Saturday, June 4, 2016

Movie Review: The Man Who Knew Infinity

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Based on the life story of ace mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan The Man Who Knew Infinity is a decently entertaining movie for audiences that like history, biographies, academics, mathematics, and Indians. I have always respected Indians who worked hard and gained notoriety despite being under the tyranny of the British rule. Ramanujan was one such individual who won over the British using his mathematical ability. Starting off with the portrayal of a young man working on math calculation using chalk on the floor of a temple the fast-paced film moves on to show his abject living conditions, and the desperation to find a job so he can support his family. But since he doesn't have a formal degree, landing a job proves difficult till he meets his boss how is equally interested in mathematics. Armed with a job Ramanujan rents a modest home and brings his wife and mother from the village to Chennai/ Madras.

As the story unfolds we see Ramanujan's boss insisting that he has to show his work to someone who can enable him to make a name and present his skills to the world. Ramanujan writes to Professor Hardy at Trinity College, Cambridge, England and lands a scholarship to go and publish papers on Mathematics. Of course being skeptical and condescending about brown skinned Indians, Hardy's colleagues try and place as many roadblocks in Ramanujan's progress as possible. Like most Indians he toils through these hardships and works diligently on his Mathematics theorems and emerges a winner ultimately. His life in England is not easy, for instance he is a pure vegetarian and there is nothing in the college mess that he can eat. Even potatoes are cooked in lard, so Ramanujan has to depend on self-cooking using the fireplace in his room as the stove. The freezing cold of England is not friendly to the Tamilian who is used to hot and humid weather back home. Being separated from family and wife is hard on the young Indian genius. Winning despite all odds seems to be the message one gets out of this story.

On the downside this movie seems like a half-hearted attempt to tell the life story of Srinivasa Ramanujan, the ace Mathematician from Tamil Nadu, India who was able to overcome the racism and prejudice of the British. The number expert proved to the British rulers that Indians were indeed brilliant in science and were a force to reckon. I call this movie a half-hearted attempt because of several lapses in screenplay starting with the lead character, played by Dev Patel. Ramanujan is a South Indian and Patel looks nothing like a South Indian. The British-born son of Kenyan immigrants has very remote - if any - ties to India and none whatsoever to South Indian Tamil tradition, culture or heritage. Like all other Westerners he doesn't know how to pronounce his own name "Ramanujan", he constantly pronounces it like Westerners as "Ramanoojan". The next fallacy is the portrayal of him wearing slippers inside his living quarters, few Brahmins would do that in this day and age, let alone in 1913. His portrayal as a dirt poor Indian citizen wearing tattered rags looking for a job is interesting, but how can he afford leather sandals? His wife and mother sport gold jewelry and wear only silk sarees which even in those times were pretty pricey to come by. How can someone who wears tattered clothes afford to buy his wife silk sarees, if indeed he had an inheritance that enabled these luxuries, why couldn't he himself wear proper clothes?

The previous paragraph was to vent out my frustrations but now let me talk about the merits of the movie. It definitely presents Indians under British in a positive light and the statement of Ramanjuan about how his god and religion (Hinduism) gives him the inspiration, insight, and the ability to do almost inconceivable calculations in Mathematics is definitely a fantastic narrative.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Book Review: Rider

This is one of the few Romantic or rather erotic fiction stories I have read. I chanced upon this book while playing with the Kindle app on my smartphone and it was free, and related to my favorite topic - motorcycles so decided to read it.
The book tells the story of a former marine (Fang aka ) who has returned wounded and physically broken from Afghanistan. Doctors at the VA are unable to provide him adequate pain relief with prescription drugs which sends him into the world of illegal drugs and into addiction. As he gets deeper and deeper into addiction he also gets entrenched into a motorcycle gang - The Damned. The only difference between this 1% motorcycle club and other outlaws is that this is an organization of ex-military people.

At some point Fang comes to realize the futility of addiction and living the biker life and decides to become a FBI informer. Things start heating up when an actual FBI agent, pretty Claire Powell is assigned as his partner to take down the drug dealing outlaw motorcycle gang that Fang is part of. Not only Claire is stunningly beautiful and sexy, she is also Fang's late friend Greg's wife. Even though Claire and Fang are drawn to each other they are both unsure of where this operation will lead them to. The rest of the book deals with some explicitly smoking hot sex and how the villain "Fatman" is taken down by FBI.

