Sunday, 19 October 2008
Saturday, 11 October 2008
NOT a new novel as such but a rescued, out-of-print title, this relatively short, often puzzling but largely engaging meditation on love, death and everything in between is certainly worth a look.
The first published long prose work by US poet and memoir writer Richard Katrovas, it appeared briefly in 2001 when published by a small Stateside firm. A chance mention on the blogosphere led to Jon Gifford of Cambridge’s Oleander Press tracking the work down and then republishing it as it appears here, giving it a second chance to impress on this side of the pond at least.
Set in New Orleans, the action flits between middle-aged, white restaurant owner Nathan and gifted black adolescent Willie as each deals with the hard and often puzzling blows that life can so often land. Previously married to Bridget, the mother of his only son, Nathan is now hitched to Lou and stays with her, their two daughters and decrepit dog Poon, whom he loathes. He also harbours a secret in the form of first love Sandra, who has always refused to marry him but with whom he has continued a strange sort of long-term relationship. As if that wasn’t enough, he also has to deal with a gangster who has essentially forced him to provide his mentally disturbed nephew with a job in his restaurant and the looming arrival of his birth mother, whom he has tracked down and begun an e-mail relationship with but whom he has yet to tell any of his family about.
Put like this, it’s the kind of plot that suggests pure farce but, while it is not as though there are no light-hearted moments at all, the general tone is serious and it’s Katrovas’ skill as a writer that ensures all these potentially laughable threads remain entirely credible throughout.
On the other side of the tracks Willie is an academically gifted youth, though with none of the “little adult” traits that might suggest. Indeed his abilities are only really hinted at in the novel’s very earliest stages with offhand references to, among other things, some forthcoming university classes. In just about every other way he’s your typical teen: truculent, full of bravado and struggling to understand the grown-up world around him. As the muse of a dying poet whose last great work shares the name of this novel, he agrees to regular sessions sitting and listening to the piece as it unfolds, though only in exchange for payment. And he also ends each session by telling the poet just what he can do with his magnum opus – in the coarsest terms possible.
The two are utterly unknown to each other and it is only the death of the poet that will bring Nathan and Willie together and provide the life-altering kick that both appear to need.
Grounded in what often feels like the all-too-real world, this is writing that manages to be both earthy and transcendent. In other hands Nathan’s and Willie’s frequent doubts and difficulties – their changeability and mixed motives – could have rendered them too difficult to understand or to properly engage with. As Katrovas presents them, though, both are wonderfully, appealingly human and following both in turn is like getting a privileged look inside the lives of the sort of individuals you could easily imagine brushing up against in real life. The details of both their internal and external lives are perfectly realised and presented and if your heart doesn’t ache just a little for both of them by the book’s close then there is something seriously, seriously wrong with you.
Thursday, 2 October 2008
Tuesday, 30 September 2008
with the sense of how blessed I am, though I can’t fix to the dark
beneath these words an image or even the most abstract conception
of what may be the agent of that blessing. Bart Linsey was not
gathered to the bosom of an infinitely loving and knowing progenitor.
The trillions of little lights comprising him simply burned out in a
grand cascade. What has blessed me confounds me precisely
because I don’t doubt that I am comprised likewise of trillions of tiny
lights that in due course will flicker out with a rapidity unmatched
except on those unimaginable scales at either extreme of nature.
I’ll see you soon."
Saturday, 27 September 2008
“They’ll carry me out feet first,” Kenny assured Nat.
“I’m like an old piece of soap that’s stuck to the soap dish,” Robby said.
“Well, we’re all going away someday,” Danny sighed.
“Oh, sweet Jesus, she’s soooo deep!” Robby said.
“Old Queens never die. They just fade, fade away,” Kenny crooned.
“No, honey, fade? Away? Fade away?“ Robby said. “I’m checking out on a Saturday night right here in this room. Ricky Martin’s coming in with his entourage and Nat’s going to seat him in here and I’m going to plush him out! Do you hear me? Plush him out all night and right after I lay the check I’m going into cardiac arrest and Ricky’s getting down on his hands and knees on this carpet to give me mouth-to-mouth...”
