Pick of the Month
"Yentl the Yeshiva Boy" by Isaac Bashevis Singer from The Collected Stories
Yentl (1983) directed by Barbra Streisand
I suppose, if more people paid attention to short stories, this one—about a young woman (Yentl) whose "soul is perplexed," feeling herself both man and woman, but also neither one nor the other—would be banned in certain places. Yentl changes her name to Anshel, dresses like a man ("what a strange power there is in clothing"), and holds her/his own as a yeshiva student while struggling with feelings of religious confusion. For something written in 1950, it's a pretty nuanced depiction of gender dysphoria. But sadly, Singer didn't have a resolution for Yentl's/Anshel's dilemma … they just fall off the page.
Streisand's adaptation is a more feminist take on the story, and we do learn more about what happens to Yentl. She leaves Poland and comes to America!
"The Hustler" by Walter Tevis from The King is Dead
The Hustler (1961) directed by Robert Rossen
I love this story because it reminds me of my dad. Like Tevis, he was a schoolteacher and a gambler and a bit of a hive-kicker. The story—written when Tevis was a second-year English teacher—is short and powerful. Sam Willis, the story's protagonist, is a seasoned pool hustler, fresh out of prison and on the make. The reader gets the sense, from the first page, that he's doomed. Tevis's trick is that Sam seems to understand it too.
Fast Eddie Falson, the protagonist of Tevis's subsequent novel (and its film adaptation) is just catching on. "Eddie is, in a way, Sam at a younger age," Tevis explained, "learning his first lesson in how you can win and lose at the same time."
"My Son the Fanatic" by Hanif Kureishi (from Love in a Blue Time)
My Son the Fanatic (1997) directed by Udayan Prasad
In December of last year, Hanif Kureishi got dizzy, fell, and woke up paralyzed. In August of last year, his friend Salmon Rushdie—under threat of fatwa since 1989—was brutally stabbed by an Islamic extremist. The confluence of these two men's tragedies, the random and not-so-random awfulness of them, has had me thinking about this story. It's about a first-generation Pakistani immigrant (Parvez) coming to terms with his son's religious fanaticism.
Last night I rewatched the film—screenplay also written by Kureishi—and clocked this exchange for the first time: A nightclub comedian, pretending to mistake Parvez for Rushdie, announces to the audience with casual cruelty, "Slip me a ten-er and I'll shoot him for you."
As Kureishi recently tweeted from his hospital bed: "Have a big drink on me. Until tomorrow dear friends, in this shitty world, all my love."
"The Red Shoes" by Hans Christian Andersen (from The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories)
The Red Shoes (1948) directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Who would have guessed that this Technicolor melodrama, with a 17-minute hallucinogenic ballet at its center, would be one of Martin Scorsese's favorite films? Not me, but on second thought it makes sense. It's so lavishly and outlandishly visual. It's so committed to art for art's sake. It has a dark heart.
What an interesting double billing it would make, paired with Babette's Feast. Both films are bases on fables by Danish writers. Both films grapple with what it means to be a female artist. Both source stories deal with the presence of an ascetic and puritanical church. But one film is filled with vibrant, saturated color; the other is spare and washed out. Both are beautiful.
"The Bear Came Over the Mountain" by Alice Munro (from 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 …
"Babette's Feast" by Isak Dinesen (from 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.
"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" by James Thurber (from 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.
"In Another Country" by David Constantine (from 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.
"My Old Man" and "The Worst Thing a Suburban Girl Could Imagine"
by Melissa Bank (from 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.
"Old Joy" by Jon Raymond (from 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 ...