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Reviewed by Leigh Adamkiewicz

As I hit the half way point of My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner, I got a call from my own mother. She’d had had a long day and needed to speak to me before I hit the hay.

Five minutes later I was standing at the foot of her bed. I felt 11 again as I stood there, watching her stare at the ceiling. She was propped up by pillows and too exhausted to even glance at the book lying on her lap.

She had to replace the washer, dryer and dishwasher all at once. Thousands of dollars were suddenly needed by the end of the month. And to make matters worse, a truck that crossed the dividing line nearly plowed into her as she was driving to work.

I worry about Mom when she has days like this. Which annoys her immensely. She frequently sees the sympathy of others as some sign of weakness. Still, I asked her if there was anything I could do to help.

I keep forgetting that when I say those words the enormous backlog of all the things mom worries about suddenly springs to the foreground. She suddenly realizes what I should be doing, what I could be doing, and the things I seem unable to do without her.

If I really wanted to help, why didn’t I do more SEO writing? I had the experience, why didn’t I take the initiative? Didn’t I say I would do something with affiliate marketing? Why had that fallen by the wayside? What exactly was I doing with my life? Didn’t I realize she wouldn’t be around forever?

The similarities to Meir Shelev’s book were eerie.

On paper, My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner is about the vacuum cleaner. No more, no less. Sure, Shelev’s grandmother, who married blindly at 18 to one of the new settlers of what would become Israel, hated dirt to an obscene degree. Her obsessive compulsive cleaning rituals – which included refusing to allow guests into the house and closing off whole rooms from the family – were the only way she could control the circumstances in her Brave New World. But even with the cleaning tools at her disposal, the vacuum was a strange centerpiece of sorts. It was a tool of absolute cleanliness, sent by a decadent uncle who had dared to make his living in LA rather than staying on the farm. Decades later the ‘sveeper’, which was only used once, suddenly had an unusual purpose. It, like its owner, had a startling value that was never anticipated by the family.

The warmly dysfunctional dynamics of Shelev’s family are easily identified with, even by those who have not endured a recent round of half-exhausted nagging. The book is told in the small stories of the family. These stories have no happy ending. The punch lines are warm but dry, and only serve to illustrate that “that’s how it was.” The plot takes its time. It seems to understand that a good story, after all, is not improved by rushing.

A biography written in the style of fiction is always a tricky thing. There’s a delicate balance between personal feeling and skill that needs to be maintained. Shelev seems to delight in keeping that balance, using his clear literary skills even as he is excited to invite his readers into Grandma Tonia’s house.

There are no facts in this story, only the myths of the family. The myths the village tells about them and the myths they tell about themselves. The myths about the silver vacuum cleaner sent from the new world. And I am grateful for the Sabbat invite Shelev has extended, which has allowed me to hear each and every one of them.

Rating: 3.5/5

Leigh is a fearless writer who never met a genre, subject, or format she didn’t like. She has written professionally for the past six years and enjoys biking, exploring odd corners of Northeast Ohio, and discovering those good books she hasn’t read yet.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Schocken. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.