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Pick of the Month

January Pick: 
"The Bear Came Over the Mountain" by Alice Munro (from the collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage)
Away from Her (2006) directed by Sarah Polley


It's axiomatic, I think, that a long marriage has at least one bear that will come (back) over the mountain. Here it is husband Grant's past philandering. And wife Fiona's Alzheimer's disease, with its strange tricks of memory. The past reverberates, as it does in so many Munro stories, but what I especially love about this one is the way she explores the ruthlessness that growing old with grace requires.


Director/writer Polley's take is softer—you can tell just by the title—but is no less complex. Both story and film remind me of a quote I read recently (Ram Doss?): When you love, truly love somebody, there is no version of reality in which what is good for them is bad for you …  



December Pick: 
"Babette's Feast" by Isak Dinesen (from the collection Anecdotes of Destiny)
Babette's Feast (1987) directed by Gabriel Axel

Babette can cook. That's how the title character—formerly a great chef, now a refugee fleeing civil war—is introduced to the two sisters who take her in. She works as their servant, toiling in obscurity, until fate steps in and she is able to create one magnificent meal. The story (first published in Ladies' Home Journal, 1958) is told as a fable and was written on a dare. Write about food, Dinesen was reportedly told. Americans love food.


The film adaptation—a strange success for a story told so slowly—has come to serve as a sort of Rorschach test. Is it about the transformational nature of a shared meal? About sacrifice and grace? (It's Pope Francis's favorite film.) Or, as I tend to think, about a thwarted female artist?


Babette can cook.



November Pick:
"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" by James Thurber (from the collection The Thurber Carnival)
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) directed by Norman Z. McLeod
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) directed by Ben Stiller

As a resident of Thurber's hometown it's almost heresy to say that much of his work is dated. I do love his love of language, though, and that is on full display here. My favorite turn of phrase is when master surgeon Mitty masks up to save the patient after "coreopsis has set in." (Who doesn't love a story that uses the word coreopsis?) Even the character's name is so perfectly crafted that it's defined in the Mirriam-Webster dictionary as a "commonplace unadventurous person who seeks escape from reality through daydreaming."  


Both movie adaptations add romance and mystery and bear little resemblance to the story but for the daydreaming. They also make Mitty a bachelor (a good thing). Thurber's views on dogs have aged way better than his views on women.  



October Pick:
"In Another Country" by David Constantine (from the collection In Another Country)
45 Years (2015) directed by Andrew Haigh

After several years of pandemic, this story was almost too close for comfort. An old couple in a little house "with not enough rooms to go room to room in." Meals, television, bed. A dictionary misplaced behind the pickles. The first words spoken: What's the matter now? Into this claustrophobic marriage, a ghost arrives in the form of news of the husband's former lover. The narrative is tight, omniscient, and distant. The characters are referred to as Mr. and Mrs. Mercer, until a letter (!) from husband to wife reveals that the wife's name is Kate. Fortunately, in the excellent movie adaptation, the Mercers get out a bit more. Another nice change is the POV shift to Kate (Charlotte Rampling, always a welcome and wild intelligence). Mature ghost stories, both.



September Pick: 
"My Old Man" and "The Worst Thing a Suburban Girl Could Imagine"
by Melissa Bank (from the collection The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing)
Suburban Girl (2007) directed by Marc Klein

When I heard that Melissa Bank had recently died, I wanted to reread this collection. I wondered if the stories were as fluffy as I remembered. They're not, especially these two. Taken together, they could be considered a novella—and a good one—about a twenty-something woman (Jane) and her relationship with a much older mentor/lover (Archie). Her lack of footing, his mercurial charm and cruelty, their bad sex—it's all narrated with deflective breeziness. "Show, don't tell" is taken to an extreme. The closest Jane gets to complaining/explaining is to say—upon discovering Archie's secret drinking—that it's like getting the subtitles after the movie. My only margin note was a sigh.


It's no wonder the adaptation struggles with tone. On the other hand, Alec Baldwin is inspired casting.  



August Pick:
"Old Joy" by Jon Raymond (from the collection Livability)
Old Joy (2006) directed by Kelly Reichardt

It's a familiar narrative: the road story, the buddy/bro story. Two old friends set out on a trip together. The question here, though, is not so much What happens next? but What is that feeling?


The journey takes place in the Pacific Northwest. It begins with the gong of a meditation bell. There is talk of community gardens and the shape of the universe. Forests and streams are lushly described/gorgeously photographed. Dreams are recounted. In short, this is an earthy-crunchy reunion. Director Kelly Reichardt has described the film's conflict as "competitive openness"—a zen-off, if you will. But there's a more universal layer (a bit more pronounced in the film): The need to justify one's life choices—reluctantly, maybe even a little passive-aggressively—to an important, albeit distant, old friend.  



July 5-fer Pick:
"Barn Burning" by William Faulkner
"Barn Burning" by Haruki Murakami
"The Lady with the Pet Dog" by Anton Chekhov
"A New and Glorious Life" by Michelle Herman 
"The Dead" by James Joyce

Recently, I revisited with pleasure some stories that have been adapted and reimagined again and again. These stories touch on Russia (Chekhov), our peculiarly American desire to burn it all down (Faulkner), and death (Joyce). (Yes, I've been in a dark frame of mind.) I enjoyed it so much I've decided to post a story/movie pick every month. This July, in the following link, you get a five-fer ...