“Oh, shut up, Princess Fish Breath!” shouted Kenny.
“And I’m going to die with that adorable boy’s lips pressed to mine,” Robby finished.
“JesusJosephandMary! That’s the best you can do?” Danny whined. “You’re a fucking fifty-eight-year-old Catholic schoolgirl!”
“Thank you,” Robby whispered.
Thursday, 25 September 2008
Tuesday, 23 September 2008
"How many books are there out there that bring you to a screeching halt? That make you stop and say 'wow' out loud when you read them?
The Mystic Pig by Richard Katrovas
One of -- and I'm not kidding -- the best books I've ever read. And no one's ever heard of it."
Read the rest here and see one of the building blocks of my infatuation.
Sunday, 21 September 2008
...which is apparently the collective noun for pigs. I always thought it was, well, bacon but you live and learn.
But anyway, they arrived! As you can see. I'm now surrounded by pigs - they're all over the place ready to be sent out to all the lucky bods that have reserved the first of the run. If you're one of them you can expect your swine around the 1st October.
Man, I love this job.
Tuesday, 16 September 2008
Monday, 15 September 2008
Robby, Kenny, Danny and the others issued from remarkably similar backgrounds: they’d grown up in small Southern towns; experienced the horrors of shaping homosexual identities through adolescence in such a context, which included breaking through thick and thorny hedges of Christian guilt and surviving the physical threats from boys who preyed on peers with sensitive natures, anyone unwilling or unable to participate in the communal brutalities of adolescent male bonding. They’d all, or nearly all, formed strong attachments to the black women who’d been their surrogate mothers and indeed those women had been their earliest and strongest gender models, such that Danny’s camp, the same in kind as that of the others though more elegant in its timing and grander in its scale, always had about it the edginess of a black femininity expressing itself through a Southern white man’s body and, by extension, history, and early on Nat had found the layered ironies of such a persona fascinating, though he’d not in the beginning been entirely certain what he was observing in Danny and the others. On the floor they’d seemed – when he’d finally been allowed out of the scullery to bus a couple nights a week – prim and proper, by turns stiff and pissy and blithely graceful. They haunted their stations gloriously. Once they’d engaged a group, done what talking was required (and they never said a word more than was necessary, unlike those chummy Yats at so many French Quarter tourist traps who played customers like they were rubes), they silently, inauspiciously tended to the needs and desires of patrons, anticipating everything. No-one ever lit her own cigarette at the Old Queens’ tables; no one had to ask where the restrooms were located; no one had to ask to see the dessert cart; rarely did anyone even have to ask for the check.
It was in the kitchen the Old Queens became their mammies, and in their own ways were just as tough as those women. Once, in the late seventies, a new broiler man hassled Robby, who in response blew the large, dumpy fellow a kiss. The cook had then made the mistake of curling around the serving counter and getting in Robby’s eyes, threatening to bust up his pussy face, to which Robby had responded by swiftly and efficiently kicking the guy’s ass right in front of the service counter, pounding him bloody and semi-conscious before Kenny – pausing first to admire his colleague’s work – dragged Robby off the poor fellow. Kent Newcastle blew in through the swinging door and fired the new guy on the spot, which is to say as he lay dripping blood, shocked and utterly humbled on the red cement floor of the kitchen. The lesson to Nat had been that one does not, even figuratively, fuck with nelly fags, given the crucible of violence the world is for them; some become quite proficient at giving as well as they take.
Note: The (stolen/borrowed) picture is of real FQ restaurant Stella. Apparently a fantastic place to eat.
Saturday, 13 September 2008
This time the poem was about how love obliterates the self, a kind of suicide then resurrection. Perhaps because it was dark outside and only one dim bulb burned, in a lamp covered by a dark red shade with gold frills by the couch, the mood was different than usual, and Willie found himself listening with more interest, and stared at the long shadows all over the walls as Bart spoke in that funny voice, the poem voice.
