Tom’s 2017 Reading Recap

In looking at my GoodReads list for books read in 2017, I made it through a total of 152, which is actually an incredibly high number for me considering that in past years, my recreational reading would all but grind to a halt during the school year.  Leave it to a bet over dinner to be a good motivator.

Anyway, I thought I would take the chance in this post to run down a few (but not all) of those 152 books with some brief commentary with the hopes that perhaps you’ll pick up a few yourself or skip a few that you were thinking of reading.

250px-brightest_day_0Author who might be a bit more overrated than I’d originally thought:  Geoff Johns.  I checked Brightest Day out from my local library but instead of just reading those three trade paperbacks decided to go back through my Geoff Johns Green Lantern collection and read everything I had (which, admittedly, wasn’t everything–I’m missing one Green Lantern Corps trade and the “Tales of the Black Lantern Corps” trades).  While I thoroughly enjoyed all of it, I found myself blowing through Johns’s stuff; moreover, I thought that Peter Tomasi’s Green Lantern Corps run was one of the best cop shows I’ve ever seen.  It’s still really good and really fun comics–even Brightest Day, which was not as well-received as the other stories were–but it honestly felt more like junk food than a good meal.

Dense enough to be a weapon in Clue:  George Perez’ Wonder Woman.  I own the four trades that came out in the mid-2000s (and were collected into the first omnibus) and also own the second omnibus.  A lot of it is amazing and Perez really took his time to craft his stories and elevate Diana to a higher level, which she so desperately needed after years of lackluster stories in the Bronze Age.  But don’t go into reading the Perez WW like you go into Johns’ GL.  One issue might do you for one day, as there’s a lot of text and story to pore over.  There are times where Perez can’t seem to get out of his own way where the story is concerned and other times where someone else is doing the artwork and it doesn’t hold up as well.  But they’re putting the omnibus material into individual trade paperbacks, which will be cheaper and really worth the purchase.

Your gateway drug to classic mythology and epics:  Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan.  I’d read the first book last year when I was taking a course in young adult literature for my graduate program.  My son has read all of the Percy Jackson books along with a number of Riordan’s other sagas and he has been encouraging me to read them.  The story in this one is fun because of the way it parallels the more famous parts of The Odyssey, and I’m excited to see whether or not my son enjoys Homer as much as he enjoys Percy.

Best new update/adaptation worth reading:  Harvey Kurtzman’s Marley’s Ghost.  If you listened to episode 14 of the show, you heard us talk about how much we both enjoyed this adaptation.  Comixology has made it available and it really makes a fine addition to your annual holiday Christmas Carol-ing.

15815387About as underwhelming as actual adulting:  Dan Gets a Minivan by Dan Zevin.  Zevin wrote two great books about early adulthood–The Nearly-Wed Handbook and The Day I Turned Uncool.  I have always found him to be a funny, irreverent essay writer who has a good and snarky take about being both a guy and an adult.  I was looking forward to this book, which is about parenting, but didn’t find myself laughing as loudly as I had at some of the essays in his other books.  But I do have to wonder if it’s a case of my having read the same material from other authors (Drew Magary, for instance) or having written about some of it myself in various contexts.  It’s a cheap, fun read but can also feel like a retread of ground you’ve covered before.

Page-Turner of the Year:  Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty.  Stella recommended this one and I think I read it in a weekend.  Between the mystery of who’s dead and who killed that person and the way that Moriarty fleshes out a world of bitchy, backstabby alpha moms, I couldn’t put it down.  The HBO series–which I watched afterwards and recently finished–was also great.

I Read This Because It’s Important:  Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.  Don’t get me wrong here, I liked Bechdel’s graphic novel “Family Tragicomic,” but I have to say that I felt let down at the end because I went in knowing how highly regarded it is and expected to find something profound beyond just a well-written story.

Badge of Honor/Biggest Accomplishment of the Year:  The Power Broker by Robert Caro.  This tome, which gets into the minutiae of Robert Moses’ life as well as the various projects that he created in and around the New York Metropolitan area, is not for the faint of heart, and is almost like reading one of your textbooks from cover to cover.  I mean, you’ve really got to want to learn about all of these things to take this baby on.  I enjoyed it and felt a sense of accomplishment for finishing it.

