Archive for the ‘Articles’ Category

Lunch With Jan WongIn a post-TMZ and Perez Hilton world, where the gleeful spreading of celebrity gossip and slander has become part of peoples’ daily lives, it is almost difficult to believe that the columns collected in Lunch with Jan Wong upset so many readers on publication.  Once called the “Hannibal Lecter of the lunch set”, Wong is a Canadian journalist who, from 1996 to 2002, interviewed celebrities over lunch for her column in the Globe and Mail newspaper.  Her aggressively forthright accounts of those meals enraged many of her subjects (and a fair number of her readers) but mostly serve to highlight the writing skills that so many “lifestyle” or entertainment columnists and gossip bloggers today lack.  She is funny and observant, sharp and, despite her reputation, sympathetic.  These are interviews, not fluff pieces; Wong was not there to write only flattering, glowing things about her subjects.  She was there to write about interesting people in an interesting and intelligent way.  And that is exactly what she did, making this a very entertaining book.

The majority of her lunch dates are with other Canadians, though a fair number of international figures also appear.  Wong is good at explaining each of her subjects’ backgrounds and accomplishments though, so it hardly matters if you’re familiar with the person already.  She talks to an impressive range of people, from all walks of life: there’s a hostile Margaret Atwood, a brawling beauty queen, sex therapist Dr Ruth, Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown, hockey commentator Don Cherry (this was the only interview that made me cry), pro-choice advocate Henry Morgentaler, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, cartoonist Lynn Johnston, Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek, Hong Kong political activist Martin Lee, actor Anthony Quinn, and others.

Wong is tough on her subjects, there is no question about that, and, unsurprisingly, actors and writers caught up in the exhausting conveyor belt of public appearances and press interviews sometime snap under examination.  But, let’s be honest, that is where some of the fun lies.  The book begins with Wong’s very first “Lunch with” subject: Margaret Atwood.  Neither woman is at her best: Wong was given the story last minute and didn’t have time to do sufficient prep and Atwood is easily offended, by both Wong and their surroundings.  That is what makes this sort of interview fun: Wong is recording what happened during the brief period she spends with these people, not trying to provide a fair or balanced in-depth portrait of them.  If they were rude to the wait staff, if they were picky eaters, if they had bad table manners, Wong is sure to say.  She does not go off the record.

One of the best features of the book are the endnotes Wong provides to each interview, describing how the subject and the public reacted to the piece.  Delightfully, she quotes some of the complaints she received from readers, which sometimes seem founded and sometimes not.  Wong is marvellously thick-skinned about it all and I loved the balance these other perspective provide.

Though her subjects may complain and threaten to sue after publication, the majority of the pieces are positive.  Some of them are not quite as detailed as you might hope (her interview with Yo-Yo Ma gives a wonderful impression of his hectic schedule and impressive energy but very little insight into the man himself) while others are fascinating glimpses into the lives of less famous but no less interesting figures.  My favourite interview in the entire book was with John Cleghorn, then the chairmen of the Royal Bank of Canada, who admitted to having teared up (as I did) while reading Wong’s earlier interview with Don Cherry.

I have to admit that there was really never any chance I was not going to enjoy this book.  Wong was the reason I started reading the Globe and Mail as a teenager.  It is a paper with many flaws but, while Wong worked there, I always had something to look forward to, both in these interviews and in her more intensive feature pieces.  I have loved her four other books (three about her time in China as first an exchange student and then a journalist and one, which I will be reviewing soon, about her workplace-caused depression) and Lunch with Jan Wong, by far the lightest in terms of subject matter, was no exception.

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London War NotesLondon War Notes, 1939-1945 by Mollie Panter-Downes was my second book of 2013 and also my second book of the year by Panter-Downes, having started with her beautiful post-war novel, One Fine Day.  I loved the novel, though perhaps not quite as much as I loved Good Evening, Mrs Craven, a volume of her wartime short stories, but nowhere near as much as I loved this volume of wartime journalism.  Every fortnight throughout the war, Panter-Downes wrote a “Letter from London” for The New Yorker, giving American readers a glimpse into life during wartime as civilians dealt with rationing and bombs, suffered victories and defeats.  Published in 1971, this book contains all of the letters and provides one of the finest, most perfectly observed portraits of wartime England I have ever read.

