Elyn Saks’ “The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness”

Synopsis: At the age of 8, Elyn  became obsessive over details, and began experiencing horrible nightmares.  She would walk home from school, having the houses on her left talk to her.  Tell her to do things.  She fought them for a while, but eventually told her mother.  Her family, and doctors, passed over it citing “an active imagination” but the truth was, Elyn was terrified and sick.

It wasn’t until she reached Oxford University that she began having episodes.  Incoherent ramblings to herself, and friends.  “We’ve got to case the joint. I don’t believe in joints. But they hold your body together.”

Saks’ episodes ranged from ramblings, to suicidal tendencies, to believing she was God.  Sometimes she was evil resurrected, and everyone was going to die.  Saks’ was never a violent person, these are just things she would say to people.

Things escalated until they could no longer be ignored, when Saks was found singing atop the Yale Law School.  She was taken to the ER, tied down, and was force-fed antipsychotics.  Later, she would be moved to a psychiatric ward where she was again tied up (only for short periods) but did have to remain for 5 months.

Saks describes her troubling, never-ending war with her delusions of reality, constant paranoia and living a life with schizophrenia.

Outlook: Saks’ introduction to her disease plays an important role.  Obviously, it sets up the dynamic for the rest of the book, but from an educational point of view – we see how young schizophrenia really begins.  Schizophrenia is also a deteriorative disease, which Saks talks about.  Similar to the mathematician John Nash (A Beautiful Mind), without treatment things only escalate.

Nash, became ill in the 50’s.  Possibly the worst time to be a schizophrenic as the treatment was in its infancy, and largely Freudian.  Without proper diagnosis, Nash eventually did start to hallucinate.

Saks did not get to this stage, at least, not at this time.  Throughout her novel she toys with the idea that she is not ill at all, as one could imagine.  Through trial and error, she learns some painful truths.

Saks knowledge of her time fighting back the demons is staggeringly accurate.  Although not funny, the things that come out of her mouth were so unique I couldn’t help but laugh aloud.  Not at her expense of course, just at the sheer lunacy of the sentences.

Saks tells her story exactly as she remembers it, and you get every nitty-gritty detail.

“The Center Cannot Hold” does have some slow points, in my opinion.  But the over all read is fascinating as we, the reader, get a first person perspective deep into the broken mind of a schizophrenic.

When my analyst said he was going to close his practice, I fell apart.  Again.  Thankfully, a concerned friend flew out to see me.  What he found was a human being living in complete disarray.  I hadn’t eaten or bathed in over a week, and sauntered around as a withered skeleton. – Elyn Saks

If any form of psychology is the least bit fascinating to you, or your simply curious about Elyn’s life, this is a great read.

From the Wiki: Elyn Saks is an Associate Dean and Orrin B. Evans Professor of Law, Psychology, and Psychiatry and the Behavioural Sciences at the University of Southern California Gould Law School, an expert in mental health law and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship winner.

Featured image courtesy of the University of Southern California

Catherine Ryan Hyde’s “Ask Him Why”

Synopsis:  Ruth and Aubrey are just simple teens when their older brother, Joseph, ships off to the Iraq.  But when Joseph returns only 3 months later, with a dishonourable discharge, his family is put in a media crossfire.

We view the story from the perspective of Ruth, as she tries to get the secret out of her parents and Joseph.  She is beside herself that no one will talk about it, and feels the ramifications of Joseph’s actions are directly affecting young Aubrey.  Ruth has to be the grown up in her family, at a time when she is really too young to understand the politics of it all.

Joseph, thinking removing himself from the situation is the best option, goes into hiding.  Not only has his tarnished his family name, but his relationships are in shambles.

Ruth and Aubrey are determined to find him, and figure out the truth.

Outlook: This was my first book by Catherine Ryan Hyde, and I bought it based on ratings and the synopsis.  It was written in the biographical style I prefer (although the book is fiction) but it also had a slight thriller element to it.  At least, I was gripped by it at certain points.  I was captivated by the plot, and I just had to know what Joseph had done to deserve 333 pages of scrutiny.

Although we don’t find out till almost the end of the novel what Joseph has done, a long the way Ruth and rebellious Aubrey meet a man known as Hamish, who Joseph viewed a father figure.  The introduction of the Hamish character really pulls the story together, and the scene Hyde sets up around Hamish and his home makes for a great read.

