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Magwitch

A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian - First Impressions

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I thought I'd continue the tradition of a 'first impressions' thread for the book group choice. :)

I haven't started reading Tractors yet (copy just arrived yesterday) but my very first impression is what a wonderful book jacket.
I know some people may find it a bit gimmicky but I just love it. It is a perfect imitation of a typical Soviet book cover, right down to the colour of the ink and the slightly squint graphic. Having spent a lot of time in Soviet Russia in the early 80's I was immediately transported back there as soon as I saw it.
Off to actually read it now....

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I'm not quite sure about this book. The potential is there for a very interesting and powerful story. There are various strong threads ready to be woven together (examining your own life and family relationships after the death of a parent, the desperate and brutal history of Ukraine told through the father's manuscript on tractors, the strange bureaucratic world of immigration, to name a few) but it just doesn't seem to be working. It just seems to be sinking under a burden of superficiality and forced humour. I feel like I'm being led round in circles by someone rather irritating who has no idea where they're going or why.

 

One thing I just read is really annoying me: the father uses the word 'chic' and we are told that he pronounces it "in the French way, 'sheek' " because apparently he fancies himself as a francophone.

Excuse me, but is there any other way to pronouce it? Chick? Cheek? Goodness sake. It might sound petty but I find this sort of sloppiness intensely annoying.

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It can be pronounced shik, which is close to sheek but different. Not having read the book I can say no more...........

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It can be pronounced shik, which is close to sheek but different. Not having read the book I can say no more...........

OK, fair enough! Come to think of it, maybe I have heard it pronounced 'shick' so my last comment should be scrapped.

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I agree that the humour is rather laboured but I enjoyed this book. I liked the developing relationship between the sisters and their peculiar concern for their father. This is a book which doesn't easily fit any particular category partly because its diversity makes it hard to analyse. Also it covers a huge range of emotion and experience from the horror of the father's wartime ordeal hiding in a grave to the eccentricity of his apple hoarding, the irritating pathos of Valentina's predicament to the uniting love of the dead mother. I think Marina Lewycka had enough material for more than one book but the characters and situations have stayed with me since I read it some weeks ago.

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I got more out of the second half of the book, definitely. Some of the strands started to come together a bit more and, like you BrumB, I've found the characters still with me a week later.

I'm not sure I agree though that there was enough material for more than one book. I think there was a lot of space wasted on the unnecessary humour (the situations were funny enough without labouring the point) and the repetition in the first half of the book. Repetition in the sense of constantly returning to the same scene/theme/relationship when it had already been well established. But I did enjoy the subtlety of Valentina's character.

Although, I have to say, I felt quite dissatisfied afterwards. I think it might be because the narrator's stance throughout was too distant, too British, if that makes sense. I didn't like the sort of wry, bemused 'aren't these foreigners funny' attitude that seemed to be lurking around the pages. It just seemed to diminish the more interesting aspects.

But then on the other hand, it wasn't meant to be a pathos-filled story about hardship and suffering and heroism. It was about the grubby survival of ordinary people.

 

I think I might have to read it again! So it will definitely stay on my bookshelf - a good sign, for me anyway. :)

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I've just finished reading the book and, I have to say, I think it's excellent. In some ways, it reminds me of my reaction to 'White Teeth' and the fact that the ending is so life-affirming and positive (very like the ending of 'White Teeth, I would argue). It lacks the breadth of 'White Teeth', but where Smith wanted to range over several characters in her world, Lewycka focuses more closely on a smaller family circle (although both books see global implications within this) and I think does so very successfully.

 

I love the way that Lewycka portrays the changes in Eastern Europe through the different generations and cleverly interweaves so much political discussion. Like 'White Teeth', it balances very serious themes (in both cases using examples from the Second World War) with a humorous and compassionate view of human nature. No-one - even the awful Valentina - is written off, even though I do agree that she is more of a caricature than a complex character, but I think that reflects the limited first person narrative perspective that the novel uses - the narrator never really gets to know her properly and can only respond in this way. I also like the way the narrator is so candid about her prejudices and creates humour from the fact that her consciously chosen liberal beliefs are gradually eroded through this experience.

 

The portrayal of the father is extremely poignant. Oddly, I was expecting him to die and so the ending - with its celebration of life through the yoga movement Salutation to the Sun - surprised and pleased me. I think the fact that he never gives up and that the novel ends with this old man performing a movement designed to welcome the new day is incredibly invigorating, a hallmark of all good comedy. For me, this makes the novel a comedy in the true sense - not just creating humour, but an absolute affirmation of our engagement with life. Perhaps metaphorically this represents the struggles of the Ukraine to survive too and an optimistic belief that the country, also, will outlive its oppressors.

 

So, yes, perhaps some weaknesses - Dubov is incredibly devoted and it is hard to imagine any man being so happy to care for the product of his wife's infidelities (but isn't it great to imagine a world where this is possible?) But overall I think this well deserves the accolades it has received.

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I finished reading this last night, and I really enjoyed this book. It has raised my interest in finding out more about the Ukraine for one thing.

 

I liked how the sisters' relationship was gradually getting stronger through the book, united in their struggles with Valentina. I wish that there had been more information passed on from Vera about their life before they came to Britain, but I suppose that the story was showing how hard it had been for them to come to terms with it all. I suppose it was showing as well that perhaps as the sisters' relationship would become stronger, maybe Vera would tell more.

 

At times I felt very sad for their father and the situation he had got himself into, but the ending was much more upbeat than I expected it to be. I thought he would either die, or may have even gone back to the Ukraine with Valentina and Dubov.

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You could try 'Borderland: A Journey Through the History of the Ukraine'

- by Anna Reid.

 

I bought it because my husband's grandfather came originally from that area, emigrating to the UK at the end of the 19th century.

 

It's not a particularly exciting read, and to be quite frank, I found it a bit depressing. The history of the Ukraine is not a happy one in any era!

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Thanks for the suggestion Megustaleer. I think the small amount of Ukrainian history that came through in this book, shows that it hasn't been a very happy place to live for a long time. Maybe I will have a look at that book one day when I am feeling extra extra happy and don't mind being totally depressed.

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