Book Review: Snow in August by Pete Hamill

I loved this book…right until the last 20-30 pages or so. And then I was left shaking my head, whispering, “Why? Why? Why did you just pull a Deus ex Machina, and what does it mean?”

Let me take a step back for a minute…

Snow in August is a gorgeous book. It’s the story of young Mike Devlin, an Irish kid growing up in Brooklyn in 1946.  Ebbetts Field is the promised land, kids fear a gang of toughs calls the Falcons, and World War II is still fresh in the minds of everyone. Mike lost his dad in World War II, and his tough mom works two jobs to make ends meet.

One morning, Mike awakens to a blizzard and makes his way to the Catholic church where he serves as an altar boy. The local rabbi beckons him into the synagogue to help light the worship space; because it’s the Sabbath, the rabbi cannot touch the light switches. Mike becomes the “sabbath goy”, the boy who comes to help the rabbi on the Sabbath.

The same day that Mike meets the rabbi, he and his buddies shovel snow for the local business people and earn money for their efforts. As any young boys will do, they decide to spend their money on comic books and candy bars, so they wander to Mr. G’s store.  One of the Falcons demands their money, and when Mr. G., the owner of the store intervenes, he is brutally attacked by the teenage thug. The other boys flee, but Mike is the only witness.

These two events – meeting the rabbi and witnessing the attack on Mr. G – shape Mike’s life for the next year. As he grows closer in friendship to the rabbi, he is troubled by his conscience, which demands conflicting ideals of never squealing on your friends while helping to catch the teen who beat up poor Mr. G.  While Mike doesn’t rat on the attacker  – he can’t, because of the law of the streets of Brooklyn and the unspoken code among the boys – his friends think he does. Mike must deal with losing his friends, protecting himself and his mother, and his growing friendship with the rabbi.

The book is a wonderful tale of friendship, both cross cultural and cross generational. Mike agrees to teach the rabbi English and American culture, while the rabbi agrees to teach Mike Yiddish, the common language of the Jewish people.  As Mike studies with the rabbi, he learns to appreciate learning, and vows to go to college – something no one in his neighborhood does. Most of the boys drop out of school and go to work on the docks, but Mike, thanks to the rabbi’s careful coaching, begins to love learning for its own sake.

The book is both coarse and lovely, truthful and poignant, until the very end.

And then…well, then…

SPOILER ALERT!

Okay, here’s where the book goes off the rails. There’s magic involved in the end. There’s no magic in the rest of the book, and that’s where I have a problem with the ending. It’s an honest, wonderful story of 1946 Brooklyn, of a boy coming of age in a tough neighborhood.  So far, so good.

But when the author seems to box poor Mike into a corner – he can’t tell, but he must tell, he can’t fight, but he must fight – Mike ends up conjuring the magic Golem of Prague, a story the rabbi has told him and a story that becomes real when he conjures the Golem, it snows in August, and he vanquishes the Falcons to protect himself, his mother, the rabbi and Mr. G.

Until that moment, I absolutely loved the book and wanted to run out and buy more by the author. But I couldn’t believe the turn at the end. Really? Magic?

I wouldn’t have minded it so much if magic had been woven throughout the story. I like stories like that. But to trot it out just at the end felt wrong and weird. It felt like it didn’t fit the story at all.

All in all though, Pete Hamill can write. Boy, he can write. It was a great book and I hope to read more by the author.

On a side note….I worked with Hamill’s brother, John, in Manhattan, many years ago. Another great writer who taught me so much about journalism and PR!

I bought this book at the local library book sale. The picture at the top is a link to Amazon, where I have an affiliate account. If you click the picture and buy a product, I earn a little commission, which does not add to your costs.

Snow in August: 4 out of 5 stars despite the weird ending.

