Sun-scorched. Desolate. Solitary. These are just a few of the words I’d use to describe Claire Vaye Watkins’s quietly haunting debut short story collection. Unlike most story collections out there, there’s no story called “Battleborn” in this book. Instead, the book’s title captures the essence of this collection. Not yet 30 (a fact that completely blows my mind), Watkins reimagines about histories and mythologies of the American West — including her own family’s unique place in it — with the steady assuredness an old soul.
Nothing illustrates this more perfectly than the book’s opener, “Ghosts, Cowboys.” It begins with a series of false starts, opening with tidbits from different points in history until finally finding an entrance point with the story of a group of ten people led by a guy named “Charlie” Manson. Manson’s right hand man was Watkins’s father, and though he never killed anyone, his job was to lure girls for Manson to have sex with. Imagine that being part of your family’s lore! “Ghosts, Cowboys” is a reimagining of events, and Watkins inserts herself into the story.
The other stories, many tinged with a sense of loss, are no less captivating. I had several favorites. “The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past” is about a European tourist stuck in Nevada. His friend is lost in the desert, and he must wait here while the search for him continues. He finds himself at a brothel in the desert and keeps returning to one of the women who works there. In “Man-O-War,” a loner comes across a teen girl passed out in the desert. He takes her home and looks after her until she wakes up, and when she does, she doesn’t want to leave; it isn’t until the story’s climax that he learns what she’s run away from. And finally, my favorite story in the collection was the longest one, “The Diggings,” in which two brothers leave Ohio for the Gold Rush.
Set in Belle Époque Paris, The Painted Girls was inspired by the lives of the Van Goethem sisters. Antoinette, Marie, and Charlotte already lived in poverty before their father’s sudden death, but now they can’t rely on their alcoholic mother to make ends meet, and the girls must find a way to earn some wages. Hotheaded Antoinette has been kicked out of her position in the Paris Opera ballet, but Marie and Charlotte are able to audition and enter the Paris Opera as petit rats, the lowest level for ballet dancers. Meanwhile, Antoinette finds temporary work as an extra in Emile Zola’s L’Assommoir.
The girls struggle to live off the few francs they earn each week, but it’s never enough; they’re always hungry and underclothed. When Marie gets a chance to make some extra money as Edgar Degas’s model, she hesitantly agrees. Though she shows great promise as a dancer, she’s at a disadvantage compared to her peers. She’s undernourished and must get up early everyday to work her side job at the bakery, then head to ballet practice. Nor is she pretty; she’s a gangly girl with bad teeth, and she doesn’t have the money to buy pretty ribbons or flashy dancewear. Her only hope is to find a wealthy patron who will take an interest in her and provide the funds to support her dancing career. Might Degas be that person?
Meanwhile, the once-close relationship she’s always had with Antoinette is wearing thin. Antoinette has fallen in head over heels in love with Emile Abadie. Emile sets off all kinds of alarms in Marie, who feels that he’s nothing but trouble, but Antoinette will hear nothing of it. Using alternating narrators (Marie and Antoinette), Buchanan allows readers to see the story from two different sides.
In 1974, six teenagers meet at an arts camp in the Berkshires. The privileged brother and sister duo, Ash and Goodman Wolf, are at the center of the group. Cathy Kiplinger is the sexy dancer who’s attending camp on scholarship; she and Goodman have a passionate and sometimes explosive fling going on. Jonah Bay is the quiet son of a famous folk singer, and Ethan Figman is a talented young animator. Rounding out the group is Jules Jacobson, a plain and awkward girl from Long Island who’s mourning the recent death of her father. She doesn’t know how or why this glamorous and talented group decided to invite her into their fold, but they did. The Interestings, as they dub themselves that summer, become inseparable and will continue to meet at the palatial Wolf residence in Manhattan when summer comes to an end. Some of the group will become closer as they age, while a couple will drift off, but they’ll be linked for the rest of their lives.
