More Books for PXEers

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  PXE Vision: By and For PXEers
  by Pat Manson

More Books for PXEers

March 2013


I’m back with more books for PXEers.  You may remember from my first column on this subject (“Books for PXEers,” June 2012) that I’d compiled a list of books, some I already knew and others recommended by family and friends, that I believed would be good for entertainment and/or education, of course, but also good for combating depression.  What I was looking for were stories—non-fiction or fiction—that made the reader feel better because they were amusing or clever, or, better yet, inspiring.  And the most inspiring stories for me are those of people who’ve been dealt a lousy hand in life (like, say, PXE) but who haven’t folded and quit the game.  Instead, these stalwarts sucked it up, did the best they could with that hand, stayed in the game, continued playing and, despite being dealt even more crappy cards, managed to win in the end.  Cornball?  Maybe.  But life—yours and mine—can surely work that way.  Everyone gets lousy cards, and yet someone always wins.  Losing isn’t inevitable. 

To my surprise, I found too many excellent books to include even a tenth of them in a single column.  So I decided to write 3 columns so that I could share more of these great reads with you.  Here’s the second batch of my selections.  I hope you’ll find these stories as encouraging, inspiring and uplifting as I did.

No Such Thing as a Bad Day by Hamilton Jordan
In our time, Barack Obama was not the first presidential candidate to come out of nowhere and get himself elected despite little name recognition and relatively little experience.  That distinction belongs to Jimmy Carter, who defeated incumbent president Gerald Ford in 1976 and served to 1980.  His improbable candidacy and surprising election was engineered by a small group of young Southerners led by Hamilton Jordan, who, several years earlier, at 26, had written a now-famous memo plotting Carter’s future path through the primaries to the nomination and then to the Oval Office and who, at 31, became Carter’s Chief of Staff.  In other words, at an exceedingly young age, he became one of the U.S.’, if not the world’s, most powerful people. 

Hamilton Jordan









Hamilton Jordan


That’s who he was certainly—determined, smart, bold and organized—but that’s not the main subject of this intimate autobiography.  Jordan’s book is the story of his long battle with 3 different forms of cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, melanoma and pancreatic cancer.  Excruciatingly, he recounts his wife’s and his brutal but successful journey through surgeries, second and third opinions, treatments and even personally conducted medical research.  In numerous flashbacks along the way, he also reflects on his personal and professional life, from service in Vietnam (where he was exposed to carcinogenic Agent Orange) and early political experiences in the Civil Rights Movement to his years in the White House. 

The Jordans worked hard to keep Hamilton alive, and they were a formidable couple: take-charge, brave, clear-eyed, realistic ... and emotionally healthy.  Some of my favorite scenes in the book are those in which they discussed their options with the surgeon who ultimately operated on Jordan’s prostate.  Their comfort, their humor when considering the possibility that the surgery would leave him impotent is so honest, frank and, well, funny that you have to like and admire them.

As well as No Such Thing tells Jordan’s story, it isn’t all narrative.  Jordan also dispenses loads of wisdom and advice.  For example, numerous times throughout the book, he addresses the various specters that play with the minds of those who are ill or who experience loss—and rejects each by name.  Here he covers several:

"Denial? Deny what? I’ve got a mass in my chest the size of an apple ... Angry? At whom? I have lived a great life and been blessed with much more than I deserve ... ‘Why me?’ but ‘Why not me?’... Bargaining with God?  The God that I believe in has all the cards ..."

Moreover, Jordan also urges others facing serious illness to take charge of their medical condition, to be pro-active and to maintain a positive attitude.  In this moving memoir, he shows how to succeed at these on every page.

This was an important book for me.  It was one of the first nonfiction books I read after my vision loss due to PXE forced me to give up my career.  I found it inspiring and informative as well as entertaining.

