Orange Is the New Black is a book that’s been on my radar for a while, but I really hadn’t found a compelling reason to read it until it became the basis of the Netflix original TV series that people couldn’t stop talking about last summer. I still haven’t watched it, but all the conversation made me curious about exactly how this memoir of a privileged white woman’s imprisonment on a drug charge could be translated into episodic television, so I downloaded the audiobook–it seemed like a fitting way to compromise on formats.
Piper Kerman’s story is that of the one youthful mistake that comes back to haunt someone. Looking for a little life on the wild side after graduating from Smith College, she drifted into a relationship with a drug smuggler, and–just once–delivered a suitcase full of drug money for her. The thrill wore off quickly after that, and Kerman got on with her life…until five years later, when the drug ring was busted and hers was one of the names named to Federal prosecutors. Kerman was in a better position than many to challenge the charges of conspiracy and money-laundering and spent another five years doing just that, but her eventual plea bargain sent her to a Federal women’s prison camp in Danbury, Connecticut for fifteen months (she served thirteen). Although she wryly notes that living at a women’s college was surprisingly good preparation for living in a women’s prison, Kerman’s also very aware that while her background is quite different from that of many fellow residents at Danbury, most of them have ended up there thanks to one thing: Federal mandatory-minimum sentences for drug-related charges.
Kerman has a strong support system on “the outs”–parents, good friends, and her faithful fiance Larry–and a good job and home waiting for her, but for the most part, her experience in Danbury isn’t significantly different from any other inmate’s. Her own story, by default, intertwines with those of many of her fellow prisoners, and as she tells it, it becomes evident that she’s in a unique position to evaluate and articulate the failings of the system which makes them all unhappily equal. One reason I hadn’t been previously inclined to read Orange Is the New Black before this was that I had an impression of it as a “debutante goes to prison” story. That premise annoyed me, and I was happy to discover it was incorrect–the episodes of diva behavior depicted in this memoir rarely originate with its author.
It seems to me that the personalities she depicts are what most likely inspired the development of the TV series–and there are some pretty memorable characters here, without question–but the insights that Kerman develops through her experiences with these people are what make the book worthwhile reading. Thanks to those, she has been an activist for justice reform since her release from prison, and being associated with a successful television show is likely to help her gain attention for that cause.
The audio version of Orange Is the New Black is read by Cassandra Campbell. Campbell’s efforts to distinguish Kerman’s fellow inmates via voices and accents aren’t uniformly effective, but she “becomes” Piper so well that I think I’d be jarred by the sound of Kerman telling her own story. It’s a story I’m glad I finally decided to hear.
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. Heartbreaking, hilarious, and at times enraging, Kerman’s story offers a rare look into the lives of women in prison—why it is we lock so many away and what happens to them when they’re there.
“International baggage claim in the Brussels airport was large and airy, with multiple carousels circling endlessly. I scurried from one to another, desperately trying to find my black suitcase. Because it was stuffed with drug money, I was more concerned than one might normally be about lost luggage.
“I was twenty-three in 1993 and probably looked like just another anxious young professional woman. My Doc Martens had been jettisoned in favor of beautiful handmade black suede heels. I wore black silk pants and a beige jacket, a typical jeune fille, not a bit counterculture, unless you spotted the tattoo on my neck. I had done exactly as I had been instructed, checking my bag in Chicago through Paris, where I had to switch planes to take a short flight to Brussels.
:When I arrived in Belgium, I looked for my black rollie at the baggage claim. It was nowhere to be seen. Fighting a rushing tide of panic, I asked in my mangled high school French what had become of my suitcase. ‘Bags don’t make it onto the right flight sometimes,’ said the big lug working in baggage handling. ‘Wait for the next shuttle from Paris—it’s probably on that plane.’
“Had my bag been detected? I knew that carrying more than $10,000 undeclared was illegal, let alone carrying it for a West African drug lord. Were the authorities closing in on me? Maybe I should try to get through customs and run? Or perhaps the bag really was just delayed, and I would be abandoning a large sum of money that belonged to someone who could probably have me killed with a simple phone call. I decided that the latter choice was slightly more terrifying. So I waited.”
