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Book Box | World Book Day: Literature from Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and India

Hey readers,

Returning to Mumbai, my first outing is to a renovated book store. The Crossword flagship store on Peddar road is a beautiful space, full of light, with high ceilings, lots of sitting space, and a coffee shop you can take your books up to. And with this Saturday being World Book Day, what better place to spend it in than a bookstore!

Today is World Book Day. 

And what better way to celebrate World Book Day than to read books in different languages and genres, to understand the world through some of its greatest minds.

For this weekend, with the Ukraine war showing few signs of ending, here are four books from that part of the world, to give you an understanding into this continuing conflict — a memoir, a book of oral histories in translation, and two novels, one in English and one translated from Ukrainian.

Must-reads: Book 1 of 4

Red Notice
Red Notice

Red Notice is a mesmerising story — Russia vs the West. In this true-life tale, an American-born British fund manager sets up shop in Russia. The socialist State has splintered, State assets are for sale, and often, for dirt cheap. There are millions to be made by the few foreigners like him who dare to venture into this lawless land. Of course, it’s too good to last, and soon enough, our fund manager gets into conflict with the Russian oligarchs. And then with the biggest of them all — Vladimir Putin. Red Notice is a great audiobook too.

Zinky Boys.
Zinky Boys.

If ever there was a potent plea for peace, this book is it. Nobel prize-winning Svetlana Alexeivich is known for the raw power of her oral histories, from Second Hand Time to Chernobyl Prayer, and Zinky Boys is as hard-hitting as the others. The book’s title comes from the zinc coffins that contain dead boys who have been sent to fight a faraway war. Every third line cries out to be shared with the world:

“I saw how a man could become nothing, literally nothing, as though he’d never been. When that happened they put empty full-dress uniforms in the coffin, and threw in a few spadefuls of Afghan earth to make up the weight…

“We’d throw captured weapons in a great pile: American, Pakistani, Soviet, English, all intended to be used to kill us, and so many more.

Must-reads: Book 3 of 4

Road trips make for good reading, and more so when they feature a crusty Ukrainian beekeeper and his bees. Grey Bees by Ukrainian writer Andre Kurkov follows Sergey Sergeyich who finds himself left behind with one other inhabitant. His village in the Donbas has become no man’s land in the Russian Ukrainian skirmishes of 2014. But when his beloved bees are threatened he takes a trip to safety through Crimea encountering various characters along the way. This novella captures moods and landscapes beautifully, it is meditative and thought-provoking.

Must-reads: Book 4 of 4

City of Thieves. 
City of Thieves. 

A young boy finds himself alone in war-torn Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. It’s freezing and the city is starving even as the Germans relentlessly advance. David Benioff who is best known as co-creator and writer of Game of Thrones, explores the grim reality of war in the stirring City of Thieves. These are the horrors of war even young children must face. And for a population, fears of invasion embed themselves in a collective unconscious.

After all this poignancy and pain, we recommend an absorbing antidote – a book about breathing. The prose flows, the research is riveting and oh so lightly carried. Breath by James Nestor is a delight to read.

Breath. 
Breath. 

The action in the book moves from Stanford to Stockholm to Greece and other interesting locations. It brings in Tibetan Buddhist rituals, Indian pranayam yoga, Olympic coaches and runners, and research and experiments from doctors and scientists. There’s lots of practical advice here as well, from deep breathing exercises to humming your favourite song five minutes every day. All in all the perfect book to draw inspiration from.

Closer home, India’s most talked-about book these days is Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand. The story of an 80-year-old Indian woman who travels to Pakistan to confront past traumas, it is the first Hindi book to be nominated for the International Booker prize 2022 long list. Next week we promise to have an opinion for you – on whether the book is worth the Booker brouhaha, whether to pick up the just-off-the-press paperback or simply feel good that a Hindi translation has got some Western recognition.

And finally the opening lines from another Nobel prizewinner – the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska in The End and the Beginning. The whole poem can be read on the excellent Poetry Foundation site

“After every war,

someone has to clean up.

Things won’t

straighten themselves up, after all.

Someone has to push the rubble

to the sides of the road.”

Until next week then, happy reading!

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a book subscription service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places

The views expressed are personal

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