127 Hours: Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston
You may not recognize this book’s title, but you probably remember the story of the guy who had to cut his arm off to save his life.  Got your attention? This gripping autobiography (later made into a critically acclaimed and popular movie) is the story of Aron Ralston, an experienced “canyoner.” He lived alone, and on that fateful day hiked/jogged/biked alone, seeking to break the guidebook’s time estimate for the distance he planned to cover that day in Utah’s narrow Blue John Canyon.  Big mistake: he neglected to tell anyone where he was going and when he expected to return.  His trek was going well until he dislodged a large boulder and fell into a crevasse, only to find his arm and hand trapped between rocks and the canyon wall.  This is really where the story, the 127 hours, begins.  His often out-loud deliberations, his planning, his challenges to himself to persevere, much of it caught on video as he narrated his own misadventure, is the essence of this story.  He tried to yell for help and then to chip away at the rocks, both to no avail.  He realized he might be there for some time, so he rationed his water, and when that ran out, he began to drink his urine.  At that point, he was even willing to part with the stuck arm if that would allow him to escape, but he concluded that his only knife couldn’t saw through the two bones of his forearm.

His outdoor experience and engineering education served him well as he developed one strategy after another that enabled him to continue surviving, but nothing to allow him his freedom.  Finally (it seemed), he gave up.  For several days, he drifted, hallucinating at times.  Nevertheless, his mind continued to work on solutions.  And he found one.  He escaped and lived to tell how; he married, became a father and returned to canyoning. 

This is a tension-filled, exciting account of a strong man who refused to quit when most others would have.  Perhaps not the book for squeamish readers, but if you need some convincing that 21st century Americans can still face extreme hardship and emerge (at least emotionally) intact, this is the book for you.

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
The tragic story of the European Jews who didn’t escape before the Nazi invaders occupied their countries is familiar: they were killed, sent to labor and/or death camps or farmed out to manufacturers and other businesses as unpaid laborers.  But there was another, much smaller, much less known category:  those who sought to avoid the others’ fates by hiding, hoping to live out the war in secret rooms, hidden closets, crawl spaces, caves, etc.  Not only were these brave souls compelled to live a terribly diminished, circumscribed, often nocturnal existence, but they were also utterly dependent on others, those who helped to hide them and to bring them food and supplies as well as preserve their sanity by providing news of the outside world.  Of the many books written about those forced to hide, the most famous is Anne Frank’s Diary.

The Franks were German Jews, who relocated to Amsterdam in 1933 to avoid Nazi persecution.  The father, Otto, had a successful cooking supply business.  When, in 1942, the family received a summons requiring Margot, the older daughter, to report to a Nazi work camp in Germany, they launched into action, following a plan that had been formulated months earlier.  The Franks, together with Otto’s business partner’s family, disappeared to the outside world, but actually moved that night into secret rooms, called the “Secret Annex,” built into the rear of the building that housed their business.  They were to live there for 2 years until they were arrested by the Gestapo.  They were sent initially to Auschwitz in Poland, the girls later to Bergen-Belsen in Germany.  In the Frank family, only Otto survived the war and their imprisonment. 


Anne Frank












Anne Frank


After he returned to their Amsterdam home, Otto discovered that Anne had left her diary behind.  She had been 13 when the 2 families went into hiding and in the diary, she confided in an imaginary friend, Kitty, revealing her thoughts on life in the Secret Annex and on the world at large.  Otto was surprised and moved by the depth of his daughter’s feelings.  He discovered that she was far more aware of how terrible the outside world had become and that she often felt despair of such conditions.  But what made the diary so special, what has made it so popular to this day, is that despite her comprehension and fear of the horrors outside, she writes repeatedly of her faith, her love, her hope and optimism for the future.  That is the most extraordinary thing about this young woman, and her voice is what keeps this book read by generation after generation.

In 1947, Otto published the diary under the name The Secret Annex: Diary Letters from June 14, 1942 to August 1, 1944.  That unwieldy title was later changed to the present one.

