Sunday, August 31, 2014

Orange is the New Black, by Piper Kerman

Piper Kerman. Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2011. 327 pages. ISBN 9780385523394.

Orange is the New Black: A Netflix Original Series.

I came to read this book after I watched the first two seasons of the Netflix television show based on this memoir by Piper Kerman. I had seen the book advertised everywhere (it was really hard to miss), but only watched Orange is the New Black when my husband and I finished Breaking Bad, and we were looking for something that we could watch together. I was hooked on the TV show after the first episode. I found the whole premise of the show to be fascinating. Years after committing a crime, Piper is indicted. By pleading guilty she gets a reduced sentence of 15 months, but it takes years to get to that point so after living with prison hanging over her head for many years, she finally has to turn herself in voluntarily for her sentence. Piper is assigned to a federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, a minimum security prison in which inmates aren't housed in cells, but in dorms.

Upon watching the show I immediately began to get caught up in drama related to the different inmates and their conflicts, as well as the conditions within the prison and the manner in which the guards and other correctional officers treat the inmates. Over the course of two seasons (13 episodes each, which we watched over the course of about 3-4 weeks), there are beatings, a drug overdose, romances between guards and inmates, lots of lesbian sex, and punishments doled out (such as being sent to solitary confinement). In spite of all this there is a lot of humor in the show, but it's the drama that keeps the viewer coming back.

After watching the first two seasons, and with Season 3 still 8-9 months away, I decided to read the book to see how different it was from the TV series. It's clear pretty early on that much of the TV show is completely fiction, aside from the broad outlines of the plot. The strength of the book lies in its ability to bring the inmates personal situations to life for the reader. Not much time is spent on the crimes the women committed to put them in jail, but most of them were for non-violent offences (or else they wouldn't have been in a minimum security prison). What becomes immediately apparent is the complete waste of time and resources that prison represents. After reading this book, I'm convinced that prison has no place in our society for non-violent criminals.

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison is an excellent and fascinating memoir. It's well-written and impossible to put down. The author takes full responsibility for the choices that she made that landed her in prison; at the same time she makes clear how senseless the prison system has become in the U.S.

Orange is the New Black: A Netflix Original Series, although almost completely fictional, is an addictive and fascinating drama. The characters are well-developed and intriguing, there's a lot of action and suspense, and it's difficult to stop watching.

I recommend both the book and the television series.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. New York: Random House, 2012. 684 pages. ISBN 9780812983586.

Friends and relatives have been recommending The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay to me for years. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2001, and after finally reading it, I can see why. It tells the story of two cousins: Josef Kavalier and Sammy Clay meet for the first time as teenagers and become business and artistic partners in the nascent comic book industry.

Josef was born in Czechoslovakia and managed to escape after Germany invaded the country in 1938. Sammy grew up in New York City, the product of a broken family, but who idolized his father, a circus strongman. With Josef's early art school training and Sammy's love of comics, they paired up to create a series of highly successful superhero comics. Josef saves his earnings to pay for his younger brother's passage to the U.S. When everything goes wrong for both Josef and Sammy on the eve of Pearl Harbor, Josef joins the army so that he can get his revenge by killing Germans.

There are many things to like about this book. The historical setting is fascinating and well-drawn. I enjoyed reading about the early history of the comic book industry. Josef and Sammy's friendship and love for each other. Josef's love for Rosa, and the tragedy that unfolds when he unknowingly leaves her after she becomes pregnant. Young Tommy, named after Josef's lost brother. All of these strands and more come together in a satisfying yet bittersweet climax. This is a long book, but I didn't want it to end. I would have enjoyed another volume following Tommy and describing what happens to Sammy over the years.

As usual, Michael Chabon has written a book that is rich with detail and his deep knowledge of both history and popular culture. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys 20th century American culture and history or comic books.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Movie Review: The Invisible Woman

The Invisible Woman is about an affair that Charles Dickens had late in his life with a young actress named Ellen Ternan. Many years younger than Charles, she was 18 and he was 45 when they met. Charles made the decision to separate from his wife Catherine and spent the rest of his life with Ellen.

