Beauty and the Best

Piper Kerman Book Review

A Review of Book “Orange Is The New Black” by Piper Kerman

blogEntryTopperIt’s the first book review for AGT!

I was reluctant to cover the novel “Orange Is The New Black” because the Netflix TV series is so damn trendy right now. But I was curious about Piper  Kerman’s ordeal, and as a lawyer, I had more questions about how she wound up in prison than the TV show could answer. The book satisfied some of my curiosity, but not all of it.

The most surprising element of the book is that it holds up on its own accord. I don’t know what I was expecting -- perhaps some hastily composed outline of a novel that was turned into a TV show because of its sensationalist subject matter -- but this is a full blown, well written book. Kerman has a directness and preciseness to her writing that is very enjoyable. There are no gratuitous big words here, as in so many novels. One of the more impressive passages describes the day a guard took Piper and several other inmates down to a nearby lake. It’s nearly transporting.

The most interesting and compelling section of the book is Chapter Two, entitled “It All Changed in an Instant.” This chapter describes how Piper’s life was turned upside down by a visit from federal agents to her new home in New York, years after she had put her life of crime behind her. It turns out Kerman didn’t go to jail for several years after she entered a plea-bargain for money laundering (rather than conspiracy, which is what she was originally charged with). Instead, she had to meet once a month with a Pretrial Services case worker while federal prosecutors tried to extradite the West African kingpin at the helm of a drug scheme of which Piper played only an infinitesimal part.

What is not answered in “Orange” is why Piper was brought up on federal drug charges rather than state charges. I suspect it had something to do with the international element of the drug ring she was a part of. Piper also does not indulge the dirty details of prison confinement, such as how one goes about having the privacy of a good bowel movement or masterbation. (We’ve all seen those prison cells that house several inmates with just one toilet.)

There are some notable differences between the novel and the TV series. “Red” is really named “Pop” and she does not starve Piper out because of a careless insult on their initial meeting. Instead, the two are practically best buddies. Alex is actually named Nora Jansen, and her sister, Hester, is also involved in her drug endeavors (even though Hester is nowhere to be found in the TV show). Piper is not imprisoned with Nora/Alex for the majority of her sentence; they only run into each other in the very last month of Piper’s prison term. Nora/Alex claims the feds already knew about Piper’s involvement and only asked her to confirm certain facts. In other words, she didn’t rat Kerman out. We never learn if this is true or not, just as Piper never knows. Pensatucky really exists, but there is no mortal conflict between her and Piper. They are perfectly social with each other.

In fact, that’s the biggest difference between the book and the TV show: nothing dramatic really happens to Piper Kerman in prison (with the exception of the iceberg lettuce imbroglio in chapter nine). Most of the prisoners like Piper and she helps most of them with legal matters and other things involving reading and writing (obtaining a GED). Because of this, the book gets boring in the middle and the reader starts to feel like they’re serving that time out with Piper. But it picks up again, if only briefly, during the last couple chapters right before Piper is released and is transported via Con Air to facilities in Oklahoma and Chicago.

Let me preface my next comment by saying Piper Kerman is one of the good ones. Very few people would take the time to understand the other inmates of different ethnic backgrounds to the extent she did, let alone assist them. She has large reserves of empathy for her fellow female prisoners. That said, her constant self-congratulatory remarks are grating after a while. She remarks again and again that the other prisoners did not have the same support network that she did of family and friends, lacked the top notch legal counsel she could afford, didn’t have the bright future waiting for them outside that she did, etc. She also talks about how her blond hair and blue eyes constantly accorded her the benefit of the doubt. All true, no doubt, but quite unpleasant to hear repeatedly.

Truth be told, if Piper had never gone to prison, she probably would have been quite average in terms of her accomplishments. And that’s the real irony – the most tragic thing that ever happened to her is also the most exceptional and distinguishing.

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