One of the central questions that Wolitzer explores in the book is, what happens to talent as one gets older? Generally speaking, most people don’t go on to make a successful career of the talents they were praised for as teenagers. It’s a lesson that the book’s central character, Jules, struggles to cope with all the way through middle age. While her dear friends Ethan and Ash make it to that rare stratosphere of fame and fortune, Jules own talents don’t translate as well to adulthood and she’s forced to find a new direction in life. Her happiness for her friends’ success aside, jealousy is always bubbling just beneath the surface.
A Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel
Publisher/Year: Riverhead, 2013
What it is: A collection of eleven strange short stories related to the cycle of life. The stories are organized into four themes: birth, gestation, conception, and love.
Why I read it: Ausubel has been on my radar for a while now; I’m still dying to read her first book, No One Is Here Except All of Us. Since I’m a fan of short stories (especially weird ones), I wanted to give this a try.
What I thought: This was an uneven collection for me, but there’s no denying that Ausubel is an amazing writer. Many of the stories have elements of magical realism, but even the ones that don’t have something strange in them. Either way, they all illustrate various elements of human nature in unexpected ways. Some of my favorites were “Poppyseed,” about a couple who decides to subject their mentally disabled eight-year-old daughter to a hysterectomy (probably the most twisted story in the collection, but also the one with the most haunting impact on me); “Atria,” story with fantastical elements about a teen who claims she got pregnant as the result of a made-up rape rather than a one-time fling; and “Tributaries,” about a community of people who grow an extra arm every time they fall in love.
Would appeal to: Aimee Bender & Miranda July fans.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Publisher/Year: Scribner, 2003 (Originally published in 1925)
What it is: Nick Carraway moves into a modest little house along the Long Island Sound for the summer and gets drawn in by his mysterious next-door neighbor, a self-made millionaire named Jay Gatsby who’s known for his lavish parties. Meanwhile, Gatsby is madly in love with Nick’s cousin, Daisy Buchanan; the two have a history together. Daisy is already married, but Gatsby hopes his newfound wealth and dazzling success will be enough to win her back.
Why I read it: It’s been on my shelves forever and I never had to read it in high school, making me feel like one of the few people on Earth who had never read the book. Basically, I wanted to get to it before I saw Luhrmann’s movie.
What I thought: Meh. I know this is terrible, but this is one of those rare occasions where I liked the movie better (and why not dig myself deeper: I also think the cover is fugly). I know it’s a classic, plus green light symbolism and contemporarily-relevant themes and blah blah blah, but…*shrug*.
If you’re a fan, you might also like: The Great Lenore by J.M. Tohline, which draws inspiration from The Great Gatsby. I read it last year before having read Gatsby, and in retrospect, I appreciate elements of The Great Lenore much more now that I have a better frame of reference for it. (Also in retrospect? I like Lenore more than Gatsby. So there.)
Khaled Hosseini’s latest novel, And the Mountains Echoed, begins with a bedtime story about a difficult decision. Could a father give up his favorite child in order to save all of his other children, even though it would mean a certain death for his favorite child? The story sets the tone for the rest of the novel: In 1952, two children and their father begin the long journey from the fictional village of Shadbagh to Kabul. After the childrens’ mother died following little Pari’s birth, Abdullah and his three-year-old sister have always been inseparable. That will soon change in Kabul, where the father will sell Pari off to a wealthy, childless couple.
The book then breaks off into a nonlinear format, jumping back and forth from past to present as it follows the circle of people who have been affected by this decision: Abdullah and Pari; their father, Saboor, who can’t seem to fully love his children following his first wife’s death; their stepuncle, Nabi, who arranged the sale; their stepmother, Parwana, who lives with the burden of past decisions but cannot love Abdullah and Pari as her own children; Mr. and Mrs. Wahdati, Pari’s adoptive parents; Iqbal, Abdullah and Pari’s stepbrother; and Dr. Markos Varvaris, a Greek plastic surgeon working with an NGO in present-day Kabul. It’s not always immediately clear who these people are or why they play such a prominent role in the story, but all of them are somehow linked to that fateful day in 1952.