Orange is the New Black first caught my eye a few years ago when it first came out. I kept going back and forth on it. It looked intriguing, but I was also wary of the whole prison-as-told-through-the-eyes-of-a-privileged-white-lady thing. And ultimately, that’s why I put the book on the back burner for so long.
Fast-forward a few years, and we all know that turned out. OITNB was helmed by Jenji Kohan, picked up by Netflix, and shot into fawning fandom. I, like many others, ended up marathoning Season 1 in like two days. And all the while? I was going, “ARGH, WHY DIDN’T I READ THE DAMN BOOK BACK IN THE DAY?!!” (At which point it was too late because the waiting list at all of the libraries was insane.)
Anyway. I finally got a hold of the audiobook through the library, and predictably, I really enjoyed it. The book is about Piper Kerman, a responsible woman with a job and a fiance…and an almost-ten-year-old felony drug case hanging over her head and threatening to send her to prison for an undetermined amount of time. Years ago, when Kerman was a carefree college grad, she started a relationship with a woman also happened to organize drug smugglers. Kerman was lured by the seeming glamour of it all, traveling around the world with her well-to-do girlfriend, but then it became a little too real: she was pressured into smuggling drug money. She didn’t get caught, but it freaked her out and she left that part of her life behind her. Or so she thought. Almost ten years later, Kerman was named in an investigation to bring down said drug smuggling ring. It’s how she found herself eventually doing time in a federal women’s prison.
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
Publisher/Year: Random House Audio, 2012
Narrator: Tim Kang with Josiah D. Lee & James Kyson Lee
Length: 19 hrs, 22 minutes
What it is: Growing up in a North Korean work camp for orphans, Jun Do manages to rise from the humblest ranks in life to one of the highest, eventually even encountering the terrifying the Dear Leader himself, Kim Jong Il. How he gets there is almost farcical, but the one thing keeping him grounded is his undying love for a beautiful actress named Sun Moon, whose career the Dear Leader is bent on destroying.
Why I listened to it: Since it won the 2013 Pulitzer, it was part of my Pulitzer Project for this year.
What I thought: This book is the literary equivalent of “Go big or go home.” And damn. Johnson went for it. The book generated a lot of buzz when it was released, but for some reason, I just never had the desire to read it. I picked up the audiobook shortly after it won the Pulitzer, not really knowing what to expect. I got lost a couple of times because it’s a lot to wrap one’s head around via audiobook, but more than anything, I was transfixed by Jun Do’s nightmarish conundrums. The Orphan Master’s Son is a clever and ambitious project that basically just blows everything else out of the water; I’ve never read anything else quite like it. So much of the book centers on identity, right down to the protagonist’s name — Jun Do…John Doe? — and though the book is almost dystopian in nature, it clings to some of the most basic tenets of human nature, particularly love.
When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams
Publisher/Year: Sarah Crichton Books, 2012
What it is: Before Terry Tempest Williams’s died, she told her daughter, “I am leaving you all my journals, but you must promise me you won’t look at them until after I’m gone.” That request was honored, and after her mother died, a grief-stricken Tempest Williams went to her mother’s journals to find some solace. What she found instead were three shelves full of blank journals. As time passed, she felt at turns angry, devastated, betrayed, and completely mystified as to what kind of message her mother had wanted to send her. The book is comprised of fifty-four variations — meditations of sorts — in which Tempest Williams imagines the message(s) her mother was trying to convey.
Why I read it: It sounded intriguing.
What I thought: Some parts were hit-or-miss for me. It took me a while to get into the book; there’s no denying the poetic beauty of the author’s writing — and at times, the chapters consist of straight-up poetry…but I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a terribly poetry-minded person. That said, there were parts of the book that I wanted to copy down at length to savor later (and, in a couple of instances, I did just that).
I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you. A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.
Ruth, a writer living on a lonely island in British Columbia, stumbles upon a Hello Kitty lunchbox that has washed up on shore; it probably found its way to the island in the aftermath of the 2011 Japanese tsunami. Inside the lunchbox is a collection of artifacts: letters written in Japanese, a wristwatch, and a journal that’s been written inside a swapped out copy of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time); Proust’s cover provides some camouflage for Nao’s innermost thoughts.
