Monday, August 24, 2015

Book Review: We Are Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

The last book of summer.

I wasn't sure what it would be. I've had an enjoyable summer of reading, perhaps my most prolific ever: After I'm Gone by Laura Lippman, Everything I've Never Told You by Celeste Ng, Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple, Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, Between the World and Me by Tanehisi Coates, The Other Wes Moore, Paper Towns by John Green. 8 books in 10 weeks isn't a bad number for me, especially considering I worked for most of the summer.

For the last book, I thought about Toni Morrison's God Help the Child, but the mediocre reviews and sort of dull start made me less excited about it. A friend recommended All the Light We Cannot See, but I started it and found it to be trying a little too hard, and didn't think I had time to finish such an epic anyway. Finally, I was watching the superb third season of Orange Is the New Black, and noticed the prominent placement of We Are Completely Beside Ourselves in a compelling scene between Red and Piper:

I did a little bit of research about the book, and without knowing too much, I decided to download it and read it on my Kindle. All I knew from reviews was that this novel details an unusual family, but the narrative hooked me very quickly. It begins in the middle of things, in 1996, when the narrator, Rosemary, is in college; I was also in college in 1996, so immediately recognized some of the cultural allusions the author, Karen Joy Fowler, was including. We soon learn that she is attending college far from her home of Indiana, and both of her siblings have left her parents and haven't been heard from in years. These facts are mentioned in passing, but we don't learn the backstory about this until about 25% through the book, when a twist I did not see coming kind of floored me. The last three-quarters of the novel deal with this "twist" and its repercussions, through compelling flashbacks and scenes that are both smart and poignant.

Fowler is interested in memory here, as well as behavior, both human and animal. And the book is really smart. An idea from a passage very early in the novel: "I don't remember the house so well as the barn, and remember the barn less than the creek, and the creek less than an apple tree my brother and sister would climb to get into or out of their bedrooms. I couldn't climb up, because I couldn't reach the first branch from the bottom, so about the time I turned four, I went upstairs and climbed down the tree instead. I broke my collarbone and you could have killed yourself, my mother said, which would have been true if I'd fallen from the upstairs. But I made it almost the whole way down, which no one seemed to notice. What have you learned? my father asked, and I didn't have the words then, but, in retrospect, the lesson seemed to be what you accomplish will never matter so much as where you fail" is circled about throughout the novel and again at its moving conclusion. 

This is a novel that is hard to discuss without giving away the important plot point that occurs a quarter of the way through the book, and I wouldn't want anyone to not have that experience of that shock. But I'll say this: I though Fowler's integration of flashbacks was sometimes awkward and parts dragged a little bit in the middle. I wanted a little bit more resolution to the character of Harlow. But this is a unique and engaging read, funny and moving in all the right ways. The characters all are flawed but earnest; they really care for each other but not always in the right way. I loved the book.

As for its placement in Orange Is the New Black, I can see many connections between the text and that great 3rd season, from the obvious (cages, sisterhood, family) to more thematic (search for meaning, what freedom means, spirituality). Nice placement, Jenji Kohan!  

And, now onto the school year. First day for teachers is tomorrow. A nasty bout of food poisoning prevented me from going in today to set up my classroom, but I think I'll be okay tomorrow.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Raising Money to Attend NCTE

Three colleagues and I are planning on attending the National Conference of the Teachers of English this November in Minneapolis.

The four of us have been accepted to speak about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, an author we teach in both the 9th grade (The Thing Around Your Neck) and the 12th grade (Americanah) at our school; indeed, she's probably the author, other than Shakespeare, who we teach the most, and we've been excited by how students have responded to her work.

Our school system laid off a bunch of people last year because of budgetary concerns, and our school similarly doesn't have extra funds for teachers to attend conferences and give presentations. That's something that richer school districts or private schools have, and that's how most English teachers are able to attend these conferences.

For the four of us, the total cost of attending for each teacher is roughly $1500 each, including the flight from Baltimore to Minnesota, the conference fee, and the hotel room. We're trying to raise enough to cover at least a chunk of the airfare and conference fees. All not raised will be provided out of pocket; this is a passion project and we're excited to present our ideas for teaching Adichie to teachers from around the world. At the same time, we'll be learning ourselves throughout the entire conference, as we attend sessions from other English teachers, so we can bring fresh ideas about curriculum, assessment, and teaching to Baltimore.

