80. Books I intend to read in 2020

Books for 2020
First, the basics. When your partner is a constant source of knowledge and inspiration (see previous post) and has learnt Ancient Greek ‘por diversión’ (‘for sh*ts and giggles’ as we say in the UK) there’s no excuse not to make an odyssey to the university library to demand a copy of Homer’s The Iliad (in translation, please). Suspect I’ll find within it more of what I need to become a half-decent writer.

Next, the flights of fancy. I was lucky enough to be in the same workshop group as author Brendan Le Grange during much of my time in Hong Kong and so have already sampled some tasty chunks of his second novel Butterfly Hill. Le Grange manages to evoke the political undercurrents and visceral nature of our former home while adding tightly-written elements of the best thrillers available. When I have to insert page-turning action into my meandering musings I think of how he might do it. I’m also looking forward to reading more of George Salis’s lyrical prose, having begun his debut novel, Sea Above, Sun Below.

I first sampled Salis’s work in Zizzle (Promiseshore), a beautifully-produced series of hardbacked compendiums designed for parents to read with their children, or teachers with their students, each dashed with magic by a guest illustrator. I’m overdue a read of Issue 2. Zizzle’s editor and creator is also a Hong Kong writer of note, Yuetting Cindy Lam. An upcoming Word Diver post on writing as an expat will be shared with the Zizzle blog, ‘Zizzling Pan’, so watch this space.
Cortazar and Tango in San Telmo.jpg
The Argentinian short story writer, Julio Cortázar, will be accompanying me on my next trip to Buenos Aires as I begin the collection named after his most famous work, Blow-Up (Pantheon). I’m also looking forward to reading Dorothy Parker for the first time, while my non-fiction reads will be Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (Profile Books), having heard her interviewed on the infinitely entertaining/educational Adam Buxton podcast, and On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director (Farrah, Straus and Giroux) by Alexander Mackendrick, to ensure I’m ready to make that first film, or at least better understand those I’m watching. The introduction by Martin Scorsese is a mere 300 pages long and employs age-defying technology to spruce up some of the older words he uses.

Eoghan Walls’ poetry collection Pigeon Songs (Seren) was launched last year in Lancaster. You can see Eoghan reading ‘To Half-Inchling’ here, his unflinching wit extending deep into personal loss. ‘Pigeons do not sing’ Kei Miller forewarns us on its opening pages, but fortunately – from the poems I’ve heard him bring to life – Eoghan does.

Eoghan’s tribute to a much-underrated bird reminds me of a section in my first novel (briefly self-published) in which a lovelorn pigeon suffers a heart attack while desperately seeking his mate, plummeting to earth from the skies above Milan, and causing a car accident in which a right-wing politician suffers a foot injury that sabotages the ‘strongman’ speech he is to deliver the next day. We would surely miss these filthy flappers were they to go the way of the dodo.

More seriously, I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling there is more of an obligation than ever this year for artists of all types to create work that in some way helps counter the rise in populism being stoked around the globe just now. I would love to write gentle satires for a tiny readership indefinitely but have come to accept this may not be good enough.

Political sculptor Jason de Cairnes Taylor (see The Pride of Brexit) loosely translates a Spanish poem to illustrate his compelling ethos: ‘I disdain art that doesn’t take sides till it’s soaked in blood, I disdain art conceived as a luxury, neutral for the neutrals.’

Which doesn’t have to mean embracing factionalism, at the expense of losing likely allies with whom we may not agree on every nuance of belief – or in how we use the increasingly complex terminology deployed in the language of liberation. When asked about a perceived obligation on his part to stand up for African-Americans, James Baldwin (often to be found at his desk in Europe, rather than the States) told the Paris Review, ‘Yourself and your people are indistinguishable from each other, really. In spite of the quarrels you may have. And your people are all people.’

The challenge now, as I see it, is not persuading citizens with nothing to lose to join the struggle for a fundamentally fairer, unrecognisably greener world, but persuading those with something to lose to risk everything in the name of peace, equality and human dignity. To do this we need powerful art and literature that not only exposes the creeping fascism poisoning our societies, but also demonstrates the urgency of the situation we find ourselves in, and suggests ways for people to fight back against those intent on destroying humanity for their own ends.

Hong Kong Rocks (Proverse) by Peter Humphreys is available on Amazon now and will be launched in the UK in 2020.

69. Zizzle – a literary magazine for young minds (Issue #1)

Zizzle 1_mag and bookmarksThis gorgeous hardback magazine is infused with generosity – not only do the creators of Zizzle compensate authors for their time and effort (unlike too many other publications) but their readers are treated to lush, varicoloured pages boasting dream-like images amongst 10 stories for youngsters, and those tasked with reading to or with them.

If some of the language in the more advanced stories could potentially flummox work-ragged adults, then this is representative of a calculated risk taken by Hong Kong publisher Yuetting Cindy Lam and Lesley Dahl, the magazine’s North American editor. In their introduction they emphasise the importance of a good story over any attempt to tailor it to a precise age group. This seems both brave and sensible. Many of us advanced quickly through middle-grade fiction and beyond, ignoring any advice on age range offered on covers. Others will have dwelt longer on books designed for readers younger than their years. No big deal.

And yet, to an editor of school textbooks, used to a more formalised approach to language introduction, I did have some concerns when bumping into words and expressions like ‘diminuendo’ and ‘vein-riddled’ in George Salis’ atmospheric ‘The Lightning Conductor’ (which memorably describes goosebumps as ‘skin braille’). Never fear – help is at hard. Zizzle may blur the line between child and adult reading, but it’s not looking to lose anyone along the way. A bookmark can be peeled from the front cover to mark the particular progress of each reading team; the stories are short, and all are helpfully categorised into three difficulty levels – ‘Easy’, ‘Less Easy’ and ‘Not Easy’.

In my role as uncle, I would happily dip into the magazine with my niece and nephews, and suspect each would get something different from it. While I might savour the delicious satire in Ryan Thorpe’s ‘The Border Crossing’, a tale in which a mouse ‘trying to look casual’ heads a line of animals attempting to navigate a border point, my older nephew may prefer to wallow in its more comedic elements. I don’t think the message would be lost either way.

Myth, magic and mystery – as you might expect – bag conspicuous roles in the Zizzle cavalcade. ‘One Wish’ by Jennifer Moore offers a new take on the perils of unchecked desire, while ‘How the Moon Scared the Giant’ by Lenore Weiss casts its light on lonely despotism. Other stories, such as ‘The Road to Valhalla’ by Blake Johnson and ‘Ruby Vidalia’ by Karen Rigby tell of lifelong love affairs with books.

Personally, I like the way these more recognisable narratives are complemented by several abstract visions contemplating loss, or offering similarly melancholy glimpses into adult life – and how you might temporarily escape it. ‘Scarves’ by Cheryl Pappas is especially striking, as a young girl leaves a smiling picnic to create a shrine of discarded animal bones.
Zizzle 2_Andy Wai Kit illustrationAndy Wai Kit, a Malaysian-born animator in the games industry, provides the sweeping visuals that are a highlight of Zizzle’s debut – certainly his work contains more whimsy and humanity than I recall in the computer games I played as a kid, which, despite the momentary relapse offered by Zizzle, I have to concede was a while ago now.

Promishore have produced an exceptionally high-quality product with this first edition of Zizzle; so much so that the international price of US$21 does not seem overly steep. This isn’t a magazine destined to end up in the recycling; it’s a publication to treasure or share, depending on how generous you’re feeling.