Recommended Reading: Making Nice, by Matt Sumell

photo (14)When I finished Making Nice*, Matt Sumell’s debut novel-in-stories, I couldn’t stop thinking of it as a bildungsroman, even though the narrator, Alby, is about thirty.

I think that’s because we can come of age not once, but at least three times: when we physically and, to some extent, emotionally “grow up” (the fodder for the archetypal bildungsroman, like Great Expectations or Jane Eyre), when we meet our own children, and when our parents die.

This last sense is speculation on my part, for which I am very grateful, but I can imagine the jarring sense of being alone in the adult world that would accompany the grief over a parent’s death.

Making Nice is about how Alby deals with his mother’s death from cancer—not very well, it turns out—but at the same time, it’s about his whole life, his family, his environment, and his choices. It’s a bruising account of that final and terrible kind of growing up.

On paper, Alby is not a sympathetic character: he drinks to violent excess, he steals pain medication not meant for him, he fights, he’s often contemptuous and belligerent toward women. He’s prone to egregious lapses in impulse control.

However, in Mr. Sumell’s capable hands, he is very much a whole person: studded with flaws more visible than most people’s, but a man of blistering emotions who demonstrates a profound capacity for empathy. The book’s structure—linked stories—is ideally suited to conveying the complexities of Alby’s character. Rage and humor sit uncomfortably close to one another, and the result is great writing, even if it’s sometimes difficult to read. This is a compassionate, humane book, and I recommend it.

(The Paris Review, which published one of the stories now included in Making Nice, has a fascinating interview with Matt Sumell that explores some of the novel’s autobiographical aspects.)

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry: Ben Jonson’s “Inviting a Friend to Supper”

Sideways jellyfish icicle from the front window.

Sideways jellyfish icicle from the front window.

Unpleasant weather continues here in Boston (this weekend delivered the trifecta of snow, rain, and ice), and even hardened and hardy New Englanders agree that the last few weeks have been miserable. We’ve been staying put most weekends, venturing out for groceries and then settling in between bouts of shoveling.

Luckily, friends, like sunshine, have made brief but welcome appearances, and so in honor of friends who come to dinner, this week’s poem is Ben Jonson’s “Inviting a Friend to Supper.”

Jonson addresses his patron, William Herbert, with what I’d call a tone of amused deference. The feast he describes is quite something, even for a man of Jonson’s epicurean appetites: capers, olives, mutton, chicken, larks, other kinds of available fowl, a bit of salad, lemons, and, most importantly,

a pure cup of rich Canary wine,
Which is the Mermaid’s now, but shall be mine;
Of which had Horace, or Anacreon tasted,
Their lives, as so their lines, till now had lasted.
Tobacco, nectar, or the Thespian spring,
Are all but Luther’s beer to this I sing.

Hilarious (the Mermaid was a tavern, by the way). I’d like to try wine that good.

Now, our friendly dinners are never so grand or so well-appointed, and the wine has never been compared the Thespian spring, but the company, I’ll venture to say, is even better than William Herbert’s, and we are more grateful for our friends than Jonson was for Canary wine.

