Hansen is an author I’d not been aware of, but then until recently I’ve really only read the big names in crime fic...more4.5 stars, review contains spoilers
Hansen is an author I’d not been aware of, but then until recently I’ve really only read the big names in crime fiction, and only some of those - Conan Doyle, Hammett, Chandler, Elmore Leonard - and some of the current writers such as Val McDermid, Chris Brookmyre and Dennis Lehane. Thanks to couple of groups on GoodReads (especially the Pulp Fiction group) I’ve been discovering some very fine crime writers and, if Fadeout is anything to go by, Joseph Hansen is certainly one of them.
Published in 1970 it is the first of a series featuring Dave Brandstetter, an insurance investigator in California. Branstetter arrives at a small town to investigate the apparent death of a local celebrity before the insurance company will pay out $150, 000 on the life insurance. Much of what follows is what you would expect from a (superior) detective novel; Hansen writes in tight, expressive prose, exposing the buried secrets of the various members of the family and the local community, their relationships and jealousies and prejudices. The prejudice is especially apparent when it turns out that the missing man is gay and has left his wife of many years for an old lover. This is particularly poignant as Brandstetter is himself openly and contentedly gay, and has recently lost his own long-term partner. That’s right, check the beginning of this paragraph again. This must have been groundbreaking, indeed shocking, not only when it was first published but for many years afterward. What works particularly well is that the protagonist’s life with his partner - his memories of their being together and his description of the pain of his loss to cancer - are written in precisely the terms that a heterosexual relationship would be, and I can think of no reason it should be otherwise. There is no campness, no undue drama, and this is also true of a later encounter he has, which reads precisely like any other flirtation from another hard-boiled detective book. Even in our more enlightened age it would be rare to come across this being handled so well.
This also holds for Hansen’s description of Buddy, a young man with cerebral palsy, who we see through the detective’s compassionate eyes as determined and intelligent and funny, and absolutely not a caricature to be pitied or patronised. The characterisation throughout is superb, but it is especially with Buddy that Hansen shows his power as a writer.(less)
While I've read most of Orwell's novels I have somehow never got around to his non-fiction. As I was a journalism student, this is close to criminal....moreWhile I've read most of Orwell's novels I have somehow never got around to his non-fiction. As I was a journalism student, this is close to criminal. In happy remedy to this, BBC radio is currently having an Orwell season, all the programmes (readings, adaptations and documentaries) archived for posterity at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01pyz0z so please pay it a visit.
Down and Out in Paris and London is, along with The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia, considered one of the great pieces of reportage of the 20th century. Orwell's description of his time living on (and below) the breadline in these two capitals is breathtaking. He manages to combine a journalistic distance with a visceral understanding and explanation of what it means to be truly broke, to a level which is almost inconceivable in the same societies scant decades later. His descriptions of hardship never come across as unfair or whining, partly because the level of poverty is so extreme but mostly due to the fact that he so often compares his own plight with others he meets who are even worse off than himself; Orwell has the expectation that his privation is temporary (and we know this to be the case, in retrospect) many of the people he meets are sinking to depths he assumes he will never reach, habituated to their lot, or otherwise hopeless cases. Yet Orwell's writing is infused with compassion and a sense of social justice that he is never condescending to or belittling of their situations; without preaching he draws attention to the social inequalities that not only allow but require people to beg or starve, that marginalise a large section of society to the impoverishment of everyone due to the moral damage and human waste this engenders. Such ire as Orwell expresses (and there is not much; this is a book of compassion rather than anger) is reserved for those who perpetuate the status quo - whether they are those who use their power over anyone worse off than themselves, the religious charities who exploit the need of the poor to spread their message or those vagrants who still somehow buy into the injustice.
This is, perhaps, the definitive example of journalism as social activism, and serves not only as a reminder of how things once were but as a warning in a time when social safety nets are being dismantled in the name of austerity of the very real social and human dangers of a society that is happy to regard those who have fallen on hard times as surplus to requirements.(less)
**spoiler alert** I think that it is difficult to overstate how good a writer Bellow was. His writing is dense – not only in the way language is used,...more**spoiler alert** I think that it is difficult to overstate how good a writer Bellow was. His writing is dense – not only in the way language is used, but in the expression of ideas and emotion, and the completeness of characterisation.
Artur Sammler is a man who sees everything but doesn't connect. He is doubly an alien – a Polish Jew who had integrated into English society between the wars, mixing in intellectual circles (HG Wells and the Bloomsbury group), now living in New York where both his Europeaness and Englishness make him feel an outsider. Although in truth it is an inability to connect that keeps him alienated. He hides behind smoked glasses, worn to hide a ruined eye, observing and examining with clinical detachment the madness of his several relatives and of the great metropolis around him. Understandably so; the eye was ruined by the rifle butt of a Nazi soldier when Sammler and his wife were caught up in WWII while visiting Poland, where he escaped a mass grave that she did not. It is no surprise that he avoids the subway.
Through Sammler's eye, as old as the 20th century, New York seems to represent a world on the verge of dissolution; “Like many people who had seen the world collapse once, Mr Sammler entertained the possibility that it might collapse twice.” He watches the behaviours of those around him with an anthropological detachment, claiming to pass no judgement. His crazy daughter who hides her beauty under wigs and badly chosen clothes and seeks refuge in Catholicism and theft. His great niece, rebelling against a privileged upbringing by embracing sixties sexual liberation with abandon; her brother filled with mad ideas for making his own fortune while obsessed with finding the illicit wealth he believes his own dying father has hidden in their house. His daughter's estranged husband, hawking tacky Hebrew art.
Sammler's dying nephew, a wealthy retired doctor who helped him come to the US and has supported him, seems the only person he is truly connected to and, as he tries to return to the hospital to speak to the sick man one last time the threads that bind him to the family and the wider world seem to delay Sammler, though enabling him to achieve some measure of self awareness and balance.
One of the books that first introduced me to SF, Aldiss' tale of a distant future Earth where humanity - a much changed, reduced species - lives a pre...moreOne of the books that first introduced me to SF, Aldiss' tale of a distant future Earth where humanity - a much changed, reduced species - lives a precarious life in the high branches of the continent-spanning banyan tree, until a member of one of the tiny tribes in which they live is infested with morel, an intelligent parasitic fungus. Gren and his tribe find their way to a new home, battling dangers, mostly of a mobile, predatory vegetable nature, which has become the dominant form under the bloated red sun. It suffers a little from the aging of the language used (it was first published in 1961) and a somewhat hallucinatory feeling to some of the descriptions and action - again, possibly to do with the era in which it was written - but is a classic of SF.(less)