Thursday, June 23, 2005


I just finished reading a strange but enjoyable novel, Conclave by Roberto Pazzi, translated by Oonagh Stransky. It's about the uncanny events that take place in the Vatican during a Papal conclave that lasts for several months. It's easier to say what sort of book it isn't than what it is. It might be described as a fantasy, but not one that's anything like what that word is likely to conjure up for American readers. Most American or British fantasy harks back to pre-Christian myths or beliefs, sometimes in transformed form, but there's none of that here; the book remains firmly within the belief system of Catholicism itself. It has no resemblance to Tolkien, Gaiman, or even Dunsany: there are no imaginary worlds, elves, or dragons. If there's magic, it's not part of a imaginary system invented by the author.

Perhaps one could say that whereas most Anglo-American fantasists respond to the exhaustion of traditional Christian belief by creating alternative worlds in which traditional beliefs, Christian or otherwise, still hold true (even when they themselves are traditional Christians), Pazzi makes this exhaustion his overt subject. Pazzi's approach to this subject is one of wry humor, similar to Calvino's. But the closest thing I can compare Conclave to overall, that I know of, is Elinor Wylie's The Venetian Glass Nephew (which I also recommend).

The book is published by Steerforth Press.

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Monday, June 20, 2005


Here's a strange book that I found in the bountiful stacks of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's library. (Somewhat less bountiful now that they've begun moving some books to a remote storage facility where they'll be unavailable for browsing.) Avery Glibun; or, Between Two Fires is a novel published in 1867 by Orpheus C. Kerr (a pseudonym for Robert Henry Newell), a political humorist who was popular in his time, but is virtually unread today. Avery Glibun itself must be even more unread; I wonder if there are more than ten people alive today, besides myself, who have read it. The novel is more ambitious than its title would suggest ("a very glib 'un": get it?); in fact it's an obvious imitation of Dickens' later works. (Kerr also wrote an "adaptation" of The Mystery of Edwin Drood "to American scenes, characters, customs, and nomenclature.") There's a child narrator out of Great Expectations; settings that range from the peak of society to the worst slums, and points in between; a complicated plot revolving around a secret from the past and relying heavily on coincidence; and even an attempt at creating a Dickensian character.

As a social satirist of the nouveau riche, Kerr isn't bad, but unfortunately these scenes form only a small part of the book. (The political satire in the book is notable mainly for its extreme anti-Irish stance.) In all other respects, Kerr is far inferior to his model. This is particularly true of his language, which for the most part alternates between the lifeless and the fustian. Still, there are a few good passages. Since very few of the readers of this blog will ever have the opportunity to read Avery Glibun, and probably few of these will have the inclination, I'll quote the best bits here.

The narrator, of himself as a child: "Forbidden ... to exchange views and confidences with others, I at last became moody by habit, and wandered uncomfortably hither and thither within the narrow limits of my liberty, like some odd little word whose whole language afforded no rhyme for it." (31)

From a description of one of the daughters of the nouveau riche playing the piano at a party: "Plump white right hand with a turquoise ring, seeing plump white left hand sprawling luxuriously on the spotless sidewalk, cheerfully challenges it to a little race up the street, and practises two or three false starts as an incitement. The left makes an impatient move to crawl away from its tormentor, which the latter takes for an artful feint. Away gallops the right, and gets near the end of the block before discovering that left is indignantly going the other way. Back it comes, then, on a sharp run, tearing up the pavement here and there on the way and throwing it tempestuously after the unsociable left, which thereupon turns irascibly about and hops rheumatically after the agile wretch. Up a convenient side-street darts the later and bounds gleefully to the top of the first fence; from which it skips tantalizingly to the tops of several others, with a taunting delight not to be borne. Thoroughly in earnest now, and madly exasperated, the left makes a flying leap for the fences; but goes 'way beyond them; at which down scampers right into the main thoroughfare again and rattles zig-zag down-town. More provoked than ever, left bears down in hot chase and quickly brings right to bay, when the tumult becomes frightful and culminative." (50)

"[H]e ... was presently leisuring elegantly down Broadway, at that easy, medium pace between hastening and lounging, which none but your true New Yorker can artistically achieve. In the brilliant lights of the retail and drug stores, he was a figure fit for a ball, -- in the shadows of wholesale stores and dwellings, he was an unexceptionable gentleman out for an evening walk." (201-2)

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Saturday, June 11, 2005


A quick one this time, because there's other stuff I really should be working on. Cynical Hysterie Hour (or "Shinikaru Histerii Awaa," as it's written in Japanese), by Kiriko Kubo is another realistic, low-key, gently humorous comic, like Chibi Maruko-chan, about ordinary children just being themselves. But Tsuneko, the main character, is less likable than Maruko-chan: she rarely smiles, and her main interest is food. (Two of the chapters revolve around her scheming to acquire goodies.) Nor is her appearance particularly cute. In fact, as she's drawn she's downright ugly: her eyes are shaped like slits, and she appears to be bald except for nine hairs sticking out from her scalp (though the cover illustration, which is in color, makes it clear that she isn't actually bald). Despite Tsuneko's lack of cuteness, the book has a certain charm and even sweetness. One two-part story delves into fantasy, as Tsuneko finds herself on a planet where elephants are intelligent and humans aren't; the other stories deal with everyday life. (There's no explanation of the title's significance; perhaps the first volume explained it.)

