Review: The Good Lord Bird, James McBride

Review: The Good Lord Bird, James McBrideThe Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Narrator: Michael Boatman
Published by Penguin Audio on August 20, 2013
Genres: Historical Fiction
Length: 14 hours 35 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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Goodreads
five-stars

Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857; the region is a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an argument between Brown and Henry s master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town with Brown, who believes he is a girl.

Over the ensuing months, Henry, whom Brown nicknames Little Onion, conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually, Little Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, which was one of the major catalysts for the Civil War.

An absorbing mixture of history and imagination, and told with McBride s meticulous eye for detail and character, THE GOOD LORD BIRD is both a rousing adventure and a moving exploration of identity and survival.

I absolutely loved this book, and I think listening to the audiobook was a major reason why. Michael Boatman’s narration is excellent. I loved his characterization of John Brown and Owen Brown in particular. In style, this book reminded me a great deal of Mark Twain, particularly Huckleberry Finn. McBride’s portrayal of John Brown is sympathetic yet realistic. Through the voice of his narrator, Henry, we have a full picture of a complicated man: a religious zealot called by God to end slavery and a man who truly believed all people are equal. I honestly haven’t read enough about the real John Brown to know if the characterization is completely accurate, but it definitely rings true.

I love it when historical fiction asks me to research, too, and this book had me checking out other sources so I could learn about John Brown. Confederate President Jefferson Davis once said that what he feared was “thousands of John Browns.” It’s interesting to ask what might have happened had John Brown not conducted his raid on Harper’s Ferry or engaged in the skirmishes in Bleeding Kansas. Would the war have happened later? Would the South have organized in the face of ardent abolitionism? In any case, it’s difficult for me not to admire his dedication to the cause of freedom for African Americans at a time when that was not just unpopular but illegal. His tactics were violent, but it’s probably true that nonviolent protest would have accomplished nothing. After all, it took a bloody war to resolve the question of slavery, and the question of racism is still open.

I appreciated McBride’s invention of Henry as a narrator. He offered an opportunity to interpret John Brown’s actions through the lens of one of the enslaved people Brown was attempting to free and also to offer an outside perspective that is both sympathetic and critical of Brown. This balance makes it easier for McBride to draw a more complex picture of Brown and his followers than if he had chosen a narrator from among them or even a further outsider.

There is a chunk of the story in the middle when Henry is separated from Brown that I didn’t find as enjoyable. During this section, Henry is working in a hotel/whorehouse and falls in love with one of the prostitutes. However, he is disguising himself as a girl, so it’s complicated. I’m wondering now, as I finished the book, if that section added to the story or not. I suppose it depends on whether the reader sees this as a story of John Brown or a story of Henry Shackleford. I tend toward the former, and I will admit that part of the book slowed down the story’s momentum a bit for me, but not enough for me to dock any stars.

One literary aspect I appreciated was McBride’s clever use of motifs. For example, on several occasions, Brown wants to stop and pray when the group is in danger, and his son Owen is often the one to tell him to wrap it up so they can get out of danger. Another example is Brown’s directive to Henry to “hive the bees,” or try to rouse support for Brown’s cause among the Black population. He brings both motifs back touchingly at the end of the novel. We know how John Brown’s story ends, but McBride managed to make it satisfying and true to the characters he created. The first thing I did upon finishing this book is to check out Deacon King Kong, another of McBride’s novels. I wanted more. I can’t wait to watch the film!

five-stars

2022 Reading Goals

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

Happy New Year! I hope 2022 is off to a good start for you and yours. I’m holding out hope that this year, COVID will be endemic like the flu or other coronaviruses, and that we can emerge from this pandemic and learn to live with this novel coronavirus. It has been such a hard couple of years. I never could have imagined I would see what we have seen these last two years.

Last year, I managed to surpass my goal of reading 50 books by two books, but I’m still planning to try to read 50 books in 2022. I have joined a few reading challenges, as I usually do. I find they help me diversify my reading and try books I might not otherwise try.

I think I participated in the European Reading Challenge some years back, but I’m joining again this year. My goal is to read five books.

I almost always participate in the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge since it’s my favorite genre. Last year, I lowballed and wound up surpassing my goal, so this year I’m going for it and planning to read 10 books at the Renaissance Reader level.

I’ve participated in the Monthly Motif Challenge for the last couple of years, but I’ve never managed to complete it. Maybe this year? The goal is to complete each month’s reading challenge for a total of 12 books.

