Category Archives: Book reviews

‘Big Mama’s Funeral’ Collected Stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Still I paddle along as quickly as I can in my Coursera course on Gabriel Garcia Marquez‘s work, reading the literature in English with relish and the transcripts of the videos and linked articles in Spanish very slowly!



This week I read a collection of short stories called ‘Big Mama’s Funeral’, so named for the final story in the collection. As the course explains, some of these short stories are in effect practice-runs for material that would appear in A Hundred Years of Solitude, while others ‘speak to’ other literature that would be familiar to Spanish-language readers (but not necessarily English-language ones). One of Garcia Marquez’ stories, ‘One of These Days’ involves a dentist whose patient, the Mayor, comes in with an abscessed tooth which the dentist- maliciously- tells him can only be extracted without anaesthetic. This story ‘speaks’ to a story by Hernando Telles called ‘Lather and Nothing Else’, a fantastic story available here that has a barber called upon to shave the military officer responsible for mass killings and atrocities. (To be honest, I preferred the Telles story.)

The two most memorable stories for me were ‘Tuesday Siesta’ and ‘There Are No Thieves in this Town’. ‘Tuesday Siesta’ is about a woman and her daughter who travel by train to visit a priest in order recover the body of her son, shot in an Oscar Pistorius-like encounter. Garcia Marquez captures well the hot somnolence of the Tuesday siesta  and the mounting hostility of the villagers who surround the priest’s house. The second story ‘There Are No Thieves in this Town’ involved the theft of billiard balls.

There is another short story I’ve been reading, which was published in ‘Eyes of a Blue Dog’, another collection of Garcia Marquez’s short stories.  It’s called ‘Monologue of Isabel Watching it Rain in Maconda’ and it’s the longest short story I’ve ever read because this time, I am reading it in Spanish!  By the time I’ve read half a page, I’m sweating with exertion (to say nothing of the humid, rainy weather I’m reading about) and no doubt I’ll still be reading it in three weeks when the course is over!

‘Kittyhawk Down’ by Garry Disher


2003, 288 P.

Is a steady diet of Wallander, Scott and Bailey, The Bridge and -sheesh- even Midsomer Murders softening me up for detective murder mysteries?  Stranger things may have happened.  Whatever: I found myself quite engrossed in this  Australian crime story chosen by someone in my face-to-face book group.

As with the above-mentioned television crime series, this book is just as much about the interactions and messy personal lives of the police investigators as it is about the crime. Although the book is subtitled ” A Detective Inspector Challis murder mystery”, Detective Inspector Hal Challis is only one of an ensemble of police characters.  There’s Detective Sergeant Ellen Destry, whose 17 year old daughter  is recovering after almost falling victim to a rapist and serial killer in an earlier book. There’s the sleazy Constable John Tankard who hits on his female colleagues and who doesn’t seem far removed from the criminals he is chasing. Detective Constable Scobie Sutton bores everyone rigid yabbering on about his daughter, while Constable Pam Murphy has waded in over her head financially.

In many ways this book is a snapshot of the paradoxes of the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria.  There’s the affluent and often absent population up in the forested mountainside (think Red Hill) and the financially straitened underclass in ‘Waterloo’ (Hastings, perhaps? It overlooks Phillip Island, but it felt more like Rosebud to me). An immigration detention centre has opened up nearby, and the reactions of inhabitants remind me that we haven’t moved far in the 13 years since this book was published.  There’s drugs, crime and unsavoury connections among the underclass where boyfriends and broken families criss-cross each other. As the police note in one of their briefings, criminals often announce themselves through their defiance of small things like parking in the disabled bay. Rings true to me.

Disher’s chapters are only short and they rotate in their attention from one police officer to another.  Too much, perhaps, and there does not seem to be one main character in the book which feels as if it’s leaving itself open as the springboard for another book in the series.

But- and this is important- I actually knew who’d done it in the end, even though not all the ends were tied up.  And, as someone who’s not normally a fan of crime fiction, that’s a good thing!

Sourced from CAE bookgroups

My rating: 8/10


‘Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea’ by Marie Munkara


2016, 274 p.

