Book Reviews: Miracles and Prison

The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker

Book description: “It’s never the disasters you see coming that finally come to pass—it’s the ones you don’t expect at all,” says Julia, in this spellbinding novel of catastrophe and survival by a superb new writer. Luminous, suspenseful, unforgettable, The Age of Miracles tells the haunting and beautiful story of Julia and her family as they struggle to live in a time of extraordinary change.

On an ordinary Saturday in a California suburb, Julia awakes to discover that something has happened to the rotation of the earth. The days and nights are growing longer and longer; gravity is affected; the birds, the tides, human behavior, and cosmic rhythms are thrown into disarray. In a world that seems filled with danger and loss, Julia also must face surprising developments in herself, and in her personal world—divisions widening between her parents, strange behavior by her friends, the pain and vulnerability of first love, a growing sense of isolation, and a surprising, rebellious new strength.

My review: The Age of Miracles was so so good but so so sad. What really gets me is that Julia is so young, and lonely, and miserable. A lot of what she is going through has nothing to do with the complicated environmental changes that are going on around her, but has to do with growing up and the shitty things about becoming a teenager. Usually, when someone is alone and unliked, you can at least think “it will get better for her.” But in Julia’s case, I couldn’t even talk myself out of my sadness for her. Even her triumphs in life, her little rebellions and her romances, are tinged in grief. Rarely does a book offer a passage that I remember very clearly, but this one has been playing in my head for days now: “Sometimes the saddest stories take the fewest words.” The seven words that followed this made me cry, but I won’t tell you what they are because you have to read it for yourself.

Walker is clearly incredibly talented. The Age of Miracles is an apocalyptic book where nothing really happens in it, nobody is rushing to do something, there is nobody to be saved except for everybody. The story moves along slowly, unerringly building in tension until you think you can’t take it any more. This is a book that didn’t give me a break. I sat down and inhaled it, wishing that things could be different. Definitely recommended. Bring a tissue.

 

Orange is the New Black, by Piper Kerman

Book description: With a career, a boyfriend, and a loving family, Piper Kerman barely resembles the reckless young woman who delivered a suitcase of drug money ten years ago. But that past has caught up with her. Convicted and sentenced to fifteen months at the infamous federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, the well-heeled Smith College alumna is now inmate #11187-424—one of the millions of women who disappear “down the rabbit hole” of the American penal system. From her first strip search to her final release, Kerman learns to navigate this strange world with its strictly enforced codes of behavior and arbitrary rules, where the uneasy relationship between prisoner and jailer is constantly and unpredictably recalibrated. She meets women from all walks of life, who surprise her with small tokens of generosity, hard words of wisdom, and simple acts of acceptance. Heartbreaking, hilarious, and at times enraging, Kerman’s story offers a rare look into the lives of women in prison—why it is we lock so many away and what happens to them when they’re there.

My review: I wasn’t super excited to read Kerman’s now famous novel. I had started to watch the TV show, but I found it darker than I thought it would be and didn’t really get into it. But I found that Orange is the New Black was really well written, and interesting. I liked Kerman’s compassionate description of her follow inmates. I also felt that she made it abundantly clear that she knew she had a much better circumstance than most of the women in prison with her (my viewpoint might be coming from a place of privilege here, but I did think she did her best in that).

Kerman would leave prison to a job that had been created for her in her field, to the arms of her loving, devoted fiance and her supportive family. Most of the other women would not have these nets to fall into when they are released. Kerman goes into how destructive prison is, and it’s something I’ve seen for myself. Back in Canada, I used to volunteer for an organization that helped  support women within the correctional system and after they were released, the Elizabeth Fry Society. And the more I know about the prison system, the more it infuriates me. Some people seem to think that prisons should be used as punishment and punishment only. You do something bad, then you do your time, are treated horribly and you’ll never do it again, right? You take a woman and rip her away from her kids and make it close to impossible for her to have a home or a job again. Congratulations, you’ve just created a career criminal. Thank you, Mr. Harper. Grr, sorry, that’s as close as I’ll come to being political here.

The reality is many women in prison are there on drug charges, often related to addiction or mental illness. What they need is more support, not less. Often charges are minor, usually non-violent, and could be dealt with far more productively and humanely by offering rehabilitation within their own community, in the house they live in with the support of their family. You know what stat always got me? There are two times a year when women’s criminal activity spikes. Like clockwork, every September and December, there is a spree of women criminal activity. You know what those times are, right? Back to school and Christmas. A great deal of crime comes from a mother’s desire to provide more for her children. It absolutely breaks my heart. And the kicker is, the prison system that you find in the States, that they are for some batshit crazy reason trying to reproduce in Canada, is horrendously expensive. Non-violent offenders serving time within their community not only remain better adjusted and far less likely to offend again, they also cost a fraction of what they do in prison.

Anyway, Orange is the New Black is a good book, and it got me thinking a lot more than I thought it would.

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