Monday, June 10, 2024

Something New


We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books. 

“HOPURANGI – SONGCATCHER, Poems from the Maramataka” by  Robert Sullivan (Auckland University Press, $29.99); AUP NEW POETS 10”, edited by Anne Kennedy (AUP, $29.99); “TOWN” by  Madeleine Slavick (The Cuba Press, $30); “TIDELINES” by Kiri Piahana-Wong (Anahera Press, $NZ25.)

            It is a formidable task to do justice to Robert Sullivan’s Hopurangi Songcatcher. Much longer than most collections of poetry its 144 pages encompass approximately130 poems. I have read carefully all these poems, but the review you are reading simply cannot examine or consider in detail every poem, so I am reduced to giving you generalities.

Maramatanka means the Maori lunar year and, says Sullivan in his introduction, the poems take place over three months according to that lunar system. Further, his introduction tells us that he was concerned to reconnect with his late father’s iwi, but also to connect with other iwi important in his life. In many of his poems he references whakapapa and the desire to re-connect with family and forebears. The poem “Tamatea Kai-ariki: Tautoko” concerns his academic searches to verify whakapapa. What this may imply is that to some degree he has often been living a way of life that is not fully Maori – and he has Pakeha in his whakapapa (not only his Irish name Sullivan but also reference to a forbear called Paddy). Put it all together and, in what he calls in his introduction “a period of personal change and growth”, his poems aim to bring him back to his Maori side. But there is a flexibility in his points of reference. In New Zealand as it now is, it is impossible for anybody, Maori or Pakeha, to be unaware of mass media, pop and rock tunes etc. Sullivan refers to these things, every so often showing his pleasure in off-shore music. For example in the poem ”Tangaroa-a-mua: Ranginui” Sullivan puts together a revered piece of Maori mythology with a pop song sung by Diana Ross. He also describes, in “Turu: Just last week” a present-day account of a literary gathering, crammed with poets.

The poems begin with “Paua Canticle”, where the poet is walking on the Oamaru beach and trying to connect with sea-food and the tide, seeing all things as connected. In his often quizzical poetry he ties tradition with the present. In “Continuous Positive Airway Pressure Machine” there is the clash between the dead animals of the past and the present museum in which they stand in class cages. In “Pupurangi Shelley” he tells us that the kauri snail in the forest is ultimately linked to supermarkets and then emphasises the millennia in which these islands have existed. He pours on a degree of satire in “The Paper Chase” where he imagines all the different copies of the Treaty of Waitangi being eaten away by giant kauri snails.

But this is simply the overture. The major interest of the volume follows the stages of the moon taking us through the lunar cycle in terms of Medium Energy, Low Energy and High Energy before lapsing into Low Energy and Medium Energy again. The moon influences our moods and the times when we can work or think. In Medium Energy he is concerned with the happiness of relating to his iwi and their customs which he is just learning and feeling the energy of the marae. The first Low Energy appears to deal with his sexuality in the poem “I Went Alone to the Taj Mahal”. In “I Was Wondering Why”, the clouds mute the sun with greyness. Medium Energy counters with the poem “Ouenuku: Mauri Ora” where, despite the rain “the awards are for the young people to give their ha / to the sky, who encourage us to thrive…” Rain can be a blessing. “Anei Ano he Ra” affirms that there is such a thing as love where “Now I know that to believe / in aroha, or love, is honourable and plain, / no similes for it except to say that love / has a purpose.” In fact, as Sullivan suggest, love can be joyful. The poem “Okoro – I had a cat once” appears to suggests that the cat’s animal joy at having a litter is in itself a form of love.

Some of Sullivan’s poems are of moods of despondence – of opportunities lost or unhelpful situations, as in “I opened a box” and also in “Korekore Whakapiri: Recycling” about the difficulty of clipping a hedge – everyday things. But there are also poems of exultation and joy as in “Rakaumatoi: E Hoa” [High Energy] which begins “How do I love you, my friends? / Let me count the mountain’s ways, / the heightened plains that bend / up into snowy reaches, playing / in the mind out of sight, to send / pillars of light, clouds, rain / on a grateful garden bed…” Delight can be sparked by the forces of nature.

It is perhaps inevitable that Sullivan, affirming his Maori self, takes some shots at colonialism, even if this is not his main interest. In “Tangaroa Whariki Kiokio: Another grey day” the “grey” refers to 19th century George Grey wherein “when you think about / our colonial history, they’re all Grey days”, Grey being the epitome of British rule. Inasmuch as there is activism, Sullivan has a poem celebrating the use of Maori writers texts in schools “You’ll get an e-mail from me”. “Orongonui: The Corrections” has him discussing how over the years he was not encouraged to use the Maori language. And the poem “Rakaunui: He Whenua Manu”, while not chastising James Cook directly, does tell an anecdote about him that puts Cook in a bad light. There is criticism here, but not rage. That is not Sullivan’s style.

One outstanding interest for Sullivan is birds, often seen as omens, messengers or passengers coming seasonally to this country. “Tamatea Kai-ariki: Three birds flew from me” is an admirable lyric, which I quote here in full: “Three birds flew from me: / a sparrow from my chest / a tui out of my throat / a pilwaka from my thigh / they flew to see my father / to let him know I am well / then the monarch butterflies / took their turns to see my / grandmother / once they saw the birds / were safely flown / and then the bees / came back to the field / to help the new manuka / akeake, harakeke, totara, / ti kouka and kowhai / bring back the birds.” More ironical is “Otane: Feeding the Birds of the World” which considers all the birds from other parts of the world that fly in to Christchurch seasonally… right next to a museum filled with stuffed birds in glass cases. More directly, “Tamatea a Ngana: Huia” laments the wilful extinction of the huia.

True to the concept of the Maori lunar years, the whole collection ends fittingly with “Turu: Hoki Whenua Mai” with the stars of Matariki rising “knowing Matariki will lift / our sap to the full moon.” But the most pure depiction of the moon as we see it is “Oike: Marama sits up in the west”, much earlier in the whole collection.

            Hopurangi Songcatcher is a thoughtful and detailed collection, often requiring very close reading and touching on many moods in a quest for identity. Are there any flaws? Only two small ones. I cannot see the point of the re-telling of “Jack and the Beanstalk” which comes near the end of the book; and the typeface is rather faint. But those are my only grumbles about an important text.

