I enjoyed Orange is the New Black, the book by Piper Kerman. I haven’t seen the Netflix series of the same name, but after reading Kerman’s account I’m now inclined to watch because Kerman’s account intrigued me.
The author, privileged and intelligent (except for the episode in her life that landed in her prison), writes about her year in a minimum security facility in Danbury, Conn. She is honest about her own fear at being incarcerated and the guilt she has for vicariously putting her family, fiancé and friends through her ordeal. Yet, she does so without self-pity, with humor and insightful respect for most of her fellow inmates.
It’s the latter that particularly garners the reader’s attention and doesn’t let go. Kerman learned to survive thanks in large part to the women around her. It’s no surprise that Kerman would undergo a transformation, but perceptions about prisoners and their crimes do, too. Although it wasn’t an easy 12 months, Kerman shares moments of fun, revelation, pride and friendship – in addition to the aforementioned guilt.
Of course, hers is not a summer camp experience, but neither is it as brutal as initially anticipated. At least that’s the case while in Connecticut. This changes, though, when just before her release she is transferred to Chicago to await testifying in a related trial. There she confronts the woman who years earlier revealed Kerman’s name to authorities. Nonetheless, the author’s honesty and humor make this a worthwhile read.
Orange is the New Black
Spiegel & Grau Trade Paperback, 2013
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez is a timely read with the issue of immigration never far beneath the political surface. Yet, the novel isn’t about politics, but people.
Arturo and Alma leave Mexico for Delaware because they want to do more for their teen-aged daughter, Maribel, who suffered a brain injury. They believe she’ll benefit in a better school. They’re not illegals; they have work visas. Each chapter is told from one of the character’s perspectives, some in greater detail than others; only never Maribel’s.
Woven in with the challenges of living in a new land with a new language is the relationship that develops between Maribel and Mayor.
Sixteen-year-old Mayor Toro lives in Maribel’s apartment building; his parents left Panama when he was less than a year old, but he’s never fit in. From Mayor’s perspective, Henriquez writes: “The truth was that I didn’t know which I was. I wasn’t allowed to claim the thing I felt and I didn’t feel the thing I was supposed to claim (Panamanian).”
This sums up the experience of those introduced in the book. Henriquez has created a montage of immigrants: from Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, even Venezuela and Paraguay. These places are all part of the Americas, which is what makes the title so appropriate with its double entendre. In brief, compelling chapters, among those told in Alma and Mayor’s voices, the neighbors share their pasts explaining why they left their native countries for the U.S.A.
The Book of Unknown Americans
Alfred A, Knopf, 2014
Although I read a lot, it’s been a while since I held a book I didn’t want to put down. Even at 500-plus pages, I hated to turn the final one of Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. Doerr is garnering a lot of well-deserved attention including being named a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award and #1 New York Times bestseller.
This story is about hope and connections, those that are tangible and those we simply know exist. Marie-Laure, a young girl in Paris, is blind. Her story is told in turns with that of Werner, a German mining town orphan with an aptitude for science and gadgets. The novel jumps around the years just before WWII and during the August 1944 bombing of Saint-Malo on the French coast.
From the onset, there’s a sense the two youths will meet, but how and when leave much to the imagination. Werner builds a small, crude radio from scrap parts. This ability ultimately earns him a spot in Hitler’s army. Marie-Laure relies on her father who builds small models to recreate, first, their Parisian neighborhood and later Saint-Malo where they flee. The hand-crafted items are meant to aid communication with good intentions in a world rife with evil.
Doerr’s work is easy to embrace for its vivid descriptions of the kindness and fear individuals extended or induced during the war. Mostly, though, the characters are so finely fashioned that they come alive in the mind’s eye.
All the Light We Cannot See
Once I was able to get beyond the similarities, of which there are many to the 1977 movie The Turning Point, I found myself enjoying Maggie Shipstead’s Astonish Me. Actually, what I appreciated, and what kept me turning pages, were the various characters in this ballet-driven narrative that blends unrequited love, the ideal of loyalty, personal disappointment, deceit and triumph.
The focal point is Joan’s infatuation with Russian ballet star Arslan Rusakov and her inability to convincingly let go of her feelings long after she has gone on to what can only be described as a normal life in the suburbs with her husband and son, Harry. Shipstead deftly portrays Joan’s transformation from an unhappy member of the (ballet) corps to contented, if not exuberant, resident of Southern California where she teaches ballet.
