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Pick of the Month

August Pick:
"The Ransom of Red Chief" by O. Henry
Ruthless People (1986) directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker

This 1906 story is still laugh-out-loud funny, linguistically rich, and effortlessly engaging. Conventional writing wisdom has it that the downside of surprise endings, like O. Henry's often are, is that they only reward the first reading. Not so, this one. If you've ever known, or had to babysit, a wild child, this story, about a kidnapped nine-year-old who torments his kidnappers, will resonate. "Do you know who my favorite Biblical characters is?" asks one of the kidnappers in a line that could have been Elmore Leonard's. "Herod."


The movie is a loose adaptation. Fun, but not the same kind of classic.  

July Pick:
"The Sobbin' Women" by Stephen Vincent Benét (from The Devil and Daniel Webster and Other Writings)
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) directed by Stanley Donen

There's no denying that the dance scenes in this movie are rollicking good fun, but the rest doesn't age well. (Unless you're into stories about men kidnapping women to meet their domestic needs and singing about it with lyrics like: Treat 'em rough like them there Romans do/ or else they'll think you're tetched.) In fairness, the movie is based on Benét's story that is based on "The Rape of the Sabine Women," a seminal legend of early Rome that has inspired the likes of Picasso, Rubens and (yikes!) Dr. Seuss. Benét, in his story, tried to give it a feminist twist, and in his version, Milly, the "bound girl," uses her wiles to create a sort of utopia (circa 1926, that is).


June Pick:  
"Chance," "Soon," and "Silence" by Alice Munro (from Runaway)
Julieta (2016) directed by Pedro Almodovar

Alice Munro once said that she writes about "How come?" I guess that explains why I had to grow into liking her stories. There's a time in one's life when the question shifts from "What if?" to "How come?" … and that's when her work starts making a lot of sense. These three, taken together, are a house of mirrors, with actions by one character reflected or repeated by a different character. There are small surprising, even shocking, moments (like a DIY cremation).


Sifted through Almodovar's consciousness, there is more heart, more color, more causality. Juliet (now Julieta) even gets a happier, more hopeful ending.


March Pick:
"The Swimmer" by John Cheever (from The Stories of John Cheever)
The Swimmer (1968) directed by Frank Perry
The Guest by Emma Cline

I liked Cline's sharp, tight writing in The Guest a lot, but liked it even better when I realized it was a retelling of The Swimmer. More the movie than the story, to my mind; Cheever's protagonist is sadder than he is despicable. But all three versions of the character are people who have survived and thrived using a combination of beauty, charm and guile … until they can't anymore. Then—delusional, desperate and dissolute—they make their way from rich person's pool to rich person's pool, progressively coming undone. It's kind of a preposterous premise, but the story is one of my all-time favorites. Every time I finish it I find myself flipping back to the first page and asking myself, "How did he do that?"


February Pick:
"Roller Ball Murder" by William Harrison (from Roller Ball Murder and Other Stories)
Rollerball (1975) directed by Norman Jewison
Rollerball (2002) directed by John McTiernan

This story is a propulsive, present-tense narrative about Jonathan E., a star athlete in the brutal and deadly game of roller ball (a roller derby/motocross/football/boxing/pinball mashup that is surprisingly unconfusing on the page). Unlike most sports stories, the tension isn't about who wins or loses, or even how the game is played, but about Jonathon E's "ruptured soul." In another story in this collection, Harrison confesses autobiographically: "I have been a dreamer all my days, one who speaks too much about values and moralities, one who has too much philosophy, too many silly questions about the nature of things." That penchant works beautifully in this story and portentously in the 1975 film adaptation, for which he also wrote the screenplay. (The less said about the 2002 remake, the better.)  


January Pick: 
"Cat Person" by Kristen Roupenian (from You Know You Want This)
Cat Person (2023) directed by Susanna Fogel

Reading this story reminds me—in a way that watching Barbie did not—that being twenty and pretty looks way more fun than it is. The ordinary discomfort and honest-to-god riskiness of dating. The sexual power and glory, the callowness and cruelty, the horror and humiliation. Roupenian captured, using very close third-person narration, Margot's moment-to-moment emotions as she navigates her relationship with an older man named Robert—and it rang true for a lot of women. The story went viral in 2017, at the height of the #MeToo movement. The movie went (almost) straight to video in 2023, the year of Barbie. Make of that what you will.


December Pick: 
"The Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang (from Stories of Your Life and Others)
Arrival (2016) directed by Denis Villeneuve

This is an instance in which both story and film are just right—yet different. Once, when asked if he thought with movies in mind, Chiang said: "Never. I'm very much a fan of prose. And I tend to think of my stories in terms of sentences." Here—in a story about the elements of language and the nature of time—the sentences are sometimes dense. Verb tenses are, intentionally (I think) loose and shifting. Much has been made of how slowly Chiang writes, and how carefully each word is considered. I like this about him.