Read the entire proposal here -- -- and give if you see fit. We definitely will appreciate it.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

96 Hours of Summer Left, and I'm Almost Ready (but not quite)

Baltimore City Public School teachers return to work on Tuesday, August 25th, but many of my colleagues have been back in the building already, setting up their classrooms. I haven't yet. I just haven't felt ready. This summer has been a whirlwind, working a pretty intense but rewarding summer job, then running a Folger Shakespeare workshop for Baltimore City teachers, and finally visiting family in southwest Michigan in a week that was as beautiful as it was exhausting. In addition, my personal life has felt very full: we bought a new house, getting a rental property to manage in the process, plus got a new puppy, a new couch, and a new car. Life and love and productivity have been happening, plus some really good books: overall, certainly a gratifying if hectic summer.

However, what I haven't had this summer is the season of reflection and thinking about my classroom, students, and curriculum that often forms a backdrop to this season for me, that important time where perspective, renewal, and growth happen.  But this summer, more than any other summer, it feels like I just haven't stopped and thought or reflected much. Yet, there's much to think about with this upcoming school year. Last year, our school began working with Standards-Based Grading (this is a decent little overview of what Standards-Based Grading is) for the 9th and 10th grades. Largely, I liked the concept of this: it makes grading more about the learning than the management of students, and eliminates a lot of the swells of paperwork -- the homework, the classworks. We still did that stuff, but it was dubbed formative, and was a very minor part of the grade.

This upcoming year, that "very minor part" has been eliminated, and all grades will be based on no more than 4 summative assessments per quarter. My English classes have roughly 8 units each, spread not-quite-evenly across the four quarters, so that means students' grades will be determined by how much learning is demonstrated on an average of two summative assessments per unit. 16 counted summative grades for the year, at a maximum. My colleague wrote an op-ed for City Paper last week that touched on, a bit, of what that means for instruction: it means the total elimination of graded handouts as a way of classroom management, and necessitates the teacher letting the kids engage in more authentic, less structured, activities. I'm all about this and have been trying to do this for years; indeed, the way I've grown most as a teacher is this giving up of control in favor of authentic exploring, discussion, and experimentation.

However, connecting this philosophy to assessment, of a maximum of 4 counted grades per quarter, will be an even bigger paradigm shift. There will still be formative assessments that set up and support these summative assessments, but motivating the students to do them, or do them for more than just completion, when they're not actually being counted for grades, will be a challenge. It always was a challenge, but eliminating the external motivator of grades would seem to make it more so.

There's also the fact that a major tenet of Standards-Based grading is that students are allowed several, even infinite, opportunities to reach whatever standard they want to go for. It's about growth and rigor, which of course I like. But I'll be teaching over 150 students next year, and the idea of constant revisions for each student seems daunting. And there's also part of me that worries about the lack of late penalties in standards-based grading practices. I worry about students' preparation for college, which require students to adhere to strict deadlines. I do believe our school will have some policies in place to inspire kids to meet their deadlines or turn in assessments if they're not turned in (say, before doing extracurricular activities), but it's going to be another shift that will have implementation challenges.

Overall, though, I'm excited. My colleague came over last night and we mapped out our 16 assessments for our year of IB English, and, mostly because I think we were basically doing it anyway, at least with those major assessments, it felt natural and college-like to boil down our course to the major assessments for each unit. The year is pretty well set and I feel good about what international standards we'll be holding the students to, and our assessments are authentic. I'm convinced that the students will be well-served by these shifts.

And It feels good to be part of a school willing to re-think things like assessment; as a teacher who never really cared for grades anyway, I feel policies surrounding grades and assessment were ripe for revision. But mixed in with the excitement is trepidation, too. I worry about teaching kids about deadlines and responsibility. I worry about grade inflation. I worry about kids not feeling motivated to do the reading because reading quizzes will no longer count for grades. I worry about kids who haven't developed the intrinsic motivation necessary to stay on task with assignments that aren't necessarily graded for a grade.

But mostly I'm excited, excited about the possibilities of working towards standards and the authenticity in assessment it hopefully will provide our students.

