“My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner: A Family Memoir” (Shocken Books, 212 pages, published October 6, 2011) by Meir Shalev presents an amusing portrait of a quirky pioneer family in Israel.
The narrative revolves around the author’s Grandma Tonia, a Russian immigrant obsessed with cleaning, who battles the dust, mud and general grime associated with living on a remote farm in the mid-20th century.
The writing is atypical, containing unusual constructions which left me wondering how much of the effect was due to the author’s style, and how much was due to the efforts of the translator, who rendered the book in English from its original Hebrew. Certainly, the author’s delight in demonstrating the Russian/Yiddish accents of his relatives (“svieeperrr” for “sweeper,” for instance), as well as their odd turns of phrase (such as, “I’ll take chunks out of you”) must have been enough to give any potential translator pause.
For about the first third of the book, I wondered if there was a point to what seemed to be a somewhat disjointed collection of stories about Grandma Tonia and her family. That, plus the author’s slightly annoying habit of mentioning events and then saying he will talk about that later, were a bit offputting to me.
However, by the time the book reached the climactic scene in which the author and his girlfriend argue with Grandma Tonia over her vacuum cleaner – which by this point has attained a near-mythical status in the mind of the reader, I was captivated by this family and their antics. In typical Israeli fashion, they fight, they disapprove of each other, and they make fun of one another, but it is clear they love each other fiercely.
There is also something deeply refreshing about reading an authentic Israeli story that does not even mention the conflicts between Israel and her neighbors.
If you would like to see the author of this delightful tale in person, be sure to attend Meir Shalev’s talk as part of the Culture Boulevard Israel Speakers Series at the Sabes Jewish Community Center in Minneapolis, and the Twin Cities Jewish Book Fair, on Wednesday, November 9 from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m.
*The FTC made me do it: Disclosure of Material Connection: TC Jewfolk received a free copy of “My Russian Grandmother and her American Vacuum Cleaner” in the hope that we would mention it on TC Jewfolk. But getting the book for free doesn’t mean that we were obligated to give a glowing review. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” Blah, blah, blah…