There were sad people swimming in each other’s skins awhile, floating in each other’s secrets and obsessions. Willie knew he wasn’t really getting it, but he didn’t care, the sadness he got, and the loneliness. Bart was one sad and lonely dude, and Bart didn’t forget for a single second that he was dying, that any day, any hour, any minute, from the looks of him, he could fall right over and stop. In a way, Willie was looking forward to Bart checking out so he wouldn’t have to listen to this crap anymore.
And now the poem was talking about a garden where all a person’s lies about love were rotting fruit and where a person’s truth about love was good ripe fruit, and how in that garden filled with the smell of rot there was only one piece of fruit that wasn’t rotten, a lemon.
Friday, 12 September 2008
Thursday, 11 September 2008
On the boat Nat, Roberto Mancini, Cookie Bates, and the personal assistant who followed them, wandered from deck to deck quietly observing the rituals of gambling. The Chubby Little Women had established altars before their chosen slots; from their enormous purses they’d pulled plastic Mardi Gras cups – Comus, Proteus, Bacchus, Zulu, Bards of Bohemia, Isis, and so many others, some tiny, that rolled in each season from all over the region – filled with dull silvery coins, fake leather or frankly plastic cases in which they kept their cigarettes (most seemed to smoke long, chocolate-colored Mores); some even retrieved snacks from the depths of those purses, and their go-cups never emptied. One actually fixed her make-up in a tiny compact mirror before slipping the first little silver wheel into the machine.
And the common emotion Nat sensed throughout the fields of silver slots, from floor to floor on the great ugly floating casino, was one which did not have a precise name like Joy or Despair or Indifference, but seemed an admixture of all three. A small anticipatory joy accompanied the dropping of the coin and the pulling of the handle, and was followed hard by yet another failure and therefore small despair which melted quickly into the vast lake of indifference upon whose mild swells the hopes of all true gamblers ride, minute to minute to minute. Some people, who seemed to have been at their stations the longest, actually appeared impatient to get the next disc into the slot before the flickering images of the current spin had even revealed success or failure. Pinching the coins, their hands hovered near the slits into which they dropped, one after the other, slivers of their lives: grocery money, a new transmission, school clothes.
Wednesday, 10 September 2008
Willie asked what’s the difference, and just as they were making it to the streetcar tracks Bart dropped onto his back and Willie thought oh, shit, there he goes.
From the streetcar, past Lowerline, then Cherokee toward Broadway, Nat glimpsed his best friend, Bart Linsey, who was on his back in the grass of the neutral ground by the tracks. They’d been best friends through elementary, junior high and high school, stayed in close touch through college when Bart went off to UVA but came home every holiday, and about a third of the way into Nat’s first marriage. After that, he’d get in touch every couple of years, and reuniting was always a highlight. He’d not heard from Bart in six years, since Nat, Lou and Marti (and Edie, though no one knew it yet) had had him over for Thanksgiving six years ago. Nat sometimes forgot that hehad a best male friend, but the shock of seeing Bart passed out, filthy – even from a moving vehicle he could see the filth – and emaciated awoke a powerful feeling of fealty.
Even as he ran he realized he’d left his workout bag on the streetcar. He patted his ass to feel his wallet, which he sometimes threw in the bag before leaving the house, and was relieved it was there. As he stood above Bart, with whom he’d had so little contact over the past decade, he caught an ugly whiff of physical degradation, alcohol and piss. His hair and skin were filthy. The stench of his long-lost best friend reached into Nat and coiled around what little of the redfish he’d been able to get down in his agitation at lunch. Bart had likely not bathed in weeks, and there were sores on his lips and forehead. He wore a nice Italian suit, Gucci shoes, and a Rolex.
