Sunday, 11 January 2015

Book Review: The Humans by Matt Haig 👽

My second read of the year has been a wonderful novel by Matt Haig called The Humans. I picked it up as part of the three for ten pounds offer Amazon has on at the moment, not really paying too much attention to what it was about, but trusting the glowing user reviews.

In short, The Humans is the hilarious and touching story of an alien who has come to Earth in the body of a Cambridge University professor, in order to destroy information about an important mathematical discovery. Living as a human, the narrator experiences first hand new and strange things such as emotion, clothes and peanut butter sandwiches. In a sense, it's a coming-of-age novel turned on its head. You follow his account as he weighs up actually quite liking the humans with the destructive mission he has been sent on by his own kind. Fantastically written, it's a nod to the remarkable thoughtfulness insight Matt Haig himself must have on what it is like be human, particularly in modern England.

I'm always fond of books and films set in England, to be honest. I love the familiarity, even more so when it comes to witty novels such as this. It's full of true and humbling observations on science, religion, modern life and the human condition. Haig gets to grips with life from an alien perspective on things; the beauty of it, the rigidity of modern routine and the truth that Emily Dickinson knows everything. There's so many gems within the covers of this book, it's hard to resist getting the highlighters out. One of my favourites must be this; "Catholicism, I discovered, was a type of Christianity for humans who like gold leaf, Latin and guilt."

I really did love reading this book. It's Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy meets Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - it's charming, poignant, wonderfully funny and a fantastic journey of personal discovery I couldn't help but become immersed in. Often I had to stifle my laugh into my scarf as I read it on the way to work. It's also one of those narratives which effects your world view as you read it - I found myself thinking about the strangeness of some human habits we all have, particularly the 'state the obvious' nature of language and the subtleties of expression. There's a focus here too, as I mentioned before, on the rigidity of modern life. It's something I've been thinking about a fair bit about anyway lately. As a 21 year old, you have people pushing you this way and that, usually along the lines of "CAREER, CAREER, CAREER" or "give up everything and go travelling forever". The best idea seems to be ignore everyone and find your own balance, but there's certainly a fear instilled in me about spending my life doing things that I don't find meaningful. So, not only is this book touching, it's also very relatable and fairly philosophical, in a laugh-and-cry sort of way. I enjoyed it, a lot.

At the end, I was saddened. No spoilers, of course, but I really never wanted it to finish. I wanted follow the narrator along in his life and see how it all panned out. Despite never learning his name, the honest narrative of the storyteller is quite enamouring. I would definitely recommend this book, especially to fans of Curious Incident. This review is also a personal reminder to make sure I give my copy to my former housemate Amy, as it has her written all over it.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Book Review: Orange Is the New Black - My Time in A Women's Prison by Piper Kerman ⛓

I'd been meaning to read this book for a while. Orange Is the New Black: My Time in A Women's Prison by Piper Kerman does what it says on the tin. It's the poignant, witty and charming memoirs of a woman who served a year in prison following a decade old drug charge.

Of course, I didn't come to this book a stranger. I binge-watched every episode of the last two seasons of Orange Is the New Black on Netflix beforehand; season one in procrastination of my university final exams, season two in celebration of finishing them (I'm debating booking a day off work for season three this summer). In reading this book I had more of an agenda than I usually would. I desperately wanted to know how real some of the characters I have become so besotted with in the show are, plus I'm forever curious about the rhyme and reason between books and their screen adaptations. Orange Is the New Black, the book, wasn't a disappointment.

There was less of a narrative than I was maybe expecting, but that's perhaps more of a reflection of my own naivety than anything else. The show of course is full of sub-plots and character back stories, all things which are not absent from the memoir but are far less sensationalised: less twists, less coincidences, actually like real life. If anything, I was more surprised at just how much had been lifted from the book untouched. Characters and witty one liners, mainly. Each character is crafted to perfection - but I suppose that's what happens when they're not fiction but actual women wrapped in the prose of a paperback. The book can be a little hard to follow at times, with a constant flow of inmates being referred to, although the central figures in Piper's prison life are clear as day.

The book gives a fantastic and intriguing account of life behind bars at a women's minimum security prison in the USA: a combination of anecdotes and inner-thoughts from Piper Kerman's point of view. She shows a self-awareness about her privilege in the system: her short sentence, middle-class upbringing, supporting family, white skin and blonde hair means that nothing is as bad for her in comparison the majority of her co-inmates. The narrative at these points wavers between humbling and pretentious. On one hand relatable, as I and most readers would probably be in the same boat if they landed themselves in prison, on the other hand a philosophical tangent with a 'special snowflake' vibe. All in all my relationship with author Piper Kerman is almost identical to my opinion of Piper Chapman, her on-screen double. Likeable, mostly, with a few irritating streaks. Good hearted, well-meaning. Not as interesting as the other Danbury inmates. The inmates at Danbury are colourful and heart-wrenching. Most doing time for involvement with drugs, the population is brimming with amazing women with life-plans and dreams making the most of a bad situation. I was glad to love each woman in Piper Kerman's book as much as I'd loved the ladies on screen.

Ultimately this is a book about how kind and amazing women can be in such a suffocating, harsh environment. As a sociology nerd, a firm believer that feminist is not the dirty word the internet would love you to believe and a constantly frustrated individual ("how is anything I'm doing with my life actually meaningful?"), these memoirs were quite perfect. Piper Kerman finishes on some startling facts and figures about America's prison system and how it's failing, catastrophically. Within the book she had placed faces and families behind each petty crime, showing the true awfulness of the 'corrections' and 'justice' system America has in place today. The book has it's purpose, to show the beautiful community of women hidden away and looking out for each other, and to highlight the neglect and flaws of prisons - how so simply they could be come more about rehabilitation, rather than institutionalisation.

The book is absorbing, eye-opening and well pieced together - I'd thoroughly recommend giving it a read. I'd like to read more books about the modern prison systems of the world, there's a few out there. I have a feeling that many experiences would be quite different from Piper Kerman's.