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Shortly after his thirtieth birthday, John Turner receives a call from an old college friend who makes him an odd job offer: move to Ukraine to teach customer service agents at a start-up how to sound American. John’s never been to Ukraine, doesn’t speak Ukrainian, and is supposed to be a journalist, not a consultant. But having just gone through a breakup and the death of his father, it might just be the new start he’s been looking for.
In Ukraine, John understands very little—the language and social customs are impenetrable to him. At work, his employees are fluent in English but have difficulty grasping the concept of “small talk.” And although he told himself he would not get romantically involved while abroad, he can’t help but be drawn to one of his colleagues.
Most distressing, however, is that John can hear, through their shared wall, his neighbor beating his wife. Desperate to help, John decides to offer the neighbor 100,000 hryvnias to stop. It’s a plan born out the best intentions, but one that has disastrous repercussions that no amount of money or altruism can resolve.
National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree Johannes Lichtman returns with a novel that is strikingly relevant to our times. Moving effortlessly between the comic and the tragic, Lichtman deploys his signature wry humor and startling moral acuity to illuminate the inevitable complexities of doing right by others. Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Discuss the representation of culture shock in Calling Ukraine
. Which characters experience it? We know John Turner does but do any of his Ukrainian colleagues?
2. The intersection of cultures features prominently in Calling Ukraine
. We see it when John narrates his experience of culture shock, but we also notice it when he describes people’s fashions, the architecture of Kyiv and Lutsk, the food he eats, and so on. Track and make a list of the different instances of cultural intersection in this book, and discuss their significance—whether political, economic, or aesthetic.
3. Is John a reliable narrator? If yes, what makes him reliable? If not, why not? In your discussion, consider not just his interactions with his colleagues, but also his interior thoughts. Does he lie to himself? How would you describe his interiority to another reader?
4. John is a flawed character with privileges his colleagues don’t have access to. Does this make him more accessible to you as a reader? More human? Or do you find that his flaws make him unlikable?
5. As he spends more time in Ukraine, how do John’s view of the world and his place in it evolve? Consider the unique position he’s placed in as an “outsider” in Lutsk. What revelations—about the community he’s in and about himself—become available to him because of where he is?
6. Compare John’s method of teaching his colleagues conversational English and his predecessor Oksana’s method of teaching them English via literal translation. If Oksana already works at the call center, why do you think John was hired? Thinking about it differently: What can be lost when a language is directly (and literally) translated? What can be gained?
7. The act of communication plays a key role in Calling Ukraine
. John teaches it relatively effectively at the call center, but he often struggles with it himself. Why do you think this is the case? What barriers—either cultural or linguistic—cause him to fail at communicating his emotions to his friends and colleagues? How does he get around these barriers?
8. Compare and contrast John’s relationship with the different women in Calling Ukraine
(Maureen, Natalie, Oksana, and so on). How do they evolve over the course of the novel?
9. Moments of humor are sprinkled throughout this novel, which at times also engages with dark themes and topics. What do you think is the function of humor in a “serious” narrative? Did its inclusion make for an easier reading experience?
10. What did you know about Ukraine before reading this novel, and how did your knowledge of the country expand? Do you think your understanding of Ukraine as it appears in this book is skewed by its current prominence in world events? Enhance Your Book Club
1. Imagine if Calling Ukraine
were narrated from the perspective of one of John’s colleagues at the call center. How would the story be different if it were filtered through Oksana or Natalie’s point of view? How would the book change—in plot and sensibility—if it were told through the perspective of a character native to Lutsk?
2. Consider a place that you have visited in the past that you consider yourself to be an “outsider” to. What do you understand now about that place that you didn’t before?
3. If you were given the same assignment as John Turner—teaching English to foreigners—how would you approach it? Discuss your ideas with your reading group.