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            For some years now, Auckland University Press has encouraged younger poets with their New Poets series, each of which contains the work of three poets. Generous space is given and each poet presents what amounts to a full collection.  The tenth in the series introduces three very different poets.

            Tessa Keenan’s Pukapuka mapi / Atlas has a refreshing straightforwardness to it – the candour of an alert and observant young woman, often using prose poems in her accounts of her region, the beach, fields and mountains; but also in the behaviour of people of her own age. The poem “Scurvy Girls” is a witty round-up of the behaviour of young women. She often relates to somebody she loves; and in “Permission to Hate”, she makes it clear that she does not hate the person she loves but does express her hatred of other things (colonisation, money, ownership) beyond her control. And there is much critical satire in “Killing Time in the Canterbury Museum”. “Moonwalk” suggest both present joy and the limitations of a young person with the lament “One day I will run out of new things to do. / I hope there will still be things to look at without distraction.”  Speaking as a Maori, however, one of her greatest concerns is the present and the past of the Maori people. “Tataraimaka Pa” is a lament for the past, as so (obliquely) is “Taranaki”; but the fullest examination of the past is “Some Other Pa” [connected to the collection’s title] where present-day conceptions of space and distance contrast with traditional ways of perceiving. This is a robust and very readable collection.

            romesh dissanayake’s  Favourite Flavour House displays a very different type of poet. His roots were in Sri Lanka and in his adult years he looks quizzically at New Zealand but also refers back to his land of birth. There are opening poems about Asian food outlets in New Zealand, and he appears to himself be part of the culinary profession. A long ten-part sequence called “Six a.m. in Colombo / Cinnamon Gardens” carries him though much of his childhood and youth, learning among other things that “When the going gets tough the educated emigrate / and when the going got rough / we sold wood apple juice / sealed in small plastic tubes / with a comb and a candle / and bought three / wet summers’ worth in airfares.” So to the leaving Sri Lanka and some riotous behaviour in London before he records a more domestic way life… at least this is how it may be if he is a confessional poet. There is much emphasis on food but also on drugs. There is a tension between his culinary skills and his weariness with his work, telling us “the truth is I’m tired / writing cute little poems to please white people…” Hip? Ironic? Or genuinely world-weary? You choose. Of the three poets in this book, romesh dissanayake is apparently the most experienced. His first novel is about to be published.

            Sadie Lawrence‘s  poems were written between the ages of seventeen and nineteen. Her collection is called Like Human Girls / all we have is noise. There are overtones of romanticism in the opening poem  “(one month) Anniversary” with the speaker dizzy in what is apparently first love: “Tonight, the world is a pearl / cradled in adolescent hands. / Tonight, this bridge is a virginal marriage bed; / we were the first to wrap ourselves in it black blanket”. Lawrence’s style is rich with metaphors, one could almost say courtly. It is no criticism to note that these are adolescent poems because Lawrence consciously deal with the adolescent situation. “All Teenagers are Tapestries” deals with the bloodiness of women’s lives – including surgery and menstruation. Some poems touch on the awkwardness of relating to males and there are poems about leaving home. Or wishing to. Melodrama finds its way into the imagery when the poem “Thank God” touches on popular narratives about romantic suicides. The poet makes grandiose claims of how bad she is in the poem “I’m not like other girls (I’m much worse)”, this being the adolescent chastising herself. It all adds up to a heady mix, and an engaging one.

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Cuba Press announces Town as “fifty stories and fifty images by award-winning writer and photographer Madeleine Slavick and that is a fair summary. Slavick’s book, almost pocket-size, is as much a work of visual art as of a work of poetry. Rather than calling its words “stories” I would call them prose poems. The title poem “Town” declares that “town” can mean a city or country or volcano or landscape, wherever people or animals are. Whether it was Madeleine Slavick’s intention or not, that relates to the now discarded term “townland” [not used in this collection] which used to mean simply a wide piece of land. American born and Hong Kong raised, Slavick see New Zealand in a different light from NZ-born writers.

The opening poem “The Road Where I Live” begins “A straight line fifteen kilometres long. I walk in one direction one day, and in the other on the next. Seventeen cars pass. Almost every driver waves.” And what follows is almost idyllic in its description of the country, the animals and the friendly people… but Slavick is canny enough to also show that there are nearby state highways and railways. The land she describes is almost, but not quite, the Garden of Eden. Thus with many of her poems – there is mention of earthquakes and death at the railway crossing as well as other tragedies. She has some memories of living in Hong Kong; she tries to learn the Maori language; she notes the fate of Kiwi. The Piwakawaka is honoured with this [complete] poem “Stops. Flaps at eyeline, then darts, sideways. / A man called a loved one Fantail. She also left.” There are accounts of people who encourage others to join a book club. She is bemused by where community halls are. And of course there are sometimes annoying intrusions into domestics live. “Landline” reads in full: “Dinnertime, telephone rings, / A computer company makes an offer. / No, thank you, and I put down the receiver. / The woman calls back and asks why I hung up.”

            Given the landscape Slavick depicts, there are forthright statements about the ecology. A very robust poem “Declaration” begins “When our forests were forests, people couldn’t hear their own voices for the birdsong. Three, forty, seventy, ninety miles of bush, of song, before trees and their crowns thrown down, mounds fifteen metres high for the burning.”… and goes on to see the casual pollution there is in many forests and waterways. “Animal Stories” charts the hunting done by introduced animals. Not that it is all her prose poems are earnest. The poem “Write, Writer” is an ironic take on the different ways writing is accepted.

            This is an enjoyable collection which can be browsed at leisure, text and images.

A word about the photographs – while there are rural images of the seasons and weather, there are also images that suggest irony or criticism: the amateur sign saying FREE leaning against a tree; the almost brutalist signs saying MEAT and SOCIETY. But countering these are the thoughtful benches with the shadow of a tree falling on them; the beautiful photo of two flowers close up, one wilting… and so forth. Yes, Slavick is a very professional photographer.