28964412Instant Nostalgia and Much-Needed Insight:  The Daily Show: An Oral History as told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff, and Guests.  I was a huge fan of Jon Stewart and The Daily Show for years and was so excited to finally sit down and read this book when I took it on vacation with me this summer.  It’s not only a great inside look at how one of the best shows of the 2000s was put together, it’s a walk through recent history that, if you were there and remember it, will dredge up a lot of the feelings you had at the time.

Em Middleton figured out the pirate thing and I just wanted to write this here to remind Professor Alan of that because I know he likes hearing about it:  Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (and go listen to episode 50 of The Shortbox Showcase while you’re at it).

About as tedious as the walk itself:  Walking to Listen: 4000 Miles Across America, One Story at a Time by Andrew Forsthoefel.  I checked this one out because of a recommendation that appeared in my Twitter feed courtesy of my local library.  The author decided to literally walk across America and talk to people.  It was a great concept and the first half of the book lives up to that promise.  But it really started to drag at one point and I couldn’t say that he was really (pun not intended) getting anywhere by the time he reached his end.  It ground on for a little too long.

Didn’t Ruin the Movie:  The Princess Bride by William Goldman.  I covered the film, one of my favorites of all time, with my friend Amanda on an episode of Pop Culture Affidavit this year.  This was the first time I’d read the book, even though I’d seen the movie countless times in the past 30 years.  I thoroughly enjoyed the elements of the novel that were directly reflected in the film as well as Goldman’s meta-commentary and other parts that aren’t in the feature film (although the inclusion of the abandoned sequel “Buttercup’s Baby” leaves something to be desired).

Favorite YA read of the Year:  The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner.  I read this for a graduate class (but cannot, for the life of me, remember which one) because I had to read a contemporary YA novel and this was on the first shelf of the teen room in my local library.  The cover alone was striking–a while silhouette of a girl wearing an angel’s wings as well as the outline of the Twin Towers in the title.  The story is about a kid who witnesses the attack on New York on 9/11 and meets and takes care of a mysterious girl whose name he doesn’t know.  As the city goes through the first few weeks of healing post-tragedy, he tries to figure out who she is while also possibly falling for her. A great read that really transcends its “YA” label.

I’m just here for the trivia:  Star Wars Aftermath: Empire’s End by Chuck Wendig.  Granted, this is my favorite of the three books in the post-Return of the Jedi aftermath trilogy, but I definitely found myself more interested in the bits and pieces of trivia that would give me insight into how the First Order rose from the ashes of the Empire and the origins of the New Republic and a few Force Awakens characters.

41mzibyi1nl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Favorite Memoir of the Year:  Home Before Morning by Linda Van Devanter.  I’m going to go more in depth on this one on a future episode of “In Country,” but Van Devanter’s memoir about being a nurse in the Vietnam War was the inspiration for the television series China Beach and is an outstanding perspective on the war and its history.

Favorite Poetry Book … okay, the ONLY poetry book I read this year:  Splitting an Order by Ted Kooser.  I really enjoy Kooser’s poetry.  It’s simple on its surface yet really delves into the profoundness of the everyday.  Kooser doesn’t shy away from creating sad or tragic characters, either.  He’s an outstanding poet and his entire body of work is worth reading.

And that’ll do it for 2017.  There’s no reading contest for 2018, but I do have a resolution to make a dent in my “want to read” list on Goodreads, so you’ll be hearing about that in the coming months.

-Tom

 

 

Episode 14: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Episode14 Website CoverIts the fourteenth 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 Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

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 @reqreadcast, or email us at requiredreadingcast@gmail.com

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 @reqreadcast, or email us at requiredreadingcast@gmail.com

Episode 13: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Episode 13 Website CoverIts the thirteenth 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 Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

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 @reqreadcast, or email us at requiredreadingcast@gmail.com

“Teenage Wasteland” by Anne Tyler

whosnext

The title “Teenage Wasteland” is a reference to the song “Baba O’Reily” by The Who, which is on Who’s Next an album that is essenital listening.

