Summer Reading at City Lights Part One: Reading as a Form of Transport

Summer’s here-maybe school’s out, maybe it’s not. Maybe you need something to read on a long, sweaty commute, or a long journey to somewhere else, never fear; the staff of City Lights are here all summer with recommendations that will transport you somewhere, whether you are trapped in the waiting room of the dentist or the airport, or headed somewhere, anywhere… Here are some books to take with you on your journey, but even if you are not going anywhere our selections will transport you.

Red Dust
Ma Jian
Red Dust is a rich, strange, searching travelogue through the outposts of communist China by an adventurous, dissident poet. Author Ma is often compared to the Beats–but imagine if Kerouac had to escape from a Kafka novel in order to go “on the road.” That particular comparison doesn’t do justice to Ma’s restrained writing, eye for haunting details, and ability to say cutting things with just a few words.

—Recommended by Matt, City Lights Books

In 1983, at the age of thirty, dissident artist Ma Jian finds himself divorced by his wife, separated from his daughter, betrayed by his girlfriend, facing arrest for “Spiritual Pollution,” and severely disillusioned with the confines of life in Beijing. So with little more than a change of clothes and two bars of soap, Ma takes off to immerse himself in the remotest parts of China. His journey would last three years and take him through smog-choked cities and mountain villages, from scenes of barbarity to havens of tranquility. Remarkably written and subtly moving, the result is an insight into the teeming contradictions of China that only a man who was both insider and outsider in his own country could have written.

 

The Lost Art of Finding Our Way
John Edward Huth

—Recommended by Paul, City Lights Books

Long before GPS, Google Earth, and global transit, humans traveled vast distances using only environmental clues and simple instruments. John Huth asks what is lost when modern technology substitutes for our innate capacity to find our way. Encyclopedic in breadth, weaving together astronomy, meteorology, oceanography, and ethnography, The Lost Art of Finding Our Way puts us in the shoes, ships, and sleds of early navigators for whom paying close attention to the environment around them was, quite literally, a matter of life and death.

Haunted by the fate of two young kayakers lost in a fogbank off Nantucket, Huth shows us how to navigate using natural phenomena—the way the Vikings used the sunstone to detect polarization of sunlight, and Arab traders learned to sail into the wind, and Pacific Islanders used underwater lightning and “read” waves to guide their explorations. Huth reminds us that we are all navigators capable of learning techniques ranging from the simplest to the most sophisticated skills of direction-finding. Even today, careful observation of the sun and moon, tides and ocean currents, weather and atmospheric effects can be all we need to find our way.

Lavishly illustrated with nearly 200 specially prepared drawings, Huth’s compelling account of the cultures of navigation will engross readers in a narrative that is part scientific treatise, part personal travelogue, and part vivid re-creation of navigational history. Seeing through the eyes of past voyagers, we bring our own world into sharper view.

We the Animals
Justin Torres

A jewel. —Recommended by Tân, City Lights Books

Also recommended by Paul, City Lights Books

An exquisite, blistering debut novel.

Three brothers tear their way through childhood— smashing tomatoes all over each other, building kites from trash, hiding out when their parents do battle, tiptoeing around the house as their mother sleeps off her graveyard shift. Paps and Ma are from Brooklyn—he’s Puerto Rican, she’s white—and their love is a serious, dangerous thing that makes and unmakes a family many times.

Life in this family is fierce and absorbing, full of chaos and heartbreak and the euphoria of belonging completely to one another. From the intense familial unity felt by a child to the profound alienation he endures as he begins to see the world, this beautiful novel reinvents the coming-of-age story in a way that is sly and punch-in-the-stomach powerful.

Written in magical language with unforgettable images, this is a stunning exploration of the viscerally charged landscape of growing up, how deeply we are formed by our earliest bonds, and how we are ultimately propelled at escape velocity toward our futures.

 

Orange Sunshine
Nicholas Schou

A startling, secret history of the “Hippie Mafia”—a group of surfer smugglers out of Laguna Beach who were responsible for the majority of the hash and LSD that literally fueled the psychedelic revolution.