Author Helen Lucas has written a gripping, fast paced, and highly erotic tale of two wounded people, but the lack of attention to spelling and grammar comes as a surprise and in places shock. According to the biography page on Amazon, Lucas is a High School English teacher who writes "trashy books for classy people". I would definitely expect better quality of proof reading and editing from an English teacher or maybe in the era of mobile phones and texting, anything goes so long as the content is gripping enough to hold the reader from cover to cover.

This book is a easy and quick read. I was able to finish it in one sitting over couple of hours on my cellphone as I waited for my car get serviced. If you have some waiting to do in the doctors office or at the car repair place it may not be a bad idea to read this book. Be warned though, parts of this book is heavily punctuated by erotica and may leave you wanting to jump into bed with your significant other for a passionate love making session.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Book Review: Pudd'nhead Wilson

Image Courtesy: Simon & Schuster

I read this book some time ago in an effort to reconnect to reading good quality fiction writing. What better author to start with than Mark Twain, whose The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer had enthralled me with visions of adventure in my childhood. So I picked up this book titled Pudd'nhead Wilson a work of satire by the said author and started reading. This book deals with three main themes that were prevalent in pre-Civil War America - Slavery/ Racism, southern aristocracy and human nature.

This book is quite similar to another work by Twain The Prince and Pauper in the sense it deals with the swapping of identities at childhood and the revelation of truth at the end of the story. The book set in a little town named Dawson's Landing, Mississippi, USA, starts with the description of the arrival of a new individual to the town - David Wilson. The simple towns folk gather around to talk to him and there is a dog barking in the background. Out of frustration Wilson says: "I wish I owned half of that dog. I would kill my half". The simple towns folk did not get the satirical humor and at once decided that this guy was a fool and named him "Pudd'nhead Wilson" and it remains his name till the end of the novel when he demonstrates his ingenuity and commands the admiration of all.

The main characters of the book are Judge Driscoll, his brother Percy Driscoll, Roxy the slave who is only 1/16th African and looks like a white person but because of the little black heritage she is a slave. As the story progresses we learn the someone steals money from Percy Driscoll and he threatens his slaves that if the culprit did not confess he would sell all of them down the river. That puts the fear of god in them and they all confess to stealing it. He retracts the threat and records the incident in his diary as a humane deed done by him.

Meanwhile Driscoll's wife and Roxy give birth to a son each. Unfortunately Mrs. Driscoll passes away after childbirth leaving her baby in the charge of Roxy, who has become a mother herself. Roxy is worried that her son will be sold down the river once he grows up. Not wanting this to happen Roxy decides to switch the babies and make her son (1/32nd Black) the master's son and vice versa. Meanwhile Wilson has started a new hobby of collecting palm prints and he collects prints of both the babies during various stages of growth.

Nobody learns about the switch and the slave grows up as the master and the master as the slave. The slave who grows up as the master unfortunately gets into trouble in school, can not complete college, and develops a bad gambling habit which leads him into serious trouble. Meanwhile Percy Driscoll dies and sets Roxy free and the son goes into the guardianship of Judge Driscoll. Things progress till there is a twist in the story and the switch is revealed.

Pudd'nhead Wilson is an easy read and a short novel of 100-odd pages. While not thrilling like a suspense but good enough to sustain readers interest to completion.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Movie Review : A Walk in the Woods

Image Source: Wikipedia
The great outdoors have been my passion since childhood and hence when this movie was released I naturally wanted to see it. This movie is about two senior citizens (men) attempting to hike the 2,000 mile plus long Appalachian Trail. The story starts with famous travel writer Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) being interviewed on TV once again.

He comes home and is informed of a funeral of one of his peers. He is a successful published writer with a great wife Cathy (Emma Thompson) and grandchildren who have come of age. He feels this void in life... something like a senior life crises. It makes him decide to embark on a one-in-a-lifetime hiking trip across the Appalachian. He shares the idea with his wife and children and is met with shock and surprise. They all try to dissuade him but he is persistent. Bill asks his son to help him shop for gear and of course they go to America's best outdoor store REI, where he outfits himself for the hike. As he continues preparations his wife realizing the futility of her attempts to dissuade him agrees to let him go only if he is accompanied by someone. He asks every one of his friends and contacts, most of them tell him that he is crazy to even think about such an adventure. Either his friends are not healthy enough or willing to join him on his odyssey.