The story moves through different phases of Joan’s life from the mid-1970s to 2002. Arslan remains prominently in the background while the focus is on Joan, Harry, and Chloe, the girl next door. With Joan as their teacher, they ultimately become enamored with ballet so it becomes a force in their lives.
Again, the characters provide the strength of the novel. Chloe is particularly interesting as a young child and later as a young woman. Her parents may be caricatures of unfulfilled lives, especially her father, but their daughter consistently maintains a strong sense of self.
It also helps that Shipstead is an engaging story teller who incorporates humor (in small doses) and irony (in larger servings).
Alfred A. Knopf, 2014
Binge watching is old stuff, but podcast binging is a new all-consuming activity (for me). In under a week I listened to all 12 episodes of Serial, the This American Life production that debuted last fall.When it aired I couldn’t make a commitment to follow it. Now, with frigid temperatures and some time on my hands, I got hooked. I’m glad I didn’t have to wait for each installment, and that I could listen to as much as I wanted in one sitting. It was media gluttony and I’m not a bit repentant.The premiere season of Serial follows the case of a Baltimore teenager, Adman Syed, charged with the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend. Journalist/narrator Sarah Koening details the crime through court records, interviews with Syed, lawyers, police, friends of the victim and accused, among others. Koening’s research is exhaustive – and gripping.
Much of the evidence against Syed is circumstantial with plenty of holes in the prosecution’s case. The recurring theme from those who know Syed is that violence is not part of his character. Although he was the only suspect to be tried, Koening provides other possibilities. She repeatedly states she’s a reporter not an investigator. Actually, she’s a good investigator, but the distinction is important. It means that she acknowledges speculation when facts are missing.
Koening and her crew spent 15 months to absolutely establish Syed’s guilt or innocence. The story is compelling in the way of all good murder/mysteries, because ultimately the listener becomes completely engrossed with the question of whodunit?
Five Audio Bookmarks
I’m a sucker for a good title and that’s the reason I read Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s Panic in a Suitcase. The book was included on the long list of the Tournament of Books. It didn’t make the cut to the short list, and I can see why.
Akhtiorskaya’s novel begins in 1993 with the Nasmeratovs who have settled in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach following the Soviet Union’s collapse. They are a continent away from their roots, but the new community is a little Russia where shops, restaurants and neighbors share the same language and customs. Assimilation isn’t necessary.
Pasha Nasmeratov is a poet and the one family member who remains on native soil. He visits his family in New York, but never commits to immigrating. His sister, her husband and their daughter live with Pasha’s parents in a crowded apartment. Pasha is the link to the past in many ways. Jump ahead to 2008 and Frida, his niece, is grown up. She’s intrigued by the mother land, but is rooted in an inability to embrace the future while clinging to the past, even one she doesn’t remember. Frida was young when the family left Odessa.
The problem is there’s too much jumping from one character or location to another. Still, the author’s writing is rich in clever turns of phrase and vivid imagery. Humor is a lively resident among the prose: “Frida stumbled past tidy strips of lawn, her favorite with a PLEASE CARB YOUR DOG sign…”
Panic in a Suitcase
Riverhead Books, 2014
When the hostess at the Silver Creek Diner in Lone Tree told us that once we were seated we’d still have at least another 25-minute wait for our food, I laughed and asked if she wanted us to leave. She laughed, too, and assured me that wasn’t her intent. We’d already been waiting 10 minutes for a table. We decided to hope for the best. Wrong call.
Given that we had waited so long from the time we walked in the door to when the food arrived, it’s hard to know if we were simply so famished that anything would have tasted good. It wasn’t that Silver Creek was particularly busy, but the way orders were coming out of the kitchen it seemed as if all the cooking was done by one person with his/her hand tied behind his/her back.
Breakfast is standard; lots of egg possibilities and pancakes. The latter aren’t the “ridiculously large ones that some places serve” we were told. The Blueberry Pancake Plate featured two eggs, hash browns, choice of breakfast meats (bacon, sausage or ham) and two cakes full of fresh blueberries. It was a lot of food.
The Hash Brown Mix blended crispy and creamy shredded potatoes with diced red and green peppers, onions, eggs and choice of bacon or sausage. Two size options are available, and even the smaller of the two is a substantial amount of food.
In truth, it all tasted fine, but I can’t say the time spent waiting for it was justified.
Silver Creek Diner
7824 Park Meadows Dr.
Lone Tree, Colo