(Just a Paragraph: when I’m short of time and/or inspiration, I keep my blog ticking over with ‘just a paragraph; random thoughts, reflections, comments, ideas … little snippets)

Recently I found a till-slip doing duty as a bookmark inside a second-hand book. The slip was written in Portuguese and told me the book had been sold by the Sodiler Livraria on the 23rd June, 2003. Presumably in Brazil, because that’s where the website led me – to a Brazilian bookstore. How about that, for a well travelled book? I would love to know how this particular book landed up in a box of donated books, in Cape Town, South Africa. Seeing the book in which it was lodged was The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, I suppose I should not be unduly surprised – Mr Ripley being a man of surprises, mystery, illusion and delusions.


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Just a Paragraph; these short snippets appear on my blog when I’m pushed for time and/or inspiration.)

There I was, en route to the shops, driving slowly through the entrance to the parking area, when I almost collected a mascot for my front bumper. Fortunately for the young guy using at the raised pedestrian crossing, I’m a slow, old lady driver, and I gave a tootle on my hootle, otherwise it would have been my Toyota Yaris v.s. Kid. And the score would have been Kid – 0, Yaris – goal! The kid had his head down, utterly absorbed with the screen on his mobile, totally oblivious to his surroundings. I mean – really! Hello? Earth to kid: there are cars on the roads & pedestrians need to keep their wits about them. While you’re crossing a street in a high-density traffic area it’s a brilliant idea to put your mobile in your pocket, and watch the traffic. Revolutionary plan, I know, but as a Survival Tip, it can’t be beat.






In early February I realised I kept coming across articles dealing with facets of the same theme : living frugally. For example, in a most unlikely local publication, the YOU Magazine, there was a feature article on Living Frugally. Somewhat ironic considering the desperate poverty afflicting many of South Africa’s citizens, but not everyone in SA is living on the brink. We have a nice thick layer of fat cats, purring contentedly, insulated by corruption; but that’s another story.

The article  featured an American woman, who is famous in the US for promoting thrifty living. I didn’t note her name, but she’s married, lives in Utah, and has four kids. Seems she‘s often on American TV explaining the principles. I read  her suggestions and didn’t find any hints that were new to me – I’ve been living frugally for years and could teach her a thing or two! But that’s by the by. The point is: thrift is headline news.

De-cluttering is another current buzzword. I’ve seen blog posts and print articles, as well as TV programmes urging us to either Keep it if its precious, Donate if its excess, or Turf it out if it’s well and truly finished.

 I had an interesting conversation with a German friend  on this topic, and she said that as a ‘War Baby’ i.e. born in the early to mid 1940’s, she tended to hoard possessions, because “I might need it one day”.  She attributes this mind-set to early childhood when everything had to be kept, ‘just in case’, because of war-time rationing and shortages.

I can relate to this, as I was also a War Baby. We were living in Central/East Africa, and suddenly there were no imported goods, due to war-time disruption of shipping. Our mothers had to haul out their sewing machines and knitting needles and get busy, making clothing for the entire family. Our Clarke’s sandals had the toes carefully cut out, so that our growing toes could spill over the edge of the sole. Going barefoot wasn’t an option, due to the dreaded jiggers in the sand.

Another minor trend, has been blog posts on Minimalism for Writers. When I consider some popular blockbusters like the Game of Thrones series, or the Ken Follett novels, or gigantic novels like the Goldfinch, this might not be such a bad idea!

A  book-related de-cluttering tip is this one: every time you acquire a new book you must donate or sell a book from your shelves. Hmm. I’m not quite so sure about this one. I love my books, and enjoy their presence in my home. I loan them out and share them, but they need to come home to Mama at some point. I’m prepared to re-cycle, live on lentils, wear hand-me-down clothes, but this book-turfing idea fills me with horror! Not for me.









59c5c304fa6265ce88b15e0e6d7e1497Book Review 

Tim Winton is one of my favourite Australian writers. He writes strong, muscular prose – his writing is very physical – and because his writing is pared down, it works at a straightforward and powerful level.

Breath is about two boys who catch the surfing bug. Winton captures the breathless rough and tumble of 12 year olds, living in a small, boring Australian town near the coast – you’re THERE, with every page you turn. It’s a coming of age novel that moves from surfing Nirvana, into sexual adventure, the repercussions of which morph into a lifetime of adult struggle.

