Thursday, September 9, 2010

Book Club Exchange: Daphne Kalotay

A few days ago, I read RUSSIAN WINTER by Daphne Kalotay. I absolutely loved this book and it will definitely be on my favorite list for 2010!  I can't wait to share my thoughts with you! In the meantime, I am so excited to welcome Ms. Kalotay to Book Club Exchange. I just love her essay about her book clubs and I'm pretty sure you will too!

For a time, I was a member of three different book groups. I was proud of this; when people asked if I—a writer—belonged to a book club, I could answer, “I’m in three” and see a reaction of surprise (though really, I soon realized, there are lots of people who belong to multiple groups.)

Starting about a year ago, though, I had to admit that I was attending just two of those clubs; for some reason (I seemed always to be out of town or have a conflict) I kept missing the third one. It took a bit longer for me to realize that in fact I was avoiding it.

Before I continue this story I should give you some background. I’m a fiction writer who also has a PhD. in literature, so I’ve spent much of my life reading and discussing books with others. I never felt the need to join a club, per se. But then, years ago, at a wedding, I happened to be sitting with friends of the bride who were in a book club for which they were reading Far From the Madding Crowd. When I mentioned that I loved Thomas Hardy, they said why not come to the meeting? I did, and I’ve been part of this group—a small but committed one—ever since. We read everything: classics, biographies, contemporary fiction, fiction in translation. It’s thanks to this group that I first learned what a wonderful experience a book club can be.

Around the same time, some university friends--mostly professors--decided to start a club of their own. I joined that too and, as with the first group, found myself enjoying books I might not have picked up on my own: Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness; Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook; Robert Graves’ I, Claudius.

Then, at a university function a few years ago, I found myself chatting with the woman seated next to me. When she learned that I was a writer, she told me about her book club. The topic, she explained, was Holocaust literature.

My father is a Holocaust survivor. Telling this to my new acquaintance, it occurred to me that I tend to avoid most books or movies on this topic. Sure, there was a period in my early teens when I read anything morbid, including plenty of Holocaust and WWII novels. But since then I’ve avoided the subject.

In fact, it struck me that I’d set my novel Russian Winter, about artists persevering under communism, in postwar Moscow, a place absolutely foreign to me, rather than culling my own family’s material. I’d taken what I knew of my father’s life in Hungary—the hardships he and my grandmother faced before, during and after WWII—and transferred it to fictional characters in another setting. I’d taken what I knew of my grandmother’s suffering under the increasingly harsh measures against Jews in the 1930s and '40s and transferred it to my fictional character Gersh, the Jewish composer who, in my novel, bears the brunt of Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaign.

Talk about avoidance.

And so I decided to join the Holocaust book group. We read mainly nonfiction, though occasionally a novel made the cut. Each book was a history lesson, and for a while I read voraciously. But then I began to find myself “too busy.” I borrowed the books from the library and returned them unread. Next I was travelling, and had taken a new job. I told the group that I would rejoin when my schedule opened up.

But I haven't gone back. And it’s only as I write this that I realize why. The subject matter is something I can take only occasionally. Perhaps I’m still avoiding it. Perhaps I’ll eventually return to the group.

Or perhaps I’ll write about it myself one day.

Daphne Kalotay grew up in New Jersey and graduated from Vassar College before moving to Massachusetts to attend Boston University's Creative Writing Program. There her stories went on to win the school's Florence Engel Randall Fiction Prize and a Transatlantic Review Award from The Henfield Foundation. She remained at BU to complete a PhD in Modern and Contemporary Literature, writing her doctoral dissertation on the works of Mavis Gallant. (Her interviews with Mavis Gallant can be read in The Paris Review's Writers-At-Work series.) Daphne has received fellowships from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, the La Napoule Foundation, Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and is a grateful recipient of the W.K. Rose Fellowship in the Creative Arts from Vassar College. She has taught creative writing at Boston University, Middlebury College and Skidmore College and lives in Brookline, Massachusetts. Her first novel, RUSSIAN WINTER, was a finalist in the James Jones First Novel competition.

I am so grateful to Ms. Kalotay for writing this wonderful guest post about her experiences with her book clubs. If you are interested in participating in a future Book Club Exchange, please contact me at bookingmama(at)gmail(dot)com.

Make sure you stop by tomorrow because I will be raving about reviewing this wonderful novel and giving away a copy to one lucky reader! Check out these other tour stops:

Book Reviews  - Review and Interview 8/30/10
Book Loons  - Giveaway 9/2/10
Bookin' With Bingo  - Review & Giveaway 9/2/10
She Is Too Fond of Books - Review and Spotlight on Bookstores 9/2/10
Lisa's Other Bookshelf -  Review 9/5/10
Bookin' With Bingo -  Interview 9/6/10
S. Krishna's Books -  Review & Giveaway 9/7/10
Book Club Girl -  Review 9/7/10
Beth Fish Reads - Review 9/8/10
Reading Group Guides - Guest Post 9/8/10
Reading the Past -Review 9/9/10
Sophisticated Dorkiness - Review 9/12/10
Lori's Reading Corner - Review 9/13/10
Living Read Girl - Review 9/14/10


blog said...

Well, this certainly piqued my interest. I'll have to go read some of the reviews of her book!

blog said...

Well, this certainly piqued my interest. I'll have to go read some of the reviews of her book!

bermudaonion said...

I can certainly understand her reluctance to read Holocaust books on a regular basis - I'm not sure I could handle that either.

I had no idea that Russian Winter is her debut novel - after all the raves I've seen on Twitter, I just assumed she was a veteran author. I can't wait to read the book!

Sandy Nawrot said...

I'm really excited to read this book. I love anything that takes place during that time period. I can completely understand her issue with belonging to a Holocaust book club. I am pretty obsessive over WWII books, but can only take them for so long. They tend to wear down your heart.

Donna said...

This title has caught my eye on several occasions. I am sorry about the author's reluctance to participate in the Holocaust bookclub. It's quite understandable. I'm looking forward to reading your review.

Sheila Deeth said...

Fascinating post, and it sounds like a fascinating book too. Lovely insight into writers, writing, reading, book groups... I only belong to one, so far.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

What a wonderful, personal essay! I can understand why the author would want to limit her intake of Holocaust non-fiction; any difficult subject can be hard to absorb in large doses (probably more so when there's a personal connection).

Loved, loved, loved RUSSIAN WINTER! You are entitled to rave about it, Julie. :)