Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Harvard Psychedelic Club

By Don Lattin


New York, Harper One, 2010

Week 48 Non-Fiction

The Harvard Psychedelic Club is an absolutely delightful account of the invention of the 1960s-era psychedelic movement and four of the men who were involved—Timothy Leary (of course), Huston Smith, Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), and Andrew Weil.

Timothy Leary
Richard Adkins (Ram Dass)
Lattin has monikers for each of these men, whose lives he follows during this time: Timothy Leary is called the Trickster, Richard Alpert, the Seeker, Huston Smith, the Teacher, and Andrew Weil, the Healer. For these four men and others on the periphery of the movement (names such as Aldus Huxley, Allen Ginsberg, Alan Watts, and William S. Burroughs), it all began with some mushrooms. Timothy Leary was a psychology researcher at Harvard along with Richard Alpert. They had both had experience with sacred mushrooms, and later LSD, and they believed that all kinds of society’s ills could be solved by using these drugs to reform behaviors. Huston Smith, a Methodist minister and religious scholar was interested from the standpoint of religious experience, and Andrew Weil was an undergraduate Botany major, who was also interested in holistic healing.

Huston Smith
Leary and Alpert had the OK from Harvard to experiment with LSD on graduate students, and the very first time they gave LSD to a group was on Good Friday of 1962 in a small sanctuary at Marsh Chapel on the campus of Boston University. Huston Smith had gathered a group of graduate students and seminary students from BU, Andover Newton, and Harvard. While the traditional Good Friday service was being held in the large chapel upstairs, a Good Friday of an entirely different sort was being held in the basement sanctuary.

This story was quite incredible to me. I was at Boston University School of Theology just three years later and never once heard about the Good Friday experiment. I knew about LSD being available on the Quad outside of the chapel, but not about that infamous day. I have emailed a friend from graduate school to ask her if she remembered anything. We’ll see what she says. Maybe I was just too na├»ve and too in love with a farm boy from Indiana to know about such things.

Andrew Weil
It wasn’t long before the scientific experiments with LSD began to include a lot of recreational use and Leary and Alpert entered a whole different realm, an East Coast version of the scene that was developing in San Francisco. Leary and Alpert were fired from Harvard when Andrew Weil told the Harvard Administration that they were giving LSD to undergraduates. At that point, the illegality of drugs became a major issue, and the scientific nature of therapy using LSD and other psychotropic drugs lost its momentum. Lattin says: "One of the ironies of this story is that the excesses of Leary and Dass in the whole LSD crusade prompted this backlash, not just against drugs as recreation, but a backlash against serious scientific research into what beneficial uses they have. And not just LSD. There are dozens of designer psychedelics that have been developed: ecstasy, MDMA, stuff most people had never heard of. Only now, 50 years later, is there research on their use for the treatment of depression, posttraumatic syndrome, alcoholism, end-of-life use for people who are facing their own mortality. Even Harvard is studying LSD again, with government money. There's been a whole renaissance of serious, reputable, legitimate research into psychedelic drugs; it's taken that long to get over Leary."

Lattin follows these four men through the next few years. Leary became the guru of the psychedelic movement with the mantra “turn on, tune in, drop out.” Alpert became a guru of another sort when he realized that one couldn’t find wholeness with LSD and found solace in Hinduism and Buddhism. He changed his name to Ram Dass and gathered many followers through the years. Huston Smith remained a renowned scholar of world religions and wrote a signal book on the subject, The World’s Religions. Andrew Weil is respected in the field of holistic healing and is a purveyor of vitamins and natural foods.

Three of the four are still alive. Huston Smith is 91 and has just written his memoirs. Ram Dass is 89 and remains a teacher via the Internet. Andrew Weil is 67 and still very active in his businesses. All were interviewed for this book. Timothy Leary died in 1996.

The Harvard Psychedelic Club is a trip down memory lane, and certainly for anyone of my generation, it is a fun read. It is full of interesting characters and stories. When Leary was arrested for possession of marijuana, G. Gordon Liddy was the federal marshal involved. John Lennon wrote Leary’s campaign song when Leary ran for Governor of California – Come Together! There is lots of invented dialogue, but Lattin did interview many of the survivors of the sixties, and he apparently had enough experience with LSD as a young man to know what he is writing about.

Is this a profound or important book? No, of course not. Is if a fun read? For sure! I found a short review of it in The New York Review of Books which convinced me to read it.

A review in the New York Times:
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/08/books/08book.html

An interview with Don Lattin in Time Magazine:
http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1952812,00.html

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Case Histories

By Kate Atkinson


New York, Back Bay Books, 2004

Week 47 Fiction

I bought Case Histories two or three years ago and began to read it twice. I frankly don’t know why I stopped, but it sat buried in my pile of “to read” books until I dragged it out last week. I wanted to read a mystery as a means of escape. This book did not deserve to be buried. It should have been read long ago, but then it wouldn’t have had a place on the blog.

