Sunday, September 26, 2010

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison

One of my good friends and I have very similar tastes. We have a lot of the same clothes, our shopping excursions usually leave us with duplicates of the same purses and sweaters, we like the same movies and TV shows, and we even order the same drink at Starbucks, including all the variations: no water, extra hot, seven pumps etc. So when she told me about this book she was interested in reading, Orange is the New Black, I didn't think twice about choosing it to read this week. This is Piper Kerman's candid and reflective memoir of the year she spent in Prison. Devoid of self-pity, and with novelistic flair, this book was a compelling, often hilarious, and unfailingly compassionate portrait of life inside a women’s prison. It offers a unique perspective on the criminal justice system, the reasons we send so many people to prison, and what happens to them when they’re there.

When Piper Kerman was sent to prison for a ten-year-old crime, she barely resembled the reckless young woman she’d been when, shortly after graduating Smith College, she’d committed the misdeeds that would eventually catch up with her. Happily ensconced in a New York City apartment, with a promising career and an attentive boyfriend, she was suddenly forced to reckon with the consequences of her very brief, very careless dalliance in the world of drug trafficking.

Kerman spent thirteen months in prison, eleven of them at the infamous federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, where she met a surprising and varied community of women living under exceptional circumstances. In Orange Is the New Black, Kerman tells the story of those long months locked up in a place with its own codes of behavior and arbitrary hierarchies, where a practical joke is as common as an unprovoked fight, and where the uneasy relationship between prisoner and jailer is constantly and unpredictably re-calibrated.

Orange is the New Black is a fascinating look down the rabbit hole that is prison. Kerman finds herself submerged in the unique and sometimes overwhelming culture of prison, where kindness can come in the form of sharing toiletries, and an insult in the cafeteria can lead to an enduring enmity. Kerman quickly learns the rules—asking about the length of one’s prison stay is expected, but never ask about the crime that led to it—and carves a niche for herself even as she witnesses the way the prison system fails those who are condemned to it, many of them nonviolent drug offenders. It's a truly absorbing and meditative look at life behind bars.

Kerman neither sentimentalizes nor lectures, but she does discus the restorative justice system, while reflecting on her direct experiences. "But our current criminal justice system has no provision for restorative justice, in which an offender confronts the damage they have done and tries to make it right to the people they have harmed". Many who itch to return to the streets go right back to the drugs that got them locked up. The Bureau of Prisons lacks the basic ability, funding and time to rehabilitate the incarcerated and thus the recidivism to commit the same crimes once released remains real. Some women turn to bad behavior as a coping mechanism against their poverty, lack of family support, abusive spouse and boyfriends and general hopelessness. Kerman also talks candidly about her shock that very little is done for the women who've completed sentences and have no resources for release: reuniting with children and family members, finding housing, and finding employment.

With its expert reporting and humane, clear-eyed storytelling, Orange is the New Black is an authentic, provocative and marvellous book. It transcends the memoir genre's usual self-centeredness, to explore how human beings can always surprise you. You'd expect bad behavior in prison, but I can't stop thinking about the generous and lovely women with whom Piper Kerman served her time. I never expected to pick up a memoir about prison and find myself immersed in a story of grace, of friendship, of loyalty and love.

I loved this book, to a depth and degree that caught me by surprise. Of course it’s a compelling insider’s account of life in a women’s federal prison, and of course it’s a behind-the-scenes look at America’s war on drugs, and of course it’s a story rich with humor, pathos and redemption: all of that was to be expected. What I did not expect from this memoir was the affection, compassion, and even reverence that Piper Kerman demonstrates for all the women she encountered while she was locked away in jail. That was the surprising twist: that behind the bars of women's prisons grow extraordinary friendships, ad hoc families, and delicate communities. In the end, this book is not just a tale of prisons, drugs, crime, or justice; it is, simply put, a beautifully told story about how incredible women can be, and I will never forget it.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Birth House

My first week of this little adventure, I read the Book of Negroes, which I picked up from a display surrounded by other noteworthy titles. Included in the display was this weeks book, The Birth House. It caught my attention many weeks ago, but each week seems to be left behind, as a new book catches my eye. So this week I decided it was finally time to give it the attention it deserves, and am so thrilled that I did. Author Ami McKay weaves a compelling story of a woman who fights to preserve the art of midwifery, reminding us of the need, in changing times, for acts of bravery, kindness, and clear-sightedness. This in an authentic historical fiction, compelling and lively, which beautifully conjurs a close-knit community and reminds us that the miracle happens not in birth but in the love that follows.

