Book Review: A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheeres (Audiobook narrated by Robin Miles)
On November 18, 1978, 918 people, mostly Americans, died on a commune named Jonestown and on a nearby airstrip in Guyana. The world came to know this event as that time that crazy cult committed mass suicide by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid. However, that belief is full of inaccuracies. Scheeres traces the origins of Jonestown, starting with its leader, Jim Jones, and his Christian church in Indiana, tracing its development into the People’s Temple in California, and then into Jonestown in Guyana. Multiple members’ life stories are traced as well, including information from their family members who, perplexed, watched their families give everything over to Jones.
I have a fascination with cults and groupthink. In spite of not being born until the 1980s, I definitely was always vaguely aware of this cult that committed suicide in the 70s, always commentated on with great disdain. I had previously read Julia Scheeres’ memoir, Jesus Land, which I found to be beautifully and thoughtfully written (review). When I saw that she had written an investigative work of nonfiction, making the truth about Jonestown more accessible, I knew I had to read it.
Scheeres possesses a great talent at presenting people and events as they are with understanding for common humanity but also disdain for atrocious acts. Scheeres excels at never turning a person into a monster, but rather exposing monstrous acts and asking how things became so messed up that something like that could happen. Scheeres clearly did painstaking research for this book, reading through the FBI’s extensive archives on the People’s Temple and Jim Jones, interviewing survivors, and interviewing family members of the deceased, not to mention reading members’ journals. The facts are presented in an engaging, storytelling, slightly non-linear way, which works excellently at drawing the reader in. The book starts on the boat to Guyana, then flashes back to the origins of Jim Jones. The members of People’s Temple are carefully presented as the well-rounded people they truly were with hopes and dreams and who made some mistakes. They are not ever presented as just a bunch of crazies. Even Jones is allowed a time as a preacher passionate for social justice before he turned into the control freak, whose paranoid delusions were exacerbated by drug addiction. Scheeres takes an event that it is far too easy to put the stamp of crazy on, and humanizes it, drawing out the gray areas. And this is all done while telling an engaging, well-written, factual story.
There are an incredible number of facts in this book, and the reader learns them while hardly even realizing it, since this work of nonfiction is so readable. Among the things I never knew, I found out that the People’s Temple originally was a Christian church that was heavily socialist and then slowly turned into its own religion as Jones pulled away from the Bible, eventually declaring himself god. When Jones was in California, he was heavily involved in politics, sponsoring people such as Harvey Milk for office, and breaking voting laws by sending his church en masse to vote in districts they didn’t live in. Jones enacted weekly corporate punishment of individual members in front of all the other members. He was bisexual, having sex with both male and female members of the People’s Temple. He became obsessed with the idea of suicide to make a statement and routinely badgered the higher members of the People’s Temple into accepting suicide if he ordered it. He even tricked them multiple times into thinking that he had given them poisoned drinks, just to see who would obey and drink it. The members came to Jonestown in Guyana expecting a utopia, since Jones had lied to them, and instead got a struggling farm on the brink of disaster, being run by a man increasingly paranoid and delusional and ever more addicted to drugs. Once members were in Jonestown, they were not allowed to leave. And many wanted to. Last, but most important, the mass suicide was not a mass suicide. It was a murder-suicide. Some of the members committed suicide willingly, but others, including over 300 children, were force-fed or injected with the poison. Those who drank it drank it mixed with Flavor-Aid, a generic knock-off brand of Kool-Aid. It astounds me how much the facts of these events from as recent as 1978 are now misremembered in the collective consciousness, especially considering the fact that documentation such as the Jonestown death tape are available for free in the public archive.
Overall, this book takes a misremembered event in recent history and exposes the facts in an incredibly readable work of nonfiction. Scheeres presents the people who died in Jonestown with empathy and understanding, seeking to tell their whole life story, rather than one moment. A fascinating look at a horrible event, and a moving reminder to never give too much power or faith to one person, and how very easy it is for groupthink to take over. Highly recommended.
