Odds and ends

1.) My letter to Stephen King:

Dear Uncle Stevie,

UnknownI am calling you this because this is how you referred to yourself in the many, many columns by you I’ve read in Entertainment Weekly throughout the years. I admire you. I admire your passionate and unabashed love of pop culture. I admire your playful way with words and your incredible imagination. I admire the fact that I think you are really supportive of other writers, and just generally a very good person who writes creepy things, which is cool to me (see: my love for Gillian Flynn, Kate Atkinson).

And some beautiful things. And some long things. Because my chief memory of 11/22/63 is that it was looooong. 800+ pages long. And the thing is – I liked it! I thought it was wonderful. Concise and edited, no. But that’s kind of missing the point. You write big and passionate and bold. So it’s ok that it was long. And I probably should have read it when I had larger chunks of reading time. Because to read and read and read and feel like you are making no progress, even in a book that you really like, is intensely frustrating. But the book itself? Very good.

More than anything else, it contained possibly the most likable male first-person protagonist I’ve ever read. If a movie was made of this book (which I think is kind of impossible, but it could be a well-done pay cable TV show), I picture Jason Segal. The love story was honest, sweet, and sincere.

I liked how you handled the tricky problem of time travel, covered often and rarely successfully. I wish there was more of the creepy creepy end and less sports betting. But in general, your book deserves more than I had the time to give it, and I’m sorry. It was a good one. I will be recommending it.


2.) Rainbow Rowell


Dear Rainbow Rowell,

I love you and wish I knew you in high school. Your characters are hilarious. I am now reading your first book (Attachments) and frankly it’s not that great. It’s a definite first book, something written before the incredible Eleanor & Park and Fangirl. But even not great, it’s still great. I think, although it’s not confirmed, that you were a stay-at-home mom. I would have liked to be friends with you. Thank you for existing.

3.) Going dark

For the last three years, I have given up most forms of social media for Lent. It is a great thing to give up because it feels like a sacrifice but is also eye opening into just how much time gets wasted in it. Doing it teaches me something new each year.

So I’m taking a break from blogging until April to use this time to focus on some other things. And of course I’ll be reading. I’m on a British classics kick right now and will probably see that through as long as it lasts.

And on that note, I will offer up an explanation of how and why I read. It makes me uncomfortable to talk too much about reading with people, because there’s this aura that it’s a more honorable hobby than others. It’s tough to run up against the comment “I really should read more” and know what to say.

Because in my mind, the answer is, “No, you shouldn’t, unless you feel like it.”

For me, reading is like eating breakfast. I have a big appetite and wake up hungry, and I never. ever. miss breakfast. I”m pretty sure I haven’t skipped breakfast in my entire life.

But it’s not always bacon and eggs and pancakes. In fact, it’s rarely that. It’s often toast, grabbed in bites while I feed my kids. Or cereal, or oatmeal assembled the night before and quickly heated up that morning. Sometimes, if things are crazy and rushed, it’s a banana and yogurt or a granola bar.

The thing is, it’s something that is intuitive and physical. And that’s how reading is. If I’m waiting in line somewhere, or getting my hair cut, I don’t sneak a few pages of my book because I should, I do it because I can. Because what occurs to me at that moment to do is to read. There are a lot of points in my life where my only reading time is 10 minutes before bed and that makes me feel sad sometimes but never guilty.

So I’ve never associated reading with some kind of self improvement project, and don’t want to. In fact, reading often gets in the way of me doing things that are more useful and would better serve my family and life. But I feel a little more whole and right when I have a book going that I enjoy, when there are imaginary people fighting for some attention among the real ones. I’m probably missing opportunities to actually better educate myself by looking at reading with a more critical eye, but I’ve come to terms with that. That’s what school was/is for; reading is something else entirely (for me. this is always personal, not a persuasive essay). I just don’t have it in me to destroy what’s been such an intrinsic part of me since I was a dorky kid carrying copies of Anne of Green Gables around with me.

So that’s it until late April. As I write this, it is hovering around 10 degrees. I fervently hope that by the time I come back to it, things will have improved.


Filed under Adult fiction, How I read

More cover talk

Say hello to the laundry ladies again!

IMG_5986After finishing North and South, I felt the strong need to have another Elizabeth Gaskell book present in the house, even though I have a couple of things to read first. Instead of Wives and Daughters, with its whopping 600+ pages, I chose Mary Barton. (Wives and Daughters will still happen though).