The Birth House is set against the historical backdrop of 1919, in the small shipbuilding village of Scot's Bay, Nova Scotia. Narrated by Dora Rare, the first daughter to be born in five generations of Rares, we are introduced to a world that has been brought to life. As a child in an isolated village, she is drawn to Miss Babineau, an outspoken Acadian midwife with a gift for healing. Dora becomes Miss B.’s apprentice, and together they help the women of Scots Bay through infertility, difficult labors, breech births, unwanted pregnancies and even unfulfilling sex lives. Filled with details as compelling as they are surprising, The Birth House is an unforgettable tale of the struggles women have faced to have control of their own bodies and to keep the best parts of tradition alive in the world of modern medicine.

"I don't know that I'll ever have her kind of wisdom, or the courage it takes to live like her - to be given such little respect, to be alone. I'm scared of what it means to take a step, any step, that's not in the direction I dreamed I'd go."

Reading McKay’s first novel is like rummaging through a sea-chest found in a Nova Scotian attic. Steeped in lore and landscape, peppered with journal entries, newspaper clippings and advertisements, this marvelous ‘literary scrapbook’ captures the harsh realities of the seacoast community of Scots Bay, Nova Scotia during WWI. McKay is a marvelous storyteller who writes with a haunting and evocative voice. Written with lyrical sway and grace, with meticulous detail and visceral description, she retrieves our social history and lays it out before us in a collage of vivid, compelling detail. The novel offers a world of mystery and wisdom, a world where tradition collides with science, where life and death meet under the moon. With a startling sense of time and place, The Birth House travels through a landscape that is at once deeply tender and exquisitely harsh, relaying a story of individual human tenderness and endurance.

"My house stands at the edge of the earth. Together, the house and I have held strong against the churning tides of Fundy. Two sisters, stubborn in our bones."

As I have expressed many times over in the past weeks, I take joy in learning new things from books. I love reading a book and coming across a word, event, or person that sparks some interest and finding out more on the subject. The Birth House led me to some interesting reading on the Boston Molasses Flood, an event I had no idea even took place. In January 1919, A tank of 2.5 million gallons of molasses exploded. Weighing over 30 million pounds, the molasses flooded the streets of Boston at 35 miles per hour, causing havoc on the streets, killing 21 and injuring 150. Since then, the event has entered local folklore, with residents claiming that on hot summer days, the area still smells of molasses.

The Birth House is an examination of a community of women, their society, and the families they held together through their shared friendships, rivalries, stories, and knitting circles. McKay has assembled a wonderful historical novel full of joy and humanity, that has earned its place among the great books of both Atlantic Canada and the country at large, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Bishop Man

As I am challenging myself this year to read books of many different topics and ideas, I was drawn to this weeks books, This Bishop's Man, for it reveals a topic I am not altogether familiar with. Written by investigative journalist, Linden MacIntyre, and winner of the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize, this is an unforgettable novel, a searing indictment of the Catholic church, and complex character study of a deeply conflicted man at the precipice of his life. Above all, it's a great read – a page-turner which renders existential questions about personal responsibility into fodder fit for a thriller, and which takes language and form seriously.

Father Duncan MacAskill known to fellow priests as the "Exorcist", plays a special and notorious role as clean-up man for the Bishop of Antigonish, as he has a talent for coolly reassigning deviant priests to protect the church's various infallible positions, while ensuring minimal fuss from victims and their families. It has been a lonely vocation, but MacAskill is generally satisfied that his work is a necessary defense of the church. All this changes however, when lawyers and a policeman snoop too close for the bishop's comfort, and MacAskill is assigned a parish in the remote Cape Breton community of Creignish, his hometown, and told to wait it out. While wrestling with his own demons, MacAskill encounters a troubled young man who appears to be the victim of a notorious priest. Finding it hard to disengage as he becomes obsessed with his own chance connections to the tragedy – his role in exiling the priest, his familial ties to the victim and his affiliations with the church – he is determined to help this man, regardless of the consequences for the church, and his subsequent investigation takes him on a sordid and surprising path. As a native Cape Bretoner himself, MacIntyre brings the region and its residents vividly to life, while the book aches with details that are both rational and emotional.

Returning home is a rich theme for fiction and is always somehow more rich when it concerns places such as Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island, where the intricacies of family trees really do matter. MacAskill not only becomes reacquainted with the countryside of his youth, but discovers that he is related to almost everyone there, which makes impartiality towards his parishioners virtually impossible. Throughout the chapters, we learn that MacAskill struggles with many things, including an abusive father, loneliness, his own vicarious liability, and alcoholism. “They say drinking alone is a bad sign. But what if you’re always alone? What if solitude is the norm?” But despite his own celibacy and sobriety issues, MacAskill is the closest thing to a hero within the pages of this novel.

“The future has no substance until it turns the corner into history.”  