I’m forever reading respectful praise of Hemingway’s writing – how unadorned it is. I’m no Hemingway fan, all that macho posturing leaves me stone cold, whereas Winton, equally unadorned, delivers breathtaking novels, every time. To me he’s the Australian colossus – telling it like it is, with memorable characters, and landscapes that dance before your very eyes.

I wish I could write like Winton does! If you’ve never tried his books, do yourself a favour and read Breath. I’ve read it twice, and am quite sure I shall read it again in a year or two.



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It’s official. I have now decided – once and for all – I am not going to try reading any more of Howard Jacobson’s novels. He and I just don’t get along. I always have the feeling he’s waving a flag saying look at me! I’m so clever – look at this literary trick!

When he won the Booker Prize for The Finkler Question I eagerly dived in, and emerged defeated, three quarters of the way through. I became weary with the middle-aged male maunderings about identity. I abandoned the book, deciding I wasn’t  a clever,Literary, Londoner and that his book wasn’t aimed at me.

And now it’s happened again, this time with Zoo Time. The blurb was encouraging –  the word ‘funny’ was writ large.  I must admit he is, well, not funny,  but witty, when he discourses on the dearth of readers, the demise of the novel, the despair of publishers. But these literary disasters are a sub-theme.

His protagonist is – you’ve guessed it – a middle-aged male novelist, obsessed with erotic ideas and plans centred on his mother-in-law, for goodness’ sake. This, despite the fact, that the narrator is married  (for over 20 years, mark you!) to her flaming haired mercurial daughter, Vanessa. Yet again, I wearied at the interminable mental writhing over his fervid fantasies.

Menopausal mens’ sexual hang-ups don’t do it for me. So: an abandoned book from the TBR pile. Oh well: I tried.


GAME CONTROL Lionel Shriver

Another abandoned book from my TBR Pile : I see a pattern emerging here.  Maybe those books are lurking, unread, in the back of my cupboard for a reason?

The book was too dire. I read one-third of it. Novel is set in Nairobi, Africa, and the themes are Family Planning, AIDS and demographic issues. It outlines Africa’s awful socio-economic problems very neatly – I just could not face reading about these issues again ,  it was too close to home. I face them daily in my local media.  Lionel Shriver is never an easy read, and this one was a lulu, in terms of being a hard read. The male central character – I wanted to kick him; the female central character I wanted to shake violently and tell her to get a backbone, shed her Liberal guilt.  Aaarggh!!

This said, I am admirer of Lionel Shriver. Her We Need to Talk About Kevin  is one of the most powerful, shocking books I have ever read.


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Turns out that my day of birth was a Wednesday: I discovered this when doing a fun Internet thing  that asked you to “Click to see which was the Top Hit song on the day you were born.” (BTW: answer was “Daddy” – a song I’ve never heard of.  I’ve always  liked  “My heart belongs to Daddy “ – as growled by the magnificent  Eartha Kitt, but not just plain “Daddy”. ) Now I wouldn’t mind Eartha Kitt as a role model – love that purring voice, love the risqué limericks – I still own an LP – yes, genuine vinyl, of Eartht Kitt singing the  songs from the soundtrack of the 60s movie St Louis Blues.  Fabulous blues and jazz singing, and oh! that voice ! Not to mention the sexy chassis that housed it …

Anyway: this must mean I’m ‘Wednesday’s Child’ which the old rhyme tells us  ‘Wednesday’s Child is full of Woe’.  Oh dear! Not what I was hoping for. I’ve always aimed for chirpy and cheerful – well, on the whole: we all have our blacker moments, don’t we? When we get that envelope marked SARS (South African Revenue Services) or we open the phone bill and wish we hadn’t; or when we read in the newspaper that some horrible person has been shooting cats with his/her pellet gun, in the neighbourhood. And so on.

I’m half-Scottish, on my Dad’s side, and sometimes the Scots have a dour streak in them. On the downside I can be terse and too forthright.  Maybe this is  due to  being born on a Wednesday?

However, thinking about Wednesday’s Child reminds me of a child named Wednesday, that is, the fictional Wednesday Addams – from the Addams Family cartoon/film/TV series. That vengeful child: she of the rigid pigtails, black clothing, lowering expression and grim determination. A child not to be trifled with. A child filled with implaccable determination to achieve her (usually) black ends … Well – there’s nothing wrong with willpower and determination, is there? Good qualities, wouldn’t you say? Maybe I am Wednesday’s Child, after all.




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THE MOLE PEOPLE  by Jennifer Toth

Book Review

Who needs SF/Fantasy when an alternate universe exists right under our noses? Provided you live in New York  City, that is.