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Kiri Piahana-Wong’s Tidelines begins and ends with the story from centuries ago of Hinerangi who, after tragic events including her husband’s drowning, died on the west coast of what is now called Waitakere. The opening poem “Hinerangi” has Hinerangi directly addressing us and the closing poem “In the Beginning” brings us back to Hinerangi speaking. The whole of this slim collection is written in the first person, but in between first and last poems, it is mainly a modern young woman who is speaking. Or is she?  Sometimes she is like an avatar of Hinerangi, observing the lands and beaches that she knew centuries ago, though they are now in a different condition. It is as if she can now see what has become the land she died in. The 8-part sequence “A sequence of birds” begins “Once again I am looking at flowers. / These are hydrangeas, picked / surreptitiously from a hedge outside / a bach at Laingholm Beach.” Staying on Auckland’s west coast, the modern narrator lives for a while  at Piha, where she is moved by the nature and the sea and perhaps especially by the sky and the rain that evoke gods “I feel it / - the sky’s water: all the wondrous light / weeping joyous tears of the sky god, / Ranginui, running down my side and / into the earth, Papatuanuku, and then / settling there.

But Hinerangi addresses the modern narrator in the poem “So far below”, suggesting that the present-day, modern narrator knows too little about herself. And here the poet becomes confessional, with poems in which she addresses her own moods, apparently often melancholy. “Messenger Bird” wonders if a messenger bird can be more effective than modern communications as she feels cut off from people. The sequence “Happiness” has an ironical title because it is mostly concerned with the fleeting nature of happiness and moods of despondency.  “Falling” suggests uncertainness and a sense of emptiness and “Storytelling” is particularly unhappy, contemplating suicide. It is good that the final poem gives a sense of solidarity with another woman, even if she lived long ago.

Kiri Piahana-Wong writes lucidly – she allows us to understand why she is so related to a long-dead woman and she presents vividly the nature of the coast she scans.

Something Old

  Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.


For the last five postings I have taken you through all five of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels, to wit This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned, The GreatGatsby, Tender is the Night and (the unfinished) The Last Tycoon. But I did promise to also deal with Fitzgerald’s short stories, and this leaves me with a problem. Fitzgerald wrote literally hundreds of stories, many of them for such magazines as The Smart Set, The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire and other outlets. There was no way that I could cover all of them. In his working life, Fitzgerald produced four collections of short stories - Flappers and Philosphers (1920), Tales of the Jazz Age (1922), All the Sad Young Men (1926) and Taps for Reveille (1935). With very few exceptions, these collections consisted of stories that had first appeared in magazines. I looked hard for his four collections, but I was able to get hold only of Tales of the Jazz Age. Fortunately I had on my shelf the British anthology The Bodley Head Scott Fitzgerald, published in the 1950s, which gave me a few more of Fitzgerald's stories. I also had on my shelf The Basil and Josepine Stories, most of which had been anthologised in Taps for Reveille. So, beginning first with Tales of the Jazz Age, these were the stories that I read.

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               Original cover illustration of "Tales of the Jazz Age" 1922

Tales of the Jazz Age is a very mixed bag. On the table of contents, Fitzgerald writes a facetious account of how each story came to be written. Its eleven stories contain three stories that are now often regarded as masterpieces, a fourth one that I would add to that list, and a fifth that comes near to greatness. The other six are mainly "fillers" - frivolous, silly and often reading like sophomoric college humour.

I'll deal with the rubbish first. "The Camel's Back" is a strained comedy about a man wearing a camel suit while gate-crashing a party. Fitzgerald himself said "I like it least of all the stories in this volume". "The Jelly Bean" is a little better - a sad anecdote of a bumpkiin bested by a canny flapper. "Porcelain and Pink", written as a play script, has a young man peeping in on a young woman in the bath, filled with banter and topical jokes that now mean nothing to us. Fitzgerald admits that "Tarquin of Cheapside", "Mr Icky" and "Jemima, the Mountain Girl" were all written when he was an undergraduate at Princeton - and they look it, even if he polished them up a little for later publication - wisecracks, puns, pratfalls etc, with (again as Fitzgerald admits) "Jemima, the Mountain Girl" leaning on the type of high-speed absurdities that the Canadian wit Stephen Leacock pioneered. 

So much for the forgettable. Now for the genuinely worth reading stories.

May Day, a long short-story, was first published in a magazine in 1920 before Fitzgerald’s first novel was published. It is interesting in many ways. It is one of the very few stories Fitzgerald wrote that included proletarian characters and made a brief glance at a radical situation, quite different from the wealthier classes or parvenus that were his usual stamping ground – although much of the story does deal with the wealthier. It takes place in 1919 when the May Day riots broke out, pitting de-mobbed soldiers against Communists… or radicals who were deemed to be Communists. But this is going on in the background. Two proletarian de-mobbed soldiers are desperate for booze, having come back from the war in Europe to find that America is on the brink of adopting Prohibition. They go to an expensive restaurant where one of them knows a waiter who might slip them some drink. Expensive restaurants are still serving alcohol. Hiding in back-rooms of the restaurant, the two boozers get their wish and proceed to get smashed… But this is only part of the tale, for more of the story is about the higher class. A man called Gordon desperately needs money, having lost most of his wealth in speculation. He asks a friend to help him out… but no help comes. A haughty belle called Edith was once Gordon’s old flame.  Edith is dining and dancing in the restaurant’s ballroom. A man called Peter is infatuated with Edith, but when he asks her for a dance she spurns him. Dejected, Peter finds his way into the backroom where the two bibulous soldiers are boozing. He joins them. The well-off gourmet and the proletarians meet in alcohol. Meanwhile chaos and the smashing of glass can be heard distantly going on in the riot some streets away. Gordon meets Edith in the restaurant. She used to think he was wonderful, but now he is a neurotic mess. She is no longer impressed by him and turns him away. Without money, Gordon goes back to his meagre lodgings and commits suicide. Presumably the dance goes on. Money, class, prestige and the unattainable woman – these are all ideas that Fitzgerald played with in most of his novels; and in some ways this long-short-story is their precursor.