But it'll be very different, and change can be hard. And all of these thoughts about standards-based assessment intentionally spent much of the summer jumbled back in the corner of my mind, obscured by busy-ness and the 3rd season of Orange is the New Black and novels and nephews and a puppy. Now, though, it's time to make sense of it all in my head, for laying it all out in my head and on google docs for the three courses that I teach.

Over the next 96 hours or so of the summer, I'll make some time in my classroom, but, more importantly, in my mind, laying out what all this all means for my courses. But also puppy time. Because all of this is hard to think about, and our new puppy is really cute, and I still have four days of summer left.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Required Listening for Educators: The Problem We All Live With on This American Life

The past couple of weeks, This American Life has aired episodes dealing with a topic that we don't often discuss with correcting achievement gaps in education: desegregation. As the program makes important note of, desegregation has been the only consistently successful way that the achievement gap has been combatted in this country, but as Jonathan Kozol and others have argued, schools today are segregated as much as they were during the 1950s and 1960s.

The episodes center largely on the reporting of Nicole Hannah-Jones, a Black Civil Rights reporter and activist who became fascinated by Michael Brown's mother's statement, after his death, about how hard it was to get Michael to graduate from high school. She found this a somewhat strange declaration to make after his son's body was filled with bullets and left lying on the concrete for four hours, that she would make a statement about him graduating from high school, and went about investigating why Brown's school district, Normandy Public Schools, was so unsuccessful. This led her to a strange and tragic story about how the school district, and a neighboring one, found themselves in an accidental desegregation program for one year, where many poor Black kids are bussed into a successful, mostly white high school, before a bitter and ridiculous twist of language shuts it down and sends all the poor Black kids back to their non-performing school. The episode is maddening -- particularly during the town-hall meeting comments, which made me want to cry -- but thought-provoking, exposing an issue that we don't really ever discuss regarding education anymore, as desegregation programs in big cities such as Boston have led to white flight and racial tension -- though they've also worked for eliminating achievement gaps. Here is a print article about this school district that Hannah-Jones wrote:

The second episode involves another desegregation program, but the other direction, and not accidental: a Hartford, CT, school district that has a bunch of great magnet schools and continually tries to attract white suburban parents to attend them so that the schools receive incentive funding. The results are that the schools get better funding and higher achievement, and the white kids are exposed to a more diverse world, the type they'll have to encounter in life. The episode takes some jabs at Race to the Top, which ignores the idea of desegregation -- again, the only consistently successful achievement gap eliminator we have seen over decades of American public education -- and Hannah-Jones' smart inquisition into the topic is revelatory.

Listen to the first episode here: (Episode 562 of This American Life)

Listen to Part II here: (Episode 563 of This American Life)

I teach in a Baltimore City school that, over the last ten years, has gone from over 90 percent African American to, last year, 80 percent African American, with 11 percent White, 5 percent Latino, and 4 percent Asian or other races. I believe our school provides excellent education for all of these students. I listened to the program with great interest, especially towards the end of the second one, when Hartford Public Schools is listed as a program of successful desegregation when Baltimore is specifically listed as a school district that has not done anything to close the achievement gap in this way. I think we have, at least at our school, but there is plenty of work to be done, both in Baltimore City Public Schools and our own school, but the program was fascinating nonetheless.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Book Review: After I'm Gone by Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman is probably Baltimore's most prominent writer, producing her brand of highly-regarded mystery novels on an almost annual basis and regularly appearing on the New York Times Best Seller list while being honored with the Edgar Award, the Agatha Award, and many others. Her work feels universal, as evidenced by her national awards and appearances on national best-selling lists, but is also heavily steeped in Baltimore and its diverse neighborhoods and traditions; she is married to The Wire creator David Simon, has an active Facebook and consistently interacts with her fans, who sometimes can find her writing at Spoons Cafe in Federal Hill (I read that years ago, no idea if it's true anymore). The new tidbit that I learned from reading the Author's Note of this book? That John Waters performed her and David Simon's wedding. Doesn't get much more famous Baltimore than that.

So, over the last few years, I've tried to read a Laura Lippman novel every summer; one of the thrills of reading these books is getting to see characters interact in neighborhoods and areas that I know, and this book was no exception: a body is found in Leakin Park, another character lives on Boston Street, another graduated from Forest Park High School and others from Park School, and, most amusingly for me, a minor character is a teacher at Baltimore City College, where I teach.

