Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman (audiobook)

In brief: Piper’s past catches up with her and she has to go to prison. This memoir will have you gasping, laughing and crying.

The good: It’s really emotional and really interesting.

The not-so-good: Near the end, there’s a twist which was really sad – but hey, that’s real life.

Why I chose it: Heard about this and the TV series, plus I like listening to non-fiction.

Year: 2010

Duration: 11 hours and 10 minutes (paperback is 352 pages)

Narrator: Cassandra Campbell

Publisher: Hachette

Setting: USA

This week I seem to be talking about books I’ve been meaning to read for ages. Orange is the New Black has interested me for ages, pretty much since it hit the shelves in Australia, but due to business and other shiny things catching my attention, I never got around to buying or borrowing it. (If someone can come up with a cure for ‘But I Meant to Read It!’ disease, please let me know). But this year I’ve been playing around with audiobooks, testing out which genres work best for me and so I thought I’d give a memoir a go to see if it could hold my attention while sitting in traffic (you have no idea how hard that can be considering I’m not actually doing anything)! Result: I was completely captivated by this audiobook. I was torn between not wanting it to end and wanting Piper to be released from prison so she could see her loved ones.

When Piper was younger, she was in a relationship with a woman who organised a bit of drug smuggling internationally. Naively, Piper got involved but soon got herself out of that scene and into one that’s a bit more familiar to the average person – job, fiancé, New York City living. Then came a blow – Piper’s past caught up with her and she was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison. Piper tells how do you prepare for going to gaol? What do you take? How do you explain yourself to family, friends and colleagues? Then the day finally comes and she hands herself in to the prison in Danbury, Connecticut. It’s something that she couldn’t have prepared for – strip searching, how to obtain money (it’s not as simple as a cheque), clothes and how to live with a number of other women. What’s the correct etiquette for asking someone why they’re in gaol? It’s a complete culture shock to Piper but she adjusts, making friends, getting a job and learning how to make prison cheesecake.

But there’s a twist in the story near the end – I was thinking as I listened, ‘no way would this happen in a fiction book’ where Piper’s last months in gaol are completely turned on their head and nothing is easy anymore. I found this part really emotional as Piper explains life where you have to watch your every move and lose your identity. That’s not to say that Danbury was a cakewalk, but it was a relatively stable environment. The whole book was an insight into a completely different world to me (I haven’t seen the television series) and I found it fascinating. It was uplifting to read about how small things could seem so kind and mean so much to others – like getting a pedicure or offering a piece of candy to someone.

There has been some criticism that Piper had it easy because she’s white, blonde, blue-eyed and college education. I think if you weren’t there, you can’t judge. Don’t people try to use what they have to advantage in everyday life anyway? Whatever. I found the story an eye-opener and slightly off putting because Piper could easily be one of my friends, one of my colleagues. In the middle-class world, you don’t hear of people going to prison and Orange is the New Black is an opportunity to read not only about the experience, but where the system could be improved. The lecture series on life after prison was jaw dropping because of the lack of practical information it contained, for example. How can you expect people to change if you can’t tell them how to get a job or rent a place to live?

I loved Cassandra Campbell’s narration of this book – it was superb. The small changes in voice/accent she made for each person was great, making it really clear as to who was speaking. She’s a very easy narrator to listen to and I’d like to listen to more audiobooks by her (providing I can get over her being the voice of Piper).

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