5 out of 5 stars
The group of people who traveled from the future to the Pliocene past for a willful exile were split into two by the alien race, the Tanu, who, surprisingly, inhabits Earth. Half were sent to slave labor, while the others were deemed talented at mind powers, given necklace-like torcs to enhance those powers, and sent to the capital city of Muriah. In the first book, we followed the daring escape of the group sent into slavery. They then discovered that the Tanu share the Earth with the Firvulag–an alien race from their home planet that has many similarities to their own. They also organized an attack on the industrial city of Finiah. This book at first follows the adventures of the other group, the one sent to the capital city of Muriah. Through them we discover the inner workings of the Tanu, the intersections of humans and aliens, and the impact of the human/Firvulag attack on Finiah. When the time for the Great Combat between the Tanu/human subjects and the Firvulag arrives, the survivors of the escaped slave group end up coming back into contact with the group of humans in Muriah. With dire consequences.
I really enjoyed the first book in this series, finding it to be a delightful mash-up of scifi and fantasy. When I discovered my library had the next book in the series, I picked it up as quickly as possible. This entry feels more fantastical than the first, although science definitely still factors in. It is richer in action and intrigue and perhaps a bit less focused on character development.
This is a difficult book to sum up, since so very much happens. It’s an action-packed chunkster, providing the reader with information and new settings without ever feeling like an info-dump. The medieval-like flare of the Tanu and the goblin/fairie/shapeshifter qualities of the Firvulag are stronger in this entry, and it is delightful. Creating a medieval world of aliens on ancient Earth is probably the most brilliant part of the book, followed closely by the idea of torcs enhancing the brain’s abilities. May has created and weaved a complex, fascinating world that manages to also be easy enough to follow and understand. The sense of the medieval-style court is strong from the clothing, buildings, and organization of society. She doesn’t feel the need to willy-nilly invent lots of new words, which I really appreciated.
The intrigue is so complex that it is almost impossible to summarize, and yet it was easy to follow while reading it. Surprises lurk around every corner, and May is definitely not afraid to kill her darlings, following both William Faulkner’s and Stephen King’s writing advice. A lot happens in the book, the characters are tested, and enough change happens that I am excited there are still two more books, as opposed to wondering how the author could possibly tell more story. In spite of the action, sometimes the book did feel overly long, with long descriptions of vegetation and scenery far away from where most of the action was taking place.
The book is full of characters but every single one of them manages to come across as a unique person, even the ones who are not on-screen long enough to be fully three-dimensional. The cast continues to be diverse, similarly to the first book, with a variety of races, ages, and sexual preferences represented. I was surprised by the addition of a transwoman character. She is treated with a mix of acceptance and transphobia. I think, certainly for the 1980s when this was published, it is overall a progressive presentation of her. She is a doctor who is well-respected in Tanu society. However, she also is presented as a bit crazy (not because of being trans but in addition to being trans), and it is stated by one character that she runs the fertility clinic because it is the one part of being a woman that will always be out of her grasp. I am glad at her inclusion in the story but readers should be aware that some aspects of the writing of her and how other characters interact with her could be considered problematic or triggering. I would be interested to hear a transperson’s analysis of her character.
Overall, this entry in the series ramps up the action and more thoroughly investigates the world of the Pliocene Exile. Readers disappointed by the lack of information on the half of the group heading to the capital city in the first book will be pleased that their story is told in this one. Characters are added, including a transwoman doctor, and all continue to feel completely individual and easily decipherable, in spite of the growing cast list. The fast action pace sometimes is interrupted by lengthy descriptions of settings far away from the action, but overall the chunkster of the book moves along at a good pace and remains engaging. Recommended to fans of fantasy who want a touch of science in their stories and who are interested in the idea of medieval aliens.
