Friday Staff Pick: The Empathy Exams

If you’ve got a glowing, tender heart and wonder how it’s possible to feel so much, this is the book for you. Hypochondriacs are advised to skip essay #2.—

Recommended by Vanessa, City Lights Books

From personal loss to phantom diseases, a bold and brilliant collection, winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize

A Publishers Weekly Top Ten Essay Collection of Spring 2014

Beginning with her experience as a medical actor who was paid to act out symptoms for medical students to diagnose, Leslie Jamison’s visceral and revealing essays ask essential questions about our basic understanding of others: How should we care about each other? How can we feel another’s pain, especially when pain can be assumed, distorted, or performed? Is empathy a tool by which to test or even grade each other? By confronting pain—real and imagined, her own and others’—Jamison uncovers a personal and cultural urgency to feel. She draws from her own experiences of illness and bodily injury to engage in an exploration that extends far beyond her life, spanning wide-ranging territory—from poverty tourism to phantom diseases, street violence to reality television, illness to incarceration—in its search for a kind of sight shaped by humility and grace.
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Planet News

Seven posters from The Singing Posters: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl by Allen Ruppersberg (Part I), 2003, 14 × 22 inches. All images courtesy of the artist.

A couple of years prior to making the work, I asked my students if they knew this poem “Howl,” by Allen Ginsberg. One of them had kind of heard of it in his English class, and another was a little more familiar with it, but the majority of them didn’t know it at all. I actually then used “Howl” as a project in the class; later I decided to take the project out into the world. And you’re right, the posters are very familiar; they’re a public-address system, in LA anyway, or they used to be—they’re something else that’s disappearing.

When you drive around LA you see these posters on telephone poles advertising public events. It’s a form that I can empty out and fill up again. I took the form—the colored posters—and then rewrote the poem using phonetic dictionaries and combining three different phonetical pronunciation forms. There is also the giant scale of this thing, so that when you come into the gallery you’re compelled to start reading out loud.
Allen Ruppersberg via BOMB magazine

“Knowing the city of Tokyo as well as he knows the Murakami canon, David works his way from the Denny’s where “Mari, while minding her own business, is interrupted by an old acquaintance Takahashi in After Dark“; to Waseda University, alma mater of both Murakami himself and Norwegian Wood‘s protagonist Toru Watanabe; to both locations of Peter Cat, the jazz café and bar Murakami ran with his wife in the 1970s and early 80s; to Meiji Jingu stadium, where Murakami witnessed the home run that somehow convinced him he could write his first novel, Hear the Wind Sing; to DUG, another underground jazz bar visited by students like Toru Watanabe in the 1960s and still open today”
A Photographic Tour of Haruki Murakami’s Tokyo, Where Dream, Memory, and Reality Meet via Open Culture

“Soon after his arrival, Huang, known as the “Walt Whitman of China,” took it upon himself to customize his new residency by painting the house’s wooden exterior with Chinese poetry. The ornate calligraphy of “House Poem,” as it became known, immediately garnered the attention of locals who flocked to the house to hear Huang recite his work and put Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum on the international map.”
City of Asylum is a haven for foreign-born scribes who endured imprisonment, or worse, in their home countries. The program provides free housing and a stipend for writers and their families. via Al Jazeera


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Throwback Thursday: The Historic Unfulfilled Promise by Howard Zinn

unfulfilledAs school children, Labor Day was just another holiday conveniently placed at the beginning of the school year, a day of rest to reflect on elementary woes, and yet still warm enough to pretend that Summer hadn’t quite left. Perhaps that disconnect is an indicator of America’s current relationship with its profound history involving labor movements. As we approach Labor Day on Monday, September 1, we’d like to share some thoughts from Howard Zinn, who wrote extensively on working class movements, including anti-war and civil rights causes. He would have celebrated his 91st birthday on August 24th, last Sunday.

Zinn classified himself as “something of an anarchist, something of a socialist” and was raised by factory worker parents in Brooklyn, New York. The Historic Unfulfilled Promise, published as part of the City Lights Open Media Series in 2012 (two years after his death) is the first-ever collection of Zinn’s various essays and articles from 30 years of journalism for The Progressive.

Here is an excerpt from one of these writings. From 1979, while working for Boston University, he helped to organize a strike involving the librarians, faculty members, and clerical workers of the university. Zinn recalls, Continue reading

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Announcing Fall Event Season at City Lights Books – September ’14

Summer may be ending, but events at City Lights are just getting started–the month of September is full of authors, illustrators, poets, book parties, rock stars, and more. All of our events begin at 7 PM and are held at the bookstore at 261 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94133. All events are free and open to the public unless otherwise noted.

From Vikram Chandra, who explains the truly sublime beauty of coding, to self-proclaimed ‘bad feminist’ Roxane Gay, there are a wide range of fantastic events this month at City Lights. Join us for parties too, including celebrations of new publications by City Lights Publishing: Haiti Glass by Lenelle Moïse, the latest from our Sister Spit imprint; Thousand Times Broken by Henri Michaux, new English translations by noted Bay Area poet Gillian Conoley; and as always, celebrations of other small press like the great Wave Books.

