Saturday, October 8, 2011

Grandma's Dirty Little Secret

Book Review: My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner by Meir Shalev

This is how it is: author Meir Shalev has taken the threads of family history and woven them into a tale that drapes as easily as a babushka over the head of the family, in this case Grandma Tonia. Every family has a skeleton or two in the closet; Grandma has a sweeper in the bathroom. Or does she? A story doesn't have to have a point -- the story IS the point.

As the title My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner implies, this is in no small part a tale of the clash of cultures (and cultural values). Americans have long been upheld as the personification of luxury and comfort, and reviled for those very same qualities at the same time. 'Luxury' implies laziness, 'comfort' equals complacence. It is not simply a case of the 'haves' and the 'have-nots', but goes deeper into values and ideals.

And when your ideal is cleanliness, the value of a vacuum cleaner would be priceless, or so one would think. Like magic the dirt disappears, never to be seen or heard from again. It is a miracle of modern science, as long as we ignore the law of conservation of mass. And then at last the weighty dilemma occurs - who sweeps the sweeper?

Shalev manages the diversity of cultural history and values with sure hands - the story of My Russian Grandmother could happen anywhere, and in any time. In fact, I am sure it has. While not everyone has a Grandma Tonia or an Uncle Yitzhak, we have all had people like them in our lives and in our own families. The idiosyncrasies that make us individuals are the very things we have in common.

An enjoyable read, filled with humorous insight into obsessive-compulsive behavior as well as the Freudian aspects of a manicure, My Russian Grandmother is part James Thurber's My Life and Hard Times, part my own uncle Dave reminiscing about life on the farm in the Depression (if my family had been Jewish and Israel was Minnesota.) If you don't have stories like this in YOUR family, you should make some up.

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