The  Christmas Gift  –  by A M Smith ©

This short-short story was my entry to our Writers’ Circle monthly writing exercise.  The prompt was, “underneath the Xmas tree…”  which starts off  the story. Read on!  

Underneath the Xmas tree lay the long box, the contents of which would end my marriage, remove that which I held most dear. I didn’t know it at the time of course, and hindsight is hardly useful after the event.

I noticed Pam’s expression when she spotted the long box  under the tree on Christmas Eve. She looked at the box, and turned to me with an odd expression. A mixture of despair and anger, I suppose.

“If that’s my gift,“ she said slowly, pointing at the box, “you obviously didn’t buy me perfume, like I asked you to, did you? You just don’t get it, do you?” she snapped, and left the room, slamming the door behind her.

Women! What can I say? I was accustomed to her seemingly eternal disappointment. I shrugged, and went outside to brush stray leaves off my front lawn. Although small, it was perfect in every respect.  Edges neatly trimmed, grass evenly mowed; glowing  emerald green, despite the deepening dusk. I surveyed it with pride, and felt my customary  warm glow of satisfaction.

Christmas Day came and went. Pam’s  lukewarm reception of  her Christmas gift  was unsurprising. I can’t bear wasting money, and perfume – I ask you? An   overpriced product with over-elaborate packaging; a few squirts and it’s all gone. Whereas the new Hoover I bought  her for Christmas would last us for years. A five year guarantee on the motor, the latest technology, light and easy to handle, and only a subdued hum when you switched it on. I gave it a trial run on the lounge carpet. It worked like a dream, as I knew it would.

Returning to work after the Christmas weekend came as a relief. To say the domestic atmosphere had been  frosty would be an understatement. But I bore it with my accustomed cheerfulness. These things are sent to try us, as we all know.

I walked briskly from the station, down our street towards home, a nice cup of tea, and then some  lawn maintenance – the perfect end to my day.

Hello, I thought, what’s a taxi doing outside our house?

And: why is there soil on the pavement outside our property?

   And then: What’s the new Hoover doing on my  lawn? why is my long extension cord running out  through the lounge French Doors?

As I hesitated by our gate, trying to make sense of  these unusual  factors, Pam burst out of the front door, wearing her coat, and yanking her biggest wheelie suitcase behind her.

She pointed to the Hoover in the middle of my lawn.

“Seeing you’re so keen on the Hoover and your bloody lawn, I thought I’d put the two together and make life absolutely marvellous for you – now you can Hoover your lawn and have the most perfect grass in the world!”

I stood there gaping.

“Watch!” she commanded, abandoning her suitcase, marching onto my lawn – in high heels,  in high heels! How could she? My lawn …

Pam grabbed the Hoover, kicked the start button and it purred into life, moving smoothly and efficiently over the grass.

“See?” yelled Pam. “The perfect combination  – you and the Hoover on your ruddy lawn. Now it can be spotless. You love spotless, don’t you?  And don’t worry about  the grass mucking up the Hoover engine, I’ve taken care of that too, don’t you worry!”  She shot me a malevolent glare as she barged through the gate, wrenching  her suitcase into the waiting taxi,

How could the Hoover operate on grass? My grass! My precious lawn! I rushed over to the Hoover and suddenly it hit me.

Astroturf .








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Walking on the treadmill at the gym provides me with headspace, thinking time, reflection periods. Today as I trudged along, working off my Silly Season excesses, I caught a glimpse of the woman to my right, briskly walking, but deeply involved with texting on her smartphone as she walked. I thought:  Lady, you’d better not mis-step – you’ll be in dead trouble!  Her face showed she was probably  in her mid-30s,  so no surprises there, I’m accustomed to seeing younger people wandering around, zombie-like, entranced by their mobile screens as they shop, walk, cross roads, you name it, that little screen has them hypnotised. But on the treadmill? This is a new one.

I have long thought this laser focus was confined to the 35s and under.  But imagine my surprise when my gaze shifted to the treadmill on my left, and there was a senior citizen, and he had the grey hair and wrinkles to prove it, tapping away like mad on his cell-phone as he trotted on his treadmill.  Yikes!  Clearly the disease is spreading.