For me, the day that then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized to the Stolen Generations is a day lodged in my memory, along with moon walks, assassinations, bushfires and planes crashing into buildings. I was on a train to Bendigo for a history conference, and it seemed rather appropriate to sit with other historians, heads bent over a small transistor radio, listening to Rudd give a historic speech that was much better than I expected it to be.  But although as white Australians the speech may have made us feel a bit better about ourselves, it was always an apology to indigenous Australians.  They sat in the parliament and on the lawns outside, many in tears.  This was their apology. As a white Australian, I know the policies and justifications that led to the removal of indigenous children from their parents, but I can only imagine, incompletely, the emotional toll of this government-encouraged policy.

Marie Munkara’s book takes us into the heart of it because the author is one of those stolen children.  Born on the banks of the Mainoru River in Arnhem Land in  the Northern Territory, she was taken from her mother at three years of age. Her white foster father sexually abused her for years, and her white foster mother was bitter and harsh. Nothing was said about her birth family, although her religious family did meet with other families who had likewise adopted Aboriginal children under the aegis of the Catholic Church. Twenty-eight years later she found a baptismal certificate, and after some enquiries, she found out that her mother was still alive and that she had siblings at Nguiu on Bathurst Island.  Within weeks, she was aboard a plane to meet her family.  It is a troubled, awkward reunion.  Months after returning for a second stay, she confronts her birth mother:

‘Did you want me to come and stay here with you?’ I say petulantly. ‘You’re always so grumpy.’

‘You nebber ask me,’ she says tetchily like I’ve struck a raw nerve.

And mummy is right, I didn’t ask her. And I have never asked her about how she felt about her three-year-old child being taken from her life and a twenty-eight-year-old stranger waltzing back into it again.  I assumed that we would take up where we left off but I realise now that the years have been too long and the differences between us too many for that to occur. (p 232)

Certainly Munkara crashes back into her family’s life full of justifiable anger at her foster-parents.  But her perspective on her new family is steeped in urban, white values. She is appalled by the squalor, poverty and community violence and frightened by the snakes, rogue cattle, crocodiles and lice.  Repulsed by the barely-cooked meat served up to her, she decides to become a vegetarian: an urban affectation not easily catered for in a remote area. She is torn between judgment and an aching need to be accepted and folded back into her family.

If you’ve read Munkara’s Every Secret Thing (my review here) you’ll recognize the humour in this book with it’s ‘up-yours’ insouciance.  Many of the book’s small chapters are short vignettes where Munkara tells of meeting family members, nights at the alcohol-sodden club house, hunting trips and bush-bashing in completely unroadworthy cars.  Much of the time the humour is at her own expense.

The narrative voice is simple and feels to me as if it belongs to a younger writer. Munkara is fifty-six, but sounds almost adolescent.  This is not high literature by any means.

The crispy sauvignon blanc that I had bought to help pass the time left a subtle lingering citrus taste on my palate… (p. 4)

Nonetheless, particularly in the last forty pages of the book, there is an honesty and poignancy that transcends the rather pedestrian prose.

…there’s a little piece of something in my heart that no one can reach because it lives deep down inside me. I think this family wants to take the something out of my heart and make me black, just like the other family wanted to tame me and make me white.  I know that nobody is interested in the parts of me that don’t concern them.  The white parents aren’t interested in the pre-assimilation black bits because they wanted a white girl with black skin. And my real family don’t want to know about the post-assimilation white bits because they think I’m a black girl with a white heart. I know that I’ve disappointed them all. The anger from the white parents.  The pitiful looks from the black. The fretful and all-consuming silences from them both.  I wish I could open the doors to my mind and let them in, so they could see the world from my eyes and forgive me for not being able to fit their expectations. (p. 234)

Despite the raucous auntys and cousins surrounding her in her black family and the sterile figures in her white family, this is a lonely journey with higher emotional stakes than, say, Sally Morgan in My Place.  Its authenticity transcends its unsophisticated prose and structure. I haven’t read a book quite like it.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 7/10

I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge website. aww2016

‘No One Writes to the Colonel’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez


1961, 68 p.

This is the second book examined in the online Coursera course I’m following on the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  I say ‘following’ because I’m reading the books in English and rather slowly translating (sort of) the Spanish video transcripts on the site.  Responding to the forums in Spanish is completely beyond me.