 

Book Review: Below Stairs by Margaret Powell

I’m not sure what I expected when I bought my copy of Below Stairs by Margaret Powell. The dust jacket and catalog copy referred to this book as the inspiration for Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey, two shows I enjoy watching when I catch them on television.  I’ve always been fascinated by life in the big manor houses both here in the United States and in England.  I thought this book would give me more insight into the life of the servants from that time period, and I enjoy memoirs, so I picked up a copy.

This book was a fast, enjoyable read. It wasn’t at all what I expected, but I enjoyed it nonetheless, mostly because the narrator, Margaret, has such a distinctive, brutally honest voice throughout the book. Margaret is born to poor parents in Hove, England, one of seven children. As a young teenager she has to leave school to go to work even though she’s been admitted to higher education; she’s smart enough, but can’t afford the clothes, books or tuition. Instead, she begins working as a day maid for the local clergyman and his family, then moves on to working in a laundry. Finally, she follows her mother’s footsteps and goes “into service” or becomes a full time, live in domestic servant.

At first, Margaret is nervous, fearful, and always putting a foot wrong. But who wouldn’t when the rules seemed so arbitrary and stupid? Honestly, I don’t think I would have been able to put up with that kind of work for one day, let alone one minute. Margaret works as a kitchen maid, which you’d think means she is in the kitchen all day helping the cook, right? Nope. Not only does she have to clean the kitchen, clean the dishes and pots and pans, and do a zillion other things, she has to blacken the rich people’s shoes, or polish their shoes each morning. I can’t believe that; every morning? My parents were sticklers for polished shoes, but we only had to polish them once a week, on Saturday night so that they would be sparkling for church on Sunday. I’d wear the same shoes to school all week, then back they went to our basement on Saturday night for polishing again.

But not for the wealthy in Margaret’s post World War I society. She polishes the boots and shoes for the family, several pairs per person since the ladies of the house change their outfits and shoes several times a day, and sends them back up. The maid returns. “Oh no, miss, this won’t do,” she says, “You have to polish the instep.”

“The what?” Margaret asks, dumbfounded because she’s never heard of anything so stupid in her life.

Yes, not only does she have to polish the BOTTOM of the shoes but IRON THE LACES.  Every. Day.

I’d go mad if I had to do that kind of work.

Margaret’s story is told in a dry, merciless tone with flashes of humor and wit woven throughout. While there are some kind and generous employers, most treat their servants like they’re stupid, unfeeling brutes, providing them with little in the way of comfort. The restrictions imposed on the servants were also unreal, including a curfew, rules about who they could socialize with and who they could not, and more.

Eventually, Margaret bluffs her way into a cook’s position, one of the most coveted positions among the servants, and finds a husband, and leaves domestic service. She returns to school at age 50 and studies independently, taking college-level courses in philosophy, art and other subjects because they interest her, and she eventually earns an advanced degree.

She writes about the changes in the lives of servants, and shows us the changes in the manor houses that she sees throughout the years. Although many of the wealthy are pitiable, it is hard to feel pity for some of them as seen through Margaret’s eyes. They’re cheats, skinflints, and morally uptight people with a supercilious air that lives on well after them in Margaret’s dry prose.

This is a short book, but a good read if you enjoy memoirs or period-style books. I purchased my copy through a catalog, but if you click on the picture at the top of this post or the link, it will take you to Amazon, where you can buy a copy via my affiliate link. I receive a little commission on the sale which does not affect your price. Thanks.

Below Stairs: 4 1/2 stars out of 5. Recommended.

Book Review: The City by Dean Koontz

 

The City by Dean Koontz was a disappointing book from one of my favorite writers. Yes, it was entertaining. Yes, it had good characters and it was beautifully written. But it lacked any semblance of the supernatural with the exception of Miss Pearl, a character I’ll get to in a minute (spoiler alert!).