Panter-Downes has a gift for relating small particulars that amounts to a kind of genius.  I loved her use of imagery in her fiction but was not sure how that would translate to journalism.  I need not have worried.  From the first letter it was clear that, if anything, as a journalist she was even more attuned to the details.  Her description of the civilian response to the declaration of war, with middle-aged women and retired officers mobilizing in the country, was wonderful:

All over the country, the declaration of war has brought a new lease of life to retired army officers, who suddenly find themselves the commanders of battalions of willing ladies who have emerged from the herbaceous borders to answer the call of duty.  Morris 10s, their windshields plastered with notices that they are engaged on business of the ARP or WVS (both volunteer services), rock down quiet country lanes propelled by firm-lipped spinsters who yesterday could hardly have said ‘Boo!’ to an aster. (3 September 1939)

She also manages to include information I didn’t know or had forgotten about and, more delightfully, to corroborate information I’ve gleaned from novels.  Having enjoyed Angela Thirkell’s rants about the awful standard of programming offered by the BBC during the war, it was great fun to hear someone else complain about it too:

…it does seem probable that schemes for reopening theatre and cinemas will be drawn up shortly.  Meanwhile, Britons find themselves dependent for entertainment on the BBC, which desperately filled the gaps in its first wartime programs with gramophone recordings and jolly bouts of community singing stiff with nautical heave-hos and folksy nonny-noes.  There has already been considerable public criticism of these programs and of the tendency of announcers to read out important news in tones that suggest they are understudying for Cassandra on the walls of Troy. (10 September 1939)

No wonder they had to reopen the theatres and cinemas if that was the only entertainment on offer!

Even though Panter-Downes was writing for an American audience, she does not pander.  She reports on what is happening in London and rural England, which is not necessarily what Americans were most interested in hearing about.  America’s entry into the war (and the bombing of Pearl Harbour) is over-shadowed by public concern for friends and family members working or stationed in the Far East:

On Monday, December 8th, London felt as it did at the beginning of the war.  Newsdealers stood on the corners handing out papers as steadily and automatically as if they were husking corn; people bought copies on the way out to lunch and again on the way back, just in case a late edition might have sneaked up on them with some fresher news.  Suddenly and soberly, this little island was remembering its vast and sprawling possessions of Empire.  It seemed as though every person one met had a son in Singapore or a daughter in Rangoon; every post office was jammed with anxious crowds finding out about cable rates to Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, or Penang. (14 December 1941)

Though she can touchingly discuss the fears of her fellow Englishmen and women, she is not sentimental.  Part of what I loved so much about Good Evening, Mrs Craven was her willingness to explore the anger and disgruntlement that lurked beneath the more acceptable stoicism or jolliness.  Here, somewhat surprisingly given her audience, she is just as open about the mood of bitterness and frustration that settled over the country during the darkest moments of the war in 1942: the Pacific theatre had opened, a German invasion seemed imminent, and even Churchill was no longer infallible:

His promises that Singapore would be held and that Rommel’s forces would be destroyed haven’t helped the public to view with equanimity to the ignominious British retreats in Malaya and Libya.  You hear people say that they have always trusted him in the past because they knew that he would let them have the truth, however unpalatable; now there’s an uneasy suspicion that fine oratory may sometimes carry away the orator as well as his audience.  You also hear people say that anyway they’ve had enough of fine oratory; what they would like is action and a sign from Mr Churchill that he understands the profoundly worried temper of the country… (14 February 1942)

Once the outlook for victory began to improve – perhaps especially once that started to happen – Panter-Downes was still there, perfectly observing and relating the mood of a population tense with anticipation:

Londoners, normally as good-tempered a crowd of people as you could hope to find anywhere, are beginning to show the strain of these first keyed-up days of a year which by now every statesman must have hailed as one of fateful decision…Naturally, a lot of the native good humour and manners is still around, but the surface impression is that everybody’s nerves are frayed.  Possibly it’s the inevitable hangover of the winter’s flu epidemic, plus four years of wartime diet, but it seems more likely to be an inevitable result of simply waiting for something to happen.  (30 January 1944)

The writing is unfaultable but the book as a whole can make for heavy reading.  Each letter is dense with details, providing an invaluable blend of political and domestic observations, but as a collection the flow is slightly awkward at times.  There are repetitions and contradictions which would not have been obvious to The New Yorker’s subscribers, reading these letters months or years apart, but which are noticeable here.  Still, editing the letters and removing content would have me up in arms: it might give the book a better flow but it would sadly impair its value as a historical document.  What I am truly bothered by is the editor’s apparent disinterest in providing any introduction to Panter-Downes or information on her life when she was writing these letters, and I am irritated his only half-hearted effort to clarify which battles and world events Panter-Downes references (though not always by name) in her letters.  Battles that once occupied the headlines are now long forgotten and though there are some explanatory notes I think more detail would make the book more accessible.

These letters lack the personal touch of diaries since Panter-Downes maintains journalistic detachment throughout, detailing the experiences of the everyman rather than relating anecdotes about herself (at least openly), but with her clear eye for detail Panter-Downes captured moments that other accounts omit.  She is calm in her reporting and thankfully unexcitable but knows exactly what will be of most interest to her readers – both then and now.  Having sampled three very different examples of her writing, I can now declare that it is Panter-Downes the journalist who impresses me the most.