One of my teenaged grand-children once loftily informed me that young people had to be connected all the time ; this in response to my comment on their passion for texting. She did not elaborate on her statement being convinced that I couldn’t possibly understand, because I’m so old and therefore, completely out of touch with modernity. Exercising every atom of self-control, I refrained from slapping her and chewing her head off. This is where the generation gap shows its ugly face.

And don’t get me started about couples in coffee shops and restaurants.  One wonders why they bother to accompany their partner, because there’s no personal conversation, laughter, general chit-chat, eye contact. Uh-huh. Those heads are bent, eyes riveted to the tiny screens and their fingers flying over the keys. Zero interaction between the table-mates. You’ve got to ask yourself: wouldn’t it be cheaper to simply stay at home, text as long as you like, from the comfort of your own sofa, and make a mug of Nescafe? It would certainly be cheaper!

As an aside, I blame the arrival of Twitter, a few years back. Now people seem to feel obliged to report on their every  action, trivial or otherwise. You will not be surprised to learn that I refuse to Tweet. Texting: yes, no problem. It’s very useful. And P.S. I’ve even heard of Whatsapp.  But Twittering?  I’m cosily hunkered down into my crusty old generation gap, thanks very much, and I’m sure you don’t want to know I’ve fed the cat, brushed my teeth, and eaten two dried apricots. Yawn.

I find it curious that so many friends have sent in post-Christmas reports  gushing about  their  holiday breaks spent in remote Karoo  dorpies, or in beach shacks, sans electricity, sans cell-phones, having a wonderful refreshing and relaxing break.  Note: un-connected for days – if not a whole week or longer.  Gasp!

Isn’t there a disconnect here ? It seems that a city mind-set has to be constantly connected. You have to be reachable, day or night, at all and any time, whether the seeker is your boss, a friend, a kid, a phone survey troll  – the permutations are infinite. And yet, once out in the country,  the connection virus weakens and some people even – I’m assured this is true – switch off their cell-phones. For hours, if not days, at a time.  Totally radical, huh?

I’ve had further thoughts on the topic.  By being so electronically connected, 24/7, people are disconnected from the world around them,  from people and events – life itself. Isn’t this ironic?  They’re not connected at all. They ‘re oblivious of  the natural world, the nuances of sunshine on foliage, the sudden flit of a bird out of a nearby bush, a swirl of colour in a woman’s scarf, smiles on little kids’ faces, the  touch of a friendly hand on a shoulder, the list goes on and on. Life, with its myriad textures, sounds, colours, sights, is shut out in the tunnel vision of electronica.

Yes, they might be viewing a friend’s pictures on Facebook, a birthday party, a Youtube clip – sure, but this is not the real thing. This is not here and now. This is experiencing life at a remove,  life via the printed word, symbols and mini-graphics on a small screen. Here and Now is reality.  What reflects off the oblong screen is an image of reality, a shadowy doppelganger.

Do we really want to live via the printed word? Do we realise we’re living a dream life in our heads when the entire glorious, marvellous, terrifying wonderful world is right in front of us?





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Book Review

I nominated the novel as my Best Novel of 2015 in my recent 2015 Reading Year Review.

Ove is the grumpiest man on the planet. He knows life only as either Black or White. He has no idea what emotions are, or how to express them. So long as he has a practical task to do, Ove is fine. * He has fixed ideas on everything, particularly on car buying and ownership.

When his wife Sonja dies, he is completely adrift. Of course he can’t express his grief, other than in bursts of anger. New neighbours – a useless husband (clumsy and inept), two little girls, and pregnant Parvaneh who is Iranian, move into his street, impinge on his life, and change it. And not to forget the stray black cat, who also moves in. Into his house, nogal!

The unfolding events are very funny, related in a deadpan manner. The ending made me weep. But prior to this, I’d enjoyed a feast of laughs.  Strongly recommended.


* Footnote: I have to add that I know squads of South African men who were cast from the same Ove mould.

*nogal – Afrikaans – an expression of disbelief.


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Book Review

This big, sprawling novel, with a cast of thousands, re-connects us with GDR’s alter-ego, the Australian Lin a.k.a. Shantaram, and his exploits in the Bombay underworld.

