The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin

9780399182167-usAfter nearly a decade, Justin Cronin wraps up his trilogy of books that started with The Passage. If you’re unfamiliar with the novels or have just started watching the Fox TV series (which is sitting on my DVR), this trilogy of novels is set in a post-apocalyptic future where humanity has been more or less destroyed by a virus that was used for experiments by scientists and the U.S. government and turned thirteen people into vampire-type creatures. Once they get loose in The Passage, the decimation of the human populace is swift and the story picks up about a century later.

That story wound its way through the second book in the series, The Twelve, and now concludes with this one, where Cronin jumps forward in time again for a tale about what it is going to take to both preserve humanity and destroy the original vampire, Fanning (who is essentially The Devil). The latter comes through a confrontation in what’s left of New York City (no spoilers there–the NYC skyline was the image used for the hardcover edition) and Cronin spends much of the first half of the book setting that up in one way or another, first by having us meet Fanning and get his back story and then layering on the mission that select characters have to undertake–most notably, Amy, who is the “star” of or at least the origin point of the trilogy.

Saving humanity winds up being the task of the supporting cast, as they find the cities they have begun to rebuild are not as safe as they thought and one character develops an idea for an ark by fixing up an abandoned freight tanker he found while sailing around the ocean in search of signs of life outside of the United States and North America.

I haven’t gone too much into the details of the characters’ names and some of the settings and circumstances because this is the third part of a trilogy and while Cronin gives you enough context to figure out what went on in the prior two books, going into too much detail would spoil those two books for people who haven’t read. And by the way, that’s one of his strengths as a writer–even if you haven’t read the books in a while, you find yourself getting reacquainted with all of the characters from the two previous installments and he reminds you of why you cared about them in the first place.

Cronin spends his time throughout the novel playing with themes of life, death, good, and evil that are classic literary themes and while the idea that humanity has been ravaged by some sort of mutating virus has been done to the point where it’s hard to break new ground, he manages to make this feel fresh. I think it’s partly becuase the characters are intriguing and you’ve spent so much time with them, and also that he goes for a huge timeframe. Whereas The Strain’s trilogy of novels is immediate in its setting, Cronin gives us a century and then some, taking us way beyond where many of these stories go. As a result, he makes you want to learn about the world of these characters.

As a concluding chapter, The City of Mirrors is deeply satisfying, and that’s a very high compliment because many final chapters in trilogies or long-running sagas often leave fans feeling cheated or wanting more. Cronin knows the job that he had to do and while he takes his time getting it done, he gets it right.

You should read this if …

You like a good creature feature story mixed with comic book-level world building
Post-apocalyptic stories are your thing
You’ve read the first two books of The Passage trilogy

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

51pfhtr2k-l._sx330_bo1204203200_My new year’s resolution being one of using and consuming what I have accumulated with an eye toward my mental health, I’ve also been thinking about what and how I eat and how that has an impact on my physical health. I’m 41 years old as I write this and it seems like my body has decided that it was finally time for all of the mysterious ailments and issues to come about.

And so I come to Barbara Kingsolver’s 2007 book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. This is one that Amanda bought and read when it first came out and that I’ve been meaning to read ever since but which sat on the bookshelf (as these books tend to do). Spurred on by a conversation with my therapist where she recommended the book, I grabbed it and began reading shortly after New Year’s Day when all of the resolutions were taking hold.

The premise of the book is that Kingsolver is writing about a year where her family lived on a farm in Virginia and would live off of their own land as completely as they could. This meant that they grew their own food or purchased locally grown food (with some exceptions such as grains and olive oil) and also ate seasonally. It falls into the category of memoir but also has its fair share of education and information. Kingsolver talks about the history of some of the food she is harvesting and provides commentary on contemporary American culture. Her husband, Steven L. Hopp, and daughter, Lily Kingsolver, also contribute with Hopp delving into the political and economic side of the issue and Lily covering the project from the perspective of a college student.

The book is both fascinating and tedious. Kingsolver’s style is very easy to read but is also deliberate at times. I didn’t feel like she was preaching to me, but at the same time, it would have been preaching to the choir because while I don’t grow my own food, I’m not adverse to eating fruits and vegetables and already get a weekly share from a local CSA.

