Book Review: Doomed – Chuck Palahniuk

Overview: I didn’t get into this one as much as I hoped, but I did mostly enjoy it when I was reading. The main character, thirteen year old Madison Spencer, has been damned to hell after a failed Halloween ritual. She visits her somewhat disturbing past and what her life has consisted of during her damnation, and ultimately realizes that she has always been a pawn in Satan’s grand plan. As with all of his books, Palahniuk uses nihilism brilliantly to tell a uniquely twisted story.

Lesson: A billion people would shout obscenities every chance they got if they thought it would give them a good shot at getting into heaven.

Important Passages (Per Sean):

When you die , trust me, the most difficult person to leave behind is yourself.

“Religions exist because people would rather have a wrong answer than no answer at all.”

Like it or not, the road to Hell is paved with sustainable bamboo flooring.

Death isn’t the end of peril. There are deaths beyond death. Like it or not, death isn’t the end of anything.

“It’s ironical,” he says, “but I’ve got to die to make a living.”

Granted, we might develop some skills, achieve some profound insights over a lifetime, but by and large who you are at eighty-five is who you were at five. One is either born intelligent or not. The body ages , grows, passes through near-lunatic phases of reproductive frenzy, but you are born and die essentially the same person.

Civilization is a condition which unsocial misfits impose on the rest of popular, easygoing, family-oriented humanity.

Nothing except deep misery leads to real success.

It’s exhausting, the energy it takes to unknow a truth.

You never know the complicated deals two people negotiate in order to stay married beyond the first ten minutes.

I yearned for the impact because I knew that nothing else would shift the parent/ child balance of power as effectively. If I could goad them into slugging me just once, forever afterward I could cite that incident and use the memory to win any argument.

I wait. There it is, my greatest weakness: hope.

The public has contracted out their own self-expression. All love must be mediated through greeting cards, assembly-line diamond jewelry, or professionally arranged, factory-farmed bouquets of roses.

Suppressing a lifetime of social conditioning, I resolve not to comment about the weather.

How could you ever bring yourself to love so deeply if you truly knew how brief a lifetime can be?

 

 

Book Review: Invisible Monsters – Chuck Palahniuk

Overview: I am a long time fan of Palahniuk, and lately I have been focusing on reading some of the stuff of his that I haven’t read. Invisible Monsters fits in with his normal style. It is dark and enters a realm that most people wouldn’t dare to go. The story follows the narrator who experienced an accident where she lost her jaw. The story jumps around with each chapter, sometimes talking about events before the accident and sometimes after. Sometimes after she meets Brandy, the only person in the hospital who didn’t treat her like a monster. The only person who she wasn’t invisible to. Together they rob houses of drugs and make the worst decisions they could possibly make for no just reason. Before the accident the narrator was a model, and afterwards a monster.

In a weird way the story reminds me of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It takes you on twists you wouldn’t have predicted and the characters are completely ridiculous. And sick, really.

Lesson: The quest for eternal beauty and attention can be the ultimate downfall in life.

And of course, the book is littered with passages that can be applied to several different walks of life, which is why Palahniuk’s stuff is so appealing.

Important Passages (Per Sean):

It’s all mirror, mirror on the wall because beauty is power the same way money is power the same way a gun is power.

No matter how careful you are, there’s going to be the sense you missed something, the collapsed feeling under your skin that you didn’t experience it all. There’s that fallen heart feeling that you rushed right through the moments where you should’ve been paying attention.

Brandy, and any smart woman knows a beautiful man is her best fashion accessory.

I’m living the life I love, I tell myself, and loving the life I live. I tell myself: I deserved this. This is exactly what I wanted.

Besides, it happens fast for some people and slow for some, accidents or gravity, but we all end up mutilated. Most women know this feeling of being more and more invisible everyday.

The whole time I was in the hospital, no way could I fall in love. I just couldn’t go there yet. Settle for less. I didn’t want to process through anything. I didn’t want to pick up any pieces. Lower my expectations. Get on with my less-than life. I didn’t want to feel better about being still alive. Start compensating. I just wanted my face fixed, if that was possible, which it wasn’t.

I saw my blood and snot and teeth splashed all over the dashboard the moment after the accident, but hysteria is impossible without an audience.

