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Tina Brown's Must-Reads: How Places Shape People

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Tina Brown's Must-Reads: How Places Shape People

Tina Brown's Must-Reads: How Places Shape People

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Tina Brown, editor of The Daily Beast and Newsweek, joins us once again. We call the feature Word of Mouth. We're hearing what Tina's reading. Welcome back to the program once again.

Ms. TINA BROWN (Editor, Daily Beast, Newsweek): Thank you very much. It's great to be here, Steve.

INSKEEP: And we're going to be talking about articles that give us examples of the way that places, particularly unique places, shape people. And we're going to begin with an article called "On Libya's Revolutionary Road."

Ms. BROWN: Yes. This piece in the New York Times on Libya, the weekend, really what was great about it was it goes in close to these rebels and really in the vignettes that it gives, and in the portrait of Benghazi you really get a sense of this crazy culture that's been shaped by this lunatic, Gadhafi, that we can hardly conceive of living in a place like this.

I mean, Gadhafi, residents say he redirected raw sewage into a lagoon by its downtown and let a foul stench drift over the plaza nearby. I mean, it's kind of inconceivable to ask that this kind of living situation is what people have been dealing with in this town that we have paid no attention to at all.

INSKEEP: And in this New York Times Magazine article by Robert F. Worth, you get a sense of people who almost snapped. There's a description of a man named Mahdi Ziu, I believe, who's described as a mild-mannered guy who cried when watching television dramas with his wife and daughter. He disliked politics. He didn't want to get involved. Suddenly he did get involved, and it's described how he drove his car toward a Libyan government position and smashed it up against a gate and blew it up. He basically turned himself in a suicide bomber.

Ms. BROWN: He turned himself into a flaming, you know, sort of mission of destruction. And you have to just admire these people enormously for the kind of desperation they've lived in for so long, and then you see it snapping in the most incredible way.

There's another great vignette about a man who finds himself with, you know, Kalashnikovs, you know, pointed at his head. He hides amongst the bullets flying around him, he gets tortured, he winds up in a hospital in the scene of kind of bedlam in there, and finally he manages to get out and stagger home only to find that his entire family are there, you know, conducting a wake because they thought that he was dead. So he walked, literally, into his own funeral.

I mean, these are the kind of dramas that are taking place every second, you know, in Libya that are wonderful to read about up close. It's not what you're getting, obviously, from, you know, the TV sort of big picture. This is about getting at the worm's eye and seeing what they're dealing with.

INSKEEP: And let's talk about another place, an unusual place, that has shaped the people in it. Dexter Filkins, now with the New Yorker magazine, writes from Yemen and provides a portrait of some of the protestors there.

Ms. BROWN: Yeah, for a start, just little details that come out, just simply about the situation in general. You know, he says that Saleh, for instance, who's in charge of Yemen, took over after the assassination of the president, al-Ghashmi, who was killed by an exploding briefcase. And you say, well, this is the kind of stuff they take for granted here - an exploding briefcase can get rid of the president.

And he talks about how - the thing about Saleh is he doesn't really have any kind of ideology. He's really all about just staying in power. He says he - he quotes an official as saying his character is entirely situational. Generally speaking, he's more interesting in transmitting than receiving.

What Dexter's really good at, actually, is getting wonderful quotes from people. He has a great eye for a quote.

INSKEEP: Creepiest character in this article in a cast of creepy characters might be an Islamist who is part of an opposition group, but it's been an official opposition. Maybe he's been working with the president, maybe not, and he shows up at these - what had been somewhat secular protest rallies and starts talking about bringing Islam.

Ms. BROWN: Well, you know, what is really interesting, as you say, is the creepiness of the characters, 'cause there are many characters, which is what, you know, is so great about Dexter's piece. There are these people now who are completely sort of cynical and expedient who are just simply sitting on the sidelines waiting for where the power goes.

And the last lines of the piece are very chilling because he's basically a guy who's going to sit there and wait. He thinks it's all going to fall apart. You know, the fact is that the rebels will be disbursed, the spotlight will go on, and back to being situational again, whoever has the power. And it is creepy and you see it.

INSKEEP: You've also sent us some reading here that brings us back home, although to another unique place - New York City, which is the setting for this book, "Red on Red" by Edward Conlon.

Ms. BROWN: You know, Edward Conlon is another wonderful writer. And you know, again, as with these other two pieces, you're reading about how - another kind of New York City from the ones that sort of inhabits the daily news columns in a sense - you know, the sort of - the city of success, the city of achievement. This is the undercurrent that works through the sort of subculture of crime and poverty in New York City.

And Conlon is a cop - was a cop - and rather like Richard Price, he has, again, a great sense of the sort of sleazy world of pushers and rapists. The novel starts at dusk falling in the woods of Inwood Hill Park, where the detective is called out to find a dead girl in a tree, dangling, he says, like a morbid ornament.

Then he goes on to talk about the office of central booking, and he talks about it as it had its own band of air - sometimes strong, sometimes milder - but always with the same blend of resentment and despair and days old underwear funk.

It sounds - you know, not a pleasant read, but frankly it's so gripping as the sensibility of this cop sort of is weaved through the sense of place.

INSKEEP: Is this the kind of detective story that helps you get away from reality even though it's rubbing your face in reality?

Ms. BROWN: Well, I was totally gripped for five hours on an airplane by this book, so I mean it's a different kind of hell. But I don't think anything right now is quite as gripping as these foreign stories from these Arab countries.

INSKEEP: Word of Mouth from Tina Brown. Tina, thanks very much.

Ms. BROWN: Thank you.

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