Ruth’s been experiencing writer’s block and finds it impossible to move forward on her memoir. She becomes obsessed with the diary, written by a sixteen-year-old Japanese schoolgirl named Nao. After her father lost his job in the United States, Nao’s family relocated back to Japan. The shame of losing his job and his subsequent inability to find work in Japan sends Nao’s father spiraling into depression, and he attempts suicide several times. It’s doubly hard on the thoroughly Americanized Nao, who is an outcast at school and is subject to extreme bullying. It isn’t long until she too is secretly suicidal.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
Publisher/Year: Random House, 2012
Narrator: Jim Broadbent
Length: 9 hrs, 57 minutes
What it is: Harold Fry has recently resigned himself spending the rest of his days in quiet retirement with his wife, even though their relationship has been strained for some time. One day, he receives a letter from an old friend he hasn’t seen in twenty years. Queenie Hennessy is dying; she’s in a hospice and is just writing to say goodbye. He writes a reply and walks to the post office to drop it off, but instead of stopping, he keeps walking; he’s suddenly become convinced that he needs to deliver the letter to Queenie in person — if he walks those six hundred miles across England, Queenie will live.
Why I listened to it: Lots of people were raving about it last year, plus it was longlisted for the 2012 Booker.
What I thought: I’ll admit I was a little hesitant about this one at first. The guy walks? For 600 miles? And that’s…it? But no, that’s not it. Though a lot of the plot is internal (Harold does have a lot of time on his hands to think about things, after all), the novel becomes a beautiful exploration of haunting regrets and new connections. Harold knows that this pilgrimage to Queenie is illogical. She’s dying, after all, and he’s old — it’ll take ages to get to her on foot. Nonetheless, it’s a journey he needs to make. I also adore Jim Broadbent and think it was genius to have him narrate the audiobook: he’s quiet and sad and contemplative and perfect.
You might also like: Building Stories by Chris Ware because of the way it explores its character’s past.
The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan
Publisher/Year: Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2012
What it is: Rollrock Island is a beautiful, isolated place where people work hard and live modestly. But the witch Misskaella knows something no one else does: inside the seals that inhabit the island live the most beautiful women anyone has ever seen; the women can be pulled out of their seal bodies with magic. For a price, Misskaella will capture one of these women, hide her seal skin so she can’t get away, and hand her off to her eager husband-to-be. Let’s just say bad things happen when every single man on the island begins thinking with the wrong head.
Why I read it: Because Margo Lanagan. Nuff said.
What I thought: OOOOOOMG. This book is weird, cruel, unsettling, and reaaaaaally addictive. It took me a while to get into it because of the characters’ dialect. Each chapter is written from a different point of view, so it also took a while to fall into the rhythm of the book. But once I did, I couldn’t put it down. I respect Lanagan tremendously for her ability to create these ethereal worlds and tackle some of the more sinister aspects of human nature in entirely believable ways. It’s one of my favorite books so far this year.
You might also like: The Color Master by Aimee Bender since it also deals with dark fairy-tale/myth retellings.
Set in Belle Époque Paris, The Painted Girls was inspired by the lives of the Van Goethem sisters. Antoinette, Marie, and Charlotte already lived in poverty before their father’s sudden death, but now they can’t rely on their alcoholic mother to make ends meet, and the girls must find a way to earn some wages. Hotheaded Antoinette has been kicked out of her position in the Paris Opera ballet, but Marie and Charlotte are able to audition and enter the Paris Opera as petit rats, the lowest level for ballet dancers. Meanwhile, Antoinette finds temporary work as an extra in Emile Zola’s L’Assommoir.
The girls struggle to live off the few francs they earn each week, but it’s never enough; they’re always hungry and underclothed. When Marie gets a chance to make some extra money as Edgar Degas’s model, she hesitantly agrees. Though she shows great promise as a dancer, she’s at a disadvantage compared to her peers. She’s undernourished and must get up early everyday to work her side job at the bakery, then head to ballet practice. Nor is she pretty; she’s a gangly girl with bad teeth, and she doesn’t have the money to buy pretty ribbons or flashy dancewear. Her only hope is to find a wealthy patron who will take an interest in her and provide the funds to support her dancing career. Might Degas be that person?
Meanwhile, the once-close relationship she’s always had with Antoinette is wearing thin. Antoinette has fallen in head over heels in love with Emile Abadie. Emile sets off all kinds of alarms in Marie, who feels that he’s nothing but trouble, but Antoinette will hear nothing of it. Using alternating narrators (Marie and Antoinette), Buchanan allows readers to see the story from two different sides.