BOOK REVIEW: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka

A Short History of Tractors in UkrainianA Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a comedy of family dysfunction. The family consists of Cold War era immigrants to England from Ukraine. One adult daughter (Nadezhda) narrates the story, which about how her estranged relationship with her sister (Vera) is renewed through battle with a common enemy, Valentina, the gold-digging Ukrainian woman (younger than either sister) who’s moving in with the sisters’ eighty-four-year-old father.

There’re a few divides that generate the story’s tension. First, Vera grew up with war during her formative years, while Nadezhda was a child of the post-war peace. This informs how each sees the world and the other. Vera sees her younger sister as a naïve bleeding-heart socialist, while Nadezhda sees Vera as a cold and distrusting Thatcherite scoundrel. Second, there’s the chasm between established immigrant and new arrival, the former feeling that they kept their heads down, did the work, assimilated, and earned their status as citizens, while feeling someone like Valentina is tricking her way in and expecting to be handed all the perks of first-world living without working for them. Finally, there’s the gap between what a new immigrant expects life is like in a wealthy country, and what it’s actually like. Valentina has a television view of England that assumes the characters she sees are typical.

The story is funny, but occasionally poignant – e.g. as when we learn the family’s war-torn backstory or even when Valentina is shown in a more sympathetic light by our “bleeding-heart” narrator, who waivers between her family obligation self (who despises Valentina) and her socialist-feminist self (who empathizes with Valentina to some degree.)

I’d recommend this book for readers of literary fiction. It’s well-crafted and humorous. But it’s literary fiction, so if you need your characters likable and your plot strong, you may find it a bit dull.


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BOOK REVIEW: Animals in Our Days by Mohamed Makhzangi

Animals in Our DaysAnimals in Our Days by Mohamed Makhzangi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: June 14, 2022

Besides being animal-themed or animal-centric to varying degrees, there are a couple of other features common to the stories in this translated collection from Egyptian author, Mohamed Makhzangi. First, it’s truly international in terms of settings. In addition to stories that take place closer to the author’s (i.e. in the Middle East,) there are tales set in Bangkok, Jaipur, Windhoek, and undefined but evocative locales that all feel based on the author’s travels. Second, the stories tend to have a dreamy, surreal quality and / or speculative elements – i.e. they aren’t strictly realist, but more magical realist. At times, stories read like Kafka (e.g. “Brass Grasshoppers”) and at other times like a fairy tale (e.g. “White Bears / Black Bears.”) Where the stories vary is with respect to theme, from war to alienation to the interconnectedness of nature.

The translation by Chip Rossetti is highly readable, and the stories are well-crafted, engaging, and often thought-provoking. I’d recommend this for all readers of short fiction.


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BOOK REVIEW: Comparative Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Ben Hutchinson

Comparative Literature: A Very Short IntroductionComparative Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Ben Hutchinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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By the book’s end, I had a much better grasp of the field of Comparative Literature, which is a multidisciplinary subject concerned with comparing / contrasting various forms of literature across time and space (among other ways.) That said, it’s not one of the more friendly of books in this series for a neophyte in need of a grasp of the basics of a field. [I’m a big fan of the AVSI series, and frequently turn to it.]

I attribute the book’s problems to two factors. First of all, the first chapter didn’t feel like it really said anything, and I came away from it with the thought, “So, Comparative Literature is all the disparate things I thought it might be, and more.” I understand why there’s a desire for a broad overview upfront, but it would work better for a discipline that was more contained and orderly.

Second, while it might be the necessary way to tell the story of this discipline, the book spends a lot of space discussing comparisons between literary theorists and what felt like little in comparisons of works of literature. The challenge is that most readers come to such a book with an extensive understanding of major works of world literature, but few people outside the field are familiar with literary theorists and critics. A reader might expect to learn why and how “Don Quixote” would be compared to stories of Jorge Luis Borges or Ovid, but one learns more about how the ideas of Roland Barthes compare to those of George Steiner.

Once I got into the second chapter, I felt I was getting a little clarity on the subject and that the chapter was well organized for learning. In subsequent chapters, I found that there were many interesting ways of thinking about translation of literature, the debates in the field, and the competing ideas about discipline’s future. The book also has a useful further reading section that breaks down the various dimensions of comparative literature a little so that interested parties can find a line of attack to advance their studies.

