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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A STUNNING DEBUT
Boy, can this woman write! Not every story in this collection is perfect but all of them are good, some in parts, but most all the way through, and the best of them are brilliant, revelatory and scarifying, glimpses into aspects of life that most ordinary folk never see or think of. All of the stories take place in the far West, a land that is still far rawer than most...
Published on July 6, 2012 by David Keymer

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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Edgy Stories of Nevada and California
This author shows some definite promise, provided she can manage to sort out her verb-tense schizophrenia. She doesn't shy away from dicey material. In the first few stories, she revels in the strange and the forbidden, with stories about abortion, incest, a gay male madam at a Nevada brothel, and kids who ran with Charlie Manson. The last few stories are a bit more...
Published 23 months ago by Someone Else


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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A STUNNING DEBUT, July 6, 2012
This review is from: Battleborn (Hardcover)
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Boy, can this woman write! Not every story in this collection is perfect but all of them are good, some in parts, but most all the way through, and the best of them are brilliant, revelatory and scarifying, glimpses into aspects of life that most ordinary folk never see or think of. All of the stories take place in the far West, a land that is still far rawer than most places in our citified, surfaced-civilized nation.

The first story, "Ghosts, Cowboys," takes multiple stabs at presenting a history of a place, then devolves into the tale of a woman whose father, her mother told her before she died, was Charles Manson's "number one procurer." There's a plot to the story but it's more about how one lives with such an awful heritage. In "The Last Thing We Need," a man writes to someone he's never met. He knows of him only because he came across the man's wallet, a packet of letters, and two unfilled prescriptions with an address on them, left behind as rubbish. He doesn't even know if the man still lives there but that's not why he writes: he's killed a drifter in an aborted convenience store robbery and he cant's get his head around what he's done and he hopes a complete stranger can help him but he knows he can't. "I've tried, Duane Moser," he writes, "But I can't picture you at 4077 Pincay Drive. I can't see you in Henderson, period, out in the suburbs, on a cul-de-sac, in one of those prefab houses with the stucco and the garage gaping off the front like a mouth. I can't see you standing like a bug under those streetlights the color of antibacterial soap. . . . I can't see you behind a fence."

Note the combination of ordinary language with images as striking as they are spare -"the garage gaping off the front like a mouth", "standing like a bug under those streetlights the color of antibacterial soap". As I said, this woman can write.

Here is the start of the third story, "Rondine al Nido." "She will be thirty when she walks out on a man who in the end, she'll decide, didn't love her enough, though he in fact did love her, but his love wrenched something inside him, and this caused him to hurt her." This sentence -and the story that follows--catches something of the complicated, often tortured nature of human beings' love lives, which seldom go according to plan. It makes you want to read on, which is the mark of a master storyteller. "Who can say why we offer the parts of ourselves we do, and when," she writes.

Many of the characters -indeed most of them--are not pleasant or appealing people. They've been twisted by life into awkward growths, hanging on as trees do sometimes on the fringes of the desert, surviving at high cost but surviving nonetheless.

Not all the stories work. "Virginia City," for instance, is overwritten. There are good passages in it but it reads as too self-conscious. It could have been better.

But the best of them are very good indeed, and they remind you of what short stories do that novels do not. Novels are leisurely, short stories are not. Novels permit the slow unraveling of narrative stream, short stories are more likely to concentrate on the single telling moment. When Watkins writes of a deserted lover who refuses to start new, and instead puts up, out of the scraps and pieces her ex has left behind, a Museum of Lost Love ("The Archivist"), the impact is different. Sure, probably she will get beyond her funk. But her life has been one long funk, and this moment catches the arc of it.

This collection offers promise that Watkins might join the premiere rank of short fiction writers, a line that stretches from Chekhov to Edna O'Brien to Andre Dubus (not III) and John Cheever and Grace Paley and Alice Munro. If you're a writer, you could do a lot worse than that.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Edgy Stories of Nevada and California, October 31, 2012
This review is from: Battleborn (Hardcover)
This author shows some definite promise, provided she can manage to sort out her verb-tense schizophrenia. She doesn't shy away from dicey material. In the first few stories, she revels in the strange and the forbidden, with stories about abortion, incest, a gay male madam at a Nevada brothel, and kids who ran with Charlie Manson. The last few stories are a bit more commonplace, but still edgy, because edginess is the petri dish from which her stories evolve.

