Thursday, September 12, 2013

Book Review: Orange Is the New Black

Pretty little birds doing marking time. Antique clock attributed to Charles Abraham Bruguier, 1840.
Are you watching Orange Is the New Black, too? When I first heard about it, I didn't expect to like it. A show set in a women's prison? Not my thing! But the friends who recommend it have excellent taste, and they were so right. I love character-driven stories, so Piper, Pornstache, Pennsatucky, and all the other colorful characters completely captured my attention. I zipped through the first season in less than a week.

When I heard that the show is based on Piper Kerman's autobiography by the same name, I was so surprised. Did you know it's based on a true story? I couldn't wait to read Orange Is the New Black--and it didn't disappoint. I want to tell you about it, but I never know how to review autobiographies. What am I supposed to do, double-check her story? Um, no. So instead of verifying Kerman's facts, I'm going to tell you why Orange is the New Black is worth reading, even if you've already watched it.

First of all, the timelines are completely different. On the show, Piper spent years with her drug smuggling ex, Alex. In real life, Piper spent just a few months breaking the law with her ex, whose name was really Nora... and she spent eight (yeah, eight!) years with Larry before she went to prison. So it's not the same story you see on the show. And even though Piper was only briefly with Nora, the book describes all the juicy details about Nora's flashy African boss, how Piper embarrassed herself on her first date with Nora, and their subsequent adventures in Asia. The show just gives a few meager flashbacks.

On the show, Piper makes a lot of stupid, selfish choices. As the season wore on, I started yelling at my TV like a crazy person. "Why are you doing that?! Stop it!!" Real Piper is much more careful. She's relentlessly positive, and she doesn't cheat on Larry. I like her a lot. And speaking of Larry, he's a selfish, petty asshat on the show. Worst of all, Show Larry writes something stupid in the New York Times that puts Piper in real danger. Real Larry is steadfast and wonderful. His sweet editorial made my eyes prick with tears.

So Piper and her man are pretty rad in the book. But I have bad news for all you Alex Vause fans: Piper and her ex weren't even sent to the same prison!  That's some far-fetched drama, and the entire show is like that. With each episode, the show becomes more dramatic and less believable. The bizarre pregnancy cover-up plot... Pennsatucky's homicidal lunacy... Mr. Healy's weird personality change... It was exciting, but it was a bit much.

The book, on the other hand, describes prison life more honestly. Women form alliances, celebrate birthdays with gusto, pine for their children, and treat microwave ovens like alchemy labs. Seriously, check out Piper's recipe for prison cheesecake. I was fascinated by the ingenious ways the women make their lives slightly more bearable. Like how the women who ride "con air" prepare for the flight by dabbing generous gobs of contraband Vaseline in the whorls of their upper ears. They rub it on their lips later when they get dehydrated on the 12+ hour flight--because they're not given water on the flight. Whoa. My Kombucha cravings are pretty trivial in comparison.

Finally, I have a bit of good news for all you Alex Vause fans: Piper and Nora did run into each other toward the end of Piper's prison term. I'm not going to tell you where or why. You've got to read it!


  1. So would you say it's worth taking the time to read? Or rather, should it move up in my wishlist?

  2. They're not at all the same, and that's why they're both worth your time. The show is a crazy soap opera, and it's easy to tear through it in a week, but it's just for fun.

    The book gets to the heart of what life in prison is like. The pain of separation from loved ones, the camaraderie, and the "us versus them" mentality when it comes to guards and prison administrators. Piper is so positive that she's genuinely inspiring, but not cloying.

  3. i didn't realize it was a book! i'm going to have to check it out!

  4. I have heard the book and series are night and day, so I def need to give the book a look. Not to sound shady shade, but I have known people that have been in prison and all the intricacies of people having certain "Hustles" totally fascinates me. Like some people know how to deep fry burritos using live wires oil and trash cans...and in prison they are a hot commodity. THE MORE YOU KNOOOOOOOW


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