Six Ways to Sunday: Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood are BFFs

The six buzziest talking points from the weekend and beyond

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Derek Shapton

Welcome to Six Ways to Sunday, your weekly digest of the things in pop culture and news that matter, from this weekend and for beyond.


Google made news this week after a brief unexpected outage of G-mail, inadvertently touching off fears of the arrival of the end times, causing people to hoard bandwidth and squirrel away archived messages in underground bunkers like so many cans of soup. But Google also did us a huge favour, getting two Canadian literary lights in the same e-room: Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood.

The two of them are longtime friends, which is already adorable; can you imagine just sitting in on their coffee dates? But the real magic is in seeing two venerable giants in their field talk humbly and frankly about their craft and each other. The Telegraph probably put it best: “Imagine if we had a video recording of TS Eliot and James Joyce in which they attempted to discuss the hate mail they’d received, each frowning in concentration at a jumpy image of the other. Or Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, both sitting in their own living rooms, joking about readers who thought their characters weren’t nice enough. This is just as much fun.”

It’s worth noting that the 82-year-old Munro seemed her typical spry self, despite the fact that she had to deliver her Nobel acceptance lecture from her Ontario home, as she felt she didn’t have the energy to go all the way to Oslo.

Plus, it doesn’t matter how many literary awards you win, you can’t help the fact that Google chats are going to be inherently jumpy, and more than once, Munro and Atwood were each caught out with fritzy connections and lag times.

Iconic authors, they have problems with the Internet! They’re just like us!


Pandering as it traditionally has to young liberals who love The West Wing (count the author as one, for full disclosure), the Obama administration has announced that the White House will host its first “Big Block of Cheese Day,” invented by fictional and avuncular White House chief of staff Leo McGarry to allow niche groups to have meetings with high-level staffers to bring fresh ideas into the mix. It is regularly counted among fans’ favourite episodes–it features press secretary CJ Cregg (Alison Janney) bemusedly learning that the map we use is completely erroneous–and so the White House will provide access on social media to top officials on Jan. 29.

This presents an ideal opportunity to showcase some little-known trivia: the “big block of cheese” to which the episode refers comes from a legendary party thrown by President Andrew Jackson, who loved cheese and was nicknamed Ol’ Hickory and so, obviously, was gifted a 14,000-pound wheel of cheese in 1835. Jackson had a history of amazing blow-outs: when he was first inaugurated, he invited his supporters to come to the White House. Except 20,000 people allegedly showed up, so eager to see Jackson that they stormed the building, looting and smashing china as it went. Eventually they were lured onto the lawn by punch. Anyway, two years after receiving this improbably gift, an exiting Jackson decided to hold America’s largest cheese-and-cracker soiree ever, with Americans rushing the White House to finish the thing in two hours. Apparently, the cheese had a nasty by-product, according to Jackson’s successor to the post, Martin Van Buren:

The White House has been put in order by its present occupant, and is vastly improved – (Van Buren) says he had a hard task to get rid of the smell of cheese, and in the room where it was cut, he had to air the carpet for many days; to take away the curtains and to paint and white-wash before he could get the victory over it. He has another cheese like that which General Jackson had cut, and says he knows not what to do with it. What a foolish thing for a man to have made such a present to him or anyone else.

Fun fact: Martin Van Buren is largely seen as having popularized the phrase “OK.” He was born in Kinderhook, and was nicknamed “Ol’ Kinderhook,” and when his election campaign got into full swing, supporters called themselves the “OK Club,” and encouraged people to get on board with “OK.”

The Canadian connection, if you’re looking for it? Andrew Bush, Halifax native and former member of sketch comedy troupe Picnicface, filmed this White House spot promoting the event, featuring West Wing alumni Bradley Whitford and Joshua Malina.


Honestly, having presidential race silver medallist Mitt Romney appear twice in the first two Six Ways to Sunday features was not in the plans. But after the Netflix documentary Mitt came out, which was a somewhat uneven but entirely empathetic must-watch portrait of a man willing to offer himself up to crushing, life-defining defeat, Romney–who after his loss has been referred to the most anonymous candidate in recent memory–is back on the interview circuit, including this charming appearance on Jimmy Fallon to slow jam the news. Can we acknowledge how surprising it is that he got that rousing an applause when he was introduced? And oh my God: could he run a third time?! Hold on to your binders of women, kids.


Well, here is just the weirdest thing from the week that was: more than a week ago, noted hothead and frequently unemployed ESPN commentator Keith Olbermann called out Vancouver Canuck enforcer Tom Sestito for a penalty-filled game against the L.A. Kings. Olbermann then picked a fight with Sestito’s 13-year-old sister (though he claims he didn’t know her age, as if that makes it much better).


Swooping in to save the day? Michael Buble, for some reason. Canada’s very own Christmas album king offered to mollify matters by buying Olbermann a Canucks jersey, which he did, adding a note calling for reason in this totally unreasonable tiff. I don’t know what this says about Canada, but I think I like it.


Some good options this week, including The New York Times’ own very reasoned criticism of the blind ascension of #longform giving rise to issues raised by last week’s entry, Grantland’s controversial Dr. V’s Magical Putter: “When we fetishize “long-form,” we are fetishizing the form and losing sight of its function.” But this week? It’s A Toast Storya remarkable read from Pacific Standard Magazine that is ostensibly about San Francisco’s fervour for incredibly expensive toast and becomes a story about something much more moving. Make sure to read it with the Times piece in mind, but remember that good writing is good writing, and a story exquisitely told should be allowed as many words as it needs.


We’re live-blogging the Grammy Awards tonight! Join us starting 6:30 PM EST for Maclean’s own brand of irreverent commentary, incisive analysis, and bold predictions for the winners, and bring your own snark and wit to the affair–it’ll only be as fun as you make it.