While we’ve been using this space on our “off weeks” to talk about books we have recently read, I wanted to expand that to other forms of literature, such as poetry and short stories.  I don’t know about Stella, but my job as a high school English teacher often has me encountering both and I have discovered a vast number of gems in my teaching career.  So I thought I’d write the occasional post highlighting some of my favorites and also offering some insight as to how I teach them.

“Teenage Wasteland” is a story written by Anne Tyler in the 1970s that takes place in what I guess you could have referred to as a “normal” suburban community and features what for the time would have been considered an “average, normal family” of two parents and two kids:  Daisy and Matt and their two children, Donny and Amanda, who both attend private school.  Donny is currently in high school and has been getting into trouble as of late, which is the source of an enormous amount of consternation for Daisy, who can’t understand why her son’s grades are slipping and constantly blames herself.  Eventually, in an effort to solve the problem, Daisy hires a tutor named Cal, who doesn’t seem to tutor and instead allows a group of kids to hang out around his house and tries to dictate what the school and Donny’s parents should do and doesn’t seem to be concerned that Donny’s grades slip even further.

Eventually, Donny gets expelled because beer is found in his locker and while Cal tries to get him to fight the system, Daisy decides she’s had enough and puts him in public school.  Soon after, Donny runs away and the story ends with the feeling that the family is broken in some way is known for having a realistic approach to the portrayal of a family (I recently read her novel A Spool of Blue Thread, which was very good) and because the plot is easy to follow and the characters are vivid, this story is a good example of how stories can seem simple yet be much more complex or nuanced.  My students find each of the characters easy to identify because they are not an extraordinary family in any way; furthermore, by making them be a middle/upper-middle class suburban family, Tyler avoids any conflict that the parents may have regarding money and allows for the plot detail that Donny has been through more than one private school (which I am sure is a subtle nod to another troubled teenage protagonist, Holden Caulfield).

It’s all “ordinary” in the same way that the Judith Guest’s Jarrett Family are the titular Ordinary People, and that was important at the time because there was a sense (and still is) that “these problems” “don’t happen here,” meaning that bad things don’t happen to people in “nice” neighborhoods.  Crime and the crime brought about by certain drugs is the problem for places you’d see on the news and drinking, smoking and pot … well, that’s not a problem, it’s just kids being kids.

So Donny runs away and in order to figure out how and why this happens, my students and I do two things.  First, we do a character analysis of all five of the characters featured in the story–although to be honest, Donny’s sister, Amanda, is mentioned in passing a few times and rarely, if ever, actually appears, but the fact that she’s constantly ignored is important.  I like the idea of a character-driven story and how you can look at the same events through the eyes of four or five different people, and that allows us to gather the information we need to do the second thing, which is figuring out who’s responsible.

Granted, assigning blame isn’t a hard thing for anyone to do in our culture–-I think that half of the content on the internet is devoted to blaming someone for something–-but there’s assigning blame and there’s determining responsibility and the latter is a much more informed decision.  After the class has described and discussed each of the characters, working through their strengths and weaknesses, I then ask the question: “Who is responsible for Donny’s running away?” Over the course of our discussion see how Donny, both of his parents, Cal, and “the system” are all responsible for what happens to the kid.  Donny never takes responsibility for his own actions, Daisy is wildly inconsistent when it comes to disciplining her son, Matt really does nothing and basically figures his wife is going to take care of it, Cal is manipulative and seems more concerned with himself, and the system itself can be more punitive than it has to be.

This has, in the past, led to conversations about what makes a good parent, what makes a good teacher or principal, and whether or not kids who get in trouble should be punished for what they do.  And to their credit, my students have very often presented a balanced view and are able to discuss when I push back on some of their points.  There’s a lot to glean from Tyler’s story about how characters can be complex as well as how certain problems can be nuanced and have no easy solution.

