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Book reviews: Haitin Noir, The Harvard Psychedelic Club 

Haiti Noir edited by Edwidge Danticat (Akashic Books, 300 pages, $24.95 hardcover, $15.95 paper).

One of our favorite new writers to emerge in the past decade is Haitian-born American Edwidge Danticat. The National Book Critics Circle Award and MacArthur "genius grant" winner's elegant style and razor sharp imagination have won her a fast-growing following. In her novels Breath, Eyes and Memory, The Dew Breaker and others, Danticat intimately portrays the lives and longings of her largely Haitian characters, both at home and in exile, while also getting to the heart of one of humanity's increasingly common experiences — the joys, dislocations and adjustments that come with being an expatriate — with open-eyed understanding and compassion. So it makes sense that Akashic Books asked her to produce Haiti Noir, the latest eye-opening book in the publisher's noir anthology series (Brooklyn Noir, Istanbul Noir, Chicago Noir, etc..).

Some of the contributors to Haiti Noir are familiar, such as Madison Smartt Bell, Mark Kurlansky, and Danticat herself, but most of the 18 writers are current or former Haitian residents who offer up a rich, wide spectrum of voices and experiences. The contributors work within the "noir" format, of course, but at times with a decidedly Haitian twist. You have the traditional noir stories filled with criminals, official corruption and hairpin-turn plot twists, as in "The Harem" by Ibi Aanu Zoboi, or "Rosanna" by Josaphat-Robert Large. Other stories, though, evince the strong undercurrent of the ghostly or ethereal that runs through Haitian culture, mostly through the tales connected to vodou, or what Americans call voodoo. As a result, Haiti Noir presents stories in which gods and spirits play as strong a part as the cops trying to find a killer; it's fascinating stuff that gives you an idea about the Haitian belief in powerful feelings, e.g. vengeance, and how they can seemingly take on lives of their own. Here, "noir" can mean not just dark and dangerous, it can also elicit the odd and eerie side of island life. As an L.A. Times reviewer wrote about Haiti Noir, "A story may feature a police inspector, but that doesn't mean it won't get weird."

As Danticat was finishing up getting stories together for this anthology, her native land was hit by the horrendous earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010. Suddenly, she got back to work, soliciting three more stories that deal with the quake's aftermath, including the previously mentioned "The Harem." In the book's introduction, Danticat writes, "Each story is now, on top of everything else, a kind of preservation corner, a snapshot of places that in some cases have become irreparably altered."

Taken as a whole, Haiti Noir becomes more than a collection of stories by 18 different writers. It's also a composite picture, nuanced and multifaceted, of an island and a culture of which most Americans have very little knowledge, much less understanding. For that alone, this is a valuable addition to the entire noir genre. Add to that the quality of writing, and the fascination of the stories, and you get an eye-opening view of a creative people in what many would consider a God-forsaken land.

The Harvard Psychedelic Club by Don Lattin (Harper One, 256 pages, $14,99).

In the early 1960s, four men began experimenting with, and studying, LSD, at that time a legal drug. It's hard to overstate those four men's unwitting influence on American and, for that matter, western culture. The men were: Timothy Leary, the clownish PR master whose "Turn on, tune in, drop out" phrase became a hippie manifesto; Richard Alpert, who later became Ram Dass, the popularizer of meditation and Eastern philosophies; Andrew Weil, who these days is an alternative medicine and nutrition guru of the first order; and Huston Smith, whose subsequent books on religious history are standard texts in colleges worldwide. What makes The Harvard Psychedelic Club a fascinating book of social history is the fact that the events all took place at a time when America was yearning for a depth denied it by consumer culture. Leary & Co. became villains to the mainstream press and conservative opinion makers, leading the men involved into lives "lived in the middle of a cosmic shit storm," filled with angst and gut-busting comedy. In short, this is a remarkable, well-written, lively portrait of an important period in our national journey.

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