Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes's Secret Coders: Paths & Portals

I was excited to get the second volume of Secret Coders by Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes, titled Paths & Portals (First Second, 2016). This graphic novel series follows a young girl, Hopper, as she learns about computer programming with her friends Eni and Josh. They are secret coders because they learn not in a class but from the janitor of their private school, who turns out to have a secret past as a teacher.

paths and portals cover

The story has Yang's characteristic qualities of humor, insightful observations of social dynamics in school and family, and careful attention to both the incidental and critical aspects of race amongst friends and acquaintances. As Hopper and her friends learn about programming by writing LOGO programs for robot turtles that Mr. Bee, the janitor, has made, she also deals with her mother, who is the Mandarin Chinese teacher at her school; Principal Dean, who is up to something; and the bullying male rugby players at the school, who are the principal's henchmen.

I love the adventure of this series, and as Yang has written about, there is also an explicit attention to teaching readers about computer programming in a fun way. As Hopper, Eni, and Josh are confronted with puzzles such as how to program one of the turtle robots to walk along a pattern on the floor, they think through their process and then explain their solution. The narrative also pauses to ask readers to think about how they would solve the programming puzzles before proceeding with a solution.

See stephenhongsohn's review of the first volume in an earlier post here at asianamlitfans.
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Lily Hoang's A Bestiary

Lily Hoang's A Bestiary (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2016) is a collection of evocative essays that reminds me a bit of Jane Jeong Trenka's The Language of Blood in its brief passages, revisioning of fairy tales, thoughtful engagement with word definitions/etymologies, exploration of the metaphorical qualities of the natural world (rats, for instance, in Hoang's book), and startlingly frank explorations of intimate and familial relations. It's also a memoir that lays the author bare, and you flinch at the emotional rawness of the pages as much as you are drawn in by the power of the language.

a bestiary cover

I've come to realize that I love writing that alludes to other literature/myth/history and that puts words together in ways that are suggestive rather than concretely expository. Meanings arise from the novel use of words (making a noun into a verb, for instance) or interesting connections created in pairing unlikely words. Hoang's book is full of such writing. Also, while some of the passages take on a more straightforward narrative form (like a fairy tale or some paragraphs of a memoir), Hoang frequently opts for short, aphoristic sentences that stand alone in sections broken up by a row of five small circles. The sentences do not form a linear train of thought but rather interweave a few ideas/narratives at a time. For example in the first essay, "on the RAT RACE," one page reads (with some lengthier passage excised in the quotation):
Games are not necessarily about victory. The process of learning requires failure.


Rats, in their little boxed mazes.
My sister, in her military boxed garage. Hidden away.


A king who does not rule.


My brother is paid to be a pacer, but he'd do it for free. ...
The sentences flit between scenes involving video games the author downloads for her mother; other activities shared with her mother; ruminations on rats, mazes, and the "rat race" as a metaphor for life's struggles; variations on kings, including a rat king, which I did not know is not a kingly rat but rather a knot of rats tied together by their tails and various detritus; and some thoughts on her brother as a marathon runner (riffing on the idea of a rat race).

If there is one thing that seems to undergird or haunt all of the essays, it is the fact of Hoang's older sister's death. Early in the first essay, Hoang writes:
My sister died nearly three years ago.
I stopped asking why [she went to prison] before once upon a time began.
I have re-named her my dead sister.
This sister is at once cautionary tale for Hoang and a lingering reminder of who she could never be, frozen in death as an untouchable family presence despite her messy life (prison time, drug addiction, infidelity, and divorce).

Hoang is a creative writing professor, and her essays sometimes touch on this career path, including some darkly humorous observations of the MLA job market:
The process of being on the job market bifurcates emotions. First, hope. A powerful optimism that this year will be the year, finally, finally, yes yes yes. Next, contempt. For the place you live and the place you work. You must tell yourself you hate your life. You must hate every aspect of your life. You must be miserable. This is the only way you can convince yourself to go through the trauma of the market.
   Hundreds pared down to ten.
   At MLA, you sit on a bed to interview. You hope your suit doesn't shift too much while you speak. You try not to gesticulate too much. You try to keep your words sharp. You fake it all.
Those of us who've done those MLA interviews know that there is a special emotion associated with sitting in your best business suit on a hotel bed, trying to be confident and professional while semi-reclined with two to five faculty members huddled around you.

Of particular interest perhaps to AALF is that Hoang does write at times about what it means for her to have grown up Vietnamese American, including a startling paragraph, "In elementary school, I was proud to be Vietnamese. I had not learned self-shame. And I have not attained that same level of confidence since. My naïveté was a power that experience has drained." In another essay, "on ORIENTAL BEAUTIES," Hoang catalogs the Asian American women in popular culture that she had as possible role models or simply mirrors for her self--Pam from the Real World, Lucy Liu, Margaret Cho, and Connie Chung--and she wryly notes that she only had this handful of women to see herself in and wonders how white women can even begin to make sense of themselves with so many more options. And throughout the book, Hoang writes about her difficult intimate relationships, touching on the idea that the white men she dates (and marries) might have yellow fever while also noting that she does not find Asian men attractive.

In addition to frequent thoughts on her dead sister and what it means for her to have a dead sister and to live with what her sister left behind (especially a son who deals himself with drug addiction and imprisonment), Hoang writes about her relationship to her parents as well--both of them in many ways typical immigrant/refugee parents with their narrow expectations of their children and their different way of understanding familial relations.
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Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus's Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story (Evan Turk, illustrator)

Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus's Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2016), with illustrations by Evan Turk, is an autobiographical story of Arun Gandhi's experiences with his grandfather, Mahatma Gandhi, in an ashram (or service village). The illustrations are beautiful, richly textured through bright colors and materials.

be the change book cover

Hegedus explains in a note at the end of the book that she heard Arun Gandhi speak in the months after the attacks of September 11, 2001 on the World Trade Center and knew that she wanted to work with him to tell his stories of his grandfather to bring hope back into the world. Be the Change is the second book in this series so far, and in it, Arun recounts how his grandfather's sense of nonviolence extended to being vigilant against waste or extravagance. As a youth, he did not understand how an act such as keeping a pencil worn down to its last few centimeters could be an important action in reducing violence in the world. But his father persisted in explaining, and over time, Arun understood how his every act has consequences that may be distant but nevertheless important in spreading peace and abundance for everyone.

