Monday, November 28, 2011

A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Faith, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown

 By Julia Scheeres
New York, Free Press, 2011
289 pages      Religion

A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres is the harrowing event by event account of how nearly a thousand people chose to die for an illusory cause in the jungle of a South American country on November 18, 1978. It most definitely is not a book you read for fun, nor is it a book by which you can come to understand the perpetrator, the Rev. Jim Jones. It is a book through which you can gain the follower’s perspective through their writings as well as through the eye-witness accounts of the survivors.
The book contained major surprises for me because I had thought the group was like other wacked-out religious groups. But indeed, this was not the case. At the very beginning, the Rev. Jim Jones had religious intentions; he was a Pentecostal minister. Rather than his religious message, however, it was the sheer force of his personality that brought the people to him. That, and the fact that he believed in total equality of the races, which was a revolutionary idea in the early 1970s. I was fascinated to learn that during the early days of The People’s Temple in San Francisco, the members were active in the political campaigns of Harvey Milk and George Moscone. The ministries of the People’s Temple were social in nature and wide ranging. The followers were believers in social justice and the poor that were being served. The ministry was more socialist than religious.

At some point, Jim Jones began to think of himself not as a preacher, but as God. He began a sermon in 1973 with the words: “For some unexplained set of reasons, I happen to be selected to be God.” The deceit he practiced, including miracles and healings, drew many people to him. He saved many from the streets, clothed them, fed them, sheltered them, and empowered them. He was worshiped for that. “He dangled hope in front of the despondent, and built a ministry around it.”

A grandiose plan emerges to move the entire congregation to the small South American country of Guyana; Jones had wanted to go to Brazil, but they spoke English in Guyana and the government there offered him some land. Eventually a small village called Jonestown was carved out of the jungle, and at the end 1000 people were living there in a hand-to-mouth existence, slaves to a ranting, drug-crazed dictator. He had created an environment where there was nothing left to believe in except Jim Jones. And Jim Jones was plotting a “revolutionary suicide” for them all.
The evolving story is told not through the eyes of Jones, but through the eyes of his followers. Sheeres seems fascinated by the reasons why people become followers of fanatics; she having grown up in a militant Pentecostal group. She brings a unique perspective to the story, which has already been told many times in books and documentaries. The reviewer in the New York Times offers his views as to why Sheeres has narrowed her focus in this way: “What she does not do is give us the why, the context that we long for to explain such an inexplicable tragedy. She does not try to historicize Jim Jones, makes no grand claims that Jonestown represents the final death throes of the 1960s counterculture. In short, she has no comfort for us. One gets the feeling that for Scheeres to step too far outside the walls of the Jonestown compound would feel like a betrayal of those who lost their lives there. So she keeps the focus steady, small and zeroed in on those lives. You will not be able to look away.”

Throughout A Thousand Lives, my rational mind was telling the followers “Just get out of there,” while my sympathetic mind was trying to understand why they stayed. They had been told and idealistically believed that they were being betrayed by society and they had no other alternative than Jim Jones and Jonestown. The Wall Street Journal reviewer says, “Tragically, these idealists embraced death as a final refuge, still unaware that Jones, not society, had betrayed them.” The last few chapters are riveting. I couldn’t put the book down and read with my heart in my throat, even though I knew what was going to happen to these idealistic, misguided people and their poor innocent children. They will all “drink the Koolaid.”

There is a vast amount of information on Julia Scheere’s website, including videos and lots of pictures. I recommend you search the website for an even greater understanding:

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Brooklyn Story

By Suzanne Corso
New York, Gallery Books, 2011
322 pages     Fiction

Suzanne Corso came of age in the 1970s in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, but like many teenagers, she dreamed of getting out. The Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan became her symbol of freedom and new life. She has created a novelized version of herself in Brooklyn Story, the story of Samantha Bonti, half-Italian and half-Jewish, living among the Italians mobsters of Bensonhurst. 

Samantha has dreams; she is a talented writer with an old Smith-Corona typewriter. Although her home life is anything but ideal, she receives support from her high school English teacher and the neighborhood priest. Both encourage her to move beyond the neighborhood and fulfill her dreams. Daily, she writes of her life experiences, her elderly grandmother, her bitter drug and alcohol-addicted mother, her school, and her friends. 

Like all girls, she yearns for a boyfriend, and Tony Kroon, a teenaged mobster with a car and money, is more than she expects, and probably more than she can handle. He chooses her because she is young and innocent, and she revels in the way he seems to adore her. She is so under his spell that she has to ignore a lot of warning signs: the way he wants to know where she is all the time; the “meetings” he always has to go to in the evenings; the money, fancy car, and motorcycle he has; his tendency to be abusive. While she knows that this is the way of the neighborhood, she chafes at the rigidness of the relationship. She is able to rationalize Tony’s behavior, willing herself to be in love with him, until he becomes abusive enough that she realizes she must remove herself from the situation or all her dreams of the future will be lost. 

