Saturday, April 5, 2014

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

If you live under a rock, Orange is the New Black is the memoir of a Smith College grad who spent her post-college days experimenting with lesbianism and drug trafficking.  Okay, to be fair, she might have been more grounded in the former than the latter, but it's not really clear from the book.  Watch the Netfiix series, though, and you'll get waaaaaaay more lesbionic love scenes than the source material proffers.

But that's not to say you should skip the book!  OITNB (get with it) is part cautionary tale, part WTF, and part commentary against the U.S. federal prison system.

Imagine you are young, spontaneous, not sure of the next step in life.  You come from a good family, you have a great education, and your girlfriend lives a life that takes her to exotic locations and pays well.  Okay, better than well.  Turns out her sister's boyfriend is a major player in the drug trade.  Eventually simply accompanying her on business trips becomes traveling with a suitcase full of drug money.  Slope slipped.  But before Kerman gets too far down, she breaks free, cuts her ties, and moves across the country.  Crisis averted.

Until five years later, when the feds come knocking at her door.  Shiznit.

This book is less about Kerman, however, and more about the federal women's prison in Danbury, CT and its other inhabitants.  Through Kerman's experience, we glimpse the daily routine, the programs (or lack thereof), the food, and the ad-hoc families that make up day to day life at Danbury.  She details the tragedy that is a part of everyday life in prison, as well as the triumphs.  Perhaps most surprising to me was the lack of sheer terror and violence I guess I was expecting Kerman to experience.  Again, that's not to say you should skip the book!

I was amazed at how people made do with their circumstances and each other.  Somewhat parodoxically, my eyes were opened to the great equalizer that prison could be.  Kerman was able to show how women from so many walks of life could coexist and foster meaningful relationships.  And you'll learn a lot of really random things, like how to make cheesecake with a microwave and laughing cow cheese, and how to clean a ceiling with tampons.  Sign me up!

I've already mentioned that the Netflix series is different from the book, but in a lot of ways, it is remarkably similar too.  Yeah, Crazy Eyes doesn't pee on Kerman's floor in the book, but she does mention a woman she calls Crazy Eyes, another who tried wooing her, and a peeing incident.  And there might not be a whole backstory on a guard and an inmate who have an affair, but Kerman describes how one guard, suspecting impropriety, caused an inmate to go to solitary, and the guard in question quitting.

But you should do more than just read this book and watch the series.  And that's one way I know I've read an intriguing book, when I want to google the author and learn more.  Because Orange is the New Black is more than *just* a memoir.  It's a commentary, and hopefully by reading it, you'll be more than just entertained.

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