Friday, January 10, 2014

Orange is the new Black, by Piper Kerman- Review

From Goodreads:
With a career, a boyfriend, and a loving family, Piper Kerman barely resembles the reckless young woman who delivered a suitcase of drug money ten years before. But that past has caught up with her. Convicted and sentenced to fifteen months at the infamous federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, the well-heeled Smith College alumna is now inmate #11187–424—one of the millions of people who disappear “down the rabbit hole” of the American penal system. From her first strip search to her final release, Kerman learns to navigate this strange world with its strictly enforced codes of behavior and arbitrary rules. She meets women from all walks of life, who surprise her with small tokens of generosity, hard words of wisdom, and simple acts of acceptance. Heartbreaking, hilarious, and at times enraging, Kerman’s story offers a rare look into the lives of women in prison—why it is we lock so many away and what happens to them when they’re there.

Because I'm a book whore, I borrowed this lovely from Amy Reads last Christmas, (well before any nattering of the TV show started). I was particularly intrigued after I'd read Through the Glass and so I overrode the hubbies protests and took them home with me. In June we had Sybil (I still hadn't read any of the books I'd borrowed, but that's OK, because she has a book she borrowed from me two years ago. This is the way of us ridiculous readers), and in early July my mom came to visit. The hubby likes to download a complete run of an unusual (often import) TV show that we can watch in the evenings when she visits, as my mom is the opposite of me and is a TV whore.  In his quest for something interesting, he came across this new show called Orange is the New Black. We watched the whole show, greatly enjoyed it,  realized it was based on a book and was further intrigued (I KNOW! I know, but I borrowed it six months previously and I had totally forgotten what it was called. Plus the book was on top of my book case, so- out of sight, out of mind).

This is the embarrassing part (as if I haven't already given you an embarrassing look at my overabundance of books and disorganisation of said books), I spent a good 3 or 4 months considering the book every time I was in a book store and watching the library for an ecopy...before realising I had it sitting on my bookshelf. Of course the happy ending is that I had that realization before I bought a copy and now I've read it, so, YAY me! Right?! Right. 
*ignores hubbies eye roll and pointing to the further 2 books I borrowed at the same time, now more than a year ago*

Prior to the great success of the show, I'm guessing folks read this book because they were particularly interested in the American penitentiary system and it's failings from an inside point of view.  It's how the book is largely marketed after all.  After the show I'm thinking a lot of people came to it wanting to know what in the show is real and what is just TV, but also there is likely a whole memoirs component of readers coming to the book now as well. Kerman has done a good job of meeting all of those interest groups with her debut.

Filled with insight on America's war on drugs and what that means in both the legal system and the penitentiary system, I'm guessing Orange is the New Black is eye opening for a lot of people.  After Through the Glass, I was less surprised by the many short comings of jail, rehabilitation and the legal short comings to those innocent or otherwise.  However I did greatly enjoy Kermans tales of how the women in her prison attempt to help each other through their imprisonment and later, through their releases.  I would actually like to know more about Kerman's contact and interactions with her fellow inmates since the book and the show has seen so much success.  She stands on the precipice of fame where she could use it to great advantage in a non-profit way for these women and others, it would be amazing if it was put to good use.  There is certainly every indication that Kerman is involved in a variety of justice groups, via her website, but not in any detail which would be interesting.

What I liked the most about Orange is the New Black, is how Kerman wove political info with daily antidotes, the good the bad and the ugly, together in a very easy read.  Told in a very anecdotal way, there is nothing daunting or "heavy" about her book. Certainly it deals with many weighty issues and does delve into legal and prison statistics to some degree, but she manages to keep it appealing to the the more casual reader by combining it with funny tales and prison recipes.  Leaving it up to the reader to pursue more info on American justice if it appeals to them.  My only complaint is that her book doesn't contain a list of sources should it inspire the reader to become either more informed or involved.  Her website is a good starting point, but even that doesn't seem as straight forward as someone who doesn't know where to begin would need to start. Certainly her book seems meant to inspire change, it would be nice if it continued in that vein by helping people understand how that happens, be it by letters to their political leaders, donations to justice groups or other methods.

An intriguing, often amusing, read, I would recommend you put your life, and New Years resolutions into perspective by reading it for 2014.  If you find it thought provoking then I would highly recommend following it up with Shannon Moroney's Through the Glass, which delves much more deeply into the shortcomings of the Canadian penal system from an intriguing perspective.

Orange is the New Black, by Piper Kerman
Published by Spiegel and Grau, December, 2009


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