See a couple of good stories about the return of the streetcar to NOLA here and here. This picture courtesy of YatPundit at www.canalstreetcar.com
Monday, 8 September 2008
The proofs for the text and, almost more importantly the cover, came in early last week for final checking before the run gets the go-ahead. I have to say the cover looks fantastic - I think it's going to come out very well - and, as it will be uncoated or 'rough,' the texture will feel as it looks - as it were... parchment like, almost. Anyway, we signed off on both and so the modern magic that creates one of the oldest forms of entertainment and inspiration is underway; the results with us in a couple of weeks.
The picture above is of Lake Pontchartrain - the setting for one of the most poignant and crushingly-enlightening scenes as those of you who had advance copies know. I just thought it matched the atmosphere perfectly. Fires of passion dowsed in the deep waters of loss... beautiful.
I'm posting another of the recipes later this week - probably the Big Easy Eggs Benedict that Willie makes for his mum.
The pic's from this site, uploaded by Jeff, and has no copyright notice so I'm borrowing it without permission - get in touch if it's yours and you'd like it taken down.
Saturday, 6 September 2008
In a couple of weeks the finished book should be delivered ready for distribution before the launch on the 30th. As usual I'm dead excited but more so this time because, as you know, I don't publish fiction - but this bizarre confluence of events has conspired to get me sticking my neck out; mind you, I'm pretty sure there's little risk involved. As just about every person who read the ill-fated US hardback edition has said it's one of the best books they've ever read, and as, more importantly, I believe it's one of the best books out there - I'm simply dead proud of having resurrected it. nuff said.
It's available for pre-order now and by ordering one of the first copies you get a handy 10% discount.
Friday, 5 September 2008
Thursday, 4 September 2008
Wednesday, 3 September 2008
Tuesday, 2 September 2008
Btw, here's Richard's basic bio:
at the University of New Orleans, having earlier spent several years
as a waiter in four of the city’s premier restaurants. He has been a
professor of English at Western Michigan University since 2003, and
the founding director of the Prague Summer Program since the early
90s. Katrovas’s poems, stories and essays have appeared in many of the
leading literary journals and anthologies in America, and he has been
the recipient of numerous grants and awards. Katrovas is the father of
three glorious Czech-American daughters, Ema, Anna, and Ella.
More tomorrow of course.
Monday, 1 September 2008
...been there but bringing about the re-emergence of Mystic Pig into the light has made me desperately want to visit NOLA. Through Nat I've come to feel a little of the pulse of the French Quarter; with Willie I've caught beads from parades and punched fat, white-trash bigots in the privates; with Bart I've hung out at Lake Pontchartrain. I've wandered along Carrollton, slinked down St Charles, chilled on Napoleon; I've seen UNO play Auburn at the Lakeside Arena and been slapped down by the Head of Morgan Heights with Marti. So I'm finding myself checking the news constantly and just hoping that the Crescent City gets through Gustav. My thoughts are in Louisiana today.
Sunday, 31 August 2008
Mind you - I'm even happier to discuss the novel over this dish - what time shall I come round...?
Saturday, 30 August 2008
Sure, I know - loads of you hate it. What can I say? After hours of arguments and food fights this is the one everyone loved a bit, and some lots. I was one of the 'lots' and as I have kind of a casting vote around here...
There's an epic poem at the heart of the novel. Don't worry, there's no actual poetry in the book (although I'm sure some of you would love that) but we wanted to convey the whole classical influence the poet is channeling . I mean, it's no Inferno but there's a medieval fire-and-brimstone allegorical quality that infuses the story proper and we needed to combine this with the human passion of the characters' situations. There are so many themes in the book it was difficult to make just one the the overriding influence. Hence the lack of an actual picture and the decision to go with an... evocation?
The stock will be uncoated so it will have a parchment-esque feel to it and I wanted it to seem 'basic' and archaic for obvious reasons. The font is called Millesime and has a rough, unfinished, urgent quality - the passion I keep blah-ing on about. Different sizes and colours - layers, arcs etc.
But mainly - I think it looks cool. So there it is. I think it has shelf-appeal anyway - don't you?