However, there are times when the book is slow, and I could easily put it down and come back later, often doing just that.  Overall, I would recommend this book despite its slow middle, as the Hamish character is not to be missed.

Featured image courtesy of JP Solatorio

Kent Wayne’s “Echo” Volume 1

Synopsis (via Goodreads): In the late 21st century, humanity left Earth due to multiple resource shortcomings aggravated by an acceleration in climate change. They settled Echo, a planet that was nearly a carbon copy of Earth except for being devoid of all but the most basic life forms.

Fast forward 1200 years later. Echo has endured over a thousand years of dark age. Corporations and government merged early on, becoming the oppressive authority known as the Regime. Military and police merged into the Department of Enforcement, their only mission to crush the huge network of rebels known as the Dissidents.

Over half the planet is covered by decaying cityscapes and the elite live high above, removed and remote from the greater populace on the moon-city of Ascension. Hope lies in one man, a former Enforcer named Atriya. But before he can break the cycle of darkness and ignorance on Echo, he has to do it within himself.

Outlook:  Wayne instantly had me by the opening chapters.  His novel is fast paced, well written, and I know exactly where he is coming from with his characters.

Speaking in generalities, the stereotype is accurate for males where being a “military super soldier, delta force, black water private security bad ass” is the best job in the world.  Politics aside, that is.

We are immediately dropped into the world of Echo, where Atriya begins another day of hard training.  Seeing as this is the future, and humanity requires the best of the best, would-be soldiers are put through gruelling tasks.  Pushing their physical capabilities passed natural limits, often requiring a “little help”.  Gear, is what I’m saying.  A bunch of super elite roid pigs with guns!

I often sat back in my chair, saying “Jesus…” or “Savage!” aloud, reading Wayne’s words regarding “Crew” training.  Those who fail, are beaten severely by successful Crew graduates.  All sanctioned and A OK’d by top brass.  Being a Crew member was considered a great honour.  Each member of the “Elevated Risk” team had to go through extreme mental and physical training, and it only got worse and more life threatening with every advancement.  Wraiths, for example, were barely human anymore.  The training killed thousands.  In order to beat the Dissidents, only the best would do.

We learn about futuristic weaponry, ballistics, and mechanical suits.  Physical enhancements are the norm, showing the populace that a Crew member has entered the room – and is not to be messed with.

The world of Echo is complex and vast.  Wayne leaves most of the imagery up to the reader, which for me I enjoyed as I could picture his scenes, creatures, and armaments any way I liked.

We learn about the type of person Atriya strives to be, including his doubts and fears.  He wants to be more than Crew, and is willing to die to prove it.

Volume 1 ends on a cliffhanger, as one could imagine.

Volume 1 focuses on plot, character, and scene development.  Leading us into the fray for Volumes 2, 3, and 4.

Science fiction is my favourite movie genre, but one of my least favourite when it comes to novels.  But, seeing as Wayne is a fellow WordPress writer, for $1 I would get hours of entertainment and could support a buddy.  Because of that reason, this review is a bit bias, however I did finish it and will continue to read future volumes.  If I don’t enjoy what I read, I always put the book down and move on, rarely going back to it.  So, that should tell you something.

Wayne’s work can be purchased from his site, and the beginning chapters of volumes 1 and 2 can be read for free: https://dirtyscifibuddha.com/

Featured image courtesy of Kent Wayne

Personal Shopper

Synopsis: Maureen (Kristen Stewart) is a high-class personal shopper for a wealthy entrepreneur named “Krya”.  She lives in France, but often travels to London to purchase lavish items for her employer.  Garments, jewelry, shoes, and accessories where money is no object.   Maureen often pays with a blank check.

After the loss of her brother “Lewis”, Maureen begins to search for answers.  Her brother, like herself, was a medium.  Maureen begins by exploring his old home, waiting months in hopes of making contact with him.

Both Maureen and Lewis firmly believed in a connection to the spirit world; that there is a place we go between life and death.  A world on top of our own.

Maureen begins to receive messages on her phone from an “Unknown” number, who psychologically torments her.

Outlook:  Throughout the film, director Olivier Assayas uses lighting and cinematography to tell the story, just as much as the actors read their lines.  We are presented with a fade to black several times, signifying new chapters and developments within the plot.

