Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘E. Merwin

Imagine going to America to find your father and fame, only to end up a mistreated art intern. From E. Merwin comes the most unusual tale of Piccolo, about an Italian greyhound who also happens to be a sculptor. Told from the viewpoint of animal, the style of Piccolo is uneven and the plot occasionally contrived. At the same time, the complex characters and the rich setting engage.

Let me start with the characters. The narrator, Piccolo, was born on Christmas Day in Venice. As a pup, sitting at the family balcony, he watches his mother paint with delicacy and detail. In his father’s studio, he learns to enjoy the clang of steel. His love for his parents, and for art, becomes evident through the text. Piccolo also relishes food. One day his mom has to search him out, only to find him with two paws on a glass case, transfixed by the savory snacks in the display.

Besides Piccolo, there are his parents. His father is a renowned sculptor, whose forefathers have followed the occupation of stone-cutters, and who now trains Piccolo to carve wood and chisel stone. Sadly, Piccolo’s father also possesses an adventurous nature. One day, he packed his leather satchel with his sculpting tool, and prepared to leave the family for America. Before doing so, Piccolo’s father asked the family to take good care of his vintage books and his prized collection of records. Then he took his pork pie hat and bid farewell. He promises to send for the rest of the family, as soon as makes his fortune, but that day never comes.

His mother is an artist, who is also well-known for her gracious nature and her luscious coat. Piccolo writes that when his mother paints, her artwork comes to life because of the colors and the textures she employs. His mother disapproves of Piccolo’s wanderlust nature, encouraging him instead to study closer the art all around him. For a time after his father leaves he does. Eventually though, despite how now the family must live in hardship, Piccolo decides to also sail for America. While on a ship that will take him to his desired destination, he meets a famous artist who convinces Piccolo that not only does he need to focus on steel in his art, but he needs to set himself up with the right connections. And so begins Piccolo’s plight.

Next let me turn to the setting. This short novel starts out in Venice, in “a quiet neighborhood of morning markets and small cafes besides the green waters of the Grand Canal”. We read about the city and its resorts, galleries, and studios. In addition, we read about the markets, their food, and other wares. Although this is a fictional tale, in the back pages, there’s even a glossary of Italian phrases and words. Even when he leaves for America, his hometown of Venice is never far from Piccolo’s heart.

About halfway through, the setting switches to New York. Here, we learn less about New York due to Piccolo being confined to a studio, but we do read plenty about the sometimes unpleasant world of the artistic. Scattered throughout this short novel are cutout illustrations. The back pages also lists artwork by the masters that relate to greyhounds. We also read about tantalizing meals. Indeed, Piccolo is so entranced by food that it serves partially as his downfall in New York.

Finally, I’ll address the minor flaws. The style is uneven, both in description and dialog. At times, there are too many details. Especially in the first third, the dialog often moves slowly and doesn’t feel natural. Then there’s the plot. Initially, not a lot happens. Near the end, there is a rescue that feels contrived.

I enjoyed this unique tale, which promotes both animal welfare and art appreciation, and have already started reading part two. Also, E. Merwin has collaborated with author, rat fancier Cynthia Stuart, to create My Improbable Mischief which is being serialized in It’s a Rat’s World Magazine. All these selections are worth a look!

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

Born in Brooklyn, E. Merwin teaches English to international students and writes fiction. Her third published book is Piccolo, a story about an Italian greyhound who is a sculptor, as well as about the growing dependence in the art world on art interns and how these unpaid workers can be mistreated. Ms. Merwin and I have corresponded occasionally and I’m pleased to present my interview with her.

ALLISON: Did you come from a big or small family? A household of pets or none?

EILEEN: By today’s standards four kids would be large, but back in the 50’s that was pretty standard. Our first pet was Irish Eddy, who only repeated the words my mother sang out repeatedly throughout the day: “Where’s Patrick?” (Patrick was the brother who was usually in trouble.) My lifelong dream of having a dog came true when I was about ten and my father was hospitalized. Probably unfair of me at that time to ask to take in the last pup of a litter from across the street, but my parents relented and Casey McGee became my first canine companion. In terms of pedigree, his mother was royalty, Princess, and his father, Choo Choo was the neighborhood rogue who had fathered many litters in those backyards of Brooklyn. When I went off to college, as in most families, my parents took on his care, and I know that in his final years living in the Pennsylvania, Casey became my dad’s best friend.

ALLISON: If you were to write a book about your childhood, how would you summarize it?

