5 Questions with Rabih Alameddine, Author of The Angel of History

angel-of-historyOn October 4th, we had the pleasure of hosting Rabih Alameddine at City Lights Bookstore. He discussed and celebrated the recent release of his new novel, The Angel of History from Atlantic Monthly Press. He also answered our five questions. More about him, and his answers, below.

About The Angel of History: Following the critical and commercial success of An Unnecessary Woman, Alameddine delivers a spectacular portrait of a man and an era of profound political and social upheaval.

Set over the course of one night in the waiting room of a psych clinic, The Angel of History follows Yemeni-born poet Jacob as he revisits the events of his life, from his maternal upbringing in an Egyptian whorehouse to his adolescence under the aegis of his wealthy father and his life as a gay Arab man in San Francisco at the height of AIDS. Hovered over by the presence of alluring, sassy Satan who taunts Jacob to remember his painful past and dour, frigid Death who urges him to forget and give up on life, Jacob is also attended to by 14 saints. Set in Cairo and Beirut; Sana’a, Stockholm, and San Francisco; Alameddine gives us a charged philosophical portrait of a brilliant mind in crisis. This is a profound, philosophical and hilariously winning story of the war between memory and oblivion we wrestle with every day of our lives.

“Rabih Alameddine is one our most daring writers—daring not in the cheap sense of lurid or racy, but as a surgeon, a philosopher, an explorer, or a dancer.”—Michael Chabon

“There are many ways to break someone’s heart, but Rabih Alameddine is one rare writer who not only breaks our hearts but gives every broken piece a new life.”—Yiyun Li

About Rabih Alameddine: Rabih Alameddine is the author of the novels Koolaids, and I, the DivineThe Hakawati, An Unnecessary Woman, the story collection, The Pervand most recently, The Angel of History. He divides his time between San Francisco and Beirut.


City Lights: If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit? If you haven’t been here before, what are you expecting?

Rabih Alameddine: I’m a local and an avid buyer of books, so of course, I have been many times. City Lights is one of my favorite bookstores. I tend to like idiosyncratic ones and CL is most certainly one.

Best memory: I’ve been lucky enough to hang out with some great writers there, but my favorite memory is being chided in no uncertain terms by Tân Khanh Cao. She insisted that I should have had the book launch of An Unnecessary Woman at her store because “your novel is a City Lights novel.” She was right, of course. I’m still trying to apologize, though I’m terribly flattered.

CL: What’s the first book you read & what are you reading right now?

RA: The first books I read were Enyd Blyton novels, began with Noddy picture books, and graduated to Famous Five and Secret Seven books. I’m reading the magnificent Götz and Meyer by David Albahari. I’ve had this one for a while. While in Sarajevo this summer someone mentioned his work, so I started it. It’s quite dazzling.


CL: Which 3 books would you never part with?

RA: You can’t ask a reader that. How can I come up with only three books? If you ask me to choose every five minutes I’d come up with a different three. So for the next five minutes, these are the books I’d never part with: Sepharad by Antonio Muñoz Molina, The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald, and Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar. No, wait. Let me put Lolita instead of Sebald. No, Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, or Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project. Is my five minutes up? No, wait . . . oh, never mind.

CL: If your book had a soundtrack, what would it be?

RA: Carmina Burana and “The Goldberg Variations.” Maybe the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” as well.

CL: If you opened a bookstore tomorrow, where would it be located, what would it be called, and what would your bestseller be?

RA: Funny, but my dream of opening a bookstore in Beirut was taken away from me. A few people whom I don’t know just opened one and called it Aaliya’s Books after the narrator of Unnecessary Woman. For someone like me, that’s like winning the greatest prize.

For more about Rabih, check out his website and follow him on twitter. For more events this fall please be sure to visit our complete calendar.

Get The Angel of History direct from Grove Atlantic, from City Lights, or at your local independent bookseller. Go to our 5 Questions page to see how all the authors visiting City Lights answered.

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5 Questions for Keramet Reiter, Author of 23/7

Reiter jacket 211467.inddPlease join us on October 25th, at 7pm as we welcome Keramet Reiter to City Lights Bookstore. Keramet, an assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine, will be in conversation with Keith Wattley about her brand new book, 23/7: Pelican Bay Prison and the Rise of Long-Term Solitary Confinement (Published by Yale University Press). The Event is Co-sponsored by UnCommon Law. Keramet answered our 5 questions! More about her, and her answers, below.