Even more read than "Mayday" is The Diamond as Big as the Ritz . As I understand it, it is basically a fantastic adventure story but with a sort of moral. Way out in a desolate part of Wyoming, a prospector has discovered in a hidden valley a diamond of unbelievably huge proportions – maybe as big as the Ritz hotel. It must be worth wealth beyond belief, but the prospector leaves it in the ground. It is for him to delight in and nobody else but his immediate family. Over the years, he keeps his great discovery from prying eyes. He uses black slaves for heavy labour. He has persuaded them that the Confederates won the American Civil War and therefore slavery is still legal. [This is one element of the story which would now probably have the story banned from schools.] He has a crew with weapons such as machine guns and barbed wire to keep strangers out. Yet he raises a family there and he allows his son to go off to college… from which his son brings back a college friend to the forbidden zone. How does this story wind up? The college guy falls in love with the prospector’s daughter… but the college guy gradually understands that, to keep the huge diamond unknown, passing visitors such as he are put to death. So, with the girl, he tries to escape from the hidden valley… at which point aircraft, bombers and armed forces descend on the valley and the millionaire’s hidden valley is reduced to rubble. What, apart from entertaining us, is the point of the story? As I see it, The Diamond as Big as the Ritz is a kind of satire on miserliness. What is the point of huge wealth that is hidden from the world and is put to no particular use? Does wealth alone become a sort of fetish? The miser thinks that money is an end in itself. The “moral” could be expanded to be a satire on American capitalism, where money is pointlessly king… but I still see it as basically a fantastic adventure story.

The third most admired story has come to prominence only in recent years. This is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a fantasy about a man growing backwards. He is born a grumpy old man, grows to be a middle-aged man, becomes a young man, fights in the Spanish-American war, marries and has children of his own, is a teenager, then a toddler and finally we see him as a baby in a cradle. [Fitzgerald goes no further than that... it would be difficult to see Bejamin Button returning to the womb.] The story is set in the late 19th century and finishes in the 1920s. Its humour is built on the shocking effect that Benjamin's progress has on polite society. Why has the story come to prominence only in recent years? Because a film version was made in 2008, which up-dated the story to the present day and basically took only the general idea of somebody growing backwards. 

And what do I think is a fourth one that should be seen as a masterpiece? This is The Lees of Happiness - a quiet but certain domestic story about a woman whose love for her husband never wavers, even when her husband has a major stroke and she has the heavy task of being his nurse. Some have criticised this as a sentimental story, but its use of detail is persuasive and it comes out as credible. As for the fifth story that I think comes near to greatness is "O Russet Witch", a tale spanning a number of decades wherein a man believes a certain woman is fantastic, glamorous and witty only to eventually understand how shallow is his belief.

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As for the stories that I gleaned fromThe Bodley Head Scott Fitzgerald, they divide in non-fiction (essays) and fiction.

The non-fiction first.

In Echoes of the Jazz Age (published in 1931) Zitzgerald defines the “Jazz Age” as lasting from the May Day riots of 1919, when there was a Red Scare, and the Wall Street Crash of 1929 – a neat ten years. Fitzgerald chronicles the loosening of morals, especially in young people after the First World War, the staggering amount of alcohol that was drunk, the more frank ways authors wrote about sex [he helpfully lists a number of books that were then seen as scandalous – and widely read]. But then he points out that by the mid-1920s in America,  older and middle-aged people began to dress and pick up the fashions that younger people [flappers and “sheiks”] had flaunted… and then the fun of the game began to wither away and the youngsters became more sombre, even before the Crash came along. Fitzgerald concludes this piece by suggesting that the “Jazz Age” was too carefree and with too few people to have steady heads. His view is a slightly jaded one, perhaps wondering how he had frittered away so much time in drinking, partying etc.

Perhaps even more sombre – and more personal – is My Lost City (published in 1932) about his reactions to New York. When he was first in the city, in 1920, he had no money, was at a loss, and knew no influential people. But after his first two novels made him famous he and his wife were able to party, party, party with the most fashionable. The pace and the alcohol began wearing them down. They fled to Europe (Paris, Riviera) and stayed away for three years. When they returned to New York in 1927 the city appeared more desperate and less appealing. Every stage-play was over-hyped, people were more wary of partying [here Fitzgerald is, of course, only speaking of those who belonged to his own social class] and then the Crash came. Fitzgerald has a touching end-note. He says that while the party was going on, New Yorkers thought New York was the centre of the world. But once the Empire State building was built, New Yorkers could go to the top and see that the city was only one small thing in a vaster rural landscape. What had seemed titanic proved to be minute.

Some of Fitzgerald’s non-fiction pieces are less interesting. Ring (published in 1933) is a personal obituary for the deceased writer Ring Lardner, seeing him as a great talent but a man who wrote less than he could have. Early Success (published 1937) tells us simply that the buzz and excitement he felt when his first novel was published was something that was never repeated when his later books were published. A selection of  Letters to Frances [his daughter's real name, though he preferred to call her "Scottie"] show him being chatty but also chastising her for taking certain courses at college… as well as telling her – inevitably – that Keats was the best-ever poet… and some personal chatter.

The Crack Up (published in 1936) is the work of a tired and worn-out man, now centred in Hollywood  - a fuzzy first-person account of himself avoiding specific events. This is confession-plus, expressed in very generalised language, revealing a man saturated with alcohol, no longer liking himself, and still trying hard to be a human being, but only just keeping his head above water. It is a mixture of self-loathing, bravado, and calls for pity. It comes close to being a suicide note and can only have been written when Fitzgerald was in a period of deep depression.

            The fictional stories are more varied and more interesting.

                        The Last of the Belles (published in 1929) brings Fitzgerald nearer to home. It is narrated in the first person by a young man called Andy who has been drafted into the army in 1918-19 and put in a military camp down South [as Fitzgerald was]. The tale is a study of a beautiful young woman, Allie Calhoun. She is a heart-breaker for young men who woo her. She flirts in an elegant way with the young men but also teases and never gives in to their advances. As a Southerner, she still has the habits and vocabulary of an ante-bellum belle. Andy is sent North to embark on a ship going to the war in Europe, but the war finishes before he and his cohort are needed and they do not sail [again something that happened to Fitzgerald]. Some years later Andy returns to the South. The lustre of Allie Calhoun has faded away. She is now less glamorous, not visited by callow young soldiers, and about to marry a man of no particular interest. This is a character study seeing Allie as “the last of the belles”. The Last of the Belles is one of Fitzgerald’s best stories. Some might see Allie Calhoun as inspired by Fitzgerald’s Southern belle wife Zelda, but the story stands in its own right as a work of delicate and close observation – as delicate as Henry James’s Washington Square.

