Skylar Burris's Reviews > A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka
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Mar 27, 2010

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bookshelves: humor

This book was very easy to read, generally entertaining, and occasionally funny (in the dark comedy sense). The narration was a bit off (it’s supposed to be first person, but the narrator sometimes seems randomly omniscient, claiming to know the feelings and thoughts of third parties). The plot and characters were thoroughly unbelievable; none of the characters were sympathetic, and the author kept interrupting the dialogue with parentheses to show how individual words were pronounced (look how they said it in their funny Ukrainian accent!).

Aside from offering an intriguing title, I didn’t understand the point of the short history of tractors in Ukrainian, which was being written by the father and was inserted throughout the story in italics. I kept expecting some profound connection to the human condition to come from the history. Instead, it felt as tedious as the shipbuilding textbook portions of Moby Dick, so I eventually started skimming anything in italics.

One thing that bothered me was the sudden insertion of the author’s political views into dialogue. At least, I think it was the author’s views. At times, it was hard for me to tell whether the author was satirizing socialism or promoting it. There was one scene when I thought: “Ah, what a clever commentary on the difference between socialists and conservatives: the daughter whose memory focuses on receiving money from a stranger grows up to be a socialist, while the daughter whose memory focuses on the stranger herself, a fur-coat-cloaked woman who actually made enough of herself to be able to afford to have money to spare, grows up to be a conservative. How subtle, showing how conservatism really leads to helping the poor more than socialism does…” But then later the author is inserting a treatise on how horrible capitalism has been for the Ukraine and how beautiful Swedish-style socialism is into the mouth of one of the characters. To make this insertion even more cumbersome, the speech is put into the mouth of a character who speaks only Ukrainian, and so it must be translated into English by the narrator, whose Ukrainian has apparently improved since earlier in the book when her Ukrainian supposedly wasn’t good enough for her to understand the same man.

So I guess I misread the author’s intention in that passage about the fur-coated, money-giving lady, and I also guess the narrator (Nadia) is not supposed to be perceived as an absolute stereotype of a naïve liberal (which is the flimsy way her character appeared to me; I could not imagine she was meant to be taken seriously). Perhaps Nadia was meant to be viewed as an optimistic and impassioned woman whose hope can change the world. Or something like that. Either the author is masterfully and intentionally ambiguous, or she’s just not very good at conveying her ideology. I’m guessing it’s the latter. Or is it? Surely we can’t be meant to take seriously a narrator who says things like: “Father is in love with both of them:” (i.e. the crazy, big-chested, a-third- his-age Ukrainian woman he marries and her first husband) “he is in love with the life-beat of love itself. I can understand the fascination, because I share it, too.” (Where’s my spoon when I really need to gag myself?) Vera wasn’t likeable, but she was the only character who made sense to me, that is, the only one who was moderately believable.

The book was a good enough read with which to pass the time, and I don’t regret entertaining myself with it. And I WAS entertained, all of these criticisms notwithstanding. Yet I can’t imagine why it should be thought worthy of any literary prize. I suppose it’s meant to be a reflection on grand themes, such as growing old, or how history haunts us, or reconciliation, or redemption, or the evils of capitalism, or some such…but it’s really more like watching that Michael Douglas / Kathleen Turner 80’s movie The War of the Roses. It would have been better, I think, if the author had aimed for a straight up dark comedy and had not attempted to insert any pretentions of depth. Still, any book I can read in three days without getting bored is well worth three stars. There must have been SOMETHING about it that grabbed and held my attention. I regret I can’t pinpoint what that something was…but there was something.

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Reading Progress

March 27, 2010 – Shelved
March 27, 2010 –
page 100
April 1, 2010 – Started Reading
April 3, 2010 – Shelved as: humor
April 3, 2010 – Finished Reading

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