Books for PXEers

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  PXE Vision: By and For PXEers
  by Pat Manson

Books for PXEers

June 2012


So there I was in 2010. It had been 9 years since I’d been reduced to reading only via audiobooks. Despite that lengthy period, I’d still not gotten the hang of it. In fact, I was lousy at it. To be fair, reading audiobooks as one’s sole method of reading is more difficult than one might think. Sure, it’s greatlistening to an audiobook while you’re in the car on a long commute, while you’re ironing your laundry or doing yard work. That’s entertainment while you’re doing something else. But it’s a different matter altogether when it’s your sole means of reading and you can do it only when you purposefully do nothing else. My problem prior to 2010 was that I sat, listened, focused, read ... and then my mind wandered or, worse, I fell asleep. Not surprisingly, both my reading quantity and enjoyment dropped dramatically.

But then in late 2010, I got really sick and remained sick for over a year. (I’m fine now, and it wasn’t PXE-related.) During those long months, I was consigned to an easy chair and an ottoman in our family room. So I turned to audiobooks. With thousands of hours to fill, I pushed through my attention-deficit problem and have since become a solid audio reader, consuming them almost at my pre-vision loss rate. Problem 1 solved.

I’m a reality person. I don’t enjoy science fiction or fantasy literature, much to the dismay of my sons. I prefer my fiction gritty, deep, real life-ish and, my wife Gerlinde sometimes laments, depressing. My taste for nonfiction, mainly history, is pretty much the same.

Enter Problem 2. Now that I’d mastered, or at least, was much improved at reading audiobooks, I had to agree that my usual fare was doing me no favors. It was certainly filling the days, but, man, it was a grim, disheartening slog. I was already depressed with my situation; I was experiencing all of the reality I could stand. So I set out to vary the content of my customary reading until I got better. I sought books that were real-ish but that were funny, or at least optimistic, that had characters with positive attitudes or that, God forbid, had happy endings, books that were affirming of human nature, spirit-lifting. Not saccharin, for sure, but not soul-crushing, either.

With my new book selection policy in hand, I chose dozens of great books, read loads, put away my handgun (just kidding) and eventually got well. Those different (for me) books got me through a long rough patch and it occurred to me that because PXEers are sometimes depressed, often justifiably, my book selections might be helpful.

So here are some of my choices. They’re all available in audiobook form, of course, most downloadable from or, increasingly, free at your public library.

The Miracle Worker by William Gibson. This play portrays, with some dramatic license, the real-life relationship between Annie Sullivan, a governess and teacher, and Helen Keller, Annie’s sole charge and pupil. When they met in the late 19th century, Helen was a seven year old deaf and blind (and therefore mute) girl whose parents had been unable to teach her much and who had practiced little discipline on her, allowing Helen to become virtually feral. Annie introduced discipline and structure to achieve some order. Then she was able, with taps of her fingers and other tactile guidance, to familiarize Helen with the world of language. With Annie’s help, Helen turned her life around, later attended college (with the help of Mark Twain) and became a writer, activist and, ultimately, a celebrity, serving as an inspiration for those with disabilities all over the world. Keller died one of the best-known disabled people in world history. The play, in various forms, has been seen on TV, Broadway and the movie screen.

The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough. By the author of the popular histories 1776, John Adams(made into an even more popular TV mini-series) and Founding Fathers, this is a surprising story. We all know the outline of the cataclysmic event: in 1889, a reservoir dam broke and a Western Pennsylvania town was deluged. But we don’t know about the shocking indifference and incompetence that led to the dam bursting as well as much of Johnstown being built without regard to past floods. Nor do we know about how violently powerful the flood was: the wall of water that had been the reservoir hurtled down the 14 remaining miles of the Conemaugh River Valley toward Johnstown, the wall disguised because it carried as its vanguard a myriad of forests and small towns it had swept up, at times nearly 100 feet tall and its progress occasionally approaching 100 mph.

How could the story of this flood, which killed 2,200 in Johnstown, at least one member of almost every one of the town’s families, possibly be an uplifting story? Because the surviving townspeople started, at dawn the next morning, to plan their new town. They established a new government, a digging-up­-the-bodies detail, a morgue, a new cemetery, a hospital (Clara Barton showed the world the value of her new Red Cross there), an orphanage. When the word got out, men out of Pittsburgh worked around the clock to replace the railroad lines into Johnstown. When that was completed, the trains rolled in, one after another, with food, clothing, tents, building supplies, medicine donated from all over the globe. But the residents deserve the greatest credit. Johnstown and its unsuspecting people suffered a terrible, demoralizing loss, yet very few left town, and together they rebuilt their town within a few years.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. Just how much can one man take? If you were Louie Zamperini, a helluva lot. This is the incredible nonfiction story of Louie, a U.S. airman and former Olympic runner shot down over the Pacific during WWII. He and a fellow crewman were adrift on a life raft for 47 days (they started as 3, but 1 died), their deprivations amazing—no food or water, storms, sharks—their adaptations and will to survive even more so. At journey’s end, Louie’s trials were far from over: he and the surviving crewman were captured by the Japanese, shipped to Japan and separated. Louie endured cruel imprisonment and torture for more than 2 years. He withstood it all, well, unbroken and went on to a life helping others. And you thought you were tough. This guy did not break. By the author of Seabiscuit.