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moranthologyIf you had asked me after I read the introduction to Moranthology by Caitlin Moran if I was going to enjoy the book, I would probably have said no.  If you had asked me halfway through (when I was clearly enjoying it) if I liked Moran, I would have certainly said no.  But if you ask me now, with the finished book sitting beside me, my answer would be a resounding yes.  Simon was right (obviously): Caitlin Moran is basically Dickens, though probably a lot cooler than he ever was.  I feel like Dickens would have never been asked to go to a sex club with Lady Gaga or be drinking buddies with one of the stars of Downton Abbey.  Then again, I could be selling him short.

Living far, far beyond of the reach of The Times, I had never read any of Moran’s articles for the paper before.  I have never read her bestseller How to Be a Woman, either (though not for lack of trying: I am currently number 26 on the library wait list).  This was my introduction to her writing and what an introduction it is.  Moran’s topics are diverse but she is just as capable of making the case for why Ghostbusters is the greatest movie of all time as she is of drawing on her own personal experiences to explain, simply and powerfully, what social benefits mean to the families that rely on them.

It took me a while to warm up to Moran, I will admit it.  The first fifty pages were a little too “smart-aleck columnist with not a lot to say but nevertheless able to say it in a mildly amusing way” for my taste, with Moran chatting about her discovery of caffeine, her tardiness when going to interview the Prime Minister, and her misguided decision to join a charity marathon walk.  But then she reminded me of the genius of Ghostbusters and I started to soften towards her personally because, really, how can you hate someone with such excellent taste?  Immediately after that, there was a shockingly good interview with Keith Richards followed by two wonderfully light and enthusiastic reviews of Sherlock.  After that, I was hooked.

I had the most fun reading the pop culture pieces, like Moran’s reviews of popular shows like Sherlock (which she adores) and Downton Abbey (which she does not).  She is almost giddy over the absurdities of Downton Abbey:

Honestly, Downton is off its chanks.  Sometimes it plays as if writer Julian Fellowes sits at his writing bureau – overlooking his extensive lands, including three rivers – sucking on a helium balloon, and giggling as he starts bashing at his typewriter.  This is, after all, the drama where an evil, chain-smoking maid caused her mistress to miscarry by deliberately leaving lilac-scented soap on the floor, which she slipped on.  Yeah, that’s right.  She killed the unborn Earl of Downton with soap.  This is a plot twist not even Dynasty, at its most gibbering, considered.

Moran proves that she is able to do more than just glibly gush over or deride television shows (talented at that as she is) with more lengthy feature articles and interviews.  There is a piece about her visit to the Doctor Who set in Cardiff and another about her “Day with Paul McCartney.  From the Beatles.”  Her interviews with Keith Richards and Lady Gaga were surprisingly fascinating; I know next to nothing about either performer but Moran’s pieces made for compelling (if, in the case of Richards, slightly horrifying) reading.  That is the mark of a good journalist: making the inaccessible accessible.  Her obituaries for Elizabeth Taylor and Amy Winehouse are also both excellent.

There are plenty of personal, family-focused articles littered throughout the book, her children getting frequent mentions but little direct attention and each section beginning with a piece in which she harasses her husband.  These can grate at times (especially the needy bedtime conversations with her husband – just let the man sleep!) but they give way to more enjoyable, relatable pieces on her hatred of a children’s television character, the necessity of alcohol in a parent’s life, and her refusal to make party bags.

While I enjoyed myself from page 50 onwards, it took a while for me to warm to Moran herself.  She is opinionated and I loved that but her glibness, though thoroughly entertaining, can create a distance between her and the reader.  When she finally got serious, it brought me up short.  She mentions her large family and impoverished youth in Wolverhampton frequently but generally handles the subject humourously.  It is not until she addresses proposed benefits cuts by the Coalition government that she discusses the sober realities of growing up poor:

What’s it like, being on benefits?  Being on Disability Benefits – ‘I’ve had a hard day’s limping, to put that tea on the table!’ my dad would say, as we sat down to eat something based around a lot of potatoes, and ketchup.  Well, mainly, you’re scared.  You’re scared that the benefits will be frozen, or cut, or done away with completely.  I don’t remember an age where I wasn’t scared our benefits would be taken away.  It was an anxiety that felt like a physical presence, in my chest – a small, black, eyeless inset that hung off my ribs.  Every Tory budget that announced a freezing of benefits – new means-testing, new grading – made the insect drill its face into the bone.  They froze benefits for four years in a row, as I recall: ‘freezing’ being the news’s way of telling you that you – already poor – will be at the checkout, apologizing as you take jam and squash out of your bag, put them back on the shelves, and ask them to add it up again.  Every week you fear that this is the week the pennies won’t stretch any further, and something will disappear: gas, food.  Your home.

As much as I enjoy fun, chatty, informal Caitlin and am impressed by slightly serious Caitlin, resolutely serious Caitlin is formidable.

Despite a hesitant beginning, I loved this collection.  It was a wonderfully thorough introduction to Moran – both as a person and as a writer – and the articles that touched on feminist topics have only made me more excited to read How to Be a Woman.

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