As the film progresses, Maureen’s character begins to show her true colours.  Perhaps realizing guilt is whats holding her back about Lewis’ death.  She begins playing with “forbidden” tasks, such as trying on Kyra’s clothes and accessories.  Perhaps a way of finding herself, or just rebelling against an employer who she hates.

Maureen begins to feel the affect of her brothers death more and more, combined with the psychological torment of the “Unknown” caller.

Personal Shopper has an ominous feeling throughout, leaving you looking over your shoulder, as if someone is watching you.

I admit, I was often wondering what was happening, or how does this connect with the plot, but like any good thriller, all is revealed.

Chris Gardner’s “The Pursuit of Happyness”

Synopsis (via Goodreads): At the age of twenty, Milwaukee native Chris Gardner, just out of the Navy, arrived in San Francisco to pursue a promising career in medicine. Considered a prodigy in scientific research, he surprised everyone and himself by setting his sights on the competitive world of high finance. Yet no sooner had he landed an entry-level position at a prestigious firm than Gardner found himself caught in a web of incredibly challenging circumstances that left him as part of the city’s working homeless and with a toddler son. Motivated by the promise he made to himself as a fatherless child to never abandon his own children, the two spent almost a year moving among shelters, “HO-tels,” soup lines, and even sleeping in the public restroom of a subway station.

Never giving in to despair, Gardner made an astonishing transformation from being part of the city’s invisible poor to being a powerful player in its financial district.

Outlook: It’s no secret that most of the time, the book is better than the movie.  This is no exception.  Yes, they are two separate forms of entertainment, but you can’t take a 500 page novel and crush it into 2 hours.  In the film adaptation of “The Pursuit of Happyness”, it only covers the last portion of Gardner’s life.  Obviously, this is the portion that sells tickets.  The film was not about his life as a whole, but how he went from homeless with a toddler to his own investment firm, Gardner & Rich LLC.

Gardner’s journey takes us from his fatherless childhood, the men who tried to take on such role, an inspiring uncle and mother, his military career and finally the pursuit of Wall Street.

When I purchased this book, it was before I had read “Start Where You Are”. I wanted to see if the film “The Pursuit of Happyness” was really like the book, or was it Hollywood’s take on it.  Moreover, I wanted more detail, and to hear it from the man himself.

I was pleased to read that the book was about Gardner’s entire life, and not the final chapters of Wall Street success.  Gardner’s words inspired me, and was just another reason to pick up “Start Where You Are”.

About 70% of this book is Gardner’s struggles as a young man, military career, and finding himself.  The last portion is what we see in the film.

A terrific biography, from a humble and brilliant man.  Whenever I feel down, or am thinking “fuck this” I look to Gardner.

I’ve read this book twice, and I think it’s about time for another.

Louis Zamperini’s “Devil at My Heels”

Synopsis: Lou “Lucky Louis” Zamperini was a Captain with the United States Army Air Force during the Pacific war, from 1941-1945.

He was a champion high school runner, beating state colleges before the age of 18, and as a result was chosen for the 1936 Olympics.  However, in 1941 he was commissioned into the Armed Forces.

Zamperini served as a bombardier, operating B-24 Liberators in the Pacific.  “Lucky Louis” stuck as a nickname, carrying over into his military career.  Always evading parental rule / law enforcement.  By WW2, he was constantly surviving near fatal attacks aboard B-24’s that were either in poor condition, or simply had skeleton crews.  Lucky Louis, indeed.

However, Zamperini’s luck would turn, when he spent 47 days adrift at sea with 2 other men, before being captured by the Japanese off the coast of the Marshall Islands.

Zamperini and a fellow airman (Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips) were initially sent to Kwajalein Atoll.  They were held in captivity, beaten, and mistreated until orders came down that they were to be executed.

Instead of execution, Zamperini and Phillips were sent to POW camps in Ofuna.  It was later said, that the two were spared in order to become propaganda machines for the Japanese.

The Japanese never registered some POW camps with the Red Cross (including Zamperini’s) so he was never actually labelled a POW.  They chose to operate in secret.  This was challenging for Zamperini to understand, as without registration he was not initially fed by the Red Cross after the camp’s liberation.