The elderly Colonel lives with his unnamed wife in a small isolated village on a river. Each Friday the Colonel goes to wait on the delivery of mail from the riverboat, waiting for news of the pension he was promised in return for his leadership in the War of the Thousand Days.  He has been waiting fifteen years, and he and his wife are being submerged by a grinding poverty. Too proud to admit their poverty, he scrapes out the rust from the coffee can and adds it to the coffee, and his wife, more practical than he, badgers him to sell the clock, or the rooster.  But the rooster is not just a rooster: it is a fighting cock that belonged to their now-deceased son.

The village is unnamed and there is no specified time, although the filtering through of news of the Suez Canal places it in the late 1950s. The sense of menace builds up quietly as you become aware of the curfew and the  circumscribed communications.  It emerges most  starkly one Friday when the Colonel decided not to wait for the mail, but to go to the cock-fight instead.  There he encounters the man who shot his son.  It is his dignity and sense of hierarchy that emboldens him to disregard the gun pointed at him and to leave untouched.

The story is very much one of waiting and of time stretching out without end- similar to Waiting for Godot. I had been lulled into its somnolent rhythm and was quite surprised by the abrupt ending- an ending that leaves me rather nonplussed, I must admit.

‘The Heart Goes Last’ by Margaret Atwood


2015, 306 p.

I’m really not quite sure what to make of Margaret Atwood’s recent book The Heart Goes Last. It fits into the ‘dystopian fiction’ genre that she explored in The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake which, although set in a recognizable but off-kilter future, explored human themes as well as sociological and ecological ones as well.  The Heart Goes Last  seemed to start in a similar vein, but became almost a futuristic farce as she piled one scenario onto another until the whole edifice threatened to fall down.

It all started recognizably enough. Stan and Charmain (we never learn their surname) were living in their car, having lost their home and well-paid jobs in what we would recognize as the 2007 global financial crisis. Living in their cramped car, tired, smelly, and frightened of marauding gangs, they jump at the chance to join the Positron Project which offers them a stable job and a fully-furnished house in the town of Consilience – half of the time.  The other half of the time they are prisoners in the Positron jail, a large prison complex that is the major economic driver of Consilience. Not that Sam and Charmain are criminals, and nor are most of the people in the jail.  The real criminals had been gradually weeded out earlier. What was more important than guilt or innocence was that they were consumers of prison services, and you don’t need to be a prisoner to do that.  So that the facilities are fully utilized, their house is occupied by their ‘alternate’ couple who have signed up for the same deal, shifting in and out of the house/prison arrangement.  So far so good, as far as I am concerned: there’s whole country-town economies in Australia based around jails and detention centres.  It is when both Charmain and Stan, independently, become infatuated with their alternates, that things become more complicated.

While taking her turn in prison, Charmain’s job involves the dispatch of bound and drugged prisoners, which she does with as much gentleness as she can without thinking too deeply about what she’s doing.  Stan is charged with looking after the Positron Project poultry farms, turning a blind eye to the men who pay to have sex with the chickens.  ‘What???’ I think, as Atwood lays down one of her farce cards.  Positron runs many enterprises out of its prison complex, including the manufacture of sex-bots, made to look as authentic as possible- evoking shades of the ‘synths’ in the recent television program Humans;  or built as Elvis or Marilyn Monroe look-alikes. But Positron goes further, pioneering surgery on living women to wipe their memories and ‘imprinting’ them onto their purchasing lovers, much as baby chickens are said to be imprinted, ensuring that they are completely loyal and acquiescent lovers.  ‘What???’ I think, as Atwood lays down yet another farce card.

I guess that this was my problem with this book. I’d go along quite happily, and then Atwood would just put one more element into the scenario, tipping it over into parody. Apparently it was written as an online serial, and perhaps that accounts for the feeling I had that Atwood was just playing with the reader, escalating the implausibility and adding yet another thing. Perhaps the need to keep stacking on the shocks is one of the perils of the serial genre.  To have a faceless corporate conglomerate leveraging the prison system for profit, and it becoming an end in itself, would have been enough for me.  I didn’t need the sex-bots, the sexual imprinting and the kinky sex as well.

