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My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner: A Family Memoir Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 4, 2011

4.1 out of 5 stars 89 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

One of Israel’s most celebrated novelists, Meir Shalev was born in 1948 on Nahalal, Israel’s first moshav. His books have been translated into more than twenty-five languages and have been best sellers in Israel, Holland, and Germany. Honors he has received include the National Jewish Book Award and the Brenner Prize, one of Israel’s top literary awards, for A Pigeon and a Boy. A columnist for the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, he lives in Jerusalem and in the north of Israel.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

This is how it was: Several years ago, on a hot summer day, I rose from a pleasant afternoon nap and made a cup of coffee for myself, and while I stood sipping from the mug I noticed that everyone was looking strangely at me and holding back their laughter. When I bent down to put my sandals on I discovered the reason: my toenails, all ten of them, had been painted with shiny red nail polish.
“What is this?” I cried. “Who painted my toenails?”
From the other side of the porch door, which stood ajar, came the sound of giggling that I recognized at once from previous incidents.
“I know who did this,” I said, raising my voice. “I’ll find you and I’ll catch you and I’ll paint your noses and your ears with the very same shiny red polish you used on my toes, and I’ll manage to do it all before my coffee turns cold!”
The giggles became laughter that confirmed my suspicions. While I lay sleeping, my brother’s two little daughters, Roni and Naomi, had stolen in and painted my toenails. Later they would tell me that the younger of the two had done four nails while her older sister had done the other six. They had hoped I would not notice and that I would walk out in public, only to be scorned and ridiculed. But now that their scheme had been unmasked they burst into the room and pleaded: “Don’t take it off, ­don’t, it’s ­really pretty.”
I told them that I, too, thought it was ­really pretty, but that there was a problem: I had been invited to “an important event” where I was expected to speak, but I could not appear before the crowd with painted nails, since it was summer and in summer I wear sandals.
The girls said that they were familiar with both ­matters—­the important event and my custom of wearing ­sandals—­and that this was precisely the reason they had done what they did.
I told them that I would go to any other important event with shiny red toenails but not to this important event. And that was because of the crowd that would gather there, a crowd no sane man would appear before with painted ­toenails—­and red ones, no less.
The event we were talking about was the inauguration of the old arms cache used by the Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary organization that operated in Palestine during the British Mandate. The cache had been built on a farm in the village of Nahalal and disguised to look like a cowshed cesspool. In my novel The Blue Mountain I had described an arms cache that never existed in a village that never existed in the Jezreel Valley, but my arms cache was also built and disguised exactly the same way. After the book was published, readers began to show up on the real farm in the real village, asking to see the real cache.
Rumor passed by word of mouth, the number of visitors grew and became a nuisance, and the owners of the property were smart enough to make the best of their situation. They renovated the cache, set up a small visitors’ center, and thus added a new stream of income to their farm. That day, when my brother’s two young daughters painted my toenails with red polish, was the day the renovated arms cache was being inaugurated, and I had been invited as one of the speakers at the ceremony.
“Now bring some nail polish remover and get this pretty stuff off me,” I told Roni and Naomi. “And please hurry up because I have to get going already!”
The two refused. “Go like that!” they said.
I sat down and explained to them that this was a particularly manly event, that there would be generations of fighters from the Jezreel Valley in attendance, elders from the Haganah, the Israel Defense Forces, and the Palmach. Men of the sword and the plowshare, men who had bent spears into pruning shears and vice versa. In short, girls, these were people who would not react favorably to men with red polish on their toenails.