Although this book takes the form a picture book, its story seems more appropriate for a slightly older child (the publisher notes K-3 as appropriate grade levels for readers), and the moral of the story is both simple (be the change) and layered (suggesting large scale things like the industries involved in making a pencil).
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MariNaomi's Dragon's Breath and Other True Stories

MariNaomi's Dragon's Breath and Other True Stories (2D Cloud + Uncivilized Books, 2014) collects a number of short pieces by MariNaomi into a volume of startling insights into human interactions and society. (Incidentally, the book's publishers are based in Minneapolis, my city!)

dragon's breath cover

While her earlier memoir, Kiss and Tell, focused on relationship and sexual encounters, Dragon's Breath and Other True Stories is more eclectic, ranging from childhood memories about family (revised in adult hindsight) to transitory though impactful encounters in adulthood. Often, these true stories end in the observation that the author does not know what became of a certain person--sometimes intimates and other times just casual acquaintances or even passersby--but these are people and encounters that have stayed with her and formed the canvas of her perceptions of the world.

You can find some excerpts of the book at Study Group Comics. The first piece in the excerpt, "Mr. Vanoni," is about a high school teacher whose lecture style was uninspiring but who occasionally took a lizard out of his terrarium and rubbed his belly until he fell asleep. This observation then unfolds into noting that another, more charismatic teacher died of AIDS that year and had a section of the yearbook dedicated to him while Mr. Vanoni, who also died unexpectedly that year, received a small portion of a page in comparison. The piece is disarming in its brevity and simplicty, but in the final panel, with a finger petting a lizard and the words, "REST IN PEACE, MR. VANONI," MariNaomi rectifies this imbalance in memorialization of the two teachers, suggesting that even the quiet people of this world deserve some attention, loving, and care.

All in all, MariNaomi demonstrates how much she is an important observer of the world around us by showing us little moments full of both pain and possibility.

See also stephenhongsohn's earlier review of Dragon's Breath.
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Paul Kalanithi's When Breath Becomes Air

In his meditative memoir When Breath Becomes Air (Random House, 2016), Paul Kalanithi examines his life's striving for meaning, experiences, and an understanding of identity and death.

Although there are certainly a number of other excellent writers who are doctors with whom we might compare Kalanithi's brief volume (such as Abraham Verghese, who provides a foreword to the memoir, or Sanjay Gupta, whom Kalanithi references in his book), I found that Kalanithi's perspective called to mind most readily Vikram Chandra's Geek Sublime: Writing Fiction, Coding Software, another memoir in which novelist Chandra explores his experiences and perspective as a software engineer on his sense of narrative and fiction writing. In both Kalanithi and Chandra's memoirs, there is a deep sense of expertise and embeddedness in the vocabulary of a distinctly nonliterary worldview that nevertheless comes along with a deep love of literature, metaphor, and the cadences of poetic lines. Indeed, Kalanithi recounts in the first half of the book how he studied both literature and biology as a double major in college, pursuing a master's in literature as well before turning an undivided attention to medicine for the next decade of his life. For him, literature is what makes meaning of experiences in people's lives; still, he felt an urgent need also to have those experiences, to dive into the stuff of life more than simply reflect upon it and come to deeper understandings.

As he found himself drawn to medicine, Kalanithi settled into neurosurgery as the specialization that best encapsulated his sense of how science and modern technology seeks to make sense of the sublime emergence of identity and meaning from the very material substance of the brain. There is a little something too neat in his retrospective narration of his career trajectory.... but clearly this was the experience of a young man who knew what he wanted to do at each step of his life, even if longer term goals were not always immediately apparent.

There is a lot to say about this memoir, especially Kalanithi's utterly beautiful language. One sample:
Before operating on a patient's brain, I realized, I must first understand his mind: his identity, his values, what makes his life worth living, and what devastation makes it reasonable to let that life end. The cost of my dedication to succeed was high, and the ineluctable failures brought me nearly unbearable guilt. Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another's cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.
These are lines not meant simply to convey a thought but also to reach for that ineffable power of poetic language, strings of words that mean more than what they say. Additionally, Kalanithi ruminates on the origins and valences of significant words that he uses—patient and disaster, for instance—along with careful framing of his words with literary epigraphs and references to canonical works of English literature (T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land makes a few appearances, for example).

And perhaps most powerfully for me, Kalanithi writes about the importance of compassion in the work of doctors. This is a topic that is big in the medical humanities, of course, but one that seems to be a source of constant stress for those in the medical field due to overwork and the workings of the mind that tend to dampen doctors' ability to connect emotionally with their patients, sometimes as a way of preserving the doctors' own sense of self and worth. Speaking with another resident who could not admit that he messed up, Kalanithi said:
"All you have to do," I said, "is look me in the eye and say, 'I'm sorry. What happened was my fault, and I won't let it happen again.'"
This ability to accept responsibility for mistakes was at the core of Kalanithi's conception of the good doctor. It is not enough to be an excellent technician or even to have the best bedside manner if doctors cannot deal with the fact that they themselves will slip up, and those mistakes will lead to serious consequences and death for some of their patients.

See also stephenhongsohn's review of Kalanithi's memoir.
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