The same’s those talk shows on television, it’s so easy to be honest with a big enough audience. You can say anything if enough people will listen.

“The only reason why we ask other people how their weekend was is so we can tell them about our own weekend.”

Game shows are designed to make us feel better about the random, useless facts that are all we have left of our education.

People are all over the world telling their one dramatic story and how their life has turned into getting over this one event. Now their lives are more about the past than their future.

The uglier the fashions, the worse places we’d have to pose to make them look good. Junkyards . Slaughterhouses. Sewage treatment plants. It’s the ugly bridesmaid tactic where you only look good by comparison.

Almost all the time, you tell yourself you’re loving somebody when you’re just using them.

“Don’t you see? Because we’re so trained to do life the right way. To not make mistakes.” Brandy says, “I figure, the bigger the mistake looks, the better chance I’ll have to break out and live a real life.”

It’s because we’re so trapped in our culture, in the being of being human on this planet with the brains we have, and same two arms and two legs everybody has. We’re so trapped that any way we could imagine to escape would be just another part of the trap. Anything we want, we’re trained to want.

The feeling is of supreme and ultimate control over all. Jump to the day we’ll all be dead and none of this will matter. Jump to the day another house will stand here and the people living there won’t know we ever happened.

I was tired of staying a lower life form just because of my looks. Trading on them. Cheating. Never getting anything real accomplished, but getting the attention and recognition anyway.

Be famous. Be a big social experiment in getting what you don’t want. Find value in what we’ve been taught is worthless. Find good in what the world says is evil. I’m giving you my life because I want the whole world to know you. I wish the whole world would embrace what it hates.

Book Review: Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bear and the Wild Heart of Football – Rich Cohen

Overview: Before I say anything else, this book is awesome. This is coming from someone who is not a Chicago Bears fan and never before reading a book about the Bears. Rich Cohen takes you down a path of the history of football, which ultimately leads to the 1985 Chicago Bears and their dominating season which led to a Super Bowl championship. Maybe it was so interesting to me because I didn’t know much about the origins of the sport. Did you know that football basically started as a league of average people who were playing on factory teams? The learning experience combined with Cohen’s sarcastic writing style resulted in me not wanting to put the book down.

Cohen does an amazing job at building the back story of the coaches and players that made up the 1985 team. You also get a look into how the sport has evolved, and how different the game is played with the knowledge of things like brain damage caused from getting and delivering hits. Even if you aren’t a diehard football fan, I think the story of the 85 Bears is a story anyone can enjoy and value.

Lesson: There are quite a few things someone could take away from this one. For me, the one the resonated the most, was that football players just like anyone else will probably at some point face the end of one life chapter and have to enter a chapter that is entirely different. Playing football is a completely different world than the world of being a realtor. But everyone gets old, every human body wears down, and you cannot play football forever. I think most people have their own version of football, and everyone will struggle with the stark difference between the life with football and the life without.

Important Passages (Per Sean):

It was a peak moment in our lives and, though we did not realize it , a peak moment for them, too. These were young gods, as vivid as the astronauts in Tom Wolfe, as free as the cowboys in John Ford, gunslingers drinking rotgut and throwing dice, but it would not last. Before long , they would fall back to our world , rejoin the masses they left behind in tenth or twelfth grade.

So this is why people suffer through mediocre season after mediocre season, I thought. So this is what’s on the other side of all that losing. It’s not just the victory. It’s being among the winners, sinking the humdrum concerns of your life into a raucous crowd, being welcomed by the mob.

You don’t think about what it will mean when you’re forty. You just think , Whoa, I’m missing it! It’s panic. It’s like that bad dream you have when you’re a kid. It’s the day of the big test and you’re late for school.”

When people say I was great in my day, I say, No, I was just able to control my mind for those few seconds before impact. I never slowed down . I sped up . That’s what makes a hitter. Not size, not speed. It’s the ability to suppress your survival instincts.

America has become endless childhood, where any passion can take you pro.

Only two original franchises survive: the Chicago Bears and the Arizona Cardinals, who previously played as the St. Louis Cardinals, the Chicago Cardinals, and the Racine Cardinals, not because they were based in Racine, Wisconsin, but because the roster was made up of guys who hung out on Racine Street on Chicago’s South Side.

