Review Time: Orange is the New Black

Sometimes I’ll go onto Goodreads or Amazon and read reviews of books I’ve read before I write a review. Agreeing or disagreeing with other people helps me to develop my own argument and clarify what I’d like to say.

So, I’m doing this for Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman and I notice something very strange. People are either loving or hating this book (in general). Furthermore, the “hate it” reviews are usually newer reviews, less than 6 months old. Very strange. I do a little more thinking and it comes to me. Many of the more hateful reviews mention how much the reviewers love love LOVED the Netflix T.V. series based on the book.

And so, I preface this review by saying this: IF you love love LOVE the T.V. show, maybe don’t bother with the book. As much as it pains me to discourage someone from reading, you might be disappointed. No one gets shanked, no one almost starves to death (no tampon sandwiches!) and no gratuitous (albeit hot) sex scenes. The series deviates drastically from the book, and so if that’s what you’re looking for, you won’t find it here.

So, who’s left?

Either you’ve neither seen the show/ read the book or (like me) you thought the show was just ok. For those who belong to column A, Orange is the New Black is the memoir of Piper Kerman who spent a year in a women’s prison on a 10 year old drug charge (the only time she had ever broken the law).

* This is the part where everyone should take a minute to remember the stupid shit you did as a teenager. Now realize that 10 years later you could still get nailed for it…yikes*

Anyway, Kermans’ book may not be tawdry and dramatic, but it is a truly fascinating look into what it was like for her in prison. She seems to fully capture the tedium and loss of control as well as portraying how inefficient the “rehabilitation” part of imprisonment actually is. She touches on the rampant sexism and racial inequalities in the American penal system and highlights how the “war on drugs” is punishing all the wrong people. What touched me the most is how many of these “criminals” are mothers who take phone messages for their sons and women that allow their boyfriends to use their homes to store drugs, criminals by association doing long sentences. I had never really thought of these things before, and Kerman presents them in a way that does not shove any politics onto the reader, but allows you to feel for these women and come to your own conclusions.

I found this book touching and heartbreaking and REAL. It may not be the story of the typical incarceration story, as Kerman comes into this situation with so many more advantages and support than the other inmates (a fact that she does stress repeatedly). But this book is HER story, and she tells it very well, while telling the stories of those around her with compassion and sensitivity.

I would call this an eye-opening, worthwhile read….but read it before you watch the T.V. show!


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