Other authors joining us during September include Scholastique Mukasonga, sharing her fascinating perspective of life at a school for young girls in 1970s Rwanda before the Rwandan genocides, and Nayomi Munaweera, who will read from her critically acclaimed debut novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, which takes place in Sri Lanka as war breaks loose. We also welcome MariNaomi, an author and illustrator whose work is regularly featured on The Rumpus, as well as Laila Lalami, who has written a new book that provides a fictional account of the first black explorer of America. And lastly, an appearance by Primus!

Find details of each event in September below. Continue reading

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New from City Lights Publishers: A Corner of the World by Mylene Fernández-Pintado

Corner of the World low resMarian is depressed. Her car keeps breaking down. Her job, in Havana as a professor of Spanish literature, is suffocating. She’s has no one, and nothing, that needs her—not even books: “They’ll stay alive even without dusting.” Ostensibly Marian doesn’t write either, and so this story reads as a kind of interior monologue. But when her boss assigns her a book review, and when she reads the book and meets its young author, Daniel, things change.

A Corner of the World is the first novel by acclaimed Cuban writer Mylene Fernández-Pintado to appear in English. Of the book, Achy Obejas said, “What I liked most about A Corner of the World, Mylene Fernández-Pintado’s wonderful novel, is how superbly human it portrays its characters. They are neither political or apolitical, and both brave and uneasy, living in a 21st century Cuba that does not easily conform to expectation. A Corner of the World is about desires and dreams, and, of course, about love.”

A Corner of the World is a book about books. It’s a book about falling in love with books, or their authors, the difference of which is probably small. Christopher Hitchens thought “The most satisfying compliment a reader can pay is to tell me that he or she feels personally addressed,” and so it is for Marian, reading Daniel’s novel, and so it is for me, reading Fernández-Pintado’s prose, here translated from the Spanish by Dick Cluster.

In contemporary Cuba, “Should I stay or should I go?” is the question, and in this story the romantic entanglement between Marian and Daniel conceives a world outside, but is it the real solution? Here follows a short excerpt from the book in which one of two possible versions of Madrid — the place Marian could escape to — is described.

Continue reading

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Poetry on a Monday: Gwendolyn Brooks

“Allah Shango,” painted by Jeff Donaldson. Facing the title page inside Gwendolyn Brooks’s 1969 chapbook RIOT.

by Gwendolyn Brooks

A riot is the language of the unheard.
—martin luther king

John Cabot, out of Wilma, once a Wycliffe,
all whitebluerose below his golden hair,
wrapped richly in right linen and right wool,
almost forgot his Jaguar and Lake Bluff;
almost forgot Grandtully (which is The
Best Thing That Ever Happened To Scotch); almost
forgot the sculpture at the Richard Gray
and Distelheim; the kidney pie at Maxim’s,
the Grenadine de Boeuf at Maison Henri.

Because the Negroes were coming down the street.

Because the Poor were sweaty and unpretty
(not like Two Dainty Negroes in Winnetka)
and they were coming toward him in rough ranks.
In seas. In windsweep. They were black and loud.
And not detainable. And not discreet.

Gross. Gross. “Que tu es grossier!” John Cabot
itched instantly beneath the nourished white
that told his story of glory to the World.
“Don’t let It touch me! the blackness! Lord!” he whispered
to any handy angel in the sky.
But, in a thrilling announcement, on It drove
and breathed on him: and touched him. In that breath
the fume of pig foot, chitterling and cheap chili,
malign, mocked John. And, in terrific touch, old
averted doubt jerked forward decently,
cried, “Cabot! John! You are a desperate man,
and the desperate die expensively today.”

John Cabot went down in the smoke and fire
and broken glass and blood, and he cried “Lord!
Forgive these nigguhs that know not what they do.”



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Friday Staff Pick: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa


The Manuscript Found in Saragossa

Jan Potocki

I discovered this book the wrong way around-I picked up a VHS of the movie because it come with recommendations by Scorsese and Coppola on the cover. An ingenious twisted Polish new wave classic awaited me! But the book? Of course the book is even better than the movie, more otherworldly, sly-er, smarter, more hilarious and deeply moving.
—Recommended by Layla, City Lights Books

Alphonse, a young Walloon officer, is traveling to join his regiment in Madrid in 1739. But he soon finds himself mysteriously detained at a highway inn in the strange and varied company of thieves, brigands, cabbalists, noblemen, coquettes and gypsies, whose stories he records over sixty-six days. The resulting manuscript is discovered some forty years later in a sealed casket, from which tales of characters transformed through disguise, magic and illusion, of honor and cowardice, of hauntings and seductions, leap forth to create a vibrant polyphony of human voices. Jan Potocki (1761-1812) used a range of literary styles – gothic, picaresque, adventure, pastoral, erotica – in his novel of stories-within-stories, which, like The Decameron and Tales from the Thousand and One Nights, provides entertainment on an epic scale.
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Planet News

“American racism has many moving parts, and has had enough centuries in which to evolve impressive camouflage.”
Teju Cole / Black Body: Rereading James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village” via The New Yorker



alternate names for black boys
By Danez Smith
1. smoke above the burning bush
2. archnemesis of summer night
3. first son of soil
4. coal awaiting spark & wind
5. guilty until proven dead
6. oil heavy starlight
7. monster until proven ghost
8. gone
9. phoenix who forgets to un-ash
10. going, going, gone
11. gods of shovels & black veils
12. what once passed for kindling
13. fireworks at dawn
14. brilliant, shadow hued coral
15. (I thought to leave this blank
but who am I to name us nothing?)
16. prayer who learned to bite & sprint
17. a mother’s joy & clutched breath
Source: Poetry Magazine (March 2014).