The Poetry Reading Challenge is new to me, but I’m excited to try it, especially as I have been reading more poetry over the last few years. I plan to complete all three challenges:

  1. Read a poem a day for a month.
  2. Read a poetry collection.
  3. Read five additional poetry collections.

Finally, the This or That Reading Challenge offers two challenges each month, and the goal is to complete one or the other each month for a total of 12 books.

I always love setting these goals at the beginning of the year. The whole year is before me, and the possibilities seem endless.

2021 Reading Challenges

The good news is that I am in the dissertation writing phase of my doctoral studies, and I anticipate finishing by June. Obviously, writing the dissertation will take time, but I have already made good progress, and I will have a little bit more time, I hope, to dedicate to reading, particularly reflecting on my reading here on the blog. In any case, I will certainly have more time by June.

On December 31, I’ll post my reading recap for the year, including my progress on 2020 Reading Challenges. I’m excited to try some new challenges and also to engage in some challenges that have been a part of my reading habits for years.

The Book Voyage: Read Around the World challenge is new to me. I have kept a Google Map for several years now with pins for the settings of each book I read. A challenge I used to do (seems to be defunct) involved tracking locations for reading, but this challenge is unique in that it encourages reading in different regions of the world rather than simply raising awareness of setting. I also like that the challenge author, the Book Girl’s Guide, provides reading suggestions for each region, which may make it easier for me to find books set in each region. Each month is focused on a different region, so the goal is to read a total of twelve books set in each region.

It has been a little while since I focused my reading deliberately on the South. I lived in several Southern states for many years (1989-2012), and my family origins are Southern. I have a really complicated relationship with the South, however. A family history of racial violence and slavery and a great deal of political and historical ignorance clouds my appreciation for a beautiful region with some rich history and cuisine—which I credit largely to African Americans. I don’t think I’d ever want to live there again, but I also cannot deny that it’s a part of me. I have always felt the South produced some of the best literature, and I might argue we are living through a Southern literature renaissance, especially with Black authors and cookbooks, so I am hoping to focus my reading for the Southern Literature Reading Challenge on reading BIPOC authors and cookbooks. I’m planning to participate at the “Level 2—Pull up a seat and stay a while! (Read 3-4 books)” level. However, it’s possible I might read more. It depends on what I discover this year.

I participate in the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge pretty much every year. This year, the challenge has a new host—the Adventures of an Intrepid Reader. Historical fiction is my favorite genre of fiction. I love history, and I find reading historical fiction to be a satisfying way to learn about the past in a way that feels immediate. I am setting my goal at Victorian Reader (5 books), though it’s possible I’ll read more, which is what happened this year. For the purposes of this challenge, I’ll define any book set 20 or more years before the year of publication as “historical fiction.”

The final reading challenge is also not new to me, but I’ve never actually completed it before: the Monthly Motif Reading Challenge. It seems like each year I sort of come close, but I never manage to read all twelve books and complete each monthly motif. Hope springs eternal! We’ll see what happens this year. I do like the challenge of finding books that fit each month’s motif.

If I come across additional challenges I want to try, I’ll update this post rather than add a new one.

 

Review: Obsure, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure Read by Michael Ian Black

Obscure by Michael Ian BlackThe last episode of Michael Ian Black’s podcast Obscure (the premise of which is that Michael Ian Black reads Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure and comments on it as he goes) dropped a few weeks ago, but graduate school hasn’t left me with a lot of time. Now that I’m on break, both from graduate school and work, I have been able to catch up.

I will be honest. I read Tess of the D’Urbervilles a couple of years ago and found it so bleak that I wasn’t sure about listening to Michael Ian Black read Jude the Obscure. Hardy can be really bleak. In that respect, Jude the Obscure doesn’t disappoint. However, the communal experience of listening to this book and hearing Michael Ian Black’s reactions to what he was reading transcended the actual text itself and made for one of the most enjoyable “reads” of the year for me.

For those not familiar with the story, the protagonist Jude is born in obscurity to a family with a history of bad luck. He is raised by his aunt, who makes it clear he is nothing but a burden. He dreams of being a scholar one day, and he shows an aptitude for learning. However, he is living in Victorian England and finds it impossible to rise in the world. He winds up married young to a grasping, scheming woman, finds a brief period of happiness and love with his cousin Sue, and suffers devastating loss. The plot is typical Hardy. However, there is something moving and transcendent about Jude’s experience. Jude might be any of us. Jude is any one of us. Michael Ian Black’s reading brought home that point in a way I’m not sure I would have appreciated if I hadn’t read the book in this way.