The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom
The story of the ten Boom family is the perfect corollary to that of the Frank family.  For if Anne Frank’sDiary is the story of those who hid, this is the story of those who helped them disappear and hide.  Unfortunately, like many other courageous, selfless Europeans who helped the Jews, the ten Booms, like the Franks, ended up imprisoned by the Nazis.

The ten Boom family was well known in Haarlem in Holland (now Netherlands) during the 1930’s and 1940’s for their charity and hospitality.  Members of the Dutch Reform Church, they were deeply religious but neither preachy nor severe.  They were a warm, loving group committed to do good works for others in their community.  So when Dutch Jews, scheduled to be deported to the camps in the East, left their homes and sought protection, it was only natural that they began to show up at the ten Boom home.  The ten Booms—the father and his 2 adult daughters, Corrie and Betsie—took them in, fed, clothed and healed them and then found them somewhere to live in hiding.  At the ten Boom home, a space under the main staircase and later a part of Corrie’s closet were converted to secret hiding places, temporary centers to conceal new arrivals until better quarters could be arranged.  The clandestine family operation grew, and Corrie, a 40-something spinster and watchmaker, quickly moved into the leadership role.  She became adept at forging documents, procuring extra ration cards and gaming the immigration system, the last providing a means for some Jews to escape.  Her older brother Willem joined in as well.  He managed a retirement home which experienced a surge in hiring nurses, some quite tall and with an alarming amount of facial hair.  The ten Booms eventually became a part of the Dutch underground.


Corrie Ten Boom












Corrie ten Boom


Ultimately, the ten Booms were all arrested and imprisoned as political prisoners, first in several prisons in Holland and later in Germany.  Corrie’s and Betsie’s last stop was at Ravensbruck in Germany, a notorious women’s labor camp, where they managed to “room” and work together.  The conditions at each new facility were more appalling than the last, the deprivations more numerous.  Nevertheless, the sisters noticed, as did their fellow inmates, that the ten Booms’ religious faith seemed to be providing them more solace than their peers were experiencing and that they were also clearly withstanding the ordeal better than other prisoners.  That recognition led to the sisters, Betsie in the lead, teaching the New Testament to their peers, a diverse group of women of various faiths from all over Europe, and later to prayer meetings and even church services.

Corrie and Willem were the only survivors in the family, and he died in 1947 from his treatment in prison.  After the war, Corrie wasn’t satisfied to resume her former life; her experiences had transformed her.  Her most important experience, however, wasn’t the family schemes to hide and save Jews or her family’s imprisonment, but, rather, co-existing with Betsie over the last year of her life, for Betsie transcended their misery, the cold, the hunger, the diseases.  While imprisoned, they had both preached garden variety Christianity, with Betsie adding a heavy emphasis on love and forgiveness, even for the Nazis who were persecuting them.  Under Betsie’s influence, the inmates had flourished.

Back in Haarlem, Corrie sought to spread Betsie’s message through speeches and writings.  She began to develop a following and, with that, financial backing.  From a donated mansion, she created a home in which former prisoners could heal and re-adjust to freedom.  She went on to form a popular worldwide ministry with forgiveness as one of its core principles.

Despite the subject, this is by no means a negative book.  On the contrary, it’s a heart-warming, almost sweet story.

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
Another heroism-while-lost-at-sea story, this nonfiction account has a twist: a whale, indeed, the whale, Moby Dick.  It’s true: an actual whale and its impact on the Essex was the inspiration for Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick.  The Essex was a 19th century whaling ship out of Nantucket.  In 1820, one of its prey, a sperm whale, did the unthinkable: it turned on the Essex, ramming and sinking the ship.  The 20 survivors ended up in 3 whaleboats with the paltry supplies and navigational equipment they could salvage while the Essex quickly sank.  They were 3,000 miles west of the South American coast. 

American whalers had only recently begun hunting in the South Pacific, so captains and crews were unfamiliar with the thousands of islands that dot that huge area.  In addition, rumors of cannibalism on those islands made them seem no refuge.  Accordingly, the Essex survivors bypassed the first groups of islands they encountered and set out toward South America.  These survivors endured starvation, thirst, heat and leaking boats. 

