Episode 27: Frankenstein

Episode27_Cover for WebsiteIt’s the twenty-seventh 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 Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

You can listen here:

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Batman: The Dark Knight Detective Volume 2

bmdkdv2_282-001_hd_5bb7f9dc53bd35.02375967As DC reprints Batman’s adventures from the late Eighties and early Nineties, we come upon a period where Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle begin to solidify as a creative team.   Granted, John Wagner was still co-writing the series with Grant, but as we go through this collection, which features Detective Comics #583-591 and Annual #1, we see a lot of the elements that would make their work on the Caped Crusader so memorable.  We have classic Grant/Breyfogle villains Ratcatcher and The Ventriloquist and Scarface make their first appearances as well as an outstanding three-part storyline featuring a villain named Kadaver and the creation of The Corrosive Man (whose touch melts things away).  There’s also the first annual, which guest stars The Question and is the first part of a three-parter that crosses over into Green Arrow and The Question annuals that year.  Unfortunately, those two books’ annuals aren’t included, which is one of my only gripes about this collection.

I can’t heap enough praise on the creative teams found within these comics–even Klaus Janson, whose work I don’t usually enjoy, has a solid outing courtesy of Tony DeZuniga’s inks.  Moreover, what I found interesting is that these issues were being published concurrently with the lead-up to “A Death in the Family” in Batman and while that title featured art by Jim Aparo and was heavy on the Batman and Robin stories.  Here, Robin is nowhere to be seen–to the point where I had to figure out whether or not these came out after Jason Todd’s death because he was always flying solo.  Not that I needed Jason Todd in these issues, but the two Bat titles are such a huge difference in tone that you can really get a sense of how Batman is a multi-faceted character by reading this and that Jim Starlin-penned Batman run.


You should read this book if:

  1. You want to see Norm Breyfogle draw Batman
  2. You want some really solid street-level, non-world-threatening gritty Batman stories
  3. You didn’t hear me the first time when I mentioned Norm Freakin’ Breyfogle

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.


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.


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

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.

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.


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.