Book Review: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My most recent trip to the library left me with three non-fiction texts to work through. This book was high on my list, but its popularity meant that it was constantly checked out whenever I found myself in the library.

This book is an anomaly because there are really two books here – the physical book which chronicles McNamara’s obsession with The Golden State Killer (a moniker which she coined) and the ethereal subtext of the other book – the story of McNamara’s life and tragic death, with the final act of the arrest of the Golden State Killer shortly after the publication of this book.

Though most people are not quick to admit it, the majority of us have a fascination with the macabre tales of serial killers – it may be we are drawn to the same magnetism that allows many murderers to pass undetected, or it could be that we feel a symphonic tie to the victims – people like us who were just trying to live their lives. McNamara falls staunchly in the latter category, not only out of personal morality, but also necessity, since she could only ruminate on the possibilities of the killer’s background.

I am more in the middle. I find these stories interesting, but do not obsess. I have more than a passing knowledge on serial killers and cults, but knew little to nothing about the Golden State Killer. As a teen, the murderers captured my attention, but as I grew physically and psychologically, I found that my attention turned more to the victims. Sharon Tate deserved more of my time than Manson.
McNamara shows us of the lives of people and families torn apart over the course of decades. Communities terrorized with the idea that they could be next – near misses and “almost hads” that drive investigators insane. Her attention to detail and research skills make this a great work of reporting; her facility with language makes this a masterpiece of nonfiction.

But the book doesn’t end when you close the book. McNamara’s fate is told here – we know where she stopped in her research, we get glimpses into her life as a researcher, a wife, and a mother – but the untold story of what happens after publication offers a simultaneously devastating twist and satisfying tying of loose ends.

The book ends with McNamara’s co-conspirators discussing her insistence that online DNA databases were the key to catching the killer. She was right, of course – we as readers know that – yet (in this first edition, anyway – I’m sure an updated edition will follow) McNamara did this work knowing that it was likely she would never find the killer. And she didn’t in her lifetime. But it is impossible to read or discuss this work without the addendum that this work did ultimately help uncover the identity of the Golden State Killer – a life’s work the achieved its goal, though the achievement will never be celebrated by the person who achieved it. McNamara herself becomes another factor in her story – we celebrate with her husband who tweeted “I think you got him, Michelle” on the day the man accused was arrested, and we mourn her death when we realize she will never hear it from him.

This book is more than the sum of its parts – and that is what makes it.

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Tips from a Book Hoarder

Recently, I had an article on my Blind Date with a Book project published in The English Journal. I didn’t expect anyone to read it let alone enjoy it (hello, imposter syndrome!) but I received a lot of positive feedback and some great questions in response to the article.

One of the questions I received from other teachers was the most logistic – how do you afford all these books?

I’m not blessed with an unending bank account or a rich benefactor who believes in my noble cause. I have over the years, however, refined my methods for acquiring books and discovered new venues for works of literature that I would have never considered before. Here are my best best for acquiring new books for both my classroom and myself.

  • The Dollar Tree

Teachers love a good dollar store. Decorations, party supplies, pens and pencils – it’s always go-to shopping stop. But if you’ve been sleeping on the book section at the Dollar Tree, you’ve been missing out.

I could spend an hour or two peeking through every book in the Dollar Tree – not necessarily because there are so many, but because there is literally no organizational method to the books whatsoever. Here, you may find Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom hidden beneath a self-help book that no one found helpful. You may have to pass through several copies of Save Me, Kurt Cobain (yeah, I bought one) before you dig out a book of Mary Oliver’s poetry. There are gems to be found here, if you are willing to do a little digging.

But even if you are unsure of a book, this is the one place where it is okay to buy a book just because you like the cover. It’s a dollar! Buy that book, dammit! This method has led me to two of my favorite books: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, and Get in Trouble by Kelly Link. Oh, and did I mention that Kelly Link book came signed, too? Yup. All for a dollar.

  • Goodwill/Thrift stores

We often go to used bookshops to try to find treasures, but many treasures are waiting for us in other second-hand stores. The books section at Goodwill varies from store to store – some are more organized than others – but it is always worth a good look to see what is in stock.

This is a good place to find entire sets of a books series, or extra copies of classroom novels. I often find the discarded novels of English classes gone by that some unappreciative student has donated. The pricing here can also depend on the location – the Goodwill I frequent the most sold paperbacks for a dollar, but a posher Goodwill in a more affluent neighborhood (*cough* Sarasota *cough*) charged three dollars a book. Highway robbery if you ask me. But I still bought several.