The film is more grounded—in politics and real-world motivations. Still, it's a wonder it was ever made. "We actually have a character saying 'non-linear orthography,'" said screenwriter Eric Heisserer. "I didn't think I would see the day. I really didn't."


November Pick:
"The Birds" by Daphne du Maurier (from Classics of the Macabre)
The Birds (1963) directed by Alfred Hitchcock

This story is terrifyingly good and horrifyingly relevant. Du Maurier builds a steady sense of dread, sentence by sentence, beginning with this simple declarative: "On December the third the wind changed overnight and it was winter." From there, the reader follows Everyman Nat Hocken as he begins to understand that an environmental shift, "something to do with the Arctic circle," has interfered with the birds' migration patterns. They've become restless and daring and ultimately deadly. It's not at all hard to see the connection between du Maurier and Stephen King (who is a big fan) in this tale of a man fortifying his house and slowly realizing he is outmatched.


Except for attack birds, there's not a lot of intersection between story and film, and—unlike the story—the latter feels kitschy by today's standards.


October Pick:
"Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut" by J.D. Salinger (from Nine Stories)
My Foolish Heart (1949) directed by Mark Robson

I can't, at the moment, think of another work of fiction that I love as much now as I did when I was in my twenties. Usually, it's more a pang of nostalgia than one of admiration. This time—because it's the only Salinger story to be adapted for film—I resisted the emotional tug of "For Esme" and focused, instead, on "Uncle Wiggily." It's beautifully structured. Two women—a bitter housewife and an unfulfilled "career girl"—day drink and talk about the housewife's dead beau (killed in the war), while the housewife's young daughter and her imaginary friend traipse in and out. By the end of the story, the reader wonders who else is imaginary.


The film is a melodramatic mess (and was loathed by Salinger).


September Pick: 
"Drive My Car" by Haruki Murakami (from Men Without Women)
Drive My Car (2021) directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi

I love this film. So much that I don't want to say much about it. I'll sound pretentious. I'll flirt with hyperbole, using words like masterpiece, stunning, transfixed. It doesn't matter. If this is your kind of film, you'll find it.


The story didn't wow me. The first few pages—a sexist interior monologue about women drivers—was off-putting, even if it was in character. The Murakami tropes—and I'm a fan—felt a bit familiar. Read it, though, if only to ponder how this thirtyish-page story was transformed into a three hour (!) movie.


August Pick: 
"Brokeback Mountain" by Annie Proulx (from Close Range: Wyoming Stories)
Brokeback Mountain (2005) directed by Ang Lee

A year after this story was published, Matthew Shepherd, a gay student at University of Wyoming, was beaten, tortured and left to die. Proulx, who lived in the area, was called to serve on the jury of one of his murderers. This, perhaps, helps explain her impatience with readers/viewers who have misunderstood her story and lobbied for a happier ending. "The story isn't about Jack and Ennis," she told The Paris Review. "It's about homophobia; it's about a social situation; it's about a place and a particular mindset and a morality."


The adaptation by Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove) and Diana Ossana, is faithful to Proulx's intent. What was added—more about the women who loved the men—only deepens the tragedy. A sad, beautiful story and a sad, beautiful film.  



July Pick: 
"Million $$$ Baby" by F.X. Toole (from Rope Burns)
Million Dollar Baby (2004) directed by Clint Eastwood

FX Toole, who spent twenty years working the corner as a cut man, wrote almost as eloquently about boxing as Norman McLean wrote about fly-fishing. I still don't get either sport—especially boxing—but there's something affecting about the author's reverence for his subject. It's not hasty research, but lived philosophy. "Everything in boxing is backwards to life," Toole writes in the story's opening paragraph. "To move right, you use the left toe, see?"


The story isn't without its problems—the pacing is wonky, the character of Maggie feels cliched, the ending isn't quite earned—but these are largely fixed in the screenplay. Sadly, Toole, who published this, his first collection, when he was seventy, didn't live to see the film (or its many accolades).



June Pick: 
"The Minor Wars" by Kaui Hart Hemmings (from House of Thieves)
The Descendants (2011) directed by Alexander Payne

Character-driven family dramas are my favorite subgenre and this story (which became a novel which became a movie) is a good one. Three things I admire: 1) The character of Joanie—in a coma throughout—is so unexpectedly well-rounded and vibrant; 2) Her marriage to the unnamed narrator is of the sort that is rarely depicted: successful in its indifference; 3) Their children, Alex and especially Scottie, are more than precocious: they're intelligent and edgy.


The film adaptation by Alexander Payne is just as character-driven, but differently. I was a little disappointed to see that Joanie fades into her hospital bed, but happy to see that the husband gets a name/career/backstory (and looks like George Clooney).



May Pick:
"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!



April Pick: 
"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."



March Pick: 
"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."



February Pick: 
 "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.  



January Pick: 
"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 …  



December Pick: 
"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.



November Pick:
"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.  



October Pick:
"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.



September Pick: 
"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.  



August Pick:
"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 ...