—Recommended by Andy, City Lights Books

Few stories in the annals of American counterculture are as intriguing or dramatic as that of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love.

Dubbed the “Hippie Mafia,” the Brotherhood began in the mid-1960s as a small band of peace-loving, adventure-seeking surfers in Southern California. After discovering LSD, they took to Timothy Leary’s mantra of “Turn on, tune in, and drop out” and resolved to make that vision a reality by becoming the biggest group of acid dealers and hashish smugglers in the nation, and literally providing the fuel for the psychedelic revolution in the process.

Just days after California became the first state in the union to ban LSD, the Brotherhood formed a legally registered church in its headquarters at Mystic Arts World on Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach, where they sold blankets and other countercultural paraphernalia retrieved through surfing safaris and road trips to exotic locales in Asia and South America. Before long, they also began to sell Afghan hashish, Hawaiian pot (the storied “Maui Wowie”), and eventually Colombian cocaine, much of which the Brotherhood smuggled to California in secret compartments inside surfboards and Volkswagen minibuses driven across the border.

They also befriended Leary himself, enlisting him in the goal of buying a tropical island where they could install the former Harvard philosophy professor and acid prophet as the high priest of an experimental utopia. The Brotherhood’s most legendary contribution to the drug scene was homemade: Orange Sunshine, the group’s nickname for their trademark orange-colored acid tablet that happened to produce an especially powerful trip. Brotherhood foot soldiers passed out handfuls of the tablets to communes, at Grateful Dead concerts, and at love-ins up and down the coast of California and beyond. The Hell’s Angels, Charles Mason and his followers, and the unruly crowd at the infamous Altamont music festival all tripped out on this acid. Jimi Hendrix even appeared in a film starring Brotherhood members and performed a private show for the fugitive band of outlaws on the slope of a Hawaiian volcano.

Journalist Nicholas Schou takes us deep inside the Brotherhood, combining exclusive interviews with both the group’s surviving members as well as the cops who chased them. A wide-sweeping narrative of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll (and more drugs) that runs from Laguna Beach to Maui to Afghanistan, Orange Sunshine explores how America moved from the era of peace and free love into a darker time of hard drugs and paranoia.

 

The Flamethrowers
Rachel Kushner

A nameless young woman, a motorcycle-riding land artist, leaves Nevada and lands in New York City in the late seventies. The city in which she finds herself is plagued with blackouts, a desolate landscape: the leftovers of industrial ruin dominate a pre-gentrified Soho populated by underground anti-heroes, former Factory starlets, and macho conceptual artists.

This is not just a coming of age novel, the tale of a young girl in the city, though it is that too. It contains digressions on Italian futurism and its intersections with fascism and industry, the tyranny of the class system, colonial oppression in Brazil, the Bonneville speed trials and the violent uprisings of youth and workers in Italy in the seventies.

Kushner’s writing is authoritative and vivid, as exciting to read as the worlds she writes about. I could not put this down; it was intoxicating reading about a young woman making her way in worlds in which women don’t usually get to exist, even in fiction. A cinematic, unstoppable, alienated and kick-fueled adventure.

—Recommended by Layla, City Lights Books

Rachel Kushner’s first novel, Telex from Cuba, was nominated for a National Book Award and reviewed on the cover of The New York Times Book Review. Her second novel, even more ambitious and brilliant, is the riveting story of a young artist and the worlds she encounters in New York and Rome in the mid-1970s—by turns underground, elite, and dangerous.

The year is 1975 and Reno—so-called because of the place of her birth—has come to New York intent on turning her fascination with motorcycles and speed into art. Her arrival coincides with an explosion of activity in the art world—artists have colonized a deserted and industrial SoHo, are staging actions in the East Village, and are blurring the line between life and art. Reno meets a group of dreamers and raconteurs who submit her to a sentimental education of sorts. Ardent, vulnerable, and bold, she begins an affair with an artist named Sandro Valera, the semi-estranged scion of an Italian tire and motorcycle empire. When they visit Sandro’s family home in Italy, Reno falls in with members of the radical movement that overtook Italy in the seventies. Betrayal sends her reeling into a clandestine undertow.