One thing I loved about Michael Ian Black’s reading is that it started with curiosity, and he remained curious throughout the reading. He frequently brought on guests who might help illuminate issues raised by the book, and when he didn’t know a word or a reference, he looked it up. I felt like I went on a journey with him as a fellow reader. Michael Ian Black doesn’t position himself as an expert. He makes it clear he is reading and reacting to the text based on his own experiences and understandings, and that is probably what is best about Obscure. I found listening to the podcast by turns laugh-out-loud funny and poignantly sad, particularly towards the end as Michael Ian Black connects his reading of the book to losses of his own. His interpretation always struck me as spot-on and very honest.

The podcast is worth your time, and if you fall behind, it’s great for bingeing. I really, really hope that Michael Ian Black reads other books like this.

Edited to add: The novel underscored for me again, as if I need more evidence, that literature reflects the human condition. We can find ourselves in it if we take a look, and Michael Ian Black’s reading of this classic novel definitely allowed for that kind of reflection. My friend Robin writes so much more eloquently than I can about literature’s power to show us ourselves.

Rating: ★★★★★

2020 Reading Challenges

I always knew I would not meet the challenge goals I set for myself in 2019 because of graduate school. BUT. I will be done with my coursework in May, and even though I’ll still be conducting research and will begin my dissertation, I think I might just have a little bit more time to read what I want to read in 2020. I did plenty of reading. I did A LOT of reading. It was graduate school reading, though.

I enjoy participating in reading challenges because they help me define reading goals, so I have selected the following reading challenges. However, I need to be a bit more realistic this year and pare it down. I am just going to participate in four challenges.

2020 Historical Fiction Reading ChallengeI like to do the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge each year because historical fiction is my favorite genre. I will shoot for the Victorian Reader level of five books. If I have a good reading year, I may increase it, but we will see what happens. I do not know yet what I will read, but I know one of the books will be the third book in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, which is due out in March.

I am signing up for a new-to-me challenge called the Social Justice Nonfiction Challenge 2020. I had planned some reading along these lines already, and I am hoping to identify books I might not otherwise have heard about through this challenge.

Social Justice Challenge

I have enjoyed participating in the Monthly Motif Challenge the last couple of years, even though I haven’t finished it. It gives my reading a fun focus. I am not sure what books I will read. I kind of like playing it by ear. They have some fun motifs planned for this year.

Monthly Motif 2020

Last year was my first year participating in the Reading Women Challenge. Again, I didn’t come close to finishing, but I really like the look of their suggested list.

Reading Women Challenge

 

Review: 1919: Poems, Eve L. Ewing

Review: 1919: Poems, Eve L. Ewing1919 by Eve L. Ewing
Published by Haymarket Books ISBN: 1608465985
on June 4, 2019
Genres: Poetry
Pages: 76
Format: Paperback
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five-stars

Poetic reflections on race, class, violence, segregation, and the hidden histories that shape our divided urban landscapes.

The Chicago Race Riot of 1919, the most intense of the riots that comprised the “Red Summer” of violence across the nation’s cities, is an event that has shaped the last century but is widely unknown. In 1919, award-winning poet Eve L. Ewing explores the story of this event—which lasted eight days and resulted in thirty-eight deaths and almost 500 injuries—through poems recounting the stories of everyday people trying to survive and thrive in the city. Ewing uses speculative and Afrofuturist lenses to recast history, and illuminates the thin line between the past and the present.

I had been wanting to read 1919 for a while and finally picked it up at the Harvard Book Store recently when Steve and I went to Cambridge to hear Katherine Howe discuss her new book. Ewing weaves together passages from a report called The Negro in Chicago: A Study on Race Relations and a Race Riot (1922) with poetry inspired by the passages and photographs from the era. If you hadn’t heard about the 1919 race riot in Chicago, you are not alone. I hadn’t heard of it either, and you have to wonder how much this tragic event influenced race relations in Chicago in the decades that followed up to the present day. Did it influence redlining, for example? Redlining isn’t unique to Chicago, but it’s the city people think of when they think of redlining. What about the school system? The way in which that city can still be quite segregated, though again, it’s not alone among northern cities in that regard. The book weaves together reimagined passages from Exodus with a wide variety of poems (including haiku, haibun, two-voice poetry, and erasure poetry).

