Review: Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Genre: Memoir
Pages: 298
Format: Audiobook
Publication Date: April 6, 2010

Summary:  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.

Review: While I greatly enjoyed this book, I have a few mixed feelings. On one hand, I often found it funny, heartbreaking, and inspiring. However, sometimes I found myself incredibly annoyed with Piper and her writing. Throughout her account of her time, she talks about how being around the kind of people whom she directly harmed with her crime has taught her the error of her ways. She speaks honestly and quite beautifully about her guilt and the way drugs have destroyed so many lives. Her stories are candid, funny, and sometimes at her own expense, which I found very brave. I love that she brings attention to the inefficiencies of the penal system, the poor treatment and abuses that occur. It’s a good example of someone using their privileged to bring a voice to those who have less privilege and are submersed because of that.

At a few points in the book, however, I found her incredibly whiny and unthankful. She explicitly says that she is treated better than virtually everyone because of her appearance and race. She has a massive support system outside of prison who visit her weekly, sends her presents, and talks to her on the phone. She has a place to go after prison and she’s engaged to a guy who accepts the fact that she’s spending a year in prison. Despite all of this and her short sentence to boot, she occasionally plays the “victim card”, emphasizing the fact that the crime she committed was ten years in the past and that she’s a different person. The way she portrays some of the other women is demeaning and she occasionally comes off as a “special snowflake”, making it difficult to feel sorry for her.

From a writing point of view, there were a few issues stylistically. She repeated herself almost verbatim a couple times which was incredibly annoying, as if she had forgotten what she had already written or explained. I feel like a fresh editor could pick over the book and improve it.

Part of this review is also influenced by the reader of the audiobook, whom I did not like. She had a droning, bored voice and her racial accents were just horribly insulting. I usually don’t let format get in the way of my reviews, and it didn’t affect my rating all too much, but I do recommend not listening to the audiobook of this if you do plan on reading it.

I have also watched the Netflix show and while it is very, very different than the book, I highly recommend it, both separately and as a companion to the book. It’s hilarious, entertaining, and it still raises many of the same moral and political failures of the prison system that Kerman presents in her book.

Review: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Rating: ★★★☆☆
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 512
Format: Ebook

Summary: The Art of Fielding is about five characters–Henry, Schwartz, Owen, Affenlight, and Pella–and how their lives and interactions dance in a tangled web together. The story focuses on Henry’s path as a shortstop who gets recruited by Mike Schwartz to Westish College in Michigan. After three years of practice and extreme training under the heavy influence of Schwartz, Henry becomes a star on the field. His dreams skyrocket until one bad throw rattles all five intertwined lives and sends Henry into a downward spiral out of the spotlight.

Review: First, I’d like to emphasize that while this book has lots of baseball and seems to be based around it–a bonus for me because I love baseball and my team is having a horrible season–it is a character-driven novel and anyone can read it without losing anything from the baseball parts. Harbach describes the game very eloquently, one of the many aspects of this books that I enjoyed, but he also writes five very complete, dimensional characters who envelope the reader in their lives and affairs.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of the novel. Harbach builds Henry up into a hero-like character, young and fresh with potential, hope, and enthusiasm for baseball. I was inclined to adore Henry from the beginning. Henry’s fall from grace is heart-breaking and despite some of his more questionable actions, I couldn’t help but still root for him the entire book. I also enjoyed Pella’s character, a strong young woman trying to reclaim the youth she left behind when she dropped out of high school, got married, and moved to San Francisco. Her anti-rebellion back into college and into her father’s house makes for a refreshing character who is desperate to just be a normal college kid. As a character story, it was well-done. Each character has their strengths and flaws, deep personalities that make them all distinct and wonderful to read about.

Now let’s talk about what I didn’t like: pretty much the entire second half of the story. The middle felt long and drawn-out. Some of the characters side-stepped their carefully-constructed personalities in very uncharacteristic ways. There were a good 100 or so pages that simply could have been omitted. I almost lost my interest which is unfortunate because I wanted to like this book so much more than I did. While the characters remained relatively strong, I lost interest in the story. Everything got very messy very quickly and there was no relief for the reader past the half-way point, no hope to cling on to and this is too long of a book to be left stranded like that.

The other thing I didn’t like was the ending. I absolutely hatted the ending. It felt cheap and I finished the book feeling like I had been gypped. After investing many hours into reading a long, drawn-out book, the end felt like a cop-out. Overall, I was a little disappointed by this book. I wanted to like it so badly and 200 pages in, I would have given it 5 stars in a heartbeat. The ending really left a bad taste in my mouth. I will explain more why past the spoiler barrier so continue at your own risk.

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