book review: the girl in the road

One of my coworkers recently did a display in our library called “The One With The Girl” which was full of all these books with Girl in the title (The Girl on the Train, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, stuff like that). Weirdly enough, she missed Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road. But when I spotted it on a non-display shelf the Girl display had been replaced for World Water Day, so I was standing there with a book in my hand and nothing to do but read it. Oh woe. I had to read a book.

I really liked it.

There are two storylines, set in the mid-late 21st century. One is about a woman, Meena, who is fleeing her hometown in southern India because of a snake in her bed, which she is sure was an Ethiopian terror attack targeting her.

The other story is about a little girl, Mariama, in West Africa who stows away on a transport truck taking oil to Ethiopia. She’s looked after by the drivers and by the goddess they meet on the road.

Meena goes to Mumbai to start walking to Djibouti to find the person who killed her parents before she was born. Walking to Djibouti from Mumbai is a thing that might be possible because of the Trail: a multi-thousand kilometre long chain of solar- and wave-energy collector buoys strung across the Arabian Sea. Parts of Meena’s story really reminded me of Life of Pi, but she’s way more prepared, technologically speaking than Piscine Patel ever was.

This is very much a road novel, with the protagonists having encounters and moving along. I really liked it, and the pacing between the continent-crossing and the sea-crossing worked really well for me.

The biggest problem I had with the book is that it is a story about India and Africa written by a white woman from the U.S. Byrne thanks people with names that sound like they come from appropriate parts of the world in the acknowledgements, but I haven’t read reviews of the book by people of the cultures being portrayed. It didn’t seem objectifying or exoticizing to me, but I’m a white dude. I thought it was pretty good with the hijra character from a cultural perspective. But if you are sensitive to the “bad things happen to lgbtq characters” and “lgbtq characters are haunted by loads of trauma” this may be one to avoid.

book review: the great railway bazaar

I read The Great Railway Bazaar long after reading Paul Theroux’s book about revisiting his journey thirty years later. I liked the revisiting book better, possibly because the society Theroux was writing to in the 2000s is more like the society I think of myself a part of.

The parts I liked were the parts about the trains themselves. I too am a lover of trains and riding on them and could gladly let riding a train be the entirety of a vacation. I also appreciated the Vietnam chapters because this was written so close to the war and things felt weird and on edge there. But this book had more than just riding on trains. It had a lot of grand statements by a white guy about the cultures he was passing through. I can see a lot of similarity to myself there too, and, well, it was kind of ugly.

Theorux makes all these sweeping statements that seem to have no compassion for any of his subjects. I didn’t get that feeling from his book as an older man. Maybe I’ve just heard enough of what people who look like me have to say about travelling through Asia. And maybe that’s why I liked the Vietnam sections; his compassionless comments were directed at Americans and other foreigners instead of the people whose homes he was cruising through.

book review: the white tiger

When my mother recently went to India she asked what I wanted as a souvenir. I requested “books by South Indian writers” and if they were ones I’d have trouble finding in Canada all the better. Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger won the Booker in 2008, so it’s not like it’d be especially difficult for me to find here, but I hadn’t read it before this week. Well done, Mom.

The White Tiger is about a country boy named Balram from The Darkness, interior India’s villages. He’s pulled out of school as a child and eventually becomes the driver for a landlord’s son. That job takes him to Delhi where he formulates his ideas of servanthood and the terrible nature of it. Balram is telling this story in the form of reminiscent letters to Wen Jiabao (now former-) leader of China. Now that Balram is a successful entrepreneur he is teaching the communist leader how India really works.

There is a lot of cheating and other dishonesty throughout. It’s a very entertaining read and its struggle against the chicken coop of a democracy that lets votes be bought and sold is effective and maddening. There are two scenes that particularly stand out to me. In both of them Balram is a bystander as someone “goes mad” and tries to behave as if you could take what people say at face value. In one instance a man tries to enter a shopping mall. In another a man tries to vote on election day. Both are futile exercises for the poor man.

book review: cyberabad days

Cyberabad Days is a collection of short stories set in the world of Ian McDonald’s River of Gods. That world is a 21st century where India has fragmented into mini-states banning or making huge amounts of money on aeais and genetic engineering and drought (and cricket).