4 out of 5 stars
Since I finished the Miffy / Nijnjte line for my shop, it was time to think of a new one! I knew I wanted to do something to pay homage to New England, both where I grew up and my current home. It’s a truly beautiful place. The spring weather and planting my (incredibly tiny) container gardening got me to thinking about plants. Then it struck me. I could make a line about the plants you can forage for in New England! Foraging is the act of gathering plants that grow wild to eat, as opposed to gardening. My grandmother on my father’s side was incredibly knowledgeable about foraging. She passed her knowledge on to my dad, who passed it on down to me. Of course, my father knows more about it than I do! I consulted him some on the new line on everything from which plants to choose (there are so many edible wild plants in New England!) to getting the look of each plant just right. I decided that I would include with the plant itself the common name and the scientific name. The line is intended both to decorate and educate.
The plant I chose to stitch up first for the new line is: rhubarb!
Rhubarb features in my favorite pie, strawberry-rhubarb pie! It can also be used in everything from breads to jams to drinks. It has a savory, bitter flavor, so it generally is combined with something sweet to bring out its underlying sweetness. The pattern is stitched on oatmeal aida with the common name (rhubarb) above the plant, and the scientific name (Rheum rhabarbarum) below it. This is done to reflect older hand-drawn plant guidebooks.
Use the coupon code INSTARHU1ST today or tomorrow to get 10% off either item!
Nobody quite knows what is wrong with Area X, but everyone has their speculations. It’s been cut off from the rest of the world for decades, and the government has kept precisely what is going on rather hush-hush. The government periodically sends teams in to investigate it. The narrator, a biologist, is part of Team 12. The team is entirely made up of women, based on a supposition that women are less badly effected in Area X than men. The biologist’s husband was part of Team 11. She is curious to know what happened to him but also entirely intrigued by the tunnel her team finds. She insists on calling it a tower. Through her mandatory journal, we slowly discover what may or may not be in Area X.
I picked this book up since it sounded like it would be a mix of scifi and Lovecraft style fantasy, plus it features an entirely female investigative group. Although it is an extremely interesting premise, the actual book does drag a bit.
The biologist narrates in a highly analytical way that is true to her character but also doesn’t lend itself to the building of very much tension. Since the biologist calmly narrates everything, the reader stays calm. She also, frankly, isn’t an interesting person due to this same tendency to view everything through an analytical lens. Imagine if Star Trek was 100% written by a Vulcan, and you can begin to imagine the level of ho-hum.
This narration style could have really worked if the language used was stunningly beautiful. While I think that’s probably what the author was going for, it largely missed for me. While the language was good, there was also nothing particularly special about it. I marked three passages that I enjoyed throughout the whole book. Looking back, two were extremely similar. The passage I found to be the most beautiful is:
That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you. From the outside in. Forcing you to live in its reality. (time 3:15:47)
While pretty, it’s not pretty enough to make up for the rather dull narrator.
Since the story has four women to work with, it probably would have worked better to bounce around between their four narratives. This also would have given the bonus of seeing the mysteries of Area X through multiple sets of eyes, enhancing the tension the mystery, while also giving the opportunity for a variety of narration styles.
The mystery of Area X is definitely intriguing and different from other Lovecraft style fantasies. In particular, the passage describing the terror of seeing the thing that cannot be described was particularly well-written. However, the passages describing the horror in Area X are mostly toward the end of the book and are not as well spaced-out as they could have been to help build the tension. The end of the book is definitely the most interesting and managed to heighten my interest enough that I was curious about the next book in the series.
Overall, this is a unique take on the idea of a scientific investigation of an area invaded by Lovecraft style, fantastical creatures. It features an entirely female investigative crew but unfortunately limits itself to only the narration of one overly analytical and dull biologist. Recommended to big fans of Lovecraft/fantastical invasion style fantasies. To those newly interested in the genre, I recommend checking out Bad Glass by Richard E. Gropp first (review), as it is a more universally appealing take on the genre.
3 out of 5 stars
Hello my lovely readers!