Another recipe next week by the way - the Sweet Potato Redfish with Kumquat mentioned before I think.
Saturday, 23 August 2008
Wednesday, 20 August 2008
Yeah, this was another No. It had a certain 'Mardi Gras' quality about it clearly - it reflected part of the life of New Orleans for sure. But it just seemed too... chirpy. Chipper. Like those morning breakfast shows that, despite reporting the death of howevermany people in somedisastersomewhere, remain relentlessly upbeat. A distinct lack of gravitas in other words. And we need some of that sobriety when packaging a book that, whilst containing a lot of fantastic humour, deals a lot with mechanisms of coping with loss. Once we get past all the spangly packaging stuff I'll talk more about the multifarious issues the book raises- the heart / essence that gets me so passionate about this particular work of fiction and makes me want the world to read it, the work of this, I don't know, modern Mark Twain. Wait 'til you meet Willie - you'll see what I mean.
Ooh, and then there's the sweet Potato Redfish with Kumquats... I mean it when I say this book is almost edible.
Tuesday, 19 August 2008
No no no no no. This instantly reminded me of The Devil Wears Prada for some reason. Not that I've seen it of course. (But I especially didn't watch it on my own, 11pm, New Year's Eve, 2006 - I checked the hotel bill; it just says movie...)
Everyone agreed though, it was more 'cocktails on Park Avenue' than 'murder, sex and chocoloate cookies in the French Quarter' so it was out. I'll put up the recipe for those chocolate cookies some time soon. I've sent them out to magazines but I doubt anyone'll be up for publishing them:
Actually - I wasn't going to post any of the recipes just yet; not until I had a good head of steam and the traffic justified it. But early interest has been such that I'll put the cookies out there now. If only because, as I say below, I have no idea about cooking and it would be great to hear how people get on. I've had a couple of friends make the dishes and of the cookies one loved them and the other said they turned out dreadfully. The most important thing to note is that neither offered me any! Anyway, here's the instructions:
I'm going to list all the recipes on the sidebar anyway - an easy access point for the hordes a'comin'...
Monday, 18 August 2008
To my continual consternation and disbelief it is often posited that I have little in the way of taste. Design and aesthetics are not my forte apparently. I know - outrageous isn't it? But because I actually do want Oleander's books to sell to people other than the workforce's mums we employ designers to do the actual work and then everyone (except me) gets to sit around and discuss which covers they like. I spend this time editing and stuff - proper work. Anyhow, due to the circuitous route taken by the Pig to get to this stage it was even more important to make sure its presentation was excellent so a number of options were thrown out before the winner was chosen. The two shown here are variations on a concept inspired by passion - a major, perhaps the major, theme in the novel. The smoke was to evoke heat, fire and sin - a little of the seedy underbelly of the Big Sleazy.
But in the end it was decide that with the red wine colouring it looked too like a Mills and Boon Romance - albeit one that goes beyond the bedroom door :) So we sacked it. More later in the run-up to the one that won...
Sunday, 17 August 2008
I read a lot of books. From the age of six I've been voracious - in reading at least... (It's a sad irony however, that I read a lot less now that I am a publisher than when I worked for one.) I love the occasional slow-burn, dawning realisation that you have a slice of greatness in your hands – that you're actually honoured to be a part of what the author's creating, if only in a passive sense. It doesn't happen often and most people can list on one hand the times it has – and those books will be forever stacked in their memory and on their bookshelf, well thumbed and a little tatty. It's something like that I guess:
Mystic Pig - the beginnings...
Like most of us I read blogs – I even have / had a couple. But, unlike mine, the ones I read are by folks who are intelligent and actually have something interesting to say. I was looking through archived posts on one a few months ago when I stumbled across a book review. The blogger had been swept away by it: “I finished this book (295 pages) in eight hours with only a bag of dried mango slices for sustenance, I loved it so much.”