The City follows young Jonah, a promising African American musical prodigy, in the early 1960s.  Jonah’s father abandons the family and takes up with their upstairs neighbor in the apartment complex where he and his mother live. Jonah receives a strange visit from Miss Pearl, who gives him a heart-shaped pendant that contains a feather. He has visions of teenager strangling his own father and of a cruel woman being strangled.

Aside from these visions and the apparition of Miss Pearl, there’s zero horror, zero suspense in this novel.  Jonah basically thwarts a plot from a bunch of 60s style radicals. He suffers. His mother overcomes hardship. Yawn.

Honestly, I think the biggest problem with this book wasn’t just the lack of horror or suspense. It was the character of Jonah himself. He was just too perfect. He’s polite to his elders, he’s adoringly cute, he’s a piano prodigy, he loves his grandfather.  The story is told from Jonah’s point of view as a flashback from his adult perspective, and perhaps that’s what makes it a little boring. It’s an adult relating a tale that happened to a child, and there’s just very little of interest in this all-too perfect kid. I mean honestly, couldn’t he do one little thing bad? Be bad at something, anything? Have a hang up, be afraid, sass his mother, anything?

He just rings too good to be true. So does his entire family. His mother is a singer with an opera-worthy voice who can’t seem to get gigs except at crappy cafes. His grandfather, another musical prodigy, struggles to play gigs at the local department store. Yet everyone is kind, faithful, family focused and loving to all.

The same goes for the bad guys, but in the opposite direction. The female villain is so one-dimensional you get very little sense of who she is or why she is so nasty and cruel. She’s almost a caricature of a villain flashing a switchblade knife and sneaking in and out of locked doors. The same goes for Jonah’s dad – a caricature of the abandoning father.

What holds the narrative together is Koontz’s amazing gift for language. His writing sings with a poetry and power few authors command, so I forgave him for most of these faults and plowed through the remaining narrative pages to find out what happened. And in the end, I was dreadfully disappointed.

Spoiler Alert -

What gives with the character of Miss Pearl? That was another confusing element to the story. She introduces herself to the young Jonah as the personification of the city itself, the embodiment of their souls and stories. That’s a really fascinating concept. Then at the end it’s revealed that she is what – God? The Virgin Mary wearing a Chanel suit and disguised as a beautiful African American woman? Confusing, and unnecessary to drag that into the story…I wish he’d left her as the personification of the City, the souls of all who dwell in its concrete canyons rolled into one beautiful, intriguing woman.

 

Well, that’s my review of The City.  I borrowed my copy from the public library. The link above will take you to my Amazon affiliate link. If you purchase any products through this link, I receive a small commission, which does not affect your price. Thank you.

Book Review: Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

 

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King finds one of the world’s most popular horror novelists writing in a new genre: thriller.  Mr. Mercedes also offers us an unlikely hero, a retired ex-detective named Bill Hodges. Overweight, depressed and bored, Hodges is contacted by the so-called City Center killer, a mass murderer who plowed a stolen Mercedes into a crowd of job seekers waiting outside the city’s coliseum for a job fair. The City Center killer was one of only four cases Hodges left unsolved before his retirement. Out of clues, out of time, Hodges turned the case over to his ex-partner Pete and resigned himself to a bored, lonely existence…until the City Center killer sends him a letter, taunting him to figure out his next move.

Hodges is joined by an intriguing and fully-fleshed out set of unlikely characters. There’s Jerome, an African American teenage neighbor who cuts his lawn and ends up becoming a sort of junior detective; Janelle, called Janey, the sister of the woman whose Mercedes was stolen by the killer, and a woman Hodges quickly falls in love with; and Holly, Janey’s cousin, an OCD, depressed and repressed 45-year old woman who reminded me of the Bette Davis character in Now, Voyager.

The City Center killer is known right from the start of the book to the reader, so I won’t give anything away by using his name. Brady, the killer, taunts Bill, but Bill is an expert at taunting criminals back and getting them to reveal enough information so he can solve crimes. Together with Jerome, Holly and Janey, he tracks down enough information to figure out how Brady killed Olivia, Janey’s sister, and where his next target will be. Then it is a race against time for them to put together all the clues and find the wily Brady.