It’s my pleasure to be able to wish you all a happy spring! I am so excited for the lighter days and warmer weather, although we definitely are still having a few cold ones here and there. My partner and I celebrated Ostara (spring equinox) with an after-work walk on the Charles River, a special dinner, and presents of course. We were surprised to spot three swans on the Charles during our walk. It’s not common to see swans on the Charles, so it was a nice surprise. Plus, they let us get very close to them! For Ostara dinner, we made deviled eggs, salad with pickled turnips and homemade honey mustard dressing, and homemade handcut fries. I had a pina colada with it, and my partner had hard cider. Delicious!
Even though we’ve been together for over a year and a half, my partner and I had never been to a concert together. We finally changed that this month when we went to see The Dum Dum Girls live. They’re a band my bf is a fan of, so I hadn’t listened to them prior to the night. They put on a great show, though. Kind of surfer/rocker chick style music. Plus their outfits were really fun. I left the concert wanting one of their albums, which I think marks it a success on their part. We had a blast going to a concert together, and I’m pumped to go to more!
I posted six book reviews this month and read five books. I unfortunately got a bit bogged down in a stroke of bad luck of three mediocre reads in a row, so I didn’t end up with time to read a Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge book or an accepted review copy 2014 book this month. I plan to make up for it next month so I can stay on track!
I’ve been dialing back in my fitness along with the gradually lengthening days. I’m doing more yoga and calisthenics, and aiming to lift heavy once a week. Hopefully next month I can ramp it all up a bit more.
I hope you all are enjoying your springs! Happy reading!
Book Review: The Emerald Diamond: How the Irish Transformed America’s Greatest Pastime by Charley Rosen
Did you know baseball has been entwined with Irish-Americans from the very beginning of the sport? Rosen goes through the history of baseball, focusing in on how Irish-American players, managers, and owners impacted the game.
I picked this up from my pile of older review copies to read in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. I’m part Irish myself and was a US History major in undergrad, so the concept of the book definitely appealed to me. The book addresses the interesting topic of Irish-Americans in baseball but unfortunately presents the history in an only sometimes interesting way and utilizes sloppy research.
The book starts in the 1800s and works its way up through time, ending many chapters with a modern day interview to reflect upon the ideas presented in the chapter. The earliest chapters are the most interesting. They take the events and use them to tell the story of how Irish-Americans broke into baseball partly because many careers were closed off to them due to anti-Irish discrimination in America (No Irish Need Apply). Originally, the game was much less regulated, and the Irish-American players brought with them a willingness to be sly and rough that added an element of excitement to the game that brought out more viewers. Reading about how the rules slowly changed and how Irish-Americans impacted those changes was definitely fascinating. It was also disturbing to discover how many players in the early years had serious addiction problems, not to mention the presence of multiple suicides. Unfortunately, the opportunity to analyze this phenomenon and discuss it in depth is passed by, as is most true historical analysis.
Starting in the early 20th century, the formatting of the book changes so that instead of telling a story, the heading of a year is given and bullet-points of events for that year are listed. Some of these bullet-points break out to be actual stories, instead of just pure listing of facts, and that is what kept me reading. But mostly about half the book is just lists of baseball facts. It reminded me of reading Chronicles in the Bible (so-and-so begat so-and-so). There are some interesting tidbits in there, but they are few and far between.
I was truly appalled when I flipped back to check the references in the back that almost all of them are secondary sources, and a significant number are Wikipedia. It’s one thing to start your research at Wikipedia to familiarize yourself with the topic and then broaden out to more scholarly work and primary sources. It’s another thing entirely to publish an entire book that basically just sums up Wikipedia. A work of historic nonfiction should seek out as many primary sources as possible, read secondary analyses, and provide analysis both of the primary and secondary sources. What Rosen has done is mostly to regurgitate what Wikipedia and other secondary sources have already said. The exception to this is the modern day interviews Rosen conducted, but they make up a small portion of the book. Perhaps 15%. If the book had consisted of interviews with modern Irish-American players and descendants of Irish-American players and managers, complete with analysis and investigation using primary and secondary materials, that would have been a fantastic book. Instead we get a relisting of information already gathered (and better sourced) in secondary sources spiced up with a few interviews. If I had bought this book, I would have returned it.