My ranking: 7/10

‘Mothering Sunday’ by Graham Swift


2016, 132 p.

This small novella by Graham Swift is an exemplar of the genre, written by a master.  Swift takes a small image and spins it into something tight and intricate, but with threads that could lead into something larger.  In this case, the image is a woman lying naked among the tangled sheets in a sun-filled room in an empty house.

Her lover Paul has just stood up from the bed, and he looks back at her as he dresses.  It is 1924, Mothering Sunday.  In the drab and aching days after WWI, Paul is the only remaining son of the Sheringham family, with his two older brothers killed in the war. Jane is an orphan, a housemaid in a neighbouring house. Their relationship is an illicit secret, impossible to bring into the open.

For those few gentry families still clinging to a vanishing world of big houses and servants, Mothering Sunday is always an inconvenience. Their hired help are given the whole day off to visit their own mothers, leaving their employers to make their own arrangements. But, as an orphan, Jane has no mother to visit and so she has the whole day to herself- or so she thought.  Paul has other ideas.

This book is only 132 pages in length, and it is just right.  The language is explicit and fruity, but the narrative voice wistful and melancholy.  Swift foreshadows the ending right from the start, and the tension in moving towards that ending is so painful that I wouldn’t have wanted it to go for another page longer. It was so beautifully written, however, than I wouldn’t wish for a single page less, either.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 9/10

‘Leaf Storm’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez


1955, (originally published as La Hojarasca)

Have I mentioned here that I am learning Spanish?  Not content with bursting my brain with learning verb conjugations (it has taken me an inordinately long time to move on from the present tense- quite a drawback for a historian!), or sitting puzzled over News in Slow Spanish (which although slow, is not slow enough for me!), I have enrolled in a Coursera course on the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez which begins today.  One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of my favourite books and it seemed a good way to struggle with Spanish while reading something that interests me. No, I am not reading the books in Spanish: I’m having enough trouble reading the lecture notes and following the videos on the course because the ‘translate’ function doesn’t seem to be working for the subtitles.  As a result, if I get through even one week’s work in the six weeks allocated, I’ll be doing well. However, it has prompted me to plunge into a cram-reading of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

It seems fitting, therefore, to start off with his novella Leaf Storm, which was his first published work.  It appeared in 1955 after a seven year search for a publisher. It is only short: about 90 pages although it is hard to tell on an e-reader. I kept feeling that I had read it before, which I have, because he picked up the same themes in much of his other work.  It’s as if he was trying the story on for size in novella form, which he later expanded into a whole body of work. It is set in Maconda, the fictional village to which he returns again and again.

The story starts with an epigraph from Antigone, and this short novella, like the earlier Greek story, focusess on a contested funeral. It is told from three perspectives: an unnamed small boy, his mother Isabel, and his grandfather, the Colonel.  The three people are sitting in a closed room with the body of the doctor, who had committed suicide, each with their own thoughts.  The child is preoccupied with the discomfort of his formal clothes and the wonder that he’d been kept from school to come sit with this body.  The daughter thinks about the dead doctor, and his strained relationships with the villagers, and his generally disapproved concubinage with their former servant.  The colonel gives the widest perspective of all, as he reflects on the hatred of the village for this doctor because of his refusal to treat wounded soldiers during one of the civil wars that convulsed the country after the arrival of industrialization.

It is hard now to appreciate the novelty of a multi-perspectival narrative because it is relatively common now.  However, the frequent references- even now, 66 years later,  to the 1950 film Rashamon as the prime example of a multi-perspective work, highlight the strangeness of the narrative technique that Gabriel Garcia Marquez developed at much the same time.

The novella itself is easy to read (in English!) but I must confess to not being able to easily detect the difference in voice between the Colonel and his daughter Isabel. However, as I often find with my favourite authors, Garcia Marquez is a master in being able to slip seamlessly between past and future without interrupting the narrative with asterisks or chapter headings.  The element of an eerie timelessness is here, and a sense of the teeming physicality of the village- both memorable features of his other work.

And so- onward to the next book!

Read because:  I’ve enrolled in the ‘Leer a Macondo’ Coursera course to challenge my budding Spanish.

Format: e-book The Gabriel Garcia Marquez Library: Fifteen of his best-loved books.