Most of these stories are set in Watkins's home state of Nevada. I spent my formative years on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe, on the California side, but very close to the border with Nevada. I have some familiarity with the geography and "vibe" of Nevada, which Watkins captures perfectly. Her stories grow from that boredom and restlessness and just general weirdness of life in a barren landscape, where there's so little to do but stir up mischief and go a little crazy.

Two complaints. First, wandering verb tense makes me tense. Second, I felt cheated by the way some of the stories ended. Short stories are often like outtakes from a full-length film. It takes some real skill to leave the reader satisfied while ending a story "in media res." Watkins has yet to master that skill, but she certainly has the potential to do so.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Haunting stories from the American West, August 27, 2012
This review is from: Battleborn (Hardcover)
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I decided to move out of my comfort zone in reading this as a Vine pick. I am not particularly a fan of the short story genre, but I had heard good things about Claire Vaye Watkins' debut collection of short stories and decided to give it a try.

I am pleased to say that this collection exceeded my expectations, drawing me into the lives of characters so far removed from my own experiences, and the American West provides a primal, gritty backdrop for the stories. There are ten stories in this collection and one of the most powerful is the first, "Ghosts, Cowboys" which begins on a sort of random note but then moves on to the Manson family. The story eventually settles to focus on a girl who finds out from her suicidal mother, that the girl's father Paul was Manson's pimp, procuring young girls for the commune's ranch. This legacy follows the girl over the years, and I was particularly affected after reading elsewhere that the author's own father (who died of Hodgkin's Disease when she was six) was a member of the family though apparently he was not involved in the notorious murders. The author certainly has a way with words, and sets up powerful scenes with minimal words.

Many of the characters are deeply flawed, but what struck me was that despite these flaws or psychological scars, I was actually interested in how things turned out for them (I'm not usually one to sympathize with flawed characters, especially those that seem to have a predilection for self-destruction). Watkins just might convert me into a fan of the short story!
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15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Like a cactus: prickly on the outside, with a sweet center, July 28, 2012
This review is from: Battleborn (Hardcover)
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"Battle Born" (this title presents it as one word) is one of the semi-official monikers for the state of Nevada, the setting of many of these gorgeous and precise stories. It's a great title for this collection, which presents us with a series of characters whose circumstances suggest that they should be damaged beyond human recognition--but who in fact possess an inspiring sweetness and who long for connection. Though scarred by battle, each still seeks the faith necessary for birth and rebirth.

I don't want to spoil the book so a couple of examples will have to suffice: the final story of the collection ("Graceland") describes the precarious relationship of two sisters, in their 20s, whose mother has recently committed suicide. Both sisters are tiny in stature; both are involved with much larger men. The married sister is pregnant and attempting in the accoutrements of her apartment to recreate the dead mother's house (a recording of Paul Simon's "Graceland" is one of these). The other sister, who narrates the story, is so traumatized in her own way that one can scarcely imagine that she can help--but she does realize "I am the only one who knows what it means, this compiling. I am the only one in Gwen's life who can see what she's doing." This brief plot summary may sound like such a story could tip into sentimentality (especially if I tell you that the Disney movie "Dumbo" also features prominently in the tale). But Watkins' talent and discipline and her tremendously impressive command over language keep this collection far away from that defect. Instead, when the narrator speaks up ("And I said, 'What is WRONG with you?" When what I meant to say was, Are you okay?"), the complex ambivalence of the sisterly relationship is unmistakeable and beautifully managed.

Vaye's control extends beyond dialogue to narrative and description as well. Each of these ten stories is perfectly crafted. Another favorite is "Man o War," the story of a 67-year-old divorced scavenger who discovers an almost dead 16-year-old girl when searching for left-over fireworks on a dried-out lake bed. He revives, feeds, cleans, and clothes her, and listens to her dispiriting history. It's not that this story ends on a high note, but the fact of his care is the bedrock on which it rests. An example of how the descriptive language reflects the emotional tone: "Nearest the sun the sky was the wild red of a wound, like the thing had to forced below the horizon." The form of the short story, of which these are brilliant examples, is not usually heavily plot driven, but the reader who likes a well-told tale will not be disappointed (the longest story, "The Diggings," set during the Gold Rush, is particularly eventful and could easily have been expanded into a novel).

Repeating themes of the collection include courtship, marriage, pregnancy (and abortion), and sister- and brotherhood (as she says to her sisters in the acknowledgments , "This book is you"). It's not an optimistic or uplifting set of stories; most do not have "happy endings," but the vision of human existence is poignant, tense, deliciously sweet. Some readers may be attracted to this book by the knowledge that Claire Vaye Watkins is the daughter of a member of the Charles Manson group, and the first contribution, "Ghosts, Cowboys," does touch on this topic. But Watkins should not need the sensationalist connection to be recognized as a major talent.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A collection of dark dreams, October 17, 2012
This review is from: Battleborn (Hardcover)
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Warning: This collection of stories may be disturbing.