Ben Jonson
Inviting a Friend to Supper

Tonight, grave Sir, both my poor house, and I
Do equally desire your company;
Not that we think us worthy such a guest,
But that your worth will dignify our feast
With those that come, whose grace may make that seem
Something, which else could hope for no esteem.
It is the fair acceptance, Sir, creates
The entertainment perfect, not the cates.
Yet shall you have, to rectify your palate,
An olive, capers, or some better salad
Ushering the mutton; with a short-legged hen,
If we can get her, full of eggs, and then
Lemons, and wine for sauce; to these a cony
Is not to be despaired of, for our money;
And, though fowl, now, be scarce, yet there are clerks,
The sky not falling, think we may have larks.
I’ll tell you of more, and lie, so you will come:
Of partridge, pheasant, woodcock, of which some
May yet be there, and godwit, if we can;
Knat, rail, and ruff too. Howsoe’er, my man
Shall read a piece of Virgil, Tacitus,
Livy, or of some better book to us,
Of which we’ll speak our minds, amidst our meat;
And I’ll profess no verses to repeat.
To this, if ought appear which I not know of,
That will the pastry, not my paper, show of.
Digestive cheese and fruit there sure will be;
But that which most doth take my Muse and me,
Is a pure cup of rich Canary wine,
Which is the Mermaid’s now, but shall be mine;
Of which had Horace, or Anacreon tasted,
Their lives, as so their lines, till now had lasted.
Tobacco, nectar, or the Thespian spring,
Are all but Luther’s beer to this I sing.
Of this we will sup free, but moderately,
And we will have no Pooley, or Parrot by,
Nor shall our cups make any guilty men;
But, at our parting we will be as when
We innocently met. No simple word
That shall be uttered at our mirthful board,
Shall make us sad next morning or affright
The liberty that we’ll enjoy tonight.

Recommended Reading: The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

photo (12)Last year, when I was reading Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water, I came across the phrase “Finnish weird,” which is an umbrella term that encompasses the speculative fiction that’s been coming out of Finland for the last couple of decades.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society* is definitely Finnish, and definitely weird, so I’m going to go ahead and say it’s Finnish weird. Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen’s novel is set in contemporary Finland, in the small town of Rabbit Back. The town is known primarily as the home of the famous children’s writer Laura White and her Rabbit Back Literature society, a club of nine children whom she trained as writers and who went on to become some of Finland’s most important and popular authors.

Ella Milana is a young substitute literature teacher in Rabbit Back, living with her mother and dementia-ridden father. After a short story of hers is published in the town paper, she receives an invitation to join the Rabbit Back Literature Society as its tenth member—an honor, as far as anyone knows, that hasn’t been conferred in the society’s long history.

On the day she is to meet Laura White, however, something very strange indeed happens, and Ella falls down the rabbit hole, so to speak.

One of the jacket blurbs compares this book to Twin Peaks and The Secret History, and those are pretty good comparisons, up to a point. Rabbit Back is populated by strange small-town souls and subject to peculiar quirks, like gnome infestations and an epidemic of stray dogs. The members of Ella’s new society play a very strange game that one player describes as “psychic strip poker around a glass table” (181). And there’s a plague infecting books, leading Sonja to murder Raskolnikov, for example, in the copy of Crime and Punishment that Ella confiscates from a student.

I loved the weirdness of this book, the little and large strangenesses, but the novel as a whole does have some limitations (some might be due to the fact that it’s a work in translation). Some phrases repeat without a strong reason to be repetitive, and I caught one editing error (“phased” instead of “fazed”). The ending isn’t neat, which didn’t bother me, but might annoy some readers who like all the answers, or at least a good sense that the answers they come up with are quite possibly correct. And the sexuality in the book tends toward the creepy (with a notable exception at the very end of the book, which I thought was really interesting and good) and uncomfortable, which didn’t quite mesh with the book’s atmospheric weirdness.

Still, if library book theft gets your heart pounding or if you often wonder where your favorite authors get their ideas, you might just love The Rabbit Back Literature Society.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

“philocaly, philomath, sarcophilous—all this love,”: “For you, anthophilous, lover of flowers,” by Reginald Dwayne Betts

Fall trees in Mount Auburn Cemetery

Fall trees in Mount Auburn Cemetery

I love lists. So, apparently, does the rest of the world (see: Buzzfeed), and poets are no exception. Virtuoso lists are a feature of epic poetry, like Homer’s catalogue of ships, or Milton’s list of demons, or my personal favorite, the list of trees in Spenser’s Faerie Queene:

And foorth they passe, with pleasure forward led,
Ioying to heare the birdes sweete harmony,
Which therein shrouded from the tempest dred,
Seemd in their song to scorne the cruell sky.
Much can they prayse the trees so straight and hy,
The sayling Pine, the Cedar proud and tall,
The vine-prop Elme, the Poplar neuer dry,
The builder Oake, sole king of forrests all,
The Aspine good for staues, the Cypresse funerall.

