Monday, July 28, 2014

On...Helen Peppe's Maine memoir _Pigs Can't Swim_

Sometimes I review books. Especially if it's a book I think my friends might like. I think they'll like this one!

When I think of Helen Peppe, I think of her photography: her stunning horses …the staggering energy of them, their absolute beauty. So when I saw she had written a memoir, I knew its pages would somehow hold animals: and I was right;  there’s a working New England farmyard full: Molly the sheep, Tom the turkey, Mac the dog, Donny, the crazed horse, the pig of the title called Waterboro. And as ever, we learn the truth of this family’s story not through the tales the author tells us, but by the way she tells them. In contrast to these animals who are named and painted in glorious detail, the family is almost anonymous—composites of sorts—sketched with a fast and light hand.
Peppe shows us rugged Maine, not only rugged in terms of terrain but also in terms of family. And this family is vast, its members known by their characteristics, not by their names: the blustery-and-favored brother, the  sister-who-holds-a-grudge-longer-than-God, the hair-twirling-pretty-sister, the bullshit artist, the family-hanger-on.  Naming is a motif in this work: Peppe chooses not to name her family members…perhaps for privacy sake, but bear in mind that there is the mother who Peppe says, “called us the name of a different person she disliked in order to shame us….she played free with our identities as if, without her to give us a name, we were nothing.”

Peppe hands over this difficult family dynamic with the same staggering energy and grace with which she gives us those glorious horses.  It’s a rough kind of Maine love. Regardless of what’s going on and who has upset and disappointed whom, they keep on doing what is expected of them and—ultimately—that’s what keeps them together: Father fixes stuff and earns what he can; Mother does her best to keep her kids straight and the house from burning down; the sisters practice the steps of courtship, motherhood, and marriage perhaps so that when it falls upon them for real, they might get it right.

Peppe—the youngest—watches and listens and does her level best to make her life work. She describes her child self as “surviving on as little air as possible” as if even oxygen is in short supply. And yet there is love. There is the sister who seasons aggression with hugs so rare they become priceless. There is the brother, owner of Donny, who teaches Peppe—albeit in a break-neck, hands-off fashion—to ride.

We follow the author from those early days as a young girl on the farm, struggling with her love of animals and her meat-eating family, through the nightmares on the school bus, her witnessing of her sisters’ rough navigation of sex and identity, through to her own adolescent struggles…with the father of a child she babysits and ultimately with a boy with whom she falls in love. Tough and noisy times. The kind of times that build a person…that build a family. Of family, she says, “We all screamed—the kids, the in-laws, the farm animals and the parents—out of fear, frustration and fury.”
For me, Peppe seems to wish for her child self the love she lavishes on her animals. In the scene from which the memoir takes its title, she thinks about the family who might be mourning a lost pig she and her family have found. She imagines them driving down 202 and saying, “Remember, that’s where we lost our baby pig. I wonder whatever happened to him.” It’s hard not to think the author as this lost baby—sensitive and artistic—snatched up and raised with the Peppe children as if they were a “human version of crated puppies.”

This is a great book, but it’s not an easy book. As Peppe points out, “skin and vinyl stick together like memories to our brains. Sometimes they hurt when you peel them away, but you must to go on with your life, unstuck.” Pigs Can’t Swim can be read as a story of how we might unpeel ourselves from the memories that threaten to stick us to our pasts. Bravo, Helen Peppe, for daring to pull away.

Monday, July 21, 2014

On...Remaindering Revisited

Two books due out in May 2015. And as ever, the initial euphoria is joined by the "what ifs"...what if the publishing houses go out of business between now and then, what if no one comes to the readings, what if there are NO readings! And, of course, the specter of "remaindering." This is an up-cycled  blog post from 2008, but still (unfortunately) on my unbalanced mind:

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From 2008...

Remaindering is the practice whereby unsold books which remain at the publishing house are disposed of - sometimes by selling them off at huge discounts to stores like Sams or by destroying them (shredding or burning usually). My own contract with PP says that if they want to remainder my books, they have to give me the opportunity to match any third party (i.e. Sam's) offer.

The idea of being "remaindered" used to fill me with dread. I mean, how much worse can it get than to see one's baby on the "75% OFF" stall at some giant discount store, next to a selection of coloring books (with crayons) and The Dummy's Guide to Macramé.

But no longer. I have just finished Hardy's The Return of the Native. I collect Norton Critical editions because I enjoy the critical essays at the back. In addition to the essays, they usually include some kind of historical wash-up, and in the "Composition, Publication, and Scholarship" section appears the following note:


The Return of the Native was published at 31s. 6d. in an edition of 1000 copies on 4 November 1878. The reviews were not flattering, and in 1882 there were 100 quires [unbound copies of the book] and 22 copies in cloth to be remaindered. (322)


It seems that the book was lucky to have been published at all; it was turned down by a number of publishers - book and magazine. Leslie Stephen of the Cornhill magazine turned it down because he felt that the relationship between Eustacia, Wildeve and Thomasic might get a little too dodgy for the magazine readership to handle.

