Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison by Piper Kerman

Review based on ARC.

This is one of those books that was entertaining, informative, and infuriating.  Piper Kerman wrote a memoir that reads almost like a diary.  This is both a compliment and a criticism.  The problem with the non-diary-diary format is that it was scattered, unfocused, and anecdotal.  The good thing about the non-diary-diary format, however, is that it was interesting, personal, and present.

So, the story.  Kerman makes massively stupid and selfish decisions in her young life, as young ladies are wont to do, and years later, she begins to pay for it.  a little.  Her involvement in large-scale drug trafficking ultimately lands her in inside a minimum security federal prison, which she proceeds to detail in a manner that is, at turns, entertaining and lecturing.  There's not really much more to the plot:  she learns about being in prison, she learns about the people there, she learns about the impact of her actions.  Thus, a memoir.

What works is Kerman's tone, most of the time.  She takes an equally amusing and reverent tone in describing her prison-mates and describes heartbreaking, enraging, and amusing stories alike.  Kerman's own appearance and naivety land her, fortunately, friends with some of the more powerful women in the prison and, to hear Kerman tell it, she herself ends up being one of the most popular prisoners to ever grace Danbury's walls (this is a literal exaggeration of the tone that many of the anecdotes presented -- she never, of course, ever states anything quite so ludicrous).

Kerman flits between anecdotes, grant philosophical rants, political lectures, and summaries, which unorganized presentation was, at many points, annoying and disrupted the flow of the tale.  However, Kerman's voice was consistent throughout these variances, making the sudden switches more tolerable to read.

Kerman mentions in passing that her year had its rough moments... but aside from dealing with her Grandmother's illness, stays far on the surface of these times.  Which leads the reader to believe that her time in Danbury wasn't so bad--that maybe she was just a "whiney privileged white girl."  In reality, there were probably times when it was terrible for *her* (and not just one of the other girls there), and maybe she didn't want to relive those in her memoir.  Or maybe she didn't want to be too depressing for her readers.  Or maybe just being incapable of leaving the walls for such an extended period of time was rough.  She managed to remain a picky eater, looked years younger after LEAVING prison, worked out, got a lot of daytime, watched movies, had friends.... yeah, I know a lot of girls who'd kill for her crappy year.   But, as I say, maybe there was some stuff under the surface that she didn't divulge.

All in all, the book gets THREE AND A HALF stars (bumped to 4 on non-half-star sites for its importance) because Kerman tells a good story and creates a few vivid characters (though a few others are glaringly 2-dimensional), and because the story she is telling and the impact it has had and can have is important.  Important!  For any person who knows no-one who has been to jail or prison (even a "swanky" minimum security prison like Danbury), or anyone who thinks that prisoners cannot be rehabilitated and/or do not have any good in them, this book is a MUST.

For the rest of us who've had harder lives, I say go ahead and read it if it sounds interesting.  It certainly is not a bad book and, even though it's a bit disorganized, it tells an interesting story.

**side note: I am both interested in watching the tv show to see some of the characters come to life, and adamantly opposed in case my fears that it has created caricatures of very real people's lives, pain, and struggles are justified.

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