The Japanese were the only nation in the war to not follow the Geneva Convention.  They dawned vessels with incorrect markings to sabotage enemy operations.

Ships transferring POW’s were marked as ships of war, as a result, the Allied forces killed thousands of their own men.  Ships carrying soldiers were marked with Red Cross symbols, and were registered as carrying food and medicine.  They sailed right through Allied occupied seas, destroying countless vessels and costing more Allied lives.

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Zamperini with wife Cynthia Applewhite (1946)

Outlook: From the moment I picked up Zamperini’s book I knew I’d enjoy this read.  It’s no secret by now that memoirs and biography are my jam.  There is something special about reading a book from the perspective of the person who experienced the events.

What I enjoyed most about “Devil at My Heels” was Zamperini’s ability to paint a picture through personal experiences.  Whether it was his antics as an adolescent, or ingenious acts of souvenir hunting at the 1936 Olympics, I could really picture what Lucky Louis was talking about.

Lucky Louis’ biography to me is different from most WW2 books for one reason.  He does not spare the readers emotions when describing the deplorable conditions he and others were subject to.  The physical and mental torture by the Japanese sounds like something out of a horror novel.  Zamperini makes it painstakingly clear what happened, and what he was up against in order to survive.

After the liberation of Ofuna, Zamperini explains the problems he had with alcohol, society, and his pent-up aggression towards the Japanese.  His choices were affecting every aspect of his life in a very negative way.

Through suggestion from Cynthia, Zamperini reluctantly looked at alternatives.  The nightmares he was having had to stop.  He eventually turns to Christianity, and becomes so involved with his church he identifies as an evangelist.  A messenger of God.

Zamperini believes his survival was due to divine intervention, and he dedicated the rest of his life to his God.  More specifically, he forgave the Japanese and even visited them in prison.  After forgiveness, his life normalized.  He became happy, nightmares ceased, and he spent his remaining years continually preaching the word of God.

From a personal standpoint, I could have done without so much talk regarding God and the scriptures.  I didn’t appreciate the way Zamperini spoke about converting people en-mass to Christianity, referring to them as a “harvest”:

“Our usual harvest was fifty to sixty.  That night nearly three hundred renounced all other gods and ideologies, even communism.  Beautiful!”

Although the religious aspect is an important part of the book (because after all, it is Zamperini’s entire life, not just the war) it felt like a preacher was at my door, pounding away as if he knew I was home, and wouldn’t go away.

No, I am not going to convert to Christianity, but I do believe it is everyone’s right to believe in whatever they choose, and no one has a right to tell you different.

That being said, this book is still in my Top 3 list for Biographies and Memoirs.

Film Adaptation

In 2014, Angelina Jolie directed “Unbroken” based on Laura Hillenbrand’s novel of the same title.  Even though Hillenbrand interviewed Zamperini for the book, it was told from her perspective.  Whether this skewed Jolie’s direction of the movie, I am unsure.  I initially saw the film before I read the book.  It wasn’t until half way through “Devil at My Heels” that I thought all of this sounded familiar.

If you have yet to see “Unbroken”, but are interested in “Devil at My Heels”, I highly recommend this book first.  The movie did not do Zamperini’s experience justice by any means.  Scenes were weak or short, half of his harrowing experiences were cut (and they are the lifeblood of this book) and worst of all was the use of Hollywood glamour to change what really happened in some situations.

Featured image courtesy of Leslie Latchman

Andrew Groen’s “Empires of EVE”

Synopsis: Every day, tens of thousands of internet spaceships do battle in real-time.  Politics, warfare, betrayal, and culture are all part of the internets only sandbox MMO, EVE Online.

EVE is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG).  Role playing is the name of the genre, and there is a fair bit of it inside the EVE universe. Although for some players, their online persona can be a wicked truth to who they really want to be.  EVE is a type of world known for its violent tendencies.  This goes far beyond the regular scope of video games.  With no developer arbitration, almost anything in the game goes (except real life threats).

When something is destroyed in EVE, it is lost forever and must be rebuilt.  Loss is real, and it’s what makes EVE a monumental game of risk.  It is also why the player base is so dedicated, and so unforgiving.

Diplomacy is strong in EVE, in fact its the backbone.  More so than the economy, and the players love to break it in half.  Alliances are so massive they require diplomats to act on their behalf, and sometimes the interactions between these diplomats can go terribly wrong, leading to thousands going to war.