The Bishop’s Man is a story told in spirals, as we twist and turn through past and present fluidly, giving us a clearer picture of the events that can become cloudy through space and time. I found this style intriguing, but also confusing at times, as there was nothing as far as change in style or tense to determine exactly what state of time was being narrated. However, by the end of the final pages, all of MacAskill's stories and memories wove to a combined conclusion. I think that overall, the narrative was trying to reproduce someone remembering, and maybe that's why it's not quite in chronological order; certain events stand out more than others or float to the surface faster than others in real memory.

A brave novel, conceived and written with impressive delicacy and understanding. Despite being a work of fiction, The Bishop’s Man has the ring of truth, as MacIntyre writes with great authority. The past few decades have seen a stream of stories about church sex abuse scandals in Canada, the U.S., and Ireland, but instead of writing a novel to showcase those issues, MacIntyre uses those scandals as a springboard to analyze other, perhaps deeper issues. Though the sexual abuse is a central theme, it is not the center of the story, Father MacAskill is. It’s his life we’re looking at, his struggles, his character. The other issues are there, and dealt with with care, but this is not MacIntyre building a prop character in order to sermonize. Father MacAskill, with all of his hope and melancholy, remains ambiguous to us as well as to himself, allowing us to delve into the issues ourselves.

This book does not condemn or blame, it simply acknowledges that ugly things happen and people try to deal with those realities in the best ways they can, not sure if they're right or wrong. Especially when there is no right action. I love that this book just lays it out there so realistically.

It is by way of these happenings that we are presented with brutally honest characters living lives of deceit and despair. These tragically flawed people are human in their beastliness, conflicted, damaged, and eternally struggling to break the vicious cycle of pain and suffering. This book demonstrates the power of subtlety. Nothing is overt, everything is implicit. It's so much more reflective of life -- how often do we name horrors, but instead we speak in code and leave ugliness unspoken, partly as a way of dealing with it?

“The bay is flat, endless pewter beneath the rising moon.” Amidst the madness and injustice, we pause to take in the haunting and beautiful descriptions of small towns, where you can hear the fiddle and smell the sea salt lifting off the page. MacIntyre has proven to be an adoring poet in his love of the East coast and of the Gaelic and English languages. His words are profound and emotive, and I look forward to picking up his other novels in the hopes of more of the same.

Friday, September 3, 2010


Feeling myself slip into the easy trap of devouring great novels, I decided to change courses completely and read Infidel. In this profoundly affecting memoir from the internationally renowned author, Ayaan Hirsi Ali tells her astonishing life story. Narrated in clear, vigorous prose, it is a consistently focused narrative of a spectacularly eventful life launched almost inadvertent into an unparalleled adventure in moral courage. It traces Hirsi Ali's geographical journey from from her traditional Muslim childhood in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and Kenya, to her intellectual awakening and activism in the Netherlands, and her current life under armed guard in the West. She is a famously eloquent and consequential revolutionary, and tells her story with the clarity of an electron microscope, depicting every detail, she creates a work of universal resonance in this brave, inspiring, and beautifully written memoir.

One of today's most admired and controversial political figures, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, came to the attention of the wider world in an extraordinary way. In 2004 a Muslim fanatic, after shooting Ali's colleague and filmmaker, Theo Van Gogh dead on an Amsterdam street, pinned a letter to Mr. van Gogh’s chest with a knife. Addressed to Ms. Hirsi Ali, the letter called for holy war against the West and, more specifically, for her death.

Infidel is the eagerly awaited story of the coming of age of this elegant, distinguished, and sometimes reviled, political superstar and champion of free speech. With a gimlet eye and measured, often ironic, voice, Hirsi Ali recounts the evolution of her beliefs, her ironclad will, and her extraordinary resolve to fight injustice done in the name of religion. Raised in a strict Muslim family and extended clan, Hirsi Ali survived civil war, female mutilation, brutal beatings, adolescence as a devout believer during the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and life in four troubled, unstable countries largely ruled by despots. In her early twenties, she escaped from a forced marriage and sought asylum in the Netherlands, where she earned a college degree in political science, tried to help her tragically depressed sister adjust to the West, and fought for the rights of Muslim immigrant women and the reform of Islam as a member of Parliament. Even though she is under constant threat, demonized by reactionary Islamists and politicians, disowned by her father, and expelled from her family and clan, she refuses to be silenced.

Ali describes a journey “from the world of faith to the world of reason,” a long, often bitter struggle to come to terms with her religion and the clan-based traditional society that defined her world and that of millions of Muslims all over. Her family was politically liberal but pious, with one foot in the remote past and the other in the modern world. In Nairobi, her grandmother kept a sheep in the bathtub at night and herded it during the day. Hirsi Ali, at her English-language school, devoured Nancy Drew mysteries and English adventure series, “tales of freedom, adventure, of equality between girls and boys, trust and friendship.” She eventually became a woman very like one of George Eliot’s heroines — earnest, high-minded and ardent, forever chafing at the limits imposed by her religion and her society.

