Mean, by Myriam Gurba

Coffee House Press, 2017

Amazon.com: Mean eBook: Gurba, Myriam: Kindle Store

The first time I read Myriam Gurba’s writing was in an article she wrote, published in December of last year, in which she absolutely annihilates a book that was big news at the time: American Dirt. As I tend to do after reading something excellent online, I found and followed her on twitter, and I’ve come to love everything she says. The next time I heard Gurba’s name was when her memoir, Mean, was selected as one of the April picks for Noname’s book club, upon which I promptly ordered myself a copy and finally got around to reading last week.

Now before I get on with my review, I need you to think about some numbers. The advance Jeannine Cummings received for American Dirt was very public because it was a big deal. The advance Myriam Gurba received for Mean was recently made public by her on her twitter account in a thread discussing advance disparities between white writers and writers of color under the hashtag #publishingpaidme.

American Dirt: 1,000,000$ advance
——————–Mean: 1,500$ advance

There are so many levels to how problematic that disparity is (Cummings is a white author writing an immigration narrative while Gurba is a Mexican author writing a memoir), but what makes me so angry above all else is that American Dirt is objectively poorly written (this has been confirmed by people I know who’ve read it and from authors I respect who’ve read it) and Mean is earth-shatteringly good. I’ll move on to the review, but I had these numbers in my head the entire time I read, and I felt that I couldn’t write this review without that context.

The phrase “poetic writing” is tossed around a lot in book reviews, but when I say Gurba’s writing is poetic, I mean it is frequently actual poetry. Some chapters will contain both poetry and prose, and in others, it is difficult to distinguish whether it is one or the other, which is seen in the first chapter, “Wisdom,” and which gave me one of those—oh my god this is gonna be so good—moments on page 1.

The art, history, and literature that influence Gurba are weaved throughout Mean and are inseparable from her identity. The way Gurba talks about visual art makes me wish I knew enough about art to have a taste in it myself. I’m scared of art in the way I’m often scared of poetry, which is that it’s so open-ended and there’s so much of it that I don’t know where to begin. Gurba is confident in her taste in art and proud of her knowledge of art, especially as she makes her way through college. She interprets and analyzes the work of female artists in powerful and unapologetic ways. She never seems to be scared of creating art that is misunderstood or scared of understanding art differently than everyone else in her college classroom.

Mean is labeled as a true crime memoir, which I think is too small to describe this not-quite-200-page memoir that deals with race, class, growing up as a girl, growing up as a lesbian, and the consequences of sexual violence.The true crime label comes from the portion of the memoir in which the man who committed acts of sexual violence against Gurba and other women in her community is on trial. But you’ll also read about how experiencing sexual violence can damage a person in ways that permeate one’s life long after the perpetrator is caught and convicted. One thing Gurba accomplishes beautifully is in expressing her right to and desire for privacy, even within—or especially within—the space of a memoir. Comparing secrets to acorns hoarded by squirrels, she writes, “When a man asks, ‘What did he do to you?’ he’s asking to eat one of these traumatic acorns. Girls never ask for these seeds. . .They don’t need the details of my particular shame to construct empathy.”

Some of my favorite moments in Mean are the ones in which Gurba writes about her friendships with girls, from her childhood up through college. There are some experiences that all women seem to share, and that makes the things the Gurba experienced growing up as a brown girl with a Mexican mom and a Polish dad, stand out to me even more strongly; I was bullied by other girls but I wasn’t bullied like that and I wasn’t bullied for that. Female friendships are complicated at every age, and reading about Gurba navigating them is sometimes painful, sometimes comedic, and frequently relatable. Mean feels very of-the-moment; I think any woman who reads it will find pieces of themselves—feelings put to words they didn’t have—in this memoir.

Links: goodreads | Buy it on bookshop .org

Edinburgh, by Alexander Chee

Picador, 2002

Amazon.com: Edinburgh (9780544916128): Chee, Alexander: Books

I wasn’t sure that I wanted to write this review because I wasn’t sure I had the right words—or the right experiences—to do so. Edinburgh follows a gay Korean American boy growing up in Maine, Aphias Zhe (Fee), as he experiences sexual abuse at twelve years old and how he processes the trauma that follows him into the subsequent stages of his life. It wasn’t just the fact that I’m not a gay Korean American boy that made me hesitate to write about Edinburgh. This is also a case of my being intimidated by just how good this book is. But two weeks after reading, I am returning to write this review because I haven’t been able to stop thinking about how deeply this novel resonated with me. And that has led me to consider what it is about this very specific story that feels so relatable.