            Fitzgerald’s best short story about Hollywood is Crazy Sunday (published in 1932) dealing with Joel, a minor script-writer [as Fitzgerald himself already then was]. Joel is flattered to be invited to an exclusive party thrown by a major executive. Powerful and influential Hollywood people and their spouses and partners will be there. Joel swears to himself that he’ll be on his best behaviour and won’t drink alcohol… but at the party he breaks his own rules, drinks, gets foolish and thinks he can amuse the crowd by acting out a painfully unfunny sketch about Hollywood types. Nobody is amused. Joel thinks this will end his career. But surprisingly, the wife of the major executive takes a shine to Joel. She invites Joel back to her house every so often to talk cosily with him. The fact is that she is afraid her husband is cheating on her, and she is using her friendship with Joel to make her husband jealous. When the major executive suddenly dies, Joel walks away from the wife, now knowing that he has been used. This is a very well-crafted story – one of Fitzgerald’s best and showing that he was already very savvy about Hollywood. There are powerful people who can ruin careers; there is pretended friendship to advance careers; there is a façade of good manners masking sexual promiscuity; and of course there is a hierarchy of power. Fitzgerald was to expand on these themes in his unfinished Hollywood novel The Last Tycoon.

Less readable is An Alcoholic Case (published in 1937), wherein a young nurse has to look after a severely alcoholic patient who finally ignores all good advice and drinks himself to death. Surely this must have been Fitzgerald’s diagnosis of himself. This brutal story ends with the young nurse deciding that some people just can’t be helped. As for some other stories, they are often about failure. Financing Finnegan (published in 1938), told in the first person by an aspiring author, concerns a mysterious person called Finnigan whom the narrator has never met but whom he knows deals with the same publisher as he does. Finnigan, it turns out, is a dried-up author who endlessly asks for advances on books he never gets around to finishing. The publishers regularly give him at least some money, apparently out of charity. Again, this seems Fitzgerald chastising himself as his writing stalled. As for the Pat Hobby Stories – published by Esquire magazine in 1940 and 194l, some of them posthumously – the eponymous character is a minor Hollywood script-writer who has been relegated to writing for “short subjects” [short, brief and cheap films that were presented before the main feature film]. The Pat Hobby character is intended to be amusing but it has a melancholy tone to it as Pat bumps into washed-up cinematic old-timers who still try to pretend they are big-shots. Again, alas, this reeks of Fitzgerald in decline as he feels himself past his writing and script-writing prime.

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Sitting on my shelf are what are now generally known as The Basil and Josephine Stories, most of which were written in 1928 and 1929 when Fitzgerald was stalled in writing his next novel Tender is the Night. The edition I read gave a very detailed introduction by Jackson Bryer and John Kuehl, two academics from Fitzgerald’s alma mater, Princeton. They told me that these stories were all published in The Saturday Evening Post, which paid generously. For each of the nine Basil stories, Fitzgerald was paid $3,500 and for each of the five Josephine stories he was paid $4,000. Allowing for inflation since the late 1920s, this was an incredible sum. Each story runs to about 20 pages. Most of these stories were rounded up later in Fitzgerald's collecion Taps for Reveille (1935).

The stories are all set in the time of Fitzgerald’s late childhood and adolescence, viz. in the Midwest before the First World War. They all draw on his own young life. Basil, it seems, is largely based on Fitzgerald himself and Josephine is based on Fitzgerald’s first major crush Ginevra King. Basil is middle class. Josephine is in the wealthier upper class. The two characters are never put together in the same story. Fitzgerald’s publishers wanted him to put all these stories into one book, but he refused, saying they didn’t add up to a serious novel. He came to think that these stories were too “full of Tarkington”. This allusion won’t mean much to most readers now, so let’s explain. Booth Tarkington was regarded as an important American literary figure in the early 20th century and through the 1920s. He often received major literary awards and was widely read. Now he’s barely remembered, except by those who recall that his novel The Magnificent Ambersons was turned into a classic film by Orson Welles [even if the film studio botched the film up by editing it down ruthlessly]. Tarkington’s mischievous boy character Penrod, whose japes seem to owe something to Tom Sawyer, still has a following. Fitzgerald feared that his Basil was too like Tarkington’s Penrod… but he was under-rating himself. While Basil is initially involved in boyish tricks, successive stories show him maturing and growing up. He begins as a very young teenager, but he ends up as a fresher at university. He develops credibly as a person.

Despite Fitzgerald’s own judgment, I think the best of the Basil stories are among the better things he wrote. Some are weakened by neat “happy endings” (they were written for popular magazines after all) but most of them ring true, even if they are set in an era and its mores that are now alien to us. The first Basil story (in which Basil is not mentioned) That Kind of Party has a boy longing to kiss a particular girl in a “kissing game” but never quite reaching his goal. The Scandal Detectives has Basil and his barely pubescent friends feeling the very first immature twinges of sexual desire – Basil so longs to kiss a girl called Imogene and hopes he will impress her by performing a magic trick. But when the trick fails to come off, he loses interest in Imogene. Desire has a lot to do with ego, and when ego is punctured desire departs. A Night at the Fair has Basil, now aged about 14, humiliated that he still has to wear short trousers when he and his gang go searching for girls in a fairground, but then decides that the girls they meet are “common”… which might mean that they had no success in the hunt. There is a jolt in the two stories The Freshest Boy and He Thinks He’s Wonderful, in both of which Basil discovers that he’s widely seen as a conceited show-off who loves talking about himself and his grand schemes. This is one of those turning points in which a boy is freed from the idea that he is the centre of the world. He begins to learn tact. The Captured Shadow has Basil, now aged about 16, attempting to put on stage a play he has written – quite clearly a blood-and-thunder melodrama performed by amateurs. Much of this story is a farcical series of events where everything seem to go horribly wrong in the rehearsals… but on the one performance that is given, it is given great applause. Triumph!! Except that when he gets home and thinks it over, Basil understands that his play will quickly be forgotten, and his euphoria deflates… which is a very good portrait of the way many creative people – including Fitzgerald – feel after letting go from a project. I would judge one of best Basil stories is The Perfect Life, a story that deserves to be anthologised. A secular preacher persuades Basil that he should advise people on how to live clean, moral lives, shunning alcohol and such vices as participating in immodest modern dances. Basil attempts to spread the word… and quickly discovers that he is regarded as an insufferable prig. And yet there really are people who might fall into evil ways and, having ceased to be a prig, Basil does successfully deter a young woman from eloping with an exploitative, drunken sot. This ending might have been devised to meet what readers of a popular magazine wanted, but it still works. The last two Basil stories Forging Ahead and Basil and Cleopatra have Basil trying to find money to get him to university; and falling in love with a young woman only to discover that she has many other admirers. Reality hits him and the implication is that he now understands how complicated the interactions between the sexes are. This takes us far away from the boyish tricks of Penrod.