In addition to the locations, Lippman is reliable for her compelling characters and twists I never see coming. I don't know if I'll ever catch up with her catalogue, but, at this point, I've read about half a dozen of her books, and a couple of those -- particularly What the Dead Know (2007) and I'd Know You Anywhere (2010) -- reminded me why well-written mysteries are what really made me love reading in the first place in my youth, as I burned through all my local library's copies of every Agatha Christie and Lois Duncan book growing up and, really, these are the types of books hooked me into what became my life's work as an English teacher. Lippman reawakened this love for mystery novels for me as an adult, and I thank her for that.

After I'm Gone (2014) is, like the two I highlighted above, a stand-alone Lippman novel, which I generally gravitate toward. It's Lippman's first novel that is based on a real case, at least in part; in her "Author's Note," Lippman explains that her husband urged her to base a novel off of the disappearance of Julian Salsbury, a "nice suburban Jewish family man who happens to run a large gambling enterprise and a burlesque house (who) goes on the lam." Initially, Lippman explains, it didn't interest her that much, but after hearing that Salsbury left behind a wife, a mistress, and three daughters, that became the setup for the plot of After I'm Gone.

Julian Salsbury transforms into the fictional Felix Brewer in the novel, and he disappears early in the novel in 1976. Ten years later, his mistress, Julie Saxony, turns up dead. The novel moves back and forth in time between the genesis of the Brewer family -- Felix meets his wife, Bambi, after she leaves Bryn Mawr college after a semester in 1959, and they have three kids -- to 2012, where retired Detective Sandy Sanchez has been working on a grant to clear cold cases from the dusty Baltimore Homicide files.

Felix, the title character, is gone after just a few pages in the novel, and even his flashbacks dry up fairly quickly. This is a novel about those left behind, and Lippman manages to draw each of them skillfully: the beautiful wife Bambi, who ignored Felix's cheating and tried to hide that she is broke after his departure; the murder victim Julie, who end up with more layers than we ever would have thought early on; the three daughters, each very different, especially late in the novel, as the two older daughters' distinctive personalities begin to emerge (I admit early on, these two characters were conflating for me). As readers, we live with this family for the duration of the novel, and really begin to root for them, and, at least for me, hoped none of them is responsible for the murder (because Lippman manages to make the stripper mistress sympathetic).

Searching for the killer in 2012 is Sandy Sanchez, who could have been a typical cliched rumpled detective, but Lippman gives him backstories that bestow him with plenty of pathos: he's a failed restauranteur, kind of a failed father, a recent widower (I loved hearing about his late wife), and, by the end of the novel, has kind of a cute crush on one of the major characters he's investigating. We even get to hear some about his childhood as a Cuban immigrant orphan living in Remington. I wanted to get to know him better, which is why I'm excited to hear he appeared in Lippman's next novel.

The result of these great characters and Lippman's deft handling of shifting time is a very satisfying read, surprising and moving by its conclusion, when we discover not only the murderer but also what happened to Felix Brewer. At this point, I got the sense, like I do in many of Lippman's books, that she's really interested not only in keeping her readers on the edge of their seats and turning the pages, but also in the human condition, in those grand timeless themes. What is the value of a life lived without struggle and without family? Can we make a life based upon memories? Can we love two people at once? An F. Scott Fitzgerald quote about the test of a first-class mind holding two conflicting ideas in your head without going nuts is alluded to three times in the novel, and I was left with this idea at the end of the novel, too: is this a first rate mind, or a recipe for loneliness? Bravo to Lippman for not only entertaining me for a few hundred pages, but making me think a bit too.

Postscript on Baltimore references I especially enjoyed:

"Rachel's gift was a selection of onesies that were a little offbeat--she had designed them herself. There was POOH HAPPENS (against the backdrop of a familiar bear shape, she didn't dare use more for fear of copyright infringement); BREWER'S ART, a tip to the family, but also a restaurant on which Michelle doted..." (242) [I freaking love Brewer's Art.]

"And her being on-call didn't upset the family's various child-care arrangements because Henry had left his public defender's job a few years ago and was now teaching science at City College, one of Baltimore's best high schools. His newfound professional contentment was like the little wood stove in the corner of their great room--it didn't really contribute much to the bottom line, but it made everyone feel a little cozier" (169). [Nice shoutout for my school by Lippman. Ms. Lippman, if you ever read this, we'd so love to have you come to City sometime. We've tried contacting your publisher but the publisher's price is way more than we can afford. But we'd love to have all our kids read one of your books for a One City, One Book event sometime.)

