Book Review: How Some Abuelitas Keep Their Chicana Granddaughters Still While Painting Their Portraits in Winter by Myriam Gurba

I discovered Myriam Gurba’s collection of short stories (ISBN: 978-1-933149-90-5) by chance. Upon reading the book’s back cover description, I was instantly attracted to the work.

The blurb reads, “In this artfully crafted collection of short stories by award-winning author Myriam Gurba, nothing is as it seems. A Mexican grandmother tells creepy yet fascinating ghost stories to prevent fidgeting (“How Some Abuelitas Keep Their Chicana Granddaughters Still While Painting Their Portraits in Winter”). A Polish grandfather spends the night in a Mexican graveyard after a Dia de Muertos celebration to discover if ghosts really do consume the food that has been left for them (“Even This Title is a Ghost”). Unforgettable characters inhabit these cross-border tales filled with introspection and longing as modern sensibilities weave and wend through traditional folktales creating a new kind of magical realism that offers insights into where we come from and where we may be going.”

Yet, upon reading the collection I would not describe the work as magical realism, but rather paranormal imagination. The stories focus tremendously on death spanning a narrator who is drawn to the corpse of her murdered cousin and her aunt’s dead dog’s taxedermied body with missing eyes to spirits in a graveyard that are mistaken as pigs to a ghost lacking an identity roaming searching for wisdom. There are many themes explored within the paranormal tales including, but not limited to, family bonds/connections or lack thereof, sexuality and sexual orientation, identity, religion, and mental health.

Gruba’s writing is beautifully descriptive and her words are captivating. I will admit it took me a moment to get used to the profane language, but I was impressed by the writing overall. However, there are several areas within the stories that I failed to understand. I assume it is reader-error, but even after taking time to try to process each story I still don’t understand the stories in their totality. For example, in “Even This Title Is a Ghost” the grandfather sees pigs rather than spirits. Pigs come up again in other stories, but I don’t understand the significance. In the same story, the grandfather notices a man’s cricket is missing in the end – does this imply the cricket was a spirit much like the pigs? Perhaps, I am thinking too much.

I also must point out that the short story collection should have a trigger warning for women who have lost children. La Llorona and the legend’s variations are discussed, but it also depicts a grandmother who cradles the coffin of her dead baby until she collapses from exhaustion. Another element I failed to understand was the discussion of “real Llorona” or real women who murdered their children – and the narrator saying that a woman killing her own children was natural. Was this satire that went over my head? Did I misread or fail to read in between the lines? Whatever the case may be, I do NOT recommend this collection to those who have lost a child.

There was also a disregard for animals/pets painting them as a nuisance or evil and sexual beings until “Tzintzuntzan.” This is probably my favorite short story because of the regard for other living things the narrator demonstrates as she is filled with shame and guilt after destroying the branch of a tree in which a hummingbird nest was  residing. Most of the other stories seem to focus on death as an inevitable end to a miserable existence – In all honesty, I found most of the stories disheartening.

I did enjoy the creepy tidbits and discussion of ghosts – I wish there had been more of this.

This book is definitely outside my normal reading, and I have struggled with how to rate this book. The writing is beautiful, and Gurba incorporates important themes/ideas within her stories. However, I feel like there are some stories lacking clarity (or it is written in a way that simply goes over the reader’s head). Taking into consideration that this is not what I am used to reading and the beautiful writing, I give this book 3/5 stars. I wish there was more creepy paranormal stories as seen in “How Some Abuelitas Keep Their Chicana Granddaughters Still While Painting Their Portraits in Winter” and “Even This Title Is a Ghost,” and I wish there was less focus on children being killed and parents abandoning their children.

I do NOT recommend this to children, YA, or YT readers. Readers of adult fiction who are interested in philosophy of death and paranormal imagination may enjoy these stories. Gurba’s collection is available on Amazon here and through Manic D Press here. If you read it, I would love to discuss the stories with you and see if I can better wrap my head around the exact messages!


“Ghosts colonize the imagination. Imaginations are the ultimate haunted houses.”

Published by Kayla E. Green

Kayla E. Green is a school librarian, speculative fiction author, and poet. When she isn’t writing, reading, or going on adventures with her husband, she loves singing loudly and off-key to KLove Radio, snuggling her dogs, and pretending she’s a unicorn. Her award-winning YA fantasy novella, Aivan: The One Truth, and her inspirational poetry collection, Metamorphosis, are now available through book retailers. Kayla also has stories and poems featured in various anthologies. Follow The Unicorn Writer's blog for book reviews, author interviews, writing advice, and more bookish fun!

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