Columbine Dave Cullen Audiobook read by Don Leslie Grand Central Publishing (2010), trade paper (ISBN 0446546925 / 9780446546928) Nonfiction (current affairs), 464 pages Source: Purchased audiobook (Blackstone Audio (2009), ISBN 9781433290466; Audible ASIN B0025ZAMU6) Reason for reading: Personal Opening lines: “He told them he loved them. Each and every one of them. He spoke without notes but chose his words carefully. Frank DeAngelis waited out the pom-pom routines, the academic awards, and the student-made videos. […]
Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital Sheri Fink (Twitter) (Facebook) Audiobook read by Kirsten Potter Crown (September 2013), Hardcover (ISBN 0307718964 / 9780307718969) Nonfiction (social science/health), 576 pages Source: Purchased audiobook (Random House Audio (September 2013) ISBN 978-0-8041-2810-0; Audible ASIN B00EF870X8) Reason for reading: Personal interest From the Prologue: “For certain New Orleanians, Memorial Medical Center was the place you went to ride out each hurricane that the loop current […]
Eleanor & Park Rainbow Rowell (Twitter) (Facebook) (Tumblr) (Goodreads) Audiobook read by Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra St. Martin’s Griffin (February 2013), Hardcover (ISBN 1250012570 / 9781250012579) Fiction (YA), 336 pages Source: Purchased audiobook (Random House Audio, February 2013, ISBN 9780385368278; Audible ASIN B00B4WKAQW) Reason for reading: Banned Books Week Opening lines: “XTC was no good for drowning out the morons at the back of the bus. “Park pressed his headphones into his ears. “Tomorrow […]
Then Again Diane Keaton (Twitter) Audiobook read by the author Random House Trade Paperbacks (2012), Paperback (ISBN 0812980956 / 9780812980950) Nonfiction (memoir/autobiography), 336 pages Source: Purchased audiobook (Random House Audio (November 2011), ISBN 978-0-307-93402-4; Audible ASIN B0067VIYKE) Reason for reading: Personal (recommended by Beth Kephart) Opening lines: “Mom loved adages, quotes, slogans. There were always little reminders pasted on the kitchen wall. For example, the word think. I found think thumbtacked on a bulletin board in […]
Beautiful Ruins: A Novel Jess Walter Audiobook read by Edoardo Ballerini Harper Perennial (March 2013), trade paper (ISBN 9780061928178 / 0061928178) Fiction, 368 pages Source: Purchased audiobook (Harper Audio (June 2012), ISBN 9780062201621; Audible ASIN B008ARPV8Q) Reason for reading: Personal Opening lines: “The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could arrive directly–in a boat that motored into the cove, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the […]
Kicking & Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock & Roll Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson, with Charles R. Cross (Twitter) (Facebook) Audiobook read by Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson It Books (September 2012), Hardcover (ISBN 0062101676 / 9780062101679) Nonfiction: Autobiography/music/popular culture, 288 pages Source: Purchased audiobook (Harper Audio, unabridged. ISBN 9780062243706; Audible ASIN B009CMO4ZY) Reason for reading: Personal (recommended by Jodi at I Will Dare) Opening lines (from the Prologue): “I never thought […]
Sisterland: A Novel Curtis Sittenfeld Audiobook read by Rebecca Lowman Random House (June 2013), Hardcover (ISBN 1400068312 / 9781400068319) Fiction, 416 pages Source: Purchased audiobook (Random House Audio, 2013; ISBN 9780307736611) Reason for reading: Personal (audio recommended by Beth Fish Reads) Opening lines: “The shaking started around three in the morning, and it happened that I was already awake because I’d nursed Owen at two and then, instead of going back to sleep, I’d lain […]
Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas John Scalzi (Twitter) (Facebook) (Goodreads) Audiobook read by Wil Wheaton (Twitter) (Facebook) (Tumblr) Tor Books (2012), hardcover (ISBN 0765316994 / 9780765316998) Science fiction/satire, 320 pages Source:* Purchased audiobook (Audible Frontiers, 2012: ASIN B0088U1CCO) Reason for reading: Personal *I received an ARC of Redshirts, signed by the author, at Book Expo America 2012–and I’ll be keeping that, even though I decided to listen to the novel instead of reading it. […]
The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story Lily Koppel (Twitter) (Facebook) Audiobook read by Orlagh Cassidy (IMDb) (Facebook) (Twitter) Grand Central Publishing (June 2013), Hardcover (ISBN 1455503258 / 9781455503254) Nonfiction (history/biography), 288 pages Source: purchased audiobook (Hachette Audio, 2013, ISBN 9781619696464; Audible ASIN B00CS9KH0O) Reason for reading: Personal Opening lines (Author’s Note): “To be an astronaut wife meant tea with Jackie Kennedy, high-society galas, and instant celebrity. It meant smiling perfectly after a makeover by […]
Someday, Someday, Maybe: A Novel Lauren Graham (Twitter) (Fan site) (IMDb) Ballantine Books (April 2013), Hardcover (ISBN 0385367473 / 9780345532749) Fiction, 352 pages Source: Purchased audiobook (Random House Audio, April 2013, ISBN 9780385367486; Audible ASIN B00B3Y1B5U) Reason for reading: Personal Opening lines: “’Begin whenever you’re ready,’ comes the voice from the back of the house. “Oh, I’m ready. “After all, I’ve prepared for this day for years: The Day of the Most Important Audition of […]
I found time to tackle the daily topics for Audiobook Week before I left for vacation, but since I found I didn’t have quite enough to say for any of them to warrant separate posts, I’m condensing it all into one. 2012-2013, Your Audiobook Year Are you new to audiobooks in the last year? Have you been listening to them forever but discovered something new this year? Favorite titles? New times/places to listen? This is […]