The collection includes several poems that stood out for me. “I saw Emmitt Till this week at the grocery store” imagines an Emmitt Till who survived to old age. Till would turn 78 later this month, had he lived, lest anyone think that the kind of racial violence that resulted in his murder happened a long time ago. “April 5, 1968,” an allusion to the aftermath of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, includes some gorgeous language, some of which alludes to King’s speeches. “Countless Schemes” riffs on a chilling passage from The Negro in Chicago that suggests the only solution to eliminating racial strife in the country is the elimination of African Americans, either through deportation, the establishment of a segregated state, or the hope [their word] that African Americans would die out. “Jump/Rope” evokes a jump rope chant, similar to “Miss Mary Mack” in structure and recounts the death of Eugene Williams, which sparked the 1919 riots.

1919 is an excellent poetry collection. I plan to use it as a mentor text in my Social Justice class. It gave me the idea that my students might be able to create a poetry project based on a social justice issue they research.

I’m so glad my poetry friends clued me in on Eve Ewing. Check this book out if you are interested in poetry, race relations, and racism, society, history, Chicago, or all of the above.

five-stars

Review: Born a Crime, Trevor Noah

Review: Born a Crime, Trevor NoahBorn A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
Narrator: Trevor Noah
ISBN: 1473635306
on November 15, 2016
Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
Format: Audio
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five-stars

The compelling, inspiring, (often comic) coming-of-age story of Trevor Noah, set during the twilight of apartheid and the tumultuous days of freedom that followed.

One of the comedy world's brightest new voices, Trevor Noah is a light-footed but sharp-minded observer of the absurdities of politics, race, and identity, sharing jokes and insights drawn from the wealth of experience acquired in his relatively young life. As host of the US hit show The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, he provides viewers around the globe with their nightly dose of biting satire, but here Noah turns his focus inward, giving readers a deeply personal, heartfelt and humorous look at the world that shaped him.

Noah was born a crime, son of a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother, at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison. Living proof of his parents' indiscretion, Trevor was kept mostly indoors for the first years of his life, bound by the extreme and often absurd measures his mother took to hide him from a government that could, at any moment, take him away.

A collection of eighteen personal stories, Born a Crime tells the story of a mischievous young boy growing into a restless young man as he struggles to find his place in a world where he was never supposed to exist. Born a Crime is equally the story of that young man's fearless, rebellious and fervently religious mother—a woman determined to save her son from the cycle of poverty, violence, and abuse that ultimately threatens her own life.

Whether subsisting on caterpillars for dinner during hard times, being thrown from a moving car during an attempted kidnapping, or just trying to survive the life-and-death pitfalls of dating in high school, Noah illuminates his curious world with an incisive wit and an unflinching honesty. His stories weave together to form a personal portrait of an unlikely childhood in a dangerous time, as moving and unforgettable as the very best memoirs and as funny as Noah's own hilarious stand-up. Born a Crime is a must read.

A colleague recommended that I read this book, though it had been sort of on the periphery of my radar for some time, as I enjoy Trevor Noah on The Daily Show and had heard good things about his memoir. My colleague said that listening to the audiobook was especially a treat, and my advice is that if you do read this book, do yourself a favor and let Trevor Noah read it to you. He is an incredible narrator, and hearing the memoir in his own words definitely added to my enjoyment of the book.

Trevor Noah had one heck of a childhood. He comes across as resourceful, clever, and funny, but it’s clear that he learned all of these attributes from his mother, Patricia, who emerges in many ways as the real hero of Trevor Noah’s memoir. I dare you to read this book and not cry at the very end. She is an incredibly strong woman, and Noah’s love for her shines through the entire book.

Moments of the book will have you laughing out loud, while others will make you cry. Born a Crime is a fantastic memoir, gripping and engaging from start to finish. You will definitely walk away from it with admiration for Trevor Noah’s strength… and his mother’s.

