A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian – Marina Lewycka

Posted 17 March, 2009 by Trish in Reading Nook, Review / 27 Comments

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Title: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
Author: Marina Lewycka
Date Finished: March 14, 2009 #12
Published: 2005 Pages: 294
Rating: 4.5/5

I had heard good things about this book from Bethany and Corinne, but I didn’t expect to fall in love with the characters and story like I did. Isn’t that always a pleasant surprise? Plus, I just realized today that this is on the 1001 Books list! I’m on a roll so far this year!

“Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blond Ukrainian divorcee. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six” (1). Thus begins A Short History of Tractors. As Nadia, the narrator, and her older sister, Vera, begin to investigate their father’s new romance, they realize that Valentina, the Ukrainian tramp, is probably seeking marriage in order to obtain a UK visa. But their father is hell bent on marrying his little Ukrainian strumpet–the one with the marvelous chest. The story is a battle between logical reality and very illogical romance as the daughters watch their father’s situation go from bad to worse.

While the premise sounds amusing, A Short History is full of deceptively heavy themes. Lewycka tells an endearing story of two daughters trying to take care of their father, but the daughters themselves don’t get along. Nadia begins to discover that while she is a “Peacetime Baby,” her sister suffered much in labor camps as a “War Baby” after her parents fled Soviet controlled Ukraine and before they found refuge in the UK. Nadia and Vera have polar opposite views of immigration, social reform, feminine rights, marriage and divorce, education, post-colonialism, really anything where one can take a definite side. Nadia seeks to discover her heritage while Vera does everything in her power to keep the family history in the past.

Even while this slim novel surprisingly contains so much meat, it is Lewycka’s writing style that endeared me to the book. While the writing is in many ways simple and fluid, Lewycka also plays a great deal with the language, especially as Nadia’s father and Valentina are not native speakers of English. Nadia herself has such a personable voice that beckons the reader to take her side, to like her and trust her despite her continued impatience with her father and her continued disdain for Valentina. In a sense the writing is very intimate, like listening to a best friend’s narrative about her childish father.

I don’t think I’m doing this book justice. In a few words this book is funny and heartbreaking, endearing and thought-provoking. I’d definitely recommend A Short History, and while it didn’t take too terribly long to read, I’ll be remembering the characters for a time. This book is my first for the 2009 Orbis Terranum Challenge (Ukraine–although Lewycka was actually born in a refugee camp in Kiel, Germany).

**Also reviewed by Bethany ~ Corinne ~ Tricia ~ Hedgie ~ Trixie–if you’ve reviewed it too, let me know and I’ll include your link!

ORBIS TERRANUM CHALLENGE 2009
*The Inheritance of Loss – India
*Cry The Beloved Country – South Africa
*Doctor Zhivago – Russia
*Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian – Ukraine
*Suite Francaise – France
*Graceland – Nigeria
*The Horseman’s Graves – Canada
*Septembers of Shiraz – Iran
*Possession – UK

27 Responses to “A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian – Marina Lewycka”

  1. I am so glad you enjoyed this too! I really thought it was funny at times and deep and just really interesting too. Thanks for the great review, I love reading what you get out of books when I have read them too, it is fun remembering the characters and the plot of this one.

    Happy OT reading!!!

  2. I’m glad you enjoyed this book, Trish! I’ve this book in my pile but just haven’t got around to reading it yet, but I did read her other novel Strawberry Fields (aka Two Caravans) and it was great IMO.

    I’ll have to move this book up my pile! ;)

  3. Well, I don’t know if you did the book justice or not, but I can say that you definitely sold me on it! I’ve read other reviews of it and been slightly interested, but not even enough to write it down. Now I won’t just be writing it down, I know I’ll be picking it up! Thanks, Trish!

  4. I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed this one as it has been on my radar for awhile now. Plus if it is on the 1001 list then it will fit perfectly with my challenges that I am working on. Great review!

  5. *Bethany – Thanks for the great suggestion! I always love reading other’s reviews of books that I’ve read as well. This was a great start to the OT challenge!

    *Melody – I remember seeing your review of Strawberry Fields and thinking it sounded good as well. I’ll have to look around for a copy of that one.

    *Tricia – I’m curious about the abuse that you’re referring to–the way that Nadia and Vera talk to/treat their father or how Valentina treats him (which was awful!)? The daughters definitely don’t have the type of respect that I would expect daughters to have for their elderly father. I think if some of this hadn’t been treated with a measure of jest and humor it would have bothered me more as well.

    *Debi – It’s a really interesting book–both in terms of the history it gives and the familial relationships. I hope you enjoy it!

    *Sam – I actually had no idea this was on the 1001 list–and if it hadn’t been one of the more recent selections (near the top of the list), I probably would have missed it. Hope you like it.

  6. I’ve heard of this book before, but had no idea what it was about and from the title, it didn’t sound all that interesting. Bad title, haha. But, we tend to have similar tastes, so I might need to check this out.

