Kelly Koepke

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"Storytellers may be finite in number, but stories appear to be inexhaustible," Joyce Carol Oates once wrote. The words of one of the genre’s master practitioners have been proven true this summer by the large number of new short story collections lining our shelves. Though it may face stiff competition among readers from its distinguished cousin the novel, the short story form is flourishing, and the best new collections offer a blend of unique voices, styles and characters. A few of our favorites are featured here.

Dan Chaon’s Among the Missing contains stories of families that have stepped off the path to the American dream, with characters left to figure out where and how they stumbled. "Safety Man" tells of a woman haunted by the untimely death of her husband and her reliance on an inflatable doll in making the transition to widowhood. In another story, a pet parrot becomes a vicarious object of hatred for a woman who is convinced that her brother-in-law is guilty of crimes his family refuses to acknowledge. Many of Chaon’s protagonists are missing some key part of their past or future. In "Here’s a Little Something to Remember Me By," Tom’s life stopped during his teenage years when his best friend Ricky disappeared. Now, Ricky’s family latches on to Tom, living their son’s life through his. For Tom, who carries a dark secret, their microscopic observation of his life is oppressive, preventing him from reconciling himself to the disappearance. With his unusually perceptive voice, Chaon brings clarity to the confusion of people’s inner motives.

How we fail to understand those who mean the most to us is one of the messages delivered in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s collection The Unknown Errors of Our Lives. Borrowing from her rich Indian heritage and experience as a newcomer to America, Divakaruni writes about young people learning to accept the errors of their parents and immigrants who are adjusting to the wild, unimagined wonders of a foreign land. Suffused with magical realism, these stories convey the seduction of memory, the exoticism of the East and the struggle to fit in with a new culture. "Mrs. Dutta Writes A Letter," chosen for The Best American Short Stories 1999 anthology, explores the cherished old ways of a grandmother, which turn into an embarrassment to her daughter-in-law. Whether Divakaruni is writing about the accommodations we make between generations or the eternal pull of home, her storytelling is poetic in its imagery and dynamic in the ebb and flow of its voices.

Dogwalker, Arthur Bradford’s debut collection, assembles its cast of characters from the misbegotten and misunderstood of society. The disabled, disfigured and troubled star in these stories, along with dogs of all shapes and sizes. Some of the protagonists and their adventures seem plucked from the weird and warped headlines of a supermarket tabloid. In wonderfully straightforward prose, Bradford’s nameless narrators reveal an almost banal acceptance of the strangeness of life. His ear for dialogue, along with a sensibility that matches the singularity of his subjects, brings joy and laughter to lighthearted tales (tails?) that wag the mind long after they have been tucked neatly on the shelf. An original newcomer, Bradford shows us how extraordinary and provocative a genre the short story can be.

The Man Who Swam With Beavers
, a new collection from Nancy Lord, brings Native Alaskan-inspired myths to life. Lord, who teaches creative writing at the University of Alaska, brings an authentic voice and modern interpretation to the deeply spiritual and enduring legends of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific North- west. The persistent need for contact with the wild plays a key role in the title story, as well as the other dreamlike fables that examine our responsibilities to one another and to the larger environment. Irony rules as the tone of this collection, as protagonists and narrators as diverse as God, a 14-year-old son of lesbians and an enormously fat performance artist illustrate life lessons in unexpected ways. "Afterlife" gives us a man upon whom massacred animals take their vengeance. "Wolverine Grudge" presents a disturbed woman whose bottled anger and need for revenge bring out the feral in her. Ultimately, the characters are on transformative journeys; where they end up is always captivating.