Brooklyn Story has a great first line, “Some people lived in the real world and others lived in Brooklyn.” The brief review in the New York Times also acknowledges the unique voice of the author. “Young Italian-Americans in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, in the late 1970s fall in with the mob to become men. As familiar as the story is, this novel escapes the formula with a true female voice….Maybe it’s because we don’t usually get our Mafia fix from the point of view of a young girl who wants to be somebody, but this Brooklyn story overcomes even the numerous times when Samantha’s heart is said to “’skip a beat’.”

In telling the story of Samantha, Corso reveals how easy it is for young women to fall into the trap of “true love” and end up in restrictive, abusive relationships. How often we have heard battered women say that they wouldn’t press charges because “he loves me; he won’t do it again.” Corso emphasizes how easy it is to rationalize relationships and how hard it is to end destructive relationships, particularly in close-knit, insular communities.

The real value of Brooklyn Story is in its emphasis on resilience, hope, and redemption. Samantha has a vision for herself that does not include living in Bensonhurst forever. She has an encouraging grandmother, a mentor in her high school English teacher, and a spiritual guide in the neighborhood priest. All help her find her true voice and help her move “over the bridge” to a productive adult life.

USA Today named Suzanne Corso one of the New Voices of 2011. Here is their story:
Suzanne Corso’s website:

I received Brooklyn Story from the publisher, and I would recommend it to young adult readers.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago

By LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman
New York, Pocket Books, 1997
203 Pages     Non-Fiction

As I was driving my grandson Maxwell to ChiArts High School in Chicago two weeks ago, he said: “Grandma, I want you to read this book. It is awesome!”  We drove down Cottage Grove heading north from Hyde Park and passed an area of open fields and a new development of town homes and apartments. Maxwell said that this was the area where the Ida B Wells Housing Project used to be and where the boys who wrote the book Our America lived. The site was one block from his high school, and he was reading Our America in his 9th grade English class—a brilliant teaching strategy. He later told me that ChiArts High School is housed in the building that was the neighborhood’s school, and LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman both went to school in that building. When a teenaged grandson tells you to read something, you listen. And I was blown away by the book.

Ida B. Wells was one of the largest housing projects constructed in Chicago and consisted of 2 and 3-story brick apartment buildings which were not necessarily bad in and of themselves. However, they were arranged in a configuration that created numerous hidden spaces and pockets between buildings where drug dealing and violence could occur. The site features vast internal spaces which were hidden from view and isolated from the city streets. Two large apartment buildings were constructed on neighboring sites. This public housing project was built to house poor African Americans and was not demolished until 2005-2006.

David Isay, a journalist, wanted to do a documentary about life in Chicago’s notorious projects, and someone suggested that he do it through the voices of the children who lived in a project. LeAlan Jones was a precocious 13-year-old who attended a nearby school, although he didn’t live in the projects. Isay approached Jones and his friend Lloyd Newman, an Ida B. Wells resident, and together the three made a NPR documentary called Ghetto 101. The boys told the story of their daily life in the ghetto and interviewed friends and neighbors about their life experiences. It was on NPR in 1993 and won many awards. 

 A year later, a 5-year-old boy was thrown from the 14th floor of the high rise by two boys, 10 and 11. The rumor had it that candy was the reason for the killing.  LeAlan and Lloyd got out their recording equipment again and tried to discover the reason behind the death. This project took a year to develop, and the boys were able to interview the boy’s mother, the Chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority, and the father of one of the assailants. This documentary, called Remorse, won the Peabody Award for excellence in journalism.

Both interviews are combined in the book, Our America , which was published in 1996. It remains one of the clearest pictures of life in the ghetto, certainly the lives of its children. With photographs by a young African American teenager, John Brooks, the book is haunting, revealing, and heart-rending. I was reminded over and over of an episode of The Wire in which one of the teen-aged drug dealers is in charge of several young children, who sleep together in an abandoned apartment. In the morning, he gets them up for school and sends them off with a juice box and a bag of chips to begin their day.  When Jones and Newman were attempting to interview people about the death of Eric Morse, the 5-year-old, they tried to talk to families in the upper floors of the building, near where the killing happened. Those families were living basically in the dark because they had boarded up their windows so no one could break in, and they didn’t allow their children outside.  The Library Journal says that the “authors reveal how disenfranchised from mainstream America the ghetto has become.” Another reviewer calls the book is “part journalism, part activism, and part reflection.”