Still, the book provides a valuable service in the family’s wish to eschew the modern-day eating habits of Americans and their commitment to eating deliberately harkens back to Thoreau’s efforts to live deliberately in Walden (a book that I found incredibly tedious when I read it in college but may reconsider). The book is now available in a tenth anniversary edition that has an added chapter and I’m honestly curious as to how the family has stayed with its commitments.

This took more time to get through than I had expected and some of the information does seem to have become common knowledge in recent years, but it’s still a fascinating look at what and how we eat.

-Tom

You should read this book if …

1. You’re interested in the local food movement
2. You enjoy Walden or other similar books
3. You are curious about what healthy eating or living actually means.

Batman: The Dark Knight Detective, Vol. 1

91BhSy2WHOLAs our mutual friend, The Irredeemable Shag, says, “Everyone has a Batman phase.”  I think that Stella is still in hers.  Mine started in 1990 and while I finally gave up Batman in the early 2000s, I’d say that its high point ended sometime around the middle of the decade.  The comics collected in this volume are from a few years before my phase; specifically, they are the first several issues of Detective Comics in the post-Crisis DCU.

I’d read a few of these both digitally and in print over the years, but most of my experience with this era of Detective was via the trade paperback for Batman: Year Two, which I had gotten from the Waldenbooks at the Smith Haven Mall back in the early 1990s.  Oh, and sometime in 1990 or 1991, I spent the $5 I earned from the only time I ever umpired a little league baseball game on a copy of ‘Tec #574.  I probably paid too much for it, to be honest, but I have always loved the cover to that book.

Anyway, that’s in here along with the Legends crossover drawn by Klaus Janson (which isn’t that great, tbh) and issues with art by Alan Davis and Norm Breyfogle, both of whom draw an amazing Batman.  Year Two isn’t, though.  My guess is either that they don’t consider Year Two to be “canon” anymore and decided not to include it, it’s already available in another trade paperback and they want people to buy that, or they didn’t feel like paying Todd McFarlane.  Anyway, I don’t consider it a loss.  Barr’s Batman is almost like the 1950s Batman that I’ve read in The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told (vols 1-2) and The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told, except they’re more violent than DC would have been in the early Comics Code era.

That’s actually pretty emblematic of a lot of Eighties entertainment.  While there were plenty of very violent and dark movies across multiple genres, there was also a conservative thread running through our culture that while not exactly as reserved as the 1950s, had echoes of that era.  I actually wonder if what Barr is doing here is finding a way to shove all of Batman’s more wacky pre-Crisis continuity into a new era that had a Frank Miller origin and would eventually grow more serious as time went on.  I mean, I’m pretty sure that in 1986, he didn’t know Knightfall or No Man’s Land were coming, or even that within a few years fans would kill Jason Todd, but looking at the stories in this volume in hindsight, he is doing what I think are some deep dives into Batman’s past.  He digs up Paul Sloane, the “second Two-Face” as a way to also bring Harvey Dent into post-Crisis continuity (at least I think … I think he had maybe one post-Crisis appearance before this?).

This collection is fun as hell.  Barr gets the voice of an older, experienced, lighter Batman down, he reworks Leslie Tompkins in a way that I thought made her a great member of Batman’s supporting cast.  He has Batman in crazy traps involving the Joker and other villains and even gives us one last look at the classic Catwoman costume.  It’s comics that I’ll want to read and reread because it showcases such a great version of Batman.  If I didn’t get this for Christmas, it would have been well worth the purchase.

-Tom

You should read this book if …

  1. You want to see Alan Davis AND Norm Breyfogle draw Batman.
  2. You like Batman and aren’t pretentious about how the character should be written.
  3. You like classic, “Super Friends” type Batman but slightly darker and a little more violent.

Episode 26: Station Eleven

episode26_cover for websiteIt’s the twenty-sixth episode of Required Reading With Tom and Stella! This podcast, which is hosted by Tom Panarese (Pop Culture Affidavit, In Country) and Stella (Batgirl to Oracle: A Barbara Gordon Podcast, The Batman Universe) is two teachers talking about literature. Each episode, we will be taking a look at a single work, analyzing it, criticizing it and deciding if its worth its place in the canon.