Anyway, guess who is on the cover? My old friends!

Except this time, it shows a full and complete picture that makes a lot more sense. The cover does not just depict the women out of context; they are placed within the factory town setting. Plus, this book focuses more on the workers (I think, haven’t read it yet) so it just makes more sense attached here in general.

I’m starting to feel like I know these ladies. Maybe I will name them. Good, sensible British names. One is definitely Mary.

Or maybe its some weird Twilight-Zone thing where they will show up on every cover of every book I buy from now on.

Or maybe this zero-degree weather and resultant cabin fever is starting to drive me a bit crazy. Probably this.


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Filed under Adult fiction, Just for fun

North and South: Don’t judge a book by its cover

There is a great sentiment in Ian McEwan’s book Saturday, that describes the difficult time one of the characters had reading classics as a young girl, until persuaded by her grandfather to read Jane Eyre. She said “the language was unfamiliar, the sentences long, the pictures in her head, she kept saying, wouldn’t come clear.” She was urged to keep at it and by the end of the book “She cried, she said, out of admiration, out of joy that such things could be made up.”

I think that this beautifully expresses how I’ve often felt about classics. I may appreciate them, and perhaps enjoy them, but don’t often find myself pulled in and absorbed the way I do with contemporary reads. But I have also had my Jane Eyre exceptions (including, actually, Jane Eyre), where the pictures in my head do come clear and I become fully engrossed in a classic, bypassing all barriers of language and custom.

That usually takes some time and concentration, so I figured that in this small child/endless laundry season of my life classics would not have much of a place. (I actually started telling my one-year-old that the horse says woof the either day until I noticed my mistake. I do not have a lot of extra brainpower floating around.)

But then I read this post, which lead to a purchase of North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell on a recent visit to my favorite independent bookstore, and OMG I could not have been more into a book if it had been written yesterday. I had no idea that the thing that would get me out of my recent book rut would be a Victorian British work about an industrial town in Northern England published as a serial in 1854 and 1855. But there you have it. I was unable to tear myself away from this book. I am borderline unhealthily obsessed with this book. It disturbs me to not have it in the same room with me at all times, even if I cannot actually be reading it. And the second that it was completed I was simultaneously re-reading favorite passages and starting the BBC miniseries on Netflix. I feel about this book the way some people do about Pride & Prejudice: it is probably my favorite book, definitely my favorite classic, definitely my favorite love story, and will probably be re-read once a year.

So yeah, it’s good.

That post I linked to has a great plot summary – one that obviously convinced me to read this book. So check that out. But here’s a quick overview: Basically, it’s about Margaret Hale, a young woman who has been raised in genteel ways in the South of England. Her father uproots her small family to the Northern manufacturing city of Milton, where she becomes immersed in the lives of both the workers and the mill owners. The book tackles the tension between effective business strategy and social responsibility, and has so many things: unions, riots, a super intense love story (because come on), a mutiny, lots of death. If you can overcome the denser, of-the-past writing style and language, it becomes a page turner.

But I have one big irritation with this book, and that is this cover:


I generally prefer to buy classics as paper books because it’s easier to flip to the footnotes and explanatory text, and because something about the printed word helps me to better focus, which I frankly need with the denser writing. And yet it’s sort of embarrassing to read these books, especially British ones, especially ones written by female authors, because they have dorky covers like this one.

I don’t even get it. What is the deal with this cover? This book deals with trade unions and the struggle between laborers and mill owners in an industrializing society. There is a romance, but a lot else as well.

Nowhere, nowhere, nowhere are there ladies chilling with the laundry. You can tell by their dress that these are workers, but they don’t look or feel like the workers in the book, who are struggling men, women, and children pushed to their limits in cotton mills. These ladies better resemble Daisy and Ivy chatting about who is going to end up with Alfred (and yes, I realize Downton and this work are not contemporaries, and also that the Daisies and Ivies worked very hard as well, but whatever. My point is: these laundry ladies are not in this book. Ever. Also, the dude who plays Mr. Bates is a main character in the mini-series.)

I did a quick scan of google images for other North and South covers. Some are better than others.