Unexpectedly Bill gets a call from a long-lost friend Katz (Nick Nolte) who wants to accompany him on the trail. Even though he has his reservations about going with Katz, Bill is forced to agree simply because nobody else has expressed interest in the journey. Katz on the other hand is going on this trip to escape prison, and experience another adventure before he dies. Unlike Bill, Katz does not have any savings, career, retirement or family. As they progress on their sojourn they discover more about each other and learn to accept their flaws and idiosyncrasies.

The rest of the movie showcases the spectacular natural beauty of the Appalachian Trail and demonstrates to the world that despite all the modern advancement and development, there are parts of America that still host pristine natural beauty. There are few places in this world that offer such natural beauty. This movie is definitely worth watching at least once and for the fans of the Appalachian Trail, Nick Nolte or Robert Redford, it may be worth watching several times.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Movie Review: The Martian

Image Courtesy: Dankslate
America and China dominate Mars Exploration and Colonization

There are three predominant messages the producers seem to disseminate to the movie watchers:
1. America has colonized Mars and the red planet is their territory now!
2. American astronauts are not only brilliant space engineers but also agriculture experts and can grow potatoes in Martian soil with human feces.
3. China has better space technology than NASA

The movie starts off with an American Mars mission collecting specimens on the red planet. A mega storm hits them and in the process of evacuation they leave one of the astronauts (played by Matt Damon) behind thinking he is dead. But of course American heroes are immortal and nothing can kill them, be it a storm in Mars or a breached suit in outer space!

The protagonist of the movie goes through a variety of emotions, despair, anger, pain, and finally arrives at a resolve to live. Conveniently the man left behind in Mars is a botanist, so he decides to grow his own food and converts the space station into a green house, uses his own feces as manure with Martian soil and voila has a crop of potatoes.

He persists in his efforts to get in touch with earth and finally NASA decides to launch a mission to rescue him. But it takes 4 years for anyone to reach Mars from earth and our man doesn't have enough supplies to last him those many days. Meanwhile NASA attempts a mission to restock him with food which of course fails and that is when Chinese step in. They offer to give America their technology which will speed up the rockets and enable them to rescue the hero.

The rest of the story is how it is accomplished and how Matt Damon finally arrives back to earth and continues teaching budding astronauts. It is a novel concept and a good movie, but I wouldn't watch it twice.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Book Review - The Human Stain