This time around, we’re taking a look at Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

You can listen here:

Required Reading iTunes Page

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If you like our podcast, feel free to like our Facebook page (just search for Required Reading with Tom and Stella), check out our Twitter feed at @reqreadingcast, or email us at requiredreadingcast@gmail.com.

Not Tonight, Josephine: A Road Trip Through Small-Town America

51yLu2Ba3MXLI’m a sucker for road trip books, especially those that involve a journey across the U.S.  I think it’s because I’ve always wanted to do a cross-country trek and even in my younger years never got or took the chance.  Anyway, I’ve read a number of the classic trek tales: Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley in Search of America, William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways, and even Kerouac’s On the Road (which, if I’m desperate, may get its own episode one day).  I even have had the chance to dig into less well-known works, such as the outstanding book Cross-Country by Robert Sullivan.  So, when Amazon offered up George Mahood’s Not Tonight Josephine at a deep discount (either $.99 or $1.99), I added it to my Kindle.

Mahood is an English travel writer who has written a number of other books and in this one, written in 2016, he recalls a road trip that he took in 2000 across the United States and back again, partially with his friend Mark and partially with his girlfriend Rachel.  The conceit is that he was going to land in New York, find a cheap used car that he could buy outright with cash, and take that car throughout the country.  The car he finds is a decaying 1989 Dodge Caravan that a previous owner had named Josephine (hence the title) and that causes him much more trouble than the money he paid for it.

The book reads pretty quickly and Mahood is a relatable narrator, or maybe I thought that because I am around the same age and 2000 was one of the first years in which I was completely on my own, having moved out of my parents’ house in the fall of 1999.  So unlike a number of years prior, I remember a lot of the cultural and political landscape (which he comments on) very vividly and reading about this trip 18 years after it took place did make me think about how different (and similar) our society now is.

There are times where Mahood gets a little too into his personal life–his relationship with Rachel, for instance–and his descriptions of some of the places he visits does suffer for that.  But he makes up for it in some of the sillier anecdotes and episodes, like an entire section of the book where he is working at a B&B in Breckenridge, Colorado while also doing deliveries for a take-out service.  It was solidly entertaining, even though I do think that it had more potential than it ultimately demonstrated.

-Tom

You should read this book if …

  1. You like cross-country travelogues and have read the “important” ones.
  2. People from another country’s impressions of America are something you find interesting.
  3. You are feeling nostalgia for the very early 2000s, especially when gas was 80 cents a gallon and the biggest worry in the country was a hanging chad.

Tom’s 2018 Reading Recap

Well, I guess one of the resolutions that we should have for 2019 is to post more reviews or other pieces to the blog, perhaps even take advantage of Twitter.  I’m sure that telling everyone that both Stella and I are slammed with work stuff on pretty much a regular basis would be a justifiable reason for not posting, but there’s also neglect.

Anyway, let’s start working on that resolution right now with a look back at my previous year in reading.  Stella and I were not locked in a contest to see who is going to read more in 2018, so my total was much lower than last year–75 total books (compared, by the way, to Stella’s 110).

So just like last year, I thought I would take some time to highlight some of the books I read last year, covering both the highs and lows and making some recommendations along the way.

38915770._SR1200630_.jpgFavorite Young Adult Book of the Year (novel):  Swing by Kwame Alexander.  This was one of the final books I read this year and I grabbed it because the author came to the school where I teach and did a talk and a reading.  I’m also getting professional development points for reading it as part of a library book club, but that was icing on the cake in a manner of speaking.

Anyway, the book is a novel told through poems about a kid named Noah who is navigating high school, including having a crush on his best girl friend Sam.  Plus, he’s got his friend Walt, who is obsessed with making the baseball team and really into jazz (to the point where he starts calling himself “Swing”).  Alexander really knows teenagers and gives Noah, Walt, Sam, and other characters real dimensions.  Plus, the plot, which centers around each boy’s romantic pursuits among other things, is well-paced and when the end comes around, you are so invested in each character that you feel it.  A definite recommendation.