The film begins with Ellen in middle age reflecting back on her youth as a member of a troupe of actresses hired to perform in a stage play at Charles Dickens' home. Charles is immediately attracted to Ellen, and she's enamored of him as she's read all of his books and thinks highly of him as a writer and person. His wife is portrayed wonderfully by the actress Joanna Scanlan. It's impossible not to be moved by her performance and unhappy circumstances. Charles begins to pursue Ellen, winning her over in time. Her pregnancy is portrayed as well as her sadness when she loses the baby in infancy. Ultimately Charles purchases a home for her and promises to visit once or twice weekly. After his death she marries a much younger man and starts a family.

Directed by Ralph Fiennes, this film is very atmospheric and has very fine acting, including Fiennes as Charles Dickens himself, and Kristin Scott Thomas as Ellen's mother. It is, however, very slow moving and dark and I found it a little bit tedious at times. Checking Rotten Tomatoes I see that critics gave the movie a 76% positive rating, but viewers only gave it a 46% positive rating. I'm not sorry that I watched it, because I have more insight into Dickens than I had before, and as I already mentioned the acting is really very strong, but I can't really give it a strong recommendation either.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Geographer's Library, by Jon Fasman

Jon Fasman. The Geographer's Library. New York: Penguin Books, 2005. 374 pages. ISBN 0143036629.

The Geographer's Library is about a young reporter, Paul Tomm, who stumbles across a story that could break him out of his small town local paper job and help him get a position with a major Boston newspaper. Jaan Puhapaev, a professor at Paul's alma mater, has been found dead in his home, and Paul has been asked to write his obituary for the local weekly paper. There is no evidence of foul play, but questions start to pile up leading Paul to dig deeper and deeper into Jaan's past. Along the way Paul meets Hannah, Jaan's neighbor and friend. While he begins to fall in love with Hannah, he is surprised by her vehement objections to his investigation into Jaan's life and activities.

The plot of The Geographer's Library toggles between the present and a variety of past events in which magic or occult objects are tracked down and acquired, by any means necessary. Who's collecting these objects? How did they come to be in Jaan's possession, and who has them now? How far will they go to keep the secret of these objects hidden away? As Paul investigates these questions he finds that he's not safe, and he has to decide how far he should take his investigations.

I found The Geographer's Library intriguing. There's a lot of action but the characters are well-developed and interesting. I recommend this book to anyone who likes historical mysteries like those of Dan Brown or Steve Berry.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Come to Grief, by Dick Francis

Dick Francis. Come to Grief. London: Michael Joseph, 1995. 278 pages. ISBN 0718137531.

In Come to Grief, ex-jockey turned private investigator Sid Halley has accused one of his best friends of the horrific crime of mutilating a series of horses. His friend Ellis Quint is a popular television personality, and it's unthinkable that he could be responsible for such crimes. Nevertheless, all of the evidence points to Ellis. One of the horses that was harmed was owned by a young girl whom Sid befriends, and he is driven to find the sick criminal responsible. Sid can't talk to the media or anyone else about the evidence because the judge has imposed a gag order, and during the time leading up to the trial Sid is harrassed, ridiculed, and even hated for making his accusations.

Sid Halley has appeared in several of Dick Francis' books. He's stubborn and relentless in his pursuit of criminals. He has an extreme sense of justice and nothing will stand in his way. In this as in other appearances, he faces overwhelming odds and suffers great violence in pursuit of those who commit crimes. One caveat: when an author writes solely about crimes or violence that take place in the world of horses, it's inevitable that some of that violence is perpetrated against the horses themselves. I found some parts of this book hard to stomach as a series of horses were mutilated and then put down. Nevertheless, Come to Grief was impossible to put down, and I finished the whole book in one Saturday afternoon extended reading session.