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My favorites are the two that show the factory buildings. Those seem to do the best job of simply conveying the over-arching scene and tone. The dirty kids picture shows the hardship of the story, but misses a huge part of what the book is about. It makes it look like this is going to be a book solely about the workers, which it isn’t. And don’t get me started on the picture of the lady. Yes, Margaret Hale is the main character and yes, she is a lady-like creature, but this picture makes her look like she’s waiting to be served tea, instead of, you know, tending to dying people and getting injured in worker riots.

I feel like every time I want to read a British classic, the covers scream out: Boys stay away! People will be wearing corsets and talking about proposals! My copy of Middlemarch (still haven’t read for full disclosure), which is by all accounts a dense and rich book, basically shows some lady stretching and preening on the cover. It makes me feel both pretentious (hey look  at me! reading a classic here!) and embarrassed (this book is about girls! Talking about boys!). It makes me feel affected and fussy.

Now, I’m not saying the cover should be plastered with Keira Knightley’s face; those movie-based ones drive me crazy too. But it would be nice to have a cover that manages to be current without being anachronistic. I’d be happy with the industrial scenes there, but might be even more drawn to something that didn’t look so much like a schoolroom classic, that had a slightly more modern sensibility. Am I weird, or missing something?

Other than the cover, I like this edition a lot (first published by Oxford University Press in 1973, reissued in 2008). The 30-page introduction was a good way to clue me in to issues and themes I may have missed, and the chronology of Elizabeth Gaskell’s life was also helpful. I would love to find out the publisher’s thinking behind choosing a cover that seems so far removed from the book, but other than that found everything about this book – from the text to the footnote arrangement – to be readable.

I will confess ignorance and a complete lack of research into choices made by the publishing industry. What is the thinking behind many of these covers? Is there a reason they so often focus on ladies doing ladylike things? Also, any other classics I might love in equal measure? I’d desperately love to capture the magic of North and South again.

(Also, I just discovered this link, which covers the same thoughts, only in a much funnier way. I started writing my post before finding this one, so while my ideas aren’t original, they aren’t plagiarized. Nice to know I’m not the only one put off by some of these covers.)


Filed under Adult books

Letting go Life of Pi

I  absolutely adore my “book club.”

I use book club in quotes because my particular book club isn’t exactly serious. It’s a group of some of my oldest friends, and is a big excuse to get together and catch up. For about four years now we have rotated hanging out at people’s houses, talking about pretty much everything except the selected book. We are all huge readers, and one of us is even a librarian. We often talk about other books, and books in general. We just don’t feel very wedded to the idea of discussing the particular book chosen for that particular “meeting”.

We did, however, have a book white elephant gift exchange at our holiday tea, which is where I got this lovely thing. Also, I am a terrible blogger, given that I have lots of cute pictures from that tea but feel weird putting my friends on the internet.

We did, however, have a book white elephant gift exchange at our holiday tea, which is where I got this lovely thing. Also, I am a terrible blogger, given that I have lots of cute pictures from that tea but feel weird putting my friends on the internet.












Since the book isn’t really the main event at book club, it often gets unread. I’m pretty sure that one of my friends hasn’t read a single one of the book club books; we love her anyway. I do try to generally read the book club selection. I read too much to have any excuses, and it’s interesting to see what your friends recommend. So recently I dutifully downloaded Life of Pi from the library, and gave it a shot. And about a quarter of the way through, gave it up.

And for some reason I feel terrible about it.


Tiger. Roar.

My philosophy is that life is too short to read books you aren’t enjoying. But my definition of enjoyment has changed throughout my life, and that’s been my biggest problem with cutting this book loose. I wasn’t not enjoying Life of Pi. It was a little slow, but it was interesting. It contained beautiful, prosaic descriptions of religion that were both moving and fascinating. I was told it would get more exciting if I had a little patience.

And yet.

That kind of thing doesn’t have a place in my life right now. This winter – vacillating between heavy snowfall and bitter cold – does not mean curling up with a blanket, tea, and vaguely esoteric literature. It means limping through every day with spazzy, under-exercised children, and piling everyone into the 20-minute gauntlet of coats, hats, and mittens just to take a desperate trip to the grocery store. It means getting to the end of the day with the odd combination of weary and stir crazy.

Not to mention that even on the good days, I read in 5-  or 10- or 2-minute increments, especially now that the beautifully coordinated dual naptime that I so effortfully created has evaporated into a thing of the past.

No, I have very little patience or mental energy to read with the aim to appreciate writing and ponder ideas, except perhaps in food literature.