Two of the 3 boats were rescued (after 90 and 95 days) by other whaling ships, but not before 12 of them had died.  Nearly all of them wrote accounts of their voyage aboard the Essex and their later time adrift.  Melville had read one of those accounts while serving on a whaleship a decade or so before Moby Dickwas published, and the various survivor accounts served as invaluable source material for Heart of the Sea, a National Book Award winner.  Surely, these men and 2 boys had little chance of survival.  But 8 of them did.  They, as well as those who perished, showed tremendous strength and courage.  A great read.

The Blind Side by Michael Lewis
By the award-winning author of MoneyballLiar’s Poker and The Big Short, this is the story of Michael Oher and how he escaped the worst housing project in Memphis, where he had lived with his drug-addicted mother, to become the #1 draft pick of the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens.  Like 127 Hours, this was made into a popular and well-reviewed film.

The Great Bridge by David McCullough
In the 21st century, we recognize New York City’s Brooklyn Bridge as a beautiful and iconic feature of the city’s picturesque skyline—and also as vaguely historic.  Less well known is how revolutionary the bridge was when construction began in 1869 and how destructive it was to those who created it.  In fact, 54 men died during the bridge’s construction.

Suspension bridges were still quite new, their designs often open to controversy and dispute.  The Brooklyn Bridge was, by far, the world’s longest suspension bridge and the first ever made with steel wire cables instead of iron.  It wasn’t just big; it was huge, monstrous even.  For years after its 1883 completion, its 2 colossal stone towers were among the tallest structures in the city, and, yet, they were part of a bridge, not a church spire or one of the newly invented skyscrapers.  It was also the first bridge designed for foot, carriage and rail traffic (yes, there were trains initially).  Perhaps the bridge’s greatest surprise, though, is the combination of innovations needed to sink the stone towers through the East River’s sand and mud into the bedrock below.

John Roebling designed every inch of the bridge, and his son Washington oversaw its highly dangerous construction.  They put their lives on the line as well as their professional reputations.  Indeed, early in the project, Roebling, Sr. died of tetanus contracted on the work site.  While he did survive, Washington may have had it worse.  After his father’s death, he had to drop his separate engineering practice and dedicate his life to his father’s vision.  Moreover, along with many of his workers, Roebling, Jr. developed a case of the bends from working for long periods deep under the East River.  He was wracked with pain and nearly immobilized for the rest of his life.  With years of construction ahead of him, he was reduced to monitoring the construction from the bedroom window of his house atop a hill in Brooklyn.  Several times a day he issued orders and revised plans, and his wife Emily carried them to the crews.  Eventually, she developed considerable knowledge, becoming more of a junior partner than a courier.

The problems Roebling encountered weren’t limited to engineering issues.  This was New York City, after all, so there were many arguments, disputes, fights, etc., and because this was Boss Tweed’s New York, corruption was rampant.  Roebling had to resist Tweed’s men’s efforts to wash cash through the construction accounts and to pad the bills with graft.  Later, when Tweed’s power began to wane, Roebling had to endure investigations launched by vengeful prosecutors seeking to find the very fraud that Roebling had fought so hard to resist.  At the end, with construction finally completed after 14 years, shortly before the opening celebrations, it was left to Emily to roll Roebling in his wheelchair out onto the quiet and empty bridge, their own private ceremony, to survey his accomplishment. 

By the author of 1776John Adams and The Johnstown Flood, this book reads almost like a thriller, and despite its (at times) technical subjects, it is quite readable.

Becoming Dr. Q: My Journey from a Migrant Worker to Brain Surgeon by Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa & Mim Eichler Rivas
The title says it all.  And, yes, this is non-fiction.

