Reviewing David Mitchell’s Thinking About it Only Makes it Worse and Jan Wong’s Red China Blues
My newfound love of British Comedian, David Mitchell, goes all the way back to Douglas Adams who inspired me to write in the first place. I can’t count how many times I read through the entire Hitchhikers’ Guide series during high school, but it made that journey so much easier and then some. Not only did I start writing fiction because of Adams, I discovered Doctor Who through “Voyage of the Damned”, my first foray into all things Whovian that happened to feature the Starship Titanic.
It was through a conversation between Arthur Dent and Fenchurch where I first discovered the Guardian and in 2010 I started reading it. Or rather, I frequented their website where I found myself going through articles from columnists including Charlie Brooker, Marina Hyde, and Hadley Freeman. The first two got me hooked—Brooker with his cynical take on modern television and Hyde through her contributions to the Lost in Showbiz blog that poked at celebrities from escapades to personalities.
I read through David Mitchell’s Observer columns, but it wasn’t until after I graduated from university last year when I decided to reread through them as curated in Thinking About it Only Makes it Worse. Why? Thank that time when I watched through That Mitchell and Webb Look last December while sick with a common cold. Those sketches helped me forget how ill I was and turned those couple weeks around from the usual sluggish doldrums.
Like those sketches, Mitchell’s book is just as clever. At first glance, it looks like a self-help book with chapters that group common twenty-first century nuances. This impression helped bring out the humor of the whole thing and hooked me in. Unlike Brooker, Freeman, or Hyde, Mitchell takes a more modest approach that brings out his wit throughout, sometimes imagining satirical situations or pointing out the irony in politics. He knows how to weave anecdotes and wit together to make his modest approach effective, more so than Brooker’s hyperbolic tirades about television. Every chapter had me grinning from ear to ear and made Mitchell’s column worth reading and re-reading.
Jan Wong’s initial Maoist leanings prompt her to head over to China to find out how the ideology plays out, only to find herself studying at Bejing University. From there she tells about what happened during her stay as she weaves reportage and memoir together to create a vivid image of her ancestral home.
Wong’s exploration of her Marxist leanings reminded me of the chapter in Mark Kermode’s book, It’s Only a Movie, where Kermode travels to Russia with his colleague, Nigel Floyd, in order to cover the filming of Mariano Baino's Dark Waters. Kermode himself comes from a similar ideological background, explaining his own Trotskyism while he studied at Manchester in a previous chapter. While in awe at Moscow, he finds himself becoming disenfranchised as he finds himself in more squalid, and unequal, conditions.
Wong’s own experience turns out similar albeit with completely different results as China’s government almost expels her for a trip to the Soviet embassy with a friend. The memoir doesn’t end with her university experience, but moves forward to her days as a Bejing correspondent for the Globe and Mail where she found herself covering the Tianmen Square massacre. Her firsthand experience along with her other investigations reveal China’s more corrupt and inhumane secrets alongside the eventual denial of the massacre from government officials.
Throughout all this, Wong’s voice matures gracefully and sometimes laughs at her past as a Maoist. I’m not keen on spoiling anymore of it. This is a must read for anyone who loves a good memoir, or wants to learn about China from a firsthand account.
CC: @booksnips as promised from forever ago.