The Laurell, meed of mightie Conquerours
And Poets sage, the Firre that weepeth still,
The Willow worne of forlorne Paramours,
The Eugh obedient to the benders will,
The Birch for shaftes, the Sallow for the mill,
The Mirrhe sweete bleeding in the bitter wound,
The warlike Beech, the Ash for nothing ill,
The fruitfull Oliue, and the Platane round,
The caruer Holme, the Maple seeldom inward sound.

(No, your screen isn’t playing tricks on you; Spenser wrote the Faerie Queene in a deliberately archaic style).

I’ve been thinking about lists and poetry because the Valentine’s Day poem of the day from The Poetry Foundation was Reginald Dwayne Betts’s “For you: anthophilous, lover of flowers,” which I read and immediately fell in love with (well-played, Poetry Foundation). It’s a catalogue of lovers, but not exactly in the sense you expect, and it’s gorgeous.

I wonder: which one are you?

Recommended Reading: Excellent Women, by Barbara Pym

photo (9)A few days ago, one of my very best friends and I talked a little about Philip Larkin, the dean of depressed and depressing (though wonderful) twentieth century poets. While I’ll be happy to revisit Larkin soon, the conversation reminded me of a book I’ve been meaning to review for months: Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women.

You see, Barbara Pym wrote a string of successful novels during the 1950s and early 1960s, including Excellent Women (1952), and then her career came to a standstill. Her publisher, and others, rejected all her manuscripts, declaring them too old-fashioned.

In 1977, however, Philip Larkin and David Cecil (a prominent historian) named her the most underrated writer of the century, and she catapulted back into broader recognition.

It’s recognition I didn’t share, I regret to say; I’d never heard of Barbara Pym until I was browsing through Classics Club lists in 2013 as I put together my own. She kept popping up, and then I found a copy of Excellent Women at a used bookstore in western Massachusetts, and that is the long and short story of how I came to read it.

Set in what was then contemporary post-war London, Excellent Women is the tale of Mildred Lathbury (excellent name, isn’t it?), an unmarried woman living in a flat. Like other “excellent women,” she keeps an eye on her neighbors and the local curate, and the affairs of her small social circle take up much of her time.

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her. (3)

If you’re hearing bells that peal “Jane Austen” now, I’m not surprised; this novel is full of subtle and barbed social commentary, its heroine an Elinor Dashwood figure with no Edward Ferrars on the horizon, and no Marianne to fuss over.

The plot, which involves the disintegrating marriage of a neighboring anthropologist and her rakish husband, a highly suspicious widow with her sights set on a vicar, jumble sales, unsuitable matches, and many cups of tea, is really not so important as the characters and Mildred’s observations, which are simply a treat to read. Here are some of my favorites:

‘Now Julian, we don’t want a sermon,’ said Winifred. ‘You know Mildred would never do anything wrong or foolish.’
I reflected a little sadly that this was only too true and hoped I did not appear too much that kind of person to others. Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing. (44)

On the bus I began thinking that William had been right and I was annoyed to have to admit it. Mimosa did lose its freshness too quickly to be worth buying and I must not allow myself to have feelings, but must only observe the effects of other people’s. (76)

I was so astonished that I could think of nothing to say, but wondered irrelevantly if I was to be caught with a teapot in my hand on every dramatic occasion. (205)

And finally, of excellent women themselves, Mildred says,

‘They are for being unmarried,’ I said, ‘and by that I mean a positive rather than a negative state.’
‘Poor things, aren’t they allowed to have the normal feelings, then?’
‘Oh, yes, but nothing can be done about them.’

One gets the feeling that Mildred was fond of Jane Austen.

By the way, I suspect that a book that’s coming out later this spring (I haven’t read it) would be very interesting to read alongside Excellent Women. It’s called Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, by Katie Bolick.

