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I picked up Marina Lewycka's "A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian" almost by accident. The title attracted my attention so I picked it up and began reading. After reading the first three sentences, I was sold. They are: "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. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, bringing to the surface sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside." The concern I have with books that begin so well is the difficulty the remainder has in living up to such promise. I am happy to report that Ukrainian Tractors lived up to the promise of its opening paragraph.
The opening sentences sum up the story. Nikolai, his wife and two children Vera and Nadezhda (Nadia) were Ukrainian refugees who, at the conclusion of the Second World War make their way to Peterborough. Vera,born before the war, has memories of the family's travails in German work camps. She is the "war baby." Vera is the basic domineering know-it-all older sister. Nadia is the peace baby, a liberal sociology lecturer with a penchant for buying her clothes used at the local Oxfam. Nadia and Vera have not talked since their mother's funeral. Nikolai picks up he phone one day and announces to Nadia that he is about to take a new bride. Valentina is a young, buxom bottle-blonde Ukrainian whose U.K. residency visa is about to expire. As expected, Vera and Nadia call a truce in order to prevent the marriage and protect their father from a fate they consider worse than death. Nikolai, of course, cannot help but contemplate blissful evenings in the warm embrace of his well-endowed faux-blonde soon to be illegal alien while he writes his book, a history of the tractor, the farm implement that changed the world.
Valentina makes for a worthy adversary and seems to best Vera and Nadia every step of the way. The comedy of the book turns a bit dark, however, as Nikolai's age and infirmities facilitate Valentina's increasing dominance over him. Her mental and physical abuse of Nikolai becomes apparent. At the same time, Lewycka takes us on a trip through the family's past. In the meantime, family ghosts and secrets begin to emerge. Root causes of the family's deep-rooted antagonism begin to reveal themselves as the story progresses. Events race on to a not altogether surprising conclusion.
I very much enjoyed "A Short History of tractors In Ukrainian". I was impressed by the manner in which Lewycka fleshed out the characters. Anyone who has been responsible for the care and feeding of an aging parent or grandparent will recognize Nikolai. One's pride is the last thing to go sometimes and when we see events beat the pride out of our loved ones we can almost see them shrink before our eyes. The two sisters also had a strong air of reality about them. I've seen each type in real life and I think Lewycka captures their essences well. Last but not least we have the Ukrainian bombshell, Valentina. By the end of the book I had no small amount of sympathy for Valentina. I could admire her work effort and her desire to make a better life for herself and her son despite her poor treatment of Nikolai. This is no easy task for a writer to accomplish. At the same time, her grasping nature, her dolled-up appearance, and her belief that ready-made food products were the western equivalent of high cuisine were downright hilarious at times.
The book is not without some minor flaws. Some of the subsidiary characters, Nadia's husband for example, seem a bit lifeless compared to Valentina and Nikolai. However, those relatively minor flaws were swept up in a story that was both charming and thoughtful.
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on 30 April 2006
Although not an all out comedy by any means, I found the story to be frequently laugh out-loud funny. There is an insightful, quietly snide tone to much of the conversations (of which there are many), which I found a joy. I would dip into this book each day on the way into work, and it was much like sitting near a gossipy pair of female friends, moaning and cursing over an idiot friend. A guilty pleasure to eavesdrop in on the latest happenings.

A very easy, comfortable book to read - the review elsewhere that suggests this book may lead to outbreaks of racial violence is frankly ludicrous, utterly ridiculous on every level - I would recommend this to anyone who can appreciate real-life farce. The occasional paragraph or two on tractors seems to have no real relation to the story, but does make for interesting, nicely bemusing shadowing to the main story.

The only flaw I have to mention is that the story is rather anti-climactic, and seems to run out of steam at some point towards the end. Until then however I had a most joyful experience reading this.
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on 18 April 2006
The deceptively light tone has baffled some reviewers into believing this is not a good book, but if you look at what it actually tells you about the famine and war in Ukraine, you'll find the whole of human tragedy is there. If you prefer to feel like you're reading an annotated text book then perhaps this is not for you. This is how Eastern Europeans deal with the deep betrayals they have dealt with in living memory - cry about it, laugh about it, grow some vegetables and get on with it. This, I assume, is why the author has chosen to deal with the topic in this faux-comic way. It's a lovely, touching read with well-realised characters.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 29 December 2006
This book has won an award for comic fiction; but, richly comic though the writing is, the story is for the most part essentially a tragic one. I am reminded of Horace Walpole's dictum, `This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.' Nikolai, an 84-year old Ukrainian-born widower who has lived in England since 1946 as an escapee from Stalinist Russia, marries a much more recent immigrant from the now independent Ukraine: Valentina, 36 years old, who is here on a visitor's visa and marries him only to be allowed permanent residence and to gain access to his money and his house. She exploits and bullies the poor and near senile old man mercilessly. His two daughters, Vera and Nadia, are outraged. They have fought with each other all their lives, and they still do; but they make common cause to try to rescue their father and what might be left of their inheritance. In the course of the story we are given glimpses of the history of Ukraine, the terrible sufferings of the civil war, the terror and the famine of the Stalin years, the Second World War, a labour camp; also of the development of tractors - those symbols of the collective farms, of which the old man, a former engineer, is writing a history. Towards the end, the book becomes a near farce, and then modulates into a happier ending than we had any reason to expect. We are even allowed for a moment to see the monstrous gold-digger as herself a victim, too. The descriptions of the individuals and the relationships between them is excellent, the somewhat fractured English spoken by the old man and the even more primitive but expressive mauling of it by Valentina is spot-on. A memorable book.
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I ended up with mixed feelings on this one, despite enjoying it immensely at times. Firstly let me say it is very easy to read. The pace is good and the idea excellent. The problem is that as you approach the end of the book you sense a disappointment is coming - almost as if the author has run out of ideas and the whole thing just fizzles out.

