STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Tina Brown, editor-in-chief of the Daily Beast, and soon of the magazine Newsweek, is with us once again. It's a feature we call Word of Mouth. Tina brings us reading recommendations. Hi, Tina.
Ms. TINA BROWN (Editor-in-Chief, Daily Beast): Hi, how are you?
INSKEEP: I'm doing OK. Our theme today is heroism, and I guess we get that word from the one-word title of the book we'll discuss first. The author is Michael Korda. The book is "Hero."
Ms. BROWN: Indeed. This book is just the most gorgeous biography of Lawrence of Arabia. What Michael Korda has is this great accessible style, a fabulous eye for the gossip and the detail and the voice of Lawrence, as well as being able to analyze the more historical aspects of it and the geopolitical aspects of it. So it's a really juicy read. I did love this book.
INSKEEP: Let's remember: Lawrence of Arabia was a British military officer, an intellectual, at the time of World War I. He went out virtually alone, sometimes absolutely alone, into the deserts of Arabia. The British were fighting Turkey - the Turks controlled Arabia at that time - and he basically worked with the Arabs to generate a revolt against the Turks.
Ms. BROWN: He was. And you know, the think about Lawrence, which is so incredible, was he sort of understood, mastered and initiated this whole notion of counterinsurgency all those years ago. I mean, he understood how to penetrate, how to woo, how to be swift, brutal and surprising. And he did all this stuff while being this kind of intellectual thinker, incredible writer.
You know, he was only five-foot-five-inches tall. I mean, people think, I think, of Lawrence as glamorous in a way as Peter O'Toole was. But he's...
INSKEEP: He looks giant on the screen in David Lean's movie.
Ms. BROWN: He looks giant on the screen but he was five-foot-five with piercing blue eyes. And one of his great gifts was his ability to kind of make himself invisible. I mean, although he became one of the greatest celebrities of his era - kind of a male Princess Diana as far as the public were concerned - he had this incredible gift also of being able to kind of just make himself a watcher and a listener so that they didn't really see that he was there, until he would suddenly kind of emerge from his own anonymity to dominate a room with this extraordinary gift he had for both eloquence and personal charisma.
INSKEEP: One of the things that I love about this book is that I had in the past read Lawrence's "Seven Pillars of Wisdom," basically an autobiography of this period. Michael Korda will quote vast passages, pages and pages of that that autobiography, and say here's what Lawrence wrote, here's what he said, and then as a biographer, he backs away and says here's the context, here's what he may have been accurate about that. Here's what he may have left out.
Ms. BROWN: Well, what I love about the Korda book is that he understands when to write his own words, when the subject's own words are more interesting. There's a great passage, actually, when Lawrence first has to win the trust of King Faisal.
And if I just may quote it here, he says: In a soft voice, speaking Arabic, Faisal asked Lawrence, And do you like our place here in Wadi Safra? To which, after a pause, Lawrence replied, Well, but it is far from Damascus. To quote Lawrence, his words fell like a sword into their midst, and all those in the room held their breath for a silent moment. Then Faisal smiled and said, Praise be to God, there are Turks nearer us than that.
INSKEEP: Let's remember when he says it is far from Damascus, he's basically suggesting to these Arabs in the desert they go and capture Damascus, one of the great Arab cities.
Ms. BROWN: It's a beautiful moment and marvelously told by Lawrence but also wonderfully recaptured by Korda.
INSKEEP: So that's one hero that we're talking about here. Let's talk about a slightly different definition of heroism. You've directed to our attention an article from the New Yorker. The headline is Command Performances.
Ms. BROWN: Yes. This is an absolutely delicious piece by the movie critic Anthony Lane. And he likes "The King's Speech," which a new movie directed by Tom Hooper starring Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, about the relationship between the British King George VI and his speech coach, Lionel Logue.
INSKEEP: Anthony Lane notes that this is not the most obvious subject for a film, a stuttering king that most Americans today probably have never heard of.
Ms. BROWN: Yes. It's a wonderful dynamic that these two share - the shy, reluctant king and his struggle to overcome his shyness so that he could actually do incredibly important things, like speak to the nation in major broadcasts, speak at his coronation. All of these things were an ordeal beyond belief to this man because he didn't really have the ability to speak clearly.
INSKEEP: Now, let's remember this is King George, who led the British Empire through World War II. It wasn't exactly a placid time.
Ms. BROWN: Absolutely. But this relationship between the speech coach, the Australian played by Geoffrey Rush, who really has to kind of get at the inner side of the king, who he's known as Bertie to his family and who the speech coach insists on calling him Bertie too, so he can penetrate the kind of the kingly carapace - and how these two evolve this relationship, which in the end helps to make this hesitant, shy man, with the support of his wife, who became, of course, the famous queen mother, gets to talk to the British nation.
INSKEEP: Let's talk about another person you define as a hero, a more recent figure: Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of John Edwards, the former presidential candidate.
Ms. BROWN: Margaret Carlson on the Daily Beast filed a very terrific - I thought - sort of tribute to her courage. You know, she says that we all have a terminal illness, except those who get by a bus, but few have suffered more in the public eye than Elizabeth Edwards. She talks about how staggering it was that during the campaign, when Edwards was running for president, the press corps was summoned for what was expected to be an announcement that Edwards, having learned that his wife's cancer, which had returned, would now be dropping out of the race.
But, you know, she says not at all. Edwards would be staying in with Elizabeth's full-throated support, saying how important it was for the country. That day she acted as if nothing had changed in the desperate hope that nothing had. Well, of course, we know how much this woman was suffering. Not only had she had got cancer, but of course that her husband was carrying on this affair and was possibly the father of this child, which he would never admit but in fact kept tormenting her about.
INSKEEP: But does the hero apply to Elizabeth Edwards for maintaining dignity, I guess is a good word, under such pressure?
Ms. BROWN: Yes, I think it does. I think at the very last we really have to say - I was critical of Elizabeth at the time, saying, you know, she shouldn't have supported him in this way, you know, she colluded. And indeed she did kind of drink the Kool-Aid and become herself, I think, tainted by his narcissism into wanting that goal as much or as more, perhaps, as he did.
But I think we have to also say that she suffered such a tremendous amount. Maybe she was misguided, but she did show enormous character in terms of her children at the end, trying to make this something out of this desperate mess that she'd been handed. It all went wrong, and in that sense I think we really have to salute her courage at the end.
INSKEEP: That's Tina Brown of the Daily Beast and Newsweek.
Let's listen to some of the words of Elizabeth Edwards, who died yesterday in North Carolina at the age of 61. Years ago she published a memoir that chronicled her battle with cancer and other episodes of an eventful life. Here is some of what she said in 2007 when talking with Renee Montagne.
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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
There is something very lovely that you wrote. This is when your family was stationed in Japan. You were a young girl. And it's about, well, in a way, how lives go on. It's about Oban, a particular holiday.
Ms. ELIZABETH EDWARDS: Yes. It's a summer festival that the Japanese have that honor the people who have died. And it goes on actually for several days. But the last day of Oban is clearly the most moving.
That last night of Oban, the little boats would be set out on the river and the landscape would gleam with the tiny flames and then gleam again with the reflection of those flames in the water and on the white paper sails of some of the boats. The beauty and the glory of this image never left me. Not just the image, but the sense that all these souls - thousands of them - were being led by the delicacies their families had prepared and by the lights in the bows glistening above the black water and that all of the souls were traveling together to be on the other side of the river - together.
INSKEEP: That's Elizabeth Edwards in 2007. She died yesterday after a long battle with cancer.
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INSKEEP: This is NPR News.
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