It is anything but a formulaic murder mystery. First, the detective, Jackson Brodie is a gem of a character, peripatetic and idiosyncratic. (How about those words!) Second, the victims and those surrounding them are equally intriguing. And third, the book is very funny in spots, which is rather unique considering how grisly some of the crimes are.

The first part of the book is the set-up. Jackson Brodie, a former police detective and now a private investigator, is hired to bring closure to three cold cases that the police have long since given up. One is the mysterious disappearance of a toddler, the second the unsolved murder of a teenaged office worker, and the third is the search for a girl whose mother is a convicted ax murderer. Jackson, who is the divorced father of a ten-year-old girl himself, takes all these victims to heart as he seeks to bring closure to each of the families.

Luckily for the reader, the chapter headings tell who the chapter is about and when the action took place. Otherwise, it is a bit hard to fathom exactly where you are in the narrative. Much like A Visit from the Goon Squad, there is quite a bit of movement from the past to the present and back, but like a good mystery, seemingly wandering plots become tied up at the end.

There is also a lot of coincidence that in the hands of a less-talented writer might cause the reader go “Oh, yeah! Like that’s going to happen.” But it is all so skillfully woven that the reader never once doubts the coincidences. As the Washington Post reviewer mentions, “In a mystery where the dead bodies turn out to be far less important to the story than the survivors who mourn them, the coincidences seem almost mystical: markers of a grand, melancholy design built from the sorrows of anyone who has ever lost a loved one and never gotten over it.”

The families of the victims are a remarkable set of characters, each one so finely drawn that the reader could almost sketch them on a piece of paper. As readers of murder mysteries know, this is a rare thing in this genre, especially when there are this many stories being told. Some of the characters are downright funny, especially the two middle aged sisters, who had been young girls when their little sister disappeared. Their bickering and flirting with Jackson brings on some delightful chuckles. The New York Times reviewer notes, “ Although solutions and surprises abound, in Case Histories Atkinson is less interested in detailing the steps of an investigation than in exploring the rough and tumble that happens along the way. Her humor -- and she is a very funny writer -- is the sort that comes from being able to see the way happiness and sadness can emerge from the same situation. Her reach is certainly long enough to touch cruelty and grief, but it also extends far in the opposite direction -- all the way to joy.” And the Washington Post reviewer says, “Kate Atkinson...seems to have intuited that the most compelling mystery of all isn't necessarily whodunit, but rather howtodealwithit.”

Kate Atkinson had written several novels before Case Histories, including the Whitbread Award winner, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, but the detective Jackson Brodie was a character worth exploring further, and so there are three other Brodie mysteries, including One Good Thing, When Will There Be Good News and the soon-to-be released, Started Early, Took My Dog. Coming, as well, is a BBC One television series called Case Histories.

Here is the New York Times review quoted above:
http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B0DE2DA143EF936A35751C1A9629C8B63

And the review in the Washington Post:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A6296-2004Dec16.html

Her website: http://www.kateatkinson.co.uk/

and a YouTube of her reading about Jackson Brodie:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hn5i_ZuIDC4

Friday, November 12, 2010

Love and Summer

By William Trevor
New York, Viking, 2009

Week 46 Fiction

I am always amazed when an author comes into view that I know nothing about—such is the case with William Trevor, an Irish author of great renown, 82 years old. I first learned of Love and Summer in the pages of Bookmarks Magazine, where all the reviewers gave the book highest marks.

This is a small book—only 224 pages—about a small place in Ireland during a much simpler time—the late 1950s. One might consider the characters quite ordinary small town people, yet they all have complex life histories, and the plot, while quiet and contemplative, is also thick and dense.

The characters are those that you would expect in a small town, the businessman, the nosy busybody, the local character, the cleric, the farmer with a tragic past, the innocent young woman, and the stranger in the village. One would expect that these characters would collide and interact; this is the nature of pastoral-type novels. Yet, Trevor fills these characters with so much longing, so much loneliness, and, as one reviewer suggests, so much hope, that this book is compelling and enlightening. The New York Times reviewer says “(Trevor)…has somehow turned the nondescript and the habitual into the exceptionally vivid and particular.”

I especially liked the character of Miss Connulty, the “spinster” who has just inherited the local boarding house. She is a deeply unhappy, unfulfilled woman who sees all and knows all. Yet she, like all the characters in the book, has a past. She had an affair as a young woman with a salesman who boarded at their house. She became pregnant and went to a distant city to have the baby, who was then adopted. She sees the young wife Ellie meet up with the young stranger in town, Florian, and instinctively knows that there will be trouble. She tries to warn Ellie that no good is going to come from their meeting by telling Ellie, “Love is a madness.” But in a stroke of genius on the part of the author, Miss Connulty does not expose the lovers, as one would expect, but makes plans to pick up the pieces and save Ellie when the affair falls apart, as she knows it will.