In the early years, most NFL teams played in baseball stadiums, and many took the name of the host team. Hence the Pittsburgh Pirates, who played in Forbes Field, and the New York Football Giants, who played in the Polo Grounds .

A coach was now able to operate from a position of omniscience , the position of a god, where he could linger over each move the way a chess master lingers, his hand resting on the rook, considering each consequence before committing.

We’re all going to get hurt and die. The only freedom is the freedom to choose how we respond.

People know this story from Brian’s Song, a movie about Sayers and Brian Piccolo, who shared the backfield in Chicago. Piccolo died of cancer in 1970. That movie— a story of rivalry, friendship, disease— is etched in the memory of a generation of fans.

Very few players make it to college, fewer still to the pros , and most of those, stars at every other level, flame out. You see them years later, pushing a broom or carrying boards at a construction site.

It was one of those trials that come in every life, a moment in which you know , just know, that if you weaken or lose focus, you’ll be washed away by malaise, slide into dissolute wandering.

In his relationship with his grandfather, McCaskey stands for my generation in our relationship to the tough old America: we inherited a country we did not build.

He’s you raised to the highest power, a kid who wished the same wish, only his came true.

“I like doing what I do now, which is pretty much whatever I want. Didn’t make a lot of money in the game , but I put four kids through college, so I did all right.”

He’d been so busy planning the future that he never noticed the dream country from every window of the bus.

As you grow up you become too tasteful to enjoy things that once filled you with pleasure. Past thirty, most of us become too smart for our own good.

It was the feeling you get on Sunday night after a long weekend times a billion. I looked out the window. What is this life? I asked myself. What does it mean? Why does every minute pull me away from everything I love?

“I miss being twenty -five years old and playing with my friends,” said Plank. “Now we’re scattered across the country and it’s all in the past. If you’re lucky enough to experience something that intense when you’re young, you pay for it the rest of your life.”

And is it better to accept the world as it is and be happy or to struggle and be miserable?

Team Win Retroactively Changed After Metal Helmets Discovered

 

Is it a coincidence that the same week that the New England Patriots are accused of using deflated footballs, that the little league team known as the Philly Willies were caught using metal helmets in their championship game against the McDonald’s All-Stars? Some might think that they were working in collusion, some might just call it an act of God.

Last Sunday, just before the Patriots embarked on a stomping of their own, the Philly Willies shut out the All-Stars 35-0. Initially the Willies were granted the championship title, each member of the team getting a first place trophy. One of the angered parents of the opposing team stole a helmet from the sidelines at the field, and once home discovered that the helmet was abnormally heavy as it had an inch layer of reinforced steel inside of the outer plastic lining. We were able to get a quote from the man who discovered this surprising find, “I knew something fishy was going on when I picked it up. Once I saw the steel, I thought to myself, no wonder they won, the kids must have been scared to death to get hit!”

The average age of the players on both teams is 7.5. After the head officials running the league discussed the issue they decided to retroactively strip the title from the Willies. Due to the fact the children are not old enough to understand the situation, they were allowed to keep their first place trophies, but their name will be erased from the championship record archive. This outcome has spun up a significant amount of controversy.

We interviewed several players of the All-Stars, all of whom stated that they didn’t notice anything unusual about the helmets of the opposing team. Additionally, game footage from parents show that there were no big hits whatsoever during the play, and the staff on the Willies claim that the steel is simply used as a safety measure, nothing more.

What are your thoughts on the issue? With the lifelong health effects of playing football coming out, should all teams be wearing steel reinforced helmets? Or was the decision by the league a just call?

With Tom Brady and the Patriots taking up all the limelight over the deflated balls, we thought it was important to fill in the public about this overlooked, yet equally important issue. In both cases all you really have to do is look at the score. I think there was more to the outcome of the games than the balls and the helmets, but then again what do I know, I don’t get paid to analyze sports.

This story is 100% fabricated. I am working on a novel which mocks the tragedy of modern news, and this is what I call practice.

Book Review: Dying Every Day – James Romm

 

Overview: I have read modern translations of Seneca’s work, but before reading this book I didn’t know too much about the life of the stoic. James Romm takes you through Seneca’s life as he takes on the role of a mentor and father figure for the young Nero, who becomes the Emperor of Rome as a teenager. With Seneca’s guidance Nero runs the empire with a level head and actually makes positive changes. However, as time passes, Seneca’s influence over the young man starts to waver, and he takes Rome on a path of destruction.

