Stack Overflow: Diversity Week

Reading Time: 7 minutes

I do a lot of reading late at night, after the rest of my family has gone to bed and I’ve decided to stop staring at my screen. I go to the den, glance around at the huge piles of books I have everywhere, and pick something to read. Sometimes I pick something from an author I know I like; sometimes I just go for the low-hanging fruit (“Hey, this looks like something I could finish quickly!”); sometimes I feel like I should find something that’s going to teach me something I didn’t know.

How to Lose EverythingThis week’s pulled-from-the-pile surprise was How to Lose Everything by Philipp Mattheis. The subtitle is “A Mostly True Story,” so it was one that I wasn’t sure how to categorize. Is it a memoir? A novel? I guess something in between.

In 1994, four teenagers (names have been changed–I assume the narrator “Jonathan” is based on Philipp himself) in Munich broke into an abandoned house and found some cash. A lot of cash. What happens when you give a couple of teenage boys more money than they’ve ever seen? At first they blow a lot of it on pizza, beer, and cigarettes. Eric, who dabbles in dealing weed, wants to get into big time drug dealing. Schulz is out to impress his girlfriend. Sam gradually starts acting more and more strangely. Jonathan himself gets very uncomfortable with the pile of bills hidden in his desk. It’s a terrible, devastating story, but I couldn’t put it down. I found myself wondering how any of them even survived the experience.

The book is marketed to teens, and I think it certainly serves as a cautionary tale, though the amount of alcohol and drug use may be a bit shocking. As Mattheis explains, the drinking age in Germany was sixteen during the time of this story, so general attitudes about kids and alcohol were different than what we’d expect in the U.S.

Slight digression from books, but stay with me: I started watching ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat this week because, hey, I’m a Chinese-American and I was curious about a TV show with a Chinese-American family front and center. I’ve only watched the first two episodes so far and have enjoyed them, but noticed a couple of things. First, maybe it’s been a while since I’ve watched network TV (well, on ABC.com, but you know what I mean), but I didn’t realize that “Hell, no!” was allowed. Huh. Also: why are the commercials so much louder than the show, even watching online? Really? More to the point, though, I recognized that although I had immigrant parents, my story has a lot of differences–perhaps foremost that my dad was an engineer and my parents didn’t run a restaurant, and we weren’t just scraping by all the time. But that’s another story.

The central character on the show, Eddie Huang (whose memoir inspired the show), is played (delightfully) by Hudson Yang, who is the son of Jeff Yang, who has been writing about Asian American culture for some time now. Watching Fresh Off the Boat reminded me that I never did get around to reading my copy of Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology, which Jeff Yang edited along with Parry Shen, Keith Chow, and Jerry Ma. I bought a copy a while back and flipped through it before, but this past week I decided to sit down and read the whole thing. The book is a bit of a mixed bag (like many anthologies); I felt some of the stories worked better than others. There’s a mix of stories that are funny and play with stereotypes and those that are more straight comic-book superhero tales that just happen to have Asians in the lead roles.

Secret Identities and Shattered

Throughout the book are also comics-format interviews with various Asian American creators: comic book writers, filmmakers, and so on. These interviews spell out more explicitly the implications of things like Kato, the Green Hornet’s chauffeur/sidekick, and the lack of Asian superheroes. How does that affect Asian readers? Non-Asian readers? Things have changed somewhat since 2009 but not significantly, so most of the conversation is still relevant now. In particular, I think about the fact that Fresh Off the Boat, as the only TV show centered on an Asian-American family, has an extremely tough role to fill. Even though it’s based on one particular Chinese family, for now it’s going to serve as a window into Asian-American culture for a whole population of people who may not know any Asians at all. For better or for worse, this single show becomes a public picture of who we are. Whereas if somebody wanted to see what a white American family looked like by watching TV shows, they’d have countless choices, and they’d see all sorts of different families: perfect TV families from the ’50s, dysfunctional families, blended families, and so on. But maybe it’s a step in the right direction. The more diversity there is on the air overall, the less of a burden each show has to carry.

Anyway, back to the books. I happened to see the second anthology, Shattered, at the library this weekend, so I picked that up, too, and will be reading it soon.

The Art of Home And now for something completely different. DreamWorks has an upcoming movie, Home, about a girl named Tip, an alien named Oh, and a journey across the world in a crazy flying car. It’s based on a book by Adam Rex, The True Meaning of Smekday–more on that in a minute. I got a copy of The Art of Home from Insight Editions (also available on Amazon), and had fun flipping through the whole thing. As you know, I love “art of” books, and since I’m excited about seeing Home, I was really interested to see some of the art that went into it.

The book does include some spoilers (which I’ll avoid here), but I was okay with that because I have read the book it’s based on. But if you’re new to the story, you may want to wait until after you’ve seen the movie. The book includes character sketches, landscape paintings, and some fun facts about the way DreamWorks used various shapes to inform the design of the world. For instance, the Boov alien world is really designed around circles–they use bubbles and spheres and everything is very round, even their alphabet. The humans have a more rectangular world–we love straight lines, and our world is full of them.

It was also interesting to me to see what changed from the book and why: there are lots of short interviews with various people who worked on the film, and it’s fun to see the reasons why some things were changed (the Boov now have these tentacle things on their heads) and some things weren’t (there’s still a flying car named Slushious). One change that disappointed me was Oh’s name: in the original story, his name–at least the English name he chooses–is J.Lo. And in fact Jennifer Lopez is in the movie, providing the voice of Tip’s mom. It’s a random, silly thing, but you get attached to names, and it just seemed odd to me. The other significant change that I just don’t really understand is the title. Home? Aside from the fact that The True Meaning of Smekday just is a much more interesting title, “Home” is also terrible for search engines. Go ahead: do a search for “The Art of Home” and see how long it takes you to find this book. I’m amazed that they’ve managed to get “Home” such good search results for the movie, but “Smekday” would have been so much easier.

The True Meaning of SmekdayBut after looking through this fantastic art book, I just really wanted to read the original book again, so I got out my old copy of The True Meaning of Smekday and dove in. I, uh, stayed up too late reading it, but it was a blast. Here’s the basic premise: the Boov took over Earth two years ago, on Christmas–which they renamed Smekday in honor of their leader Captain Smek. (Earth has also been renamed Smekland.) They decided to move all the humans into a Human Preserve in Orlando, but Tip decided she’d drive herself rather than take the Boov-provided rocketpods. And along the way, she encounters J.Lo (a Boov) and has all sorts of crazy adventures, which she then writes up for the “True Meaning of Smekday” essay contest. That’s about all I can tell you without revealing too much more, but it’s a fantastic story that includes a great send-up of Disney World (also probably not in the movie version) and lots of really wacky alien technology. (Note to parents: there is a little bit of PG language in the book–Tip is an eighth-grader at the time she’s writing the essay, and every so often uses a word and then says “pardon my language.” But not too often, and nothing too extreme.) It’s definitely a book I’d recommend, even just for yourself. I may read it aloud to my kids after we finish our current book.

And I just discovered that Adam Rex just published a sequel last week: Smek for President. What!? I know what I’m reading next. (Note to Mr. Rex: please tell your publicist to keep me updated on all of your upcoming books, because I want to know about these things. Thanks!)

I’ve got two other books that I read this week that were really pretty amazing but I’m out of time now, so you’ll have something to look forward to next week!

Disclosure: GeekDad received review copies of How to Lose Everything and The Art of Home.

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