The main reason I bought the book was because of Kubo's art style, which is quite unlike what's thought of as "manga style." It's very simple, and a bit reminiscent of Charles Schulz. You can see the cover of Cynical Hysterie Hour vol. 7 here, the covers of other volumes here (click the numbers on top), and other comics and illustrations here.

The stories about Tsuneko occupy a little more than half the book. They're followed by a sixteen-page fable set on the Planet of the Elephants, and then by a series of strips entitled "Hanky Panky" ("Hankii Pankii"), which are humorous stories about an OL (or "office lady," as female office workers are called in Japan) who is as self-centered as Tsuneko, if better-looking.

The book is 192 pp., was published by Hakusensha, and its ISBN is 4-592-11787-5. It sold for 360 yen.

(Bizarrely, there's a connection between Cynical Hysterie Hour and John Zorn, whose tastes in manga imagery generally run more towards Suehiro Maruo. Zorn was hired to compose the soundtracks to four episodes of the anime based on the manga, and this music is currently available on CD as part of the "Filmworks" series on Zorn's own Tzadik label. Kubo even sings a bit on the CD. (There's a little more info here.))

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Sunday, June 05, 2005


Our local public library has been acquiring a lot of graphic novels recently, which is good. However, they've apparently decided that virtually all graphic novels are for teens and belong on the shelves next to teen fiction (except for Asterix, Tintin, Pokemon and a few others, which go in the children's section). Among the "teen graphic novels" acquired recently was Gary Panter's Jimbo in Purgatory.

My first inclination was to mock the designation of Jimbo in Purgatory as "for teens." But thinking more deeply, this may actually be where it will do the most good. It may be just the thing to blow the mind of an adolescent who stumbles upon it unawares in the midst of the familiar manga and superhero books (with a soupcon of "safe" indies such as Bone). Certainly, considered as an artifact, it's one of the weirdest that the average adolescent is likely to come across here in downstate Illinois.

But I didn't stumble upon JiP unawares. I'd already seen some of Panter's earlier work, as well as other comics and manga that are just as weird as JiP, if not more so. And I'd seen a number of people proclaim JiP a masterpiece. So when I checked it out and examined it ("read" isn't quite the right word in this case, as I'll explain), my mind wasn't blown. In fact, I wasn't particularly impressed.

I said once before that I'm not a particular fan of Panter's art. And I found his art here less interesting, if anything, than in his earlier works. In fact, it seems to me to fail both as art and as "sequential" (i. e. comic-book) art: it's too cluttered and schematic for the latter, too repetitive and dependent upon "appropriated" imagery for the former.

And the words? To be honest, I stopped reading the words about a third of the way through. There's quite a lot of "dialogue," but it consists largely of quotations from Dante's Purgatorio, the Decameron and other classic and non-classic texts, and its relationship to any story is often difficult to discern. I suspect that Panter never intended the text to be read straight through; at any rate, I gained nothing from my attempt, apart from a few unusual quotes.

Perhaps in ten years, when the first collection of critical essays on JiP appears, I'll go back to the book, guidebook in hand.

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Saturday, June 04, 2005


I intend to post a description of the Nakatani-Hutchinson-Ridenour concert I saw last night (see below) soon, but I'm too tired at the moment. So I'll just say, for the benefit of those who may be considering attending upcoming dates on Nakatani's tour, that it was well worth while and not disappointing.

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Thursday, June 02, 2005


A couple days ago I sent off a review I've been working for a long time. I have three other reviews to do, but the one I just finished was particularly troublesome. So I should be able to post more now (knock wood).

Soul to Seoul is a manhwa by Kim Jea Eun, published by Tokyopop, about Korean-Americans and Koreans living in New York City. The first volume, which I checked out of the library, looked somewhat intriguing at first glance, but turned out to be pure soap opera, and didn't interest me at all. I'd intended to leave it at that; but I glanced at the back cover of the second volume, and it revealed a plot twist which was completely out of left field (at least it felt like that to me). So when I saw that volume at the library, I picked it up out of curiosity. It turned out to be a bizarre mixture of gangster drama and high school romance, played dead seriously; but at least it's more interesting than the first volume. The art is good, too, though not outstandingly so. I don't intend to buy the third volume, but if the library gets it in I'll read it just to see what happens.

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Wednesday, June 01, 2005


Back in January I raved about a performance of free improvisation I'd been to by a trio of musicians including the percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani (though someone listening only to a tape of the performance would have been hard pressed to tell that Nakatani was a percussionist, so varied and un-percussionlike were the sounds he produced from his drum set). This Friday, June 3, Nakatani will be back in Champaign-Urbana, playing together with trombonist Jamie Hutchinson and table-top guitarist John Ridenour. The show will be at Civitas, located at 112 W. Main, Urbana, and begin at 8 PM; donations will be requested, according to the fliers. (Civitas is an inconspicuous little storefront just west of Priceless Books, and under the same awning.) I will definitely be there.

Nakatani will also be playing in Columbus, OH tomorrow (June 2) and Bloomington, IN, Chicago and Detroit over the next week or so, with different musicians; see his website for more info.

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