Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide
1. In the two stories that make up "Le Jardin de la Sexualité," Ken Kalfus imagines Paris -- through the eyes of a virginal, culturally prejudiced Irish au pair -- as a city buzzing with a powerful undercurrent of lust and frank sexuality. Throughout "Bouquet" and "Thirst," chart the progress of Nula's relationship with Henri, the young Moroccan student. What images and metaphors does the author use to illustrate his vision of Paris?
2. In what ways do the characters and events in "Bouquet" and "Thirst" underscore and inform the following pairs of words: innocence and experience; West and East; science and sex; sublimation and desire; thirst and satisfaction.
3. "The Joy and Melancholy Baseball Trivia Quiz" delivers a fantastical, alternate history of our national pastime that's as dark and tragic as it is playful, comic, and absurd. What do each of these detailed recollections have in common with each other? Consider the narrator's simultaneously poignant and detached play-by-play regarding the foul-hitting champion's at-bat: "Each memory is telescoped inside another, as all would be at the end of life and, if the world of living things is lucky, as our lives would be left to us in death: remembering remembering remembering, and so on."
4. Describe the tone of "Cats in Space." What is the attitude of the narrator, whose adult job "sometimes requires brutality, in a quiet, nine-to-five way?"
5. How does the author choose to resolve Harrah's "severe sleep disorder" in "Night and Day You Are the One?"
6. What kind of a person is Tom, the protagonist in "Rope Bridge?" At one point, Lucy says that love is "the most ephemeral thing in the world. In the end, it diminishes into just another responsibility." How do the events in "Rope Bridge" support, refute, or qualify her lament?
7. For "No Grace on the Road," discuss the nature and complexities of the narrator's ambivalence regarding his heritage, his American wife, and the effects that French colonialism appear to have had on his native culture. Does the narrator have a true home? Consider how the narrator juxtaposes two explanations for why monsoons occur -- one a detached Western account grounded in science, the other an ancient Eastern myth full of wonder and allegory. Why does the author do this?
8. Contrast the significance and potential after-effects of the sex act that occurs at the climax of "Rope Bridge" with the sex act at the conclusion of "No Grace on the Road."
9. In "Suit," why do you suppose the author chooses to reveal so slowly and deliberately the whole situation that has led up to the characters' shopping expedition? Discuss the techniques Kalfus uses in doing this. Have you ever read any similarly structured stories?
10. In "A Line Is a Series of Points," how does the author's economy of language serve this story's tone and theme? Why has the author chosen not to tell us the nationality of the refugees?
11. What is the meaning of home in this collection? Compare the protagonist in "A Line Is a Series of Points" with those in "Among the Bulgarians" and "No Grace on the Road."
12. The fourteen stories in Thirst comprise a wide range of styles, emotions, and geographies. What themes does it consider? When you read it, what surprised you the most? Can you compare Kalfus to other writers? Whom? Which stories do you think are the most effective? Why?
Q. Each story in Thirst is stylistically distinct. How do you set out creating the language or the voice in which you tell your stories?
A. In some of these stories, like "The Joy and Melancholy Baseball Trivia Quiz," the narrative strategy came to me before the story itself; for example, I wanted to write a short story in the form of a trivia quiz. The narrative style is the story, and that's true to some extent for even more conventionally told narratives. Many writers have discovered that how you tell a story -- its voice and point of view -- determines its effect much more than the plot does.
Q. Tell us about your travels, where you've lived, and how these experiences might have influenced your writing.
A. I've been lucky to live abroad a bit, in Paris, Dublin, Belgrade and Moscow, and have done some traveling, and all that finds itself in what I write but always a bit refracted. Years ago I worked as a babysitter in Paris, between stints as an investment banker and brain surgeon. I recall visiting a museum like the one described in "Le Jardin de la Sexualité," but, alas, have never been able to find it again.
Q. Your stories are full of magic, absurdity, innovative structure, darkness, and major leaps of imagination. Are you going to stick to the short story form, or can we look forward to a novel?
A. The short story form invites playfulness; the novel naturally allows for more character depth and complication. My new book, "PU-239 and Other Russian Fantasies," includes several longer stories and a short novel, and I hope maintains that element of play. I'm working on a full length novel now.