The Flamethrowers is an intensely engaging exploration of the mystique of the feminine, the fake, the terrorist. At its center is Kushner’s brilliantly realized protagonist, a young woman on the verge. Thrilling and fearless, this is a major American novel from a writer of spectacular talent and imagination.

 

Phantom Tollbooth

Norton Juster

Recommended by Tân, City Lights Books

This ingenious fantasy centers around Milo, a bored ten-year-old who comes home to find a large toy tollbooth sitting in his room. Joining forces with a watchdog named Tock, Milo drives through the tollbooth’s gates and begins a memorable journey. He meets such characters as the foolish, yet lovable Humbug, the Mathemagician, and the not-so-wicked “Which,” Faintly Macabre, who gives Milo the “impossible” mission of returning two princesses to the Kingdom of Wisdom.

La Boutique Obscure

Georges Perec

The beguiling, never-before-translated dream diary of Georges Perec

In La Boutique Obscure Perec once again revolutionized literary form, creating the world’s first “nocturnal autobiography.” From 1968 until 1972—the period when he wrote his most well-known works—the beloved French stylist recorded his dreams. But as you might expect, his approach was far from orthodox.

Avoiding the hazy psychoanalysis of most dream journals, he challenged himself to translate his visions and subconscious churnings directly into prose. In laying down the nonsensical leaps of the imagination, he finds new ways to express the texture and ambiguity of dreams—those qualities that prove so elusive.

Beyond capturing a universal experience for the first time and being a fine document of literary invention, La Boutique Obscure contains the seeds of some of Perec’s most famous books. It is also an intimate portrait of one of the great innovators of modern literature.

Best Short Stories of JG Ballard

-Recommended by Jeff, City Lights Books

First published in 1978, this collection of nineteen of Ballard’s best short stories is as timely and informed as ever. His tales of the human psyche and its relationship to nature and technology, as viewed through a strong microscope, were eerily prescient and now provide greater perspective on our computer-dominated culture. Ballard’s voice and vision have long served as a font of inspiration for today’s cyber-punks, the authors and futurist who brought the information age into the mainstream.

 

In Danger

Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975) was a major cultural figure in post-WW2 Italy, well known as a poet, novelist, communist intellectual, and filmmaker. In Danger is the first anthology in English devoted to his political and literary essays, and includes a generous selection of his poetry. Against the backdrop of post-war Italy, and continuing through the mid-’70s, Pasolini’s writings provide a fascinating portrait of a Europe in which fascists and communists violently clashed for power and journalists ran great risks. The controversial and openly gay Pasolini was murdered at fifty-three; In Danger includes his final interview, conducted hours before his death, as well as the cryptic litany “What Is This Coup? I Know,” which many suspect motivated his murder. Here also are Pasolini’s essays on cultural topics like hippies and Zen buddhism, literary discussions of writers like Italo Calvino, Marianne Moore, and Costantine Cavafy, and even a 1967 interview between Pasolini and Ezra Pound concerning Pound’s relationship to the contemporary Italian avant-garde. The poetry ranges from early works written in the Friulan dialect through his later lyric blasts against fascism.

In Danger is edited and introduced by internationally renowned poet Jack Hirschman, who also edited the enduring City Lights classic Artaud Anthology. Translated by several hands, including Hirschman and well-known rocker Jonathan Richman, In Danger is essential reading for anyone interested in Pasolini’s brave lyricism and critical insight.

Poetry As Insurgent Art

After a lifetime, this (r)evolutionary little book is still a work-in-progress, the poet’s ars poetica, to which at 94 he is constantly adding.

From the groundbreaking (and bestselling) A Coney Island of the Mind in 1958 to the “personal epic” of Americus, Book I in 2003, Lawrence Ferlinghetti has, in more than thirty books, been the poetic conscience of America. Now in Poetry As Insurgent Art, he offers, in prose, his primer of what poetry is, could be, should be. The result is by turns tender and furious, personal and political. If you are a reader of poetry, find out what is missing from the usual fare you are served; if you are a poet, read at your own risk—you will never again look at your role in the same way.

 

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