Coincidentally, the author herself knows something about overcoming challenges. In college, she developed Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. While she is an award-winning writer, she is largely housebound, often bedridden. From there, she does her research. The perfect writer to tell Louie’s story.

The King’s Speech by Mark Logue. Another true story about the interwoven lives of two heroic individuals, the fixer and the fixed, two men whose lives couldn’t have been much different. The fixer was Lionel Logue, an Australian with working class roots, recently transplanted to England in the 1920’s, with a gift for aiding those struggling to regain the ability to speak or even to uncover it for the first time. Originally an elocution teacher, he had discovered this talent when he helped soldiers returning from WWI recover their speech after being gassed in the trenches of Europe. The fixed—or, more accurately, the eventually fixed—was none other than Albert, Duke of York, the second son of the then-current generation of the royal family, the House of Windsor, later King George VI, “Bertie” to his family and friends. Bertie was the “spare”; his extroverted older brother David was the heir apparent, the prince who had been trained for the job and who eventually became Edward VIII. Shy, bookish and with a terrible, seemingly insurmountable speech defect, Bertie was content to remain in the background.

All that changed when, in 1936, David abdicated the throne, and Bertie was obliged to pick up the crown and was thrust into the limelight. Fortunately, Logue had already begun working with the then-Duke several years earlier. (The movie of the same name shortened these years for dramatic effect.) Logue had prescribed very challenging exercises and drills, and they’d produced results. With war threatening once again in Europe, it was a difficult time to be King. Bertie needed to speak often—and did so with Logue’s ever-present assistance. The two men became inseparable. Once war began, the King’s radio broadcasts throughout the Empire were essential for public morale, and the two teamed up to make his frequent speeches clear and concise. They painstakingly edited the drafts of his speeches, inserting alternative wording when the original might have tripped up the King and rehearsed each speech tirelessly. The King’s newfound and startling eloquence was hailed in the press, and his many appearances were comforting and inspiring.

The author is Logue’s grandson, who grew up with some vague knowledge that his grandfather had played some role in service to the Crown, but only a few years ago did he finally explore the family filing cabinet, only to find it full of touching, hand-written notes from the late King. In one, the King confided to Logue, Sr. that he had only agreed to serve his country and its community of nations as his brother’s replacement because of the progress he’d made thus far and anticipated in the future due to Logue’s treatments. A heart­warming story.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. A novel set in 1930’s Alabama, this is the remembrance of a young woman, Scout Finch, of several summers (she progresses from 6 to 9) when she was a precocious tomboy living with her older brother Jem and her widower father, Atticus, an earnest, forthright attorney, and of one summer in particular—the one during which their small town was overtaken by a salacious, racially charged criminal trial. When the daughter of a poor farmer is caught by her father being overly familiar with Tom Robinson, a young, black farmhand, she accuses Tom of rape. The town is quickly divided along familiar racial lines. But then Atticus agrees to defend Robinson at the trial. He, as well as Scout and Jem, quickly become subjects of ridicule and hatred from the white community. They are even threatened with violence. Atticus is brave and unflinching: in America, everyone is entitled to a fair trial. Scout and Jem are appalled and afraid: how could their friends’ families turn their backs to them? Atticus helps his children understand that otherwise good people can be wrong, can do bad things. A story of courage and conviction—and ultimately, forgiveness.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Fictional story of a boy on a lifeboat adrift in the Pacific after the ship carrying his family and the animals from their zoo being relocated from India to Canada had sunk. He survived despite the presence of 3 unlikely boatmates: a zebra, an orangutan and a tiger. He did so as a result of his remarkable cunning and initiative. Mourning the loss of his family and alone in what appears to be an impossible predicament, he despaired and considered surrendering to the elements. Instead, he drew upon his faiths and kept on. (The plural “faiths” is intentional. Pi was raised a Hindu but when he studied Christianity and then Islam, he converted to each without forsaking its predecessor. Ultimately, improbably and humorously, he is devout . . . to all 3 faiths.) Pi struggled to survive, cleverly neutralizing, even training, his odd menagerie and invented ways to provide himself with food, water and shade. Never could such a tragic story be told so sweetly, for Pi, as narrator, radiates his sunny nature and his optimism. 

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. An American mountain climber is nursed back to health by strangers in a remote Pakistani village. He notices that the village children learn their lessons by scratching in the dirt with sticks and vows to return and build them a school. He does and then builds 70+ more just like it, trying to bring peace to a war-torn, poverty-stricken area. Sounds like an inspirational novel, right? Actually, this book is nonfiction and Mortenson, the author, the actual mountain climber. He had just failed in an attempt to climb Pakistan’s K2, the second tallest mountain in the world. Exhausted and confused, he lost track of his group and stumbled into the village. That village and scores like it, and their children, became Mortenson’s calling. He wrote celebrities to ask for donations, sold all of his possessions and wrote for magazines. He survived a kidnapping by the Taliban and numerous fatwahs. Since the book’s publication, there have been some suggestions that Mortenson may have exaggerated some in the telling of this otherwise factual account. Whatever the case, it’s clear that against all odds and in the face of dangerous opposition, he improved the lives of hundreds of children.

That’s all for now. These books and others like them brightened things up for me. I hope that 1 or 2 will do the same for you. Have a good summer. 

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