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Book Review: A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheeres (Audiobook narrated by Robin Miles)

April 16, 2014 3 comments

A sunset near tropical trees and a mountain rangeSummary:
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.

Review:
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

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Audiobook narrated by Robin Miles)

February 20, 2013 6 comments

An African woman's face in silhouette against a reddish background.Summary:
The Nigerian-Biafran War (or the Nigerian Civil War, as it is also known) is seen through the intertwining lives of four different people.  The daughter of a wealthy Igbo couple, Kainene, with a fierce business sense.  Her fraternal twin sister, who is also the beautiful one, Olanna, an academic in love with a revolutionary-minded man named Odenigbo.  Kainene’s boyfriend then fiancee, the white English writer Richard.  And Ugwu.  Olanna’s houseboy who came to them from a rural village.  Their lives are irreparably impacted, and in some cases destroyed, by the war for a cause they all believe in, but that the world largely ignores.

Review:
I originally intended this Nigerian book to be my final read for the Africa Reading Challenge 2012, but even though I started it in November, the audiobook took over three months to get through, so it ultimately missed counting for the challenge.  I thought it was much longer than my usual audiobook fare, but a quick check of the listen length shows that it is 18 hours and 56 minutes long, which is only about 7 hours longer than my norm.  So why did it take me so long to finish?  Well, I just didn’t enjoy it that much.

I believe I was expecting something else from Adichie, since I had previously read her book Purple Hibiscus (review), which is far more character driven than this novel.  In this novel I would say the main character is actually the war, and that is something that simply does not work for my reading style.  Perhaps also playing into this general feeling I got was the ensemble cast.  Instead of getting to know just Olanna, for instance, and seeing her life before, during, and after the Nigerian-Biafran War, truly feeling as if I was her and living it through her, the reader is constantly jostled around among four different people.  It left me unable to truly connect to any one of them, which left me feeling like they were just there as a device to let Adichie talk about the War.  And it was truly an awful, horrible war precipitated by a genocide of the Igbo people, and it absolutely deserves to be talked about.  It’s just for me this type of ensemble piece with the War as really the main character isn’t the best method for me to learn about a War or an atrocity.  I prefer to get to know someone and see it through their eyes.  Given what I had read of Adichie’s work before, I was expecting that level of connection, just with multiple characters, but that is just not what happens in this book.  Perhaps it was too large, too sweeping, too much for one book.  I’m not sure.  But I was left without an emotional connection beyond the horror at the war atrocities, and that simply is not what I am looking for when reading a fictional piece set during a war.

As far as the plot goes, it was interesting but it was a bit confusing.  Part of my confusion could have been because I listened to it, but from my understanding when I was listening, first there was an affair, then we jumped back to before the affair, then we jumped forward, then we jumped back to a different affair that came before the first affair.  It was profoundly confusing.  Particularly with a child referred to only as Baby (with no explanation about this for quite some time) who also randomly shows up and disappears.  There was already so much going on with four different main characters and the war that this non-linear plot felt unnecessarily extraneous and confusing.  However, it is possible that this plot is more clear when reading the print version, as opposed to the audio version.

The language of the writing itself is pretty, and I found periodic astute insights that I’ve come to expect and enjoy from Adichie.  For instance,

Why do I love him? I don’t think love has a reason. I think love comes first, and the reasons come later.

Passages like these are what helped me enjoy the book to the extent that I did.

There is one plot point in the book that truly distressed me, so I feel I must discuss it.  It is a spoiler though, so consider yourself spoiler warned for this paragraph.  Throughout the book, the narration style is third person limited, which means that it is told in third person, but the reader knows what is going on in the main character’s head and is generally limited to that character’s perspective.  The point of view is switched around among the four main characters, one of whom is Ugwu, the houseboy.  We thus get to know him as the houseboy, he gradually grows up, and then later he is conscripted into the Biafran army.  At this point, he participates in a gang rape on a waitress in a bar.  I read a lot of gritty things.  I routinely read books offering up the point of view of sociopaths or serial killers.  I’m not averse to seeing the world through a bad person’s eyes, or through the eyes of a person who does bad things.  But it has to be handled in the appropriate manner.  I felt that there was entirely too much empathy toward Ugwu in the case of the gang rape.  Adichie sets it up so that he walks in on his fellow soldiers gang raping this woman, and he says he doesn’t want to participate, they question his manhood, he admits in his head that he is turned on by the view of her pinned to the ground crying with her legs held apart having just been raped by a different soldier, and he participates.  I think what disturbed me the most about this passage was how the narration makes it seem so ordinary.  Like it’s something any man would do in that situation.  Like it’s only natural he’d be turned on and get a hard-on from seeing a woman forcibly pinned to the ground so she can be gang raped by a bunch of men including himself.  I think it’s awful to treat men like that.  To act like they clearly are incapable of standing up for what’s right or that they’ll get a hard-on any time they see an orifice they can physically bang.  Men are human beings and are entirely capable of thinking with more than their penis.  Now, obviously there are men who rape, but there has got to be more going on there then I have a hard on and there’s a woman who I can stick it into.  To treat rape that simply is a disservice to men and women’s humanity alike.  Part of the reason why this reads this way is that we don’t know Ugwu well but we know him well enough to think that he’s an at least moderately decent young man.  We don’t see a gradual downfall.  No one holds a gun to his head or even implicitly threatens him with death if he doesn’t participate.  It makes it seem like war makes men, even moderately good men, rape, as opposed to war simply providing more opportunities for rapists to rape.  That is a perspective that I do not endorse, that I do not enjoy having sprung upon me in my literature, and that I found triggering as well.  I was shocked to see it in a book by Adichie.  Shocked and disappointed. It left me wishing I could scrub my brain of the book.  Wishing for those hours of my life that I spent listening to it back.

Now, let me take a moment to speak about the narrator, Robin Miles.  Miles is an astounding narrator.  Her audiobook narration is truly voice acting.  She is capable of a broad spectrum of accents, including Nigerian, British, and American, and slips in and out of them seamlessly.  She easily creates a different voice for many different characters.  I absolutely adored listening to her, in spite of not enjoying the book itself.  Her performance of this book is easily a 5 star one.

Overall, though, the high quality narration simply could not make up for a story that failed to hit the mark with me on so many levels.  It covers an important time period in Nigeria, and the highly important human rights issue of the genocide of the Igbo, but the style in which it does simply misses the mark for me.  If this was all, I would still recommend the book to others who are more fond of a more impersonal, sweeping narration style.  However, I also found the treatment of rape in the book to be simultaneously offensive and triggering.  For this reason, I cannot recommend this book, although I do recommend the audiobook narrator, Robin Miles.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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