Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Review: Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

Title: Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison
Author: Piper Kerman
Format: Paperback, 314 pages
Pub. Date: March 8th 2011
Source: Half Price Books

Book Description:

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.



It's worth saying up front that, yes, I do watch the Netflix series of the same name. However, I understand that the real life and the fictional life are two different things, so I will try my best not to compare the two: they are very different experiences.

This book is alright. It was a very slow read for me. I expected it to be faster paced, knowing that Piper has a history as a traveler and having been shipped around the prison system. But not much really happened.

There are so many different characters in the book, that it's really hard to keep everyone straight. Aside from a few reoccurring characters like Pop (Red) and Nora (Alex), not much depth is given to a lot of these girls. You don't get to know them very well as a whole. I also wasn't a fan of how she describes people. She often finds a way to insult them. Like, yeah she's pretty but she's super dumb, or she's ugly but she's so sweet. It was off-putting.

There was a lot of inner dialogue and not so much talking between characters. I think this is part of why it felt like nothing was happening. Her thoughts were sometimes interesting and almost always understandable. Questions like what is my fiance doing right now? Will I make it out of here? How did I end up here? But I was surprised by the lack of acknowledgement of her crimes. Towards the end she makes one flippant comment about how she committed a crime, but throughout the book there's definitely the implication of "I don't deserve to be here, I'm not like these people". There's no real growth or evolution. Although, she is on a women's prison board now, so some positivity has coming from it (not to mention those Netflix checks- genuinely, good for her on that front!).

That said, I do appreciate that she acknowledges her privilege often. While it does get annoying to hear about how much she has compared to others, I'm glad that she at least realized it. She had a job waiting for her on the outside. She received tons of mail and books and had a great lawyer. I do think that it's odd that no one seemed to care that she went to prison. By her own detail, she is waspy and she went to Smith. Yet her family and friends were just like "oh, okay, see you when you're out". It's great that they were so supportive.... Just seems odd for such an upper class family to not be appalled. Just an interesting observation.

The most interesting part of the book to me was the end section, which tells about her brief time in the Cook County jail system. She was held in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago, Illinois during her testimony for court. I'm from Cook County, and as she detailed how terrible the conditions were, I couldn't help but to feel like "yeah, that sounds right" based off of our news... And that's a damn shame.

I think what made this an odd read for me is that it reads sort of like a college application essay. A lot of it is personal, first hand experience. Who am I to say her stay was boring? It's her life, and I'm sure it was terrifying and awful. I certainly wouldn't want to be in her position. But there's strangely inserted facts and percentages and things that make it almost seem like it's a research paper. The two different writing styles don't mesh together very well, and makes the book seem rather disorganized, and interrupts the flow of the narrative.

I do appreciate that she includes a list of resources for jails, prisons, and the family/friends of those who are incarcerated in the back of the book. I hope I never need them, but I think it's a great thing to include.

And one brief comparison to the show: you can mostly tell which characters are based on who, even though the names have been changed. I did think it was cool that some quotes from the show were taken verbatim from the text.

Ultimately, I'm not mad at this book. I'm not sorry I read it. But I don't think that I'll have any urge to read it again, and I don't think I'd recommend it to a friend. Perhaps if you're more affluent than I am, or if you've done time (or are facing it presently), maybe you'll have more to gain from this book than I did. It's not a bad book, it just could have been done better.


Post a Comment