Dedicated to classics and hits.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Solaris (1961) by Stanislaw Lem

The sentient ocean planet of Solaris creates growths that are described in the books, but absent from the film.
Book Review
Solaris (1961)
by Stanislaw Lem

  Science fiction and fantasy have largely were the exclusive domain of English language authors up to this point.  Solaris is the first  non-English language science fiction title in the 1001 Books Project (unless you count Jules Verne.)  Solaris remains a relevant property.  The sentient planet-ocean of the book and multiple movie adaptations serve as an inspiration for the "Gaia" or living planet hypothesis.    You could make the argument that among all the different genres which flowered within the novel format in the 20th century, Science Fiction is the most important.  One of the major weaknesses of the novel is the backward looking bias of authors looking to create imaginary scenarios from their own memories.  It stands to reason, it's much harder to write convincingly, let alone "realistically" about a time and place that do not exist.

  Unlike all other genres within the larger world of the novel, Science Fiction looks forward, dreaming of new worlds and ideas, but typically based on reality and the laws of physics.  Science Fiction has also continued to have a high accuracy rate over the last half century, from the Space Age to the Internet Age.

   Solaris has been adapted into two films, neither of which are particularly faithful to the book.  The 1972 version was directed by Russian Andrei Tarkovsky and is generally ranked as one of the top 10 science fiction films of all time.  The 2002 version was directed by Steven Soderbergh  The book spends almost half it's length discussing various academic theories that have been brought forward about the sentient ocean living on the planet Solaris.  Both film completely omit this material in favor of multiple flashbacks regarding the life of  Kris Kelvin on Earth.  It's an understandable choice, but it means that both filmmakers sacrifice the most interesting ideas contained in the book in favor of amplifying the human drama.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Faces in the Water (1961) by Janet Frame

Author Janet Frame was memorably portrayed by Alexia Keogh- who never acted again- in Jane Campion's Janet Frame Bio-pic, Angel at My Table
Book Review
Faces in the Water (1961)
by Janet Frame

  Kiwi author Janet Frame was famously sprung from a long term psychiatric hospitalization just before she was scheduled to undergo a lobotomy.   Her story was movingly told by Jane Campion in the 1990 film, An Angel at My Table, which more or less gave a straight take on Frame's early life and everything up to and past her hospitalization.   Frame in the Water focuses almost exclusively on her period of hospitalization.    I can't think of an earlier narrative of institutionalization, unless you want to go back to the Marquis de Sade.  Frame was ahead of her time, but only just, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest would firmly establish the institutionalization narrative as a viable genre in 1962.  On the strength of her early work and her gripping biography, she crafted a respectable career, though she was never a serious contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature, and she never won the Booker Award.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Country Girls (1960) by Edna O'Brien

Edna O'Brien wrote Country Girl (1960) and my irish/anglo-phil girlfriend said of it, "It's a classic, not like those other books you read, a real classic that people have read."
Book Review
Country Girls (1960)
by Edna O'Brien

  The experience of young people in the Ireland of the 1950s and 60s seems as alien as any African or Asian young person during that time period when you compare it to the experience of English or American teens. Despite being in the vanguard of 20th century nationalist movements and hosting a vibrant intellectual culture for hundreds of years, Ireland was, for almost all young people, a very un-free place, more like a Communist country than a western democracy.  The books written by Irish authors about young people in Ireland during the 1950s reflect this lack of freedom, and Country Girls is a great example, about the experience of two adolescent women in rural Ireland.  Caithleen is the narrator and her best friend/tormentor is Baba.   Both come from an "upper middle class" environment, though Caithleen's father is an alcoholic failure who leaves her adrift when her Mom accidentally dies in the first 50 pages.

   Caithleen attend and are expelled from a strict Catholic boarding school, and the third act has them in London, where Baba goes to school and Caithleen takes a job at a grocery store.   O'Brien keeps a lively pace, and Caithleen and Baba are drawn as essentially modern girls, albeit ones stuck in rural Ireland in the late 1950s. 

Borstal Boy (1958) by Brendan Behan


The 1990 movie of Borstal Boy did a little bit more than hint at gay relationships between the juvenile male prisoners.
Book Review
Borstal Boy (1958)
by Brendan Behan

   Borstal Boy is a straight forward prison memoir written by Brendan Behan, who, like the narrator of this book, was committed to 3 years in a "Borstal" or Juvenile Prison after being convicted of possessing bomb making materials shortly after arriving in England.  Behan was Irish, and he freely admits that he was, indeed, sent to England to manufacture and plant bombs to kill innocent people on behalf of the Irish Republican Armies.  While reading Borstal Boy, I couldn't but help on reflect on how attitudes towards terrorists have changed over the years.

  In fact, almost the entire book seems nearly otherworldly when I compare it to my knowledge of contemporary prison conditions.  Compared to today, the English Borstals seem idyllic, like a combination of a sleep away camp and reform school.   Behan doesn't seem upset at all at the narrator's situation.  He has an attitude of grace and good humor that no doubt went a long way towards endearing him towards the English reading public.

  There is little violence and almost no sex.  Homosexual relationships between prisoners are hinted at, but not explicitly discussed.  The jailers and guards are by in charge depicted sympathetically.  I'd almost describe Borstal Boy as "cute."

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