Defying Circumstances and the resulting Glory and Grief

Cover of "The Human Stain"
In an article titled “Passing as Tragedy: Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, the Oedipus Myth, and the Self-Made Man”, Patrice D. Rankine, a professor of Purdue University, Indiana critically analyses Roth’s work drawing comparisons to similar stories in the Greek Mythology (The Iliad), The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson, and Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth.
Rankine writes: “Passing occurs because of the myth of “whiteness,” which structures cultural ideals of success, propriety, and normalcy. Whiteness is as foundational as the frontier to New World identity. The idea of whiteness, however, obscures the ethnic realities of all Americans and their journey out of slavery into freedom. That both Bliss and Coleman Silk, neither of who bears obvious marks of blackness, cannot ostensibly escape the reality of race is the conundrum of identity for every American. Each character in The Human Stain serves to illuminate the distinctly American dilemma of passing and the ultimately tragic nature of the event.” (106).
The point Rankine is making in the above quotation is that everyone in America irrespective of their skin color, origins, religion, or ethnic background, is somehow enslaved and is journeying towards freedom. This includes even the ethnically Euro-American immigrant populations and the local-born White people. Rankine is of the opinion that everyone in this country is enslaved in their own skin, only when they achieve the American Dream of success in career, family, and fame will they become white, until then irrespective of their skin color people remain enslaved and can’t escape.
In other words Rankine’s strong opinion is that in order to escape one’s reality, it is important to succeed professionally and gain notoriety. Only this will validate one’s Whiteness, the journey undertaken by each individual in the course of this journey is what Rankine refers to as “Passing” (101). Since Rankine is critiquing The Human Stain, the context of the quote appears to be changing of race from black to white. In the book the protagonist has passed as white all his life. I don’t agree with this statement that everyone in America is enslaved or feels so. Even though statement is made in the context of The Human Stain, it continues to be irrelevant because the narrative is set in the late 1990s, centuries after slavery abolished and decades after Civil Rights movement succeeded. I contest Rankine’s statement because people here are working to achieve the “American Dream” of professional and financial success, peaceful and contented family life and the pursuit of happiness. Nor is it true that “Whiteness” automatically reflect success, propriety, and normalcy. In the current scenario with an African-American president ruling the country and a colored individual heading the supreme court, “whiteness” as a notion of success seems only a myth.
I strongly believe that the novel under study has more to do with an individual trying to surpass the narrow boundaries of race and ethnicity, than passing. True Coleman Silk has passed as white all his life, but that was not a deliberate attempt to mislead the rest of the world, he did it in pursuit of professional success and to achieve his dreams of professorship and academic achievements.
Rankine suggests that passing presents a dilemma to all Americans and always ends in a tragedy, which is not true. Coleman Silk achieves his goals as a professor, academic and educator he achieves the great heights of professional success, going to NYU making straight As and climbing the academic ladder to become the dean of a college. The tragedy that strikes him is in the aftermath of his achievements, it is a political event in which Silk becomes a scapegoat than victim. As far his personal tragedies, that has nothing to do with passing, because during the course of the narrative it is revealed that Faunia knew of his blackness all along and still chose to have a relationship with him. The fact that Faunia’s ex goes into a maniacal rage and eliminates Silk doesn’t qualify as a tragedy of the latter’s life.
The real tragedy of Coleman’s life in my opinion is the fact that Coleman and his wife had not slept together for years (716) and had a rocky marriage in their personal life despite presenting the pretty picture of a happy couple to the outside world. The triumph in this tragedy is Coleman’s because in the face of adversity the couple come together and put up a fight as one and not as two separate individuals. The crises and character demolition due to the racism charge on Silk is something of a professional tragedy (721).
All along the life script of Silk, he has been fiercely independent and lived apart of his family. He wanted to live by himself and become a poet or a playwright far more than go to NYU or achieve a degree (806). One thing Coleman couldn’t do all through his life was to identify himself by skin-color or race. He wanted to be a human, and an American and that is it. He couldn’t bring himself to tell his first girlfriend that he was colored and that gave him lot of heartache and tension (814), even though he tries to rehearse and repeat he is unsuccessful. When Silk meets Iris and decides to marry her he chooses not to identify himself and let her make her assessment of his race. The farewell conversation that he has with his mother on this subject in page 833 could be vaguely considered as the passing.
In an attempt to attribute Rankine’s claim that that “each character in The Human Stain serves to illuminate the distinctly American dilemma of passing,” to the life of Delphine Roux one of Silk’s detractors, I still find no evidence of passing. There is an attempt to achieve the American dream by all means possible, even if it means character assassination of someone else. Delphine is shown as an individual who had a problem of exposure right from her childhood (876). She wanted notoriety and at the same time anonymity, which is a greater dilemma than that of passing. When she migrates to America she effectively becomes deprived of family, friends, and country – “depaysee” (955). This again is not passing but someone trying fervently to adapt to a new culture and situation.
Summing up, I believe that Rankine in the above quote is trying to make it appear as if everyone in America is experiencing the dilemma of passing and that every passing ends in a tragedy. And that being white is to be successful and normal. Both these concepts are irrelevant according to me. People – locals and immigrants alike – in America are working hard to achieve success in their profession, family and society. In no way is anyone trying to change their race or skin color or trying to pass off as someone they are not. And everyone who achieves success in America by immigrating to this country doesn’t end up in a tragedy.

Works Cited
Roth, Philip. The American Trilogy. New York, NY: The Library of America, 2011. Print.
Rankine, Patrice D. “Passing as Tragedy: Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, the Oedipus Myth, and the Self-Made Man”. Critique. 47.1 (Fall 2005). 101-12. Print.
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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Challenges of Immersion and Assimilation as portrayed in American Pastoral

American Pastoral
American Pastoral (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Derek Royal Parker, in an article titled “Fictional Realms of Possibility,” writes, “Roth has his protagonists reimagine their realities and establish a space where they can renegotiate their subjectivity, especially within the perimeters of ethnic identity. By reimagining, I mean that the protagonists of the particular works – in most cases of Roth’s fiction, Nathan Zuckerman – take their lives and create a counter-reality to that which they are experiencing. These imaginings suggest a multifaceted sense of self, freeing up the subject to explore possibilities that are not confined to one fixed notion of what it means to be an American writer, a man, or a Jew.” (2).