And the first shall be last. Mary Ladd Gavell comes from a short story tradition that forms the basis for the other collections here. Unpublished until after her untimely death in 1967, Gavell was the managing editor of Psychiatry magazine. Her story "The Rotifer" was published by her colleagues as a posthumous tribute. A new collection of Gavell’s work, I Cannot Tell A Lie, Exactly, demonstrates what a true gift she had for dialogue, setting and tone. It also conveys how lucky we are to have her stories more than 30 years after her death. Each one is a perfect gem, sparkling with the irony and guile that make the genre special. "Baucis" introduces a woman whose last words are misunderstood by her family, while the title story describes the preparation for a child’s school play with the humor and good nature that make Gavell’s writing timeless and bewitching. The opening story, a sadly sweet tale called "The Swing," mesmerizes readers with the ghostly visits of an aging woman’s young son. The same sad sweetness bookends the collection in "The Blessing," in which three generations of women fall into familiar roles as they wait for the eldest to die. John Updike selected "The Rotifer" for The Best American Short Stories of the Century, but any of the pieces in the collection could be rightly chosen for this honor.

Kelly Koepke writes from her home in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

 

"Storytellers may be finite in number, but stories appear to be inexhaustible," Joyce Carol Oates once wrote. The words of one of the genre’s master practitioners have been proven true this summer by the large number of new short story collections lining our shelves. Though it may face stiff competition among readers from its distinguished […]
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Today's Hispanic writers whether they call themselves Latino, Mejicano or Chicano craft diverse stories from a common culture. Marrying old themes of family, politics and the struggle of being bicultural with their own fresh perspectives on these topics, each of the following authors brings new experiences to a classic tradition, enriching and enlarging the horizon of Hispanic literature.

Between Two Fires: Intimate Writings on Life, Love, Food and Flavor is a smart little collection of Laura Esquivel's speeches, short writings and recipes from the last decade, most never published in English. Mexican novelist Esquivel burst onto the international scene with Like Water for Chocolate in 1989. Now, with Between Two Fires, this funny and insightful author muses on the topics we most associate with her life, romance and family, and how food in all its aspects infuses the human experience. Beautifully illustrated with whimsical line drawings and full of wisdom, Between Two Fires is the perfect book for fans of food, lovers of Latin literature and just plain lovers.

Esquivel's own words sum up her book best: "Though we may not be religious, I don't think it would be hard to acknowledge that through the smells and tastes of food we share with others, and the sustaining presence of the divine inherent in them, we can enjoy a glimpse of paradise every day." The title says it all for Woodcuts of Women, a new collection of short stories by Dagoberto Gilb that's all about women. Instead of fully fleshed-out female characters, Gilb has created women who are like woodcuts broadly rendered rather than finely detailed. And every protagonist in these 10 stories is a boy or man who loves them. Symbolizing seduction, mystery and power, these women are, in the end, the undoing of each protagonist. But, oh, what a way to go. In the opening story, "Maria de Covina," a naive young department store clerk tries to remain faithful to his teenage girlfriend while posing as a stud among his older and more experienced female co-workers. In "Mayela One Day in 1989," a woman leads her love-struck boyfriend into an El Paso bar and tries out her seductive skills on the gay and lesbian patrons. Most of the characters in these stories toil at lousy jobs, inhabit squalid apartments and live desperate lives. The one thing that sustains them for better or worse is love of women. This is a passionate book full of finely wrought prose that reinforces Gilb's reputation as a gifted writer.