The Event: Tuesday, October 25th, at 7pm. City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, 261 Columbus Ave, San Francisco CA, 94133.

About 23/7: Pelican Bay Prison and the Rise of Long-Term Solitary Confinement: Originally meant to be brief and exceptional, solitary confinement in U.S. prisons has become long-term and common. Prisoners spend twenty-three hours a day in featureless cells, with no visitors or human contact for years on end, and they are held entirely at administrators’ discretion. Keramet Reiter tells the history of one “supermax,” California’s Pelican Bay State Prison, whose extreme conditions recently sparked a statewide hunger strike by 30,000 prisoners. This book describes how Pelican Bay was created without legislative oversight, in fearful response to 1970s radicals; how easily prisoners slip into solitary; and the mental havoc and social costs of years and decades in isolation. The product of fifteen years of research in and about prisons, this book provides essential background to a subject now drawing national attention.

About Keramet Reiter: Keramet Reiter, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society and at the School of Law at the University of California, Irvine, has been an advocate at Human Rights Watch and testified about the impacts of solitary confinement before state and federal legislators. She lives in Los Angeles, CA.


About Keith Wattley: Keith Wattley is the founder and executive director of UnCommon Law. He has been advocating for the rights of prisoners and parolees for nearly twenty years. Prior to launching UnCommon Law in 2006, Keith was a staff attorney at the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit law firm in Berkeley. He has represented thousands of prisoners in impact litigation and individual matters involving mental health care, gang validation, religious freedom, prison infirmaries, medical care, excessive force, visitation, parole consideration and parole revocation.

About Uncommon Law: UnCommon Law is a California non-profit law office whose mission is to help long-term prisoners understand and resolve the factors that contributed to their crimes so that they can safely be released. We work with prisoners for months or years in advance of their parole board hearings, and we represent them in those hearings and in court petitions challenging the parole board and the Governor.

City Lights: If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit? If you haven’t been here before, what are you expecting?

Keramet Reiter: I first went to City Lights when I moved to Berkeley in the early 2000s after finishing college on the East Coast. I was impressed by all the poetry, but A Coney Island of the Mind seemed the most appropriate collection to buy.

CL: What’s the first book you read & what are you reading right now?

KR: The first chapter-book I remember reading was Helen Keller’s autobiography, The Story of My Life. I live in L.A., so much of my “reading” now happens via audiobook while I’m stuck in traffic; I’m currently listening to Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

CL: Which 3 books would you never part with?

KR: Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, Ted Conover’s Newjack, and Jonathan Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone.

CL: If your book had a soundtrack, what would it be?

KR: John Cage meets pirate metal.

CL: If you opened a bookstore tomorrow, where would it be located, what would it be called, and what would your bestseller be?

KR: I’d open a mobile prison library, and aspire to have a poetry section as good as the one at City Lights.

Join us on October 25th at 7pm to welcome Keramet Reiter! Be sure to check out her website as well as UnCommon Law’s. For more information about our upcoming fall events, be sure to visit our complete events calendar.

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5 Questions with Alexander Maksik, Author of Shelter in Place

shelter-in-placeOn Wednesday October 5th, 2016 at City Lights, we were thrilled to welcome Alexander Maksik and join him in celebrating his new book, Shelter in Place from Europa Editions.

Alexander answered our five questions. More about him, and his answers, below.

About Shelter in Place: Set in the Pacific Northwest in the jittery, jacked-up early 1990s, Shelter in Place, by one of America’s most thrillingly defiant contemporary authors, is a stylish literary novel about the hereditary nature of mental illness, the fleeting intensity of youth, the obligations of family, and the dramatic consequences of love.

Joseph March, a twenty-one year-old working class kid from Seattle, is on top of the world. He has just graduated college and his future beckons, unencumbered, limitless, magnificent. Joe’s life implodes when he starts to suffer the symptoms of bipolar disorder, and, not long after, his mother kills a man she’s never met with a hammer.