But Naomi and Roni paid no attention to my pleas. “What do you care?” they cried. “You said yourself it’s pretty.”
“If you ­don’t take it off I’ll wear shoes!” I threatened. “Nobody will see your red nail polish, and that’ll be that!”
“You’re afraid!” they exclaimed. “You’re afraid what they’ll say about you in the village.”
Those words took effect at once. Without knowing it the two little girls had hit a soft underbelly. Anyone familiar with members of the ­old-­time collective agricultural movement, anyone who has been upbraided by them, knows that in small villages eyes take everything in and comments are made with regularity and rumors take off and land like cranes in a sown field. All the more so in places whose pedigree is famed and illustrious, like Nahalal’s. Here, the standards are more stringent, and anyone who leaves the path of the straight and narrow, who veers left or right, up or ­down—­even a single mistake made in one’s ­childhood—­is not forgotten. Especially someone considered odd, eccentric, meshugah, or an underachiever, which is the complete opposite of mutzlach, one of the loftiest expressions of excellence the village bestows upon its most fortunate sons and daughters, those blessed with wisdom, industriousness, leadership qualities, and community spirit.
But after many years in the city the combination of the words “what” and “they’ll say about you” and “in the village” had lost some of their power and threat. So I reconsidered and decided to take up the gauntlet or, more accurately, the sandals. I put them on, thrust the notes for the speech I had prepared into my pocket, and set out for the inauguration of the old arms cache with my ­red-­painted toenails exposed. The entire household eyed ­me—­some with mirth, others with regret, some with schadenfreude, others with suspicion: Would I return to be reunited with my home and family? And in what condition?
Here I must admit and confess that despite my display of courage upon leaving the house, I became more and more anxious the closer I got to the event. By the time I arrived at the site I was absolutely beside myself. I silently prayed that no one would notice my toes, and my prayers were answered. No one made a single comment, nobody said a thing. On the contrary, everyone was warm and cordial. My hand was crushed by bold handshakes, my shoulder bent by manly slaps on the back. Even my short speech went off well and pleased the ­crowd—­or so it seemed to me.
Naturally, I made metaphorical use of the arms cache as an image of memory and what is hidden in the depths of a person’s soul. In the manner of writers, I prattled on about that which is above the surface and that which is below, that which the eye sees and that which it does not, and from there it was a short road to the ­tried-­and-­true literary merchandise of “reality” and the “relationship between truth and fiction in belles letters” and a lot of other fodder that writers blithely use to sell their wares.
After I had finished speaking and descended from the small stage and was able to breathe in relief, one of the daughters of the family on whose property the arms cache had been built approached and asked to exchange a few words with me in private. She thanked me for my speech and said it had been just fine, but then, almost as an afterthought, she added that she wished to know which nail polish was my favorite. She said she very much liked the shade of red I used, as did two friends of hers sitting in the audience who had asked her to find out.
And as that same shade of red flushed across my cheeks, the young woman hastened to add that she herself had no problem with it, that she even found it rather nice, something she had always felt was missing in the village and could be a happy harbinger of things to come. However, to others in the audience my appearance at the event had raised some reservations.
“I thought no one had noticed,” I said.
“Not noticed? It’s all anyone’s been talking about,” she said. “But take consolation in the fact that no one was surprised. I even heard someone say, ‘What do you want from the guy? He got it from Tonia. She was crazy in just the same way. That’s the way it is in their family.’ ”


