The headline-making book of the past week has been Once Upon ASecret, Mimi Alford’s graphic (and undisputed) account of her affair, at age 19, with John F. Kennedy Jr.. If the major news outlets can be counted on, this week’s Secret will be an even more graphic memoir, Scotty Bower’s Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars, in which the elusive but legendary Bower spills all about sleeping with, and procuring for, a range of stars and starlets including everyone from Tennessee Williams to Katharine Hepburn to kingship-abdicating Prince Edward and his wife Wallis Simpson (herself the subject of a biography also releasing this week, That Woman by Anne Sebba, already a UK bestseller).
Pushing beyond the mass media’s everlasting capacity for sensationalist sex-baiting, there’s a far more noble trend at work in this week’s releases, centering around the theme of courage in troubled times. As a barometer of national mood, the theme can certainly be found in today’s political reporting, which depicts a votership waiting ever-more-impatiently for a politician willing to stand up for his principles in the face of, well, just about anyone—remember the wild audience enthusiasm that greeted Newt Gingrich when he stood up to a CNN debate moderator? Several new titles this week speak directly to that enthusiasm.
PublicAffairs releases such a book this week by Washington insider Ira Shapiro, who spent the ’70s and ’80s working for senators, and the Clinton years as a U.S. trade negotiator and an ambassador. Called The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis, Shapiro’s debut considers a period when the U.S. Congress was known for something besides breaking their own records for lowest approval rating ever, when they confronted nation-polarizing issues like Civil Rights, the Great Society, Vietnam, and Watergate. In our review, we said that Shapiro’s “excellent account of wise, capable U.S. senators putting constitutional concerns over party and ideology to do the people’s business is a prime example of how Washington can overcome its present deadlock.”
The politics of courage gets some disturbingly visceral stakes in two more titles out this week, Rowman & Littlefield’s My Life in Prison: Memoirs of a Chinese Political Dissident by Jian Qisheng, and Harvard University Press’s To Free a Family: The Journey of Mary Walker by Sydney Nathans. Qisheng spent four years in prison for publishing an essay on the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre and leading a candlelight vigil in their honor, and his memoir describes the “Guinness Record Levels of Suffering” a human rights activist in China must suffer for even the smallest stand. To Free a Family follows Mary Walker, who escaped from slavery in 1848, and then spent 17 years trying to rescue the family she left behind—including her two children. Nathans’ narrative centers on the epic courage of Walker as well as the abolitionists who helped her.
Meanwhile, Farrar, Straus and Giroux makes the most definitive entry in the mid-February courage collection, Eyal Press’s Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times. FSG is positioning Beautiful Souls as an answer, fifty years later, to Hannah Arendt’s exploration of the “banality of evil” in the Eichmann trial: a dramatic examination of the man’s fundamental kindness to man in examples ranging from the Holocaust to the U.S. financial industry. Press tells the Tip Sheet this week that he wanted to write about acts of “morally imaginative courage” without putting the actors on a pedestal: “So, there’s a Serb in my book who, instead of seeing Croats in the detention camp as enemies, he sees them as human beings. That’s an act of empathy. It doesn’t take being perfect or heroic or brilliant to feel empathy or compassion, it’s a universal human capacity.”
Press is less interested to speculate about the apparent hunger for that kind of moral imagination in our national discourse, but points out that this kind of courage doesn’t come from rebellious outsiders ready to take on the system, but from the true believers: “All the whistleblowers and the officials who end up speaking out, they really believed in their organization. And it’s not an accident: if you go into something already cynical, then what’s the point of putting up a fuss? If you really believe in the principles and the ideals of the thing, that’s something else.”
Correction: In an earlier verions, this story mistakenly stated that the book about an affiar with John F. Kenney Jr. was Fairytale Inerrupted by Rosemarie Terenzio; it has been updated to reflect that the correct book is Once Upon ASecret by Mimi Alford.