Joe moves to White Pine, Washington, where his mother is serving time and his father has set up house. He is followed by Tess Wolff, a fiercely independent woman with whom he has fallen in love. The lives of Joe, Tess, and Joe’s father fall into the slow rhythm of daily prison visits followed by beer and pizza at a local bar. Meanwhile, Anne-Marie March, Joe’s mother, is gradually becoming a local heroine—many see her crime as a furious, exasperated act of righteous rebellion. Tess, too, has fallen under her spell. Spurred on by Anne-Marie’s example, Tess enlists Joe in a secret, violent plan that will forever change their lives.


About Alexander Maksik: Alexander Maksik is the author of the novels You Deserve Nothing (Europa, 2011) and A Marker to Measure Drift (Knopf, 2013), which was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book, as well as a finalist for both the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing and Le Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger.

City Lights: If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit? If you haven’t been here before, what are you expecting?

Alexander Maksik: My parents brought me to the shop long before I could read, and I remember the smell, the quiet, the creaking floors. Whenever we visited, they made it clear that City Lights was a sacred place and we always entered with the kind of reverence reserved for places of worship. But it was for them a place of worship and, really, it’s become the same for me. I come and spend an hour or so every time I’m in San Francisco, and I’m always relieved that it’s there and that it has mostly stayed the same.

CL: What’s the first book you read & what are you reading right now?

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5 Questions with Okey Ndibe, Author of Never Look an American in the Eye

never-look-an-americanOn Thursday, October 18th at 7pm, we are thrilled to welcome back the acclaimed Okey Ndibe to City Lights Bookstore. Okey will be discussing and celebrating the release of his new book, Never Look an American in the Eye: A Memoir of Flying Turtles, Colonial Ghosts, and the Making of a Nigerian American from Soho Press. Okey answered our 5 Questions. More information on him, and his answers, below.

Event: Thursday, October 18th at 7pm. 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco, CA 94133.

About Never Look an American in the Eye: A Memoir of Flying Turtles, Colonial Ghosts, and the Making of a Nigerian American: Okey Ndibe’s funny, charming, and penetrating memoir tells of his move from Nigeria to America, where he came to edit the influential—but forever teetering on the verge of insolvency—African Commentary magazine. It recounts stories of Ndibe’s relationships with Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and other literary figures; examines the differences between Nigerian and American etiquette and politics; recalls an incident of racial profiling just 13 days after he arrived in the US, in which he was mistaken for a bank robber; considers American stereotypes about Africa (and vice-versa); and juxtaposes African folk tales with Wall Street trickery. All these stories and more come together in a generous, encompassing book about the making of a writer and a new American.

About Okey Ndibe: Okey Ndibe first arrived in the US to take up appointment as the founding editor of African Commentary, a magazine published by the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe. He has been a visiting professor at Brown University, Connecticut College, Simon’s Rock College, Trinity College, and the University of Lagos (as a Fulbright scholar). The author of Foreign Gods, Inc., Ndibe served on the editorial board of Hartford Courant where his essays won national and state awards. He earned MFA and PhD degrees from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He lives in West Hartford, CT, with his wife, Sheri, and their three children.


City Lights:  If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit? If you haven’t been here before, what are you expecting?

Okey Ndibe: My memory was the harmony among the books (they seemed to sing exultantly) and the amazing warmth of the setting of the reading: a sense of intimate closeness between the readers, books, and I.

CL: What’s the first book you read & what are you reading right now?

ON: It was in pre-school, a primer, sometime in the 20th century. It began, “Obi is a boy. Ada is a girl.” I was absolutely charmed by those lines. But what 21st-century being still remembers the title of a book they read in the dim 20th Century, eh? Right now, I’m reading Teju Cole’s exquisite essays, Known and Strange Things.

CL: Which three books would you never part with?

ON: The Bible, Collected Shakespeare, Things Fall Apart.

CL: If your book had a soundtrack, what would it be?

ON: Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds”.

CL: If you opened a bookstore tomorrow, where would it be located, what would it be called, and what would your bestseller be?

ON: In my hometown of Amawbia in southeastern Nigeria. I’d call it, Kaodiechi Books, invoking the praise name of my grandfather, a man I never met, but whose legend was that he was the first person from his town to speak the English language. It’s a funny, complicated story, and I tell it in Never Look an American in the Eye.

