Monday, January 26, 2015

Book Review: Orange is the New Black

I grabbed this book off an airport shelf as an antidote to desperate boredom during one of my many wanderings and flight delays over the holidays, paid way too much for it (as airports require)....and then bought some overpriced chocolate as well, because, when in airport purgatory....

I really liked this book because it made me passionate about a new topic (the U.S. prison system), and also pleasantly surprised me many times with the goodness of humans. 

I had a hard time focusing on it for the first bit (we could blame the airport) I thought I might only mildly enjoy it, at best. But then it sucked me in, and I was ultimately really sad for it to end.

Basic idea (and this is an autobiography of a true story): A woman (Piper Kerman), spends a year in a Connecticut prison because of a 10-yr-old drug smuggling charge that came back to bite her. When she heads into prison, she's a young, white, professional woman from Manhattan with a supportive fiance, family and network of friends who visit her and send her packages and promise her cushy office jobs upon her release. So, maybe not your typical prisoner.

You may have heard of this book because of the ol' Netflix series of the same name that's been so popular as of late. I've been planning to watch the show now that I've finished the book, and was surprised the other day while chatting with a friend to find out how different the show sounds from the book.

From what I hear, the show is infused with extra doses of drama/nudity/so on and so on. I'm not opposed to nudity if it feels productive to the storyline, so I'll see how I feel about the show. I'm less concerned about that than I am with feeling like the storyline might be dramatized or the people made out to be crazier or more dangerous than the book ever indicated.

Because what I loved best about the book is that it was surprisingly....not dramatic.

It made it clear that prison was not a cake walk by any means, but it was incredibly HUMAN. I went into it picturing more "prison break" and instead found a beautiful story about relationships, kindness, survival and compassion. I loved the stories of the women that Piper met in prison, who took her under their wing -- and the stories further into the book, when she became a mentor to other newbies as well. I love the idea of goodness still thriving in the midst of unfortunate circumstances. I also really like that, even though Piper's background was perhaps different than a lot of the women around her, she really seemed to learn to thrive (as best you can, in prison) and make friends and find her place without feeling like she was better than anyone -- she makes it pretty clear in the book that she knew she was there serving her time for a reason, just like everyone else.

It also ignited a passion in me about the dire state of the U.S. prison system.

As much as I was pleasantly surprised by Piper's experience with her fellow inmates, I was increasingly frustrated and appalled by some of the circumstances and the way basic human rights were held up or denied by paperwork, lengthy processes, laziness and neglect (on the part of the employees and systems). One of the biggest takeaways from the book, for me, is something Piper specifically wrote about: that prison teaches its residents how to survive in prison, but not how to survive in the real world. The stats and facts about our prison system, when compared to other countries but also just inherently in regard to human decency, are dismal. We can do better. We should do better. In all arenas: who we put in prison, how we treat them while in prison, how we prepare them to succeed post-release, etc. Locking people up for the sake of locking them up does nothing to reform anyone or fix any problems, ultimately.

I'm glad this book made me think about a topic I hadn't really spent much mental breath on before. Definitely recommended!

Have you read it? Have you watched the show? Talk to me!


Hawkes said...

Dude. I totally started watching it on Netflix but in like 2 seconds there was graphic nudity and it wasn't important like boobs in titanic. :)

Chantel said...

Super interesting! I'm REALLY glad you posted this synopsis of the book. For one, you summarize exceptionally well. You're definitely my favorite writer for book review. And second, the concepts you talk about in regards to our prison system really fascinate me! Makes me think more about it too. I like considering things I've never really considered before, which is exactly the invitation you extend here.

Thank you!

Unknown said...

I love how you write book reviews. I haven't really even thought about reading this but now you've got me curious. Adding it to my list. :)