Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

© 2006-2016 All rights reserved

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), and several Kindle ebooks.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Prayers the Devil Answers

I'm a great fan of both Appalachian literature and Sharyn McCrumb. I recently read Sharyn McCrumb's new book, Prayers the Devil Answers, and enjoyed it. This novel featured multiple points of view, a technique that I especially like. I liked it's strong sense of place and time—a sense I consider important in an Appalachian novel. I also found the main character, Ellendor Robbins, interesting.  

Prayers the Devil Answers begins in the early 1900s in Appalachia, where six girls hold a Dumb Supper to see who their husbands will be. This supper is held at midnight in an abandoned cabin, and the girls must follow a set ritual. They must not speak and must set the table with their backs turned toward it. They must serve also serve any male guest with their backs turned. But Celia drops a knife and tries to cover her error. (For those unfamiliar with the dumb supper, the Blind Pig and the Acorn had a post about it a couple of years ago.) Only two men show up, and they eventually marry the girls who served them. The homely Greer sisters remain spinsters, and unmarried Celia becomes a school teacher.

Soon the action moves ahead several years to the depression era, where Ellendor Robbins—who has no previous connection with the Dumb Supper—has moved with her husband Albert and their two young sons from the mountain farm owned by Albert's brother Henry to a small railroad town.

 In the same town, artist Larry Varden has been hired to paint a mural in the post office. When he decides to paint the Cherokee Attack at Fort Watauga, he needs to research how the fort looked. Thus he visits the school teacher Celia. Eventually he marries her.

Sidenote: During the depression, many artists painted murals in post offices across the country. Here's my copy of the one that's in the Rocky Mount, VA, post office:

Albert soon tires of his job as a machinist and becomes a deputy sheriff.  He successfully runs for sheriff, but dies three months after he's elected. His widow, left with two sons and no means of support, takes over his job. Eventually, Ellendor Robbins, Lonnie Varden, and Celia are connected by unhappy circumstance. Could what happened at the Dumb Supper have caused it?

I won't give away the ending, but suffice to say this is a dark book. But it's a compelling one. I kept turning pages to see what happened next.

I was hoping to get Sharyn to sign my copy next Tuesday when she'll speak at Bethlehem United Methodist Church in Moneta. But, alas, my recent surprise surgery and its resultant recuperation time will prevent my attending.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Arlo's Art

by Arlo (Tanner's Sidekick)

Since Tanner interviewed me about my art, I have been working on more creations. I have moved from newsprint to the brown paper that comes in the box with Mommy's books. I like the texture better and it coordinates well with the paper bags I sometimes use in my disassmblages.

I have my current disassemblage exhibit installed in the front hall which makes a great gallery and is easily accessible. Plus I have room to run if I want to. Check out these pictures, and you can see how my art has evolved in the last few weeks.

Notice how I have used the brown paper as both a contrast to the rug as well as an integral part of it. The twisted paper provides a counterpoint to the flat rug—it rises above it and reaches out—but the rug anchors it and holds it captive.  But bits of the paper have escaped the rug's confines and are scattered on the carpet to symbolize parts leaving the whole to become entities of their own.

I am also working some of my possessions into the composition. In the picture above, to the right is a little black toy mouse that symbolizes creatures who haven't been ensnared by the paper coils.


Notice how I juxtaposed two toy mice with the paper bags. This detail is from the far end of my disassemblage.  I think it means—well, whatever you want it to mean.

Sometimes I have to do a bit or rearranging, so my disassemblage makes the statement I want it to make. 

I try to look at it from several angles.

Sometimes I have to get inside of my art to truly understand it.


 I'm always reaching out for new ideas.

It takes a while to get it just right before I let any art critics—like Tanner—see it.

But I'm usually proud of my finished—Wait! What's happening here?!

Tanner, did you put Mommy's books in my art? I do not like having my art photobombed by someone else's creation! It's going to take me a while to disassemble everything again.

Maybe I'll just lay low until Tanner leaves.  He does not appreciate art.

Comment from Tanner: "Arlo is NOT my sidekick. He usually kicks me in the head when we cat-rassle. And maybe I did put Mommy's books in what Arlo calls his art. And maybe Mommy did give me a few cat treats to do it. But Mommy put a lot more work into her books than Arlo does in whatever it is that he does!"

P.S. from Tanner: "You can buy Mommy's book here."


