With a title like My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner, I expected a more straightforward story, maybe involving a little bit of vacuum and a lot of crazy grandma. What I got was an elaborate family epic spanning from the mythic era of when the grandparents were young all the way to when Shalev is himself a young man. In this circuitous manner, Shalev weaves a beautiful and intricate world that is both familiar and exotic to many Jewish people in the US, welcoming readers into his big crazy family and regaling us with stories of farm horses, feuds, and—of course—vacuum cleaners.
Shalev is an Israeli writer in Israel, writing about his family’s experiences on a moshav (small family farm) where some family members work their fingers to the bone for Israeli ideology and other family members work their fingers to the bone for survival. Even as he writes about his family’s philosophy, Shalev manages to stay away from politics and religion. He doesn’t write about his grandmother’s hard work to make a point about Israel; he writes about it because it makes a good story. When he mentions waving to farm workers in Jordan from a train with his mother “because they’re farmers too,” his description is more about a simple childhood memory than trumpeting pro-Arab sentiments.
This steering clear of overt political discussion is a small miracle, in my opinion. I was halfway through the book when I suddenly thought to myself, “Hey, I’m not offended!” This is rare, when discussing Israel.
Shalev writes about the feud between his grandfather and his great uncle, whom his grandfather dubs “the double-traitor” because he went to America to become a capitalist. He writes about his grandmother’s lifelong war against dirt, wherein she scrubs floors with obsessive-compulsive fervor and distrusts vacuum cleaners for several important reasons. He writes about the way things were and collective family memories from the eyes of a child, with honesty and yet with room for alternative versions from aunts and uncles who will always disagree. As I read this, I felt like I was one of Shalev’s cousins, sitting out behind his grandmother’s house, listening to a great retelling of a story I knew by heart.
It is interesting to note that Shalev’s writing style is distinctly Russian in some ways. The fact that he writes about many different intertwined characters and about the particulars of hard labor is characteristic of Russian writing, but also the very circuitous nature of his narrative is a distinctly Russian style. Shalev himself mentions this with pride, as he received praise from an audience in Moscow for being a “Russian writer.” Whether they were praising Shalev because of his elaborate storytelling style or for some other reason, it’s always an honor to be claimed as good enough to be one’s own.
This is the sort of book I could recommend to my grandmother as easily as I could recommend it to one of my housemates—it’s a book for everyone. It’s a quick and engaging read, lighthearted yet meaningful, and it left me with a warm fuzzy feeling without trying too hard.
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