Through the madness Seneca battles with sorting through his morale stance while attempting to maintain some sort of influence over the increasingly deranged emperor. Nero manages to take Rome into the dumpster and Seneca is forced to press the issue of an honorable death all the way up to the end.

The story reveals that Seneca lived in a difficult time, and his situation was unique relative to other famous stoic’s of history. Overall the story is intriguing, and it gives you a better understanding on how delicate life was back in first century AD. Romm does a great job exploring this niche of ancient history.

Lesson: Even with a moral philosopher as a mentor, one is still able to head down a path of insanity when they have access to an abundance of wealth and power.

Important Passages (Per Sean):

Marcia’s grief, for Seneca, exemplifies a universal human blindness. We assume that we own things— family, wealth, position— whereas we have only borrowed them from Fortune. We take for granted that they will be with us forever, and we grieve at their loss; but loss is the more normal event— it is what we should have expected all along. Our condition, could we see it aright, is that of an army assaulting a well-defended town: every moment might bring the bite of a barbed arrow. Then, shifting metaphors, Seneca compares our lot to that of a condemned criminal: “If you lament a dead son, his crime belongs to the hour in which he was born. A death sentence was passed on him then.”

We wrongly say that the old and sick are “dying,” when infants and youths are doing so just as certainly. We are dying every day, all of us.

Elevating the lowborn or fallen, thereby making them dependent and loyal, was a time-honored strategy for Roman rulers, as it has been for autocrats everywhere.

Intellectual musings, she felt, were not what a future emperor needed. She wanted her son taught the more practical arts he would need as princeps, above all rhetoric and declamation.

It did not matter much how the young couple felt about each other, for imperial unions were hardly love matches. Their function was to produce an heir and to win Roman hearts by showing them a model of virtuous womanhood. From this second perspective, Octavia made an ideal empress . The Romans liked what they had seen thus far of her sobriety and self-possession. As time went on, Octavia’s popularity would rise ever higher, and Nero’s mistreatment of her, as will be seen, would provoke riots in the city’s streets.

Only those who study philosophy are truly alive, in that they move outside the prison of time into the realm of eternals. All others, those who follow worldly pursuits, are squandering their time, merely running out the ever-ticking clock of mortality.

After the Fates snip the thread of the emperor’s life, Claudius farts loudly and pronounces his last words: “Oh Lord, I think I’ve shit myself” (to which the narrator adds, “Whether he did or not, I can’t say, but he certainly shit all over everything else”). The palsied, limping emperor appears at heaven’s gates and is greeted as a deformed monster. An assembly of gods is convoked— a parodic version of the Roman Senate— to debate Claudius’ request for admission, and stern voices are raised in opposition. The deified Augustus rises to condemn Claudius’ abuses, recounting with outrage the murders that have thinned out the imperial family.

Nero was still sixteen, yet reigned over an empire larger than Alexander’s had ever been.

Perhaps one is offended by drunken jesting at a dinner party . Perhaps another is jostled at a rich man’s door by a self-important doorkeeper. A third is seated at a banquet table in a spot lower than he feels he deserves. Seneca urges his readers to forgive such slights and take themselves less seriously: “Pull further back, and laugh!”

The passions of unbridled women could destroy that realm and rush the world headlong toward apocalypse.

Nero began sallying out of his palace incognito on rapacious nighttime jaunts, helping himself to merchant goods, drinking and carousing, assaulting passersby. Caught up in the exuberance of power, he wilded in the streets of the city, sexually molesting women and boys alike. It was an early sign of the troubles that awaited Rome. The new princeps was turning out to be a lawless teen with no moral compass.

Seneca, now at the peak of his literary powers, was writing like a man running out of time— as indeed he was.

To endure torture or wasting disease is brave, he concludes, but to do violence to oneself and end these conditions is also brave.

By insisting that death is everywhere and cannot be escaped, Seneca seems to relieve himself of the burden of action. For indeed, Seneca was taking very little action in these years to help himself or others.

Soldiers bared their necks and senators slit their arms, all going passively, peacefully , resignedly to their dooms. Some even took their own lives after they were out of peril.