The collection is good for getting into the details of how some of the weirder aspects of the world worked than you can really get into in the middle of a novel. Setting up other characters who are marrying aeais while the Water War happens is a great way to make the world feel deeper. The final story in the book is about one of the hugely-long-lived Brahmin gengineered children and it’s the only story that really moves the world past the big events that happen in the novel. I think it was my favourite story because of that, though “Sanjeev and Robotwallah” was te kind of complete little tale that I enjoy.

If you wanted to see if you’d like River of Gods (which is a pretty big fat book) you wouldn’t do too badly to read one or two of these stories, but don’t read “Vishnu and the Circus of Cats” because that will kind of mess up a lot of reveals from the novel. And for the record, my favourite Ian McDonald book is still Desolation Road.

book review: supergod

Supergod is the story a British scientist tells of how the world was destroyed by nations putting their trust in hugely powerful beings who can fly. It’s an interesting read for the ideas and the pictures of superbeings reshaping the world.

There aren’t really any characters to get attached to apart from the narrator, who basically takes the place of Uncle Warren telling creepy tales of mushroom sex and soviet robots. Also, because it’s a Warren Ellis comic, of course the British space program plays into the story.

It’s a different take on superhumans than something like Black Summer; a much bigger picture story, and one that highlights how badly people would really deal with that kind of thing.

book review: debt: the first 5000 years

I’ve been grabbing people by the arm and talking their ears off about David Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5,000 Years for a couple of weeks now. Putting together a few thoughts about it here has been a little daunting though. Partially because I liked it so much, but partially because it seems to be about so much.

The idea is to look at human history and how the idea of debt has been constructed. Graeber talks about societies where money is used only for the important things in life and the idea of being in debt for something like food makes little sense. He goes into the myth of barter ever existing the way Adam Smith and so many subsequent economists talked about it. He goes into a history of merchants through the world (not limiting himself to Christendom, which means his conception of the Middle Ages start off in China and India) and how religions incorporate their society’s struggle with the idea of all-purpose money. There’s stuff about the ages when Christ and Gautama and Mohammed were changing the world and how separating economics from religion is crazy.

It was an amazing book. I have my buddy who knows about economics reading it now so I can get a bit more informed opinion about it, but for now, I would recommend it to anyone who enjoyed/had their thoughts provoked by Guns Germs and Steel.

book review: the years of rice and salt

I have had Kim Stanley Robinson’s alternate history novel The Years of Rice and Salt on my “To Read” list for ages. Now it isn’t there anymore, having moved to the “I must bore everyone I know talking about this because I love it” list.

The book tells the story of a number of souls. Well, they’re more Buddhist than that, like assemblages of characteristics. They encounter each other and try to make the world better. They’re Persian or Chinese or Japanese or other subjects of the great empires of the world since the 14th century. There’s one who is a dreamer and one who desires justice and one who is happy. They find themselves on opposite sides of ideologies from their previous lives and in bodies of different genders and cultures and occupations. Sometimes we see them after they have died and they’re getting their souls redistributed in the bardo where they can have a bit more meta- attitude about the point of their lives and going back again and again and how they should do better the next time.

Each section takes place at a different critical point in history when these souls (whose human names begin with the same letter every life as a mnemonic) try to live and improve the world. It’s so good, and makes me so sad that all my conversations with friends are about what kind of jobs we’ll be able to find. The scale of the story is so big, so pan-human that anything else feels so petty.

The other thing about this book is that it is an alternate history. In the 13th century plague wiped out most everyone in Europe, so all the history is different from that point on. The ancient Greeks and Romans are known, but Christians have been lost to history (much like we’d think of druids today). The whole colonization of the New World is a competition between China and the Muslim world coming at it from opposite oceans. Things are different but similar all throughout the book. The indigenous people of North America resisted colonization in different ways because being exposed to smallpox in smaller batches meant there was less genocide by germs. And feminist Islam is different and the development of nuclear power is there but different.

I’m sure that if you wanted to examine the choices Robinson made in creating this alternate history critically you could see it as its own exoticizing racist colonialist terrible thing. I read it more as a book about possibilities and loved it. The language wasn’t systematic in what it made unrecognizable but it was enough to remind you that things are different in this world even as the beings living through it feel like nothing is changing. It’s exactly what I want fiction to do so I loved this book.