“Teenage Wasteland” by Anne Tyler


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”


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.


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.


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

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro

51fonlierul-_sx328_bo1204203200_If you have driven through a highway, bridge, or tunnel in New York City, you have Robert Moses to thank for it; moreover, if you look at much of the current makeup of the city, it’s due to Moses, who held myriad titles throughout his forty-year career in the governments of New York City and New York State.  But a list of bridges, tunnels, and buildings does not even begin to scratch the surface of Robert Caro’s exhaustive biography of the life of the man who literally shaped the nation’s leading city.

Published in 1974 when New York City was descending into the nadir of its existence, The Power Broker is a thorough look at Robert Moses’ life and a treatise on the nature of power.  While definitely in the thick of New York City and State politics, Moses himself was a lifelong bureaucrat who found ways to influence several of the city’s mayors and the state’s governors, even if his relationships with many–among them, Fiorello LaGuardia, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Nelson Rockefeller–was often adversarial.  Caro, whose research was extensively detailed, weaves a story of a man who went from an idealist to blinded by his own ego, his fall eventually coming because the visionary he once had been wielded too much power and influence for his own good.

I spent much of my life driving around the highways and parkways of Long Island, all of which have their origin stories with Moses and can be found within the book; in fact, I spent summers in college working at Robert Moses State Park.  But even though I feel I have a personal connection to Moses and The Power Broker, I’ll admit that this book was a feat of strength to read.  At a grand total of 1366 pages (if you count notes and the index), The Power Broker is not a leisurely read and could be the basis for its very own seminar or course.  But the accomplishment of finishing the book proved well worth it.


You should read this book if …

  1. You have a serious interest in the history of New York State, New York City, and Long Island.
  2. You’ve read Gotham by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace (itself a tome) and want to continue a look at New York City history.
  3. You’re a fan of The Bowery Boys NYC History Podcast and want to learn more about Robert Moses.
  4. You’ve got an interest in politics and political history and want to see how theories of power (and the egos of the men who wield it) often play out in real life.

Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran by Elaine Sciolino

51eX21diw4L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Elaine Sciolino, a correspondent for Newsweek and The New York Times, was aboard the airplane that took Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to Tehran in 1979. She has had more experience covering revolutionary Iran than any other American reporter, and was present for the revolution, the hostage crisis, the Iran-Iraq war, the rise of President Khatami, the riots of 1999, and the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program. Persian Mirrors looks at the public and private spaces of Iran, and goes into the politics, culture, religion, and society of Iran.

I originally picked this up because I wanted to get some more background on Iran before teaching Persepolis during a seminar course. Unfortunately, the seminar was canceled, but I decided to keep reading because the subject matter is so interesting. As Americans, I feel like we see people in the Middle East as the enemy, but this book explores why that is not necessarily true. True, we have been on opposing sides from time to time, but there is more to the story, and it is unfair to consider all “others” a terrorist. One must still read this book with a grain of salt since it is coming from someone who, while narrating her first-hand experiences, is not Iranian.

You should read this book if…

  1. you are interested in other cultures.
  2. you would like to learn more about Iran.
  3. you enjoyed reading Persepolis.
  4. you are willing to let your impressions and attitudes about the Iran be changed.


Episode 11: Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

Episode 11 Website CoverIt’s the eleventh 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 Ella Minnow Pea, a novel of letters by Mark Dunn.

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) or email us at requiredreadingcast@gmail.com