512B9upupchL._SX331_BO1204203200_Favorite Young Adult Book of the Year (short stories):  I read a number of short stories this year in an effort to figure out if there were any contemporary stories worth teaching.  In a number of them, I read a few stories here and there, but the one I read all the way through was Pick Up Game: A Day of Full Court, which was edited by Marc Aronson and Charles R. Smith, Jr.

The concept of the book is that this is a series of interconnected short stories and poems that take place on the same concrete basketball court in New York City throughout one day.  After each story or poem, a different writer picks up the thread, adding characters and plot as the day gets later and later.  To be honest, basketball is not my sport, so the topic and the scenarios were a blind spot.  But I was hooked right in and I’m trying to find a way to work some of it into my classes or at least get some of my students to pick it up.

41S0hdRTpxL._SX347_BO1204203200_Favorite Coffee Table Book:  A Day in the Life of America, edited by Rick Smolan and David Cohen.  This book, published in 1986, was the culmination of a project sponsored by Kodak and a number of other companies wherein 200 professional photographers (many of whom were famous photojournalists) were sent across the United States to shoot what was going on in the country on May 2, 1986.  I first encountered this book in, of all places, a bed and breakfast I was staying at for my anniversary a couple of years ago, and then found it at my local library.  It’s a fascinating look at the country in the mid-1980s, showing people from all walks of life and covering both the positive and negative aspects of the Reagan era.  The photographs are beautiful and the text pieces alongside them are insightful.  It’s a heck of a time capsule.  The book has long been out of print, but if you can find it at your library, check it out.

91r1sqnRhzLFavorite Piece of Nostalgia:  The Art of Atari by Tim Lapetino.  This book was published a few years ago and I managed to snag it for $15 at the Baltimore Comic-Con in late September.  Ostensibly, this is a book all about the outstanding cover art produced by Atari for their video games of the 1970s and 1980s; however, if you read it, you’ll find a full history of the company and its video games and systems plus profiles of the creators.  As a companion piece to the book Console Wars (which I also recommend), it really sheds some serious light on the golden age of video games and is beautiful to boot.  While I’m not sure if you can still find it in a bookstore or a comic shop, it may be easy to come by on the secondary market at a good price.  And after reading it, you’ll want to play Atari.

51vlyK6t7rL._SX329_BO1204203200_Most Disappointing Pop Culture Book:  Slugfest: Inside the Epic, 50-year Battle between Marvel and DC by Reed Tucker.  While this book has some fairly interesting anecdotes related to DC Comics, ones that wish we would get a thorough look at the company’s nearly 85-year history in the manner of Marvel: The Untold Story, Tucker manipulates the facts to ensure that the narrative sticks to his opinion that Marvel rules and DC drools.  No, I’m serious.  Once you get past some of the more interesting quotes and stories told by people who were actually there, you see a pattern wherein he wants to keep telling the reader that Marvel was always in first place no matter what and DC was always trying to catch up.  I mean, I’m sure that’s true in a number of places, but it’s just way too simple of an idea and it reeks of lazy writing (especially since he barely mentions Image and Valiant comics when talking about the early Nineties).  Skip it and go read …

comsho-comic-shopMost Interesting Pop Culture Book: Comic Shop: The Retail Mavericks Who Gave Us a New Geek Culture by Dan Gearino.  Wow, this was a fun read.  Gearino traces the origins of the direct market to its very infancy and then through all of the highs and lows of the industry.  Plus, he has an entire section devoted to talking about and reviewing various comic shops across the country.  It’s a love letter to comic stores that is thoroughly researched and well-told.  If you have been spending many Wednesdays at your LCS, you owe it to yourself to pick this up.

41Rdzbiqh7L._SX322_BO1204203200_Understood it the Second Time Around: Beloved by Toni Morrison.  I know this isn’t Stella’s favorite book, but I read it for the first time in twenty years as a precursor to teaching it in my AP Literature class and both understood and enjoyed it tremendously.  Morrison weaves a narrative that is complex and heartbreaking.  I’m pretty sure that I will need another reading to fully understand it, although teaching it from year to year may enrich that even more.  I’m not sure when I’m going to make Stella read this, but it’s on the list.