I’m counting this book for January’s motif in the Monthly Motif Challenge: New to You Author. I think this is Trevor Noah’s only book; I haven’t read anything he’s written before.

five-stars

Review: There There, Tommy Orange

Review: There There, Tommy OrangeThere There by Tommy Orange
Published by Knopf ISBN: 0525520376
on June 5, 2018
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 294
Format: Hardcover
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five-stars

Fierce, angry, funny, heartbreaking—Tommy Orange’s first novel is a wondrous and shattering portrait of an America few of us have ever seen, and it introduces a brilliant new author at the start of a major career.

There There is a relentlessly paced multigenerational story about violence and recovery, memory and identity, and the beauty and despair woven into the history of a nation and its people. It tells the story of twelve characters, each of whom have private reasons for traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow. Jacquie Red Feather is newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind in shame. Dene Oxendene is pulling his life back together after his uncle’s death and has come to work at the powwow to honor his uncle’s memory. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield has come to watch her nephew Orvil, who has taught himself traditional Indian dance through YouTube videos and has come to the powwow to dance in public for the very first time. There will be glorious communion, and a spectacle of sacred tradition and pageantry. And there will be sacrifice, and heroism, and unspeakable loss.

Here is a voice we have never heard—a voice full of poetry and rage, exploding onto the page with stunning urgency and force. Tommy Orange writes of the urban Native American, the Native American in the city, in a stunning novel that grapples with a complex and painful history, with an inheritance of beauty and profound spirituality, and with a plague of addiction, abuse, and suicide. An unforgettable debut, destined to become required reading in schools and universities across the country.

This book is a stunner. I checked into it after hearing so many teacher friends talking about it on Twitter, and I’m so glad I did. I plan to incorporate it into my curriculum for a new Social Justice in Literature and History course I will be proposing.

Not only is the language masterful, but Tommy Orange created memorable characters, connected in some ways to other characters. All their paths will converge at the Big Oakland Powwow. I haven’t quite read anything like it from a Native American writer, in part because Orange focuses on the “urban Indian.” I learned quite a few things I didn’t know from this book as well. For example, I had no idea Native Americans “occupied” Alcatraz in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The book raises many issues worthy of discussion, from the treatment of Native Americans in the United States, to spousal abuse, to child neglect, to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, to the importance of storytelling, to recapturing lost culture, to OCD. Yet, it never feels like a novel stacking as many issues as society confronts as it can all at once. It just feels like it’s telling it like it is.

By the end, I was invested in the characters and hoped they might each find some closure. It’s a beautiful, poignant novel, and if I hadn’t read Homegoing this year, it would run away with the title of the best book of the year for me. As it is, it’s a tough call. I might have to have two favorites.

I am calling it a wrap on the Monthly Motif Challenge for 2018 and electing to classify this as a repeat of the “Diversify Your Reading” theme from January. I never did a Vacation Read in July. Perhaps I’ll try to squeeze that last book in during my winter break.

five-stars

2019 Reading Challenges

I always like to participate in reading challenges because it gives me a focus for my reading. I am planning on doing the following reading challenges in 2019, even though I’m in graduate school.

I enjoyed the Monthly Motif Reading Challenge this year. I don’t think I’ll complete it. I was stumped about what to read for a “Vacation Read” in the summer, so I never did that one. However, I think the motifs for 2019 look interesting, and I’ll give this challenge another whirl. I will try to do the challenge book each month. I am also going to try to do a bit better about reviewing each of the books I read and posting them to the challenge linkup pages. If I commit to completing the challenge, it means reading 12 books that fit the various monthly motifs.

I like to do the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge pretty much every year. Historical Fiction is my favorite genre. I think I’ll go easy this year, though, and just try for the 20th Century Reader level of two books. I am also trying to branch out and try other kinds of books, so it might be good for me to stretch beyond historical fiction.

I also want to try the Reading Women Challenge. I like the fact that this challenge is open-ended. Though there are 24 categories with two bonuses, the goal of the challenge is really just to read as many women as possible. I am going to shoot for completing 12 of the categories, but I’m not sure right now which ones. A lot of them look like fun to me! If I were not in grad school right now, I might try finishing the challenge with 24 books and the bonuses, but I think it might be a bit much for me.

I didn’t do so well last time I tried backlist challenges, but I think that’s because I was doing two of them at the same time. This time, I’m just going to do one. I like the Beat the Backlist Challenge because it has lots of prompts and a Hogwarts House challenge, too. I’m all about that! I’m, of course, competing for Ravenclaw. I think I’ll try to read one book from my backlist for each month, so I’m shooting for 12 books.