One of the things that makes a good thriller is a detective and killer who are evenly matched. The killer has to get caught, of course, or at least get his comeuppance, or else the reader feels cheated. But it can’t be an easy catch or else the reader feels even MORE cheated. Here, King’s ability to write believable, three-dimensional characters really shines.  While I thought Hodges was a better written character than Brady, Brady’s intelligence is believable.

King’s characters in this book as excellent, but the plot, although well paced, had some cliches in it that I thought it could do without. We have the mama’s boy serial killer from a broken home. He seemed too much at time like the killer from Silence of the Lambs, except he had computers in his lair instead of women.

Although this isn’t my favorite King work, it is still a good work, and a solid, enjoyable read.  I borrowed my book from the public library, but you can purchase a copy on Amazon by clicking the link at the start of this blog post or the picture, above. It will take you to Amazon where I have an affiliate link. I receive a little compensation if you buy a book, but it does not affect your price. Thanks.

 

4 out of 5 stars for Mr. Mercedes.

 

Book Review: Amazing Grace, William Wilberforce and the Story of Abolition

 

Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by Eric Metaxas was an expertly written biography. It was engaging, interesting, clever and well-researched. I enjoyed it immensely, but more importantly, I learned about a historic figure, William Wilberforce, who is almost lost to the seas of time but who truly led the charge to end slavery in Britain and indeed, around the world.

William Wilberforce was born at the end of the 18th century. I was surprised to read in the book that unlike how this time period if portrayed in the movies, it was a coarse, cruel time.  People were hypocrites then like now. (Ha! Surprise, right?)  Wilberforce was born into the Church of England, but felt called to become a Methodist as a young man. Discouraged from this serious pursuit, he went to Cambridge and frittered away his youth. However, he did meet some people who would eventually become enormously influential in British politics. William Pitt, the future prime minister, was one such person. It reminded me of the stories I read about Robin Williams and Christopher Reeve, the actor; they were college roommates at Julliard. Can you imagine? That’s the same with Wilberforce and Pitt; can you imagine? It gives me chills to think of how God or fate puts influential people together who will both eventually rise to fame.

Wilberforce felt once again called to become a serious Christian, and had a clear change of heart and great personal awakening that led him to take on many causes. He became a member of the House of Commons while in his early 20s and felt that his two great life challenges would be ending slavery and reforming what he called “manners” in society. Today, we would see this as a general reformation of culture that would encourage faith, family and Christian mindset.  What Wilberforce did eventually morphed into the Victorian era. That’s no small feat.

He was a tiny, sickly man who battled IBS and possibly Crohn’s disease his whole life. He worked tirelessly against slavery, spending decades of his life creating bills to abolish the slave trade, raise awareness of the horrors of slavery, and help the slaves in the Americas and the people of Africa. Eventually, after his crusade won an end to slavery and the slave trade in England and Europe, he tackled the plight of the poor in India, appalled by the practice of suttee or the burning of widows.

Before I read this book, I knew nothing of William Wilberforce. The only thing I recalled from my American history classes in high school was that slavery had ended in England around the early 19th century, but the name of William Wilberforce didn’t come to mind.  It seems fitting somehow that this humble, Godly man’s name has begun to fade from history. He was so humble, he probably would have wanted to have it that way.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading biographies. 4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

I purchased a copy of this book from Amazon. The link above from the book cover image will take you to Amazon, where you can purchase a copy. I am an Amazon affiliate and receive a small commission when you buy books after clicking a link from this website. This does not affect your price in any way. Thank you.

 

Book Review: The Magic of Provence

 

I dream of Provence.

I yearn to live there.

Well…only if I can lead a charmed life, like Yvone Lenard.