Essentially, Royal, a professor at the Prairie View A & M University, is making the point that in Roth often writes his stories in such a way that they run along two parallel tracks, the first one being the reality of the narrator and the second the imagined self. In case of American Pastoral, the story starts off with the narrator Zuckerman describing his youth and the icons that he looked up to in Weequahic High School, Newark. The blue eyed blonde athlete who looked more Aryan than Jew (10), one who excelled in three different sports, was a local hero for not just Zuckerman but the entire Jewish community of Weequahic. As the prose progresses the reader comes to understand that the hero of this story is Swede the blue-eyed blond athlete of Jewish descent.

At this point Roth diverges and advances several years ahead and creates a situation where Zuckerman meets his idol Swede. At the encounter Swede recognizes Zuckerman and even remembers his field name which makes the latter gush with a multitude of emotions, pride, happiness, excitement, etc. Then Swede invites Zuckerman to meet discuss the prospect of writing a tribute to his father. That situation is the beginning of the transition between the reality and imagination. Zuckerman begins to interact with Swede and he comes to the conclusion that his childhood idol is intellectually inferior to him which comes as a shock, because Roth leads us to believe that heroes should be flawless. Once the flaw is found then that is the harbinger of the protagonist’s downfall. The rest of the novel is the “counter-reality” that Zuckerman experiences as he imagines Swede’s life and narrates the same.

Royal is saying that Roth’s works often deal with his protagonists negotiating through life in some sort of an imagined world. Their trials and tribulations often result from the fact that they are torn between two worlds – real and imagined. A big influence on Roth’s protagonists is their ethnic identity and how the character perceives it. In American Pastoral Swede identifies himself as American, much to the displeasure of his father (Lou Levov) who believes in sticking to the roots. Lou is of the opinion that because Swede doesn’t know anything about the history of his people (Jews), their sufferings and persecution, he is happy with his American identity and oblivious of what the rest of the world may think.

I believe American Pastoral is much more than a story of Swede as imagined by Zuckerman. This novel presents to the reader a bird’s eye view of the tumultuous times of the Vietnam War era and the disturbances that it brought to the American soil. The novel also places heavy emphasis on the concept of immigration and assimilation into American culture. There is conflict amongst the characters in the story of what they identify themselves as, where they belong and in which direction they are headed. All these make the American Pastoral an extremely complicated, yet very interesting reading. Through the story Roth deals with the subject of individualism in an American context, the story explores the challenges faced by individuals as they negotiate through the world and create their own identities – an American, Jew, Jewish-American, Man, Woman, Businessman, etc.

Critics like Royal may disagree with my analysis of American Pastoral, because he of the opinion that Roth has dealt with the subject of assimilation and immigration as a facet of imagination of the narrator and protagonist and not in reality. Though it is true that that there is a multiple arguments and counter arguments, indictments and defenses presented in American Pastoral the main theme of the book continues to be the story of Swede Levov and his family as imagined by Zuckerman. Even though there is considerable amount of reimagining of reality by Zuckerman in this novel, the fact remains that the setting of the story is in the tumultuous 1960s and the disturbances is what made the story of Swede so tragic and interesting.

I think Royal is right to a certain extent when he writes, “The individual can define himself as observant or secular, as America or Israeli, or as consciously ethnic or assimilated, many times all at once, as if trying on different hats.” But I still maintain that Roth is trying to present to the reader a story narrated by his alter ego Zuckerman, the story of Swede with a strong emphasis on the context of the period in which it is set in.

I am not saying that Royal’s observation that this story presents the continuous transition from the real and imagined worlds is wrong. I just believe that instead of focusing on the Roth’s play of worlds and turn of phrase, I would concentrate on the content of the story which is basically that of Swede as imagined and presented by Zuckerman. At this point it is possible that Royal and other critics may argue that Roth’s work became a topic discussion only because of his expert juxtaposing of real and imagined in the same tone which almost misleads the reader. In other words, their position is that the story is less important than the literary talents displayed by Roth.

I would still maintain that American Pastoral is like a continuous dialogue between people with somewhat conflicting and somewhat similar thoughts, beliefs, predicaments, and crises. Almost in every situation in the book the characters are either defending their belief or trying to interrogate the other’s stance on a particular subject. Be it Lou arguing with Dawn about her faith; Swede arguing with Rita Cohen about her beliefs; or even Merry arguing with her Mother it is all the same concept – defending their stand on a particular subject.

Works Cited Roth, Philip. American Pastoral. Miami, FL: Warner Bros. Publications U.S. Inc, 1997. 3-59. Print.
Royal, Derek P. "Fictional Realms of Possibility." Studies in American Jewish Literature 20: 1-16. Print.
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