Sandra Benitez's third novel The Weight of All Things is centered around nine-year-old Nicolas and his involvement in two events in El Salvador in 1980. The first is the funeral of assassinated Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, a ceremony attended by 80,000 people, 35 of whom were killed when violence erupted. The second is the slaughter by Honduran and Salvadoran troops of 600 people fleeing rural repression only two months later. In a country ruined by internal strife, these two tragedies form the harrowing bookends to Nicolas' search for his mother as he endures the random and violent deaths of friends and family, the destruction of local communities and the constant fear of machine-gun fire. In matter-of-fact, evocative prose, Benitez's novel delivers an affecting portrait of innocent people caught in the crossfire of warring factions. A portion of the proceeds from the book will go to Rosie O'Donnell's For All Kids Foundation to support the intellectual, social and cultural development of disadvantaged children. Nonfiction accounts of culture, history and turbulent politics, Alma Guillermoprieto's lively essays, collected in Looking for History: Dispatches from Latin America, dissect the events that have shaped the region. Informative and perceptive, Guillermoprieto's accounts, many modified from more than 10 years of reportage and essays for The New Yorker, delve into the stories of Eva Per—n and Argentina, Che Guevara and the Marxist insurgency in South America, and Cuba's wait for the departure of Castro. Guillermoprieto has a keen eye and an intimate knowledge of notoriously tangled political situations, including the inner workings of the Colombian guerrilla movement and governmental corruption in Mexico. Her sharp analysis of the events that have shaped the politics of the area, combined with her conversational style, bring home the realities of this troubled part of the world.

The Vintage Book of Latin American Stories, edited by Carlos Fuentes and Julio Ortega, brings together the best of the short story genre in a must-have collection for lovers of Latin American literature or those just discovering this rich tradition. These 39 stories, culled from the past 100 years and the most acclaimed writers of the region, explore the evolution of the style, as well as the trends in Latin American literature today. Featuring Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortazar, Maria Luisa Puga and Nelida Pi–on, these stories charm, instruct and bring to the English-speaking world a new host of previously undiscovered gems.

Downright fun is how to describe Denise Chavez's new novel, Loving Pedro Infante, a laugh-out-loud examination of 30-something divorcŽe Teresina Avila. Tere, who lives in a dusty town outside El Paso, is having an affair with a married man but loses herself in the movies of late film and musical star Pedro Infante, a man known as the Mexican Elvis. Infante's movies could provide Tere with lessons for her life if only she would follow them. With a host of quirky friends and family, a liberal helping of Mexican-American culture and Chavez's down-to-earth writing style, Loving Pedro Infante is a joy to read.

Kelly Koepke is a writer in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

 

Today's Hispanic writers whether they call themselves Latino, Mejicano or Chicano craft diverse stories from a common culture. Marrying old themes of family, politics and the struggle of being bicultural with their own fresh perspectives on these topics, each of the following authors brings new experiences to a classic tradition, enriching and enlarging the horizon […]
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In his first full-length novel since Bag of Bones, horror master Stephen King takes us back to Derry, Maine, the setting for It and Insomnia. There, four friends encounter telepathic aliens, renegade military forces and the redemptive power of their own childhoods while on a hunting trip in the Derry woods. A triumphant return to King's beginnings in nasty, gut-wrenching, monster horror, tempered by experience and maturity, Dreamcatcher resembles such earlier works as Cujo and Salem's Lot, but with the benefit of more complex characters and the recognition that sometimes the bad guys don't wear identifying hats.

Long ago, Henry, Jonesy, Pete and Beaver did something great something that would put the rest of their lives in stark relief by rescuing a boy with Down Syndrome from neighborhood bullies. Their unselfish aid for Duddits laid the groundwork for a lasting friendship and created psychic abilities in each. For years afterward, the quintet was inseparable. But the foursome grew up, leaving Derry and Duddits behind. Only an annual hunting trip keeps the four connected (minus Duddits). This year's trip is like any other, until a spaceship containing unfriendly and dangerous passengers crashes. The government quarantines the area, plotting to kill any living creature in the infected zone. One alien snatches the body of Jonesy, planning to spread his fungi race around the globe. It is only the friends' unique ability to communicate without words that fortifies their attempt to stop the extraterrestrial virulence. Gradually we understand that the central figure of Dreamcatcher, the force that holds together the friends and unifies their struggle to save themselves and the world, is Duddits.

Dreamcatcher is a tightly plotted, suspenseful tale of hostile aliens and heroic humans willing to sacrifice themselves to prevent the destruction of humanity. That King remains a force in fiction is demonstrated by the painful realism and urgent, clawing intensity he brings to Jonesy's memories of continuing recovery from a car accident, a reminder that King himself lived through that type of pain while writing this book. Clearly his own painful recovery provided his imagination fertile soil for nasty things to grow. And grow they do, like an alien fungus.