Lenard, author of the wonderful memoir The Magic of Provence, truly did lead a charmed life when she stumbled over a tiny village in Provence, France.  She fell in love with the area – with the rugged mountains, the lavender-scented breezes, the nodding sunflowers, the delicious cuisine.

Lenard, who grew up in France but moved to America at age 16, felt a call on the spur of the moment to speak with a real estate agent about finding a house in the picturesque village tucked under the shadow of a Medieval castle.  Although the first few houses she saw didn’t work out, she finally found the right cottage, a tumbling down hovel previously owned by the village’s school lunch lady.  The 1500s home is thought to be have been the garrison of the old castle, and during renovations, she and her husband discover it’s true. Oh, and the house? Originally from 1100!

The author does seem to lead a charmed life, and while her writing style was engaging, I was tempted to sigh and roll my eyes as if to say, “Yes, sure; and you were born under a lucky star too, right?” Because I mean, come on – any one of us who even attempted to buy a home in another country, move back to the United States, and trust that all would be well would find crooks, thieves and blackguards ruining us, right? Instead, the author finds a wonderful local authority on renovating historical homes who handles all the details. She befriends the local royalty. Ah, well…

It’s not all roses and champagne, or lavender and rose as the case may be in Provence. Her cleaning lady cheats her as does her gardener. The cleaning lady stories were the most horrifying to me – the cleaning lady actually let her family sleep in the home while the Lenards were back in California!  And had the nerve to complain about it. Unreal.

In the end however, the stories add up to a charming, funny, witty, and fascinating glimpse into a life I can only dream of but probably will never experience. The Lenards have the money and leisure to pursue their dream of owning a home in France, and they pursue it with gusto.  I enjoyed reading about their adventures in St. Tropez, the time an elephant almost stampeded during an open air performance of Verdi’s Aida, and how a 5-star Michelin chef personally brought a silver bowl of lettuce to their pet rabbit who made the extraordinary journey from the United States to France.  A boring life, no – not the Lenards.

If you love memoirs, then you will love this book. I thoroughly enjoyed it and wished it wouldn’t end. My only regret? Not being able to read the duchess’ book, for Lenard not only befriended the duchess, she encouraged the glamorous lady to write her own memoir. The resulting family history and history of the castle preserved an important piece of local lore forever.  If it’s translated into English, I want to read it.

4 out of 5 stars for this book.

I received my copy as part of Paperback Swap, a club where participants trade books. You can purchase your copy through Amazon by clicking the link above. I am an Amazon affiliate and receive a small commission when you purchase books using these links, but they do not affect your price in any way.

I think I’ve mentioned before the Dollar Tree, the local dollar store, has bins of $1 books every summer. I rummaged through the bin to find potential summer reads and The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld was one of those lucky books that found its way out of the bin and into my purchases. It was a hefty tome, weighing in at over 400 pages, a work of historical fiction that could have benefited from further editing and refinement. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book and look forward to reading the author’s other works.

The date is September 16, 1920, and the first terrorist bombing in American history hits…New York City. Yes, you read that correctly. September 11th wasn’t the first terrorist attack on United States soil. On September 16, 1920, a huge bomb was detonated on Wall Street near the stock exchange and J. P. Morgan’s bank. Many died, many more were wounded, and the bombing was never solved.  Historians believe it was the work of anarchists, but no one group ever stepped forward to claim responsibility, and the “day that America will never forget” is now a day forgotten by nearly all Americans.

Jed Rubenfield uses this historical event to weave a tale around two interesting characters: Littlemore, a New York City police detective, and Younger, a battle-weary physician who still bears the mental scars of World War I. Added to the plot is Colette, a beautiful Frenchwoman whom Younger loves, and her younger brother, Luc, who stopped speaking after their parents and grandmother were murdered by the Germans when their town in France was invaded.