The five Josephine stories are focussed on one simple theme – upper-class, wealthy Josephine’s search for true love, in a very adolescent and romantic way, and sometimes ending in tears. She is a beauty and therefore a heart-breaker with many young men wanting to partner her. At 16 (in First Blood), she is in love with a man in his 20’s, but he tactfully tells her he doesn’t love her back. Back home she weeps. But when he sends her a letter asking forgiveness, she has a leap into maturity realising how shallow his affection was in the first place… or is this the way she rationalises her disappointment? In A Nice Quiet Place she seems to have found the perfect partner, but then sees his flaws… and again she weeps. Now aged 17, in A Woman With a Past, she learns that some people think she is “fast” because she has had so many boyfriends.  [NB dear reader – these stories are set over a hundred years ago, and a respectable girl having a boyfriend simply meant that she walked, talked, danced and invited the boyfriend home to dinner – nothing more.] However this story is as much farce as anything, with Josephine twice accidentally being innocently placed in a compromising situation. In A Snobbish Story, she falls in love with a pretentious avant-garde dramatist who wants to put her in his play… but when she discovers how much he is trying to get funding from her wealthy father, and when she realises that the dramatist has his own sort of snobbery, she ditches him. Finally, and fittingly, there is the summing up of this collection, Emotional Bankruptcy. Josephine, now aged 18,  falls in love with a dashing soldier. But at the very moment when they kiss and declare their love, Josephine suddenly feels a great emptiness… as if all the romanticism and intense feelings she had over three years have been exhausted. Declarations of love may be ephemeral, even if said sincerely. We leave Josephine now facing real adulthood, understanding that love – real love – is a complicated thing.

It is notable that Josephine lives in an environment where she is most often surrounded by young men on their way to Yale or Princeton, where dances are chaperoned, where her class have the money to travel whenever they want, and where Josephine can be choosey. These things were true of Ginevra King, Fitzgerald’s first great crush. Given that there is much irony in the Josephine stories, one wonders how much Fitzgerald was scoring points on the old flame who spurned him. Be that as it may, both the Basil and the Josephine stories say many truthful things about the adolescent condition.

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            Finally, I present you with a collection of unpublished stories and scenarios by Fitzgerald which were gathered together in 2017, and presented under the name I’d Die For you – and Other Lost Stories edited by Anne Margaret Daniel. I reviewed this collection for the NZ Listener. My review appeared on 6 May 2017. Please note the smart-arse way I begin the review, which you see below…

            In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Son,” he said, “when a publisher brings out, with much fanfare, hitherto unpublished pieces by a long-dead canonical author, you can be pretty sure that many of them are pieces the long-dead canonical author would have preferred to remain unpublished.”

            I’d Die for You is a collection of eighteen previously unpublished stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s a generous collection that has been edited carefully by Anne Margaret Daniel. She provides a solid introduction, prefaces to each story and very detailed endnotes covering every cultural reference and topical allusion that Fitzgerald makes.

            One of the stories, “The I.O.U.”, a satire on publishers who try to turn trash into bestsellers, was written in the early 1920s, before The Great Gatsby and all the stories that made Fitzgerald the golden boy of the Jazz Age. But the rest were written in the Depression years of the 1930s, when Fitzgerald’s life was more desperate. Magazines were now often rejecting his work. He had to pay hefty bills for the psychiatric care of his wife Zelda, for his own attempts to dry out from alcoholism, and for other hospitalisation as his health declined. He took work in Hollywood as screenwriter and script-doctor, knowing he was often neglecting what he was best at writing.

            You can see these pressures in I’d Die for You.

            Three pieces are fairly ordinary synopses of un-filmed movie scripts – the woeful slapstick “Gracie at Sea”, intended for the scatty comedienne Gracie Allen; the cutesy screwball comedy “Love is a Pain”; and the melodrama “Ballet Shoes”. A number of stories seem to be going somewhere, but end suddenly with a romantic clinch like the fadeouts of movies Fitzgerald worked on. As the editor notes, quite a few stories have hospital settings, reflecting Scott’s and Zelda’s lives in the 1930s – “Nightmare” (comic romance of doctors in a psychiatric hospital); “What to Do About It” (doctor deals with hypochondriac); “Cyclone in a Silent Land” (sexy young intern distracts male hospital staff); and “The Women in the House” (booze and drug-addiction in a sanatorium). They all have engaging things in them, but then there’s all that goddam boy-meets-girl and final clinch stuff, designed for sale to The Saturday Evening Post and its ilk.

            But you do still get glimpses of the great writer Fitzgerald was capable of being. The two stories “Thumbs Up” and “Dentist Appointment” are in fact radical re-workings of the same story, showing how carefully Fitzgerald drafted and re-drafted ideas that interested him.

            Then there are the best things in the volume. Seen from the viewpoint of a 14-year-old girl (based on Fitzgerald’s daughter), “The Pearl and the Fur” has the fresh naivete that the author often played with in the 1920s. It’s understandable that “I’d Die for You” has been chosen as the title story. It’s a scathing tale about young women who believe in the type of glamorous romance the movies have sold them. And there’s the best and most finished story in the collection – the one whose unpublished status really surprises me. “Offside Play” is a jaded look at college football. Fitzgerald deconstructs the transient quality of athletic glory, and though he comes to a sort of lovers’ pairing at the end, it’s a more pragmatic coupling than the Hollywood clinch. Love is something that has to be negotiated.

            If you are looking only for the very best of Fitzgerald, then obviously you will have to look elsewhere. But these stories earn the book its keep as more than a curiosity for Fitzgerald complete-ists.