It was as though the ekpyrosis, the world-ending conflagration of the Stoics, had arrived but in a different form than expected. Rather than cleansing the world of a corrupt human race, the blaze claimed only the best and the brightest, the flowers of Rome’s literary elite and military officer class.

Had Seneca lived a century later than he did, he might have sat at Marcus Aurelius’ right hand, rather than serving as Nero’s footstool. But at least history in the end bore out the thesis on which Seneca had based his life: that moral gravity was not out of place in the halls of imperial power. The Romans had at last gained what many of them, apparently, had hoped that Seneca , despite all his flaws, might be: a philosopher king.

Best Books of 2014

As I am sure will be the case each year for the remainder of my life, I didn’t read quite as much as I may have liked in 2014. I still devoted a substantial amount of time and made a significant effort however, and came across a handful of great books over the course of the year. Below are the three best books that I read in 2014. While there may have been a lot of good information in books outside of this list, I decided to focus on choosing the books that I couldn’t put down and that I ended up reading in the course of a few days.

In the Heart of the Sea – Nathanial Philbrick

As I mention in the write-up I did for this book in my earlier blog post, I found this in Ryan Holiday’s list of recommended books from 2014, and I was able to finish it before the year was over. This book was hard to put down simply because it is hard to imagine that the events really took place. A whale ship is literally sunk when a whale slams its head intentionally into the underside of the boat, and then survival among the crew consists of two months of starvation and ultimately cannibalism. The tragedy of the whale ship Essex is the basis for the book Moby Dick. I highly recommend this book to anyone looking to be intrigued by an unbelievable true story.

The Boys in the Boat – Daniel Brown

It looks like there is a common theme among the books on this list. Again, I was opened up to a world that was previously completely foreign to me, the sport of rowing. Prior to reading the book my impression about rowing was that it was just a sport people did who weren’t physically able to compete in the more popular modern sports. That perception was quickly put to rest when I started to learn about how physically demanding the sport is, and how much teamwork is required to successfully compete at the highest levels.

Again, The Boys in the Boat is a true story about the 1936 Olympic games, which took place in Hitler’s rising Nazi Germany. It is an inspirational telling of a group of young men coming together and learning the importance of teamwork and perseverance against some of the most insurmountable odds as they represent the USA as its 1936 Olympic rowing team. Throughout the book you pick up on the wisdom from one of the most legendary ship makers to ever live, while coming to grips with a new respect for the sport of rowing. You also get a glimpse into the insane world Hitler envisioned. While I haven’t gotten to it yet, the book also made me want to read more about Hitler’s rise to power and everything that happened during the Holocaust (the man truly was a nut).

Into Thin Air – Jon Krakauer

This is the story of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster told by a survivor (Jon Krakauer) of the incident. I have been a fan of every book I have read from Krakauer, and this was no different. It was a drastic change in weather conditions that hit several groups who were attempting to summit Mount Everest in 1996. In total eight people died in result of the storm, including two of the most experienced guides to date (Rob Hall and Scott Fischer).

While although it is unfortunate and sad that human life was lost on the mountain, it is insane to imagine going through what the people on the mountain that day went through. I think that is the lure of the book. Knowing that what the author describes really happened is mind blowing.

I also learned a lot about mountaineering and how extremely difficult and taxing it is to attempt to climb Everest. It is not something I would ever aspire to do in my lifetime, but I have respect for the people that do it. Definitely worth reading.

Honorable Mentions:

Flash Boys – Michael Lewis

The Obstacle is the Way – Ryan Holiday

Lone Survivor – Marcus Luttrell

With the start of the New Year I recommend that everyone is always in the middle of reading something. Since taking reading seriously starting in 2010, it has been one of the best things I have done for my well being and mind.

Book Review: In the Heart of the Sea – Nathaniel Philbrick

 

 

Overview: I decided to read this book because it was on Ryan Holiday’s top books of 2014 list. As in previous years, I wasn’t disappointed with his recwwommendation. The Heart of the Sea is a story about the 1820 journey of a Nantucket whaleship known as the Essex. The ship is plagued by troubles from the onset of the expedition, and the tone is set after the boat nearly capsizes in the first days after leaving the port. Eventually the ship is rammed by a giant sperm whale, causing the Essex to sink, and leaving the crew with a limited amount of supplies spread out among twenty men and three whaleboats (smallest boats used in the capture of the whales). The men endure ninety some days at sea on their small boats, facing severe consequences of starvation, and ultimately resorting to cannibalism in order for a select few to survive.