I’d certainly like to read another of Barbara Pym’s novels, and I’d be delighted if you could recommend one to me.

Bringing Sexy Back (To Valentine’s Day): 15 Steamy Poems by Esteemed Poets

Dear Readers,

This post was a big hit last year, and so it’s back (It’s 2015, there are 15 poems . . . it works, right?). I hope you’ll post in the comments so I can get a head start on 2016’s Valentine’s poetry post.

Happy Valentine’s Day in advance!

(Special mention to our friends J and D, celebrating their first anniversary this week, and our friends D and E, whose birthdays are on Valentine’s Day.)


Toss that teddy bear and give your significant person the gift of verse this Valentine’s Day.

Red Rose Petals by Victor Habbick, courtesy

Red Rose Petals by Victor Habbick, courtesy

That poet everyone reads at weddings is actually much more appropriate for the bedroom:

e. e. cummings, “i like my body when it is with your” 

An unsexy title for a very sexy poem (check out those ellipses!): 

Li-young Lee, “This Room and Everything In It”

The “Oh, snap” kind of sexy:

Edna St. Vincent Millay, “I, being born a woman and distressed”:

Wistful sexy:

C. P. Cavafy, “Body, remember”

Bitter sexy:

Thomas Wyatt. “They Flee from Me”

Literate sexy:

Robert Hass, “Etymology” (start watching at 18:42)

Damn sexy:

Audre Lorde, “Recreation

Desire, frustration, and jewelry. Also: socioeconomic tension. (And the first overtly lesbian poem I read as a teenager. Bit of a lightbulb moment, there.)

Carol Ann Duffy, “Warming her Pearls”

Difficult to choose just one Donne poem, but hey, let’s go with the salute to nakedness:

John Donne, “To His Mistress Going to Bed”

Restraint and abandonment, all at once:

Emily Dickinson, “Wild Nights – Wild Nights! (269)”

For the Dear Readers who are also parents: 

Galway Kinnel, “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps”

Maybe this is where they got the title for Blue is the Warmest Color:

May Swenson, “Blue”

I hate birds, but this poem is still amazing: 

Henri Cole, “Loons”

You’ll never look at roses the same way again, I promise:

D.H. Lawrence, “Gloire de Dijon”

And yes, a Neruda poem. But I can’t find it anywhere on the interwebs, so you’ll have to go find a copy of World’s End or Late and Posthumous Poems for yourself. 

Pablo Neruda, “Física”/”Physics”

Your turn: what’s the sexiest poem you’ve ever read?

Recent Reads

photo (7)The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac*, by Sharma Shields, is an eccentric book, bildungsroman meets family saga meets magical realism meets domestic divorce drama. Once I got past the first two chapters, the book was tough to put down; I loved the way Ms. Shields broke up the text, noting the year before each section; it helped this multi-generational story to move along quickly. The plot follows Eli Roebuck and his family as Eli searches for the Sasquatch his mother abandoned him for when he was a boy. As it turns out, Eli isn’t the only person in his family who sees mythical creatures. Recommended if you’re interested in a lighter, more domestic Neil Gaiman-esque book.

*I received this book through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program, which did not affect the content of my review.


photo 2 (1)The Girl on the Train*, by Paula Hawkins, came packaged as the swankiest galley I’ve ever seen. It’s been billed as this year’s Gone Girl, and it is a psychological thriller featuring a missing woman and multiple perspectives, but that’s really as far as the comparison goes. It’s a page turner since Ms. Hawkins has mastered the art of doling out relevant information, but I had the main mystery figured out about a third of the way through the book. The plot: Rachel takes the same train every weekday, and has noticed a particular couple on the route; she goes so far as to imagine lives, names, and personalities for the pair. Then the woman disappears, and Rachel thinks she has information about the case, which leads her deeper and deeper into the lives of strangers, and her own.

photo 1 (1)Recommended for commute reading.

*I received a galley of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.