Something Thoughtful

  Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

                                              CONFUTING A LITERARY BIAS 


I admit it. I hadn’t even heard of the film before I was watching it on a plane as we were flying to Oz some months ago. I’m not sure that it had ever been released in New Zealand cinemas, even though it was released last year (2023) in the USA and elsewhere. On top of that it won the “Best Adapted Screenplay” award at the Academy Awards. The film I am referring to is American Fiction, written and directed by Cord Jefferson. It was based on a novel called Erasure by Percival Everett. Both novelist and screen-writer/director are African-American.

Here's my brief synopsis – Thelonious Ellison is a Black professor of literature at a university in Los Angeles. He has had some novels published and he is clearly an upper-middle-class man with a love for the work of many great writers. But his novels sell poorly and his publishers have turned down his most recent novel. Thelonious is frustrated. He realises that the only books written by Blacks that are accepted and applauded by White critics are about Black gangsters or drug-dealers from deprived families or mistreated and neglected children on the mean streets of a ghetto. Black life is sensationalised and stereotyped. He is angered by the popularity of this sort of sensationalism when a book called  We’s Lives in Da Ghetto gets rave reviews from the usual suspects – White pundits and book reviewers. So he adopts a pseudonym and writes a deliberately ridiculous, over-the-top, exaggerated, sensationalist novel about Black life in da ghetto called My Pafology. And guess what? It becomes a huge bestseller. Pundits and reviewers drool over it claiming that it reveals the authentic lives of African-Americans. A movie company plans to makes a film based on My Pafology, but they think the title should be changed. Through Thelonious’s agent, they ask what the film’s title should be. Over the phone and in despair Thelonious says “Fuck”… and down the line, the movie people – all White – say what a brilliant idea that is. So the film will be titled Fuck. The nonsense wears Thelonious down.

Now there’s much more to this film that my abridged synopsis. Thelonious has some family problems to deal with and a botched romantic affair. But the essence of the film is Thelonious’s anger at the way mainly White reviewers take it for granted that Black lives are always as they are in sensationalised novels… and Black writers often pander to those who want to believe that. How else would they become bestsellers?

Such reviews of the film as I have read, American Fiction is interpreted as a blast against stereotyping, and against the ignorance that there is a large Black middle-class in the U.S.A. Not all Blacks in America live in ghettos or slums. Far from it.

But I would suggest that the film is also taking a major jab at White liberals, who think they have done something virtuous just by reading what they imagine to be authentic accounts of Black life. And of course it is White liberals who are, in their virtuousness, often the first to object to what they see as offensive in the way of unpleasant racial slurs … when Blacks are capable of taking such slurs in their stride when they understand the context in which the slur is presented. This is underlined in an early sequence in American Fiction when Thelonious is teaching a class and he recommends his students to read Flannery O’Connor’s short story The Artificial Nigger. The title is chalked on the blackboard. In a mixed-race class, the only student to object to the objectionable word is a White girl who goes stomping out of the class.

Footnote 1: Here’s a problem for me. Ignoring real racial slurs, up until the 1960s in America, it was polite to refer to black-skinned people as Negro or Coloured – but in the 1960s, activists insisted that “Black is Beautiful”, and so for a number of years the word Black became the most acceptable word. But more recently the accepted term has become African-American. Now I know that there are many other ethnicities in the U.S.A. who are also hyphenated, such as Italian-American, Irish-American although rarely German-American and apparently never English-American, while Latin people are called Hispanic. But the fact is that many African-Americans do still proudly call themselves Black. Which is why I have used the terms White and Black in this review. Yes, Black is Beautiful.

Footnote 2: Just to check out why Flannery O’Connor’s short story The Artificial Nigger was interesting to Thelonious, I grabbed off my shelf a collection of O’Connor’s stories and re-read the story I’d read years ago. It features two White hillbilly types, grandpa and grandson, who go to the big city, get lost and en route grandpa makes a number of ignorant comments about “niggers”. They are certainly not meant as role models to be admired.


Monday, May 27, 2024

Something New


We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books. 

“HOW TO DISAPPEAR COMPLETELY” by Nicholas Sheppard (Eunoia Publishing, $NZ35);  “OCTAVIAN’S LIGHT” by Don E McGregor (Stargull Publishing, $NZ39.99); “MAKTUB” by Paulo Coelho (Harper One publishing, $NZ35)                                         

            This posting, I am bombarding you with three books that have been around for a few months. 


I admit to a certain negligence when I come to Nicholas Sheppard’s How to Disappear Completely. It was published in September of last year – that is, a little over eight months ago – but for various reasons, too tiresome to report, I was not able to read it until very recently.

Nicholas Sheppard is American by birth and upbringing, but now resident in New Zealand. This novel (his second) is set in America and deals with a very American situation – the alienation of young men who turn to lethal violence.

For whatever reason (you can work it out for yourself) the main protagonist of How to Disappear Completely is not given a name until the very last page when we learn that his name is Jack, so Jack I will call him.  Jack’s father is largely absent, divorced from Jack’s mother. As the years go by Jack’s mother becomes more and more stricken with chronic fatigue syndrome. She requires much care. Jack feels he is stuck in her deadening home. As a youngster, Jack seems precocious in the way he speaks, but he answers questions in an off-beat way. At high-school he plays with other teenaged boys, but he is seen as a weakling and he is generally humiliated. He retreats into his home and as he gets older he hides in the basement sitting in front of his computer, listening to grunge or thrasher music, watching more and more lurid pornography, and reading the likes of Nietzsche. On come the ideas of natural dominance over “weaker” and redundant people and in no time he’s mentally siding with white supremacists and admiring Nazis. On top of that he has no luck in finding a girlfriend. He pines for a girl called Katie, but at very best she is polite to him. She has no other interest in him. So he’s a loner, he’s loaded with self-pity, he feels he’s unfairly victimised and after dropping out from college his angst gets worse. He gets a gun.

You can see where this is going.

