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I Have America Surrounded: The Life of Timothy Leary by John Higgs

It was flat out epic grandeur.
Now, I can claim no sincere, personal knowledge, no inspiration, or, in fact, any respect, grudging or otherwise, in, of, from or for Timothy Leary. Everyone knows of Tim Leary (even those of us who occasionally get him mixed up with foul-mouthed comic Denis Leary [whose comedy sadly now plays second fiddle to his roles as Diego in the Ice Age movies, an experience any recent parent might feel sympathy for]), and people cluck their tongues and stroke their beards and say, "Acid–what the fuck was that all about?" I haven't taken acid (that I've noticed, and I'm sure I would have done so), and my only flirtation with psilocybin ended in a fit of the giggles which, unsure as I am of the cause, may well have been because my friend thought he was high and was really very rude to our housemates, probably also because he decided his inhibitions were gone rather than because they were, and because he had a ready-made excuse for the morning after*. 

What I was delighted to find out, however, thanks to the hugely readable writing of John Higgs, was that Timothy Leary is directly responsible for Cardinal Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger becoming Pope Benedict XVI, and pretty much every other major cultural and sociological advance and breakthrough in American history post-1955.

What a guy!

I don't joke about these things [sarcasm klaxon], but as sarcasm is hard to detect in blog posts without a sarcasm klaxon to help, I want to make this abundantly clear. Higgs does actually make the connection between Leary and Benedict XVI. He states that because Ratzinger didn't take acid before, during or after the student uprisings in Germany in 1968, "...his understanding of [moral or metaphysical] relativism remained theoretical instead of empirical." Which meant that the church was able to dissuade a young doctoral student Ratzinger from pursuing the study of relativism, and instead become an advocate of absolutism, believing that there is one absolutely true version of the world, the universe and everything (and that is the way God made it) and not seven billion completely subjective worlds in existence at the same time, shaped by their creators's experiences and personal narratives. This was Leary's view, that each person inhabited his or her own 'reality tunnel'. Somehow, Higgs gets from this that because Leary was the LSD guy, Ratzinger became pope because of Leary. Up to this point, which is ridiculously far into the book, I had been on the cusp of buying into some of the Leary brain-washing, of going out and buying some God-awful German techno by Ash Ra Tempel, of tentatively seeking out someone with some 'good' acid and finding somewhere safe and warm to take a trip. But in retrospect, I should have noticed the very many times that Higgs lets his facade of objectivity and sociological curiosity slip and starts fawning over a man whose legend is clearly something of a graven image to the author. You want another one? Okay, he says that Republicans are represented as red and Democrats are blue on political maps because of Leary. Of course he prefaces this bombshell by using the passive "It has been suggested that..." but even then he goes on to say, "...there is no doubt that..." as if he has discovered incontrovertible evidence to support this hypothesis, but which he accidentally forgot to reference. 

So, can this sour apple really spoil the rest of this book? Yes, it can, but only for me and it shouldn't for anyone better read or more informed about the influence of the counter-culture on the development of American society after World War Two. I'm wilfully ignorant of most everything that I have not read in a novel, avoiding for the most part historical texts and anything resembling a factual television programme for dear life. Higgs might be right. Leary may have had the most profound of impact on our way of life, that psychedelia could have opened many doors for psychiatry, psychology, art, music and politics, but for me, this book is rendered another rock 'n' roll biography of one guy's hero, a man who, though intellectual, articulate and astute, and capable of great charisma, did fuck loads of drugs and fucked his way through the second half of the twentieth century. And all it took was the hint of hyperbole. You know what, maybe I should go find some acid.

*Not that, "Sorry, I'd taken a shit load of mushrooms I found growing in sheep crap," is really, in retrospect, much of an excuse for anything.


How's about that then?

Damned If I Do by Percival Everett

Where I should be recovering from a particularly nasty stomach bug, rather I appear to be on a Percival Everett trip today - first Strom, now Damned - but he really is that good. Good as in read-everything-he's-written-now good. Good as in I'm writing this on my iPad never more than two meters from the nearest toilet good. That's good. 

Damned If I Do is short stories, yes. That I have a curious relationship with short fiction is undisputed, but there are some like Breece D'J Pancake and Haruki Murakami that just have to be read, objections or no. Thankfully, it appears Everett has inherited some of their ability to write convincing, understated and ultimately addictive snippets of prose. And snippets they are. Somewhere I read once a quote from China Mielville where he says he just loves it when writers don't show the reader the monster in its entirety, that leaving something of the horror to the imagination of his audience adds a level of engagement and makes the …

A Death In The Family: My Struggle Volume 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

I sit here, wearing my limited edition Knausgaard t-shirt, immensely grateful to the kind people at Vintage Books for their surprising gift of the first four novels (and aforementioned t-shirt) simply as a result of being able to post a comment on their YouTube Vlog. There may have been a hidden agenda, considering I'm a book blogger (What, interrobang, a book blogger, interrobang and so on...) but I prefer to believe they picked me at random. Because I'm ace. 
Nonetheless, I had no idea what to expect of these books. I did do a little reading, and found lots of very interesting articles about Karl Ove Knausgaard, including this entertaining one in the Wall Street Journal. But in all honesty, nothing prepared me for reading them, and I can see why they cause controversy and consternation wherever they are translated (which is pretty much everywhere).
First off, being intelligent and perspicacious readers as I trust you all to be, you will no doubt have spotted the whole Godwin&#…

A Bright Moon For Fools by Jasper Gibson

Ah, what would be a review penned by yours truly without some sort of grovelling apology at the outset? A better review no doubt, but that aside I can't help but continue the tiresome tradition with an apology. Sorry to my regular robotic readers (hi bots!) but I have been very neglectful of the blog of late, having been tied up with my pursuit of a broader spectrum of dilettantism; I've been taking part in a number of MOOCs offered by various HEIs on the FutureLearn platform. Worth checking out if you ask me.

(Subtle enough plug, you think?)
Anyway, the break afforded by a foray into further education has proved something of a test for Jasper Gibson and his fiction. In truth, it took me a little while to remember what exactly the novel was about, who was in it, and how I felt about the whole thing. Instant alarm bells. Of course, having had a break, I'd had a good crack at filling my head with a whole bunch of other things worth remembering, so maybe it all just got squeeze…

Open Door by Iosi Havilio

*Shame Klaxon*
I am ashamed to admit it but I know next to nothing about Borges. I know the names of his books. I know he crops up almost without fail when conversations include literature from South America. I know his words book-end so many novels that I have that habitual proving-my-bold-assertion-mind-blankness which means my brain knows it to be true and won't humour your scepticism with an example*. And I know it's likely the biggest single lacuna in my entire reading history**.
So you may imagine my lack of surprise, on finishing this novel and reading the afterword by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, lecturer at Birkbeck College, London, and author of works on the history and politics of Latin America, that Borges pops up, within three lines of text. Three lines! He wastes no time does Oscar. Of course, my shame bristled and I was ready to adopt the usual casual hostility to something of which I was ignorant. But straight away, I understood what he was saying. I have often consid…