By the time the simple plot moves to its inevitable climax, the reader has so much invested in the characters that there is no stopping—it has to be read in one sitting. Once done, there is a big sigh as you realize that you have just finished a masterpiece with no grand finale, no conclusion, but just life at its richest.

I lived in a very small town for 18 years and these characters ring very true for small town living, where much of life is in the details. One reviewer says: “He (Trevor) makes the ordinary come alive through rich details accompanying everyday habits.” There can be a great deal of comfort in small town living that comes from knowing your neighbors very well, knowing their habits and their circumstances. What is not comfortable about small town life is that your neighbors know you very well, your habits and your circumstances. But the characters in Love and Summer draw their strength from the sense of community, and for all their sadness and longing, this is where they want to be.

William Trevor has been called one of the finest prose stylists writing today. Other books in his lexicon include, The Story of Lucy Gault, Death in Summer, Fools of Fortune, and Cheating at Canasta, a highly acclaimed collection of short stories.

Here is a review in the Washington Post:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/17/AR2009091703691.html

An interview from the BBC:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/johntusainterview/trevor_transcript.shtml

The New York Times has a list of resources about the author. Very helpful:
http://topics.nytimes.com/topics/reference/timestopics/people/t/william_trevor/index.html

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Stitches: A Memoir

By David Small


New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 2009

Week 45Memoir

David Small, known for his prize-winning children’s books and book illustrations, has created a masterpiece of a memoir in a graphic novel format. He says, “I am an artist, and this is a book about being voiceless…When you have no voice, you don’t exist.”

Small divides his memoir about his “Soviet Bloc” of a childhood into parts relating to his age when the events happen: “I Was Six,” “I Was Eleven,” “I Was Fourteen,” and “I Was Fifteen.” Through black and white drawings, shaded in grays, with very few words, Small tells the story of a family where silence reigns, where love is never shown, and where explanations are never  given.

His mother is a 1950s housewife, his father a radiologist, and his older brother is the usual bullying brat of a big brother. Here are the bare bones of Stitches. David was small, sensitive, and prone to infections. X-rays were the new big thing, and his father as a radiologist used them to “cure” David of his sinus infections. When he was eleven, he developed a lump in his neck that was diagnosed as a cebaceous cyst. His parents decided to ignore the doctor’s recommendation that the cyst be removed claiming that it would be too expensive to remove, so David lived with it for the next three years. However, when he was fourteen, the cyst was finally removed, and along with it, David’s thyroid and part of his vocal cords. David was left voiceless for a prolonged period of time, but more insidiously, he was never told that he had cancer. The next year was a nightmare for David, and he began to act out his pain and anger, causing his parents endless frustration, and contributing to David’s increasing isolation and psychosis. Finally, at age fifteen, his parents took him to an analyst, who Small portrays as the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. This dear man helped him realize that it is not David who is flawed, but his parents and his entire family, and that he has a right to be angry for his parents not telling him about the cancer. The climax of the book comes when his father tells him that he was to blame for what happened to David because the cancer had been caused by the prolonged exposure to the x-rays.

Small understands the concept of telling a story without words. When he describes how his father reveals the huge secret, the drawings go on for several wordless pages, and the pain is searing. In another amazing sequence, Small illustrates with rain the tears that flowed when he began to understand that the pain of his life was not his fault, that his mother was incapable of loving, and that he had not been told the truth his whole childhood. The viewer (reader) is absolutely moved to tears as the rain in the drawings eventually subsides.

It is so evident that Small has bared his soul in Stitches. In one drawing, little boy David is drawing on a big piece of paper on the floor and in the next two drawings, he is sucked down into the paper. In an interview, he says that he had so much more that he could have told, but that he had to continually edit the story down until it was a manageable length. A short chapter about Small’s adult life, and an equally short explanation with a couple of photos, helps the reader understand a little better about why his childhood was so unfortunate.

David Small and his wife, the author Sarah Stewart, live just south of Kalamazoo, and are frequent visitors to our community. I saw them last at a Chinese restaurant in our neighborhood. Small won the Caldecott Award for the book, So You Want to Be President? in 2001 and is an honor book winner for the same award with a book he wrote with his wife, The Gardener.

Like Persepolis, which I reviewed earlier this year, graphic books can tell a story in a very profound way. In discussing this, one reviewer suggests, “Such moments remind us of the emotional power and immediacy of drawing.”

I highly recommend Stitches. It is an amazing book, the winner of several awards, and should be on everyone’s reading list.

Here is a review in the Washington Post:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/10/09/AR2009100901724.html

A very good interview in the website, The New Gay:
http://thenewgay.net/2009/10/david-small-the-new-gay-interview.html

David Small’s website:
http://davidsmallbooks.com/index.php