The bombing is the hinge upon which the plot turns, but there are many subplots.  Colette asks Younger’s help to find treatment for her brother, and the three journey to Vienna to consult with Sigmund Freud, who eventually cures Luc. Colette is obsessed with finding a German named Hans Gruber, who she says is her fiance, but who we find out is anything but a fiance. There’s Madame Curie, the discoverer of radium, a crooked and psychopathic factory owner, three strange Italian women following Colette around, kidnapping attempts, immanent war with Mexico…

If you’re feeling lost reading my summary above, it’s not your imagination. I tended to get lost in the plot myself. The author had too many subplots and intrigues going on, and he ended up summarizing events in huge chunks to get to the “good stuff” and move the plot along.

I loved the Younger-Colette theme and wished Rubenfield had made that the subject of one book, then used the Wall Street Bombing as another book entirely. It would have made the entire book faster-paced and more interesting.

Given all of these limitations, however, I did enjoy the book.  The characters were exceptionally well-defined and interesting, defying stereotypes found often in historical fiction. For that alone, I’d recommend the book.

I’m also a sucker for books set in old New York City.  I love New York City, and grew up in its shadow as well as worked in it for 10 years, and it’s in my blood. Imagining horses and carriages, old Model T Fords, and men in top hats strolling along Wall Street was pure pleasure for me.

3 1/2 stars out of 5, with the extra half a star for the fun characters.

I purchased my copy at Dollar Tree, but if you click the link above, it will take you to Amazon, where you can purchase your copy. I do make a tiny commission on the sale but it does not affect your overall price. Thank you.

 

Book Review: Cat Daddy, by Jackson Galaxy

 

A cat lover? Me? Why, just because I have five felines and one ‘semi’ adopted feral I feed whenever he shows up, whatever makes you say I’m a crazy cat lady?

Okay, I confess: I adore cats. I always have. My life wouldn’t be complete without cats. From their obnoxious independence to their cuddly purring, I love my cats. They’re family.

But they’re not without problems. That’s why I tune into Animal Planet’s show, My Cat From Hell.  I’ve always liked its host, cat behaviorist Jackson Galaxy. He’s funky and fun with his guitar case full of cat toys, his twin pieced ears, his bowling shirts and tattoos. This is a guy who looks so comfortable in his own skin that you can imagine the cats eyeing him from under the sofa and thinking, “Hmm…a kindred spirit.”

Jackson Galaxy’s book, Cat Daddy, was a surprisingly enjoyable read. I say “surprisingly” because it wasn’t about Benny, the cat he adopted, but more about Jackson’s life, his battle with drugs, alcohol and compulsive overeating, and how the animals in his life saved him. Working with animals, first at the local animal shelter then in tandem with Dr. Jean, a veterinarian with whom he originally set up his cat behavior practice, pretty much saved Jackson’s life, giving him meaning and purpose as he was battling an addiction to prescription drugs, booze and everything in between.

Benny, the cat mentioned on the cover, isn’t even a minor player in the story. He mentions Benny occasionally to make a point, but I think the weakest aspect of the book was trying to link Jackson’s story to just one of the animals in his life. I didn’t feel that Benny’s rescue story was that compelling. A better rescue story for cat lovers is Dewey, the library cat.

That doesn’t mean that the book is boring. Not by a long shot! It’s a solidly written memoir that focuses on one aspect of a man’s life, and it’s an intriguing, engaging read.

I enjoyed the book very much and am glad that I purchased a copy from the Bargain Books catalog. If you’d like to read it, you can find a copy at the library, or order from Amazon by clicking the picture of the book cover, above. I receive a small commission from the order, but it does not affect your price. Thank you.

3 and a half stars out of 5.

 

 

Book Review: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

Have you ever read a book and wondered how in the heck it ever made it to publication, never mind publication with a reputable publisher and decent reviews? Mennonite in a Little Black Dress was that book for me.  As a memoir, it was dreadful. The book rambled right and left and around, and never got to the central premise: a Mennonite woman rejects her prim and proper upbringing, becomes an academic, is betrayed by her husband who leaves her for a gay lover, and eventually returns home to heal and reconcile with her past.

