Margaret Atwood goes on tour, Anna Wintour thaws, and the director of fun

Newsmakers of the week

Margaret AtwoodAtwood nuts, rejoice
Canadian novelist and soothsayer Margaret Atwood has embarked on an international tour to promote her latest book, The Year of the Flood. As part of her campaign, she will be writing a blog to keep fans up to date on her toing and froing. In her inaugural posting, she welcomes her visitors with a photo: “Here is a picture of me in the garden with giant phlox, before starting out. Will I shrink during the tour? Will I survive it?” She also lays out some ground rules for making her tour as green as possible—for instance, placing special emphasis on train travel, local foods and organic, fair-trade coffees. She plans to pack light: “think pink, pack black. It dirts less.” Finally, she says she will take “the VegiVows” for the duration of her tour, “with the exception of non-avian and non-mammalian bioforms once a week.” She will, however, permit eggs, “viewed as a sort of nut.”

Benjamin NetanyahuSwedish for retaliation
When the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet ran an article accusing Israeli troops of killing Palestinian youths to harvest and sell their organs, Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu compared the allegations to medieval “blood libels,” which claimed that Jews used the blood of Christian babies in holy rituals. “Statements in the Swedish press were outrageous,” an official quoted Netanyahu as saying. “We are not expecting an apology—we are expecting a condemnation.” Swedish officials have so far refused to condemn the article. Until they do, Israel is prohibiting any new Swedish journalists from entering the country, which is small comfort to many angry Israelis. Concerned citizens have launched an online petition to go after the Swedes where it hurts—a nationwide boycott of Ikea.

Duchess of Beirut
Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, is officially persona non grata in the Northern Moor estate in Manchester, a community she ostensibly set out to save in her new reality TV series The Duchess on the Estate. After the premiere episode aired, residents were furious with the depiction of their neighbourhood, which Ferguson described on-camera as “broken,” “violent” and “tragically sad.” Two hundred angry residents protested the show in the park, carrying homemade signs decrying her condescension. “The publicity surrounding this program has made this area look like Beirut,” said resident John Donaghey. “I’m not saying Northern Moor is perfect, but I’m proud to live here and there is a very strong community.” The duchess’s intention was to instill the blue-collar estate with a little civic pride. As she explained to viewers, “I inspire people to get on and do things by rallying the troops. I’m an enabler. What saved people after the Blitz was a cup of tea and a biscuit.”

Anna WintourWintour’s break
Notoriously imperious Vogue editor Anna Wintour, best known as the inspiration for the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada, is on a campaign to soften her icy image. On Monday, she made a rare appearance on CBS’s Late Show, where she traded good-natured quips with David Letterman to promote the upcoming documentary The September Issue, about her work at the magazine. Asked if she is really as mean as everybody thinks, Wintour replied, “Well, I read in the New York Times this week that I’m an ice queen, I’m the sun king, I’m an alien fleeing from District 9 and I’m a dominatrix. So I reckon that makes me lukewarm royalty with a whip from outer space.”

Homicide most foul
On Monday, a Los Angeles coroner’s report revealed that Michael Jackson’s blood contained lethal levels of propofol, a powerful anaesthetic, and ruled his death a homicide. The report increases the likelihood that his personal physician, Conrad Murray, who injected him with the drug the morning he died, will be charged. In a statement, the Jackson family said it “looks forward to the day that justice can be served.” Jackson’s three children, Michael Jr., 12, Paris, 11, and Prince Michael II, 7, were spotted two days earlier on vacation with their grandmother, Katherine, in Las Vegas. Accompanied by three friends and a nanny, the kids ate dinner with their uncle Jermaine in the private dining room at the Palms Resort & Casino’s N9Ne Steakhouse. Their father will be buried on Sept. 3, five days after what would have been his 51st birthday.

Sam PointonThe best part-time job in the world
When Sam Pointon of Leicester, U.K., learned that the director of the National Railway Museum in York was planning to retire, he knew he was the man to fill the vacancy. In his job application, Sam, a six-year-old train fanatic, wrote: “I have an electric train track. I am good on my train track. I can control two trains at once.” Sam also noted that he has been on “loads” of trains, “including the Eurostar.” Museum staff were so persuaded by his letter, they offered him the title of “director of fun.” “It is the best job in the world,” Sam told the BBC. “I love it. It is good fun.” Unfortunately, the job is not a full-time position, as Sam had presumed. “He thinks now he has got this job he won’t have to go to school,” said his mother, Lorraine. “We had to tell him he still has to go to school.”