I often imagine that the classics enjoyed plain sailing into publication. I'm finding out again and again that this wasn't so.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

On...Image and Inspiration

Once, when I moaned that I had no friends, a man told me that in order to make friends, you have to be a friend. I took it to heart and while I may not be the most social of women, I went out and searched for things to do and for people to do them for. I now have three or four friends who I love dearly...and maybe twenty or so acquaintances I was nice to.

I apply that man's advice to my writing. How often do I find I have the time to write but worry that I am without images...that I have been deserted? And then a glimpse of something from some past time comes to mind. I turn it over a few times and slowly its words arrive...sometime begrudgingly and slowly, but they turn up solidly enough for me to form a first draft of something.

Those images are dredged up from my past. At some time, I have courted those images. I look upon this "courting" of images in the same way as my "being a friend" to people who might not become friends. Everything I see and feel and touch may someday reappear in my work and become as important in the moment as those three or four friends.

Today, I find myself with time to write. I am in Greece staying with my sister and I have time for serious work. But nothing is arriving. I am deserted. And so, I am courting images...I am making friends with with gardens, with tavernas on hillsides, with the idea of a woman I saw today walking down Argostoli street--ritzy in a thin cotton shift--with a tiny black dog on a pink harness in one arm and on the other, a bazillion gold bangles. I can see her. She is burned in my mind's eye. And there is the street market, with its fruit and the Greek shuffling boxes of strawberries and peaches, standing back to see which combination looks better. He is beautiful, his skin so glossy, he looks oiled, his t-shirt stained and thin. The concrete is wet and shiny with water, the hose a green snake hiding between boxes of eggs and what looks like bunches of red-rooted dandelions.



What will I do with this? WHEN will I do with this? Who knows. But one day, a glimpse of that boy, of that woman, of the pink-harnessed dog will percolate up and I will be working again on a first draft. But not today. Today, I intend to relax on a sunbed and soak up some more sun. Avrio is the day for words.

Monday, July 14, 2014

On...BONE SONG, my first poetry collection

Such good news! I received an email from Mary Caroll-Hackett recently congratulating me on winning the 2014 Liam Rector First Book Prize for Poetry. The long and the short of that is that my first poetry collection Bone Song will be published by Briery Creek Press (through Longwood University) late spring of 2015.

My initial euphoria at having two books due for publication was quickly followed by a short spell of panic: two sets of edits, proof readings, launches, and marketing projects. A little like finding out one is expecting twins!

I need to organize and keep myself straight. All this is doable. What a wonderful challenge to have!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

On...Veracity and What Our Mothers Know

A few weeks ago, I posted an account...a memory, if you will, of my first period. The details were as fresh in my mind as if I was thirteen-and-a-half and not fifty-four. I could feel the shag pile bath mat beneath my knees, the cold rim of the toilet pan under my fingers. I could hear my mother coming up the stairs and pulling the box of tampons and the towels from the bathroom cabinet and handing them to me before disappearing downstairs. All the senses were activated in that memory.

And yet it could not have happened.

My memory has the bathroom and the toilet in the same room...and yet in 1973, they had to have been still separate rooms: so my mother could not have handed me the tampons; there would have been a wall in the way. But my memory hands me that same image each time it returns to that day.

My mother, surfing my blog via my sister's Facebook account, was the first to say it did not happen. It was not the wall that caused her to doubt the account. It was that she would not have handled the situation in such a way. And knowing my mother well--as well as I know the position of that wall dividing our old bathroom from the toilet--she has to be right: she would not have acted like the mother in that memory.

So where does memory and reality part company? The copy of The Water Babies I held on my lap each month for what seems to be years, is real. I have it on my book case; my periods did begin in 1973;  my reading life stemmed from the "blocking powers" of literature. But the mother in the room that day was not mine.

Where does she come from? She is not the mother I wish I had--who could want such a woman? Perhaps she elevates my need for romanticism. Would the scene have worked as well with a mother who ran up the stairs, stuffed a pad in my pants, and wiped my tears away. Probably not.

Either way, my mother's reaction to the entry has made me return to that day and to examine it.What  happened? What happened exactly? Who knows.

Perhaps that is why the world of creative nonfiction, for me at least, is fraught. Perhaps that's why I find the world of fiction roomy and forgiving.. I'd welcome your thoughts on this whole idea of memory and its reliability, on the value of veracity in creative work, on how we can write about family without running the risk of hurting and harming--not only our families but also our writing.

Monday, July 07, 2014

On...The Mo and Kitty Story or "My Lover was a Catfish"

Follow the link for an update to the Mo and Kitty story, where Kitty tells Mo of her concerns over Russia and her love of spats, and Mo asks Kitty if she can ride a bike and to sever all connection with her other Facebook beaus..."

Monday, June 30, 2014

On...Mo and Kitty: a catfishy love affair

Follow the link for an update to the Mo and Kitty story, where Kitty voices her concerns over Nigerian princes and where Mo tells Kitty about his job on an Oil Wail and poses questions in order to ascertain Kitty's suitability as a wife..."

http://www.bagoodjohn.com/p/yo-mo-this-i.html