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.
Growing up, Nicole Georges had always believed that her father was dead. Then at the age of twenty-three, Nicole’s friend took her to a psychic, who informed her that her father wasn’t dead. It’s a secret Nicole sits on for a long time, until finally broaches the subject and her sister spills the beans: no, Nicole’s father never died of colon cancer.
Nicole Georges’s graphic memoir is part coming-of-age, part unlocking-family secrets story about growing up in a stressful household. Her mother dated a lot and was occasionally in abusive relationships, and the stress manifested itself in Nicole in different ways She also grew up in hippie vegan Portland, raised chickens, and refined her art. By the time she was twenty-three, she was keeping a lot of her life compartmentalized: she was still in the closet where her mother was concerned, didn’t know how to broach the subject of her father with the rest of her family, and was trying to navigate the tricky waters of her relationship (which involved living with lots of dogs and traveling with her girlfriend on their band’s tour). The questions about what really happened to her father start to eat at her, and the confusion finally culminates with a desperate phone call to ultra-conservative call-in advice show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger, whom Nicole occasionally hate-listens to.
Leslie from Regular Rumination and Kim from Sophisticated Dorkiness (two bloggers I love!) are co-hosting a really cool nonfiction project this month. Each week in November, participants will write posts on a given topic. I didn’t get a chance to write one last week, but this week’s topic is Be the Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert:
Share a list of nonfiction books on a topic you know a lot about. Or, ask some advice for books on a particular topic. Or, put together a list of books on a topic you’re curious about.
I love memoirs and I looooove reading about other cultures, I decided to go the “Be the Expert” route and share some great memoirs (or memoirish writings) written by people of color. Here are five excellent memoirs listed in alphabetical order (the links lead back to my reviews):
1. Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness ed. by Rebecca Walker
What is that Cool that iconic Black people always seem to possess? The seed of this book began with one particular image of President Obama and branched out from there: what is Black Cool? In this slim anthology, sixteen writers interpret the concept in their own ways. Some reference Black icons in their essay, but all of them ultimately turn to themselves and the people they know to examine the historical and contemporary roots of Black Cool.
2. The Boy Kings of Texas by Domingo Martinez
Okay, so I can’t personally put this one in the “other cultures” category: Martinez is a Rio Grande Valley native (where I’m from). His memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, is about growing up in Brownsville, TX in a hyper-macho abusive household. It’s painful to read at times, but Martinez’s writing is fantastic and the book was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award in the nonfiction category.
During a visit from her little brother, affectionately nicknamed Chevey (pronounced “Chivvy”), feminist film critic Molly Haskell was stunned by the confession that Chevey had been battling some personal demons his whole life: now nearly sixty years old, he felt it was finally time to come out as a trans woman. Having carefully saved up money over the years, he informed his sister that he would be undergoing a few surgeries in the coming months, ending with the final sex change surgery. Because of this, Chevey would be separating from his second wife, Eleanor. When asked why he had waited so long to do this, Chevey responded, “Because the urge gets stronger, not weaker. You just don’t want to go to your grave in what you believe is the wrong body.”
So begins the year of Chevey’s physical and emotional transformation into Ellen, as told through the often cringe-inducing eyes of her sister. *sigh* Where do I even begin?
Perhaps with one of Haskell’s immediate reactions to the news?
I think about this. “Just one thing,” I say (hoping to inject a note of levity, but not entirely joking), “please tell me you’ll still be smart at money and computers, and not dumb like…well, like a girl? Like me? Or Eleanor or Beth?” None of us can go a week without having a computer emergency and appealing to him for assistance.
Men We Reaped begins with this epigraph by Harriet Tubman:
“We saw the lightning and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.”
It’s a chilling foreshadowing of what’s to come. From 2000-2004, Jesmyn Ward lost five young men who were dear to her. It started with the tragic death of her brother, then grew more and more overwhelming as death kept coming for friends she grew up with in rural Mississippi. And as she notes in her first chapter, it’s nothing new. A brief survey of her family history reveals that several of her male Southern ancestors’ lives were cut short in violent ways, leaving the women in the family reeling and scraping by.
As Ward struggles to make sense of it all, she juggles a few different histories. Every other chapter in the book is about her own family’s story. With them, she starts in the past and moves her way forward in time, talking about growing up poor in the rural South, her parents’ doomed marriage, and her mother’s struggle raise four children. She’s frank about her depression and her feelings of inadequacy; she was a gifted child but was poor and often the only black person in an all-white, wealthy school where she experienced blatant racism.