Please join us in welcoming Okey on Thursday, October 20th. Be sure to check out his website, and get Never Look an American in the Eye direct from Soho Press, from City Lights, or at your local independent bookseller. To keep up to date on our fall events, visit our complete event calendar.



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Maps to the Imaginary: Susan Daitch’s The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir

lostcivilizationAdding a fourth novel to her highly-acclaimed bibliography, Susan Daitch takes us on an adventure story like no other in The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir. Named one of Book Riot’s “100 Must-Read Works of Jewish Fiction,” the novel offers a post-colonial perspective on an obsessive archaeological dig for the lost city of “Suolucidir”—located in a region thought to have existed near present-day Iran. As a series of characters hunt after this hidden terrain, a seemingly simple adventure novel quickly gives way to complex, folding temporal narratives and flux identities.

Publishers Weekly chose the novel as one of the “Best Summer Books of 2016”:

“Daitch’s fantastically fun novel has shades of Umberto Eco and Paul Auster and is brainy, escapist fiction at its best . . . an intricate, absorbing narrative. . . . What exactly is Suolucidir? Lost city of the Hebrew tribes? A stand-in for colonialism’s heart of darkness? As one character says, ‘Invisible cities sometimes leave no trace of themselves. Who knows what cities lay under our feet?'”

Motivated by self-interest, the hidden city pulls treasure-hunters into its siren-like grasp. As the hunt to uncover Suolucidir haunts the characters, so, too, is the reader pulled towards the mythological city-state and the need to establish its physicality. As Daitch explains in a recent essay on Lit Hub, “An Incomplete Atlas of Fantastic Maps: Literature’s Attempt to Map the Countries Yet to Come”:

“It’s impossible to actually step onto the Phantom Islands or DMZ’s New York, but there is something tantalizing and uncanny about these maps to the imaginary. They offer a way of reading, providing some kind of working gravitational pull to the magical film that runs in your head as you read.”

At its heart, Daitch’s novel encapsulates a world ravaged by imperialism, marrying Indiana Jones and Italo Calvino in a swirling narrative about discovery, fantasies, and the boundaries between the past and future. And, as author Mark Doten writes, “The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir is a beguiling and virtuoso companion to our inevitable end.”

newssusandaitchAlso check out this interview Susan did with Evan Lavender-Smith for BOMB. The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir is available now at citylights.com at a 30% discount and wherever quality books are sold.

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Ralph Nader Talks Breaking Through Power and more on Democracy Now!

Ralph Nader appeared on Demorcacy Now! on Monday, September 19th with Amy Goodman. In the interview, Nader talks about the exclusion of third-party candidates from the upcoming first presidential debate, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and his new book, Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think, which was just published by City Lights in our Open Media Series.

We have the full episode which includes the interview as well as exclusive photos by City Lights Open Media Series editor, Greg Ruggiero, who accompanied Nader for the interview.

Find Breaking Through Power at City Lights or ask for it at your local independent bookstore.

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City Lights Author Henry A. Giroux Interviewed by Julian Casablancas for Rolling Stone

Henry A. Giroux is the author of 3 City Lights publications. His newest is America at War With Itself, part of our Open Media Series which is dedicated to publishing books in solidarity with social movements promoting greater freedom, justice, and democracy.

He was recently interviewed for Rolling Stone by Julian Casablancas, solo artist and vocalist for seminal band the Strokes. Casablancas sat down with Giroux at his home to talk about the banks’ control over government, why democracy is an illusion, deceptive journalism, and how capitalism destroys the imagination – all topics Giroux touches on  in great detail in his new book.

Casablancas also offered this about Henry’s work to Rolling Stone, Giroux, and City Lights:

“Henry David Thoreau, Thomas Paine and MLK, the 3 greatest truth-sayers of American history, stood almost alone in their time, with tremendous eloquence, against the storms of cultural misinformation, prejudice and ignorance. In this spirit, Dr Giroux is defiantly explaining, against the grain, what’s REALLY going on right now, and doing so quite undeniably.