On the road again
An unnamed 67­- year-old pensioner from Germany set out in his manual wheelchair recently to propose to the woman he loves—who lived 200 km away. According to Germany’s Spiegel Online, it took the man four days to wheel himself from his hometown of Minden, in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, to Salzwedel, in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt. But when he finally arrived and asked for his lady’s hand, his offer was spurned. On his return voyage, hungry and lovelorn, the man stopped by a cornfield in the town of Celle. As he reached for a cob of corn to eat, his chair tipped over and spilled him out. He used his cellphone to call local police, who rushed to the scene and set him upright. “The corn he wanted to eat was not even edible,” said Guido Koch of the Celle police department. “It was field corn for animal fodder.” The man immediately set off again back home, refusing a ride from police.

Caster SemenyaWelcome back, Caster
South African runner Caster Semenya, 18, returned home to a heroine’s welcome after an emotionally taxing week at the World Championships in Berlin. Semenya won the gold medal in the women’s 800-m race, but was later ordered by officials to undergo a gender test. Although Semenya, a verified female, was proven to have won the medal fair and square, she later told Leonard Chuene, president of Athletics South Africa, that she didn’t even want it anymore. Chuene told local media that he had to persuade Semenya to collect her medal on the podium. “She is not rejoicing,” he said. Chuene said Semenya felt “humiliated,” and asked him, “Why did you bring me here? You should have left me in my village at home.” At the airport in Johannesburg, however, thousands of supporters welcomed her at the airport with placards and joyful song and dance.

It was the pits
Ana Maria Martinez, a Grammy-award-winning soprano from Puerto Rico, was taken to hospital last week after she fell into the orchestra pit during a performance at Britain’s Glyndebourne Festival. The incident happened during the first act of Antonin Dvorak’s Rusalka, in which Martinez was playing the lead role. “It was right near the end of the act when the prince and Rusalka are singing together,” audience member Denis O’Sullivan told the British Times. “As she stepped away from him her feet got caught up in some netting around a lake in the scenery. She struggled to keep her balance for a second, then fell backwards down onto the orchestra.” It was “excruciating” to watch, he said. Luckily, Martinez was unharmed. After 20 minutes, the show resumed without her, despite her protestations. Understudy Natasha Jouhl happily stepped in to fill the role of first nymph.

Jayson BlairLet me be a lesson
Notorious serial plagiarist Jayson Blair, 33, has found himself an unlikely new profession: life coach. According to Britain’s Independent, Blair—who, in 2003, was revealed to have fabricated many of his stories for the New York Times—has been working for two years as a certified life coach, employed by Ashburn Psychological Services, a mental health clinic in Virginia. On his website, Blair writes that in order to help his patients with personal and career-related struggles, he draws from his own experiences with addiction and mental health issues. “When somebody comes in because they are struggling with their job, I can definitely relate to them,” he writes. “Particularly now, because of the recession, a lot of people are looking at a career change and a new direction and they are going through what I went through. Of course, without the scandal.” Blair also admits that when he first began working at Ashburn, a well-respected clinic, many of the psychologists on staff were skeptical about adding him to the team. “But these days,” he says, “they are as likely to come into my room, slide on my couch, pick up my teddy bear, put a blanket over them and start telling me their problems.”

Kartika ShukarnoSpared for now
On Monday, Kartika Shukarno, a 32-year-old Malaysian mother of two and part-time model, was due to be punished by caning for having been caught drinking alcohol in public at a hotel in 2007. Kartika accepted her sentence without appeal—despite the national controversy that erupted over its severity—and even asked that she be able to undergo her punishment in public to serve as an example to other Muslims, a request that was denied. But on Monday morning, after Kartika had boarded the van that was to take her to a prison where the caning would be carried out, Malaysian religious authorities changed their minds. They later said they weren’t lifting her punishment, but delaying it until the end of the holy month of Ramadan, which began last Saturday. Kartika, who will be the first woman to be caned in this increasingly repressive nation, was “shocked,” she told reporters. “All I want now is to know my true situation and do not treat me like a football.”




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