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

i have america surrounded

Timothy Leary is an acid guru. It was him who truly brought LSD to the masses in the psychedelic 1960s as he turned from Harvard professor and dropped out of society to promote the new wave of LSD hippy counterculture. He became public enemy number 1 and was jailed but launched a daring escape and went into exile. He flirted with the Black Panther movement and in exile counted on the support of the masses to lead a crazed party existence, fuelled by drugs. He had a string of lovers and several children. He was an extreme character and a very influential man. His personality was highly intellectual yet fun. He brought out the best in people. This biography delves into Leary’s life and examines his close relationships that form the blazing trail of real life fiction as he leads one of the most bizarre lives possible. The book flows and it inspires the imagination as to what it must have been like to form part of this amazing guru’s life.

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Review: To End A War – by Richard Holbrooke

to end a war

The collapse of Yugoslavia. Ethnic cleansing on the doorstep of Europe. Richard Holbrooke is the man that the US government under President Clinton, drafted in to deal with the Bosnia crisis. From the bomb-wrecked ruins of Sarajevo to the high diplomacy of Dayton, this is a clearly written account of the efforts that the international community underwent in order to bring peace to tha Balkans region. The list of characters brings in all the major players of the region and Holbrooke gets close to Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic, Croat President Franjo Tudjman and leader of the Bosnians, Alija Izetbegovic. There is an ongoing hunt for war criminals such as Karadzic and Mladic which undermines a lot of the peace process once it is implemented. For a student of the Bosnian conflict and the Balkans region, this book is an unparalleled insight into the whole conflict and its resolution. The details are factual, well-presented and one gains an insight into the high level shuttle diplomacy and its overbearing physically draining efforts as one of the most serious armed conflicts of the twentieth century is resolved. A five star read.

Review: El Infierno – Drugs, Gangs, Riots and Murder – My Time Inside Ecuador’s Toughest Prisons – by Pieter Tritton

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This autobiographical account of Brit drug smuggler, Pieter Tritton, is a flowing, page-turning journey that documents his twelve years locked up in Ecuador’s notorious, corrupt and highly dangerous prison system. Tritton is already in trouble back in the UK where he is being sought by police for large scale international drug trafficking. He heads out to Ecuador for a fairly straightforward 2kg cocaine purchase, cleverly melted down and concealed in a tent’s groundsheet, that he aims to transport back to the lucrative European markets. He has been stitched up though and his hotel room is busted and his girlfriend and him start an arduous adventure in the justice system of this exotic Andean nation. From the outset it is clear that the prison system is quite a bit different to that Pieter has previous experienced in the UK. Here. the guards are usually in the command of the brutal gangs that run the prisons. It is a dog eat dog world and murder is rife. At first the lifestyle seems quite liberal within the prison as the cells aren’t usually locked up for much of the time and there is relative freedom of movement and lots of amenities such as shops and prisoners are allowed luxury items and to decorate their own cells. However, the underlying gangs that run the system are in total control. Drugs are very freely available and Pieter gets heavily involved in the business he knows best, dealing both inside the prison walls and also continuing international trafficking through the new contacts he picks up. He earns the respect of most inmates although he occasionally takes high risks that could result in serious calamity. There is a steady stream of high machismo violence and murder. The justice system is obviously corrupt and there are difficulties negotiating this. Later, during his stay in the notorious Guayaquil La Peni prison, he contracts TB and almost dies. The book is a heartfelt journey and the frank nature of the author as he expresses his true feelings and fears and narrates his liaisons with the depraved criminal characters often right at the top of the gang hierarchy, gives us a true life insight into a dark and oppressed system where Pieter survives probably only though his optimistic spirit and entrepreneurial attitude. I really enjoyed this book and it tells of a journey through life that must have been very difficult.