An extraordinary book  by an extraordinarily brave young woman: 24 year old Jennifer Toth, who explored the sub-culture living below the streets of Manhattan in disused (but also  in currently operational) subway tunnels, closed/abandoned Metro Stations, in caves and natural caverns underground.  She went into the tunnels for 2 years – a dangerous project, which she stopped when Blade, a tunnel dweller, threatened her life.  Two common threads emerge in the book: drugs as a frequent cause or reason to drop out, and it sounded as if the majority of Tunnel Dwellers (aka The Mole People) were  black – a  big indictment of the American social and educational system.

The Tunnel Dwellers should not be confused with  the street-living homeless, who live aboveground.

Toth interacted with the Metro Transit Police, – often mostly policing search, harassment and eviction operations, down in the tunnels. Other NGOS,  and Social Agencies,  had  projects with the Mole People. But  Toth found them to be ineffectual, or in the case of NGos, sometimes self-surviving. The Metro Transit Police ‘s methods and attitudes she found to be questionable.  Official estimates of the numbers of tunnel dwellers ranged uncertainly between 4 000 – 6 000. In short, nobody really knew.

Below ground are established, organised communities, some with ‘Mayors’ as community leaders.  The Mole People care and look after their own, one community even had a designated nurse, and a teacher!

Apart from the groupings, she found  singles, pairs or trios. Some  dwellers are completely mad (literally chucked out by the Health & Welfare system). There are the drunks, the druggies, plus the plain dis-functional, who are unable to live in ordinary society;  criminals on the run, refugee children , for Heaven’s sake, fleeing abusive families or the awful Child Welfare/Adoption system. And then the Libertarians who reject taxes, Government, and every aspect of society and want to do it “their way.’ Jennifer Toth also met a couple of PhDs, living underground with their small store of treasured books.  Go figure.

Some Mole People even had low grade jobs above ground,  e.g. in the fast-food outlets, or janitorial work, but chose to live rent free underground, because they could not afford the rental on even the most modest accommodation in NYC.

Toth met the Graffitti artists, who choose the tunnels or walls of embankments on which to inscribe their art. Yet another, different semi-underground group.

A darker group were a formal Gang who undertake contract killings (sometimes for as little as $20! How bizarre is that?)

America is  definitely not the land of golden opportunity that we might assume it to be.  The book will feature on my 2015  Top Reads, that’s for sure! Read it if you can. I read it, wide-eyed, counting my blessings.


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THE ORCHID THIEF – Susan Orlean Book Review


For years I’ve been promising myself that when I’m in my dotage, housebound and no longer able to run around like I do now, I shall grow orchids. It’s something I’ve always fancied doing. However, I’m now having second thoughts, having read Susan Orlean’s account of all things orchid related in Florida, USA. Although, let’s face it, I don’t see orchid growing in Cape Town, South Africa, being one-hundredth as exciting as orchid growing in America.

It’s an extraordinary book.  No wonder it featured on the New York Times Bestseller list – I’ve never read anything like it in the non-fiction category. And by the way, difficult to believe it is non-fiction.  The book is hot, steamy,  lush  and colourful just like the Florida Keys where some of the events (I nearly said ‘action’) takes place. Throw in the  local Florida Seminole Indians who claim rights to anything on their tribal land i.e. the muddy, gator infested swamps, where orchids flourish. Add a band of orchid thieves, smugglers, growers and collectors, add a few adjectives like: manic , obsessive, passionate, and  conniving and you’ve got my  liveliest non-fiction read of 2015.

From early 1800s  to  the close of the 19th century, the heyday of orchid hunting and collecting, the chapter is titled “A Mortal Occupation”,  aptly titled, because the casualties were legion. Orchid hunting in the jungles of South America and Asia was perilous, ruthless, dangerous, life-threatening. If not from tropical disease, dangerous wildlife, hostile inhabitants then there were the  other orchid hunters to contend with. Many of the exploits of the orchid hunters read like episodes from an Indiana Jones adventures.

A Victorian orchid Grower, living in Britain  Frederick Sander, was ruthlessly competitive. He employed professional  orchid hunters who routinely gave up their lives to fuel his passion. His chief adversary was a German collector Carl Robelin, and these two Victorian orchid hunters went to extraordinary lengths to secure rare plants.

That old buccaneering, adventuring attitude to orchid collection appears to live on in the world of orchids.  The 21st century  orchid scene is rife with  burglaries, swindles, and  shenanigans  which would fit well into any of Carl Hiaasen’s Florida crime novels.

