Thursday, December 16, 2021

Book 314: Battleborn

"P.S. On second thought, perhaps sometimes these things are best left by the side of the road, as it were. Sometimes a person wants a part of you that's no good. Sometimes love is a wound that opens and closes, opens and closes, all our lives."

Dates read: May 7-11, 2019

Rating: 8/10

I've lived in Nevada for nearly a decade now. I first came to the state during the brief period in the late 90s when Las Vegas tried to market itself as family-friendly, and my mom brought my sister and me there as part of a trip where we also went to the Grand Canyon. I didn't return until college, when I came out to visit the guy I dated off-and-on for years during a summer break at his home in Reno. We had another one of our spectacular bust-ups (which didn't stick), but I tearfully vowed at the airport to never return. Then in 2012, I got a job as an organizer in Nevada, and opted for the more hospitable northern end of the state over the southern end in July. Then I met my husband, and here I still am.

Though I will always be a Michigander at heart, after almost ten years, I'm very loyal to my adopted state. How can you tell a Nevadan? If you call the state "Nev-AH-da" around them, they will either smile politely and scream internally, or find themselves unable to help blurting out that it's "Nev-AD-a". Though the state's official motto is "All For Our Country", it's the unofficial one, "Battle Born", that lent itself to becoming the title of native Nevadan Claire Vaye Watkins's collection of short stories, being elided into one word as Battleborn. Each story is connected to the Silver State, its rich history, and its mythos.

Watkins is extremely talented, and shows that off by writing a variety of styles and scenarios: there's a story ("The Diggings") about a family caught up in the mining booms on either side of the Sierra Nevada that's long enough to be a novella, there's one ("Rodine al Nido") about a girl, with whom we're drawn into troubling complicity by the way Watkins names her only as "our girl", who leads a friend into a bad situation with men in a Vegas hotel room, there's one ("The Past Perfect, the Past Continues, the Simple Past") about a young Italian man who winds up at a brothel after his friend disappears in the desert, and seven more. What connects these stories is not only their Nevada setting, but a sense of loneliness and alienation that's sharpened by that environment: the endless sky and open landscape can leave you with a feeling of being untethered to the world around you. Outside of the two major population centers (Reno and Las Vegas), Nevada is a largely rural state, with some areas so far off the grid they're actually referred to as "frontier". It's also quite large...there's about 8 hours of desert between those two urban areas. To be alone in such a place presents both a certain kind of security and a terrifying vulnerability, the tension between which Watkins deftly explores.

As always with a short story collection, there were highlights and lowlights, though this book was among the more consistently high-quality ones of its kind I can remember reading. The ones I've highlighted above were probably my favorites, with "Rodine al Nido" the one that lingered in my head long after I'd turned the pages. I don't think any of them were actively bad, but some of them (like "The Archivist" and the epistolary "The Last Thing We Need") weren't especially memorable and only came back to me as I flipped back through the book to refresh my memory before writing about it. It's impossible to doubt either Watkins's gift or her craft after reading this collection, and I'd recommend it very highly, particularly for short story-lovers or Western enthusiasts. 

One year ago, I was reading: Men Explain Things To Me

Two years ago, I was reading: House of Cards

Three years ago, I was reading: The Goldfinch

Four years ago, I was reading: The Lady of the Rivers

Five years ago, I was reading: The Red Queen

Six years ago, I was reading: Occidental Mythology

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