EILEEN: Thoughtful. I always loved to lay back on the cellar door, or sit on a hillside in the park, or take long walks along the Verrazano Narrows to the bridge and think. Like most childhoods, my mind was baffled by the adult conflicts around me—their bouts with alcohol, illness and each other. But that was only one current of the stream. There were so many delights: rolling down the hill behind my Uncles’ house in Pennsylvania, paddling around in a backyard pool, sitting on a park bench feeding the squirrels and philosophizing with my father. And the holidays, and the birthdays and the amazing meals my mom cooked up each night—back in the day when someone could afford to be home and actually caring for a family of six. Yes, those days come back to me often— and always a pleasure to recall.

ALLISON: Most people seem to have experienced a wonderful or terrible adolescence? How would you categorize yours? Why?

EILEEN: Lonely, but isn’t that the writer’s lot? The beauty of feeling so removed from others was that I found companionship in literature. I remember one Saturday in the local library discovering a poet that I thought was unknown (Ezra Pound!); reading Pablo Neruda aloud for the pleasure of the music of the words in Spanish; preferring the world of Dylan Thomas and his tales of growing up in Swansea Wales to the streets of Brooklyn. And novels, I loved to get lost in them.

ALLISON: What period of your life most changed you?

EILEEN: Probably the years of raising my own children in Vermont. I became a better person, putting them ahead of myself—loving them so deeply and being loved so deeply in return.

I also turned my attention from writing poetry, which seemed to deflect my attention from them, and started writing children’s lit. The first story that I wrote one Hanukah for them “Yitzy and the Miracle”, along with several other stories and poems were published in Cricket and Spider magazines. And then, as they grew older, I collaborated with them on several books which were initially published by an independent publisher in England and which I recently revised and published through the Book Bogglers Collective.

So by raising my kids and writing for and with them, I finally became an author.

ALLISON: Who most influenced you growing up?

EILEEN: My dad—also a deep thinker.

ALLISON: You’re from New York, live in New Jersey, but your novels were published by a British press. How does that work?

EILEEN: Trevor Lockwood is an independent publisher in Felistowe England. My first novel, Daughter Dedannan, was under consideration by Harper Collins— but when I got finally got the thanks, but no thanks letter, I queried independent publishers and found Trevor and Braiswick. For over a decade he had been a loyal literary ally. When last April he told me he was retiring, and would no longer be publishing my work, I decided to revise and republish which is how the works have found new life through Book Bogglers.

ALLISON: You’ve taught English to international students. What was your most challenging moment?

EILEEN: Hmm, quite frankly it’s all been a pleasure. I am amazed by their courage coming to a strange city and taking on life in a second language—and really honored to teach (and learn from) them.

ALLISON: Piccolo is your third book. How have your grown as a writer since your first publication?

EILEEN: Recently I opened a trunk with my first writings from MFA program over 30 years ago and was amazed how the themes still run through my work, but how in terms of craft all my writing has improved. But as I always tell my students, the quality of the writing is in the re-VISION.

ALLISON: How did you come up with idea of Piccolo? What experiences in your own life helped in the writing of Piccolo?

EILEEN: Ah, Piccolo.

As I mentioned, I started out telling and writing stories for my kids. Then they started telling me stories in return. My son Ted at the time was a very serious young sculptor, who mostly lived and worked with his dad a sculptor, Robert Ressler, and by nine was carving and welding and creating very original work. He also as a child was obsessed with Italian greyhounds, so I recall sitting around the table and coming up with the tale together.

When over a decade later, Ted asked me, whatever happened to Piccolo? I took out the original short work and expanded it—with much editorial and creative advice from Ted—to become Piccolo: an Intern’s Tale.

ALLISON: What’s next?

EILEEN: Tiepolo’s Greyhound recounts Piccolo’s adventures upon returning to Venice.  I am currently working with artist MOR (my daughter) on the cut-outs to complete that tale to be published this summer by Book Bogglers.

Last year I collaborated with author, rat fancier Cynthia Stuart, to create My Improbable Mischief which is being serialized in It’s a Rat’s World Magazine. (To read an installment, click on the magazine link and scroll down to My Improbable Mischief.) We are writing the second book of that tale which takes our heroine, Skyler Goode, to Mozambique where she has adopted a Gambian pouched rat, one of the amazing Hero Rats of Apopo who are trained to clear fields of landmines and diagnose TB so many lives are saved!

So yes, I will keep writing and meeting lovely people like along the way who still value a good story and the joy of time alone spent with a good book!


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