Tina Brown's Must-Reads: On Life, Start To Finish

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Tina Brown, editor of The Daily Beast and Newsweek, checks in again with the recommended-reading feature that Morning Edition likes to call Word of Mouth.

This month, Brown selects a book and a pair of articles that take us through life — from creating it and raising children to growing up an only child to a writer's reflections on his battle with cancer.

A Mother's 'Anti-Romantic Child'

Brown's first choice is a memoir by Priscilla Gilman — a Daily Beast contributor, former English professor and mother of a child who turned out not to be what she expected.

"Gilman was an academic," Brown tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "She was teaching classes on Wordsworth, and she'd always had this fantasy, as all mothers do, of the kind of child that she would have who would be absolutely like herself."

Priscilla Gilman's new book, The Anti-Romantic Child, is a celebration of her son, Benajmin, who has a form of autism.
The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy
By Priscilla Gilman
Hardcover, 304 pages
Harper
List price: $24.99

But things changed when Gilman took her then-2-year-old son, Benjamin, to a nursery school interview. While Benjamin was able to perform the tasks that were asked of him, the teachers believed he was behaving oddly, and they told Gilman that something wasn't quite right with her son. Brown says Gilman's account of this crushing realization is one of the book's most poignant moments. Gilman writes,

One of the most painful things about these discoveries was that they made me feel that all the things I'd considered unique and special about Benj were instead uncontrollable manifestations of a disorder. He was not unusual; he was typical, ordinary, a classic case. He didn't have an interesting mind; he had faulty wiring.

All of the qualities that Gilman had thought made her son special were in fact symptoms of hyperlexia, a disorder on the spectrum of autism and Asperger's syndrome. His stilted speech, his tendency to echo back questions instead of offering answers, his issues with eye contact — all of these characteristics made Benjamin unable to understand and communicate in the way other children do.

"The book is really about how she copes with this news and alters her understanding of what being a mother is going to be, while at the same time loving her child so much and understanding how she must now approach everything about him differently," Brown says.

A Grown-Up Reflects On Life As An Only Child

For her next pick, Brown recommends an article by Geoff Dyer, published in the latest issue of The Threepenny Review.

"It's about growing up as an only child in Britain with parents who adored him, but who were very poor," Brown says, "although he didn't see them as poor at the time."

Dyer's parents did everything they could to economize: opting for the cheapest versions of everything, rarely going on holiday and even hand-making clothing for his action figures.

"All of this litany of things about his childhood he kind of accepted at the time," Brown says. "[What] he didn't really accept — and what became for him the abiding memory of his childhood — was the long, yawning afternoons when there was absolutely nothing to do."

Forced to come up with ways to amuse himself, Dyer unwittingly prepared himself for his future career as a writer.

"Having to sit there all day long and come up with something to amuse himself, in the end, defined kind of the way he's living today," Brown says.

But Dyer also talks about his transition into adulthood, when he came to realize that the worlds of his parents and his own were beginning to diverge, without anyone left to hold them together.

"In the end, he goes to Oxford, he becomes — of course — brilliant because he sat there reading all the time, and he realizes that he and his parents have got to find some way to connect, because being an only child meant there was no sister or brother who could ... somehow bind this strange little threesome together," Brown says.

So Dyer attempts to reach out to his parents by, at one point, surprising his mother at the school where she works as a cafeteria cook. The surprise leads to a kind of understanding that while Dyer's education may have driven a wedge between them, the family's ultimate goal was for Dyer to lead a more comfortable life than his parents had led.

"[It's] a very touching moment," Brown says. "They embrace and hug each other, and he tries to communicate a sense that there is a world beyond the world that they have."

Writer Christopher Hitchens was diagnosed with metastasized esophageal cancer in June 2010. He told NPR that while doctors say he has a chance of remission, his chances of living longer than five years are slim. i i

Writer Christopher Hitchens was diagnosed with metastasized esophageal cancer in June 2010. He told NPR that while doctors say he has a chance of remission, his chances of living longer than five years are slim. Brendan Banaszak/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Brendan Banaszak/NPR
Writer Christopher Hitchens was diagnosed with metastasized esophageal cancer in June 2010. He told NPR that while doctors say he has a chance of remission, his chances of living longer than five years are slim.

Writer Christopher Hitchens was diagnosed with metastasized esophageal cancer in June 2010. He told NPR that while doctors say he has a chance of remission, his chances of living longer than five years are slim.

Brendan Banaszak/NPR

An Author Loses His Voice, And Discovers A New One

Finally, Brown's last recommendation is Christopher Hitchens' Vanity Fair article about his newfound appreciation for the writer's voice now that his battle with throat cancer has deprived him of his own.

"He's become more and more compelling as a writer," Brown says of Hitchens. "The beautiful essay that he writes here about his voice is really one of the great things that he's written."

Brown says the loss of a voice was particularly profound for Hitchens.

"Christopher Hitchens' voice has always been one of his greatest gifts," she says. "He had a marvelously melodic and resonant voice that he used to great effect, and for him to lose this voice is absolutely a traumatic thing for him."

Brown points to Hitchens' painful description of the process of losing his voice:

Deprivation of the ability to speak is more like an attack of impotence, or the amputation of part of the personality. To a great degree, in public and private, I "was" my voice.

Brown, who has been friends with Hitchens for nearly four decades, remarks that the author really has managed to define his own unique and natural style of writing — but it wasn't always that way. Hitchens recalls that as a young writer in the '70s, he was advised by The Guardian's Simon Hoggart to write more like he talks — and it worked for him. Hitchens writes that if he had lost his voice earlier in life, he might never have discovered his writer's voice.

"He actually genuinely did find his voice and became a different kind of a literary journalist than he was in the early part of his career," Brown says.

Brown says that instead of depriving him of his voice completely, Hitchens' battle with throat cancer has simply added another layer of complexity to his words.

"There's no doubt that not being able to speak probably has taken him further into himself to write an emotionally pure kind of writing that he really in the past might not have wanted to do, so it's made him a very personal writer in a way," she says. "It is interesting how his prose has changed as the illness has taken hold."

Books Featured In This Story

The Anti-Romantic Child

A Story of Unexpected Joy

by Priscilla Gilman

Hardcover, 291 pages | purchase

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