The result is you feel let down and much of what has gone before suddenly seems irrelevant.

The book tells the story of an Octogenerian Ukrainian refugee living in Peterborough. He has two very different daughters and suddenly a voluptuous Ukrainian wife who is obviously out to bleed him dry. His daughters soon cotton on to this as "pappa" suffers abuse at the hands of Miss Voluptuous and her "genius" son who turns out to be a little short in the genius stakes.

There is plenty of pathos in the book and some deliciously funny sections which is quite a triumph from a plot that could have been very dark indeed. Some of the observations are very sharp and within the framework of the family relationships is exposed a wartime story of the correction camps and the family's otherwise hidden background.

Sadly there are no surprises and the ending is hugely disappointing. Problem is as the book unfolds you begin to feel that this will be the case and when it did all tail off I wasn't that surprised. Worth a read though.
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on 13 September 2006
This is an intriguing book with bizarre episodes of black comedy, strong characterisation and an untold story lying behind the central family. Review by members of the Northamptonshire based book club - Food, Ladies and Books (FLAB)

Nikolai is the person whom the story revolves around, a pathetic and lonely elderly man who keeps himself sane by writing a history of tractors. Passages from his writing outline how although tractors were peaceful machines, they were turned into tanks at one point in their history, and from there evolved again into useful peaceful machinery. In some ways, it was felt his relationship with the younger daughter echoes this as we learn that throughout their life their relationship was at first peaceful, then torrid as Nadia became independent and political, and then in her adulthood they relent to a peaceful relationship.

Having said that this book is anything but peaceful. The arrival of synthetic, materialistic, powerful but strangely likeable Valentina rocks the family boat and creates comedic scenes where the women grapple for Nikolai's future and wellbeing, sometimes quite literally. Valentina somehow, despite being trashy and demanding, gets many men falling in love with her and indeed creates harmony between the two warring sisters as they unite for their Father's cause - so her appearance isn't all bad.

The men in the book are in contrast to the fiery women we come across - Nadia's husband Mike is patient, supportive and helps distract Nikolai by his interest in engineering. Indeed Nikolai relates to men mainly through engineering - Valentina's other husband and he bond over working on a car and there are strong beliefs that engineering is the foundation of society.

Members of the group were intrigued about Nikolai and Vera's past life in the Ukraine in war time. Whereas Nadia idealises her past, as the book goes on the real story is alluded to - the family had a horrendous ordeal in war time, and one book club member thought that Nadia may even be Vera's daughter as a result of a rape in the war time camp. The differing childhood experiences the sisters had is perhaps why they have a rocky relationship. Nadia is the peacetime baby and has the luxury of idealism, leading to her liberal views. However her views are turned on their head as she wars against Valentina's abuse of her father, becoming the 'ship them home' type of person she always abhorred. Vera in contrast is unhappy, insecure, and punishes Nadia perhaps through jealousy of the childhood she never had. Towards the end however, the sisters are united and take on aspects of each others character to find a happy medium. The end of the book is quite hopeful as the drama subsides, Nikolai's future is secured and the sisters are on a new footing.

This is a bizarre tragi-comedy and some comments from members were that it was "bittersweet", "touching" and "gritty". There were differing views on how much people actually enjoyed reading it but we were unanimous in having learnt something about tractors!!
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on 27 May 2006
This book is a quirky tale of a feisty and disjointed family. It has wildy comic moments and also very sobering educational glimpses into the histories of the characters, and a historical background into Ukrainian 20th century history (which I knew little about prior to reading this).

I enjoyed this book as it doesn't try to be anything grandiose, yet it is moving and also very funny - moments with the family that all of us can relate to in some way. The father is infuriating and selfish much of the time. However, I often felt sorry for him throughout the story as he is so blind to the deceptions and reality of the predicaments that he gets himself into.

I usually go for much grittier stories which are often harder to get to grips with and sometimes, try as I might, I just don't always "get it"! I was pleased to discover that this book was much more impressive than I expected and I enjoyed every page - Its a real page turner!
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on 22 August 2006
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It was recommended to me by my mother who recognised her 93-year-old father's loneliness in that of Nicolai (my grandmother died two years ago just like Nicolai's wife). Although I have no relation to the Ukraine, I can relate to the characters and the situations - do we not all have a "Mrs Flog 'em and send 'em home" hidden away inside of us? Have we not seen families fall out over inheritances and bequests or a widowed father or mother wanting to marry someone their children find totally unsuitable? I find it hard to understand the negative reviews I have read. Perhaps this is because I missed out on all the hype so had no expectations, and could just sit down and enjoy the book for what it is.
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on 5 May 2006
The gimmicky title and the good reviews were the reasons that I decided to read this book, and I was surprised by what I found. At its heart, this book is about: the struggle to find your place within your family; how much our family history affects and influences us in the present and how you can begin to doubt your political opinions when they become issues in your own life. I wouldn't have said that this book was 'laugh out loud funny', although it did raise a wry smile every now and then. And it did make me reflect on my own family history and the issues of immigration raised within the book. Overall, this is no literary masterpiece, but it's a pleasant commuter read.
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on 9 April 2006
Don't think one of the previous reviewers quite got the point of this book. I think anyone wanting an in depth history of tractors or the history of the Ukraine will probably look elsewhere.
I read this around the swimming pool one day and it kept making me laugh. Towards the end it changes to a slightly more serious story but finishes with a very touching life affirming note.
Buy it yourself and you decide.
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