The story opens you up to a world that is hard to believe ever existed. There was a lot of money to be made in whaling (through the extraction of whale oil), but the difficulty and risk that came with it was insane. This is a truly incredible story that will take you on a journey to the edges of the human primal instinct.

Lesson: In the face of sustained deprivation of the most basic human needs, we are capable of being overwhelmed with some of the most primal instincts as we fight for our survival. As disturbing as something like cannibalism is to think about, after learning about the late stages of starvation in this book, I can understand how it happens.

Several other lessons can be taken from this book (if the captain would have trusted his initial decisions instead of being swayed by the crew the situation likely wouldn’t have been as dire), and in general learning about something I knew nothing about was fascinating.

Important Passages (Per Sean):

EVEN though it is little remembered today, the sinking of the whale-ship Essex by an enraged sperm whale was one of the most well -known marine disasters of the nineteenth century. Nearly every child in America read about it in school . It was the event that inspired the climactic scene of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

Still, the portrait that emerges— of a community of achievers attempting to cope with a potentially devastating loneliness— makes the women’s dependence on opium perhaps easier to understand. The ready availability of the drug on the island (opium was included in every whaleship’s medical chest) combined with the inhabitants’ wealth may also help to explain why the drug was so widely used in Nantucket.

In a tight spot , a captain didn’t care if a seaman was white or black; he just wanted to know he could count on the man to complete his appointed task.

It was more than a realization that the whaling life might be harsher than he had been led to believe. Now that the island had slipped over the horizon, Nickerson began to understand, as only an adolescent on the verge of adulthood can understand, that the carefree days of childhood were gone forever: “Then it was that I, for the first time, realized that I was alone upon a wide and an unfeeling world . . . without one relative or friend to bestow one kind word upon me.” Not till then did Nickerson begin to appreciate “the full sacrifice that I had made.”

When a ship is heeled over by forty-five degrees or more, her hull might be compared to a fat man on the short end of a lopsided seesaw.

“It is painful to witness the death of the smallest of God’s created beings , much more, one in which life is so vigorously maintained as the Whale! And when I saw this, the largest and most terrible of all created animals bleeding, quivering , dying a victim to the cunning of man, my feelings were indeed peculiar!”

ambergris is a fatty substance used to make perfume and was worth more than its weight in gold.

Just as the skinned corpses of buffaloes would soon dot the prairies of the American West, so did the headless gray remains of sperm whales litter the Pacific Ocean in the early nineteenth century.

It was acting strangely. Instead of fleeing in panic, it was floating quietly on the surface of the water, puffing occasionally through its blowhole, as if it were watching them. After spouting two or three times, the whale dove, then surfaced less than thirty-five yards from the ship.

Never before, in the entire history of the Nantucket whale fishery, had a whale been known to attack a ship. In 1807 the whaleship Union had accidentally plowed into a sperm whale at night and sunk, but something very different was happening here.

With only a few casks of wine to share among more than 150 people, the raft quickly became a chaotic hell ship. Vicious fighting broke out between a faction of alcohol-crazed soldiers and some more levelheaded but equally desperate settlers. Two weeks later, when the brig Argus sighted the raft, only fifteen people were left alive.

Strangest of all, as their eyes sunk into their skulls and their cheekbones projected, they all began to look alike, their identities obliterated by dehydration and starvation.

“it could neither be remedied, nor could sorrow secure their return; but it was impossible to prevent ourselves feeling all the poignancy and bitterness that characterizes the separation of men who have long suffered in each other’s company, and whose interests and feelings fate had so closely linked together.”

For as long as men had been sailing the world’s oceans, famished sailors had been sustaining themselves on the remains of dead shipmates. By the early nineteenth century, cannibalism at sea was so widespread that survivors often felt compelled to inform their rescuers if they had not resorted to it since, according to one historian, “suspicion of this practice among starving castaways was a routine reaction .”

Two months after deciding to spurn the Society Islands because, in Pollard’s words, “we feared we should be devoured by cannibals,” they were about to eat one of their own shipmates.