At different points in my life, I have needed and wanted different things from reading. Six years ago, when I had a fairly routine corporate job with a long commute, and longed for some academic intellectual stimulation? Life of Pi would have fit in quite well then. I have had phases where I’ve been sad or anxious, and needed thrillers or chick lit as pure fun escapism. Right now, I just want to be engrossed. The things I’m enjoying reading span genre and writing style, but the thing they have in common is that I am gripped by them.*

So why do I feel so bad about dropping this particular book? It’s not out of any responsibility to my book club. Our next meeting will also function as our annual Oscar Party, and someone is bringing a new baby, which means I’m pretty sure there will be a five-minute token conversation about the book at best. After all, there are dresses to critique and babies to cuddle!

I have no problem cutting loose books that I think are poorly written or uninteresting, or even just not my cup of tea. I have a much harder time with books that I probably would have liked at a different point in life, that I think are worth my time, that I feel with a little more patience might even be what I want now. Which is why stopping this one was hard. But I did, because for me, someone to whom reading is like eating breakfast or breathing air, it needed to go back to being instinctive rather than forced.

All of this reminded me of this article, which I read a week or two ago. It’s main point is that when it comes to choosing what to read, we don’t need to select from a prescribed list of things that we “should” read, based on our previous interests. Reading should be more intuitive, loose, free. You should want to be reading what you are reading right now, and should trust your instincts on what that is.

So even though my Type A demon is poking and prodding me with recriminations and vague guilt, I am saying goodbye to Life of Pi, perhaps not forever but at least for right now. And I’m going to enjoy my current book selections, guilt free.

*So what is gripping me? This piece of awesome-ness.

Unknown-1It is a middle grade kids book that basically re-tells original Grimm’s fairy tales in all their weirdness and gore. It’s witty and humorous and exciting and has that magical Pixar quality of being sincerely funny and adventurous for kids while a little bit sly and tongue-in-cheek for adults. The Panda is fascinated by the cover. She keeps asking me to read this to her. (The answer is no: as you can tell by the bloody sword Gretel is holding, it’s not for three-year-olds.) She described the cover as looking like “Snow White …. and friends.”

So yeah, I ditched the adult philosophical book for something gory aimed at sixth graders. I am obviously very mature.

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February 20, 2014 · 11:35 am

At the cinema: Looking ahead

Out of the big four types of pop culture entertainment – Movies, TV, Books, Music – movies are probably my least favorite. I enjoy going to the movie theater, but that isn’t so easy once you have kids. And as for at-home entertainment, I’m more likely to binge-watch Breaking Bad instead of Netflixing a movie.

But I do tend to make one exception for movies based on books that I have enjoyed. Last winter, even when I was in a fog of newborn baby sleeplessness, I rented the Perks of Being a Wallflower. I watched it over two nights, simultaneously calming a baby through her evening fussy spell, and turned it off by 8 p.m. so I could grasp as much sleep as possible. But I made the effort, because I wanted to see how something so wonderful to me as a book would translate as a movie. (Also to see Emma Watson in a post-Hermione role, which she handled quite capably.)

I’m a big believer that books can transfer well to the screen, and do not need to be completely faithful to the source material (gasp) in order to do so. My criteria is that the movies somehow keep the spirit of the books. That the characters come alive and the actors inhabit them fully, in a way that makes sense, even if it’s not exactly what I pictured in my head. That the setting and atmosphere and mood remain the same, even if the plot details don’t. I almost always like the books better, because to me books are richer and fuller, but I don’t think a good movie adaptation needs to be slavishly devoted to the source material. Books and movies are two completely different ways of telling a story.

I guess I’ll have to make more of an effort to see movies in 2014, because there are a lot coming out based on books I’ve loved, including The Fault in our Stars and Wild.

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If you haven’t actually read the Fault in Our Stars yet, you need to stop what you are doing right now and go find yourself a copy and read it without interruptions except to sob. It’s that good. And you should trust me on this. I don’t like overly sentimental things. John Green’s story about two teenagers who meet at a cancer support group is many things – witty, warm, thought provoking – but what it isn’t is emotionally manipulative. Yes, it is a sad book and there’s no getting around that. But it is saved from being maudlin by the writing and the characters.

