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Book 36: Ukraine (English) – A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Marina LEWYCKA)

I thought you might be interested in a list of my favourite discoveries from my reading challenge so far, things that I hope you will enjoy as much as I did without the efffort of having to read the whole world to discover them.
I mostly haven’t included the great classics here (such as To Kill a Mockingbird) since so many people are already familiar with them. One exception I’ll mention is Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky. I was expecting it to be as frosty and difficult to get through as a Russian winter, but instead found its relatively light style and quirky viewpoint delightful (despite the morbid subject matter).
Maaza Mengiste’s devastating Ethiopian novel Beneath the Lion’s Gaze was another unpleasant subject but a searing indictment of dictatorship and military rule.
Pamuk’s Snow was such a brilliant portrayal of Turkey’s travails at the faultline between Asia and Europe that I want to read all his works.
Please Look After Mother (or Mom, if you have a US edition) by Shin Kyung-Sook really touched my heart.
I think my biggest personal discovery so far is the Albanian Ismail Kadare (post still to come) – I definitely want to read him out!
But one of my favourites – and certainly the funniest so far – is Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.

 

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Marina LEWYCKA)

“Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcée. 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 a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.”

Reviewers often claim that a book is “laugh-out-loud funny”. I don’t know if there’s something wrong with me, but I never find myself laughing out loud. But this one (along with Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books) is the exception. It is the hilarious story of a zany, dysfunctional English Ukrainian family. The eccentric father falls for a gold-digging vampish younger woman (Valentina) from Ukraine, and his two very different sibling-rivalry-smitten daughters alternate between trying to save him from himself and pecking at each other. The “eighty-four-year-old teenager” is happiest living in his own private world, “furrowing up trails of gleaming brown ideas” (take that, Chomsky!), and when his real soul-mate turns up (also from Ukraine), it turns out to be platonic (for it is a ((slightly younger)) man who is also under the spell of Valentina) but similarly obsessed with engineering inventions.
And yes, you will learn all you need to know about the history of tractors (don’t worry, it’s not very much!)
I love the Communist-style cardboard cover design of this edition! and also the wonderfully quirky title, which manages to be both pseudo-boring and intriguing at the same time. I don’t think you will forget the wonderful, quirky characters in this novel. And it’s very, very funny. This is one that I can’t recommend too highly.

 

LEWYCKA, Marina (1946 – ), A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, London, Penguin, 2006 (first published Viking, 2005), ISBN 978-0-141-02576-6

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Book 23: Great Britain: England (English) – Pride and Prejudice (Jane AUSTEN)

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession
of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his
first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds
of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property
of some one or other of their daughters.”
Surely that is one of the most famous, and best, kick-offs to a novel ever. And the pure brilliance of being able to summarise a plot in a single sentence carries through the book.

How do you choose what to read from a country that could keep you reading for generations, if you discovered the secret of immortality? In the end, I ended up with the book I was reading at the time (or, one of them).
Having escaped having to read it at school, I first had a go at this classic and deeply loved novel a few years ago. I found it hard to engage with a cast of females who seemed to have no aspirations for their lives other than to get married – it had little appeal to me and it all seemed rather sad. However at second attempt it did eventually grab me. I could hardly criticise a work for its theme (so wonderfully summarised in its ingenious first sentence) or for portraying life and mores of the idle rich and not-so-rich as they were at the time of its setting. Austen, like her heroine, does wry humour very well. It is in fact a very sparkling book and I can understand why it is so well-loved.
I don’t think it would be spoiling the well-known plot for anyone if I revealed that the guy gets his girl (or the other way round) in the end. Anyone who had lived in a vacuum and never heard of the book would see the inevitability of the denouement from the beginning. But it’s Austen’s genius that for almost all of the book we can’t see how the headstrong Elizabeth and the arrogant Darcy could ever get together. It took me a while, but I finally appreciate what a marvellous work it is..

Jane Austen (1775 – 1817), Pride and Prejudice, London: Penguin, 1975 (originally 1813), ISBN 0-14-043072-5