Ultimately, I think the book helps one get a grasp of the subject, but I’d skip over the first chapter and then go back to it once one has a little confidence that there will be clarity rather than obscurity in store.


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BOOK REVIEW: A Personal Anthology by Jorge Luis Borges

A Personal AnthologyA Personal Anthology by Jorge Luis Borges
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of poetry, short fiction, essays, and other short writings (that fit into two or more of the previously mentioned categories) – all chosen by Borges as the works he wanted his literary legacy to be based upon. For those unacquainted, Borges was a brilliant Argentine author whose writings were philosophical, mystical, erudite, and brief. He was the perfect writer for those of us who love ideas and contemplation of the world, but who also suffer deficits of attention. He wrote in bitesize pieces, but those bites couldn’t have been more intensely flavored with ideas and evocative and provocative commentary. His subject matter includes lofty topics such as the lives of Homer, Shakespeare, and Buddha, but also crude, visceral experiences such as a knife fight.

Needless to say, I’m a huge fan of Borges’ work, and couldn’t resist reading his choices for his personal best – even having recently read many of the pieces – particularly the better-known ones. It’s worth noting that Borges’ choices include a great many of the works that others have called his best work, e.g. “The Aleph,” “Borges and I,” “Biography of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz (1829 – 1874,)” “The Zahir,” “The Maker,” “Averröes’ Search,” “The Golem,” “Circular Ruins,” etc. The biggest surprise of the collection was that it included much more poetry than I expected. The works I’ve read previously contained minimal poetry, but I’d say this collection is about half poems.

I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s thought-provoking and magnificently written / translated. I would normally say that I’m not qualified to comment on the skill of translation other than to say the book read well, but the two translators wrote an epilogue that I think showed they could channel the mystery and creativity of Jorge Luis Borges.


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BOOK REVIEW: Around the World in 80 Books by David Damrosch

Around the World in 80 BooksAround the World in 80 Books by David Damrosch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: November 16, 2021

David Damrosch’s comp lit world tour has a simple premise. You’re a traveler and the pandemic strikes, how do you travel by book while trapped at home? For those who think travel and reading are unrelated endeavors, I disagree. As a traveler and avid reader, I’ve always found the two intertwined in building a greater understanding of the world. Reading is an essential part of traveling, and I read literature from every place I visit. Why? Because people the world over are guarded, yearning to make good impressions. Because of this, one gets a partial and distorted view of other cultures. Poets and novelists round out the picture by airing the dirty laundry of their people. It’s not that revealing the dark and ugly edges of a culture is their foremost objective, but those are good sources of tension in a novel and of emotional resonance in a poem. [Seeking out what’s not so pretty about a culture might seem like a tawdry undertaking, but falling in love with a place is like falling in love with a person, if you do so without first seeing their bad habits, it’s not really love. It’s just childlike infatuation.]


The book’s organization is straightforward. There are sixteen locales, and five books are discussed for each. I enjoyed Damrosch’s “syllabus.” The eighty books included a pleasant mix of works I’ve read, those I’ve been meaning to read, and [most importantly] those I’d missed altogether. Any source that reveals new reading material to me will definitely find favor.


The book starts in London (apropos of its titular connection to the Jules Verne novel) and moves through Europe, the Middle East, Africa, over through Asia, back around to Latin America, and finally to North America to conclude (as trips generally do) back at home.


The book is weighted heavily toward the literature side of the travel-literature nexus. That’s not a criticism, it’s just worth noting for travelers who aren’t avid readers of literary fiction and poetry, because they may find this book gets a bit deep in the literary weeds. (The sections don’t focus single-mindedly on the listed book, but meander through the author’s oeuvre and influences.) While many of the selections are indisputably excellent choices for traveling by book, others lack a connection that is readily apparent (e.g. the final book, Lord of the Rings.) Again, I didn’t find that to be a negative as there was always something to be learned from the discussions, and – who knows – it may have even expanded my thinking.


If you’re a traveler / reader, you should definitely consider giving this book a read.


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