That’s it for right now. I’m sure other challenges will catch my eye between now and January 1, and I’ll update this post once I find out about new ones. I usually try to do the R. I. P. Challenge, though I kind of think it’s lost its heart now that Carl isn’t doing it anymore. He was so enthusiastic about it.

I will be creating my challenge progress page in the new year. I’m hoping to find a bit more of a writing rhythm. I lost my balance when I started my doctoral program. Even though I have mostly been able to keep up with my reading, I was not able to keep up with reviewing what I had read. I am not sure how many books I want to commit to reading next year.

Review: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Michelle McNamara

Review: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Michelle McNamaraI'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara, Gillian Flynn, Patton Oswalt
Published by Harper ISBN: 0062319787
on February 27, 2018
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 328
Format: Hardcover
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four-stars

A masterful true crime account of the Golden State Killer—the elusive serial rapist turned murderer who terrorized California for over a decade—from Michelle McNamara, the gifted journalist who died tragically while investigating the case.

"You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark."

For more than ten years, a mysterious and violent predator committed fifty sexual assaults in Northern California before moving south, where he perpetrated ten sadistic murders. Then he disappeared, eluding capture by multiple police forces and some of the best detectives in the area.

Three decades later, Michelle McNamara, a true crime journalist who created the popular website TrueCrimeDiary.com, was determined to find the violent psychopath she called "the Golden State Killer." McNamara pored over police reports, interviewed victims, and embedded herself in the online communities that were as obsessed with the case as she was.

At the time of the crimes, the Golden State Killer was between the ages of eighteen and thirty, Caucasian, and athletic—capable of vaulting tall fences. He always wore a mask. After choosing a victim—he favored suburban couples—he often entered their home when no one was there, studying family pictures, mastering the layout. He attacked while they slept, using a flashlight to awaken and blind them. Though they could not recognize him, his victims recalled his voice: a guttural whisper through clenched teeth, abrupt and threatening.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark—the masterpiece McNamara was writing at the time of her sudden death—offers an atmospheric snapshot of a moment in American history and a chilling account of a criminal mastermind and the wreckage he left behind. It is also a portrait of a woman’s obsession and her unflagging pursuit of the truth. Framed by an introduction by Gillian Flynn and an afterword by her husband, Patton Oswalt, the book was completed by McNamara's lead researcher and a close colleague. Utterly original and compelling, it is destined to become a true crime classic—and may at last unmask the Golden State Killer.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is not the kind of book I would normally read, but I picked it up for several reasons: 1) my husband said it was good*; 2) this month’s Monthly Motif Challenge is “Crack the Case: Mysteries, True Crime, Who Dunnit’s,” so reading it offered and opportunity to keep my streak going with that challenge; 3) I was curious because the elusive Golden State Killer (as Michelle named him) has recently been found through DNA technology—40 years after he committed his first rapes; and 4) my husband and I went to Boston to see Michelle’s widower, Patton Oswalt, talk about this book and his wife’s work (this was before the killer had been apprehended), and his discussion of both the book and Michelle’s work intrigued me.

One of the things I appreciated the most about this book was Michelle’s own story—she explains where her fascination for crime came from and also describes her methodical detective work. Stephen King, who blurbs the book on the back cover put it this way: “What readers need to know—what makes this book so special—is that it deals with two obsessions, one light and one dark. The Golden State Killer is the dark half; Michelle McNamara’s is the light half. It’s a journey into two minds, one sick and disordered, the other intelligent and determined.”

I have a hard time with the concept of dwelling too much in the darkest recesses of the human psyche. I have occasionally watched and read true crime (hard not to when you are married to Steve Huff*), but by and large, I find it hard to inhabit that world. I vividly recall having a difficult time coping with it when my husband was researching a horrific child killer named Joseph Edward Duncan about a decade ago. I knew too many details about his crimes that I didn’t want to know, and as much as I admire my husband’s writing and his brain, I found it hard to continue to read his writing in this area. I don’t think he blames me for that.