“For example, I remember reading Hemingway and loving his work so much—but then at some point, realizing that my then-current life (or parts of it) would not be representable via his prose style. Living in Amarillo, Texas, working as a groundsman at an apartment complex, with strippers for pals around the complex, goofball drunks recently laid off from the nuclear plant accosting me at night when I played in our comical country band, a certain quality of West Texas lunatic-speak I was hearing, full of way off-base dreams and aspirations—I just couldn’t hear that American in Hem-speak. And that kind of moment is gold for a young writer: the door starts to open, just a crack.”
George Saunders via Bomb Magazine

“When I read Flannery O’Connor, she really took the lid off my skull. Her blending of the grotesque and the comic as well as her reverence for mystery really affected me.”
Night Vision, Geoff Mak interviews Karen Russell – Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics

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Throwback Thursday: The Meaning of Freedom by Angela Davis

meaning of freedomBorn in Birmingham, Alabama (referred to as the Johannesburg of the South) in 1944, Angela Davis experienced life on the front lines of the American Civil Rights Movement. A one-time member of the Communist Party and associated with the Black Panther Party (thought never an official member), she has a deep understanding of the United States’ association with the fear of blackness, as well as Communism; in fact she recalls receiving hate mail suggesting she return to both Africa and Russia. She is most known for her ongoing work against all forms of oppression, and is particularly keen on the critique of institutionalized inequality. Much of her current efforts are directed toward the appalling state of the United States justice system. Though to call her an activist is hardly enough; she spent time teaching at UC Santa Cruz, San Francisco State University, and Syracuse University and has delivered lectures across the globe, and continues to do so.

Rather than something that can be granted by law, Davis calls freedom a “collective striving” and uses her historical insight to bring to light the interconnectedness of issues facing social justice movements as a whole. In her collection of speeches, The Meaning of Freedom And Other Difficult Dialogues, published by City Lights in 2012, Davis discusses sexuality, power, racism, immigration, class, and incarceration—demanding a new way of thinking. Alain Badiou once said of the potential state of philosophy,

“We can imagine two cases. First case: a new dawn of creative experiments in matters of science, politics, art or love is on the verge of a new evening for philosophy. Second case: our civilisation is exhausted, and the future that we are capable of imagining is a sombre one, a future of perpetual obscurity.”

from Philosophy For Militants

Like Badiou, Davis too believes in a new dawn of philosophy, but like too few of our planet’s thinkers, she is dedicated to not only the widespread instigation of these important discussions, but also defining the actual steps we need to take as a society to achieve this desired change. In her foreword to The Meaning of Freedom, Robin D.G. Kelley beautifully honors Davis’s accomplishments, ending with the conclusion that

“She still believes in social movements, in the power of the people to transform society, and in a non-capitalist path.”

In acknowledgement of the thousands who have spent the last few months, years, and decades in the streets supporting those who are unable to have a voice due to incarceration, or because they have lost their lives at the hand of an over-militarized aristocracy, please enjoy this excerpt from Angela Davis’s writing. Continue reading

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Allen Ginsberg on Henri Michaux

interimpadIn September of 1967 the first and only issue of Interim Pad was released by City Lights and sold for just a dollar. The journal was a collection of essays and poems edited by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and printed on yellow card stock held together by two staples. Flipping through Interim Pad is an experience that immediately reminds us of the DIY ideology that continues to provide the solid ground upon which City Lights was built. This collection includes a piece by Allen Ginsberg in which he recalls a few brief encounters with Belgian-born, Francophone poet and artist Henri Michaux, who had written extensively on perception and consciousness—and particularly altered consciousness—which is what brought these two together in the first place.

Ginsberg writes,

“I sent Michaux a polite note around the corner from Rue Git0Le-Coeur where I stayed, I said I was a jeune poete Americaine who had much experience in the same hallucinogenic field as himself, and would like to exchange information with him”

And as simple as that, their acquaintance in Paris began. The two shared a genuine curiosity for one another; Ginsberg being the jeune poete Americaine seeking those French elders who had been experimenting with consciousness for years, and Michaux, unaware that a generation across the pond was doing some extensive research of their own. Though the descriptions of Michaux provided by Ginsberg are short, one can’t help but notice similarity in their spirits.  It’s often overlooked that surrealism was a direct influence on the Beat Generation, and that City Lights has been publishing international work in translation since its inception.

Ginsberg continues his description below.

Continue reading

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