Sunday, May 15, 2016

Mystery Scratches

Last week we noticed that one of the round hay bales on our farm down the road had been pulled apart. It looked as if something big had made a nest in it, albeit temporarily. Yesterday, we noticed that the outer layer of wood on our power pole had been peeled.

 That's quite a bit of peeled wood. Obviously, it wasn't a small critter.

The scratch marks in the pole don't indicate a small critter either. 

They're way bigger scratches than what a housecat would leave.

What critter could it be? Mountain lion? Bear? Bigfoot? 

Ah, the mysteries of rural living!


Monday, May 09, 2016

Two Memoirs About Writing

The last two print books I've read have been memoirs. Or maybe partial autobiographies. Or both. They're both about writing, too. They're way different from each other, but I enjoyed them both. I like reading about writing, and memoir is one of my favorite genres.

I've been a Lee Smith fan for years, ever since I found her novel Family Linen at the Roanoke County Library back in the late-1980s. I remember picking it up to read the first few pages and found "Roanoke, Virgina," on the first page. Roanoke? Books could be set in Roanoke? Who knew. . . ? Anyhow, that got me hooked on Lee Smith's books. Her novel Fair and Tender Ladies, which I've read at least three times, is one of my favorite Appalachian novels.

Last month I read her new book, Dimestore: A Writer's Life, which consists of fifteen essays about various parts of her life. I especially enjoyed the stories about when she was a child in Grundy, Virginia, and how she helped out at her father's Ben Franklin dimestore (where she took charge of the dolls—arranging them, naming them, etc.). The book gave some insights into a writer's life—where she got some of her ideas and how she wrote. For more info about the book, check out the Kirkus review, a segment of the Diane Rehms Show, and this article in Writer Mag.

Last week, I read Mary Norris's Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. This book also gave me some insights into a writer's life. Norris was a copy-editor for the New Yorker for thirty years, and her book was a blend of memoir and grammar book. She went into great detail about why some words or punctuation marks were used the way they were. And she pointed out a lot of grammatical errors that writers make and told how to fix them. Parts of the book are downright funny! But you'll learn a lot from reading it.

So why isn't Between You & Me a staple in every high school classroom? Probably because of Chapter 9—"F*ck This Sh*t"—in which she explains how to deal with naughty words (including the seven that comedian George Carlin said you couldn't say on TV—and a few more).

ARLO: "This yellow book uses naughty words!"

For more information on Norris's book, take a look at her essay "Holy Writ" (which appears in her book), the New York Times review, the Guardian article, and the NPR review. The NPR review sums up the book thus: "Between You & Me, Norris' first book, is part memoir, part guide to the mind-bending nuances of English grammar, and part homage to The New Yorker's legendary writers and copy editors. It brims with wit, personality—and commas." That pretty much nails it.

Mary Norris has a "Comma Queen" series of short videos, in which she covers many of the grammatical and punctuation problems she addresses in Between You & Me, such as how many spaces after a period in "Space: The Final Frontier" (Answer: one);  she explains how to use who or whom in "Who/Whom for Dummies"; and she explains what restrictive and non-restrictive clauses and phrases are in "Let's Get Restrictive." (No, she doesn't mention Chapter 9, so these videos are safe for all ages.)

I thoroughly enjoyed both Dimestore and Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, but then I'm a former English teacher as well as a writer-wannabe, so I might be a bit partial to the subject matter of both.

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Sunday, May 01, 2016

Mr. Tanner's Opus

by Tanner (resident kitty)

I have heard that if you give a million monkeys a million typewriters, in a million years or so they will eventually write the works of William Shakespeare. That is plagiarism. That Shakey guy already wrote it so those monkeys shouldn't mess with it. However, I have been thinking about writing a book myself, even though I am a cat. (Note: If Arlo can be an artist, I can be a writer!)

I take pen in paw to begin.

My mommy wrote and self-published a book recently, and I have been helping her promote it.  That is where I got the idea of writing my own book.


It took her several years to write Them That Go—longer even than I have been an esteemed feline member of the household. If she can do it, I can do it.