One thing I think Michelle does really well is walk a fine line between giving necessary information while avoiding lurid details. Not to say you won’t be creeped out if you read this, and fair warning: true crime writers inevitably have to share some of the details. I am really glad I read it knowing that the Golden State Killer had been caught. My husband was out of town this weekend while I was reading the book, and I was having trouble sleeping a couple of nights in a row after we went to a U2 concert—I guess I was keyed up still—and the cat made a noise, and I nearly jumped out of my skin before remembering the guy was in jail and I live on the third floor anyway. He’s not likely to be creeping in my window. I could relate to Michelle’s story of nearly braining her husband with a lamp when he startled her awake one night. She said, and this line stood out to me, “There is a permanent scream lodged in my throat.” That sentence fascinates me because even after reading the book and understanding how she was really interested in getting to the bottom of mysteries, it is terrifying work. I can’t understand engaging in work that puts you in that position when you don’t have to be. My husband and I were talking about it, and he tried to explain it, and I guess it’s never something I will understand.

I was also fascinated to learn how much Michelle was able to coax law enforcement to share with her. I told my husband that if I were a cop, I am not too sure I’d want to work with any armchair detectives, but he says he thinks it depends on the cop, and also, many are grateful for any help they can get on cold cases and recognize that sometimes, people outside the situation connect dots that law enforcement doesn’t. For instance, my husband was one of the first people to find suspects’ social media accounts at a time when it seemed like law enforcement didn’t know how to do it.

Michelle accurately guessed that the Golden State Killer would eventually be found using DNA. With 12 (possibly 13) murders and over 50 rapes, the GSK left behind a lot of DNA, and he had some rare genetic markers in his profile. Michelle also posits in the book that he may have been in the Air Force (he had been in the Navy) and possibly even a police officer. He was (the frickin’ creep—in Auburn, CA, a suburb of Sacramento). He was actually fired as a police officer after shoplifting dog repellent and a hammer. Michelle was also correct that the GSK was also the criminal known as the Visalia Ransacker, who broke into homes in Visalia, CA and basically moved things around, stole things, and probably killed Claude Snelling, who caught the Ransacker attempting to rape his daughter. Michelle also guessed that he lived pretty close to where he was eventually found: Citrus Heights, CA. Most chillingly, Michelle accurately guessed the way it would go down.

You’ll hear footsteps coming up your front walk…

The doorbell rings.

No side gates are left open. You’re long past leaping over a fence. Take one of your hyper, gulping breaths. Clench your teeth. Inch timidly toward the insistent bell.

This is how it ends for you.

“You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark, you threatened a victim once.

Open the door. Show us your face.

Walk into the light.

Reports say that the Golden State Killer was shocked when he was finally caught. I believe the timing of the book’s release and the GSK’s capture in the same year—within months—is no coincidence. Michelle’s writing about the case brought renewed attention to unmasking criminal behind the decades-old cold cases. For all I know, Michelle shared some of her ideas with law enforcement, who then acted upon them. She may be the real-life Sherlock Holmes, solving the mystery and allowing Lestrade and Scotland Yard to take the credit. Obviously, this is just conjecture on my part, and the folks in a position to say probably never will. That’s way it works.

Michelle died in her sleep on April 21, 2016. She hadn’t finished this book yet when she passed away, but her husband was determined that it be finished. It appeared in print a scant few months before the Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo, was finally unmasked. His DNA matched that of a distant cousin who uploaded DNA to GEDMatch, and a forensic genealogist pieced together his family tree. To be sure they had the right guy, police swabbed DeAngelo’s car door handle while he shopped in a Hobby Lobby store and swabbed a tissue from his trash to confirm the match. DNA doesn’t lie. It’s potentially problematic from a fourth amendment point of view that we can now conduct these kinds of investigations, but I can’t deny I feel good they caught this particular guy. It’s chilling to think he was probably within a decade or so of getting away with a rape and murder spree that’s truly horrifying. I am glad his surviving victims will have that closure and that he will have to pay in some measure for the crimes he has committed.

This book might interest other folks, like me, who are not invested in true crime, but folks who like reading about true crime will probably really like this book. Michelle is a good writer in an oeuvre in which good writing is regrettably rare. You can still read her blog, True Crime Diary. You can hear Michelle and Steve talking true crime here if you like. You can read a guest post he wrote for Michelle’s blog here, or this one about JonBenet Ramsey.

*Full disclosure: my husband writes often about true crime and knew this book’s author, Michelle McNamara. They never met in person, but I know they frequently corresponded and that they read each other’s work. That said, I never knew her or spoke with her. However, I couldn’t stop myself from using her first name throughout this review, something I avoid doing when I write about authors, because that’s who she is around this house—just Michelle.

 

four-stars