Fields of Honor: The Pat Tillman Story by Jonathan Rand
Pat Tillman was a smart, free-thinking and talented young man.  While a defensive back for his Arizona State University football team, he led his team to the Rose Bowl.  He also won several academic awards while at ASU.  He was drafted by the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, where he quickly became a starter ... and a star.  He was offered a huge contract from a competing team, but he turned it down, a surprising move, remaining loyal to the Cards.  A few months later, he made another typical-for-him, out-of-the-box move: he walked away from football. 

Pat Tillman















Pat Tillman


On September 11, 2001, Tillman recognized that the world had changed, and he decided that he should, too.  He finished the 2001 football season and a few months later, during the 2002 off-season, he enlisted in the Army together with his younger brother Kevin (who also forsook a promising professional sports career, his in baseball).  At the time, Tillman said, “Sports embodied many of the qualities I deem meaningful ... However, these last few years, and especially after recent events, I’ve come to appreciate just how shallow and insignificant my role is ... It’s no longer important.”

The brothers made it through basic training and both became Army Rangers.  Two years later, in 2004, Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan. 

A Thread across the Ocean by John Steele Gordon 
Not much thought is given today to the telegraph, but its invention and adoption changed the world far more than did its technologically superior successors.  The telephone was certainly faster and more convenient than the unwieldy telegraph.  And later there came the fax machine, the mobile phone, e-mailing, texting and so on, each an incremental step past the other.  But the telegraph?  It replaced ... what, the letter?  A mail pouch delivered by the Pony Express? 

The telegraph was indeed a paradigm shift, for it allowed for the sending and receiving of messages from hundreds, even thousands, of miles away in seconds.  And yet initially its use was restricted to communications within land masses, continents even, for there, telegraph poles could be sunk.  When it came to communicating between those land masses, say, between England and the U.S., the telegraph could greatly speed up messages to and from the coasts, but for the vast watery expanse in the middle, a message could still do no better than being carried in a mail packet on a ship across the Atlantic. 

All that changed with Cyrus Field, a classic 19th century American captain of industry.  Field came from an exceptionally hard-working family.  By his 40’s, he’d made a substantial fortune in the New York City dry goods business, so he put trusted managers in place and began looking for fresh challenges.  Typical of his time, he participated in a wilderness trek down and around the Amazon.  What next?  While he remained interested in business, he, like so many of his era, had become enthralled by the new and exciting world of science and technology.  He looked and listened, asking questions in letters and over dinner of knowledgeable, connected men to whom only his success and affluence gained him access.  He soon arrived at a conclusion: the performance of businesses in the U.S., Canada and Europe (and to a lesser extent, the entire world) would be greatly improved by the laying of a trans-Atlantic telegraph cable to replace the shipborne mail packet and its slow passage across that ocean.  So he’d build one ... and thus gain a new project.  He had no experience in telegraphy, engineering, electricity, large vessel sailing or construction, but no matter: he had a fortune (but one not big enough, he quickly recognized, to fund a project of such magnitude alone), a solid reputation, excellent contacts, a Trojan work ethic, limitless energy and unwavering confidence.

As with Roebling’s building of the Brooklyn Bridge, Field achieved many firsts over the course of this project.  But there was a big difference between the two men: at the outset, Roebling knew what he was doing.  For Field, every venture required mastery of new material.  For example, very short cables had been laid across rivers and small bays, but the shortest possible option for this cable would be between Newfoundland and Ireland, 2,000 miles.  A lengthening of that order of magnitude seemed impossible at the time.  Could a ship actually remain afloat with that large a cargo?  How would it be unspooled?  How could it be preserved against corrosion and pressure?  Together with his large team, Field withstood all these challenges and more.  It took 12 years and was completed in 1866.  So the next time you text or tweet, remember it all started with a bored but talented adventurer and the telegraph.

* * *

So read! Just do it.  It’ll do you good and perhaps keep you out of trouble.  These books may give you a shot in the arm, a morale boost, possibly lift your spirits a bit.  I’ve read up on these books in the Comments section of various websites, and every one of them did all that for some readers.  Why not you?  Give one a try.  Happy reading, take care and have a nice Spring.

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