There is, however, another protagonist, taking up almost as much space as Jack. This is the dedicated social worker Clayton who has a very large group of deprived or impoverished people to deal with. Taking us away from the main focus of the novel we are given in detail some of Clayton’s clients. Among them are an Hispanic girl who has been trafficked for sex and is trying to avoid sinking back into prostitution; some drug addicts; a lonely old woman who wants company; and Jack’s chronically sick mother. Clayton is Black. Jack shouts at Clayton and wants him out of the house. Clayton is the only character who intuits where Jack’s ideas are taking him, but Jack bars Clayton from giving him advice. Though the character of Clayton is credible, the detailed accounts of his clients often seem a distraction from the central idea of the novel. Perhaps, though, there is some merit in what we are told about Clayton’s domestic life. He is married to Harriett. She is upset that she has not been given a position in a company that she had aimed for. (It is not said that this was because she is Black, but it is implied.) Despite the difficult jobs Clayton and Harriett have to deal with, however, they stick together and the last we see of them in the novel is almost idyllic. Could  Nicholas Sheppard be suggesting that a couple who look after each other and stay with each other, in spite of hardships, is much healthier than the life of a loner who believes he is superior to everybody? Possibly.

Recently I read a review of a different novel, which the reviewer said relied too much on “didactic exposition”. Sheppard’s prose is generally clear, but I do think there is too much “didactic exposition” when he tells us about the nature of the “dark web”; and the places on- line that could lead young men to adopt destructive ideologies; and the statistics of suicide in America; and the feminism taught in college that enrages Jack; and in fact many things that are more journalism than the psychological case that is the novel’s core.

I appreciate Nicholas Sheppard’s aim in writing this novel – a warning of how lethal ideas can be hatched – but it does sometimes come near to preaching.

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As I’ve said more than once on this blog, I have no prejudice against yarns when they are told well. A good yarn keeps readers turning the page and there’s nothing wrong with that. But there are yarns and there are yarns, and a yarn can sometimes go off the track.

Don E McGregor’s Octavian’s Light is essentially an historical yarn, and a pretty long one – 477 large pages to be precise. The story spans from 56BC to 15AD, tracking the rise of Julius Caesar’s great-nephew Octavian, who eventually becomes the Emperor Augustus. This is seen and reported to us by a Latinised Gaul called Riccar, with other voices sometimes taking over – mainly Riccar’s immediate family, but especially his wife Mischella. In one chapter (Chapter 67) Augustus himself narrates. The fictional Riccar is of course interested not only in the fortunes of Octavian-Augustus but also in the fortunes of his family – a lost mother, his wife, his children, and those servants he acquires. Yes, there is a sort of happy ending for him in the last pages, but not before some severe family tragedies. If you want basic Roman history and familiar set pieces, this might be for you. As expected in this genre of yarn, there are parades as victorious Roman soldiers march through Rome; a couple of circuses where wretched criminals or slaves are torn apart by wild animals; a Roman military camp being set up in a campaign; the slave market; battles etc. etc. It’s a very familiar mix.

But, for this reader at any rate, there are many problems with this novel.

First there is the implausible nature of the leading character, Riccar, who in the end comes across as a fantasy figure rather than as a real person from ancient days. Riccar, so the tale goes, is a guttersnipe who happens to be an artistic genius. He can remember things exactly and can draw them exactly, and when he does portraits he can virtually read the soul of the person being portrayed. Verily Don E McGregor presents him as if he were a painter from centuries later in the Renaissance. Octavian picks Riccar to be in his inner circle, believing Riccar can tell him things about his possible rivals simply by viewing them. He takes Riccar with him on his campaigns, so in effect Riccar becomes the equivalent of a modern certified journalist – or photographer. The real reason the author puts Riccar in Octavian’s inner circle, however, is the easy way to have a narrator who is able to observe all the budding manoeuvres of the growing Octavian. Many other authors of historical novels have used this technique. In fairness to the author, though, I note that the depiction of Octavian-Augustus in this novel is reasonably accurate. He is the young thug who uses violence as he pushes his way into power, but who then becomes relatively benign when he has disposed of most of his rivals and has supreme rule over an empire. Even so, the benevolence Octavian sprinkles over Riccar’s family seems over the top and unlikely.

Regrettably too, there are insinuated modern sentiments – that is, unlikely things that are supposedly said by people approximately 2000 years ago. This is a fatal trap for novelists who attempt to fictionalise the past. The historical facts (wars, famines, political manoeuvres) can be depicted credibly, but too many writers of historical novels then proceed to assume that people hundreds of hundreds of years ago thought just as we do – or, more often, historical novels will insert one major character who thinks just as we do. They fail to get into the soul of another era and how people then thought. Thus we have Riccar and his wife Mischella a number of times saying how bad colonisation is (i.e. the spread of the Roman Empire). They may be Gauls resenting the Roman capture of Gaul… but as for colonialism in general?? The characterisation is too pat, too flat.

Finally, there is what I can only call “History Lite” – the way we are neatly fed historical events, almost like bulletins. Most often it is the centurion Arman, a sort of bodyguard for Riccar and his family, who neatly gives us history lessons on Rome and its rulers; or he gives lessons on current affairs such as the assassination of Julius Caesar. Riccar himself is present at some momentous events involving Octavian, but the big historical events read like a fairly elementary history.

If you are not too well versed in Roman history, some of this long tale will be revealing and enjoyable – but watch out for the matter-of-fact prose.

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     Eight years ago on this blog, I tore apart Paulo Coelho’s novel The Spy, about Mata Hari. I saw it as a naïve novel pandering to current tastes. However, I knew that the Brazilian author has a huge number of fans around the world – so I thought it was only decent to take a look as his most recent book to prove if I had judged his work too harshly. Maybe there was something worthwhile in his work after all.

            As it happens, his most recent work to be published in the English language is Maktub … but it turns out to be a work that was first published in the Portuguese language thirty years ago, in 1994. More important, it is not a narrative  novel. It is a collection of brief anecdotes which originally appeared in a newspaper column. Coelho is in the business of being “inspirational”. Most of his (very) short anecdotes are conversations between a “master” and a “disciple”;  or they are tales told by a wise monk to a wavering believer. The imagery is very Catholic, with angels frequently appearing to set thing straight and proving that God is right, and many references to the Virgin Mary. Nearly all the anecdotes have a neat conclusion like an Aesop’s fable.

            I’m not hostile to religious tales, but in the inevitability of each story, Maktub does become repetitive. This little book does have wide margins, padding out the book. There is a market for this sort of thing, so I hope they enjoy it..