    On another note, I see you’ll be reading Dr. Zhivago? Good luck. I hated that book. We read it in our book club last year and I don’t think anyone liked it. Most people didn’t even get through it.

  7. I read and briefly reviewed it as part of my personal January Firsts reading and loved it. The interplay between the comic plotline and the serious — even grim — history of life in the Ukraine during the first half of the 20th century gave the book a considerable depth that appealed very strongly to me. I’m glad you enjoyed it, as well.

  8. The first time I heard about this book it was because it was nominated for one of the worst title of the year awards–or something like that. I have been really curious about it since then just the same. I’m glad to hear you liked it so much, Trish. I hope to read this one day too. Great review, by the way!

  9. Being Ukrainian myself-the title caught my attention-lol. I’ve had this one on my wishlist since I saw a review of it quite a while ago. Sadly, I’ve not picked it up yet. Sounds like I should.

  10. Now here’s a book I’ve been meaning to read ever since it came out. I always had the impression it was something I’d really enjoy, and I can’t even remember how I got that impression originally. Of course, high expectations can be dangerous, but judging by your review I think I’ll really enjoy it indeed!

  11. *Amanda – Oh no–don’t tell me that about Dr. Zhivago! Yes, this one has a very strange title–not very appealing at all. It refers to a piece the narrator’s father is writing about the history of tractors (go figure).

    *Hedgie – My knowledge of Ukrainian and even Russian history after the revolution is pretty limited, so this was a great enlightener. Like I said–pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed this book!

    *Literary Feline – It is an awful title! But I thought it was a great book–hope you like it, too.

    *Michelle – I’m intimidated by all Russian literature, but I’ve got a couple tomes on the shelf and thought I’d start with Dr. Zhivago. Now I’m scared to death!! :P

    *Dar – I didn’t know that you come from Ukrainian stock! :) You should check this one out–I’d be curious to hear what you think!

    *Nymeth – I hadn’t heard of it until recently, and if I hadn’t found it on a bargain table I probably wouldn’t have picked it up so soon. I hope you like it–and I know what you mean about high expectations. I think you’d find it enjoyable at the very least.

  12. Trish, Sounds like a very interesting book. I was at a loss as to which book to read for my OT challenge next. This sounds like a great choice.. will add it to my list.

  13. *Joy – Well, the title itself made me reluctant to pick it up, but in the end I enjoyed it. I hope you like it–I’ll be curious of what you think!

    *Goms – I learned a lot from this book about Ukraine and the Soviet Union during WWII! I hope you like it!

    *Heather – Enjoy! It’s a fun read but also gives a lot to ponder.

    *Bermuda – Fun that your sister has a wishlist! Do you guys share a lot of book ideas? I hope you like this one.

  14. Sounds like a lot is going on, but I enjoy books that include quite a bit of humor among serious topics. I always enjoy reading/talking about sister relationships…maybe because I have 2! :)

    Several of the books on your challenge list are books that I own and plan to read as well! Yay…more books to talk about!

  15. *Laura – Does that mean that you’re going to join this challenge with me? Muh hahahaha! :) Ok, I won’t try to tempt you with those devilish things any more. I think you’d like this book for the most part. The sister portion was interesting because it was narrated by the younger sister–I kept thinking about how my relationship with Kim paralleled. Oh, and imagine a book where people talk like Alex. :)

  16. You know, you can always change to a different Russian book if you’d like. ;) Of course, I can’t really recommend any yet. I haven’t liked a lot of what I’ve read. I’ll be reading Fathers and Sons by Turgenov in the next month or so, and hopefully will get to One Day in the LIfe of Ivan Denisovich this year, too. My husband says that last one is really good.

  17. *Amanda – Well, if I can help it, I want to read a book I already have on the shelf. And Zhivago sounds a little more appealing that 800 page Brothers Karamazov, or The Death of Ivan Lynch, or Crime and Punishment–not sure why I collect these Russian tomes! :) We’ll see how it goes. If badly, then I’ll search for something else–I can always swap out for another country as well.

    *Trixie – Sorry I missed your link! It’s up with the others now. :)

  18. I read this one too a while back, but I must say I didn’t care for it. I just felt that it tried to do too many things at the same time and didn’t quite succeed at any of them.

    Thanks for your review!! It’s always interewting when someone had a completely different experience of a book than you did! :)

    /Eva – fellow OT-er

  19. *Eva – I’m sorry this one didn’t do it for you. I think I can see where you are coming from, but for me the pieces all fit together well. I actually think it would have worked even better if the book was a little longer.

  20. I’ve heard of this book and knew that it was pretty well liked by book critics but did not know much about the story or plot. It sounds really interesting and I am going to have to go ahead and add it to my list. Thanks for the review.

  21. *Jeanette – So far this is one of my favorite reads of the year. It was an enjoyable read but also insightful. I hope you like it!