  • Library Sales

Last night I was teaching my High School Methods class, and we got on the topic of library books sales. One of the students was amazed that libraries sell books – it’s true! Libraries often hold book sales to sell books that they have chosen to take out of circulation for one reason or another. The books are cheap and plentiful, though they may be well-loved. YA Lit is a popular genre in these book sales, so you are likely to find plenty of titles that fit your student’s reading appetites.

While you are at the library, be sure to check out their YA Lit section, which will likely have a display of new and popular titles. This is a good time for you to get yourself up to date with what’s out there in the YA world that might appeal to your students.

  • National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Conference

Okay, this one is a long shot. But I would be leaving out my main source of YA Lit books if I didn’t mention the NCTE National Conference. Every time I have attended NCTE, I have returned with at least fifty new books from publishers, authors, and independent bookstores, many of which are signed by the author, and most of which are free.

But my motive is not purely book-related. NCTE is also the single best professional development opportunity for English teachers in the United States. The conference is not cheap, but with the help of grants and some thrifty planning, it can be affordable. There are sessions and speakers on every possible topic – millions of ideas for you to bring back to your classroom. And all this along with the magic of the exhibit hall? Totally worth it.

I hope you found these tips helpful, and I hope to see you in Baltimore, Maryland at NCTE 2019!!

Book Review: The Hazel Wood

The Hazel Wood (The Hazel Wood, #1)The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Life never turns out how you imagine it will when you’re young. Everything is smaller than you think, or too big. It all smells a little funny and fits like somebody else’s shirt.”

I received this book as a part of my Owlcrate subscription and at first, it didn’t really seem to be my cup of tea. I generally like fantasy, but YA fantasy tends to be a little … too much for me. I considered just shelving this in my classroom and calling it a day.

Man, am I glad I didn’t.

First of all, Melissa Albert’s prose is enchanting. Her style grabbed me and wrapped me in a giant fluffy body pillow. I had thought that book might be pure fluff, but when Alice starts off the book by talking about her near-kidnapping, I knew this would be more of the darker side of fantasy, and when Twice-Killed Katherine appeared, I knew that this was the book for me.

I had just finished reading Get in Trouble, and this was the perfect YA follow-up to Link’s dark magic realism, with Albert adding a little bit more magic to the realism. I wanted more of the Hinterland, and when I discovered it was a series, I was very excited. I cannot wait to read the rest!

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Book Review: Scythe

Scythe (Arc of a Scythe, #1)Scythe by Neal Shusterman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up this book primarily because the art on it is simply amazing. I know this book has been popular with the YA crowd, but I didn’t pick it up until it was on my school’s list for Battle of the Books.
The synopsis had me rolling my eyes a little bit – teenagers acting as death? I wasn’t so sure about it. I read it anyway. After the first couple of chapters, I still wasn’t quite convinced. It seems as though there would be a better way of controlling a population boom than government (or Thunderhead, as it may be) condoned murder.
However, this book did end up better than I anticipated. I still have problems with the premise – I have questions about how exactly the population is staying under control if the Scythes are not murdering people every second.
I did feel as though Rowan and Citra were fully realized characters, and I appreciated the twists and turns of the story. However, I am not entirely sure I was sold enough to read the rest of the series.

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The truth of my seismographs is the story of my life, in a much smaller, compact form.
A couple years ago, I was looking for a new way to teach poetry and nothing was really speaking to me – So I did what most do, I pulled together an amalgamation of different things until I had created a beast that I could experiment with until it was tamed.

I called it a Seismograph, as I wanted something that measured the impact of words – how a poem affects us at the most base, emotional level. Does it shake you to your core? Or just give you a little goosebump?

When I finally fleshed out my idea and sent it out into the classroom, I was overjoyed. It worked! It made sense to the kids, and I began to use my seismographs regularly in my classroom.

Then, last summer, I attended an AP Literature training. One day the instructor pulled out a short story called “The Lifeguard” by Mary Morris and said, “Today we will be doing what I call ‘Literary Seismographs.’”

Whelp, I thought, another brilliant idea that turns out not to be mine after all.

But don’t fear, dear reader, for I did not let this stop me from continuing my love of the literary seismograph. My version looks a little different than the one the instructor at my training used, so I continue to consider it my own (I’ve even joked about renaming them ‘Parke-mo-graphs’).

How does it work?

Seismographs are useful for close reading, and can be used with poetry or prose. With prose, I wouldn’t use more than a couple pages of text- the point is to understand the author’s choice of words and wording. Therefore, it makes it an excellent activity for trying to reach standard RL.2.4.

First, students are assigned a passage. In the examples below, students read the first three pages of Atonement by Ian McEwan. Those students then star or highlight the lines that really stuck out to them. I usually ask them to keep the number of lines they choose to 5-7.