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Schocken (October 4, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805242872
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805242874
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 0.9 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (89 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #337,868 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Wandering Hoosier VINE VOICE on September 2, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I happened to be on vacation when I started reading Meir Shalev's "My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner" and could not put it down. The book is a fabulous vacation read as well as a book to enjoy as a break from more serious endeavors. Most of all, it is the perfect book for a book club, as it has wonderful fodder for a group to discuss.

Shalev 's most recent book is a recollection of the life of his family, especially the life of his maternal grandmother and her influence on the family. Grandma Tonia grew up in a small, Russian village and came to Palestine and a young maid. She soon thereafter married her deceased sister's ex-husband, Aharon, and raised a family in an early farming community in rural Palestine.

Aharon and Tonia were the first group of settlers in Nahalal, Palestine, and throughout his book, Shalev weaves in wonderful stories of the hardships their harships on the moshav. Primarily, though, Shalev relates stories about the cleanliness Tonia required in her small house located in the middle of dirt, fields, and livestock. He explains that nobody could use the house's only bathroom for fear of soiling it and that only few were ever allowed to enter the house through the front door.

One day, Aharon's brother sends Tonia the best GE vacuum 'svieeperrr' that money could buy and sent it by ship and horseback to Nahalal. Instead of using the vacuum to clean, however, Tonia ended up storing it in the house's closed bathroom. Accordingly, family stories started to circulate about the vacuum and Shalev shares them in his book.

I loved reading about Shalev's family and the thoughtful stories that he told. His comments about his family are hilarious.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
In My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner, Meir Shalev writes a lyrical, quirky, and endearing memoir of his grandmother Tonia. The book's strange contrast of humor and pathos make this small volume a quick, enjoyable, and meaningful read.

The main subject of the memoir is Shalev's grandmother Tonia. Tonia moved to Palestine from Russia in 1923. Tough as nails from a spartan life in Russia and in Nahalal, the first Moshav (collective agricultural settlement) in Israel, Tonia's main objectives seem to be raising her family and eliminating every speck of dirt from her house (not necessarily in that order).

The vacuum in question, was a gift from Tonia's brother-in-law. Given the socialism of the Moshav and Israel in general at the time, the brother-in-law was generally considered persona-non-grata--he lived in America and wholly embraced capitalism. But when the vacuum arrived on the doorstep, Tonia couldn't resist such an implement that could remove dust better than any mop or cloth. (Of course, when she finds out that the vacuum doesn't exactly eliminate dust--it simply sucks it up into a repository within itself--Tonia is appalled and banishes the vacuum to a storage closet.)

Through stories about removing mud and dust from the house, Shalev traces his own relationship with his grandmother (and the vacuum). Characters in the book abound, but they are all treated with care and respect and therefore never become caricatures. Shalev may tell humorous tales of his quirky relatives, but at the same time never uses them as foils or simply for comic relief. What we have here are well rounded portraits of of the Shalev family members.

The author opens the door wide with this endearing memoir.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I really enjoyed this book. The grandmother is a complex character: likable at times and an obsessive neurotic grandmother in other times. The story described how tough life was for the farmers who lived on the Moshav. They worked all the time and struggled to provide for their families. At the same time the family bonds describe a loving family that helps and nurtures each other. There is a continuum. Through the stories and the unique expressions, the memory of family members are preserved and gets passed to the next generation. The stories, the family, and time, all come together and create a unique but also universal tale. I highly recommend this book.
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I loved this book and enjoyed reading something that made me chuckle and uplifted. Having lived in Israel for many years, I could relate to the trials and tribulations that occurred in building a thriving community. The war against dirt is hilarious and brought back memories. I loved hearing about Meir Shalev's family and history. His reflections on family stories, what is "truth", points of view, family dynamics still linger with me. After reading this book, I spoke to my oldest grandchild about what he knew about me, his grandmother. I encouraged him to ask questions, so that he could be the future story teller in our family and keep memories alive for the five other grandchildren. The translator of this book should receive kudos. This book read like poetry.
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Format: Hardcover
At the outset, I would like to point out that I read the book in Hebrew; therefore, I am reviewing the content of the book rather than the quality of the translation, and not whether the translator was able to convey the "essence" of the book. Since this book has various references to Israeli culture and a lot of "word games", which are nearly impossible to translate to English, I am somewhat curious to read the English translation of this book.

"My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner" is part family memoir and part memoir of "old Israel." The story revolves around Grandma Tonia and her GE vacuum cleaner. Grandma Tonia was one of the first settlers in Nahalal, which is located in the north part of Israel. Grandma Tonia is what we will call today a "neat freak"; her best friend is a rag, which is always located on her shoulder just in case she will randomly run into a lawless stain. On every doorknob, she places a rag so - God forbid - it won't get dirty when someone opens the door. She sends people to shower outside so the shower won't get dirty: a true "neat freak." The plot thickens when her brother-in-law, who lives in the US, sends her a new GE vacuum cleaner. This book is not only a family memoir, however. It is also a memoir of a time, already forgotten, of "old Israel" when life was much simpler. Shalev's writing is beautiful and this book will make you laugh and long for the good old times.
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