Jones’ final entry in Ghetto 101 says, “…we want to give you kids in America a message: Don’t look at ghetto kids as different. You might not want to invite us to your parties, you might think we’ll rob you blind when you got your back turned. But don’t look at us like that. Don’t look at us like we’re an alien or an android or an animal or something. We have a hard life, but we’re sensitive. Ghetto kids are not a different breed—we’re human.”

When I asked Maxwell about the biggest impression he got from Our America, he said that he couldn’t get over how accustomed the people of the neighborhood were to their poverty, and how they adapted to the life of the ghetto. He also agreed that they lived in a very small world inside a very big city.

There is a large field behind the school where Jones and Newman went, and now where my grandson goes. In the first chapter of Our America, the boys talk about a shooting that occurred in the field behind the school. Last week, there was a shooting in that same field during school hours. It has been almost 20 years since Our America was written. Has anything changed?

Here is a link to the audio documentaries Ghetto 101 and Remorse:
This is a You Tube video of the neighborhood made by a teenager, shortly before the buildings were demolished. There are glimpses of Maxwell’s school:
LeAlan Jones ran for the senate in 2010 as a candidate from the Green Party. The following is an article about his candidacy in The Chicago Reader:
Here is a link to ChiArts High School, the public school for the arts in Chicago. It is located on the intersection of 35th St. South and Cottage Grove:
There was a Showtime movie based on the book which aired in 2002. I could find it on IMDB, but I wasn’t able to find a source where it could be accessed.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Hot Water

by Erin Brockovich with CJ Lyons
New York, Vanguard Press, 2011
275 pages     Fiction

The activist AJ Palladino and the rest of the cast of characters in her life were introduced in the thriller Rock Bottom. Erin Brokovich and CJ Lyons continue her adventures in their new thriller Hot Water.

Single mother AJ Palladino has returned home to Scotio, West Virginia from Washington DC to raise her special-needs son David in the small town where she was raised, among her kinsfolk. But neither AJ nor her son are ordinary people. AJ is a well-known environmental activist and corporate watchdog (channeling the author, Brokovich), and David is a brilliant child, as knowledgeable about environmental causes as his mother.

Palladino and her business partner, Elizabeth, receive a $1 million dollar contract from a South Carolina energy company owner to promote the safety of his new nuclear plant, which utilizes the facility to create power but also to create medical isotopes. There have been several “incidents” at the plant, and protestors are camped at the door. AJ and Elizabeth accept this offer they can’t refuse, and AJ heads to South Carolina while Elizabeth takes care of David and business in West Virginia.

The complications of the set-up makes the opening chapters a bit cumbersome, but once the action begins, super-woman Palladino focuses on the unfolding drama at the nuclear plant while Elizabeth and David deal with their own messy and life-threatening dramas at home in Scotia. 

Like life itself, the challenges confronted by AJ Palladino, David, Elizabeth and Palladino’s best friend, Ty are complicated. Palladino’s mother is a hoarder; Elizabeth has a vengeful ex-husband; and David’s grandfather thinks AJ is an unfit mother and wants custody of his grandson. He is willing to go to enormous extremes to get what he wants, including murder. In addition to all these ordinary challenges, Palladino is faced with religious zealots, a hurricane, and even a radioactive alligator. We also have a true villain in the grandfather and pending romance with Ty to keep us on our toes. 

 Like all thrillers, Hot Water is a bit formulaic, but it is lively and intense and a true page-turner. It was a good ride while it lasted. As one reviewer commented: “Brockovich and Lyons have definitely created a character that readers can enjoy for years to come.” A reviewer of Rock Bottom (the first book in the series) indicated what he believed to be the value of the AJ Palladino series: “…you will want to read this if you are interested in Erin Brockovich as an activist; if you like the activist fight …; if you like good tension between a strong, female lead and her fight against corporate doggery (sound familiar?); if you enjoy a good character backstory of small-town Appalachia; and/or if you like the general milieu of the suspense novel.” I guess that includes just about all readers of the genre.

Erin Brockovich and her team have been in West Michigan several times in the last couple of years to discuss ground water contamination. Her website outlines her current investigations as: gulf oil spill, environmental, pharmaceutical, product liability, mold issues, workman’s compensation, and whistleblower. What a career! With issues like these for fodder, Brockovich and Lyons can have AJ Palladino books plotted for years to come. I am sure that her fan base will grow!

A review of Hot Water on the Author Exposure blog:
The website for Erin Brockovich’s business:

I received this book from the publicist. I will pass Hot Water on to my thriller-reading brother-in-law.