Thursday, February 24, 2011

Narcissistic is the New Insightful: Cranky Book Review

OH MY GOD I'M SO SICK. On the whole I still feel better than I did on Saturday. But having turfed the inhaler that was making me nauseous, I have had a few coughing attacks that have bordered on the truly frightening -- blood vessels bursting in my eyes, feeling like my jaw is going to dislocate, unable to keep my balance. My voice sounds like this. My kids are kind of freaked out, which also means they're being very sweet and helpful (but they're freaked out. Angus passed me last night in the kitchen bent over the sink in case I coughed until I projectile-vomited again and went upstairs, and then Eve came down and said 'Angus said I shouldn't come down. He said you were coughing a lot and I should wait and see you upstairs.')

So I'm going to do a book review, because I haven't been doing enough book reviews, and I'm not sure it's fair to do it cranky, because the book already made me a little cranky, but what the hell, I've never made any pretenses to objectivity.

The book is called Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison by Piper Kerman, a pretty blonde New Yorker who found herself at loose ends after college and ended up dabbling in money laundering for a West African heroin operation. She fell into this through her lesbian affair with Nora, a woman who was higher up in the operation, and she got out of it fairly quickly. She then went on to meet and become engaged to a man and went on with her life until ten years or so later her actions caught up with her and she ended up serving thirteen months in a minimum security prison for money laundering and drug trafficking. This book is about her year (or so) behind bars.

First of all, the year thing immediately flags the book for me as one of those "my year doing (insert kooky madcap stunt that shows my whimsical, creative, one-of-a-kind nature) in order to get a book deal" books. I've read a few of these, and liked them (Not Buying it, by Judith Levine, springs to mind as a thoughtful, well-written example), but it's gotten a bit ridiculous -- living Biblically, obeying Oprah, having sex every day, etc. etc. I can't even make up one, like "I'm going to only live on what I can buy with Canadian Tire money for one year" or "for one year I'm going to do everything backwards" because I'm afraid I'll open the paper and find it there, like today when I read about a man who's going to open a fortune cookie and live by the fortune every day for... you guessed it.

It's really not fair to lump Kerman's book in with these, because presumably she would have avoided going to jail for a year if she could, and the book deal probably fell right in her lap, and I'm sure the poor woman had legal bills. But write the book she did, and clearly the title shows that neither she nor her publisher are averse to capitalizing on the trend, so have at it I will.

There were a couple ways this could have gone. If Kerman was a fantastic writer, she could have produced a vivid rendering of what it's like to have your freedom taken away, to have someone tell you when and what you get to eat, when you get to bathe and sleep. There's a little of this, but it doesn't go very deep. If she was the crusading type, she could have made it her mission to examine what happens to imprisoned women who aren't white and middle class, and see what she could do to change it. She's not the crusading type. She makes some noises about how she understands that she had it easier than most because of her colour and class and the fact that she had people outside sending her a constant stream of money and books. She is pleasantly surprised about how many of the other women are nurturing and helpful rather than out to rape and beat her, (and when one of the other women makes appreciative remarks about her breasts, Kerman finds this flattering rather than threatening), but she doesn't really seem to get the vast mantle of privilege that separates her from them, or she doesn't want to examine it too closely -- which, to be fair, is probably the exact way I would react if I was in the same situation. Kerman had a supportive fiancé, an unconditionally loving family and even a job waiting for her at the end of her sentence -- a 'generous friend' had started his own company and created a position for her. Most of the other women presumably had lives of the same poverty and lack of opportunity that drove them to commit the offences that landed them in jail in the first place waiting for them.

I'm not sure the fact that she was in a minimum security facility is emphasized enough. It wasn't a five-star resort by any means, but Kerman was adequately fed, sheltered and never feared for her health or safety -- in fact, the less-than-appetizing fare and the running track to which she had frequent access led visitors to repeatedly tell her how fantastic she looked (maybe her next book will be called The Jailhouse Diet - thirteen months to a completely reformed shape). I don't know if I was expecting Oz with women, but this was pretty tame. Not that I'm dying to go to jail or anything, but you know what they say, if you can't do the time, don't be a douche.

She doesn't follow up on any of the women she was incarcerated with. The book ends when she's released and runs into her fiancé's arms. As a jailhouse diary, it's perfectly adequate, but it doesn't amount to much more than low-level voyeurism; I was hoping for something a little more substantial.

9 comments:

Amber Dusick said...

Oh yes on that "I did this weird thing for one year = book deal" because just 10 minutes ago I was browsing a blog a friend sent me about a girl who made an outfit for a year on a dollar day...which was inspired by the Julie & Julia movie. It does seem a little gimmicky, doesn't it?

Nan | WrathOfMom said...

So glad to know I'm not alone in hating The Year of Living... trend. The other trend I hate is the use of the phrase "Blah-diddity-blah-blah-blah" is the New Black. Odds are pretty good I won't read this book.

In all fairness I should acknowledge that the only one of these I've liked was the Oprah one, which had a lot of insight into the cult of Oprah. Uh. Oprah bugs me.

Feel better soon!

Lynn said...

Man, Allison, you sound rough. I'm sending you some virtual chicken soup and I hope you get some good chances to rest this weekend. Don't make me call you an ambulance, girl!

Get well soon :).

Mom of the Perpetually Grounded said...

God, it sounds like you have what my daughter had. Took over a month to make that mess go away!

Guess my book about taking a nap every afternoon for a year would be a snore, huh?

Shan said...

Oh boy. Hope you're feeling better soon!

Marilyn (A Lot of Loves) said...

Wow, Allison. It's been days since you posted this. I sincerely hope you're on the mend now. It sounds horrible!

As for the book...well...I'll pass on it I think. I actually read that Year of Living Biblically. It has humourous moments, but I am a little tired of the do something stupid for 365 days and then write about it trend.

Mary Lynn said...

Awww, I actually quite liked the book. Sorry you were feeling crummy, though. Hope you're starting to feel better.

Kelly said...

I think you should write a book, Alli. I think it'd be raucous and real and worth it. Do it!

Betsy B. Honest said...

I'm not going to read it. I have been meaning to read that year of living biblically book ever since I heard about it on the CBC and then browsed through a copy at my mother-in-laws. But that was over a year ago.

This has been my year of not reading any my-year-of-living books.