Thursday, May 20, 2010

Book Review, Orange is the New Black

Title & Author: Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau Publishing, April 2010
Genre: Memoir
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Summary: A compelling, often hilarious, and unfailingly compassionate portrait of life inside a women’s prison

When Piper Kerman was sent to prison for a ten-year-old crime, she barely resembled the reckless young woman she’d been when, shortly after graduating Smith College, she’d committed the misdeeds that would eventually catch up with her. Happily ensconced in a New York City apartment, with a promising career and an attentive boyfriend, she was suddenly forced to reckon with the consequences of her very brief, very careless dalliance in the world of drug trafficking.
Kerman spent thirteen months in prison, eleven of them at the infamous federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, where she met a surprising and varied community of women living under exceptional circumstances. In Orange Is the New Black, Kerman tells the story of those long months locked up in a place with its own codes of behavior and arbitrary hierarchies, where a practical joke is as common as an unprovoked fight, and where the uneasy relationship between prisoner and jailer is constantly and unpredictably recalibrated.

Revealing, moving, and enraging, Orange Is the New Black offers a unique perspective on the criminal justice system, the reasons we send so many people to prison, and what happens to them when they’re there

My Thoughts: A blue-eyed, blond-haired WASP graduate of a Seven Sisters college, Piper Kerman isn't the type of woman many people would expect to find among the convicted in federal prison. But like so many college graduates, Piper wasn't ready to return home and get a 9-5 desk job or enter a graduate program. Still not comfortable with her parents recent separation and yearning for adventure, Piper remained in her college town working as a waitress while living a carefree, unstructured existence. During this time she met Nora who paid a lot of attention to Piper. Nora was older and sophisticated with money to spend. Piper was intensely attracted to Nora's charm and tantalizing, free-spirit attitude. I understood, from her memoir, how Nora's kind of unfettered existence, where money is not an issue, was attractive to Piper. But I didn't really understand why a smart woman like Piper remained attached to Nora after learning that her lifestyle was funded by a drug-smuggling enterprise. Initially, Piper felt special because Nora confided the secret about her "job" to Piper. The excitement of Nora’s dark and risky behavior may have clouded Piper's good judgment at first. But I wish that Piper had written more about her relationship with Nora and further clarified why she still wanted to be around Nora knowing she was involved with drugs and why it took her so long to detach from Nora..

Four years later, Piper was living a normal life, sharing an apartment in NYC with her boyfriend and working as a free-lance producer. I cannot imagine how frightening it must have been to open her door to Federal Officers with the news that Piper had been indicted for drug-smuggling and money laundering. I 'm impressed that Piper managed to function after their visit. In fact, her composure throughout most of her ordeal is impressive. Piper cried many times but that she didn't come completely undone telling her family and friends about the charges or while waiting six years to be sentenced is amazing. Piper is a strong, resilient woman, characteristics that helped her immensely many times throughout her ordeal, such as when her fiancé dropped her off at the federal correctional institution where she was to serve her sentence or during run-ins with various guards at the correctional institution who were rude, unprofessional and lecherous. Piper's blond hair, blue eyes and white skin made her a frequent target of some of the more disreputable guards.

Piper Kerman is also intelligent, charming and armed with a good sense of humor, evident in her clear and honest writing. Prison is a big adjustment but the other prisoners help to make Piper as comfortable as possible, repeatedly reassure her and fill her in on prison rules and policies. Many of these women became Piper's good friends and they help each other pass the time. Piper hears why her friends are in prison and what their lives were like on the outside. Many of the women were involved in criminal activity to support their families. Several were arrested because of drug involvement which causes Piper to feel guilty, believing that her participation in a drug-smuggling ring contributed to her new friends' addictions. But the women don't blame her. Most of them are intent on making the best of their situation. Piper's funny, touching and sweet stories about these women make it clear why her days in prison were better than she expected them to be..

One of the most important things Piper learns from the other women is how to "do time", how to come to terms with her imprisonment and accept it, yet not allow herself to become too comfortable in prison. Daily life in prison can be all consuming as you try to live by the often arbitrary prison rules and policies as well as cope with prison politics among the prisoners. It's easy to forget the real world, therefore, it's important to remain ready to return to real life at any time. It's a difficult balance to manage but imperative. Piper's constant stream of visitors, letters, magazines and books kept her tethered to the outside world and aware of what was happening beyond the prison walls. But for prisoners with very long sentences, the balance was more difficult to maintain. Many of the friends Piper made had very long sentences and were great examples to her of how to "do time" well.

I enjoyed this memoir because Piper doesn't write only about her day-to-day existence in prison. She shares the things she learns about the prison system, the justice system, the laws and how she feels about the things she's learned after thinking about them. I appreciate her opinion and the different, richer perspective it provides on the issues. One such example is the fact that in the poorer neighborhoods, narcotics offer the best way to make money and support a family, particularly for single mothers. But even the smallest offense involving drugs can mean a lengthy prison sentence. Some sentences for minor involvement with drugs are longer than those for violent crimes! This sounds unfair when we read or hear about it, but when you see this unfairness actually occurring in the lives of your friends, it's obviously infuriating, which is one of the points Kerman makes with great effect. Much of what Piper learns during her thirteen month imprisonment sours her considerably on the justice system and our government's way of handling domestic issues. I wish Piper had written a little less about daily life in prison and more about what she learned and what she thinks about the justice system. Unfortunately she only touches on her views on the politics of prison, its rules and policies and the sentences handed out by the U.S. government for violations of the drug laws and individuals' involvement in the drug trade. Being a smart, well-read woman with a front row seat for 13 months, she could have provided much more in depth commentary. If we're lucky, there's another memoir in Piper's future!