I figure that a kitty with computers and iPads in the household can write something original in a lot shorter time than either those monkeys or Mommy. So I want to run an idea by you for King of the Catsel and see what you think. I am maybe basing the characters on some cats I know, but I will change things so they don't get mad at me. These are my characters so far:

  • The Young Prince Tannerite, of humble origins (like maybe a dumpster somewhere in the kingdom) who explodes upon the scene and proves his superiority over all the other cats in the kingdom.
  • Good King George, who is nice to the Young Prince Tannerite even though Tannerite is trying to take over his kingdom. King George goes on a lot of quests, so he isn’t exactly watching the kingdom very well.
  • The Fair Princess Chloe, who becomes the bestest friend of the Young Prince Tannerite (hereafter abbreviated to YPT because it’s hard to type a long name when you only have paws that don’t have opposable thumbs) and who is a sort of free spirit that roams around the kingdom whenever she pleases.
  • The Pirate James-Robert, who has many adventures and is more or less nice to the YPT except when YPT wants to lick his head. The Pirate James-Robert is good friends with Good King George and is the Fair Princess Chloe’s brother.
  • Arlodor, who is a young upstart dark knight—or maybe a wizard or something sneaky—who slinks around and plots evil deeds, but he also has a few good points. I will think of those later.
  • Clawmilla, who is an evil old witch. She is mean to YPT and he is mean right back to her because she was mean to him first.

Here is what I have so far for King of the Catsel:

I am trying to pen my tale but Arlo's tail keeps distracting me.

 Once Upon a Time, not so long ago and maybe far away but not too far, a young kitty prince found himself in dire circumstances at a dumpster site. He was most forlorn as well as homeless, and was reduced to begging to make his way in the world. When he had almost given up hope, there arrived two magical creatures who enticed the kitty prince with tasty viands which they fed unto him and which he did most highly relish. Then they ensconced the kitty prince in a small plastic enclosure, swung shut the gate, and spirited the young prince away to another part of the kingdom. Where he got even more to eat. Which he again did most highly relish. To thank his hosts, he slew a rodent that night, an act for which they heaped upon him much praise.

Alas, he was kept in solitary confinement for a time, being visited by the tall and magical creatures, and once by King George. Before too many days had passed, YPT was again ensconced in the plastic enclosure and spirited away to a place where an unspeakable thing was done to him while he was asleep. He later compared notes with King George who’d experience the same procedure.
“I’m not sure what happened while I was under some sort of a spell,” quoth King George, “but I know I’m not the man I used to be. No matter. At least they feed you well here and provide a warm place to sleep. It could be worse.”

King George tended to look on the bright side of things. Soon, YPT was allowed to venture farther into the interior kingdom, though not into the exterior kingdom where King George reigned and occasionally slew a most dragonish rodent, much of which he devoured on the spot.

Good King George with rodent.

For a time, YPT was mentored by an old black wizard cat, Edward the Puss, who—Alas!— is no longer with us. He taught YPT the ways of cathood in the household, for which YTP is most grateful. And he taught YPT how to avoid Clawmilla, who never missed a chance to hiss vile incantations at him.

YTP befriended the young vagrant Arlodor and tutored him in the ways of cathood. 

Young Prince Tannerite teaches Arlordor about cleanliness.

Young Prince Tannerite teaches Arlordor about book promotion.

But Arlodor grew up to be a dark knight or evil wizard or something who liked to jump on the dashing YPT. Eventually, however, YPT became King of my his own catsel, of which the other cats were highly jealous and who sometimes attempted to overthrow me him—especially Arlodor. 

That is all I can think of for now. I need to work something in about Princess Chloe, but I am having writer's block.

Prince Tannerite with Princess Chloe.

Thinking about this book has made me a basket case. Maybe I need a nap.

Anyhow, until I get my book done, you should buy Mommy's book. It will likely take you a while to read it. Maybe by the time you read it, I will have finished my book or abandoned the idea because the other cats might not like me writing about them. One of those.


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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Arlo the Artist

by Tanner (resident house cat)

As many of you know, I took in Arlo some months ago and have been trying to raise him, but it has not been easy. I have been trying to find him some meaningful cat-work to do, but he hasn't been cooperative.

Lately, however, he has been developing his artistic side, so I decided to interview him about what he says is his true purpose in the household, so here goes:

Tanner: Arlo, tell the readers of Mommy's blog what it is that you do.

Arlo: I'm a deconstructivist feline artisticat working with paper disassemblages.

Tanner: Arlo, what you do is bite up paper and make a mess!

Arlo: Art is in the eye of the creator, Tanner. I think that not only am I cuter than the average kitty, but I'm also wonderfully creative. You have no appreciation. But that's to be expected since you came from the dumpster.

Tanner: Well, there's no use arguing with you—especially since you are now big enough to hold your own in cat-rasslin'. Why don't you tell the blog-readers about your, er, work.