Massive solar systems are fought over every day, for the limited or rare resources they offer.  This space, is referred to as null sec.  No rules, no developer interference.  A truly player run universe.

Wars are won and lost every day in EVE, but these are the ones that made history.  Some, even global headlines.

Groen takes us on a detailed journey through both the early stages of EVE, where as few as 3000 people played (800 logged in at once), to today where its user peak is around 38,000 (64,000 was the concurrent record in 2013, with hundreds of thousands of accounts).  All playing in one, seamless world.

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Outlook: When you have a personal interest in a topic, it makes the book that much harder to put down.  Empires of EVE is one of those books.  My experience aside, one can say that there has never been a game such as this.  One player, can have an impact on the entire universe.  Rising in the ranks of the games biggest alliance, getting access to the war chest (similar to a guild vault) and liquidating all the assets in minutes, or venting all the fuel (required to run stations) out into space.  With stations down, sovereignty is up for grabs.  These are how some wars start.

EVE Online is split into security systems.  1.0 is the safest, and patrolled by in-game AI, offering some form of protection.  0.0, known as null sec, has zero police interference and is where the game really comes alive.  Embezzlement, ransom, pirating, drug trafficking, murder for hire, espionage, it’s all in null sec.  All player controlled.

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Groen takes time to explain to the reader exactly what EVE is, moreover exactly what he is talking about.  EVE has a rich and highly dedicated subculture.  This is great for people who are new to EVE, and want to know more about these epic online wars.  The impact EVE has had on the gaming world goes far beyond some next-gen title.  It completely broke the mould for how a multiplayer video game should work.

There are no end bosses, no raids, no reputation grind or mounts.  It goes against the known tried and true recipe for MMO success.  Let the players do whatever they want? Nonsense! – “Here’s a ship, it has guns, go shoot something.”

Groen covers EVE’s early political ideas, and how they forged the way for EVE Online.  He explains how the first player driven governments were formed, how political icons rose to power, and how it all collapsed in early 2007.

What I didn’t expect from this book, was player interviews.  Some of the biggest names in EVE’s history gave their time to Groen.  Whether explaining their side of the tale, or fact correcting, players actively contributed to the development of this book.  This again ties into the dedication of the player base.

Everything in EVE happens in real-time, including your advancement towards new weaponry and ships.

“CYVOK” was the first player in the game to pilot a Titan class vessel.  The largest, most expensive ship in the game.  It instantly became a target.  CYVOK and his Celestial Horizon alliance was able to hold “Sir Molle” and his Band of Brothers at bay, but not forever.  CYVOK remains vigilant to this day stating that an insider deal, outside of the EVE world, led to its destruction.

A Titan class warship takes 3,500 hours to train for, and costs $7,600USD* of in-game materials.  CYVOK’s Titan required an entire alliance to pool its resources.  In 2006, this was the most prestigious enterprise an alliance could carry out.

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And yet, this is nothing of today’s battles which now clock in at weeks to months of real battle time.  When an armada of this magnitude is destroyed, the real world value topples $300,000USD*.

There are many more tales like this inside Groen’s book.  If you love science fiction, or political / psychological warfare, this would be one you couldn’t put down.  After reading Empires of EVE from an outside perspective, one could see how many people treat this as more than a game.  Real people, from all over the world, changing the face of a player driven universe.

As a retired EVE player myself, I can say that Groen’s research was not only intensive, but sound.  The amount of time it took to amass this history, from a video game no less, is nothing but impressive.  The lengths he went to in order to achieve complete accuracy is astounding.

Not in this book (because it technically wasn’t a war) was the infiltration, heist, and murder of “Mirial” and her entire alliance.  A fantastic, dedicated group of espionage pilots lead by the now infamous “Istvaan Shogaatsu”.  Article here from “Game Skinny.”

The images used in this post are all from within the EVE universe.  Every ship you see on the screen, is a real person.  Fighting for what they believe is right, or at least, their right to own.

The video below is just one of the many events you will read about in this book.

The EVE community successfully kickstarted Empires of EVE in 2014 raising $95,000.

Featured image and images inside this post courtesy of EVE Online

*This amount is calculated by the real-world value that items would have, if you could buy them outright in the game.*