As I searched, intrigued, further out on the bloglines I came across others who regarded it as 'an undiscovered classic,' 'criminally under-appreciated,' 'one of the best novels I've ever read' - many said that.
(Now normally I would link to the entries concerned but unfortunately there be spoilers and you really don't want to know the secrets if you're at all interested in reading the book – and you should be. Obviously, it doesn't take much nous to find them yourself with the info you have – so go ahead, spoil away. :-) )
Of course I now wanted to read it, badly, but it was out of print. Printed in the US in 2001 by a tiny press who shortly thereafter went out of business. By now my blood was tingling a little though so I searched and found a couple of used copies on Amazon but at $40 + shipping over here I wasn't quite sure. Luckily, there was also a cheap copy on Craig's List in Brooklyn. The guy who had it didn't think it was worth sending a five-buck book across the Atlantic even though I was offering to pay carriage. I eventually bribed him with a bunch of cash for his charity of choice and a copy of Night Climbers (of course by now Id spent more than if I'd bought it on Amazon). He sent it over with his best wishes to the Queen. Err, ok.
So I eventually had a copy of it. I picked it up and was instantly transfixed. I don't think I moved again until I'd finished it. The gut-wrenching honesty of the writing and its poetry-turned prose have the power to, just for a fleeting Friday, turn your convenient 21st Century world in on itself. There's an authenticity about it, a noir humour alongside such delicate melancholy. It wraps you seamlessly into a world, emotional and geographical, that you yearn to be a part of, that you want to run away from. What do you know about friendship? About belonging? About Love? Little yet, it transpires.
Oh, and every now and then the characters create these great dishes. Prepared and described in such a way that you're there in New Orleans getting your hands sticky too. I'm a bachelor; I know where the kitchen is and my cleaning lady tells me I have a dual oven and some hi-falutin' hob somewhere in there. Me? I know where the kettle is and that's fine. But in this book, one minute I'm laughing or crying – the next I'm making Chicken Etouffee! Seriously! heh. Anyhow, I'll publish the recipes on here every now and then - and you can tell me how they turn out.
I'll tell you more later but suffice to say I'm bringing it out on September 30th. I tracked down the author Richard Katrovas and, after surprisingly little flummery, we came to an agreement; I guess that was because he wants to see it back in print – and so do I. There were no electronic copies of it so it had to be re-typed, re-edited, re-proofed – everything; it took a while. It'll be a short run too because, well - I'm a tiny, poor, independent publisher - but I'll have a few thousand copies kicking around the place for when people discover this classic. Even if we only sell 12 copies I'll quite simply be inordinately proud to have made it available for anyone and everyone to discover – and through it to allow them to discover a little of themselves. In my sappier moments I feel that that's almost reason enough to have a publishing company...
So anyway – The finished book goes to the printer tomorrow and I'll keep you updated on its progress as well as posting some of the recipes, parts of the prose, any hopes of publicity, some of my dull ramblings – the usual. To begin with here's the cover blurb:
“Hell is the place between words and the world...”
A modern romance for a fractured age, Richard Katrovas's first novel is a multi-layered mini epic that wholeheartedly lays its love on the line in the face of an abeyance of hope. Love for New Orleans; her secrets, her dark corners, her food. Love for life; its heroes, its villains, its also-rans. But above all, a love for Passion; its purity, its beauty, its inevitable consequences.
Consequences felt by both twelve-year-old Willie Singer, growing up, and middle-aged Nathan Moore, growing older. Two inhabitants of the Crescent City whose paths collide and ricochet through the dying of a local poet and the ramifications of his death-bed opus – an epic poem, The Mystic Pig. For better and worse, their lives are forever altered.
Mystic Pig beguiles. Written in evocative and poetic prose it effortlessly wraps the reader in the sensual, vibrant atmosphere of the French Quarter and delivers them right into the complex lives of its characters – warts and all. It's a novel about life and love, death and despair, acceptance, denial, murder, sex – and fine cuisine.
Not necessarily in that order.
Til next time.