Book Review, Memoir

Book Review: My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner

When I saw this memoir listed in the Bargain Books catalog, I had a feeling I’d like it. I didn’t expect to love it, but love it I did. What a fun tale that reminded me of my own German grandmother and all the immigrant grandmothers I’ve ever met in my lifetime!

Meir Shalev is the consummate storyteller. With a storyteller’s flair, he winds his tale around an unlikely spool: a vacuum cleaner. Not just any vacuum cleaner, mind you. A Hoover canister vacuum sent to his Russian grandmother living in Israel in the early 20th century by her no-good, American immigrant brother in law.

This isn’t just the story of his grandmother. The many layers woven throughout the tale include a fascinating glimpse at the founding of Israel, the early immigrants who settled the agricultural regions of Israel, and growing up Israeli among these salt of the earth people.

Shalev’s grandmother, Tonia, grew up as a fairly well-to-do young girl in Ukraine. When she was 15, she immigrated to Israel to marry. The second wife of an Israeli first-generation settler, Tonia soon found that her new lifestyle on a rugged farm in the middle of the Israeli agricultural region was a tough life and not at all what she was promised.  Tonia took control of her life by fighting the one enemy she could never vanquish: dirt. She became a clean freak, but not in a pathological, Adrian Monk type way. Instead, it was more like the clash of the titans. Tonia versus farm dirt.

Shalev describes his grandmother in loving detail, not sparing the harsh parts of her personality to romanticize her. She is unforgiving and coarse, sometimes cruel. But she is also incredibly hard-working and feisty. Her quirks make her a fascinating, very real person in the story.

The vacuum cleaner itself links all the stories in the book. They weave in and out around the vacuum cleaner like it’s some kind of weird May pole. The stories tell not just Tonia’s life, but the lives of Shalev’s extended family, his neighbors in Israel, and even those who immigrated to America.

The book was originally written in Hebrew, then translated into English, but fortunately the translator left the Yiddish intact, and as a former New Yorker, I enjoyed reading the phrases peppered throughout the book.  Just a side note, but it was fun recognizing expressions I heard growing up near Queens, New York.

This book was truly a delightful, fun and rollicking tale of extended family, family ties, and the history of Israel.  I didn’t expect to love it, but I did.

Four out of five stars. I purchased my copy of this book from Bargain Books, but you can purchase your copy by clicking on the picture above. It takes you to Amazon, where if you buy the book from Amazon, I receive a small commission. It does not affect your price in any way.

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