Almost English (The JC)

Almost EnglishBook of the week

AS the granddaughter of Hungarian immigrants to the UK, it was perhaps inevitable that the novelist Charlotte Mendelson would one day mine her family’s experiences. Given that the resulting novel is

Almost English — a tale of adolescent insecurity, secrets and lies and the eccentricities of the émigré — it’s to our gain that she did.

 The heroine of  Almost English is Marina, a  preternaturally intelligent but emotionally  naïve teenager, growing up in west London in the late 1980s. Her life — and the lives of  those she lives with, specifically her mother,  grandmother and two exquisitely inimitable great-aunts — is turned upside down when she decamps for a boarding school. Though she expects Blytonesque jolly hockey sticks, it turns out to be a hotbed of teen vindictiveness, sexually entitled teenage boys and Sloaney Kate Middleton types.

A vague romance offers Marina a ticket to a very different life from her own, as she gets to know the upper-class Viney family, with the predictably frosty blonde wife and arrogant but charming patriarch, in whom Marina identifies the perfect role model.

The novel, set over a term at Combe Abbey School, follows Marina as she attempts to reconcile who she thinks she wants to become, with her eccentric, Hungarian-immigrant family, who are introduced to us via absurdly large amounts of food, wafts of perfume and accented English. To Rozsi, Marina’s grandmother, life is “von-darefool”; to Marina, the family is a much-loved burden to shoulder.

Meanwhile, as her daughter struggles with the peculiarities of a very English life, her mother Laura — an English rose somehow swallowed up by the Hungarians — considers how her life has reached this point, and wonders whether she will ever move past the disappearance of Marina’s father.

The two stories are delightfully interwoven to reach a climax in which various secrets come to light. Mother and daughter misunderstand each other and fail appallingly to communicate, while the clucking chorus of Hungarians look on, boasting big earrings and a well-developed ability to do exactly what they want.

Marina, neurotic, innocent, is a delightful heroine; not necessarily likeable as a young woman, but someone you know would be fantastic company in a few years. Laura is rather more listless, constantly thinking rather than acting, and is perhaps less easy to root for. For much of the novel, I wanted to shake her into taking control.

Almost English is a colourful, clever novel with more than enough intrigue to keep you turning the pages. And although Mendelson’s Hungarians are not designated as Jewish, their unapologetic outsider status, and their refusal to adjust their curious behaviours to British expectations, will surely be familiar to many whose family arrived as immigrants. An enjoyable, convincing book.

 

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Mini cheesecakes

To mark the Jewish festival on Shavuot, on which dairy products are traditionally consumed, I decided to attempt a cheesecake recipe. I’ve tried making cheesecake before, with mixed results, but this time I went for a BBC food recipe for mini raspberry cheesecakes, which you can find here.

The recipe turned out to be a good ‘un. I used a single raspberry at the base of each cake, them added a small dollop of cream cheese icing on the top, for presentation (and taste) purposes. Word of advice: the recipe said it made eight, but the mixture went far further when using normal-sized cupcake cases.

Next up, I’d like to try these with chocolate or strawberry, or perhaps a caramel filling.

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Home made frozen yoghurt

So I recently acquired an ice cream maker – ice cream, if course, being my favourite food. But conscious of its calorific nature, I decided to experiment with making frozen yoghurt – and, as it happened, it turned out delicious.

I used a recipe by David Lebovitz, from his book The Perfect Scoop, which can be found here. I used greek yoghurt (life is definitely too short to bother straining yoghurt) substituted agave nectar for some of the sugar but, having made it since, it works just as we’ll either way. I’ve also since experimented with making a chocolate version, adding some good quality cocoa to the mix before churning, which turned out great as well.

Delicious, and we can at least pretend that it’s heathy!

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My week in writing

As short week, but once in which I interviewed a childhood heroine – Judith Kerr – author of The Tiger who came to Tea and the wonderful Pink Rabbit trilogy. At nearly 90 she was .and is a remarkable women; witty, charismatic and genuinely a pleasure to speak to. Most interesting were here views, as a former refugee, on immigration and its positives.

Elsewhere, I reported on Melanie Phillips’ plan to run her own publishing company, covered the tale of Polish-born spy during the Second World War, who was remembered at a ceremony tis week, and wrote about what will be on offer in the third series of the channel 4 comedy Friday Night Dinner.

I interviewed a very humble writer called Josef Novakovich, who is in the running for the international Man Booker prize, and discussed why he believes Stephen Hawking’s academic boycott is counterproductive. And I reported on a talk by National Theatre director Sir Nicholas Hytner, in which he discussed his views on the prejudice in Othello and The Merchant of Venice.

And in comment I featured a review of a new book on Hollywood and Hitler, and commissioned a piece by Jonni Berger who, with his sister, launched a campaign to find his mother a stem-cell donor – a successful campaign, I should add.

My week in writing

Plenty of coverage of arts and entertainment this week, as I went to the launch of the new season of The Apprentice, covering what Lord Sugar had to say – reluctantly, on his part, since he seemed less than happy to be at the launch – and digging into the history of one of the candidates.

I also spoke to some leading names in the Jewish cultural world, discussing Culture Secretary Maria Miller’s recent comment on arts funding, and heard why the issue is not as simple as she made out. Following the Olivier Awards, I chatted to one of the winners, Top Hat producer Kenny Wax, and then spoke to the daughter of Irving Berlin, who composed the music that appears in the show.

Elsewhere, I looked into the BBC’s mysterious cancellation of a documentary about Jerusalem’s history, and spoke to the director to hear his version of the story. I heard from the US pollster Nate Silver at a speaking event, reporting on his views on Ukip.

And looking back in history, I covered the “Downton Abbey Jews” who fled Nazi Germany on domestic service visas in the 1930s: a fascinating and little-discussed slice of the past. And in comment I was pleased to relaunch the section, with teaser images and a new weekly book review column.

Over on Indy Voices, I argued that the fascinating with stranger-than-fiction stories of the conduct of religious people wasn’t necessarily healthy or constructive.

My week in writing

I spent Wednesday of this week with my head buried in old government documents – top secret files dating back to 1943 onwards. The papers in question were colonial records, newly released at the National Archives.

Aside from the thrill of being among the first people to study these documents in seven decades, it was fascinating, for the insight into the history and politics of the time, and for what they revealed about British manners in he 1940s. My research yielded several news stories: about British attitudes before the end of the Mandate period, the High Commissioner’s thought on the Jewish fighters, the situation of Arab nationalism during the Second World War, and about how the SS Exodus incident was viewed by British diplomats.

Elsewhere, I enjoyed a preview of Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher, learning that she felt that the Finchley Tories were sacrificing Jewish voters. I covered a Channel Four documentary on the property boom in Gaza, speaking to the presenter about what he found, and reported on the sale of a poem by an extraordinary Victorian writer and feminist, whom Oscar Wilde viewed as a rare talent.

In comment, I wrote about why communal squabbling was not only childish, but ultimately destructive, and enjoyed the fact that all three of the commissioned comment pieces (not including the regular columns) were written by women.

I also familiarised myself with some of the history of Israeli art, from the latter part of the 19th century to modern day, and heard from the author of a new book on the subject why there is more to the country’s cultural heritage than pictures of camels.

Finally, I wrote for the Independent on the subject of role models, discussing whether the contributions of celebrities could ever be of educational value.