That’s the book’s premise, and the blurb that enticed me to buy it. What I read instead was a horrible, catty book in which the author mocks her parents, her upbringing, and everything Mennonite, makes apologies for her bisexual, bipolar, abusive and cheating spouse, acts like a door mat to said abuser, and then slinks back to her parents’ house where all she does is feel estranged from her religious, traditional siblings and her sweet parents.

I don’t mind a memoir that pokes fun at one’s upbringing. Some of the funniest times in life are those experienced in childhood but viewed through a retrospective lens.  Janzen, however, didn’t make me laugh. She made me feel sorry for her parents.

I’m not Mennonite, but count myself lucky to have had Mennonite friends throughout my life.  I don’t stand around making fun of them because they’re excellent cooks, eat “weird” food, or wear skirts all the time. I admire how caring their community is, their close-knit families, and their emphasis on faith, family and community.

I felt no sympathy for anyone in this book except the author’s mother, who is ridiculed right, left and center. Talking about your mother’s flatulence in a memoir isn’t funny. It’s cruel.

I hate giving bad reviews. As a writer myself, I know how it hurts to get a bad review. But honestly, for an English professor to have written and published such a lousy memoir…ugh. Ugh and ugh.

Skip this book. I really wish I did.

Book Review: My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner

When I saw this memoir listed in the Bargain Books catalog, I had a feeling I’d like it. I didn’t expect to love it, but love it I did. What a fun tale that reminded me of my own German grandmother and all the immigrant grandmothers I’ve ever met in my lifetime!

Meir Shalev is the consummate storyteller. With a storyteller’s flair, he winds his tale around an unlikely spool: a vacuum cleaner. Not just any vacuum cleaner, mind you. A Hoover canister vacuum sent to his Russian grandmother living in Israel in the early 20th century by her no-good, American immigrant brother in law.

This isn’t just the story of his grandmother. The many layers woven throughout the tale include a fascinating glimpse at the founding of Israel, the early immigrants who settled the agricultural regions of Israel, and growing up Israeli among these salt of the earth people.

Shalev’s grandmother, Tonia, grew up as a fairly well-to-do young girl in Ukraine. When she was 15, she immigrated to Israel to marry. The second wife of an Israeli first-generation settler, Tonia soon found that her new lifestyle on a rugged farm in the middle of the Israeli agricultural region was a tough life and not at all what she was promised.  Tonia took control of her life by fighting the one enemy she could never vanquish: dirt. She became a clean freak, but not in a pathological, Adrian Monk type way. Instead, it was more like the clash of the titans. Tonia versus farm dirt.

Shalev describes his grandmother in loving detail, not sparing the harsh parts of her personality to romanticize her. She is unforgiving and coarse, sometimes cruel. But she is also incredibly hard-working and feisty. Her quirks make her a fascinating, very real person in the story.

The vacuum cleaner itself links all the stories in the book. They weave in and out around the vacuum cleaner like it’s some kind of weird May pole. The stories tell not just Tonia’s life, but the lives of Shalev’s extended family, his neighbors in Israel, and even those who immigrated to America.

The book was originally written in Hebrew, then translated into English, but fortunately the translator left the Yiddish intact, and as a former New Yorker, I enjoyed reading the phrases peppered throughout the book.  Just a side note, but it was fun recognizing expressions I heard growing up near Queens, New York.

This book was truly a delightful, fun and rollicking tale of extended family, family ties, and the history of Israel.  I didn’t expect to love it, but I did.

Four out of five stars. I purchased my copy of this book from Bargain Books, but you can purchase your copy by clicking on the picture above. It takes you to Amazon, where if you buy the book from Amazon, I receive a small commission. It does not affect your price in any way.

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