of some of the residents. There’s a documentary too well worth catching.

  5. Nice list Guy. Trollope has always passed me by, but I read your reviews and you do make them sound appealing. I think I’d need to finish Zola first before starting another 19th century series though.

    Have never read Levin, funny how he’s dropped out of sight. This sounds well worth a look. Incidentally, I’m reading about the making of Chinatown, and Evans (producer) and Polanski (director) of course began their relationship on Rosemary’s Baby.

    Good reading in 2022…

  6. Thanks. What’s the name of the book about Chinatown? I know someone who would be interested as it’s one of his all-time favourite films. Trollope is overlooked IMO. Just finished Bleak House and found myself comparing Dickens to Trollope.
    Yes you are right, odd that Levin has dropped out of sight.

  7. Great list and very you : crime & noir and 19th C classics.
    Happy reading in 2022 too!

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