Some of the characters from the first novel, blockbuster Shantaram,  are re-assembled, plus squads of new ones.  There are few quirky, attractive new characters , the Zodiac Georges. Two street people, who are undying friends, both named George and differentiated by their birth months, hence Gemini George as opposed to Scorpio George. The new characters also provide arch villains. There’s the deeply unpleasant Lightning Dilip, the sadistic police sergeant , who routinely beats up suspects, and extorts bribes on every occasion. Concannon, the homicidal Irishman, wants to beat Lin to a pulp.  I could never quite understand why. There are many others, but as I said, there’s a cast of thousands.

Testosterone and violence permeate the first third of the book; thereafter we have holy men, spiritual teachers and quests for love and faith, mingled with bouts of violence. It’s an uneven mix.

The story revolves mainly around the convoluted, not to say torturous,  romantic  relationship between Lin and his soul-mate, Karla and one of the novel’s major weaknesses are the pages and pages of waffly dialogue between them when they have verbal sparring matches. Boring. As are the  tedious passages about earnest philosophical issues, with spiritual overtones.  GDR needs to make up his mind whether he wants to write a Philosophy 101 textbook, an exposition on his personal  brand  of spirituality, or a ninja novel. A mix of all three ingredients doesn’t work and we have to toil through 873 pages to confirm this for ourselves.

Mercifully GDR is restrained when it comes to writing about sex.  He does not indulge in pages of soft porn as so many blockbuster writers do. He keeps his purple passages for  one  dreadful poem  and for emotional or soulful pages.

When  Mountain finally staggers to a halt, with all loose ends tidied up, it’s an anti-climax. A review on Goodreads  said something about a possible third Shantaram novel. No. Enough already.  I enjoyed Shantaram, but his second outing on the theme is way, way too long.

What does work is GDR’s pages about the city of Bombay itself, its vibrant street life, its slums, mansions, and inhabitants; the myriad mini-stories of human struggles.  I was intrigued to read about the business activities of the Bombay underworld, and the pervasive graft and corruption at all levels throughout the  city.  Even subtracting 50% of the accounts as literary hyperbole, it made me realise that the country I live in is in the junior league, compared to the shenanigans in Bombay. Which, in a weird way, makes me feel a little better. Maybe.

At the end of 2015, which has been a tough year, I needed a relaxing, escapist read. I guess GDR’s novel was it, but, boy oh boy, it was a long haul!  Where was his editor, I wondered? Maybe if you’ve written a  wildly successful blockbuster first novel like Shantaram,  your editor treads softly.

Speaking of which, there’s an intriguing final page titled Proclaimer  where GDR makes it crystal clear he does not endorse the criminal lifestyle, drugging, drinking or smoking, and has merely used them as foundations for his story.  There’s a terse note on the back jacket flap that says GRD has retired from public life to pursue other projects and writing.I was intrigued, and a Google search  led me to an in-depth interview with GDR by the Sydney Morning Herald. The interview was tagged ‘The final Interview with GDR’.You can find it at:

As ever, GDR has plenty to say.







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Best Novel of the Year

A Man Called Ove – Fredrick Backman

Best Non-Fiction of 2015

Improbable Libraries – Alex Johnson

The Orchid Thief – Susan Orlean

The Mole People – Jennifer Toth

Best Literary Novel

Lila – Marilynne Robinson

Terrific Reads – Fiction

All the Light we cannot see – Anthony Doerr

Breath – Tim Winton

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August – Claire North

Best South African Novel

A Slim Green Silence – Beverley Ryecroft

Best Translated Novel

The Discreet Hero – Mario Vargas Llhosa

Best Indian Novel

The Story Hour – Thrity Umrigaar

Longest, most difficult read

Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon

Best Memoir

The Diving – Helen Walne

Best Thriller

I am Pilgrim – Terry Hayes

Best Fantasy

Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Book Store – Robin Sloan

Best Avant Garde Novel

The Familiar – One rainy day in May – Mark Z Danielewski

Wittiest Book

Table Talk – A A Gill


The Little Paris Book Shop – Nina George

Zoo Time – Howard Jacobson
Spool of Blue Thread – Anne Tyler

Leaving Before the Rains Come – Alexandra Fuller

The Ocean at the end of the Lane – Neil Gaiman

FOOTNOTE: . Try as I might, I just couldn’t limit my list to a measly ten books  … I hope my faithful readers have managed to struggle to the end of my l-o-o-o-n-g list.



