Wu Chen Recommends: Angela Johnson

Article by Wu Chen Khoo

When I Am Old With You  by Angela Johnson (cover)

When I Am Old With You by Angela Johnson (cover)

We read a lot of book to and with our children. Angela Johnson’s books have long been a favourite in our household, with her wide range of subjects and narrative styles, ranging from Rain Feet (a very short poem) to Just Like Josh Gibson (a narrative story). We recently acquired When I Am Old With You, and it’s spectacular.

A short story that explores the relationship between a child and their grandfather, aging, life and longing, the inevitability of death and the innocence of youth, it reads quickly and lyrically like most of her work. The art is beautifully wistful and the underlying themes are subtle and interesting and when they yield up their secrets the words will stick in your throat.

While not all of Angela Johnson’s work is quite that impactful, a lot of it shines with her brilliance at taking serious and powerful themes and creating accessible, often whimsical stories around them.

Wu Chen Recommends: Juliet Marillier

Article by Wu Chen Khoo

I like fairy tales. While casting about looking for something to read while holding a baby, I came across Juliet Marillier's Daughter of the Forest, the first in a series of seven, rooted in the old fairy tale of the six swans and I devoured it quickly. Other books in the series quickly followed (although the classic fairy tale connection waned) and I kept looking for others.

She’s prolific. What I’ve read have all been set in fantastic (as in fantasy), richly imagined settings, drawn on Celtic and Germanic myth and history. They’re fun, with believable characters that actually grow and change throughout. Marillier’s narratives are thoroughly enjoyable and her multi-book arcs have some real depth and range to them. If you read a lot of fantasy or adventure drama, you won’t find a whole lot here you haven’t seen before—which doesn’t mean that it isn’t executed very well or that it isn’t a good read.

Wu Chen Recommends: The Underwater Welder

All storytelling mediums have their own strengths and nuance, and each has different ways of engaging its audience. All are wonderful. Mainstream acceptance or rejection has nothing to do with the narrative power of a medium—only the scope of its reach.

Detail of cover art from  The Underwater Welder  by Jeff Lemire.

Detail of cover art from The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire.

For graphic novels and comics, I think that Jeff Lemire’s The Underwater Welder showcases the staggering power of the medium like few others I have read. This quietly understated yet compelling story of the titular character as he struggles with anxiety, fear and regret; demons that plague us all. It’s a deeply human story, and the scratchy, sketch-like art underscores the haunted uncertainty of the lives of the characters—our lives—that drives the narrative. The libretto (for what else is it?) is sparse but compelling. The many frames with no words serves only to highlight the unspoken, the thunderous silence of our fears, our refusal to face ourselves and our realities and our human condition.

This is a work well worth your time, from the haunted eyes on the first page to the two full-page panels at the end, the journey—like that of our Welder—is all too uncomfortable and familiar.

The Underwater Welder at Hennepin County Libraries

Wu Chen Recommends: US History

I’m deeply interested in history. Often grossly mischaracterized as just a series of facts and recorded events, history is better viewed as a narrative, not unlike a piece of theatre. How that narrative is told and understood is extremely important to everyone, and shapes how people view and interact with the world.

US history is especially interesting to me, and this particular podcast is an excellent survey of the subject, from the civil war to the early 2000s. Professor Jennifer Burns is a professor of US history, with a particular interest in Conservative history (she’s the author of Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right). This lecture series, given at UC Berkeley in 2006, is very good and well worth a listen even if you are a reader in the subject.

You can also get it on iTunes!

Wu Chen Recommends: Programming

Given the degree to which our modern lives are integrated with computers, it makes a lot of sense to know something about what’s going on behind the curtain. Unfortunately, programming is often portrayed as arcane, uncool, and/or exclusively male.

That is all utterly ridiculous.

Programming, ultimately, is a language and a tool. There’s no reason for it to be gendered.

And it’s amazing on so many levels: it’s helpful in modern daily life; it’s fun, creative problem solving; the skills fostered are tremendously applicable to a wide range of fields, including the performing arts. But where to start?

Python is an extremely accessible, free programming language with a ton of support. Whether you’re completely new to programming or have some prior experience, this is a great language to try out. It’s designed to be much more readable, much more forgiving and extremely versatile. The guides linked here are very friendly, free, and come with lots of great exercises and projects to help you teach yourself - though like most things, it’s often more fun with a friend!