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Old 23rd Mar 2005, 10:46   #1
John Self
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Default Marina Lewycka: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

I chose this splendidly offputtingly-titled book as part of a Waterstone's 3-for-2 offer, which - as the others were Auster's Oracle Night and Levy's Fruit of the Lemon - is fast on its way to being the best 3-for-2 I've ever chosen.* I picked it up because of the title - the publishers must have confidence in it to let the author handicap it so - and because it had been chosen as one of the BBC's new Page Turners, their equivalent of the Richard & Judy Book Club. The Page Turners manifesto requires that their selections should conform to three criteria: unputdownable, accessible and distinctive. Well now: that could easily apply to the Da Vinci Code, in some senses - but pleasingly, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian satisfied the criteria only in good ways.

Broadly speaking, it's a comedy. The narrator, Nadia, was born (like Lewycka herself) to Ukrainian parents who were fleeing to England as refugees at the end of the second world war. Now a middle-aged university lecturer in Britain (like Lewycka), married with one daughter (er, like Lewycka: is this the Andrea Levy school of memoir-as-fiction? Who cares if it's that good?), she is horrified to find her 84-year-old, recently widowed father is planning to remarry: a 36-year-old Ukrainian.

Quote:
Her name is Valentina, he tells me. But she is more like Venus. 'Botticelli's Venus rising from the waves. Golden hair. Charming eyes. Superior breasts. When you see her you will understand.'
Nadia teams up with her estranged sister to prevent this marriage of convenience (Pappa likes the 36-year-old's Botticellian breasts; she likes his money and British passport), and there is much farcical to-ing and fro-ing with a full complement of private detectives, shady foreigners, seedy hotels and undetermined paternity. Looking at the structure of the words on the pages, it seems at first glance that the book has been written for - or by - someone with Attention Deficit Disorder: lots of line breaks, much dialogue, hardly two solid paragraphs of prose without a scene change. But it works, enabling Nadia to interrupt her narrative with her own responses, and to keep the genuinely page-turning pace going. I polished off its 320 pages in just over a day.

Among the light pleasures are more serious considerations, with room for reflection on immigration, the wartime history of Eastern Europe, abuse of the elderly (Lewycka is an expert on gerontology, and if you Amazon for her you'll see a host of books she's written for Age Concern banner as well as this novel), and of course the history of tractors in Ukraine. Of this last, I was particularly interested to hear about Harry Ferguson, a Belfast man who developed an early tractor with Henry Ford and was the first man in the British Isles to fly his own plane - and who features on the front of the Northern Bank £20 note, and whom I have never known anything about until now.



(Hell, that 'Specimen' isn't really required to stop us all copying it, since they've changed the colour since the record-breaking award-winning bank raid in December, though the design remains the same.)

So: amusing, cheerful, full of colour and outsized green silk bras. Just what you'd expect from a book about tractors in Ukrainian.

---

*The worst 3-for-2 I've ever chosen, minutiae fans, comprised Richard Powers's The Time of Our Singing, Kingsley Amis's The Old Devils and Max Barry's Jennifer Government, all of which were such stinkers I didn't finish any of them.
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Old 18th Apr 2005, 18:14   #2
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A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian has been shortlisted for the Orange Prize.
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Old 7th Jun 2005, 8:09   #3
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And it has won the Wodehouse Prize!
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Old 26th Sep 2005, 16:26   #4
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Thumbs up A Short History of Tractors in UKrainian by Marina Lewycka

Was this book on the long list for the Booker by any chance ? Seems to me I saw a review of this novel on some award site ? But then I am poking around book sites so often I could just be confused.

Has anyone else read this ? Did I miss a thread ?

I found it to be an odd book but I really enjoyed it. I love to read something in which the author uses a sense of humor and I appreciated Lewycka's .

After I finished the book and had thought about it for a while, I realized that there was a lot more to this novel than the story line. Lewycka's knowledge in regards to the elderly ,her underlying opinions of technology and politics are all wrapped up in a story about one family and their somewhat twisted dynamics.

