Selection Day by Aravind Adiga

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Manju Kumar and his brother Radha are pushed by their father to play cricket well, above all else. To someone like me, unschooled and ignorant of the ways of cricket and the fundamental basics of the game, this might be a poor choice for a novel that would keep me engaged. Instead, I found it an easy read for it’s not actually about cricket at all! Even the “cricket glossary” at the back of the book is really just an excuse for Aravind Adiga to write a bunch of jokes into a serious and sobering novel (trigger warning & spoiler: there’s some scenes of how Manju & Radha’s father abuses them, and that’s a vitally important part of the story.)

 

Rather than spending his time on cricket as a game, cricket becomes a greater metaphor in Selection Day for India, aspirations, and the escape from the economic oppression of poverty. Manju and Radha are from the slums of Mumbai, and while Manju dreams of becoming a forensic scientist while watching episodes of CSI, the overbearing influence of his father (abandoned many years ago by their mother) forces him into cricket practice every day. As unrealistic as the expectations of salvation from privation due to excellence in sports are; it’s a very real feature of poverty that the only apparent escape into wealth and the safety wealth brings with it is the fame and glamor of excellence in professional sports. In America, we usually think of that as the kid who wants to play basketball or football, and our literature and our society is filled with stories of the kid who made their fortune that way. I worry about the kids who expect that to be their path, and are disappointed when it becomes clear that not everyone can be a LeBron James or a Johnny Unitas and make it to the highest levels of the game, but it’s a very real aspiration, and it’s impossible to fault those who have little else that could serve as an example for their success and freedom.

 

I do love about this novel that it’s not about “cricket superstar Manju.” Instead, the story focuses on the person Manju, and when he gets the opportunity to give up cricket in favor of attending a college for science, what he does as a teenager who doesn’t conform in a variety of ways, and how he reacts to the dilemmas of love and hope in a world that is calculated to grind him down. The cast of characters that surround Manju is fascinating, from his rival Javed to the bizarre characters of his cricket coaches and the very strange investor Anand Mehta, whose bankrolling of Manju’s father to provide for the tutelage of the Kumar sons in cricket is alternatingly hopeful and disturbing. Anand becomes a point-of-view character in a couple scenes, which is helpful for Western readers because he was educated in the United States and lived in New York for years, loving his adopted city before moving back to Mumbai.

 

Anand is particularly interesting – not only does he have vast moral conflicts within himself that he is failing to win, but unlike many of the characters – Manju’s father with his ‘secret knowledge’ about how to raise amazing cricket player, Tommy Sir with his obsession with rewriting history to impose changes, Sophia with her need to have a gay friend – Anand’s perspective directly highlights his failings:

Yes, he would lead the good life – servants, a big flat, a wife, home-cooked food, weekend fucks in air-conditioned hotels near technical colleges – but he would also do good things for his motherland. It would be simple enough, he had imagined. There would be Rotary clubs and blood banks on every street – a man would just have to sign up and show his face on Sunday mornings; moral glow would be one of the ancillary benefits of living in India. Now, watching the old man strain his muscles to row his boat, Anand Mehta wondered: What if doing good in India was like going against the current? You can barely make a buck here, and in earning it, what if you end up screwing the poor, the people you imagined you would help a bit in your spare time? The boat struggled to reach dry land; Anand Mehta dreamed of New York.

Needless to say, Anand Mehta does not wind up helping people in this novel; and is a bit of an irresponsible threat.

 

I was a little flabbergasted by how many characters in this novel held weird and bizarre beliefs about antibiotics, superstitions, sports, economics, the law, and so many other things. Everyone seemed to have their own quirky hobbyhorse counterfactual. I don’t know if this is a technique Adiga uses to individualize characters, if this is something common everywhere, something specific to India – I have no idea, but I found it fascinating, if somewhat disturbing to my empirical leanings.

 

I found Selection Day an easy and dramatic read, for its heavy material. I’d recommend it for anyone looking for a serious story, and ask those uninterested in cricket to set aside that worry, since understanding and interest in cricket is not required to enjoy this novel.

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Ann Leckie’s Provenance – where is Ingray coming from?

Ingray Auskjold has a problem, and it’s fair to say that the scheme she begins the book with; freeing a prisoner from the anarchic “Compassionate Removal” and whisking him away to their homeworld, Hwae, will not solve it. Nor will solving the murder that occurs later in the book, or even winning the affections of the romantic interest character for her. I like this about Ann Leckie’s writing – that she is talented at creating characters whose concerns reveal that they have not read the blurb on the back of their own book’s dust jacket, but are living some sort of life both inside and outside the pages of the book they’re in.