Stephen King has scared Kelly Koepke since she was a teenager.

In his first full-length novel since Bag of Bones, horror master Stephen King takes us back to Derry, Maine, the setting for It and Insomnia. There, four friends encounter telepathic aliens, renegade military forces and the redemptive power of their own childhoods while on a hunting trip in the Derry woods. A triumphant return to […]
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They say God laughs when men make plans. Well, God laughs at women’s plans, too, especially the plans of happy women. At least that’s what Alice Eve Cohen thinks. She was one of those happy, planning women. Then she discovered that, although she wasn’t dying of a mysterious illness as feared, she was pregnant at age 44. She had taken birth control pills the first six months of her pregnancy, which meant that her child might be profoundly deformed.

Cohen recounts the events leading to and following the birth of her now seven-year-old daughter in the diary-style memoir What I Thought I Knew. The chapter ending lists of things Cohen “knows” swing wildly from the highs of elation as she schedules her wedding, to the depths of despair as she contemplates ending the pregnancy, her life or both. Compounding her no-win choices are the values of her fiancé, their respective families and the medical establishment.

Cohen is first and foremost a performer—a writer and actor of one-woman plays—so she knows how to build tension to a climax. Her easy intimacy when recounting the events of a pivotal year of her life is amazing. What I Thought I Knew seems made for verbatim adaptation to the stage, with ever increasing emotional highs and lower lows. Many chapters are recounted with the same cold, calculating journalism of a news story, while others are heart-wrenchingly personal. All of them are revelatory.  

They say God laughs when men make plans. Well, God laughs at women’s plans, too, especially the plans of happy women. At least that’s what Alice Eve Cohen thinks. She was one of those happy, planning women. Then she discovered that, although she wasn’t dying of a mysterious illness as feared, she was pregnant at […]
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Coming from anyone other than Julie Andrews, name-dropping would seem like bragging. Instead, Home: A Memoir of My Early Years simply offers the recollections of an extraordinary talent whose encounters with the theater and music glitterati of the 1940s, '50s and '60s shaped the formative years of her career. Andrews' writing is refreshing and authentic in its wide-eyed wonder, bolstered by her diaries and journals. Andrews performed with Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady and Richard Burton in Camelot on Broadway, married (and later divorced) legendary set and costume designer Tony Walton, hobnobbed with Moss Hart and Kitty Carlisle, was mentored by the musical team of Lerner and Loewe, and became best friends withcomedian Carol Burnett. Walt Disney himself asked Andrews to be his Mary Poppins in what would turn into her Academy Award-winning debut film performance.

But the polished, refined Englishwoman whose accolades include Emmys, Golden Globes, a Kennedy Center Honor and three Tony Award nominations, started in 1935 as the oldest child of divorced parents, poor and poorly educated. When singing lessons from her stepfather opened a new world, Andrews took her big voice on the vaudeville circuit.

At times embracing her success, and at others overwhelmed by the pressure of providing for her family, Andrews honestly and often humorously recounts the seminal moments of her early career. While still in her teens, she sang for royals, debuted on the London stage and made her way to America's Great White Way. She lived in cold-water flats and luxurious apartments, found an island hideaway and struggled to balance the demands of fame and her own desires for security and home.

Always considered a class act by fellow performers, Andrews demonstrates in her memoir just why she's a grand dame of the entertainment world. She surely knows many dark secrets about countless theater, music and film legends, yet chooses to share only the best sides of them, and herself, in Home. Her generous nature shines through every word.

Mary Poppins is the first movie Kelly Koepke remembers seeing.