Tyler’s stories have never been collected in a single volume and like I said, I got this out of a random English textbook in our book room, but I did find a .pdf copy online.  It’s not exactly “legal” but if you’re interested in reading it you, can read it here:  “Teenage Wasteland”

-Tom

HORRORSTÖR by Grady Hendrix

horrorstc3b6r_book_coverGood satire is hard to write.  Good horror is also hard to write.  Writing both is a nearly impossible task and in HORRORSTÖR, Grady Hendrix almost pulls it off completely.  Set in an Ikea-ripoff store called Orsk, the novel is the story of Amy, a store employee whose existence is that of miserable hand-to-mouth living driven by a desire to get out of the town where she’s lived since she was born and to not move back into her mom’s trailer, which is where she’s headed if she can’t come up with the back rent that she owes her roommates.  Along for the ride with Amy are the childish spinster Ruth Anne, the uptight manager Basil, and their ghost hunter colleagues Trinity and Matt.  Together, they set out to spend a night in Orsk to investigate the increasingly bizarre events that have been happening during their respective shifts.

What follows is a ghost story that under most circumstances would seem pretty straightforward and almost played–the store has been built on a site where an insane asylum run by a warden who was insane in his cruelty once stood.  But it’s like Hendrix knows this and as a result he spends a lot of time crafting his setting, which is Orsk, and creating a dead-on satire of Ikea and its furniture and lifestyle that we have come to know and … love?  The book, which has illustrations by Michael Roglalski, is laid out in places like a furniture catalogue, with each chapter being titled after a fake piece of Swedish-inspired furniture (and then later in the novel as things get more bizarre, catalogue descriptions of torture devices).  Hendrix goes deep with building that world and has his group of oddball employees inhabit a world that feels like a retail job where some are trying to make something of themselves while others are perpetually fed up.

The horror portion of the book is also solid, although I will admit that I think Hendrix could have used 20-50 more pages of story because I felt like the book’s pacing sped up way too quickly toward its ending even if it did keep me engaged, entertained, and even amused.

-Tom

You should read this book if …

  1. You enjoy workplace satire such as Clerks., Office Space, Waiting …, or Superstore
  2. You like reading or watching shows about haunted places and the legends associated with them.
  3. You want to read a horror novel but don’t want the commitment of an overwrought series or the length of a Stephen King.
  4. You have ever tried–and failed–to put together Ikea’s furniture and are convinced that only a demon from hell could conceive of the Hemnes dresser.

Episode 12: March by John Lewis

Episode 12 Website CoverIt’s the twelfth 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 it’s worth its place in the canon.

This time around, we’re taking a look at March, the graphic novel written by John Lewis (with Andrew Aydin) and with art by Nate Powell.

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 @reqreadcast, or email us at requiredreadingcast@gmail.com

Here’s all four covers to the graphic novel (the slipcase is on the left)

Here is a link to the Newseum and its special exhibit on the Civil Rights movement:

1967: Civil Rights at 50

Footage of John Lewis speaking at the March on Washington in 1963:

A compilation of moments from the Civil Rights movement (may be some graphic content):

President Barack Obama’s inauguration speech from January 21, 2009:

Footage of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama marching in Selma to commemorate the march’s 50th anniversary in 2015 (John Lewis is standing between them and their daughters are to Mrs. Obama’s right):

“We Shall Overcome” as sung by Mahalia Jackson (used in the episode):

 

Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations by Garson O’Toole

51oasncxfql-_sy346_Garson O’Toole is known as “The Quote Investigator” and has made a name for himself on the Internet by looking into the origins and veracity of famous quotations, especially those that often find their way onto inspirational posters, high school yearbooks, and memes that your more senior family members post to Facebook.  His book Hemingway Didn’t Say That is a collection of some of the most famous quotes he’s looked into, broken into various categories and judged in a way similar to what you’d see on the average Snopes entry.

While fascinating at times, the book does tend to drag and I’ll admit that it took me several months to read.  It works better if you consider it a reference work or a book you’ll flip through, much like any of the many nostalgia-based books that are full of lists and profiles and don’t have a continuous narrative structure.  Unfortunately for the Quote Investigator, that only works if you’re buying the book in hard copy and not for a Kindle–then again, maybe I’m showing my age by saying that I find browsing/flipping through a book on my Kindle way more tedious than physically picking one up off of the shelf.

-Tom

You should read this book if …

  1. Are a Snopes addict.
  2. You love trivia.
  3. Don’t mind a book you can put down for a while and pick up without feeling like you need a refresher on the chapters you read.
  4. You are looking to something to flip through while you’re in the bathroom