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Ingray isn’t always thinking about the events that dominate Provenance for her, she’s thinking about life, and that’s unusual enough in a novel’s protagonist that it feels oddly disconcerting. She has concerns beyond those of the immediate crisis; she’s not just trying to survive to Tuesday (well, she is trying to survive to see another day) but she is also realizing that she has to think about next month, next year, and what she really wants as a direction in life. Especially in science fiction, there are a lot of protagonists who do not reliably think about, or try to create, their futures. Mark Whatney from The Martian has reason to be so short-focused, and is believable in that context, but is Case from Neuromancer really thinking about career choices and his life beyond the MacGuffin that will free him? Or Hiro from Snow Crash? Do either of them wonder what will happen when the family gets together again for the holidays next December?

Science fiction and fantasy plots have a tendency to place their characters in situations where the immediate concerns of survival and crisis resolution absorb all the waking moments the characters have, leaving nothing for the concerns that an actual human might have for the long-term future: if you have to stop the runaway robot right now, or you have to save the world from the Dark Lich, that leaves very little room for the questions “who am I?” and “what do I want?” (nod to the Shadows and the Vorlons there.) But Ingray is wrestling with this, and as a reader who absorbs a lot of ‘standard’ science fiction and fantasy, this feels unusually strange to me. I only realized upon coming to the end of the book why it felt strange to me, and how I have for so long thought about characters who seem now unfairly stunted in their thoughts and planning in my reading. Coming to Provenance after so much Asimov and Robert Charles Wilson, authors I like, but who do not have the same talent Leckie has for characters that want to thrive after the events in their books wrap up. This might be what brings me to enjoy the characterization in a very different author, Adam Rakunas, who I might not otherwise compare to Leckie, but whose characters also want something that will tempt them from after the last page of the novel.

It reads as though Leckie is recreating science fiction in some ways, and just as surprisingly as Katherine Addison did with The Goblin Emperor, she’s writing books that pull it off. Those scenes that fans of an older form of science fiction writing might decry as ‘boring’ and that aren’t immediately related to the action that the characters are a part of; those scenes are important to Ingray, and that’s what makes them essential to this book.

I think a little about my own life, and how little I have in common with Fraa Erasmus or with Susan Calvin; and while I love those characters, it’s not my fault that I don’t see myself in them – I wasn’t designed to be in them, or them in me. There’s more than a little of myself that I can find in Ingray Auskjold, though, and that’s both a good thing for the character and a healthy thing for the novel Provenance. It’s not really a sci-fi escape caper, a murder mystery, or a thriller, although elements of those genres are found throughout the book, but those elements are all a part of the coming of age of a woman from a very different culture who needs to make her own way in her world, and find out how to go from where she’s been to where she needs to be, just as we need to make our own way in ours.

The Dreamblood Duology

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The Dreamblood Duology is a book (two books you can find in one volume) you need to read. “Assassin priests” for real! When does that ever happen? Not only does that part of the cover blurb pay off, but N. K. Jemisin has built a world where it even makes sense. Gujareeh and the lands explored in Killing Moon (the first book of the Dreamblood Duology) and Setting Sun (the second book) are dominated by the magic of sleep and dreams, narcomancy.

Jemisin starts from the premise of a society like that of ancient Egypt, but for the fact that it is dominated by and founded upon narcomancy, sleep-magic that enables healing, manipulation of the soul, and other powers. The religion, run by a church called the Hetawa, is the center of life in the riverside city of Gujareeh and has a profound impact on the people’s lives in a believable way. Jemisin is a rock star of world building and character creation, and only after I finished Killing Moon did I discover that it was her first novel. She was so thorough in giving her characters independent motivations and desires, excellent arcs in which to grow and develop, that I thought it was the work of someone who had already mastered her craft rather than a newcomer.

The religious order and the city around it make fascinating parallels and divergences from our own world. I can see a fervent religion of magically empowered adherents saying “How can we eliminate ‘corruption’ in our city? I know! Let’s train priests as assassins and have them kill the corrupt people!” The motif of reaching for the hammer of violence every time a human nail appears is far too common in our own history and present for anyone to be skeptical of this. There are also hints that the Gujareen may mean something quite different by “corruption” than what a modern reader might believe is encompassed by that term. Jemisin uses this introduction to her world to guide us through issues including faith and power, oppression and occupation, the legacies and expectations of chosen families and biological ones.

She clearly draws on the experience of the modern world, our own entanglement in the Middle East (while much of the book deals with fictional politics, it is not a thinly disguised treatise on modern geopolitics,) the filters through which we see the world and perceive inaccurately both other people and the ways in which we can make the most improvements on the world around us. I’m particularly fascinated as the Duology addresses people with a great deal of faith (Ehiru, one of the assassin priests, especially demonstrates the effects of ‘strong’ faith on a person’s choices) and the effects of families (those who make the Hetawa their family, or choose other characters over their biological relatives, as well as the expectations of fathers (mothers are in the book, do not fit as prominently into this theme.)

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Since reading Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy last fall/winter, I’ve been a little obsessed with her writing, and have quickly burned through every book of hers I could find. I’m loving the wild ride her books take my imagination on, and heartily recommend them to anyone else with even a passing interest in fantasy writing.