"People in urban areas couldn't believe how long a body could go undetected, but it happened all the time. Leakin Park was twelve hundred acres, much of it heavily wooded, and it wasn't legal to hunt there, so the odds of people walking through the rough, overgrown areas was pretty remote. The city had created a trail that, theoretically, could be followed all the way into the heart of downtown if one was willing to hike or bike through some sketchy areas, but that was on the other side of a stream from where the body was discovered" (35). [Any Baltimore resident knows that this is an area where many murder victims are found every year, or any listener of the Serial podcast: this is my most viewed entry ever, my tour of it last year: here it is]

Postscript on Race: So far in my somewhat limited reading (about half of her books) of her catalogue, Lippman novels occupy a space that John Waters and Barry Levinson movies also occupy: a space where Baltimore is mostly white. And, while that's not accurate for Baltimore overall, it is accurate to say that much of Baltimore is segregated, so it makes sense that these novels and movies would exist in this world where Black and white characters don't really interact all that much (this is not my Baltimore, as I've always lived in mixed-race East Baltimore neighborhoods, but the rich northwest neighborhoods Lippman writes about here aren't that).

I do think it might be interesting to someday study race in Lippman's novels, to see what comes of it; How many of her characters are Black when her books take place in a majority-Black city? I don't know how often Lippman addresses race in her books, but I don't remember it in any of the other ones I've read. But When I'm Gone brings us this interesting paragraph: "Rachel Brewer lived maybe a mile, as the crow flies, from where Bambi Brewer had grown up, but a crow would cover a lot of distance in that mile between the once-grand homes of Forest Park and the modest brick row houses of Purnell Drive. Sandy found it interesting that she was the kind of person who didn't mind being int he minority. Hard to know, but he would guess that this stretch of houses was mostly African American. Middle-class, solid citizens, but it isn't a situation that most white people he knew sought out. Not that Sandy could ever decide if he was white. Sure, he looked white and Cubanos were technically Caucaisan, but did that make him white? Coming up, before there were so many Latinos in Baltimore, the world had basically been black-white-Asian, and Sandy was white. But now, although he had not changes, he would be called 'Latino,' a word that meant nothing to him" (287).

Note from Ms. Lippman: "I have written about race in Butchers Hill, Life Sentences, No Good Deeds, Every Secret Thing . . . Both Butchers Hill and No Good Deeds consider how 'invisible' the deaths of young African-Americans can be in Baltimore, while Life Sentences considers what happens when a white woman appropriates pieces of black stories, without any real understanding of what they really mean." Thanks for responding, for clarifying some of my wondering and giving me some of my next titles to consider reading! 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Book Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

I've read more this summer than I ever have, I think. Some of this is a function of the necessity of reading, because I'm teaching the books for the first time (Paper Towns, The Other Wes Moore), for others, it was the necessity to read it because the writers had changed my life in previous works and I wanted to be part of the current cultural conversation regarding them (Go Set a Watchman, Between the World and Me). With Everything I Never Told You, though, it was a different necessity that propelled me through the book in a very short time: the fact that this was the best novel I've read in ages, incredibly poignant with wounded characters for whom I just ached.

The novel begins with the sentences, "Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet," and, not knowing anything about the book before I picked it up and started reading it, thought it would be a flashy and well-done murder mystery, much like Gone Girl. But this wasn't the case. There is mystery throughout the novel, but only a little bit of the whodunit variety; most of the mystery involves the secrets that people keep from each other, especially family secrets. This is a family that is well-meaning and loves each other, but hurts each other repeatedly and profoundly, and every relationship is shrouded in reticence.

The family is also mixed race, with an Asian-American father, a white mother, and three mixed-race kids, and it takes place in a small college town in Ohio in the mid- to late-1970s. This creates several other conflicts and themes of the novel, about racial isolation and the struggle for acceptance because of race and gender. The giving of the book How to Win Friends and Influence People as a gift serves as an important symbol; so does an old Betty Crocker cookbook that had me looking up if she was a real person (answer: she wasn't; an actress played her).

