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Tina Brown's Must-Reads: Stories Of Survival

In a French cemetery in 1939, two members of the British Expeditionary Force observe the traditional two-minute silence on Nov. 11 -- Armistice Day. Post-World War I Britain is the focus of Juliet Nicolson's <em>The Great Silence</em>, one of Tina Brown's most recent recommended reads.
In a French cemetery in 1939, two members of the British Expeditionary Force observe the traditional two-minute silence on Nov. 11 -- Armistice Day. Post-World War I Britain is the focus of Juliet Nicolson's The Great Silence, one of Tina Brown's most recent recommended reads.

For Morning Edition's feature "Word of Mouth," Daily Beast editor-in-chief Tina Brown joins NPR to talk about what she's been reading -- and what's made an impression. This month, the stories Brown brings Renee Montagne are about surviving and thriving no matter what the circumstances: as a CEO of a troubled corporation, as a young adult struggling to grow up, or as a citizen readjusting to life after wartime.

'We Had To Own The Mistakes'

Brown's first pick is an interview with once and future Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. Schultz originally stepped aside as the corporation's chief executive in 2000, when his company was at the height of its success. But eight years later, the corporation was in deep trouble.

"For some reason we seemed to become the poster child for excess," Schultz tells Harvard Business Review writer Adi Ignatius. Schultz, who'd been watching from the chairman's seat, reassumed his old position in 2008, determined to rebuild the company.

Brown admires the honesty Schulz displays throughout the piece, especially in the quote that's been chosen as the interview's title.

"He talks about how you really have to own up to the mistakes that you … have made yourself," she explains, "in order to move on. And he says it's like when you have a secret and [you finally] get it out: The burden is off your shoulders."

Schultz's greatest challenge was combating the idea that Starbucks represented corporate overkill. He also had to resist pressure from his board of directors, who wanted him to franchise his stores -- "which would have given him a huge war chest of cash," Brown says. Instead, Schultz retained corporate ownership of stores, allowing him to control their creative direction. He also found creative ways to reorient his staff.

"Just at a point when everybody was saying, 'You must cut costs, you've got to refocus, you've got to do all this,' " Brown says, "he actually took 4,500 members of his company to New Orleans to do community service." During the weeklong retreat, the Starbucks employees helped hurricane victims and discussed their company's core values.

"It was a very enlightened, visionary but also rebranding exercise where he says, 'This is a company that cares about people,' " Brown explains. "[It] really did help an enormous amount in reminding people that Starbucks actually was a company that cared about people and customers."

'What Is It About 20-Somethings?'

Howard Schultz survived and even triumphed over the difficulties he faced. But one group of Americans is finding survival and growth to be extraordinarily difficult. Last Sunday's New York Times Magazine cover story examined the curious state of 20-somethings, who seem to be growing up painfully slowly. As "What Is It About 20-Somethings?" explains, today's young adults are marrying later, finding jobs later and continuing to be dependent on their parents far longer than 20-somethings of previous generations.

"I found it very fascinating because I have to say, I know a lot of people who are going through this right now with their 20-something kids," Brown says.

Part of the problem may be "so-called 'helicopter parents' who won't let go themselves, and then are surprised when their kids seem unable to really break the umbilical cord," she suggests. The nation's stagnant job market also isn't helping matters.

But as author Robin Marantz Henig suggests, the main issue may be that 20-somethings are simply experiencing a unique life stage that has not traditionally been recognized.

"She says we now know, for instance, that the brains of young people are still developing at the age of 25," Brown says. Perhaps, then, "it's only now, when people are allowed to forestall adult obligations without fear of public censure, that the rate of social maturation can finally fall into better sync with the maturation of the brain." In other words, 20- to 25-year-olds have never truly been mentally mature -- "but in the past, economic [and] social circumstances have forced kids out really before they're truly mature," she continues.

Brown admits she's not totally sold on some of the ideas in Marantz Henig's article.

"I have to say that I tend to feel, having read it, that this is really much more an index of privilege than not," she points out. "I mean, you have to ask yourself how fast kids ... who go to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq have to mature, like it or not."

The role of parents, too, deserves greater scrutiny.

"We read articles more and more about parents who have to be kicked out of college when they drop off their kids because they can't let them go," Brown says. So perhaps the issue is not just that 20-somethings are caught in the misunderstood stage of early adulthood -- maybe their parents are also "involved in a phase which she doesn't discuss, which is emerging empty nesting."

'The Great Silence'

"I think one of the reasons I felt a little impatient with the findings of emerging adulthood was I was simultaneously reading Juliet Nicolson's wonderful book The Great Silence," Brown confesses. That book -- subtitled Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age -- is a social history examining England in the years following World War I.

Brown explains that its title refers to the two-minute silence observed since the first Armistice Day, marking the cessation of hostilities on Nov. 11, 1918. "Everything in England stopped at one moment, and the war dead were remembered," she says.

In The Great Silence, Nicolson uses anecdotes, diaries and letters to create portraits of 35 people living in England after the armistice. Her characters range from "under-chauffeurs and below-stairs people" to "royalty, as well as famous writers and artists," Brown says. And in Brown's eyes, Nicolson's bottom-up approach to history is what makes her book so affecting.

"What we don't think about is the devastating trauma of what it was like when one in seven young men in England had died," she says. And certainly the incidents from Nicolson's book that Brown recounts are harrowing.

"She describes scenes like, for instance, riding the bus, and suddenly some woman would just break into wild tears as something had reminded her of her son, or her brother or somebody in her family," the editor says. "Or she would talk about men walking the streets of London wearing these strange, eerie tin masks because their faces had been shot away."

One surgeon, Howard Gillies -- himself a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps during the Great War -- was so affected by the tin-masked men that he worked to develop a revolutionary plastic surgery technique. Nicolson devotes a chapter of her book to describing his work.

All of Brown's "survival" picks are about displaying character in the face of stress. Howard Schultz, for example, succeeded because of his uncommon audacity and vision. America's 20-somethings may be foundering because most of them "haven't really faced up to the stresses [that] people like Schultz are writing about yet," Brown says.

And the survivors of the conflict once called the War to End All Wars faced the ultimate test: trying to readjust after a horrific, unimaginable trauma. As Brown puts it: "You do have to admire these people who returned under such terrifying circumstances and simply had to pick up and carry on."

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