With an economy of words and a fine turn of prose, Claire Vaye Watkins sucks the reader into a varied landscape of odd and twisted people, living their (for them) day-to-day lives. Very reminiscent of Annie Proulx, these are shady, gloomy tales; no one appears to be ecstatically happy about anything, but their viewpoints and secret thoughts electrify each page.

Starting with a story involving a child that Charles Manson delivers in a broken-down shack on an old movie set, prior to the Tate murders, the book's tone is set. You realize right away that these are not going to be ordinary, happily-ever-after stories. You may want to look away, but you can't; you have to know what's going to happen. Another story is told entirely in missives to a man from someone who found evidence of an accident on a lonely stretch of highway, directed to the man from an address the passerby got from a prescription bottle at the scene. This story, which was particularly creepy, goes on for several letters sent to the prescription holder (and, presumably, the victim of the accident), with the writer analyzing the whys and wherefores of every possible explanation for the evidence he found on scene. Yet another tale revolves around a virtual hermit, living far out in the wilderness near a dry lake bed, who encounters a young woman apparently abandoned and ill lying near the road and takes her to his home to recuperate. And further along, a dark tale of a prospector in the California Gold Rush days will nag at you well after you've finished it.

The writing is spare and haunting - at times profane - but told in a detached, surreal way that speaks of dreams, or even nightmares. Ms Watkins is a powerful talent, a welcome addition to the tellers of tales, with an imagery that stands out. I don't think I'd like to meet very many of the characters in these stories, but reading about them was a great honor.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The mythology of the West, January 21, 2013
This review is from: Battleborn (Hardcover)
It couldn't have been easy growing up Claire Vaye Watkins. Her father - Paul Watkins - was Charlie Manson's second in command and ultimately testified against him. But to consider this very talented author from that perspective would be reductive. She is a force to be reckoned with and writes so exquisitely and metaphorically that it is hard not to be riveted to the page.

Wisely, she ties in her own mythology with that of the West in her magnificent opening story, Ghosts, Cowboys. The pitiless landscape of the Mojave Desert and Death Valley Region is peopled with ghosts - visionaries and maniacs, movie stars and millionaires, gold diggers and tourists, and yes, Claire herself and her "twin", Razor Blade Baby, delivered by Charles Manson with a razor blade when labor became stalled...who may or may not be her half sister. This story is about as flawless as I have seen.

And then, again wisely, Ms. Watkins moves away from her personal anthology and focuses on those others who are striving for connection...those haunted souls who inhabit the West and who strive to make sense of their loneliness and their pain. The vast majority of stories pack a wallop in their telling.

Take Rondine al Nino, for example. In this compelling tale, "our girl" attempts to offer a piece of herself to a so-called sensible man in a game of emotional stakes: he must tell her something he did that was terrible and then she'll reveal her own story. Her story is mesmerizing and disturbing: a one-night stand in nearby Las Vegas, where she heads with her best friend Lena. Reading about her manipulation of Lena and debasement of herself - and her friend - is like watching a car wreck that you can't quite pull away from.

Another favorite, The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, centers on a young Italian tourist and begins, "This happens every summer. A tourist hikes into the desert outside Las Vegas without enough water and gets lost. Most of them die." Michele's friend Renzo is that tourist; afterwards, he ends up a frequent patron at a brothel, where he shakes up the jaded inhabitants in ways that are unexpected.

The longest story, The Diggings, is set in the 1840s Gold Rush as two brothers seek to claim their fortune. One spirals into madness; the other, a visionary, grows more content as his brother grows more wretched. "A promise unkept will take a man's mind," Ms. Watkins writes. "It does not matter whether the promise is made by a woman or a territory or a future foretold." The story is page-turning and unputdownable.

These damaged characters and their inhospitable setting are a glowing testament to the author's craftsmanship.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Slices of Various Lives, September 10, 2012
This review is from: Battleborn (Hardcover)
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Claire Vaye Watkins' Battleborn is a strong debut. The stories are carefully crafted and resonated with my sensibilities completely. They seem real and you can't help but wonder what parts she's lifted from her own life which makes the reading all that more interesting and entertaining.

