A Good Short Story Stretched Into a Highly Mediocre Short Book

That’s my reaction to Meir Shalev’s “My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner”, a memoir about the author’s grandmother, an immigrant to Palestine (later Israel, of course) from Rokitno, a village (shtetl) in the Ukraine (OK, Ukraine/Russia, who cares, right?). The premise is that his grandmother, Tonia, was a peculiar woman, to say the least, and that she was someone obsessed by cleanliness – so obsessed that virtually all of her waking hours were spent keeping her home on a moshav (collective farm) in the Galilee clean, cordoning off certain areas from human visitation, making sure certain doors were never used, that showers were taken on an outside shower, etc., etc.

Her brother in law in Los Angeles (a world away, to be sure) sends her, in the late 1930s, a top quality model General Electric vacuum cleaner to help her pursue her passion and, except for when she first uses it, it just sits unused for forty years. Why? Because the vacuum cleaner collects the dirt it vacuums, and the idea that the dirt is sitting in the house, hidden away, is too much to bear. In addition, the vacuum cleaner itself needs to be kept clean, so that this supposed implement of cleanliness just adds to the work. Who needs it?

Towards the end of the book, the author tells of a weekend, when he was a young twenty-something (early 1970s), and he met by chance a young American tourist in Tel Aviv, and brought her to her grandmother’s house. They spent a somewhat idyllic, and equally bizarre, weekend, with a couple of unexpected twists and turns that I won’t describe. This twenty page or so portion of the two hundred page or so book makes for a very nice short story. The remainder of the book, once the premise was established, seemed to me to be stretched out unnecessarily – I get it. His grandmother has a cleaning obsession, and drives everyone crazy, but they love her nevertheless. Again, and again, and again. And his grandmother is nothing if not constant, consistent and unchangeable. There is no character development, there is no plot to speak of, it is just repetitive.

The story takes place in Nahalal, an old (1920s) moshav in the Jezreel Valley, east of Haifa. I have been to Nahalal about a half dozen times – we have friends there. In fact one of them, who gave me the book, is visiting us now for Passover (she does not live in Nahalal now, although her father still does). She enjoyed the book because, in fact, she knew Shalev’s grandmother, and many of the others mentioned in the book, and she says that Shalev’s descriptions of the various characters is quite accurate. I don’t doubt it. But for those of you who did not grow up in Nahalal at all (that would exclude Shalev, Moshe Dayan, Yael Dayan, and Hannah Szenes), I think that the book would have less interest and that, from reading the book, you would not really get a picture of how the moshav looks and how it operates.

I know that this book has received some strong, positive reviews. I think it is being over rated.

One thought on “A Good Short Story Stretched Into a Highly Mediocre Short Book

  1. I thought it was a wonderful book — one of Shalev’s best. I have no idea how it translates — although I do know the translator. A warm, loving, funny, and compassionate portrayal of his crazy grandmother (she was crazy) and an assortment of relatives and others from Nahalal and Kfar Yehoshua.

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