Book Review – Out of Orange

Cover ImageTitle: Out of Orange: A Memoir

Author: Cleary Wolters

Publisher: Harper One

Date: June 2015

Format: Hardback (305 pages)

Synopsis: The real-life Alex Vause from the critically acclaimed, top-rated Netflix show Orange Is the New Black tells her story in her own words for the first time–a powerful, surprising memoir about crime and punishment, friendship and marriage, and a life caught in the ruinous drug trade and beyond.

An insightful, frustrating, heartbreaking, and uplifting analysis of crime and punishment in our times, Out of Orange is an intimate look at international drug crime–a seemingly glamorous lifestyle that dazzles unsuspecting young women and eventually leads them to the seedy world of prison.

Filled with colourful characters, fascinating tales, painful sobering lessons, and hard-earned wisdom, Out of Orange is provocative, entertaining, and ultimately inspiring.

Many of you will be familiar with the hugely popular Netflix series Orange is the New Black. A while back I reviewed the book of the same name that the show is based on. Out of Orange was written after the series began by the woman who inspired the show’s character of Alex Vause. She had no idea that her life and that of her ex-girlfriend Piper Kerman (author of the original book) had been turned into a TV show until she saw a commercial for it. Can you imagine that? One minute you’re about to head to bed and turn off the TV, the next you’re stopped cold by a trailer for a show about a past you thought you had left behind.

Cleary describes her reaction with the kind of emotional honesty that she exhibits throughout the book: “I dropped the remote … I realized that what I was looking at was a fucking trailer for my life – and I don’t mean the show being promoted was something I could relate to – I mean, literally, my fucking life. Piper is my ex-lover and I used to be the drug-smuggling lesbian they were talking about.”

I really enjoyed the book Orange is the New Black, and I LOVE the show, but this book was even better than Kerman’s and was almost as addictive as the show itself. Wolters’ style of writing combines humour, engaging narrative and brutal honesty to give a fascinating – and frightening – insight into the world of drug smuggling and the conflicted mindset of someone caught up in it.

At times, it was like reading an exciting adventure story full of interesting characters, suspense and daring evasions of the law. It was easy to forget that this was actually an account of a very real and very dangerous life. Every so often, Wolters would provide a splash of cold water to remind the reader about the harsh reality of the events she was describing. Alongside the money, adrenaline and the chance to travel the world, there was the constant threat of punishment from the drug lords or the authorities if they put even one foot wrong. I really like the way Wolters describes the feeling she has on the morning of a drug run through customs when she has to acknowledge the fear that comes along with her otherwise exciting life:

“My heart palpitated and my stomach flipped when it really sank in, exactly, what day it was. Since I left Chicago, whenever I woke, reality was like a great, but complicated, book I had put down the night before; I had to remember where in the story I was before I could get going again from where I had left off. On a day like this one, it was tempting to leave the book unopened and go back to sleep.”

In the end, of course, Wolters has to pay the price for the life she entered into, and makes no excuses for her choices or attempts to blame anyone else for the consequences. When she first saw the representation of herself on screen in the character of Alex Vause, she worried that this seemingly unrepentant, blasé and lascivious woman really was her. The realisation she eventually comes to is a central theme of the book and forms one of my favourite quotes:

“I cried, banged my hands on the steering wheel, laughed, and drove until I got my answer: no. That wasn’t me. Aside from being tall and gorgeous, Alex didn’t have a sister and was missing some vital ingredients: regret, contrition, faith, and hope.”

This is one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read and I would highly recommend it.

Overall Rating: Book Rating Picture  Book Rating Picture Book Rating Picture Book Rating Picture Book Rating Picture My bookworm rating system is explained here.

Other Works by this Author: This is Cleary Wolters’ first book.

Book Review – Orange is the New Black

Cover ImageTitle: Orange is the New Black

Author: Piper Kerman

Publisher: Abacus

Date: April 2010

Format: Paperback (344 pages)

Synopsis: With her career, live-in boyfriend and loving family, Piper Kerman barely resembles the rebellious young woman who, over a decade ago, got mixed up with drug runners and delivered a suitcase of drug money to Europe. But when she least expects it, her reckless past catches up with her: convicted and sentenced to fifteen months at an infamous women’s prison in Connecticut, Piper becomes inmate #11187-424.

From her first strip search to her final release, she learns to navigate this strange world with its arbitrary rules and codes, its unpredictable, even dangerous relationships. And she meets women from all walks of life, who surprise her with tokens of generosity, hard truths and simple acts of acceptance.

Many of you will be aware of the hugely popular and Emmy-award winning Netflix show based on this non-fiction book. I love the show and I was eager to check out the book. Suffice it to say I absolutely loved it and didn’t want it to end. I’ve been careful to keep this review spoiler free for both the book and the show.

When you read the memoir of a well-educated, financially secure and otherwise successful woman like Piper Kerman, you might expect to encounter excuses and justifications for the mistakes she made in her youth which landed her in prison. But Piper doesn’t do that. She owns her mistakes and the consequences of her choices and never claims to be superior to any of her fellow inmates. I found this attitude incredibly refreshing and it made for a very open and honest account of her incarceration. I felt I could really relate to her as she goes through the process of figuring out how to survive her prison time while maintaining her sense of identity and mental stability.

My favourite quote illustrates this well:

“Most changes in perception are gradual: we grow to hate or love an idea, a person, or a place over a period of time. Sometimes, rarely, the way we see something is subject to alchemy. My emotions changed so rapidly, and I felt so strongly all the things I had in common with these women … our troubled history was suddenly matched by our more immediate shared experience as prisoners on an exhausting journey.” (p.311)

I also really liked Kerman’s writing style which I described in my notes as “honest, engaging, informative and raw.” There was also a lot of humour mixed in with the intense emotions which I really enjoyed. I loved reading about the relationships she develops with the other prisoners and how they look out for each other, like making a huge deal about someone’s birthday or release date. I was particularly impressed by the creativity and resourcefulness shown by the inmates. Let’s just say there are more uses for sanitary towels than you might think and it’s possible to make a palatable cheesecake in prison using this recipe.

In comparison to the Netflix show, the characters we know and love are definitely there, but not in the way we’re used to. It’s like Jenji Kohan (the creator of the show) took the characteristics and personal histories of the real life women and recombined them to create the dynamic characters we see on screen. Some of the names are the same (although Kerman changed most of them to protect the women’s identities) and there are plenty of recognisable character traits and back stories. I had fun trying to figure out who was who and there were a lot of “aha!” moments when I made a connection between the real life people and the show’s characters. That being said, Kerman made the people in her book come alive for me and I found myself imagining what they looked like instead of automatically picturing the actors. That’s one of the reasons why I believe this book would be enjoyable even if you haven’t seen the show (which you totally should, by the way).

The main lesson I took away from this book was this: it’s the times when you think you have nothing that you have the greatest capacity for generosity, openness and honesty.

Overall Rating: Book Rating Picture Book Rating Picture Book Rating Picture Book Rating Picture Book Rating Picture My bookworm rating system is explained here.

Other Works by this Author: This is Piper Kerman’s first book. You can find out more about her and her advocacy work here.