Arlo: I work with newsprint, primarily the Roanoke Times, which is easy to deconstruct and reduce to its essential elements, that I then rearrange to make meaningful statements about the impermanence of words, the transcendency of the feline spirit, and the wasteful nature of our times. Here, let me show the blog readers some of my disassemblages so they will know whereof I speak.

In the above installation, for instance, I carefully select pages that make a statement, then dissassemble, reimagine, and rearrange those pages and parts thereof to reflect a cataclysmic state of the feline interpretation of life. I find my decontructionism techniques wonderfully cathartic.

Sometimes I immerse myself so totally in my work that I become a part of it, and it is hard to tell where the cat ends and the newsprint begins.

Sometimes I hide myself in my work—the better to find myself later, and thus my work becomes a catalyst for my own self-discovery.


Other times, I just catapult my work out there and let it go where it will. I try to cover a lot of territory—or at leaast a lot of carpet—when I do an installation.

Sometimes I work small and subtle. Notice that in the installation below, the cat (Moi!) is the dominant figure. In this one, I show how the cat dominates and separates his art, while at the same time becoming a central part of it.

Below, my art covers my head, showing how scraps of inconsequential media can obliterate our identities. Purrsonally, I think this is one of my best disassemblages when it comes to social commentary. Notice how my tail balances the destruction and yet keeps me grounded.

In the disassemblage below, I show how I have dominated the media and squashed it. Only my reeled-in tail betrays that I have no completely slipped the bonds of print.

Tanner: What you're telling me makes no sense, Arlo!

Arlo: That's because you do not understand art, Tanner. You cannot comprehend my purrpose. Now in the disassemblage below, notice how I divide and conquer the media, while reducing some of it to smaller bits which orbit the central figure, which is yours truly. Note how my tail reaches to the outer edge of my galaxy while reinforcing the idea that I am the center of my universe.

Here's a different perspective, in which I have one of my hi-beams on, the better to illuminate my message of dividing and conquering.

Below is still a work in progress.

Sometimes it helps if I look at my art from a different angle.

And sometimes I just dive right in and start work.

Luckily I have a lot of material to work with. Purrhaps this assemblage in progress will be a political statement. Purrhaps not. I'm open to ideas.

Tanner: OK, OK, we've seen enough of what you do. Your point is—?

Arlo: What's black and white and shred all over? Me and my art!

Tanner: I think your art is a catastrophe in the making.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Home-Made And On the Road

When I was a kid in the late 40s–early 50s, Mama made most of my clothes. In fact, she made all my dresses, slips, and nightgowns. I still have a lot of the baby clothes she made. Here's one of my baby dresses.

A closer look. Mama not only made it, she also embroidered it.

She made me a lot of sun suits when I was a baby. . . .

. . . and when I was a little older.  In the picture below, my cousin Marty and I wear matching sun suits that Mama made us.

I still have Mama's treadle sewing machine, but it hasn't been used for decades. I never learned to sew on it.

I suppose I'm still into homemade stuff. My latest book—Them That Go—an Appalachian coming-of-age novel with paranormal overtones is homemade, if you consider self-publishing (albeit through the services of CreateSpace) as being homemade.

A commercial publisher might send its author on a book tour. A home-made author has to set up her own "tour." My first stop was at the Franklin County Library in late March where I sold some books even though I didn't have as big a turnout as I'd have liked. My second stop was at the Westlake Library, and stories in two lake papers, The Laker Weekly and The Smith Mountain Eagle, gave me some good press. A couple dozen folks turned out to hear me read and talk about the book, and I sold a respectable number of books. Last Saturday, I sold books and talked to folks who stopped by my table at the Franklin County Library. At the public presentations of the Lake Writers anthology, Reflections on Smith Mountain Lake, at the Moneta/SML Library and the Westlake, members of Lake Writers were able to sell their books, so—as one of the editors and a contributor to the anthology—I sold some books there.

And my tour continues. In May, I'll be on the road to the Wytheville Library on May 7 (10 AM-2 PM), the Fincastle Library on May 12 (6 PM), and the Vinton Library on May 14 (11 AM) as part of the Vinton Heritage and Storytelling Festival. If you're in the area, come see me.

If you can't make it to one of my stops on my home-made tour, you can buy my novel on Amazon and at a few local places. While home-made books aren't available in bookstores, you can get Them That Go at Virginia Office Supply in Rocky Mount and The General Store and Southern Roots at Westlake.

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