So I actually really really liked the trailer for the movie, due out in June. (Watch it here). I now realize thanks to the internet that some people did not like the trailer, but so far I am optimistic. When I first heard they were making this into a movie, and then heard they had cast Shailene Woodley (teen actress du jour), I was uncertain. How on earth could a book that relies so much on the author’s pure wit and grace transfer to the screen without feeling like a Lifetime soap? This trailer, for the first time, makes me feel kind of hopeful.

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I’m a bit more skeptical about the movie adaptation of Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s story about coming to terms with her mother’s death by hiking the harrowing Pacific Crest Trail. Cheryl (I love her, I will call her by her first name) made a lot of questionable choices both before and during her time on the trail, and while I read the books I focused more on those choices and how much I wanted to give her a good smack and tell her to stop being stupid. But what has stuck with me after reading this book – and especially after reading Tiny Beautiful Things, her book of advice columns – is that those same choices helped give her the hard-earned wisdom and empathy that I think only people who have gone through some seriously icky things possess.

The setting itself – wild rugged outdoors – is cinematic, but the book is very internal, and it’s difficult to envision a work focused on isolated personal growth easily making the leap to movies.

I also question the choice of Reese Witherspoon as lead. I like Reese. I think she is a good actress, with a range beyond romantic comedies. I think despite her cutesy demeanor Reese can play the slightly off-the-rails Cheryl. And what actress wouldn’t want to sink her teeth into a meaty, mainly solo role.


I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think that Reese is simply too old. She is 37, and at the time Cheryl hiked the PCT she was only 26. Her mother died, her family broke up, and her marriage dissolved by the time she was 22. That is a big deal. Age does impact our reaction to life events; we simply deal with things differently in our 20s than in our 30s. So either Reese plays young, or the character is made older. I’d rather the former because I think her youth is important to the story, but I’m not sure it can work. Not because Reese “looks” old, but because I can’t think it’s easy to shed the confidence and insight 10 more years of life gets you. (Not to join the Jennifer Lawrence should play every role bandwagon, but she is the actress who sprang to my mind for this part.)

This post was also going to contain my so-far favorite movies that have been adapted from books, but this got surprisingly long and will have to wait until next week. Any movies you are excited to see based on the books? I’m also looking forward to Gone Girl and Mockingjay Part 1.

And have you read a Fault in Our Stars? You know you should, right?


Filed under Just for fun


I can’t believe I haven’t written about Fangirl yet, given that it prompted me to send this text to a bookish friend: Have you read Fangirl yet? If not, you need to stop everything you are doing and read it right now.

It was a Saturday night, and my big plans were a glass of wine and finishing this book. I’m very cool. But also, it is that good. Seriously, I could not have loved this book more if it were accompanied by a golden retriever puppy.


The story is this: Cath is a college freshman at the University of Nebraska. She is an obsessive fan of a popular children’s fantasy series called Simon Snow that is pretty much a fictional stand-in for Harry Potter. This world has been a place of comfort for Cath and her twin sister Wren as they’ve dealt with their mother’s abandonment and their father’s mental instability. Cath is active in the fan fiction community and is one of its most popular authors. But as they enter their freshman year Wren starts to pull away from both Simon Snow fandom and from her sister, and Cath finds others – such as her roommate’s best guy friend and her writing teacher – who try to drag her into real life. Instead of hiding, she is forced to figure out how to balance her fictional world and reality, and how to participate in one without hiding from the other.

First, this book was pure fun. Rainbow Rowell is having a moment right now with this book and Eleanor & Park, and it is totally deserved. It is well written with extraordinarily likable and interesting characters.

When I was kid (and probably more as an adult than I’m usually willing to admit) I would get very into the fictional worlds created by the books I read. I’d immerse myself in these huge imaginary games based upon the book worlds, and it was a safe and happy place to be when childhood got sad or confusing or simply mundane. This desire to slip into someone else’s world and play around is something I completely understand and found fascinating while reading this book.

But despite my tendency to become passionately invested in fictional worlds, I never started reading or writing fan fiction. It felt too much like passing some dork threshold from which you could never return. I felt this way despite the fact that I knew some of the best science fiction/fantasy writers got their start in fan fiction, and that some of the best people in the world are enormously dorky. It was really interesting to read about someone who did step past that threshold, and to learn about what it’s like there. I always thought fan fiction was like reading someone else’s pretend games – fun for them but ultimately not that interesting or good to an outsider. Fangirl made me realize that there probably is a lot of muck, but also a lot of quality fan fiction stories that are written by talented writers who have massive readerships of their own. The next time I want to re-read Harry Potter I might actually check out Harry Potter fan fiction just to see if that hypothesis is true.