The result, told mostly in flashback, is profoundly moving portrait of a family in grief, both before and after, as each character's thread is unveiled in moving and surprising ways. The omniscient narration weaves seamlessly from character to character, and, by the end, we have been frustrated, and stirred by each member of this family, and we feel for them all.

And it's Ng's language -- pristine, lyrical, affecting -- that kept me entranced, that put tears in my eyes and chokes into my throat as I read it for hour chunks on the elliptical machine at the gym. I typed out a couple of the many passages that I bookmarked to try and give you a picture; in the first, the omniscient narration is focused on James, the father; in the second, it is on Lydia, the oldest daughter of the family.

"The first afternoon they'd spent together, in his tiny whitewashed studio apartment, he marveled at how her body fit so perfectly against his: her nose nestled exactly into the hollow between his collarbones; her cheek curved to match the side of his neck. As if they were two halves of a mold. He had studied her with the air of a sculptor, tracing the contours of her hips and calves, his fingertips grazing her skin. When they made love, her hair came alive. It darkened from golden-wheat to amber. It kinked and curled like a fiddlehead fern. It amazed him that he could have such an effect on anyone. As she dozed in his arms, her hair slowly relaxed, and when she woke, it had stretched back to its usual waves. Then her easy laugh sparkled in that white, bare room; as she chattered, breathless, her hands fluttered until he caught them in his and they lay warm and still, like resting birds, and then she pulled him to her again. It was as if America herself was taking him in."

"Sometimes you almost forgot: that you didn't look like everyone else. In homeroom or at the drugstore or at the supermarket, you listened to morning announcements or dropped off a roll of film or picked out a carton of eggs and felt like just another someone in the crowd. Sometimes you didn't think about it at all. And then sometimes you noticed the girl across the aisle watching, the pharmacist watching, the checkout boy watching, and you saw yourself reflected in their stares: incongruous. Catching the eye like a hook. Everytime you saw yourself from the outside, the way other people saw you, you remembered all over again. You saw it in the sign at the Peking Express--a cartoon man with a coolie hat, slant eyes, buckteeth, and chopsticks. You saw it in the little boys on the playground, stretching their eyes to slits with their fingers--Chinese--Japanese--look at these--and in the older boys who muttered ching chong ching chong ching as they passed you on the street, just loud enough for you to hear. You saw it when waitresses and policemen and bus drivers spoke slowly to you, in simple words, as if you might not understand. You saw it in photos, yours the only black head of hair in the scene, as if you'd been cut out and pasted in."

This is an very good novel, one of the best I've read in years, reminding me in goods ways of Myla Goldberg's Bee Season in its concentration on the internal dynamics and private thoughts of all members of a family. Everything I Never Told You is much sadder than that novel, though, just terrifically gut-wrenching at times, but I feel really lucky to have spent 300 pages with Ng and this family.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Movie/TV Diary: Summer 2015

Dexter: If you had asked me five or six years ago, I would have told you that Dexter was one of the greatest TV series of all time. Seasons 1-4 were superb, hitting a climax of creativity in Seasons 3 and 4, buoyed by guest stars Jimmy Smits and John Lithgow. The show was unique, funny, and often moving, and its star Michael C. Hall as the blood analyst for Miami metro, as well as a serial killer with a "code" only to murder other killers who the law can't reach, was one of the best actors on television. I loved the rest of the underrated (never nominated for Emmies) cast, too: Jennifer Carpenter, as Debra, had to be one of the most interesting female police officers ever portrayed on television, and Carpenter's performance, with all its cursing and tics, really stood out. The diverse rest of the cast, especially Lauren Velez as Captain LaGuerta and David Zayas as Detective Bautista, were also stellar; has a television show ever made such strong use of a Latino cast? So, as aforementioned, the first four seasons are superb, but, with the death of Rita and the emergence of Harrison as an important figure in Dexter's life, the show's credibility strained more than usual. Season 5, with Julia Stiles, was pretty good still, but Season 6 rested on the unable shoulders of Colin Hanks, and that season was pretty bad. As the last two seasons brought the series to a close, and (spoiler) Deb discovers Dexter's secret, I felt like both she and Dexter began acting pretty stupidly, against character, and, while I couldn't stop watching because I cared about the characters too much, I was saddened by the last moments of the series; I think a more intriguing ending to the series may have been Deb shooting Dexter instead of Laguerta at the end of Season 7. Still, the ending, as it was, leaves open the possibility of a movie at some point, which would be pretty cool.