 

Review: Cosa Nostra – A History Of The Sicilian Mafia – by John Dickie

 

cosa nostraThis is a study on the notorious criminal organisation the Sicilian Mafia – Cosa Nostra – Over the years, Cosa Nostra has become an alternative source of political power in Southern Italian island. The reach of this criminal organisation has spread its tentacles across the globe, becoming a feared and respected multinational criminal organisation. From more humble roots in dealing with cattle rustling, the Cosa Nostra moved into more traditional mafia activities such as protection rackets and later made very heavy profits in drug smuggling. The Cosa Nostra is a difficult theme to research due to the clandestine nature of its activities. It is a secret brotherhood and we learn of its hierarchy and organisation plus its almost religious like entry rituals. It can be bloodthirsty and strict and its internal discipline is its means of maintaining its power. It is in effect a tandem organisation to State power in Italy and its members. even on the run – are able to live clandestinely with few problems. The links between Cosa Nostra and the American Mafia was interesting – Joe Bananas a figure that bridged the gap between both worlds. The two mafia wars of the Twentieth century were bloody and Cosa Nostra resorted to terrorism in its fight amongst itself and also with the state. There has been a very damaging emergence of Pentiti who are whistleblowers who reveal to the authorities the crimes of former colleagues in exchange for immunity or freedom. The Cosa Nostra was brought to the brink of destruction by some of these treacherous characters. The Maxi-Trial led by antimafia judges such as Falcone caused much devastation and meant a change in strategy, leadership and tactics. Falcone ended up suffering a gruesome death, a fate shared by very many enemies of Cosa Nostra. It was interesting seeing some of the dirty political dealings that many leading Italian political figures have with Cosa Nostra, including well known long term President Silvio Berlusconi. The research for this book was often second hand, relying on preceding authors and also details could often be fussy due to a lot of the knowledge of structure of the organisation and its activities come from Pentiti who often are less than reliable sources due to their own bias. I felt that it was an interesting and enlightening study although towards the end of the book the author’s clear antimafia stance became a little annoying as I felt could have been more subjective and perhaps focussed too much on the Crime aspect of Cosa Nostra and lacked respect in terms of seeing it as a perhaps positive force in much of what it does.

Review: Narrating Narcos: Culiacán and Medellín – by Gabriela Polit Dueñas

narrating narcos

The author is exploring the impact of local culture on the artistic output of Narcoculture in the form of literature and art in two specific par excellence Narco cities in Latin America. We are introduced to the Culichis of Culiacán in Mexicos Sinaloa and they can be contrasted with the paisas of Medellín in Colombia. There are unique linguistic characteristics to each area and each city produces distinct styles in terms of its experience of drug war and wide scale narco-trafficking. Culiacán is the capital of El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel territory and faced the brunt of the President Calderon Mexican Government War on Drugs. Medellín was home to Pablo Escobar’s capo rule during the 1980s when he declared war on the State and ran a brutal campaign akin to terrorism, brutalising many of the local population in the crossfire. The rough nature of macho Culichi campesinos, raised in the surrounding rural mountains is portrayed in the natural acceptance of violence and the local landscape is scarred with the memories of narco killings and warfare. Post Escobar paisas are dealing with the world where they had to face paramilitary suppression and the middle classes have been integrated with fast money immigrants from the shantytowns, the home of sicaresca (cultural works about sicario hitmen). Authors may use local dialects such as Medellin’s urban poor parlache in order to express their work. Most of the artists and authors have either suffered directly from the violence or know people killed in the wars. The underlying tone for cultural content from both areas is one of ultraviolence that is socially accepted and ingrained in the conscience and collective memory. The popularity of narconovelas is rising globally. The author of this study does some great work in exposing some perhaps lesser known creators and does a relatively in depth analysis of their works, often drawing on external cultural ideas and philosophies in order to justify her analyses. I found this text to be very enlightening and it opened many doors to this area for future critical study. The often dark subjects prove to be very adept at dealing with their work, often under extreme circumstances that fellow artists across the world do not have to endure. The culture of Medellín and Culiacán is opened to the world by Gabriela Polit Dueñas and I highly recommend her work.