Rowell’s author’s note has a great sentiment (probably not captured totally accurately here because this book went back to the library a long time ago) that the fan fiction world helped her to understand the way in which she got invested in fictional realities, and she was grateful for it and all the fan fiction writers.

One of the most interesting plots to me was Cath trying to find her writing voice in her fiction writing class. She is a talented writer who has qualified to take a competitive upperclassmen class, and quickly establishes herself as a promising student. The professor strongly disapproves of fan fiction and accuses Cath of plagiarism when she turns in a fanfic piece as a writing assignment. She pushes Cath to find her own voice, and some of Cath’s discussions with her professor about the writing process are fascinating. Like, you start with a piece of truth and write it down and then transform it and mold it and see where it goes (I am paraphrasing all of this because as I mentioned, book at library). Or as you are building your story it feels like you are falling and grasping at branches and you struggle to keep up and see where it all goes.

In other words, it’s not easy, and it’s not neat.

Other things I loved about this book:

  • I like books that have a strong sense of place. Both Fangirl and Eleanor & Park have had that, but the place has been Nebraska, which does not sound like it could be made interesting, but was. It wasn’t like Rowell set out with an agenda to make Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska, more interesting, but she gives them the detail and individuality that turn them into real places and not flyover punchlines.
  • Everyone should read this book just for the character of Levi. It is one thing for book characters to be be described as almost irritatingly likable, it’s another to somehow actually make the reader feel the same way about the character as the other book characters do. Two lines I jotted down before returning the book: “Cath was pretty sure that Levi actually was the brightest thing in the room, in any room. Bright and warm and crackling – he was a human campfire.”, and “You didn’t realize how much work everyone else put into holding themselves upright until you saw Levi leaning against a wall. He looked like he was leaning on something even when he wasn’t. He made standing look like vertical lying down.”

I finished this book on January 3 and immediately declared it the best read of 2014. We’ll see if that holds true.

In the meantime, if this bone chilling stormy polar vortex maddening winter doesn’t getting in the way and mess up flights, in a couple of days I’m going to get to go here, aka one of my favorite places in the world. And this time, I’m planning to buy a book.

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On audiobooks and Orange is the New Black

I feel compelled this week to talk about audiobooks, because for the second time the book I most want to be reading is actually the book I most want to be listening to. Right now, as I wipe down counters and tidy up the house at night, I’m listening to Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things and Cheryl’s voice and words have crept into my mind and my heart like you would not believe.

And before this, it was Orange is the New Black.


I have not generally been an audiobook person, even when it made a lot of sense for me to be one. I once had a job that required me to spend three hours in the car two or three times a week, and it would have made perfect sense to spend that time book listening. But I didn’t really. I’m a visual learner and have a tendency to space out while listening to something, especially voices, causing me to miss a key plot point or sentence. I love music and enjoy the radio. So other than a pleasant audio-read of The Year of Magical Thinking and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I mainly stuck to music and NPR.

I’ve generally thought of audiobooks as the also-rans, the “ok if I have to” of books (for me. I know a lot of folks who prefer to read this way, and that’s great). But I decided to listen to more audiobooks when I started this blog because I felt a little pressure to increase my “books read” list. Audiobooks during household chores would be perfect. And I hoped that having a good audiobook would make me look forward to those household chores a little bit more, or at least dread them less.

Until now, I haven’t actually looked forward to my audiobook time. I spend my whole day with two little people and an exhaustive amount of words. My three-year-old is a talker, and the constant cacophony of pleads and whines  and even sweet little endearments fills up the day, and by its end I want nothing so much as silence, or maybe some music. I have had to force those headphones on my ears to keep up with an audiobook at night, but once I do, something surprising happens. It feels good to listen to someone read to you. As opposed to the fast-paced patter of daily chatter, the reading is calm, modulated, slightly unemotional even during emotional scenes. And it feels good to be read to. Like you are being tended to, taken care of. Kind of like you are the three-year-old getting tucked in before bed.

Which brings me back to Orange is the New Black (finally. sorry.) Because everything everyone has said about the narrator making a huge difference in an audiobook is exactly right. OITNB is the first book I have not only recommended that someone read, but specifically that someone listen to. Apparently, says the book cover, it has won an Earphones Award for Exceptional Audio Performance. It is read by Cassandra Campbell, who according to her bio has narrated nearly two hundred audiobooks and received multiple Audie Awards.

