Photo: A protester reads a book as he guards one of the barricades on Kiev’s Independence Square in December. Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images.
The situation in Ukraine is worsening. Police have violently cracked down on anti-government protesters, and demonstrations have spread to new cities.
At NPR Books, we often look at news through a literary lens. With Kiev in the headlines, our thoughts turned to illuminating reads about or from Ukraine — books to help make sense of the foreign dispatches.
I highly recommend Andrey Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin, a mordantly funny novel about a pet penguin, the mafia and some suspicious obituaries. It’s a delightful read that also sheds a grim light on the kind of venality that helped inspire the current protests. As critic John Powers says, “Kurkov reveals a level of casual corruption so profound that ordinary people, just trying to get by, can’t avoid being sucked into the muck.”
Annalisa Quinn, our book news maven, also points to “Deadlock in Ukraine,” an essay Kurkov just wrote for English PEN. It’s an interesting take on what’s happening, why — and what’s next. (Hint: He’s not optimistic).
Petra remembers reading Odessa back when author Charles King was interviewed on Weekend All Things Considered. (The interview is fascinating, ranging from Catherine the Great to Battleship Potemkin to Brighton Beach). She says the book was engrossing, and terribly sad in its descriptions of the destruction of Jewish communities. Notably, Odessa is one of the cities in southern Ukraine that’s just broken out in new protests. 
British author Marina Lewycka wrote about Ukraine’s political past in the comic best-seller A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. Back in 2005 she told Morning Edition, “Ukraine is a country of very warm-hearted, generous people who still live close to the land and who sing and who dance — all of that is true. But what’s also true is that hunger, poverty, hardship and, I suppose, a new kind of criminality that’s been unleashed in the Ukraine have brought another side of people to the surface.”
And finally, a bit of poetry — which, in the Ukraine, is wildly popular. (Side note: Somebody please translate more of Andrij Ljubka's poems for me!) Here's a lovely meditation on history and inheritance from the renowned Serhiy Zhadan:

The overburdened heart of the epoch bursts every morning,but not behind these doors, not in cities burnt by the sun.Time passes, but it passes so near that if youlook closely, you can see its heavy warp,and you whisper overheard sentencesand want someone someday to recognize your voice and say – this is how the era began,this is how it turned – awkward, heavy like a munitions truck,leaving behind dead planets and burnt-out transmitters,scattering wild ducks in the pond,that fly off and call louderthan the truckers,god,barges.
From “History of Culture at the Turn of the Century,” by Serhiy Zhadan‎. Translated by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps. Full poem.

What books would you recommend on or from Ukraine?

Photo: A protester reads a book as he guards one of the barricades on Kiev’s Independence Square in December. Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images.

The situation in Ukraine is worsening. Police have violently cracked down on anti-government protesters, and demonstrations have spread to new cities.

At NPR Books, we often look at news through a literary lens. With Kiev in the headlines, our thoughts turned to illuminating reads about or from Ukraine — books to help make sense of the foreign dispatches.

  • I highly recommend Andrey Kurkov’s Death and the Penguina mordantly funny novel about a pet penguin, the mafia and some suspicious obituaries. It’s a delightful read that also sheds a grim light on the kind of venality that helped inspire the current protests. As critic John Powers says, “Kurkov reveals a level of casual corruption so profound that ordinary people, just trying to get by, can’t avoid being sucked into the muck.”
  • Annalisa Quinn, our book news maven, also points to “Deadlock in Ukraine,” an essay Kurkov just wrote for English PEN. It’s an interesting take on what’s happening, why — and what’s next. (Hint: He’s not optimistic).
  • Petra remembers reading Odessa back when author Charles King was interviewed on Weekend All Things Considered. (The interview is fascinating, ranging from Catherine the Great to Battleship Potemkin to Brighton Beach). She says the book was engrossing, and terribly sad in its descriptions of the destruction of Jewish communities. Notably, Odessa is one of the cities in southern Ukraine that’s just broken out in new protests. 
  • British author Marina Lewycka wrote about Ukraine’s political past in the comic best-seller A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. Back in 2005 she told Morning Edition, Ukraine is a country of very warm-hearted, generous people who still live close to the land and who sing and who dance — all of that is true. But what’s also true is that hunger, poverty, hardship and, I suppose, a new kind of criminality that’s been unleashed in the Ukraine have brought another side of people to the surface.”
  • And finally, a bit of poetry — which, in the Ukraine, is wildly popular. (Side note: Somebody please translate more of Andrij Ljubka's poems for me!) Here's a lovely meditation on history and inheritance from the renowned Serhiy Zhadan:

The overburdened heart of the epoch bursts every morning,
but not behind these doors, not in cities burnt by the sun.
Time passes, but it passes so near that if you
look closely, you can see its heavy warp,
and you whisper overheard sentences
and want someone someday to recognize your voice and say –
this is how the era began,
this is how it turned – awkward, heavy like a munitions truck,
leaving behind dead planets and burnt-out transmitters,
scattering wild ducks in the pond,
that fly off and call louder
than the truckers,
god,
barges.

From “History of Culture at the Turn of the Century,” by Serhiy Zhadan‎. Translated by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps. Full poem.

What books would you recommend on or from Ukraine?

Notes

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    My god it looks like Les Miserables.
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