Book Review: A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian


Nowadays, everything Soviet is cool again.

But, growing up, everything immigrant that my parents did was horrifyingly embarrassing.

They packed lunch for me not in Ziploc bags, but in the plastic bags you get from the grocery store.  They didn’t pack Mac n Cheese, and they would NEVER let me buy Lunchables, but there was Russian food. How do you show up to lunch when you have a kelbasa sandwich with Russian rye bread and all your friends have BP and J?

I didn’ t realize that there were special bags you can buy to use for trash until I went to college because we always used the plastic store grocery bags.

When the weather turned to October, I had to start wearing tights under my pants and a hat at all times. My dad and I would have screaming matches about this because I was so ashamed. No cool girls wore pantyhose under their jeans. Halloween was pretty much this for me every year.

We never had snacks in our house, so when my friends came over we were offered raisins.  Sometimes my mom would make kompot, which was even more embarrassing because we didn’t have any fruit juice but all my friends would be like, what is this and why is there stuff floating in it? When I had sleepovers at my house, my mom wouldn’t let us sleep on the floor because that was “weird”, and of course, you’ll freeze your uterus that way. So we all had to sleep in fold-out beds.

My friends would tell me that they went out for brunch on weekends, which was crazy to me.  How would your parents let you eat breakfast outside of the house?  And going out to eat any earlier in the week than a Thursday? And sometimes TWICE A WEEK?

We had hardwood floors in our house before it was the in thing to do in interior decorating, and none of my friends did.  When you come to our house, you had to wear tapochki, which I could never explain to Americans. During the winter, it was always a balmy 66 Farenheit at home, and during the summer, the sensation was not unlike being slowly roasted alive in a weak wattage microwave.   Even our comforters were different.

“When you have your own house, you can make your own rules,” my mom would yell at me when I told her we were weird and she should do American things like order pizza for delivery and buy air fresheners and turn up the temperature to a liveable 69 F.

Now I have my own house.  Life is good. I do whatever the hell I want.  I have a special yuppie trash can and bags for the trash can that I buy on Amazon.  I have liquid soap. I have air fresheners (a waste of money),  special fancy American coffee (a waste of money),  and Apple products (an enormous waste of money.) I eat lunch out every day because I’m way too lazy to pack my own.  Sometimes Mr. B and I go out on Wednesdays, because, why not (WHAT.)  We are too lazy to cancel HBO.

But I also buy the generic Bran Flakes, not Total.  I fight with Mr. B over the fact that he refuses to buy the cheap one-ply toilet paper. We have 10 different pairs of tapochki for guests. If  I ever feel like I miss my parents, I make some mushroom soup. And the heat in my house is set to 67 F.

That’s what this book is about.  About immigration.  And generations. And how we first reject our parents, then we understand and respect them, then we become them.

About how our parents lived through impossibly hard stuff so we wouldn’t have to, and when we learn about their lives, we wonder how they continue to be optimistic about humanity. It’s about digging into family history to try to understand why we are the way we are.  It’s about a daughter’s relationship with her father after her mother dies and how a 35-year-old post-breast-enhancement surgery Ukranian mail-order bride comes into his life , but also about how she learns to communicate with her sister again.  It’s poignant without being sappy or sentimental or Oprah’s bullshit.  It’s also about microwaving apples, Soviet tractors, British social workers, boob jobs, sisters with Gucci bags, second-hand Rolls Royces, and, you know, just life.  How messy life is.

It is extremely funny in a black humor kind of way, and also extremely relatable, because not everyone has immigrated, but everyone has family.  A lot of the bickering, the arguments, and the feelings I recognized from my own life.  The complications, the favoritism, the trying to understand our parents and our families.   It’s all in there.   Everyone at Goodreads thinks that both the characters and plot are implausible, but I have to strongly disagree. Because I am eating a bowl of generic bran flakes as we speak.

Read it.   You won’t regret it.






13 thoughts on “Book Review: A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian

  1. I still never buy bags for my trash, and just re-use the supermarket ones.  So when the hippie behind me in line gives me a stink eye for not bringing reusable bags, I can brush it off.  That said, I have been known to hire cleaning ladies (parents: “waste of money”) (mom: “stranger danger!”) and eat out more than twice a week (parents: “waste of money”) (parents: “why are there no tortillas in this Thai restaurant?”).


  2. Thanks for recommending what seems like an entertaining read.  I just downloaded it for the Kindle (in Russian, and of course for free).  
    As far as the opinions of the Goodreads denizens…one can not appreciate this sort of writing unless they have at least been exposed to some of the elements of the immigrant culture.  Looking forward to reading it.

    1. In Russian? Impressive.  You’ll have to tell me how that version is.  I think the fact that it is written for an English-speaking audience will change it, maybe. 

  3. I feel like the post-Soviet English-language fiction market is over-saturated. I saw this book randomly two years ago at a Dominican Republic resort. Someone must have brought it as a beach read and left it in what passes for the resort’s library. I started reading it, but it just didn’t catch. Maybe because I had recently read Lara Vapnyar’s short stories as well as the zillion other collections centered on the same theme that all seemed funny and true, etc.

    1. So I agree with you that it’s saturated. I can safely say that any more novels will be overkill. But I hated Vapnyar’s stories because I felt like they were too mopey and this one was more well-put together, in my mind. 

  4. ” I fight with Mr. B over the fact that he refuses to buy the cheap one-ply toilet paper. ” your ass deserves so much better than  generic one- ply paper. Also, you talking about school lunches brought back flashback to 7th grade, when I barely spoke English and my mom packed me a KOTLETA sandwich  on rye with a BOILED POTATO. A BOILED POTATO. 

  5. I actually read this book a couple of years ago. I can’t transfer to you the amount of annoyance and embarrassment I felt while reading it, and most of the things there never even remotely happened in my family. My MIL called it a case study. She works for a company that employs caregivers for old people.
    2 Days ago I actually put the book in a pile outside, for passerby grabs. I don’t regret it.

  6. I am so glad someone shared and wrote about my childhood- thank you! Yes, The Cold was to be feared and absolutely no sleeping on the floor! It was all about the preservation of the uterus; I wasn’t allowed to pick up heavy objects until I was 40 and already delivered my 2 children. And I’m jealous you got to hide your tights under your jeans; I wore mine (hand-knit by my babushka) under my catholic uniform skirt. Full view.

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