Monday, October 1, 2012

We Would Like To Introduce You To An Old Friend

During his tenure at TC, Edward Booker worked as a Returns Processor, Gift Wrapper, Bookseller, Buyer, LoDo Store Manager, and Buyer Manager.  He learned the ropes from master booksellers, Laura, David, Wendy, Nancy, Dennis, Joan, Tara, Yolanda, Gregario, Christine, Gerald, and Nicole.  He also served stints at Family Christian Stores in Englewood, Colorado and Half Price Books in Round Rock, Texas where he was the Nostalgia buyer.  He can now be found recommending books at the Herndon Branch of the Orange County Library System in Orlando, Florida.  You can friend him and follow all his latest reads on Good Reads. And you will also find him in BTC as often as we can get him to write up reviews for us.  We are delighted to have him back at TC, at least virtually, and we think you'll going to like him too.  His reviews will show up as "Where's Booker?", given the fact that he moves around quite a bit.

In the hectic, technology driven world, the short story can be one of those bite size guilty pleasures.  After a day at work where dinner, a sitcom, and bed can follow one after another pretty quickly, the short story provides an opportunity to be whisked away, albeit for a shorter period of time than the novel.   Trust me on this and pick up Battleborn, the debut collection by Claire Vaye Watkins. 

The backdrop for Watkins’ stories is Nevada and the West.  The dynamic landscape figures prominently in every story and in the lives of her characters as they adapt or struggle against change. 

In “Ghosts, Cowboys”, Claire traces the history of Reno, Nevada from silver mining and nuclear bomb testing to the ranch her father allowed studios to use for Western films.  While Claire struggles to find her own way, relationship wise, professionally, she is constantly reminded of her father’s encounter with the notorious, modern day outlaw, Charles Manson.  On a superficial level, people want to know her, about her father and by association, what Manson was like.  This is less than six degrees of separation at its worst. 

“The Last Thing We Need” is a series of epistles written by Thomas Grey to Duane Moser after he finds the remnants of a car accident outside the ghost town of Rhyolite, Nevada.  The letters are unanswered, but Thomas imagines what could have happened to Duane.  The car happens to be the same make as the one used in an attempted robbery of a gas station where Thomas worked as a youth during a graveyard shift.  The swarm of grasshoppers imprints this scene both in Thomas’ memory and the reader’s.

Two teenage girls, aching to escape the mundane, small time life take a reckless trip to Vegas in “Rondine Al Nido”.  They pretend to be girls older than they are to a bunch of guys which inevitably leads to the cliché, “What Happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”  There is an allusion to 9/11 near the end of the story and evokes the self destructiveness of everyone’s personal tragedies.

“The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past” is the story of several characters at the Cherry Patch Ranch (think Bunny Ranch) as Manny, the gay purveyor of the ranch, Michele, a young Italian hiker and Darla, one of the sexy, young women at the ranch are thrown together.  Manny dreams of Michele, Michele and Darla of each other, but these daydreams of America, the West, romance and love come to an abrupt halt in a violent episode.

A new baby causes the changing dynamic in Marin’s and Carter’s young marriage as Marin longs for the reckless/romantic days of her youth in “Wish You Were Here.”  She struggles with the reality of having given up that life when she decided to settle down with the lawyerly, responsible Carter.
Every July 5, Harris, a former miner and now hobbyist/prospector searches for abandoned fireworks in the Nevada desert in “Man-O-War.”  This time, he finds a teenage girl.

If these stories aren’t enough to whet your appetite and you only read one story, “The Archivist” should be the one.  Carly and Nate, sisters, try to make sense of adulthood after their alcoholic mother died in a tragic car accident when they were very young.  They are both wrapped up in the complexity of loving their mother because she was their mother, but also struggling to become their own women with their own relationships.   They are finding that they cling to each other, bound by their own DNA, yet knowing they share their mother’s and the fear that her life’s outcome will be their own.  Two master short story authors came to mind when reading this story, Jhumpa Lahiri and Lorrie Moore.  I cannot remember reading a more powerful short story in a number of years.   It demonstrates Watkins ability not only as a writer, but as an artist.

In the longest piece, “The Diggings” Errol and his brother leave Ohio for California during the Gold Rush.  It contrasts the monotony of trying to find gold with the anticipation and excitement which borders on madness.

“Virginia City” captures three friends, Iris, Jules, and Danny as they venture to Virginia City, Nevada, to see where Danny’s parents eloped in a cavernous, makeshift chapel.  The Old West comes back to life as they gamble and become nostalgic for their friendship that is already undergoing changes with the simple passage of time.

The collection concludes as Catie and Gwen cling to each other in “Graceland”.  At stake is not only their smaller world, but the greater ecosystem as they see it slowly deteriorating around them, much like the own memories of their deceased mother.

Watkins’ emphasis on the environment reminds me of the stories of Ron Carlson and Pam Houston.  According to the Bucknell University website where Watkins teaches, she is currently working on a novel.  After reading her collection, I’m sure that like me, you can’t wait to read more from this new voice in contemporary fiction.


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