Book Birthdays celebrate one year of a books life in tweets, reviews, and more. This month we’re saying Happy First Book Birthday to From Chernobyl with Love (Potomac Books, 2019) by Katya Cengel.
About the Book:
In the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the late twentieth century was a time of unprecedented hope for democracy and freedom in Eastern Europe. The collapse of the Soviet Union left in its wake a number of independent countries where the Scorpions’ 1990 pop ballad “Wind of Change” became a rallying cry. Communist propaganda was finally being displaced by Western ideals of a free press.
Less than two decades ago, young writers, journalists, and adventurers such as Katya Cengel flocked from the West eastward to cities like Prague and Budapest, seeking out terra nova. Despite the region’s appeal, neither Kyiv in the Ukraine nor Riga in Latvia was the type of place you would expect to find a twenty-two-year-old Californian just out of college. Kyiv was too close to Moscow. Riga was too small to matter—and too cold. But Cengel ended up living and working in both. This book is her remarkable story.
Cengel first took a job at the Baltic Times just seven years after Latvia regained its independence. The idea of a free press in the Eastern Bloc was still so promising that she ultimately moved to the Ukraine. From there Cengel made several trips to Chernobyl, site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster. It was at Chernobyl that she met her fiancé, but as she fell in love, the Ukraine collapsed into what would become the Orange Revolution, bringing it to the brink of political disintegration and civil war. Ultimately, this fall of idealism in the East underscores Cengel’s own loss of innocence. From Chernobyl with Love is an indelible portrait of this historical epoch and a memoir of the highest order.
2019 Foreword INDIES Award, Gold for Autobiography & Memoir
Bronze Medal winner in the Independent Book Publishers Awards
“Cengel ably captures a complicated region in which citizens make do with few resources, where phones are tapped and many workers aren’t paid, and where the people encountered sometimes seek bribes, are pessimistic, or are drunk. Cengel’s language is precise, and her historical context invites readers in, regardless of their knowledge of former USSR countries. Big risks and moments of gravity make From Chernobyl with Love both human and heroic—a satisfying and gutsy memoir.”—Foreword Review
“The author has a fine eye for the details of newsroom politics back when newspapers were read and newsrooms were packed with offbeat characters. Sometimes gonzo, sometimes hard-charging—a welcome report from the front lines in a time of torment and hope.”—Kirkus Reviews
A virtual book presentation by the Ukrainian Institute of America NYC
Interview with UA in Focus
On the Blog:
- Katya Cengel at Home: On Writing and Her Dog, Pip
- Recent Award Winners and Finalists
- University Press Week: Building Community with Katya Cengel
- From the Desk of Katya Cengel: Timing is Everything
- The Marketeers Club: Best of 2019
A Word from the Author:
To describe the year since From Chernobyl with Love debuted, I need to start with a television miniseries and end with an election. In between I suppose I have to mention a pandemic.
Technically the HBO miniseries “Chernobyl” came out a season before my book—but it won seven Emmys close to when From Chernobyl with Love was making its way to bookstores. The miniseries starring Emily Watson dramatizes the 1986 nuclear plant disaster. My memoir picks up the story about a decade and a half later, when the last working reactor at Chernobyl was turned off. The buzz around the television show helped me land coverage in Literary Hub and The Rumpus. I also had a few early signings in the San Francisco Bay Area at Books Inc. in Berkeley (the same day From Chernobyl with Love was named a Foreword Reviews Book of the Day) and Bookmine in Napa.
It was at an event at Loyalty Books in Washington D.C. in January—put on with the International Women’s Media Foundation and the Society to Protect Journalists—that COVID-19 came up. That is when I first heard that Chinese journalists were comparing how the Soviet government silenced the Chernobyl disaster with how their own government was dealing with COVID-19. The pandemic, which had made so much irrelevant, had made my book relevant.
Of course, it also meant most of my spring signings were cancelled or moved online. People were dealing with far worse fates. Amidst the global health crisis, the success of my book seemed unimportant, so it came as a happy surprise when From Chernobyl with Love won both a Foreword INDIES award and an Independent Publisher Book Award.
As the pandemic appeared to be winding down this fall, politics took over and readers wondered if I saw parallels between the corruption and chaos of post-soviet life and what was happening in the U.S. There were other links, including allegations surrounding former Vice President Joe Biden’s involvement in Ukraine.
At times it has been hard to keep up with the news cycle—but somehow From Chernobyl with Love has. I only hope the next connection will be a happier one.