I have to strongly disagree with the sleeve's description which compares her to McCarthy or Proulx (I have not read Denis Johnson or Richard Ford). The former are literary giants whose voices are distinct, unique, mesmerizing. Watkins is good but pales in comparison and throwing about those names on the back cover is not going to magically transform her work into anything resembling greatness. Not yet, in my estimation. Perhaps someday.

The last story in this collection, "Graceland" is difficult, disconnected from the whole and meanders a bit; it's the least enjoyable. Minus 1 star for that one.

Short of describing the rest of the stories themselves, I will say that they are extremely readable, just the right length and compel the reader to move forward for more. And that's exactly what we're usually looking for. Four stars, I recommend this to short story lovers everywhere.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well-crafted but mostly emotionally wrenching and poignant stories, August 28, 2012
This review is from: Battleborn (Hardcover)
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Like Nevada, the "BattleBorn" state where most of this collection's 10 stories take place, the characters we meet have undergone emotionally wrenching experiences. Some have been violated or abused, others have been grappling with the suicide of a parent, friend lost, or love lost, etc. Scarred by these horrendous experiences, the characters are mostly anxiously looking for a way forward and bravely longing for some sort of healing.

The prose tends to be somewhat spare and has a quiet but powerful grittiness that shines a spotlight on how life can sometimes feel like the sum total of what one can endure, to paraphrase the words of the letter-writer in one of my favorite stories from the collection, "The Last Thing We Need" (p. 30).

Many of the characters have faults that would likely make them somewhat unlikeable to some readers. A few of the characters' experiences are so out of the ordinary, some readers may not be able to relate to them.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Songs of Innocence and Experience, January 6, 2013
By 
R. S. Wilkerson (near Stone Mountain, GA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Battleborn (Hardcover)
This group of short stories can be read as a contemporary version of Songs of Innocence and Experience. Her stories show us how experience may not bring greater wisdom, but a greater pain of loneliness, isolation and the loss of love. Her characters, usually the narrator, start from a state of relative innocence and, through painful experience, come to grasp the sharp, bitter pain of man's isolation. Most of the narrators live in virtual or actual physical isolation and instead of finding love or friendship, the state of being most sought by mankind, their endeavors bring the realization of just how lonely man is. Her stories are dark and painful, revealing our eternal struggle to be loved and valued, but they are well written, interesting, engaging and well worth the time. I genuinely look forward to her first novel
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Finding their 'own raw heart' in the West, July 30, 2013
By 
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This review is from: Battleborn (Hardcover)
One of the reasons I'm drawn to fiction set in the West is that the good stuff, the really good stuff, brings this part of the world to life. It is a vivid, harsh, beautiful place that rarely nurtures but often rewards anyone who can handle it.

Many of the characters can handle it in Claire Vaye Watkins's brilliant stories in Battleborn, which are set in Nevada and Northern California. They just don't know they can handle it until circumstances point it out to them abruptly.

That's certainly the case in "The Last Thing We Need". Thomas Grey, who lives out in the Middle of Nowhere, finds the debris of what may have been a wreck and writes to the man whose name and address he finds on some prescription bottles. Even though he has a wife and two children, he lives mostly with his thoughts. And, because the man he is writing to has not answered, Thomas Grey begins to relay his thoughts:

"This is our old joke. Like all our memories, we like to take it out once in a while and lay it flat on the kitchen table, the way my wife does with her sewing patterns, where we line up the shape of our life against that which we thought it would be by now.
"I'll tell you what I don't tell her, that there is something shameful in this, the buoying of our sinking spirits with old stories."

And later:

"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."

Grey finds out that there is something he cares very much about besides the past. He can handle where he is and what he has.

Other characters need to leave to reach that epiphany. One leaves a brother to his own devices after his sibling is enthralled by something else out in the land where gold was hunted and where gamblers still believe they will come out on top. Another has been depending on her sister and reaches a point where, perhaps, her sister can now depend on her.

Others are not so successful. Not all attempts by the men to be heroic succeed, as one old-time miner discovers. Not all attempts by the women to let go of the past succeed.

For all of them, the men and the women, the ones who thrive and the ones who barely survive, promises matter. In a story, "The Diggings", set during the Gold Rush, a 49'er explains:

"A promise unkept will take a man's mind. It does not matter whether the promise is made by a woman or a territory or a future foretold. ... Because though I was afraid and angry and lonesome much of the time, I was also closer to my own raw heart there in the territory than I have ever been since."
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Battleborn
Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins (Hardcover - August 2, 2012)
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