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About The Book

National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree and author of Such Good Work Johannes Lichtman returns with a novel that is strikingly relevant to our times—about an American who takes a job in Ukraine in 2018, only to find that his struggle to understand the customs and culture is eclipsed by a romantic entanglement with deadly consequences.

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 still grieving his father’s death, 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 not to get romantically involved while abroad, he can’t help but be increasingly drawn to one of his colleagues.

Most distressing, however, is the fact that John can hear, through their shared wall, his neighbor beating his wife. Desperate to help, John offers the neighbor 100,000 hryvnias to stop. It’s a plan born out of the best intentions, but one that has disastrous repercussions that no amount of money or altruism can solve.

“[A] biting comedy” (Vanity Fair) that calls to mind Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You, Calling Ukraine reimagines the American-abroad novel. Moving effortlessly between the comic and the tragic, Johannes Lichtman deploys his signature wry humor and startling moral insight to illuminate the inevitable complexities of doing right by others.

Reading Group Guide

Introduction

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.

About The Author

Photo by Mikael Lundblad

Johannes Lichtman’s debut novel,?Such Good Work, was chosen as a?5 Under 35 honoree by the National Book Foundation.?His work has appeared in?Tin House,?The Sun,?Travel + Leisure,?Los Angeles Review of Books,?Oxford American, and elsewhere.?He lives in Washington, DC. 

Product Details

  • Publisher: S&S/Marysue Rucci Books (April 11, 2023)
  • Length: 240 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982156817

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Raves and Reviews

“Lichtman’s light touch is a welcome reminder of the humor and wit that, as he points out in a preface written after Russia’s invasion last year, pervades Ukrainian culture even now.”
—New York Times Book Review

"[A] biting comedy."
—Vanity Fair

"Sardonic, twisty... the novel makes sharp points about mutual understanding between US residents and people living in countries of the former Soviet bloc."
—Booklist

"Slyly cerebral... Through it all, Lichtman returns to the novel’s locus: an exploration of language, how our limits of expression—linguistically and emotionally—likewise limit our ability to fully know others, and the tragic ways we constantly talk past each other. As he balances these myriad thematic threads with a complete mastery of tone, Lichtman never gives into messages of either misery or contentment, instead asserting their ever-presence in our lives and particular symbiosis. A playful, incisive, and deeply human novel of cultural and personal disconnect."
—Library Journal

No good deed goes unpunished in this madcap dark comedy... Lichtman delivers a perfect send-up of the American abroad... This is devlish and energizing."
—Publisher's Weekly

"A stylish and often surprising American-expatriate novel for the not-quite-post-colonial age—and a portrait of Ukraine in the run-up to Russia's 2022 assault... Perhaps most impressive is Lichtman's high-wire act of tone... A sometimes rollicking, sometimes tragedy-tinged novel about a not-so-innocent abroad."
—Kirkus (Starred Review)

"A book full of unexpected laughter, strangeness and delight, plus one of the most demented workplace tragicomedies ever written."
—Gary Shteyngart, author of Our Country Friends

"In his masterful second novel, Johannes Lichtman digs down into the wonders and banal horrors of what it means to be 'free'--as a well-meaning, semi-clueless American man abroad, or as a Ukrainian woman trapped in a cycle of domestic abuse. Although written before the current Russian invasion, every situation feels freighted with the country's past and future. Slim and subtle and sharply observed, this novel gripped me from its opening pages to its chilling denouement.
—Laura Sims, author of Looker

"Lichtman’s delightful, gripping novel offers screwball banter, a send-up of American start-up culture, an expat romance with a dark Hitchockian left turn, a hero who, despite chronically second-guessing himself, has a knack for saying the wrong thing, and the perception-enhancing defamiliarization that only happens when an innocent with fine antennae ventures abroad—in this case, to Ukraine, a country whose tensions are deftly shown by Lichtman to be crucial to our political moment."
—Caleb Crain, author of Overthrow

"Johannes Lichtman's great subject is morally compromised idealism, and he brings to it an electric intelligence and an allergy to ready-made judgments. Calling Ukraine is the funniest tragedy I've ever read, or maybe the saddest comedy; it's also a merciless dissection of American moral vanity. Lichtman's brilliance lies in showing how all our categories—for books, for people--are inadequate. He's one of the most exciting novelists working today."
—Garth Greenwell, author of Cleanness and What Belongs to You

PRAISE FOR SUCH GOOD WORK

“Lichtman [is] a remarkable thinker and social satirist…Such Good Work introduces a writer who is willing to openly contradict himself, to stand corrected, to honor both men and women, to ask sincere questions and let them ring unanswered.” —THE NEW YORK TIMES

“Lichtman's low-key treatment of two highly charged subjects is refreshing.”—KIRKUS REVIEWS

“[An] excellent and timely debut. Lichtman expertly infuses his multicontinental narrative with humor and humanity…[Jonas'] heartfelt actions stick with the reader in this winning novel.”—PUBLISHERS WEEKLY

Such Good Work is...wary of affectation or grandstanding; it works small, as if from a sense of modesty, a reluctance to presume; it cuts sincerity with the driest of humor.”—THE NEW YORKER

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