Dear Paris Review,
When I suggest he read something, my dad always says, I’m waiting for the movie to come out, just to rankle me. I’ve been meaning to send him a stack of films that are truly good adaptations. What should I send?
A Rankled Amateur
It may not be your father’s speed, but you should definitely check out Gabrielle, Patrice Chéreau’s 2005 adaptation of The Return, by Joseph Conrad. It stars Isabelle Huppert as the adulterous wife of a newspaper publisher in fin de siècle Paris. It got a César for best costumes. The sets are terrific. There’s one shot of a bathroom, and that’s all I remember—the bathroom, a normal bathroom, very much like the bathroom in the house where I grew up, which I had never seen until then as an historical artifact. It was that kind of film. It made you feel the past as presence.
More obviously, there are Rebecca and Don’t Look Now, two adaptations so perfect that you might think Daphne du Maurier’s books just adapted themselves—until, that is, you see either version of My Cousin Rachel: the 1952 adaptation starring Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton (as what has to be the least believable male virgin in the history of nonpornographic cinema) or the 2017 remake starring Rachel Weisz (and really only Rachel Weisz). In this new version, the ending has been rewritten so it doesn’t make any sense, and for some reason, even though the story’s set two hundred years ago, the men keep going around without their cravats—as if they’d just got off the magic airplane to Cornwall from LAX—and everyone seems to have been infected with a twenty-first-century case of potty mouth. It’s odd enough to hear the aged butler yell at some local yeomen about the “fucking holly,” while they’re trying to deck the ancestral hall—but when a little girl mouths the word bitch at Rachel Weisz, in church no less, I reach for the soap.
Dear Paris Review,
I am currently commuting into Manhattan from Connecticut. It is a temporary situation, thankfully, but until the day I cross the GW Bridge in a U-Haul, I am faced with almost four hours of travel Monday through Friday. I hope to spend that time reading. I need recommendations that balance several factors: stimulating and engaging without being too rigorous (the frequent stop announcements and children hyped up on candy from Times Square provide a pretty steady hum of distraction), and it should probably have a relatively low page count, for the sake of my chiropractic health.
Gripping, easy, and short: Have you tried Simenon? I haven’t, but people are always telling me I should, and the books are appealingly thin (appealingly, if you don’t like mysteries). Slightly off the beaten path, free associating from your description of the train, there is Denis Johnson’s novella Train Dreams. Some connoisseurs say it’s his best work—it’s definitely accessible—and if you’re a subscriber, you already have it on your phone. We published it in issue no. 162.
Another book that occurs to me, when I read the words “children hyped up,” is Mary Robison’s short novel Why Did I Ever, about … well, it’s about a screenwriter who is also a mother, and it hasn’t got a plot exactly, but I still remember the night I stayed up reading it until dawn. It was Mother’s Day, 2001. I think it will hold your attention.
I like listening to books on tape. Because I haven’t owned a tape deck since 1998, what I really mean is that I like listening on my phone to books read to me by professional voice actors. I listen mostly on long-distance train rides and on the stationary bike at the Fourteenth Street Y. Some books are great on tape. Some are awful. Howards End was a winner, so was Remains of the Day and The Good Soldier. Broom of the System was impossible. I can’t just listen to Edwardian England—I’m strange enough as it is. Where to now?
An Old Sport
I put this question to my brother-in-law—or really, since we’re doing radical technological honesty, I texted him. He’s listened to more audiobooks than anyone I know. The other day in the car we flipped through half a dozen different performances of Moby-Dick—just the first line: “Call me Ishmael”; “Call me Ishmael”; “Call me … Ishmael”; et cetera. Charlie’s judgments were swift, and they were harsh. Just now he texted me back “lolita j. irons” in under thirty seconds. I trust him.
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