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The Discreet Hero – Mario Vargas Llosa – Book Review

My first attempt at this Peruvian writer, thanks to Milnerton Library New Books Preview.

A very interesting experience, reading the novel. I’ve wondered what it is about his writing that makes it so different? It was rich in descriptions of street life in Peru.  His characters were clearly defined, even the minor ones, and they came across as authentic inasmuch as I can judge from this distance. I felt I was being shown modern Peruvian life in a no-nonsense, straightforward way, with no bullshit  manoeuvres.

I was amazed at the calm acknowledgement and acceptance of the corruption in the police force and the judiciary – nothing special, just daily life! Whereas here in South Africa we’re obsessed with these issues. They are also part of our daily lives, but I wouldn’t say there’s widespread calm acceptance of the crookery.

Another strange  aspect of the novel was – very early on, at the beginning of the book – a graphic sexual fantasy between a married couple, in bed, as a prelude to their eventual coupling. Granted, the pair were main characters in the story, but thereafter we heard no more of their sex life. And I don’t recall any other spicy passages elsewhere.  I wondered if his editor had demanded that he spice up the tale with a bit of sex? Perhaps I’m more accustomed to having the sexy bits pop up mid-way, or as a finale in  Western novels.

Then there was a weird  secondary story thread about the aforementioned couple’s teenaged son who was seemingly receiving visits from the devil, in the form of a tall elderly man, who would materialise in a variety of mundane settings – park benches/buses/streets etc, and  hold intense conversations with the boy about religion, ethics and sex. This sub-thread is resolved in the final pages of the novel, and I suppose, provides the twist in the tale.

And yet these arbitrary side excursions didn’t detract from the main story which was how, in two separate families, the two sets of sons in each family behaved abominably, and criminally.  The two families were not related, but lived in the same city.  The point was, that the sons in both families disappointed their parents. A big issue was future inheritances, from rich fathers. Not a common theme in most contemporary novels in a Western setting.

A  major theme of the novel dealt with  moral integrity and unswervingly sticking to principles.  In some ways, what with the vivid descriptions of Peruvian street life, the moral issues, the inheritance problem, I felt as if I were reading a novel from the age of Dickens or a slightly later author. Which is not to say that the novel was old-fashioned. Not at all. This was modern Peru, warts and all. I suppose the big moral questions continue from age to age, despite geography and differing cultures.

It was one of the most different novels I’ve read during 2015, and came as a complete contrast to my previous read, which was Anne Tyler’s much praised A Spool of Blue Thread. She’s a prolific and popular author, and I’ve enjoyed some of her earlier novels. But that said: there could not be a greater contrast between her anodyne American family tale and the rich, passionate, dramatic, highly emotional Peruvian story. Thinking it over, I should not talk about the two books in the same blog post. The contrast was glaring.

No wonder Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010! From now on: I’m a fan. Bring me more!



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Flash Fiction

This short flash-fiction piece needs an intro. The story is very South African and will probably not convey much to outsiders. ‘

MAKWEREKWERE is a (derogatory) term applied to all black foreigners. Xenophobia is alive and well in our complex country. 

Oddly enough all car guards are from the Congo. Also occasionally from Burundi. Why this should be, I don’t know. Speak to them in French, and they’re your pal for life.  Yes, we have Car Guards in all public parking spaces – to prevent theft and car-jacking. Like I said : a complex country. 

The reason Ouma (Grandma) Swart is scowling is because she’s from the bad old days, when no black man would put his arm around a white woman.

I hope this mini-story is now clearer to foreign readers. P.S. You learnt quite a bit about South Africa in this intro, didn’t you? Not much of it to our credit, sorry to say. 



“Calmez vous!”  begs Alphonse, the Congolese car guard, tentatively putting his arm around the raving woman’s rigid shoulder. Ouma Swart  scowls disapprovingly, from her car.  Bee-ba, bee-ba: The cops jump out of their van.  “Los haar!” yells the cop, hand on his weapon. “Non, Non!” squeaks Alphonse, hands raised, backing off rapidly. “You are mistake – I am help!”

“Ja,” confirms the burly man exiting Sportsman’s Warehouse “the lady ’s drunk; been shouting in the parking lot for the last ten minutes; car guard’s just trying to help”. Alphonse rolls a relieved eye.  Why, oh why, did he ever leave   Kinshasha?