After all of the "heavy" reading I've done this year, it was so nice to read a story that actually made me feel good.

I'd give this book 4 1/2 stars !!!



Maggie ( who is hoping that the little icon is a "thumbs up" and not "whipping the bird" )
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Old 26th Sep 2005, 16:31   #5
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Default Re: A Short History of Tractors in UKrainian by Marina Lewycka

Yes Maggie, I read it and liked it a lot too. I will try to merge this thread with the existing one, so fingers crossed (is there an icon for that??)...

EDIT: Done!

The book also recently won the SAGA Award for Wit, worth a cool £20,000.
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Old 26th Sep 2005, 23:41   #6
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Default Re: Marina Lewycka: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

Thanks John. I figured someone had to have read this. Really good stuff !



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Old 21st Jan 2006, 22:23   #7
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Default Re: Marina Lewycka: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

I'm surprised there hasn't been more chat about this so for what they're worth, here's a few random mumblings I jotted down about this comfy cardigan of a novel-ette.

Perhaps the title would be more accurate as "A Ukranian family history with some tractors". This only provides the setting though, the backdrop against which the scene is set and which ties together the successive chapters of this endearing and honest story. The single perspective narration from the non-central character of the youngest daughter (even though she's 47) gives the charming innocence to the telling. We get her view of events and are left to easily infer the facts of the matter.
The tone and flavour are rounded off by the beautifully simple conversion of the Ukranian-English on to the page, so we can read the characters to ourself as they say "Vat, Vat, why you meanie, why you buy crap car". Even better than this though is the typography of the telephone dialogue. Each round of conversation is followed by alternate text in brackests giving the real (if conflicting) meaning behind the spoken words. It's a nice touch and gives an added dimension of humanity to the sisters' discourse.

Ultimately, this is entirely a tale of family bonds and the complexity of such intimate relations as events intervene through time. The roles played by the participants shift on demand of necessity as births, marriages and deaths shatter the whole, only for it to be rebuilt in a new form each time. The players may not be happy with their parts, but family is family and they'd better just get on with the game.

Lastly, the physical attributes of the printing and binding add to the simple honesty of this very quick read. The cover is faux cardboard with the title graphics skewed like a hastily applied label on a box of tractor parts. The paper is thick, the type large and spaced with the margins wide. Perfect material for winter's afternoon fireside reading.
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Old 5th Mar 2006, 15:34   #8
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Thumbs up Re: Marina Lewycka: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

Having read this a while ago, I have finally got round to searching out the Palimp thread about this.

This was recommended to me a little while ago, when I commented I was having trouble settling to read anything - and I am very grateful, as I don't think I would have read it otherwise (I have a bad track record with award winning books - although, coincidentally, the only other award winner I have read recently and liked also dealt with the elderly, and in both cases I didn't know it was an award winner until 'too late').

I am in agreement with the rest of the comments on this, espceially with John's comments on the interestingness of the tractor history.

What I most loved was how funny it was, without seeming like it was trying to be a comedy. Just the everyday funniness of family life, with the added funniness of cultural disconnection - something which also makes Anita and Me so funny - and in both cases it is the desire to integrate that causes the most humour.

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Old 6th Sep 2006, 8:57   #9
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Default Re: Marina Lewycka: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

I'm 119 pages in and I'm wondering if I'm reading the same book as everyone else. Apart from a line about 'superior Botticellian breasts' on page 3, which made me laugh out loud, I am baffled as to what all the reviewers found "uproariously funny", "hillarious" or prizeworthy. Frankly I'm finding it very - boring. Am I just not getting it? or does it get better in the second half? Should I just give up on it?
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Old 6th Sep 2006, 9:27   #10
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Default Re: Marina Lewycka: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

The plot develops a bit more interestingly but the writing doesn't get any better. I think my copy's destined for carbootdom.
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