Overall, there are some interesting tidbits about how Irish-Americans impacted the game of baseball. Unfortunately, large parts of the book are lists of facts, with no analysis or storytelling, Additionally, Rosen relied primarily on secondary source materials, mostly Wikipedia, to research his book. The reader could get similar information from Wikipedia themself and have the ability to click through to the source materials. I would suggest doing that over buying this book. For those seeking a book on the topic, I recommend The Irish in Baseball: An Early History by David L. Fleitz, a sports historian who clearly consulted primary and secondary sources in his writing.
2 out of 5 stars
Source: Print copy from publisher in exchange for my honest review
The Red Church was the base of a new cult started by Wendell McFall in the 1860s. But when he took things too far and sacrificed a child, his congregation hung him from a tree. Nowadays, the children of the town view the Red Church as haunted…and so do some of the adults. When Wendell’s descendant, Archer, returns to his hometown from California, he brings the cult back with him in a new form. Archer claims he is the second son of God, and that Jesus was the first son who failed to deliver God’s true message. When he reclaims the Red Church and murders start occurring, half the town suspects Archer, while the other half falls under his spell.
This book was loaned to me by someone who really enjoyed the series. For most of the book, I felt that it was well-written horror but of a religious bent that isn’t for me. However, the ending doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the book.
At the beginning, the book feels like a horror story written by a Baptist person truly committed to their faith. The main antithesis to Archer’s cult is the Baptist church in town. At the core of the conflict are a married couple. The wife falls firmly under Archer’s spell while the husband stays true to the Baptist church. Their two small boys are caught in the middle. The most interesting parts of the story are when the third person narrator focuses in on these two boys, showing their crises of faith and the siren call of the cult, as well as the confusion engendered when their mother and father fight over religion. I could definitely see this reading as a richly crafted, frightening horror for someone who is Baptist, or at least Protestant, themselves. For the non-Christian or non-religious reader, however, the frequent mentions of Jesus, capitalizing pronouns referring to God, and attempts at creating horror at the mere idea of not following Jesus fail to aid in establishing the horror. They become something to skim past rather than part of the atmosphere of the book.
For most of the book, the basic plot of Archer versus the family and the sheriff and the crime scene detective flows nicely with just the right touch of horror. Toward the end of the book, just who Archer is and what precisely is going on becomes muddled. A lot of what happens with Archer and his church just doesn’t make a lick of sense. In spite of the religious leanings of the book, I was still engaged and wanting to solve the mystery of Archer. Instead, who he is and what the rules of the world are become increasingly muddled. The ending generally should clear things up, not leave things more confusing than they were before. That kind of confusing ending would be disappointing to anyone who read the book.
I also was disappointed by one particular aspect of the ending. A person who was abusive gets forgiven because forgiveness is what the Baptist church teaches. It bothers me when books brush off abuse as something just getting Jesus in your heart can fix. It’s misleading and dangerous to encourage people to think that way. Granted, this is a horror book, so it’s doubtful many children will be reading it, but that still doesn’t make it a good message.
The characters are interesting and widely varied. The children, particularly, are well-written. The scenes are well-envisioned and communicated. I never had any issues imagining any of the scenes vividly.
Overall, this is a well-written horror book that flounders a bit at the end. It is richly steeped in the Baptist faith. As such, I recommend it most highly to Protestant horror fans who don’t mind a bit of a confusing ending that doesn’t answer all the questions.
2 out of 5 stars
I am incredibly excited to announce the new line in my shop: Miffy / Nijntje!
Miffy is a beloved character from a series of children’s books by Dick Bruna. Her name is Nijntje in Dutch. I discovered Miffy on Netflix one night, and immediately fell in love. She’s such an adorable little bunny, and her stories are wonderful! Their availability in dual-language apps are also helping me on my side-quest to learn Dutch. When I discovered a shocking lack of Miffy cross stitch patterns, I made my own so we could hang a version of her in our living room. I decided to make BOTH the patterns and the completed products available for all Miffy fans to enjoy. The picture on this post is just of my personal favorite design, Miffy’s Garden / De Tuin Van Nijntje. Please click through to my shop to see all five designs!
