Myriam Gurba’s MEAN traverses a vast world


(Coffee House Press)


It’s hard to say which quality makes Myriam Gurba’s Mean such a stellar read. Her dark sense of humor? Her unique perspective as a queer Chicana from California? It could also be her structure. She compels the reader through her nonfiction novel without letting us merely settle into the book as entertainment. Instead she engages our intellects, which makes an altogether enjoyable experience.

Gurba weaves topics together in the forms of found poems, prose poetry, news reports, memoir, and lists. Once we’ve connected enough strands we see patterns emerging: racism, misandry, class, and sexuality.

The story begins with a young, petite Latina with long clothing walking in a Little League baseball diamond at night. A man follows her, chases her then bludgeons and rapes her. News reports leave her nameless, call her a transient. Gurba finds out this woman’s name is Sophia (Torres) like Sophia the capital of Bulgaria, like Sophia Loren, like the Sophia in the Bible; she’s 5’2” and Mexican, and the young migrant worker had already had a rough life before it came to a close there in Oakley Park, not far from Gurba’s house. It’s what the two women have in common that allows readers to connect the strands Gurba weaves into a larger picture, especially in the chapter “Strawberry Picker,” where we see race, misandry, and class.

“Sophia is always with me. She haunts me.

“Guilt is a ghost.”

Guilt ties in to the multiple meanings of privilege Gurba shows us. Daughter of a Mexican teacher/mother and half-Mexican school administrator/father, she and her siblings enjoy a middle-class life. There’s a large gap between her family and the Mexican migrant workers who pick produce in the California fields. Privilege, she intimates, isn’t just for whites.

Privilege doesn’t, however, equal invincibility. It couldn’t save her sister or Gurba herself from eating disorders. Nor could it shield her from the grade school classmate who repeatedly molests her and fellow female classmates; or the history teacher who, despite witnessing the boy’s actions, does nothing. Nor could it shield her from having an unfathomable empathy for Sophia Torres.

Not all is tragedy though. The author’s sense of humor gives this book an equal amount of levity. Sometimes that means taking pot shots at race and gender: “Of course an elderly white dude taught anthropology,” she writes in the chapter “Nicole.” “Who better to explain all the cultures and peoples of the world than he who is in charge of them?”

Sometimes humor means taking pot shots at sexuality, eating disorders, feminism, misogyny: “Good girlishness resists pleasure. Good girls prove their virtue by getting rid of themselves,” she writes in a Catholic-heavy chapter. “Death by anorexia is a fail-safe sexual-assault prevention technique,” a line that reverberates like a nail-studded boomerang later in the book.

Gurba continues to bust balls, provoke, and raise readers’ eyebrows throughout the book, and she traverses a vast world. She takes us from the Japanese style of art known as Ukiyo-e, her great-great-grandfather’s role in a 19th-century Mexican revolution in support of Communism, and masturbating to the Diary of Anne Frank. She makes us ponder what would make an appropriate gift for the grave of the rape victim. Even Michael Jackson makes an appearance.

Read Mean for its humor and stimulating structure. Read Gurba for her unique perspective and literary stylings.


Nichole L. Reber picked up a love for world lit by living in countries around the globe. She’s a nonfiction writer and her award-winning work has been in World Literature Today, Ploughshares, The Rumpus, Lunchticket, and elsewhere. Read her stories on a Chinese cult, wearing hijab in India, and getting kidnapped in Peru at

[REVIEW] A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride


Coffee House Press

227 pages, $24


Review by Brynne Rebele-Henry


Eimear McBride’s debut novel A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing is a runic chant for every woman, girl, and infant who has ever been born. McBride’s language is sexual, primitive, almost Stonehenge-like in its spacing and punctuation. The words pound against the page in a style that brings to mind the innermost working of organs in the human body, the language a jumbled elemental call for blood, desolate in its beauty, the prose reminiscent of a desert at four in the morning:

For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.

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[REVIEW] An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky, by Dan Beachy-Quick



Coffee House Press

256 pages, $15.95

Reviewed by Michael Peck


Fairy tales are the Legos of art. From Mother Goose in 1695 to Pan’s Labyrinth, they uncork latent desires and dreams left otherwise bottled. Very much in that vein, An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky sits at the crossroads of Gen X frustration and childlike wonder. “There is a line across which the fact wanders and becomes imaginary,” Dan Beachy-Quick’s narrator says, “but like the equator, it is an imaginary line — one crosses it and knows something is awry only when the stars rise at night in ludicrous combinations.” With Purest Sky Beachy-Quick crosses and re-crosses that demarcation, then implodes it.

The protagonist of Purest Sky, Daniel, is in the process of uncovering a fairy tale volume, Wonders and Tales, a tome his eccentric father forbade him from perusing as a child. That volume, Daniel believes, holds the key to his father’s journey to the Galapagos Islands in search of an occulted scroll of songs and the hardships meted on Daniel ever since. Weaving in his doomed relationship with Lydia, a woman who chooses physics over love, and remembrances of his entire family’s demise, Beachy-Quick rifts the world neatly in two.  Continue reading

[REVIEW] Sidewalks, by Valeria Luiselli


Coffee House Press

120 pp, $15.95


Review by Jacob Spears


In the essay “Joseph Brodsky’s Room and a Half,” Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli searches out the Russian-American poet’s grave on the island of San Michele in Venice. As she gets lost among the tombstones of other famous artists and writers, she meditates on the futileness of seeking out the burial sites of authors whose work she reveres and the gap that exists between a work and its creator. Her goal of communing with the dead is stymied by an elderly lady who scavenges the graves of people like Brodsky, collecting anything of value some admirer might have left behind. Luiselli feels the fleetingness of her efforts to find the literary in the world, while the elderly woman lets out a cackle, scratches her legs, and is on her way.

Born in Mexico City, Luiselli takes from her experiences as a resident and traveler of cosmopolitan cities to reflect on the author’s place in the twenty-first century metropolis. Like Faces in the Crowd, a novella released simultaneously in the United States, Sidewalks is a collection of essays that imagines a fluid relationship between writers, readers, and the world. If literature does engender readers who wish the world appeared more like art, it also has a history of condemning those who believe the demands of art can be fulfilled by life. In the European literature that has so clearly colored Luiselli’s life as a reader, the most that can be hoped for is to copy what’s already been produced like Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet. Which is maybe why her attempt to have some graveyard connection with a dead author feels so futile. Continue reading