BookBrowse Reviews Mexico by Josh Barkan

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio



by Josh Barkan

Mexico by Josh Barkan X
Mexico by Josh Barkan
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • Published:
    Jan 2017, 256 pages

  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Tomp

Buy This Book

About this Book



Mexico shines light on universal moral challenges even as it focuses on one sprawling and complex urban backdrop.

Despite the gritty view revealed through the eyes of its complex and flawed characters, and the pervasive violence woven throughout, Josh Barkan's short story collection is a love song to Mexico City. As we spend brief moments with ordinary people living in this large and dynamic metropolis, we are introduced to its food, art, architecture, and even the highway system—creating a vivid sensorial experience.

Like the author, most of the central characters are outsiders, having moved to Mexico from the United States (see 'Beyond the Book'). This influences their perspective, yet they feel a sense of belonging and appreciation for their adopted home. A few of these expatriates include a teacher working in an elite private school; a retired nurse seeking an affordable place to live on her pension; an army veteran working with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the CIA; a journalist tracking stories for an American paper; and a plastic surgeon serving people from all socioeconomic classes. Other stories feature Mexican nationals with an equally varied set of vocations such as artist, architect, and sales representative.

Although the character situations and conflicts vary greatly, there is a similarity to the narrative tone throughout. The voice of the central character in each story does not change much but this is not a problem as the writing is clear and easy to understand. I've found that some modern short story collections sacrifice clarity in order to experiment with form, so I appreciated the straightforward storytelling.

A common thread woven throughout is the presence and impact of violence doled out via members of drug cartels. In one way or another, the "narcos" or gangsters are a part of every narrative. The opening story, "The Chef and El Chapo," features an American chef who has relocated to Mexico to earn higher acclaim for his culinary prowess than he received in the United States. When El Chapo—"Shorty"—Guzman demands a special meal created solely for him, using only two ingredients, the chef is filled with angst, knowing death is a possible consequence of failure. He meets the challenge, but only after sacrificing his own ethics, as well as the innocence of a young girl. Readers have been warned. By the middle of the collection I found myself weary of the constant presence of the cartels and the random acts of violence they impart on the lives of ordinary citizens, but perhaps that is the author's point: The ever-present threat of violence is exhausting and may numb citizens to its effects. It's difficult to stay in a constant state of shock and outrage.

One particularly poignant story, "The Painting Professor," is alternately narrated by an elderly art professor suffering from dementia and a young man working his way up the ranks of the cartel. Their lives intersect and overlap in unexpected ways, but each has his own viewpoint and does not begin to understand the thoughts and feelings of the other. Art and its place within this society, comes to represent the great divide between the educated elite and the poor. Each man seeks attention and validation—the professor from the critics and public, and the gangster from the professor.

The majority of the characters are straight men, which provides a somewhat narrow perspective, but the few stories that focused on someone outside this parameter were not as effective. "I Want to Live" features an American nurse with breast cancer. While in the hospital waiting room she questions another woman about the scars on her face. Their subsequent conversation turns into a story within a story as the scarred woman shares the origin of her scars. This turns the focus to the rising of a drug lord, rather than following through on the issues of either woman. Their lives and problems feel minimized and forgotten. A gay young man is the narrator of "Everything Else is Going to Be All Right" but his desire for love without sex doesn't ring authentic, despite the inclusion of a somewhat confusing history of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest. Even so, the conclusion of this story feels the most hopeful of the set.

This short story collection provides a peek into a wide range of life experiences within a busy, dangerous, yet beautiful city. While no easy solutions are offered for dealing with the pervasive crime and violence, readers will better understand the challenges faced.

Reviewed by Sarah Tomp

This review is from the March 22, 2017 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access, become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  American Expats in Mexico

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: And The Ocean Was Our Sky
    And The Ocean Was Our Sky
    by Patrick Ness
    Patrick Ness has developed a reputation for experimental literature executed well, and his latest, ...
  • Book Jacket: Let It Bang
    Let It Bang
    by RJ Young
    Every interracial love story is an exercise in complications. R.J. Young and Lizzie Stafford's ...
  • Book Jacket: A Spark of Light
    A Spark of Light
    by Jodi Picoult
    The central premise of A Spark of Light involves a gunman holding hostages within the confines of a ...
  • Book Jacket: An Absolutely Remarkable Thing
    An Absolutely Remarkable Thing
    by Hank Green
    As one half of the extremely popular YouTube duo "Vlogbrothers" (the other half being his brother ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
by Barbara Kingsolver

A timely novel that explores the human capacity for resiliency and compassion.

About the book
Join the discussion!

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Paris Echo
    by Sebastian Faulks

    A story of resistance, complicity, and an unlikely, transformative friendship.
    Reader Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    A Ladder to the Sky
    by John Boyne

    A seductive, unputdownable psychodrama following one brilliant, ruthless man.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win Severance

Severance by Ling Ma

An offbeat, wryly funny, apocalyptic satire that is featured on more than twenty 2018 "Must Read" lists!


Word Play

Solve this clue:

I Ain't O U T F L S

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.