Review: Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas – by Elijah Wald

narcocorrido

Whilst planning to do a university translation dissertation on some aspect of narcoculture I was drawn to this work (in English – also simultaneously released bilingually with a Spanish version) by American author and folk musician, Elijah Wald. Having been introduced and hooked on the sounds of Los Tigres Del Norte for years, the Narcocorrido is a music form that particularly interests me. The Spanish word ‘Correr’ = to run, gives way to the Corrido form of music, a Mexican musical ballad, originally historically done as the spoken word, but more recently with Mexican folk music of accordions, guitars and harps added. It is a form of Norteño / Ranchera / Mariachi music, very spicy in rhythm, with neatly rhyming lyrics, telling a popular story. A lively, popular music artform, where masculinity and hyper-masculinity can flourish. The traditional Corrido has been superseded by the Narcocorrido, which tells the stories of Mexican and Latin American drug lords and their conquests – their crossborder trafficking, their grisly assassinations, their lovelife, their organisations. The Corrido is an alternative form of news and corridistas may cover any political event, with some controversial writers documenting political scandals and guerrilla uprisings. Elijah Wald takes us on an interesting personal journey as he hitchhikes and buses across every conceivable region in Mexico and also dips into the Corrido communities of North America. We meet the stars of the genre, the well known celebrity figures, from Los Tigres Del Norte themselves and their most famous writers such as Jefe del Jefes, Teodoro Bello. The issues of assassinated star Chalino Sánchez were particularly interesting and displayed the true dangerous nature of these musicians and their controversial cultural work. We head from the Sinaloan narcocorrido heartland, up to Texas and onto rural Michoacan. Not only do we learn more of the drug trafficking inspirations and the gruesome Mexican drug war, but also we learn of other areas of Mexican culture, history and politics. Wald is a man of the people and the rural campesinos are never far from his heart. He is equally at home listening to corridista buskers on the bus aswell as being able to snort cocaine whilst partying with the stars. For me, the translations done by the author about the often unknown corridos are a true revelation and, being an apprentice translator, I particularly found this aspect of the book exciting. The book is a real adventure and I’d encourage any travel lover to get involved in the quint narrations and journeying. I think that this book will long be regarded as the definitive text on Narcocorridos and I look forward to reading more work by Elijah Wald. It has left me a large legacy of topics and material to research and I shall be busy well into the future covering issues raised by my reading of this most excellent, well written text.

Review: MI6 – Fifty Years of Special Operations – by Stephen Dorril

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This detailed 800 page book covers fifty years of MI6, the UK’s foreign espionage service. From relatively humble beginnings during the second world war, MI6 grew to become a leading foe of Soviet Russia and its notorious KGB. The book documents in detail issues that affected the service from the beginning and I especially was enamoured by the division of early chapters covering each of the spheres of influence where MI6 were working in the aftermath of World War 2. The book amalgamates knowledge I have of this service from other reading and often due to its sheer volume, will analyse in depth details that were previously unknown. It often is critical of the service’s failures and sometimes questionable morality in its operations. The obvious exposure of the country by moles within MI6 such as Kim Philby were very damaging to our nation. It is clear that there was much frustration during the Cold War with a failure to penetrate the Soviet system properly. Also, as the years have moved on, the critical importance of US intelligence – the CIA and NSA – to UK intelligence services – becomes paramount. Our declining empire has meant that MI6 has had to do all it can to keep our position as a global power propped up in the world. There is a very good section on the often blunderous years of operations in the Middle East, culminating in the Suez crisis which was a clear debacle. Moving into the modern era (Book concludes just before second Gulf War) the author successfully identifies future directions for the service and there is interesting coverage of MI6 whistleblower Richard Tomlinson, who has revealed his life as an operative in a controversial book. I enjoyed this large book and feel that it will be useful for reference in any further research I may do on intelligence services.