I do not by any means want to sound like I am comparing my definitively trauma-free life to that of the characters of Edinburgh. But the way Chee writes about childhood, teenage, and young adult anger, depression, and angst is so visceral that I couldn’t help but be reminded of the ways that I felt at those ages. The following is one example that stopped me in my tracks: “Sometimes the scattered thoughts of their deaths run like a ragged red seam of fire inside me and I burn from the inside out, like a lightning-struck tree: the outside whole, the inside, that carried the lightnings charge, a coal. At other times, I feel empty, transparent, a child of the wind. Touching nothing, nothing touching me. And alternating between these states, with no warning as to when one will turn into the other.” And later, when Fee is deeply depressed and suicidal in college, Chee describes it as, “The year a long shadow I walked through.”

Some of my favorite moments in Edinburgh were Fee’s interactions and changing relationship with his Korean grandparents who had immigrated to the US to live with their family in Maine. You see Fee’s understanding of his grandparents grow and develop as he gets older. This moment from early in the novel where Fee is musing about his grandmother says so much with so little: “She sighed, and it sounded like a sigh that had been learned under a different sorrow.” This is such a complex concept for a pre-teen to grasp—that adults have lived lives outside of the reality in which they presently reside. And the way this is written shows how Fee was just beginning to understand that there were probably a lot of things he didn’t know about his grandparents.

One moment that really struck me as demonstrating Fee’s growth is an offhand comment he makes about a teenage mother in his high school: “She had always been, I recalled, a fiercely silent girl, pretty and small. Now she seems a giant. I see her in the school, nonchalant. Widowed, a mother, a high school senior. Our lives, I decide, watching her, are tiny beside hers.” Chee fills even the small, in-between moments of Fee’s adolescence with these deeply perceptive thoughts.

One of the ideas that stuck with me coming out of this novel was a reminder to take kids seriously; to take teenagers seriously. And the flip side of that being, adults don’t always have a firmer grasp on themselves that kids do. The things that happen to us stick with us, and often, we simply get better at forgetting. Chee’s words sum this up better than I ever could: “Do you remember what it was like, to be young? You do. Was there any innocence there? No. Things were exactly what they looked like. If anyone tries for innocence, it’s the adult, moving forward, forgetting.”

Links: goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org

Mr. Norris Changes Trains, by Christopher Isherwood

Hogarth Press, 1935

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Christopher Isherwood, the author of this novel, is decidedly white and male. This is the thought I had before beginning to read Mr. Norris Changes Trains, a novel I’ve wanted to read for some time now and couldn’t put off any longer. I worried for a second about breaking my 2017 oath when I remembered, he’s gay! Of course! And so, I excitedly include Christopher Isherwood in this blog. He’s not an author I’d read specifically for the purposes of this blog—he’s dead for one thing, his work published from the 1930s to ’70s—and is a white man. However, he was an early openly gay author, an innovator of gay literature, and later (after moving to the states) became one of the first openly gay members of Hollywood society, and a lifelong advocate for gay rights. The real reason I picked up Mr. Norris Changes Trains, however, is because I fell in love with his prose about two years ago reading his much later autobiographical novel, Christopher and his Kind, and I’ve been dying to get to another book of his ever since.

From the first page, I was reminded of why I love Isherwood’s writing so much. He has an unsettling knack for describing experiences that, not only are you completely unable to describe, but have been unable to fully identify or consciously realize you’re experiencing. Isherwood has a remarkable ability of seeing through people and human interactions and committing them to paper, both eloquently and exceptionally clearly. An example:

“The tiny flame of the lighter flickered between us, as perishable as the atmosphere which our exaggerated politeness had created.”

Mr. Norris Changes Trains feels a little like a character study. The character of Arthur Norris begins as a mystery, and as the novel progresses, the reader comes to understand his nuances, mannerisms, and general disposition as the narrator does. The narrator is a loose representation of Isherwood himself, but in Isherwood’s earlier novels (like this one), Isherwood is mostly an observer and, while an active participant in the events of the story, does not analyze himself as a character the way he does in his later (and better) autobiographical books about his years in Berlin.

The setting of Berlin in the early 1930s begins as a minor character itself, and increasingly comes to the center of the story as political tensions become more intense and the Nazi party gains more and more power. The setting takes a back seat to the characters, however. The book is about characters and the characters happen to be living in and greatly influenced by Berlin. The result is a really interesting look into how Berliners viewed the Nazi party and the politics of the time in general.

While I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Norris Changes Trains, I don’t think I would have been able to without having read Christopher and his Kind first, and that is the novel I would recommend if you have any interest in reading Christopher Isherwood. With that said, you can expect remarkable prose from any Isherwood novel you choose.

Links: Isherwood Foundation .org Goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org