“More incredibly, he’s almost completely off the mainstream’s grid, partly due to his harsh critique and exposé of how corporations operate in a world where they have now gained total media control.

“In this interview, I wanted to bridge the gap between the in-depth progressive type interviews Henry normally does with a more simplified, CNN-level conversation. I just personally feel the need to help convey the poignancy of what I consider to be the truth, or at the least, to help display an alternative narrative, because it just so often gets swept under the rug.”

Find America at War with Itself at City Lights Books and ask for it at your local independent bookstore.

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Theatre of the Absurd

By Mumia Abu-Jamal

Angela Davis & Jean Genet
Angela Davis & Jean Genet


When I was a young Panther, a tiny, bald, blue-eyed Frenchman came to visit the national headquarters in Berkeley, California. David Hilliard, the Chief of Staff of the Black Panther Party, greeted him briefly, and then handed him off to me to escort him around the offices there, so he could meet other Panthers.

The Frenchman’s name was Jean Genet, but I had no idea what that meant. David gave me a slender book, entitled The Blacks, with the name Jean Genet listed as its playwright.
I turned to the back cover to learn more. It described the play, The Blacks, as an example of what was called ‘The Theatre of the Absurd’. I thought of that description again as I watched last week’s clumsy efforts by two white American politicians – Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump- to downgrade each other as to who is the bigger racist.

It looks like two school kids shouting at each other over the sandbox: “Racist!” Bigot!” “Am not!” “Are too!” (The only thing missing here is the ultimate insult: “Your Mother!” But maybe that’s coming.) What could be more ridiculous?

The truth is White Americans have sculpted and supported an edifice of utter separation –for centuries.

And today, we still dwell in two very different worlds and head-spaces: one of privilege and another of privation.

But as we witness the decay of capitalism – its utter dog-eat-dog ruthlessness, we see that racism is ultimately a word, a thing, a toy, to toss around at election time – and to forget the day after.

Neither politician has a solution, for it is bigger, and deeper, and realer – than the both of them.

-© ‘16maj

Mumia Abu-Jamal is the author of two City Lights books in our Open Media Series, Jailhouse Lawyers and Writing on the Wall: Selected Prison Writings. A third, Have Black Lives Ever Mattered? is forthcoming from City Lights in Summer 2017.

City Lights also recently release an insurgent pamphlet from Mumia called To Protect and Serve Who?: Organizing a Movement to Abolish Police Violence.

Please support Prison Radio, where Mumia’s vital commentaries from prison are posted throughout the year.

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Michelle Tea & Rabih Alameddine Remember Justin Chin

justin-chinCity Lights opens its Fall events season this Thursday, September 8 at 7PM with a special tribute to a cherished Bay Area poet. Join us as we celebrate the life and works of Justin Chin and a new book, Justin Chin: Selected Works, edited by Jennifer Joseph & published by Manic D Press.

The event will be hosted by Jennifer Joseph and will feature colleagues & writers who will be reading Justin’s work:  Kevin Killian, Rabih Alameddine, filmmaker Henry Machtay, Larry-Bob Roberts, Thea Hillman, Maw Shein Win, Alvin Orloff, and Daphne Gottlieb.

With permission of Jennifer Joseph and Manic D, it is our pleasure to publish two short commentaries by Michelle Tea and Rabih Alameddine which appear alongside the poems they describe in Justin Chin: Selected Works.


Michelle Tea:

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Juan Felipe Herrera’s Casa de Colores: Digging Through the Library of Congress Archives

Juan Felipe Herrera is currently in his second term as U.S. Poet Laureate. Among his projects is “Casa de Colores,” which apart from being a collaborative poem with all peoples and all voices, also involves webcasts of Juan Felipe going through the Library of Congress’s vast collections and archives in search of artifacts, books, and artworks related to the Chicano/a experience in American arts and letters.

The latest video in this series involves a visit with LOC fine arts curator Katherine Blood, as they examine the Asamblea de Artistas Revolucionarios de Oaxaca as well as his own drawing/artist book from his “Automatika” series. Watch the video below.

For more videos in the series, go here. For more information on Juan Felipe Herrera’s continuing tour as U.S. Poet Laureate, visit his author tour page on citylights.com.

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