Coming from anyone other than Julie Andrews, name-dropping would seem like bragging. Instead, Home: A Memoir of My Early Years simply offers the recollections of an extraordinary talent whose encounters with the theater and music glitterati of the 1940s, '50s and '60s shaped the formative years of her career. Andrews' writing is refreshing and authentic […]
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Here's a dilemma that more of us should face: Your wife gives birth to twins the same day you find out you've won a prestigious award. The prize is a year in Rome, a writing studio and apartment at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a bit of pocket change to keep you in diapers and gelato. Do you take the leap and drag your new babies across the globe, leaving your home and support system behind, for the chance to explore the Eternal City for a year?

Anthony Doerr, author of The Shell Collector and About Grace, answered a resounding yes, fully embracing all that this lucky year would bring. The result is Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World, a touching, funny and sometimes awe-inspiring reflection on what it is to be an American in Italy, a non-Catholic during the vigil of a dying pope and the celebration of a newly chosen one, and a new father of boys who change so quickly it seems to be magic.

Doerr doesn't get much writing done on his planned novel, as one would imagine, surrounded as he is by the intellectual treasures of more than 2,000 years. Instead, he reads Pliny's histories of the world, explores churches and piazzas and neighborhood bakeries, marvels at centuries-old architecture and artistic riches, and the simple joys of the smell of his twins' heads. At one point he forgets he's speaking Italian to the grocer, only to be reminded of his alien status when faced with an alarming medical emergency.

Part love letter to Rome, part fish-out-of-water tale, and so much more than a travelogue, Four Seasons in Rome chronicles the passage of a year one that alternately flies by and drags on with style, wonder and wide-eyed amazement.

Kelly Koepke is a freelance writer in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

 

Here's a dilemma that more of us should face: Your wife gives birth to twins the same day you find out you've won a prestigious award. The prize is a year in Rome, a writing studio and apartment at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a bit of pocket change to keep you […]
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Master of horror Stephen King returns on Sept. 24 with the release of From a Buick 8, a gather-round-the-campfire tale of a sinister car. This time King transports us far from Maine back to the rural Pennsylvania of 1979. Through a series of flashbacks, 18-year-old Ned Wilcox, struggling with his father's death, picks apart the tangled web of events surrounding the horrible accident that ripped the elder Wilcox from his family. First, Ned must discover the secret inside State Police Troop D's Shed B: a vintage Buick 8 Roadmaster. It seems the Buick's owner disappeared at a service station, leaving behind the unusual vehicle, a doorway between this world and another. Troop D decided it would be better if John Q. Public never learned about the car and what it can do. After all, the first trooper on the scene vanished the same day, just like the car's mysterious driver.

As in earlier books like Cujo, plot is the driving force in this novel. This is a mature King, though, who gathers the voices of several characters to move the story, providing depth and structure to the straightforward narrative. The men (and one woman) of Troop D spin their saga in round-robin fashion for Ned, whose father was one of the original officers to discover the Buick, and the one who took the fiercest interest in its origins. Underlying themes of loyalty and generational bonding mesh flawlessly with an eagle-eyed examination of police procedure and culture. All these elements lead ultimately to the book's central tenet: Life is full of occurrences that shape us in unimaginable ways.

In an author's note, King says he dreamed up this smoothly told tale while driving from western Pennsylvania to New York, shortly before his 1999 accident. His description of the eerie similarities between his own near-fatal misfortune and the plot of From a Buick 8 may well raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

Stephen King has scared Kelly Koepke since she was a teenager reading The Shining.