Who knew such beautiful flowers generated such passion, such criminality? Who knew that modern orchid shows attract orchid fanatics, some of whom are millionaires; some of whom bankrupt themselves in pursuit of their passion? At its height, in Europe, mid 1800s, the orchid craze surpassed the Dutch tulip craze of centuries ago.

Maybe I’d better start my orchid growing project now, whilst I’m still strong enough to fight off rival collectors?

Don’t miss this book: its hugely entertaining and informative. The book is not that recent, it was published in 1998, but it’s worth hunting down. (In the true spirit of orchid collecting!)




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Obsessive reading


I wish I’d saved the blog post. I should have saved the blog post. But I didn’t. So this blog post is a bit hazy on the exact details. Dear blogger: whoever/wherever you are, thanks for inspiring me, and my apologies for not  naming you and your blog, as my source.

These apologies are the preamble to my reaction about an obsessive reader.  The blogger cheerfully told his readers that he had read the play Hamlet  and one of P G Wodehouse’s  Jeeves  novels (and there are fourteen of them, so I’m excused on fudging the exact title) OVER 100 TIMES.  And this, mark you, over a period of a few years, when he was a student. It sounded as if the blogger was in his mid-20s’. Apparently he was studying Hamlet  for academic reasons, but Jeeves?  Perhaps after all the dramatic Scandinavian crime and gloom he needed a bit of a respite? What could be a better tonic that P G Wodehouse’s imperturbable, unflappable butler, the immortal Jeeves? I’m a Jeeves fan myself, so I can understand his affection for the man.

But the point is: imagine reading the same work – makes no maybe what it is: a play, a novel,  an essay – over one hundred times! I’m sure we all have a much-loved book that we’ve read, and re-read many times.  For example, I have re-read one of my all-time favourites, The Last Samurai  by Helen de Witt at least four or five times. It’s a wonderful story, and a great read.  But one hundred times?  No.

The blogger revealed that re-reading Hamlet  so frequently made him aware of  the language, the subtleties, the nuances; the phrase ‘close reading’ which is much in vogue, covers this approach.  I don’t know that the Jeeves novels offer the same depth. PG was a master of the neat phrase, the bon mot, dialogue that required no frills or trimmings to drive the story forward and make his characters immortal. I wish I could write dialogue the way PG did! Mind you, Wodehouse lived into his early 90s and was a prolific writer, almost to the end, so there’s hope yet.


His output was prodigious. Encyclopaedia Brittanica tells us:  He wrote more than 90 books and more than 20 film scripts and collaborated on more than 30 plays and musical comedies.

I wonder if any of my readers have obsessively read one of their favourites over and over again? If so: do tell!








I’m making an attempt to read at least one book per month from my TBR pile, which keeps growing, like an alien fungus, in the recesses of my cupboard. I hide my book stash in there, because I’m embarrassed to own up to the number of books I have bought (no wonder I’m always broke) and the number of books I haven’t yet read.  Anyway, here are a couple of reviews generated from my recent foray into the depths of the cupboard:

THE JOB …by Irene  Dischke  : a short little book,  (151 pages ) a curious story about a Kurdish assassin contracted to kill the family of a Turkish businessman living in New York City.  A brilliant portrait of a vain and egotistical man; back in Istanbul he owns 32 pairs of shoes, and – the hitman   –  he’s quite a dandy, preoccupied with growing his moustache in specific styles and shapes; back in Istanbul he wears bespoke suits. Gradually he morphs into someone else entirely by the end of the tale. Certainly not r.o.t.m.*; an unusual story of a hit gone wrong –  depending on your perspective.  Great insight into the psychology of Kurdish men. Based on this book, I hope I never meet one.

*r.o.t.m. = run of the mill


THE LAST SONG OF DUSK – Siddharth  Dhanvant Shangvi.  I bought this book on a closing down sale when Bargain Books Parklands moved their store – I can’t resist a bargain, and I enjoy Indian novels. The blurb on the back cover was wildly over-stated – no way can this debut novel be compared to Salman Rushdie, Kiran Desai or Hari Kunzru’s respective debuts. It’s uneven, swerving between breathless purple passages to a cosmically flavoured ending, which is so different in tone and language that I wonder if his editor (or a ghost writer) wrote it? The book won the 2004 Betty Trask Prize. All I can say is if this novel won the prize, then I’m glad I didn’t  have to read the rest of the entries !

Ah well, you win some, and you lose some. As you can see, my TBR pile is full of surprises. Watch this space.


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