Orange is the New Black is a humorous, touching and captivating memoir by a woman who made a terrible mistake in her early twenties and, as a result, serves time in prison, her head held high, ten years later. Piper Kerman has written an eye-opening story about what it's like day to day life in a federal correctional institution as well as the other women she met there who were also trying to make the best of a difficult, possibly unfair situation. But it's also a book about the resiliency of the human spirit and how to make the best of a bad situation.
I received this book as part of Goodreads first reads program.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Review of Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt

Title: Making Toast
Author: Roger Rosenblatt
Pages: 176
Release Date: February 16, 2010
Publisher: Ecco Publishing
Genre: Memoir

My Rating: 4.0 out of 5

Summary: When his daughter, Amy—gifted doctor, mother, and wife—collapses and dies from an asymptomatic heart condition, Roger Rosenblatt and his wife, Ginny, leave their home on the South Shore of Long Island to move in with their son-in-law, Harris, and their three young grandchildren: six-year-old Jessica, four-year-old Sammy, and one-year-old James, known as Bubbies. Long past the years of diapers, homework, and recitals, Roger and Ginny—Boppo and Mimi to the kids—quickly re-accustom themselves to the world of small children: bedtime stories, talking toys, play-dates, nonstop questions, and non-sequential thought. Though reeling from Amy's death they carry on, reconstructing a family, sustaining one another, and guiding three lively, alert, and tender-hearted children through the pains and confusions of grief. As he marvels at the strength of his son-in-law, a surgeon, and the tenacity and skill of his wife, a former kindergarten teacher, Roger attends each day to "the one household duty I have mastered"—preparing the morning toast perfectly to each child's liking.

With the wit, heart, precision, and depth of understanding that has characterized his work, Roger Rosenblatt peels back the layers on this most personal of losses to create both a tribute to his late daughter and a testament to familial love. The day Amy died, Harris told Ginny and Roger, "It's impossible." Roger's story tells how a family makes the possible of the impossible

My Thoughts: Roger Rosenblatt has written an inspiring story of love, grief, devotion, and sadness. Making Toast is about a family who comes together while figuring out how to make things work and continue functioning well after the death of the woman who was their daughter, wife, mother and sister. In addition to grieving Rosenblatt's memoir also reminds us of how even the smallest things we do have an impact on another person, be they a stranger, an acquaintance, a beloved family member or a dear friend.

I thought this was a wonderful book as Rosenblatt's writing makes getting to know his daughter Amy an enjoyable experience and something I didn't expect in a memoir about death and grief. He celebrates her life and the person she was by relaying numerous anecdotes and stories about Amy, the things she said and did and how she interacted with family members, her husband, children, friends, acquaintances and strangers. Rosenblatt's stories about Amy emphasize specific aspects of her personality that he felt were particularly unique to her and made her special. By the end of the book, I felt like I knew Amy, a beautiful, intelligent, kind, loving and witty woman with whom I would have liked to have been friends. Rosenblatt's stories about Amy's interaction with people throughout her life also made me realize how much our behavior can have an impact on every person we come in contact with. Our smallest word or just a smile can change someone's day. Not only did I become more cognizant of my behavior and attitude towards others but since I've read this book I'v tried to be careful to smile and greet other people, even strangers. It's actually made my days better!

I consider Rosenblatt's writing this memoir so soon after his daughter's death an amazing act of courage. Hopefully it was cathartic for him. It couldn't have been easy. Amy died December 2, 2007 and by June 2008 Rosenblatt is writing his memoir. At the same time he's grieving his daughter's death, he is living in his daughter's family's house, helping care for his grandchildren, Jessie, Sammy and James (Bubbie) and driving from Virginia to Long Island, New York once a week to teach. That sounds exhausting and could drive somebody nuts!

Rosenblatt frequently mentions that he's very angry but he never explodes. He finds the 5-hour drive to New York and back good for relieving tension, although he notes that road rage was a possibility in the weeks right after his daughter died. Rosenblatt is somewhat comforted, or at least relieved, by talking to many different people about grieving and the death of a family member or a child. But no one is perfect and shortly after Amy died, Rosenblatt was only able to control his anger so much. He uncharacteristically lost his temper with some students and other people and picked fights with store clerks.

Rosenblatt invites us in on some very poignant moments that clearly show how painful the loss of Amy is for everybody in the family. He shares how “Carl, John and I stood together on the deck in Bethesda the day after Amy died, and wept. Arms around one another, we formed a circle, like skydivers, our garments flapping in the wind.” describing a moment so raw it made me pause in my reading to wipe the copious tears from my eyes. Rosenblatt also writes in relation to Amy's husband, Harris, "As with us all, sorrow frames his every activity...." showing us that the family's pain and sadness is so pervasive it exists in everything they do. And in a very touching scene, Rosenblatt explains his feelings and his belief that Amy is always in the minds and hearts of him and his family when 5 year-old Sammy says he has no mom and Rosenblatt tells him "Mommy is still with us." "She's always with us, everywhere. We can't see her, but we can feel her spirit."

I found Rosenblatt's memoir to be extremely emotional. I cried, I laughed, I shuddered and more while reading about this family and how they continued on after losing Amy. I think it's an amzing book and a reminder, in one respect, that we have no idea what a person is dealing with when we encounter them in the course of our day. It seems like life and the activities of living should stop for a week or so when someone we love dearly and depend upon dies. But that doesn't happen. Life goes on and we are expected to move forward with it. It's not easy but we all try to manage to do so when it's our turn to face loss and grief. Thank you to Roger Rosenblatt for sharing yours and your family's experience and struggle with life after the death of your daughter and reminding us how human we all are.

I received an ARC of this book from the Publisher, Ecco through Shelf Awareness.