Which makes sense because she was amazing. So was the book. Probably most people know the plot: Piper Kerman is sentenced to 15 months at a federal correctional facility for a drug offense she committed during a reckless phase in her twenties. At the time she is sentenced she is well beyond that phase; she has a stable boyfriend, friends, and job in New York.

The first chapter of the book addresses the crime itself. Piper (I’m sorry, but I feel the need to refer to her on a first-name basis) has graduated from Smith college, is feeling adrift and rebellious, and enters a relationship with an older woman. It turns out this woman arranges for drug money to be moved from country to country for a large international drug ring, of which she is only a small part. At first, Piper has nothing to do with this. She accompanies her girlfriend on her drug travels and lives a sort of sleazy quasi-glamour. But at one point Piper is asked to start delivering, and reluctantly, she does.

And then she quits. She is not caught. The lifestyle starts to sicken her, so she leaves and goes on to build a completely normal life. It is not until years later that the drug ring is investigated, and she is named, charged, and eventually imprisoned. And nothing, not her boyfriend, her job, her education, her loving and well-off family, can save her from jail time.

The rest of the book chronicles her time at the correctional facility. It tells of how she adjusts to prison and its rituals and systems. It describes the women who populate the jail, making them fully dimensional and completely human. It deftly weaves in the systemic injustices found within the prison system. The book is great, and Piper’s words and Cassandra’s voice (sure, I’m on a first-name basis with them all) bring the characters to life. I’m not usually one for over-the-top accents or voices, but Cassandra does great work at making each individual’s voice distinct without making my eyes roll. Piper’s prison world starts to feel like a family to her, and to the reader as well.

Many people make poor choices in college and their early twenties, and move past those choices thinking, “phew. that could have turned out poorly and it didn’t. Moving on now.” Piper’s case seems extreme, but not as much as you might think. Piper was a WASP-y girl out of a good liberal arts college feeling a little bohemian and looking for some excitement. She got involved with the wrong person and took it about one step further than she really should have. It really makes you think about the choices you make when you are young. I plan to send my kids off to college someday with a copy of this book.

But part of the beauty of OITNB is that Piper truly does face down her crime and learns from it as she realizes how her tiny part in the drug trade contributed to an industry that harms real people, most of whom she would never have met without spending time in prison. The jail in which she serves time is full of women who are addicted to drugs, or who are impoverished and have no way but the drug trade to stay afloat. When Piper goes to prison she is only sad for having hurt her family and friends with her reckless actions. By the time she leaves she realizes that she has contributed to an industry that ensnares a huge part of the population, most of whom have far fewer options than she does.

Piper deftly sprinkles her frustrations and criticisms of the prison system throughout the book, without losing the narrative or seeming preachy. It is frustrating to watch how little time and money is spent on educating women about how to live in the world post-prison without sliding back into whatever it is that got them there. None of the women is taught how to do an internet search for a job, or has access to a computer. A course on “housing” for women nearing their release focuses on home decor instead of how to find an affordable apartment that would accept ex-cons. Drug addicts do not receive counseling on how to stay clean once they are back in the outside world where drugs are accessible to them.

Piper says it seems like no one is in charge, that the prisoners and correctional officers seem largely unsupervised and cut off from the outside. That probably has a lot to do with funding but I also think it is because no one really wants to think about or deal with prison or the people who populate it. It is so unpleasant, it is so much easier to assume that the people who end up there are “bad guys.” But Piper does a great job of showing how so many of these women’s bad choices are a result of poverty or addiction, and how few options in life most have. She does not make apologies for them, they all participated in criminal behavior, but makes the case that many need help as much as punishment.

This book makes you think, and even more so for the fact that listening to it felt like it was Piper directly telling you her story.

One awkward segue back to audiobooks before I go: I have two remaining issues with audiobooks. The first is that it is hard to understand where you are within the structure of the book. The other is you can’t mark a page or phrase that you liked. As I wrote this post I would have liked to flip or click through some pages to make sure I was capturing things accurately, but doing so is annoying in an audiobook. Still, this book and its narrator made me realize that audiobooks should have their own special place in my arsenal, not just the consolation prize for doing chores.


Filed under Adult fiction