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?