Still a Favorite:  Macbeth by William Shakespeare.  Another from my AP Lit class and my favorite Shakespeare play to teach.  This is going to come off as very “guy,” but I love how violent and bloody this play gets, but also how rich the characters are.

4268Not Aging Well:  Nick Hornby.  Specifically, How to Be Good.  This was one that was sitting on my shelf for years and I finally grabbed at random.  I hadn’t read a Hornby novel since I read About A Boy at least 15 years ago and what I found interesting is that at that time, I really enjoyed his writing.  Now that I’m actually the age of the characters in his books, I find myself a little bored by them.  I think that on one hand, it’s because How to be Good isn’t his best work; on the other hand, the whole “man child” narrative has really worn itself thin as the years have worn on.  I’ll have to do a reread of High Fidelity at some point to see if it holds up as well as the Cusack movie still does or if it suffers the same fate as this, but for now, I think I’m going elsewhere.

51XOIoXIuoL._SX300_BO1204203200_Best Novelization: Close Encounters of the Third Kind by Steven Spielberg.  This sort of has an asterisk because I have read the novelizations of the first three Star Trek movies this year and all three are phenomenal, but Close Encounters edges it out because of the way that Spielberg gets into Roy Neary’s head and gives us a look at his mental breakdown throughout the entire film that goes a little deeper than what’s on screen.  Granted, that film is outstanding and doesn’t really need much beyond it, but what you can do in a novel is often what you can’t do on film.  If you can find a copy for cheap on eBay, I recommend picking it up.

529016Favorite Tie-In/Expanded Universe Novel:  I may have mentioned this on our expanded universe/novelization special (or not?  It’s been a while), but V: East Coast Crisis by A.C. Crispin is a real treat for fans of Kenneth Johnson’s 1980s alien invasion miniseries.  What Crispin does here is track a group of characters through the entirety of both V and V: The Final Battle, but in New York instead of the TV series’ setting of Los Angeles.  Crispin stays close to the continuity of the story and mentions important characters from the show, but also gives these New York-based characters distinct personalities and a plot that intersects with the main series but also holds its own importance.  Another gem I found by scrounging around used book stores and can be found, probably for cheap on the secondary market.

71lz6nR2ShLGreat Poetry:  No Matter the Wreckage by Sarah Kay.  This one’s a few years old but I finally got around to reading it this year.  Sarah Kay is a spoken word poet and a number of her performance pieces are in here along with other poems.  A full book of one poet’s work can actually be hard to read because you’re tempted to blow through it while worried if you’re taking enough time with each poem.  Her poetry is funny as well as heartfelt and deep and this collection is a keeper.

Biggest Literary Accomplishment:  Reading all of Don Quixote.  And really liking it, especially after Stella and I discussed it on the podcast.

So what’s up for 2019?  I have yet again made a resolution to get through my Goodreads “Want to Read” list along with all of the books on my bookshelf and reading pile.  These range from Star Trek books and other sci-fi/comic book-related things to self-help and other pop psychology-type books.  I’m hoping that it’ll be another fun year with stuff to discover.

And maybe Stella will finally buy me the coffee she owes me from our bet last year.

-Tom

Episode 25: A Doll’s House

Episode25_Cover for WebsiteIt’s the twenty-fifth episode of Required Reading With Tom and Stella! This podcast, which is hosted by Tom Panarese (Pop Culture Affidavit, In Country) and Stella (Batgirl to Oracle: A Barbara Gordon Podcast, The Batman Universe) is two teachers talking about literature. Each episode, we will be taking a look at a single work, analyzing it, criticizing it and deciding if its worth its place in the canon.

This time around, we’re taking a look at A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen.

You can listen here:

Required Reading iTunes Page

Required Reading Podcast Page at Two True Freaks

Direct Download

If you like our podcast, feel free to like our Facebook page (just search for Required Reading with Tom and Stella), check out our Twitter feed at @reqreadingcast, or email us at requiredreadingcast@gmail.com.