Paperback reviews: The Portrait, Why Grow Up?, These Days Are Ours, Why Can’t A Woman Be More Like A Man?, The Simpsons And Their Mathematical Secrets


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The Independent Culture

The Portrait by Willem Jan Otten, trs by David Colmer (Scribe £8.99)

The Portrait is an odd book. For starters, it is narrated by a canvas – a two-metre-wide, extra fine quadruple universal primed, which, after languishing unbought in an art shop for ages, is finally acquired by a portrait artist, whom the canvas-narrator refers to as “Creator”. Thus far, you might think it’s just one of those artificial writing exercises – “Adventures of a penny” etc - that used to be set in school English classes. And the implausibility is sometimes distracting, as when the canvas talks of being able “to look sideways into the garden” (Yeah? What with?). Yet ... the conceit comes off. The canvas-narrator has a real story to tell. Creator is approached by an extremely rich, old, and ailing patron, who asks him to paint a portrait of his son. The unusual thing about the commission is that the boy is dead; the artists’s task, working from photos and videos, is to make him live again. Yet nothing is what it seems. The identity of the boy is uncertain, the cause and manner of his death unspecified. The father is curiously dilatory about returning to collect the painting. The painter has a strange, tragic boyhood memory in mind while working on the painting, and the commission makes him re-examine his own past, his own principles, and his own relationships. The sense of mystery deepens as the novel progresses. And once you suspend your disbelief about the narrator being made of fine, oil-primed linen, you realise that its status as an unnoticed observer and eavesdropper makes it peculiarly well-suited to tell this story. So, yes, it’s an odd novel – but in a good way.


Why Grow Up? by Susan Neiman (Penguin £8.99)

We live in a culture which celebrates immaturity, argues Susan Neiman: “Peter Pan, most drastically imitated by Michael Jackson, is an emblem of our times.” Neiman’s aim is to counteract this by finding a model of maturity which isn’t about resigning oneself to loss, but aspiring to becoming the person one wants to be. She argues that being grown up should be an ideal to aspire to, and mines the Enlightenment philosophers to prove it. She explores education, praising and critiquing Rousseau’s theories in Emile. She argues that work and travel can help us to grow up, if approached in the right spirit. Above all she champions Immanuel Kant’s ideal of the autonomous individual – not an emotionless calculating-machine, but a person whose reason and passions are in harmony. Throughout, Neiman works to rehabilitate the ideal of growing up, as the only way to give a life a meaningful form. This is an excellent work of popular, applied philosophy. Parts are as thought-provoking as reading Kant himself – and a damned sight easier.


These Days Are Ours by Michelle Haimoff (Penguin £8.99)      

Hailey is a 23-year-old college graduate living in post 9/11 New York. She’s crazy about Brenner, a high-achieving Princeton graduate lawyer, casting him as her future husband and father of her children. But at a seder night she meets Adam, who is serious, bespectacled, and be-sideburned. Not her usual kind of guy, but ... Meanwhile, Hailey looks for a job and meets her friends in bars and coffee shops, and tries to come to terms with her parents’ divorce. It’s full of 2001 cultural references, and the dialogue is achingly smart, with characters saying things like: “I hate not getting what I quasi-want”. Imagine Pride and Prejudice written by the scriptwriting team from Friends. The only trouble is, Hailey is not quite as likeable as Elizabeth Bennett.


Why Can’t A Woman Be More Like A Man? by Lewis Wolpert (Faber & Faber £9.99)

One reason that a woman can’t be more like a man is that men are “fundamentally modified females” – we are all female in the early embryonic stage until, in half of us, the Y chromosome kicks in and sends the embryo down the male developmental path. Wolpert’s belief is that there are biological differences between the sexes, in their emotions, attitudes to sex, language skills, mathematical skills, and health. The differences can be accentuated or minimised by culture, as Wolpert acknowledges, and there are huge variations; he is no defender of discrimination on grounds of sex. Wolpert says that his research has made him realise he lacks empathy – but he’s working on it. A dispassionate view of a controversial topic.


The Simpsons And Their Mathematical Secrets by Simon Singh (Bloomsbury £8.99)

It’s a curious fact that a high proportion of The Simpsons’ writing team happen to be mathematicians who have studied at post-graduate level and published papers on the subject, and they take every opportunity they can to smuggle advanced mathematics into the show. Simon Singh entertainingly explains how episodes feature jokes about pi, probability, statistics, infinity, Euler’s Equation, the Doughnut Universe, and the Scarecrow theorem. The last few chapters focus on Futurama – which used some of the mathematically-minded Simpsons writers – and takes us into the realms of multi-dimensional universes, Möbius strips, and Klein bottles. Great fun if you like cartoons and would like to know more maths.