Rebellion came slowly. Hirsi Ali, under the spell of a kindly Islamic evangelist, passed through a deeply religious phase. She describes, quite persuasively, the attractions of fundamentalism and the growing appeal of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in disintegrating societies like Somalia’s. But nagging questions disturbed her faith, especially as she encountered inflexible doctrines on the role of women, and their need to submit to men. “Life on earth is a test, and I was failing it, even though I was trying as hard as I knew how to,” she writes of her anguished, questioning adolescence. “I was failing as a Muslim.”

“Holland was trying to be tolerant for the sake of consensus, but the consensus was empty,” she writes. “The immigrants’ culture was being preserved at the expense of their women and children and to the detriment of the immigrants’ integration into Holland.” Hirsi Ali quickly came to a profound conclusion: that the mistreatment of women is not an incidental problem in the Muslim world, a side issue that can be dealt with once the more important political problems are out of the way. Rather, she believes that the enslavement of women lies at the heart of all of the most fanatical interpretations of Islam, creating "a culture that generates more backwardness with every generation."

Hirsi Ali came to a more controversial conclusion as well: that Islam is in a period of transition, that the religion as it is currently practiced is often incompatible with modernity and democracy and must radically transform itself in order to become so. "We in the West," she writes, "would be wrong to prolong the pain of that transition unnecessarily, by elevating cultures full of bigotry and hatred toward women to the stature of respectable alternative ways of life." That sentiment, when first expressed in Holland, infuriated not only Hirsi Ali's compatriots but also Dutch intellectuals uneasy about criticizing the immigrants in their midst, particularly because both Hirsi Ali and Theo van Gogh went further than the usual criticism of radical, political Islam: Both believed that even "ordinary" forms of Islam, such as those practiced in Hirsi Ali's Somalia, contain elements of discrimination against women that should not be tolerated in the West. Thanks to this belief in female equality, Hirsi Ali now requires permanent bodyguards. But having "moved from the world of faith to the world of reason," Hirsi Ali now says she cannot go back.

Ultimately a celebration of triumph over adversity, Hirsi Ali's delivers a powerful feminist critique of Islam, informed by a genuine understanding of the religion. Telling the story of how a bright little girl evolved out of dutiful obedience to become an outspoken, pioneering freedom fighter. More than simply discovering western libertarian values, Ali shows a deep and critical understanding of her history, how it's shaped the modern world, and shows it's prognosis for dealing with the festering problem of Europe's Islamic subculture. As Western governments struggle to balance democratic ideals with religious pressures, no story could be timelier or more significant.

What makes Hirsi Ali a voice of world historical importance is partly her great art, exhibited here; it is also her shining courage. Simply, in an age where truth is penalized, banned, distorted, Ali Hirsi simply speaks the truth. This is a remarkable woman. She has crossed an impassable divide, and has been able to reach the other side after considerable suffering, work, and tears. Her extraordinary life seems more an ongoing work in progress than a settled iconographic career, for she seems to be fated to say what many do not wish to hear.

How well does anyone in the west understand Islam, and all the things it does to people? Do we really understand female genital mutilation, beaten women, arranged marriages, the compulsive need to hide the feminine, and the complete loss of individual freedom? Many still don't have a clue, but this book makes a very real effort to explain a few things, as it is time the west came to its senses, and faced reality. It is not "one world," all cultures are not equal in value, and the individual matters much more than the collective living in darkness.

This book will grab your imagination like no other, transplant you into a world you have probably never known, and introduce you to the intimate world of a Muslim family swept by circumstance all over Africa, Arabia, and Europe. The complex interaction of tribes, clans, cultures, extended families and nations (and their consequences) isn't dryly analyzed, it is woven into a personal drama with the momentum of a locomotive. The love of family rides perilously over the jarring railbed of refugee life, of ancient and modern Islamic conflicts, all of it recounted with real compassion in beautifully clear English. Hirsi Ali displays what surely must be her greatest gift: the talent for recalling, describing and honestly analyzing the precise state of her feelings at each stage of that journey, and years from now, maybe even centuries from now, her depth and integrity, and the depth and integrity of others like her, will still be having a positive impact on the world.

My tip for this book is simply read and learn about other people. While we learn from our own mistakes, trails, and experiences, we can also learn a great deal from those who have suffered more, experienced more, and fought for more before us. We can chose to let them inspire and motivate us to become stronger people, people who believe wholeheartedly in something, and stand up for it, people who take risks, who help others, and people who never stop growing.