So, as it is, I think Dexter probably will remain in my Top-15 or -20 series of all time, but not in the Top-5. Those first four seasons were enough, and the lows of Seasons 6-8 can't diminish that too much. Also, by the way: best opening credits of a TV show, ever?

Nightcrawler: Woah this movie is awesome, nearly flawless, certainly one of the best of 2014. It's a thriller with really great acting (a creepy thin Jake Gyllenhall has never been better) and horrifically satirizes modern culture's lust for blood in its news. It's dark -- both literally and figuratively -- but bustles with energy and noir-ish moodiness. First-time director (at age 56) Dan Gilroy, who also wrote the script and is the husband of co-star Rene Russo, is one to watch. Available on Netflix.

Dope: Directed by Nigerian-American Rick Famuyiwa, this is another film that is just full of life and insight. I laughed out loud many times, and was in tears by the end, as star Shameik Moore's winsome performance and the big-hearted script -- which hooked me within the first five minutes -- culminated in a rousing finale. The film is not flawless (the voiceover narration seems extraneous, for example), but I disagree with other reviews that says it gets too much on its soapbox at the end. I found the finale to be an effective exclamation point on the end of the satire, and made the plot device of the college essay make more sense. Great film, intelligently examining race and class, with a bunch of great performances beyond Moore's (who wouldn't look out of place on a list of Oscar nominees for Best Actor), especially A$AP Rocky as a drug dealer named Dom. Go see this movie.

Spy: I'd heard that this is Melissa McCarthy's best movie yet, and I think I have to agree. I loved The Heat and liked St. Vincent, but Spy feels like the film that makes the best use of her range of talents; beyond her willingness to just go full on out in support of a laugh, there are legitimately good fight scenes, of which she's the center. The film is indeed silly and broad at times, but it's also revolutionary in a way, too, in putting a woman at the center and continually upending stereotypes; One of the funniest jokes of the movie is that Jason Statham, a smooth lone wolf spy, is also terrible. Besides Statham, Rose Byrne is so good as the villainess, kind of channeling Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, and Allison Janney and Miranda Hart round out the cast. It's not perfect (50 Cent never should have been in this movie), but this sure was fun.

Trainwreck: I've been a fan of Amy Schumer's standup for years, and it's been gratifying over the last two seasons to see her TV show, Inside Amy Schumer, become a cultural zeitgeist. This film, directed by Judd Apatow and written by Schumer herself, deftly captures her onstage persona into a film; I haven't laughed so loud at a movie since probably Bridesmaids. The funniest bit are in the first half of the film, particularly involving John Cena as a closeted gay guy Schumer's character is dating, as well as a totally unrecognizable Tilda Swinton as Schumer's boss at a trashy men's magazine. The performers have a great time playing around with their characters and the scenes are allowed to breathe, which makes for a longish running time but also hilariously awkward scenes like the first meeting between Bill Hader's hotshot sports doctor and Schumer's interviewer; in that scene, Hader, who has immediate onscreen chemistry with Schumer, calls out Schumer's soft racism in one of the film's many laugh-out loud moments. There's a significant shift in the second half of the film, when Schumer (who studied Theater at Towson University) is asked to carry some dramatic moments, which she handles quite well. A scene or two drags in that second half, but the finale, though outlandishly unbelievable, is quite enjoyable. This film is a ton of fun, a bold artistic statement by a woman who, hopefully, will be a comic force for years to come.

Jurassic World: I don't think I'll ever not go watch a Jurassic film; I grew up loving dinosaurs, thought Jurassic Park was magical, and I still even remember some striking scenes from its sequel (remember when the glass is cracking and Julianna Moore is about to fall through? Woah!). This one isn't as good as either of them, and it's got some weird tone shifts; in one moment, it ruthlessly kills comical human characters, and in other moments, it wants us to feel sympathy for brontosauruses killed by a rampant genetic mutation of a dinosaur. I enjoyed the pterodactyl scene (it reminded me of The Birds) and Chris Pratt; I didn't think the film did enough with the human drama, and the lead female character was annoyingly broad. All and all, it was a decent summertime popcorn flick, but nothing revelatory by any means.