Monday, September 13, 2010

Daphne Kalotay ~ Guest Post

A Rediscovered Pleasure: Reading by Flashlight

Yesterday, after rain and heavy wind, the power went out.

I was alone in the house in the Berkshires, a post-and-beam structure tucked into the woods off of a dirt road, far enough up the hill that you can’t see more than trees from the house. The driveway is a long curving gravelly one that winds up, up, past an open grassy patch where deer like to range, to a smaller hill where the bright abundance of my mother’s garden bursts with summer colors. Birdfeeders, hanging from the trees, teem with goldfinches, grosbeaks, titmice. Even when clouds came in yesterday evening, and the rains started, and the wind made the leafy treetops sound like engines roaring, the finches remained contentedly at the thistle feeder, swinging wildly, like trapeze artists.

Inside the house, I turned on the radio to give me a sense of company. Rain pinged against the windows as the sky grew dark. And then, with little sense of drama, there was a small click, and the electricity went out.

I found a flashlight, lit some votives, and contemplated what to do. My computer wouldn’t work, nor would the telephone, and since there is no cellular reception in the area, I couldn’t reach the power company. I’d planned on getting work done after dinner: answering email, editing my writing, returning calls. But without electricity or the computer, none of that was possible.

And so there came the wonderful realization: I could read!

Of course I read, often; reading is a fundamental part of my existence. But always it is accompanied by awareness of the things I should be doing: online tasks, or cooking or cleaning, or some other work or errand. Rarely do I feel the sense of complete release I recall from my youth, no responsibilities, just losing myself in a book.

With relish, I took up the memoir I’d begun earlier: Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home, one of the most powerful books I’ve read in a long time. Though the story is heartbreaking, I felt something close to glee at the thought that, without electrical power, I had no other activity to distract me from its pages. Lying on the sofa, I used my flashlight to find the page where I’d left off. I tried to prop the light on my shoulder so I could hold the book with both hands, but that didn’t quite work. Instead I went back and forth, turning a page, taking the flashlight up in my right hand, and following the words with my mini-searchlight.

The last time I read by flashlight I was a child, back when my sister and I used to climb up into the crawl space in the wall of our basement, pretending it was a secret hideaway. We would bring books and snacks and read by flashlight until the dust and mold had us wheezing.

Now, lying on the couch alone in the dark, for the first time in decades I had that same sense of contented secrecy, of literary companionship, hiding out in the dark with a wonderful book. With only the pages illuminated, the real, physical world remained in the shadows, obscured, not even a visual reminder of the concrete realities of life. Spotlight on page after page, I read Caldwell’s gorgeous, painful memoir and cried in the dark. And when the electricity finally came back, at 11:30 pm, I was grateful not only for the sense of convenience and safety that returned with it, but also for what the weather and darkness had given me: the purity of that nearly forgotten pleasure, a small beam of light on a good book.

About the author ~ 

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 and will be published by Harper Collins in September. 

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Russian Winter: A Novel 

A mysterious jewel holds the key to a life-changing secret, in this breathtaking tale of love and art, betrayal and redemption. 
When she decides to auction her remarkable jewelry collection, Nina Revskaya, once a great star of the Bolshoi Ballet, believes she has finally drawn a curtain on her past. Instead, the former ballerina finds herself overwhelmed by memories of her homeland and of the events, both glorious and heartbreaking, that changed the course of her life half a century ago.

It was in Russia that she discovered the magic of the theater; that she fell in love with the poet Viktor Elsin; that she and her dearest companions—Gersh, a brilliant composer, and the exquisite Vera, Nina’s closest friend—became victims of Stalinist aggression. And it was in Russia that a terrible discovery incited a deadly act of betrayal—and an ingenious escape that led Nina to the West and eventually to Boston.

Nina has kept her secrets for half a lifetime. But two people will not let the past rest: Drew Brooks, an inquisitive young associate at a Boston auction house, and Grigori Solodin, a professor of Russian who believes that a unique set of jewels may hold the key to his own ambiguous past. Together these unlikely partners begin to unravel a mystery surrounding a love letter, a poem, and a necklace of unknown provenance, setting in motion a series of revelations that will have life-altering consequences for them all.

Early praise for Russian Winter ~ 

 "Kalotay makes a powerful debut.... [An] entrancing story thanks to a skillful depiction of artistic life behind the Iron Curtain and intriguing glimpses into auction house operations." —PUBLISHERS WEEKLY

"Tender, passionate, and moving, Daphne Kalotay's lovely debut novel about ballet, jewels, love and betrayal is also a delicious form of time travel, transporting the reader between the shabby, scary glamour of Iron Curtain Russia and modern-day Boston. I loved being int he intricately connected worlds of Russian Winter, and I was sad to leave them when the book was over. —Jenna Blum, award-winning author of Those Who Save Us and The Stormchasers

"A sweeping transgenerational novel... Kalotay develops a neat narrative of deception and betrayal that takes in great strands of literary and political history. ...[A] complex story that, in the end, boils down to the simplest of elements: love, fear, disappointment and loss. An auspicious first novel, elegantly written and without a false note." —KIRKUS REVIEW (starred)