After they find the lines that affect them, I have them rate the level of impact on a scale of 1-10. Then, they plot it on a graph similar to the one below:


On each point of impact, they write the quote that impacted them.

After plotting all their quotes, they then have the hard task – discovering what the author has done to make this impact happen. Is it foreshadowing? Alliteration? More importantly, what does it do for the piece? What is the purpose of those lines in the larger scale of the work?

Here are some examples from Atonement:

And some examples from “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou:

After the seismograph activity, students can use the quotes they analyzed to springboard into analytical writing – how do these lines relate to the work as a whole?
Overall, students in my classes seem to like the activity – some even get excited when they see it listed on the agenda. One student told me that she enjoys seismographs because “it’s easy and I get it, I don’t feel like I’m struggling for the answer.” I also like that it helps reinforce that what a reader gets out of a text differs from person to person, and that’s okay!

I’ve noticed that essays that spring from these activities use stronger evidence and elaboration, and I encourage my students to consider using seismographs as a planning activity when trying to suss out an essay.

Questions? Suggestions? Feel free to comment below!

An Optimist Deals with Death

I’ve been a positive person my entire life – not because I believe that everything will work out in the end, or that “things happen for a reason,” but because in this short life, there is, in my purview, no reason to go through it sad. I enjoy moments, find joy in them, save them for another time when I need them. I am Billy Pilgrim, returning to a sun-soaked snooze in a wheelbarrow during my time of strife.

But there are times when it seems like all the positive attitude I can muster is not enough to battle the very real monsters knocking on my door. Yesterday, four hours from my home, my work, my school, another angry, violent white male decided that it was his right to take the lives of seventeen others.

Yesterday was Valentine’s Day. I watched as young boys struggled to hoist teddy bears taller than themselves through the gates of the parking lot, hoping to catch their girlfriends (how long has it been? a week, a month, a year? All an eternity to them) before they get to class so they don’t have to carry it around all day. Girls decked out in pinks and reds, and even I got into the spirit, donning a cream dress embroidered with red hearts.

When I got home, my husband and daughter greeted me with love, arms outstretched to welcome me home after a cheerful day of happy students, happy teachers, happy classrooms.

Then the news came. Instead of students walking home with outlandish Valentine’s gifts, I imagined abandoned stuffed animals strewn across classroom floors, left behind after the SWAT teams evacuated their would-be recipients. Balloons tied to lockers meant as a celebration of life and love, now macabre markers, alerting authorities as to where they should be looking for the bodies.

It’s hard to be an optimist on a normal day. On a day like this, it’s impossible – I know that nothing will come of this. In a year there will be a memorial. A pro-gun control group will remind us what happened, but others will have forgotten. But it will happen again, because nothing will be done to stop it.

As I watch my students come through my doors today, they will know that I love them, that I see them, that they matter to me. I will find joy in them, in my work. I will find joy with my family, with my home. But I will not be optimistic for a future that I cannot believe in.

Book Review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

9780385363563A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So let’s get this out of the way. One of the worst lines I have ever read in a novel resides in this book. It is:
“Akhmed’s head hummed with the shock of how not shocked he was.”

Yep. That’s there.

Thankfully, that was the outlier. The story of this book started like a slow boil, and became so enchanting that by the end, I couldn’t wait to read it. I still can’t think of those last few pages without crying, and I’m still affected by it a week later.

Best dollar store purchase yet.

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Book Review – Ship Breaker

ShipBreakerPaoloBacigalupiShip Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is my third Bacigalupi novel and so far they all follow the same pattern. Male protagonist lives in a not too distant future where everything has gone to shit (lack of water, genetic modifications, climate change) and works at some unusual post-apocalyptic job (water knife, whatever the dude from windup girl did, ship breaker) and falls in love with a mysterious girl from a different social class (poor desert girl, wind up girl, swank) and must decide if he should leave the world he knows out of love of this girl.
And the title is the job of one of the main characters.

There, now you don’t have to read any of them.

Just kidding, I loved “The Water Knife.”

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Book Review – The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North
















The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Man. This one got me. There were a couple times where a sentence was just so good I had to put the book down because I thought, “well, it’s not going to get any better than that.” But then it did.

This book talks around and about the titular Sophie Stark, and she is a bit of a mystery. The strength of this novel is the treatment of grief, the stories that the people we know tell when we are gone. How what we do stays with them, and what parts of us they remember.

Sophie is manipulative, but she is also manipulated by the people in her life. She is by no means faultless character through most of the story, though she is someone we can sympathize with.

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