PS I am now shipping completed items to The Netherlands and the UK in addition to the US! Patterns are available worldwide.
Book Review: The Many-Colored Land by Julian May (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Bernadette Dunne)
In the future, the universe exists in a peace-loving era that allows many alien races and humans to co-exist. People are expected to act within the confines of acceptability and are offered various humane treatment options to help if their nature or nurture sends them the wrong way. But some people don’t want to conform and would rather live in the wild, warrior-like days of old. When a scientist discovers time travel but only to the pliocene era, these people think they have found their solution. There’s only one catch. The time travel only works to the past. For decades the misfits step into the time travel vortex, not knowing what is on the other side. The government approves the solution, since it seems kind and no time paradoxes have occurred. When the newest group steps through, they will discover just what really waits on the other side of exile.
I became aware of this book thanks to a review by fellow book blogger, Resistance Is Futile. Imagine my surprise when going through my wishlist to check for audiobooks, I discovered a brand-new audiobook production of it featuring the audiobook superstar Bernadette Dunne. This is a creative, action-packed book that truly encompasses both scifi and fantasy in a beautiful way.
Since this is the first book of the series, it takes a bit to set the plot up and get to know the characters. People are sent through the time travel portal in groups, so we get to know everyone in one group prior to going through the time portal so we can follow them all after they go through it. May spends the perfect amount of time familiarizing the reader with the future world, as well as the people who are choosing to leave it. Some readers might be sad to see the imaginative future world left behind for the pliocene era, but it quickly becomes evident that the pliocene is just as richly imagined, albeit different. The pliocene era is not as straight-forward as the exiles believed, and new problems quickly arise for them. It’s not the lawless paradise they were envisioning, and while dealing with the realities of it in an action-packed manner, they also must deal with themselves. Now that they realize there is no true escape to solitude or an imagined perfect past, they must address those aspects of themselves that led them to exile in the first place. These deeper emotional issues are the perfect balance to the other, action-oriented plot. I did feel that the book ends a bit abruptly. However, it is part of a series and clearly the cliff-hanger is intentional. I prefer series entries that tell one complete smaller story within the larger, overarching plot, but this is still a well-done cliff-hanger.
The characters offer up a wide variety of experiences and ethnic and sexual backgrounds, representative of all of humanity fairly well. One of the lead characters is a butch lesbian, another is an elderly Polish-American male expert in the pliocene era, another a nun, another a frat boy style space captain. This high level of diversity doesn’t seem pushed or false due to the nature of the self-selection of exiles. It makes sense a wide variety of humans would choose to go, although the statistics presented in the book establish that more whites and Asians than Africans and more men than women choose to go. Some of the characters get more time to develop and be presented in a three-dimensional nature than others but enough characters are three-dimensional that the reader is able to become emotionally invested in the situation. My one complaint was in prominently featuring a nun in a futuristic scifi, yet again. Statistics show that less and less people are choosing to become nuns or priests. Given that this is set so far in the future with such a different culture, a religious leader of a new or currently rising religion would feel much more thoughtfully predictive of the future.
Most engaging to me is how the book mixes scifi and fantasy. Without giving too much away, the book offers a plausible scientific explanation for human myths of supernatural creatures such as fairies, elves, and shapeshifters. The presence of the inspirations for these myths give a delightful, old world fantastical feel to the story, even while May offers up scientific explanations for all of it. This is not a mix I have seen in much scifi or fantasy, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.
Overall, this is a delightful new take on time-travel that incorporates some fantasy elements into the scifi. Readers looking just for futuristic hard scifi might be disappointed at how much of the book takes place in the ancient past, but those who enjoy scifi and fantasy will delight at the mixing of the two.
4 out of 5 stars