Thursday, August 28, 2008

Moving house in three weeks (second time in 12 months) hence blogging hiatus.


Of all the books I’ve read in the last few weeks, Away by Amy Bloom has been one that gripped my imagination right from the first page.

Lillian Leyb is a 22 year old Russian Jew who arrives in New York in 1924, having lost her husband and family in a bloody pogrom back in Russia during which her three year old daughter vanished. Like the many thousands of immigrants who entered the USA through Ellis Island she speaks no English, is penniless and her only contact is a distant cousin. She is utterly determined to build a new life, and will do whatever it takes to survive and prosper – after all, nothing can ever be as horrendous as what she has already endured.

She is fortunate enough to encounter Reuben Burstein and his son Meyer who take her under their wing. Reuben is the grand old man of Jewish theatre in New York and his son is a much admired actor, and Lillian becomes mistress to both men. Life is becoming comfortable but complicated.

Then one day her cousin Raisele (who Lillian thought had died back in Russia) turns up, and tells Lillian that her daughter Sophie is alive. According to Raisele, the child was rescued by another Jewish couple during the pogrom and they fled the village taking her with them. They told others that they were going to head east to Siberia.

Lillian is immediately consumed with the need to return to Russia to find her child, but how to get there? After consulting her friend Yaakov who draws up an itinerary for her, she will travel west to Seattle, and from there travel north to Alaska so that she can eventually cross the Bering Straits into Siberia. The Bursteins and others try to dissuade her and one asks:

You already live without your little girl--why not go on living without her? Because she belongs to you? Is that why?”

“…Because she is a little, little girl,“ answers Lillian, “Not that she is mine. That I am hers.”

The rest of the book is the story of her odyssey and the trials and tribulations she endures in cities and the wilderness. Each chapter is a vignette of a section of the journey and introduces the extraordinary people she meets en route. Gumdrop the gorgeous black prostitute who rescues her from the gutter in Seattle, Chinky Chang the Chinese con artist who takes a shine to her when they meet as inmates of a women’s prison near Prince Rupert in British Columbia, and John Bishop the reclusive policeman who killed a man in a bar brawl and is lying low in the wilds of Alaska.

As Lillian moves on her way, the author fast forwards through the life of many of the characters she has met and the reader discovers what happens to them. Gumdrop, for instance, reinvents herself as a very proper school teacher and lives the rest of her life in bourgeois probity.

I would not dream of spoiling the book for other readers by revealing the outcome, but for me the ending was absolutely right.

In some ways this book is a linked series of short stories, so I was not surprised to find out that Amy Bloom has published a couple of books of stories already. Her writing is lyrical at times, sometimes humourous and sometimes tender, and in Lillian she has created a character who personifies how the human spirit can endure the most challenging situations.

It was not until after I read the book that I discovered that the inspiration behind it was the vague legend told in the Yukon of a young Jewish woman called Lillian Alling who “walked to Russia from New York” in the 1920s.

A wonderful life-affirming book, I really recommend it.

Rated 5*


I am so naïve. I thought I knew – more or less – what a charity is. There are two or three which I support because I think they do a wonderful job.
In Britain charities are highly regulated by the Charities Commission. This I presumed was to ensure that conmen/women were not setting up bogus schemes and fleecing the public.

However it was not until very recently that I learnt, from a Charities Commission survey, that two thirds of the biggest charities in this country get nearly 80% of their money from us as taxpayers rather than from donations by people who support the causes of the particular charity. These charities have more in common with quangos; the temptation for a charity receiving 80% of its income from government funding must be to fall in with government requirements for the spending of such funds, thus removing any real independence of action.

Working my way through the list of charities which get money from the government (ie: us, the taxpayers) I came across some which surprised me.

Among them was the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (aka RSPB) which gets £20 million each year. Twenty million pounds per annum to save the birds, this in a country that is denying cancer sufferers, on the grounds of cost, some of the drugs that could help them. Hmm….

Oh and another thing, one of the latest projects funded by the RSPB is to save the Jerdon’s courser, an endangered bird native to India. Don't get me wrong, I like birds and when back in Africa I have been known to spend hours birdwatching, although I could hardly call myself a fully-fledged twitcher. The project is very laudable I’m sure, but am I happy about my taxes going, without my knowledge to a charity I personally haven’t chosen to support who then use that money to save a bird in a country which has more millionaires and billionaires than we do in the UK. Well what do you think I feel? Someone should be telling people that this is where our taxes are going.

I’m telling you now.


Last week I had a phone call from my DD saying that she and DDF had discovered a wonderful bramble hedge with a bumper crop of berries when out walking near their home in Cambridge. They planned to go back at the weekend and pick several kilos of fruit to make jam, and could I give them a recipe.
As I hate the little seeds that stick in your teeth, I usually made Bramble Jelly, but it takes longer and requires more fiddling about with jelly bags or squares of muslin, so I gave them this jam recipe which I have made once or twice in the past. It is an easy recipe and very tasty on hot buttered toast!


1kg brambles
350g apples (eating, cooking or
White granulated sugar. (Make sure you have at least 1½ kilos available.)

Core and roughly chop apple (skin on)

Put apples, cores and brambles into a large heavy bottomed pan, add just enough water to barely cover the fruit, simmer gently until the fruit is soft.

Push the softened fruit and juices through a sieve and weigh the pulp.

For every 450g pulp allow 450g sugar.

Put the pulp and sugar into the pan and heat very gently, stirring, until all the sugar has dissolved.

Bring to the boil and boil rapidly without stirring for 8-10 minutes until the jam reaches setting point.

Once setting point has been reached, allow jam to cool for a minute or two before ladling into warm sterilised jars. Top with wax jam covers whilst hot before sealing jars with lids.

Label and store in a dark, dry place.


Nick said...

I work for a charity myself, but I didn't realise some of them get so much government money. As you say, how can it can be right that the RSPB gets so much cash to save a few birds when people with cancer can't get necessary drugs? And yes, of course they're going to do the government's bidding. But I don't object to so much money going to a worthier charity - like cancer research in fact.

I worked for a charity that got no government money at all, but they still wasted huge amounts of the public donations they depended on. All nine NI staff would be regularly jetted over to London for completely useless 'staff forums'. Many charities have very lax controls on how income is spent so it often gets misused.

Jeanne said...

That is quite scary. Birds are important, but are they worth sending cancer patients home to die because there is no money for new drugs?? Thanks for highlighting this.