 

Master of horror Stephen King returns on Sept. 24 with the release of From a Buick 8, a gather-round-the-campfire tale of a sinister car. This time King transports us far from Maine back to the rural Pennsylvania of 1979. Through a series of flashbacks, 18-year-old Ned Wilcox, struggling with his father's death, picks apart the […]
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Suzanne Chazin, a member of the International Association of Arson Investigators, has unusual access to the inner workings of the New York City Fire Department. Her husband is a high-ranking chief and a 20-year veteran of the department, and her research includes interviews with many of its members. Flashover, her second electrifying thriller, is dedicated to the 343 members of the FDNY who died in the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

In this follow-up to her well-received debut effort, The Fourth Angel, Chazen continues the adventures of Fire Marshal Georgia Skeehan. This time she's investigating a series of deaths in fires that have reached flashover stage the overwhelming combustion of a room and its contents by simultaneous ignition. What she uncovers leads her into the inner politics and hazards of the fire and police departments. Georgia discovers frightening evidence of greed and deception that are the cause of these recent deaths and perhaps others to come. The trail of clues eventually leads to a blackmailer who wants to blow up an underground New York City gasoline pipeline.

Georgia's career and personal life collide when her best friend, a woman detective with the NYPD, disappears, and the man found in the woman's blood-spattered apartment is Georgia's boyfriend and fellow marshal, Mac Marenko. What keeps her going are her strong family ties to her mother and young son. Chazin's knowledge of pyrotechnics and the machinations of the agencies sworn to protect the public lend an air of authenticity to this fast-paced thriller. Deftly drawn, Flashover's believable characters drive the action to the very last page. But what really captures the reader's attention is the wealth of details about how fires wreak havoc and how they are investigated. The smallest piece of evidence spins a tale as intricately woven as any insect's web, and only the magic of science can unlock its secrets. Firefighting is one of the most frightening jobs imaginable, and the courage and talent of these brave folk are heroically outlined in the novel. Especially after September 11, this is fiction that rings true.

 

Kelly Koepke is a freelance writer and editor in Albuquerque.

Suzanne Chazin, a member of the International Association of Arson Investigators, has unusual access to the inner workings of the New York City Fire Department. Her husband is a high-ranking chief and a 20-year veteran of the department, and her research includes interviews with many of its members. Flashover, her second electrifying thriller, is dedicated […]
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Picture a gigantic, Florentine bed, carved with dolphins and sea creatures, and topped with a ruby red canopy, being carted around the streets of San Francisco in 1862 in defiance of a rich man's mistress. This is the scene that opens Portrait in Sepia, the latest from international best-selling author Isabel Allende, and it sets the stage for what is sure to be her next success.

Portrait continues the story of the del Valle family, whose characters and quirks are introduced in The House of the Spirits and revisited in Daughter of Fortune. This time the story is told from the point of view of Eliza Sommer's granddaughter, Aurora del Valle. The novel moves from San Francisco to Chile as Aurora discovers her Chinese, American and Chilean heritage and the traumatic event that brought her into her grandmother Paulina's care when she was five.

Memory, particularly the way it changes over time, is a common theme of exploration in many of Allende's works. Through oral storytelling, writing and photography, Allende's characters record the histories of their families in compelling ways. As Clara chronicles the mundane and unearthly happenings of one branch of the del Valles in The House of the Spirits, Aurora attempts, through her fascination with the new discovery of photography, to fix the events and people of hers. She hopes that her pictures will record life objectively, but finds that over time, perspective changes and clarity fades. She also discovers that each person sees something different in the same scene, just as each of her family members holds a different piece of the puzzle of her background. Wishing to fix her story in the "durable clarity of a platinum print," Aurora finds that "I live among diffuse shadings, veiled mysteries, uncertainties," much like the sepia tones of early photographs.

Peopled with extraordinary women, Portrait is an epic novel that traces the changes, tragedies and hopes at the end of the 19th century.

Allende has once again proven that the male-dominated province of Latin American literature has room for a strong female voice. Combining the details of everyday life with historical reality, she has produced another powerful novel with great heart.

 

Kelly Koepke writes from her home in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Picture a gigantic, Florentine bed, carved with dolphins and sea creatures, and topped with a ruby red canopy, being carted around the streets of San Francisco in 1862 in defiance of a rich man's mistress. This is the scene that opens Portrait in Sepia, the latest from international best-selling author Isabel Allende, and it sets […]

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