Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa - 192 pages

Book CoverLeft debilitated by an accident many years ago, the Professor lives the life of a hermit, a situation that is complicated by his memory, which only retains the past eighty minutes of his life. Anybody or any thing that has been apart from him longer than that must be reintroduced as though brand new. To combat this cruel fate, the Professor takes to wearing small bits of paper stuck to his suit with safety pins. The notes he pins on himself have all the information that he needs in order to function. Because of these difficulties and idiosyncrasies, he has been through many housekeepers/care-givers. Most have left unhappily and with many complaints. When the newest housekeeper arrives, she not only sees the damaged man but also sees the beauty and wonder inside of him. As it turns out, the Professor has an incredible propensity for math, and has even won significant prizes and accolades for his work and research on the subject. Soon the Professor begins to insist that the Housekeeper bring her young son to work with her, and from their first meeting, the Professor is enchanted with the boy. The Professor, so overjoyed to be around the young boy, begins to show him the secrets of math and becomes a father figure to him. Soon the boy and the Professor begin to share a powerful affection for each other that manifests unexpected changes in both of their lives. As the boy, the Housekeeper, and Professor learn and teach each other about math, baseball, and each other, unbreakable bonds are formed and lives are impacted. Both touching and emotional, this book seeks to show the way that one person's life, however blemished, can affect the lives of so many others.

This was a story that did not disappoint. It was a tale both moving and unique, and the characters really stayed with me. I found myself thinking about the oddness and sorrow that must have been the Professors life, often wondering how I might deal with an eighty minute memory. I suspect not well. In its sparse yet elegant style, the story of the Professor touched my heart and made me consider the power of relationships and their influences in peoples lives. It was enlightening to be able to see how people so fundamentally different could grow to love and depend on each other. Though it cannot be said that the Professor formed lasting attachments, I think it is very debatable to say that the times he spent with the mother and son were both valuable and crucial times for him.

I really liked the method of exposition in this book. There was a great crispness to the dialogue and narrative; a tossing out of the old familiar way of storytelling into a new and more refined style. It seemed as though there were great stores of emotion on every page, yet somehow, things didn't overflow or get messy. There was just enough control of sentiment to make this a moving yet tight read. The fluid quality of the writing was very nice as well. I felt the chapters and narrative moved seamlessly along with none of the awkward or jarring shifts in it that I sometimes feel while reading other books. This was a very calm book that belied it's emotions. It dealt with very tragic and sometimes alarming things, but in a subdued and moderated way. I think that this actually served the story well, because it made everything so much more profound and penetrating. There was also a quiet joy suffused throughout the story, something tangible and uplifting that I took away and savored.

It was impossible not to love the Professor. Reading about him was both sad and humbling, yet the ways in which he dealt with his problem seemed ingenious and clever. He was never nasty and recalcitrant, never giving someone hell for the life he lost. Rather, he was quiet and subtle. He spent most of his time working on formulas and math puzzles that had stumped other mathematicians. His love for the little boy was something that was stirring and wonderful to read. I loved the sections between boy and man, both accepting the other for what they were, loving each other unconditionally. Watching the little boy grow and change was something great as well. As he begins to really understand the Professor, he begins to look for increased ways to appreciate and care for him. It was obvious to me, and to any who will read this book, that the boy and the Professor shared a common understanding of the heart, a connection deeper and keener than most relationships.

Another thing that I thought was nice was the inclusion of math and math problems. Though I have never studied math or been one to enjoy it, the author makes several allegories in the story using math, and uses the math sections as a tool for bridging the emotional divide between the Professor and the others. There are a lot of challenging ideas in this book, but it is one that can be read on several different levels, which I think makes it an even better book. The book also discuses baseball, but not in a way that is alienating to those who have no interest in the sport. Mostly the book discusses what it is like to be a fan and to get excited about your passion. In fact, you could almost substitute baseball in the book for rock concerts, or soccer, or anything that you as a reader have an affinity for.

This was a kind book, something that you could easily spend an afternoon with and leave feeling calm, sated and happy. It was also very poignant, in a quiet way. I found that even though I put this book down, I continued to think about it and I kept trying to bring it up in conversation. There is so much in this book about the nature of unconditional love and the beauty of spiritual generosity. I have to say that I really hope that this gentle book will be appreciated by many. A really great read that I definitely recommend.


Amy said...

The Housekeeper and the Professor has been on my to-read list since I first heard about it a while back, but your review is beautiful and now I'm really anxious to get my hands on a copy. I'll admit to being especially intrigued by the presence of math in the story -- I was a math major in my previous college-student life, and so I get a little (over)excited when it can help to positively advance a story.

Ana S. said...

I love your reviews. I'm a big fan of books that are gentle and kind and touching in a quiet sort of way, and this really sounds like one of those. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

Zibilee said...

Amy and Nymeth, thanks for the kind words! I think both of you would really love the book.

Amy,if you love math and ever wonder what it's inclusion in a story can do to make a powerful narrative, this is the book for you.

Nymeth, the emotional restraint was one of the things that I liked best about this book, it had so much feeling, but it wasn't overblown at all.

Anonymous said...

This sounds amaaaaaazing! I really want to check it out having read your review. The description reminded me a lot of the movie Memento (though not necessarily so gruesome/grim), which I really enjoyed. I'm adding this to the list of books to look for.

Booklogged said...

Wonderful review! I'm adding this to my wishlist. Maybe reading about someone with only an 80-minute memory will help me appreciate my memory more. Better yet, I'll probably start pinning pieces of paper to my clothes!

Marie Cloutier said...

Sounds like just like my style! :-) on to the wishlist it goes.

Zibilee said...

I think you will really like this one. Though the book doesn't jump around in time like Memento, I saw saw big similarities. It's a short book, but it's really got a lot going for it.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful review! You spoke about the Professor with such tenderness, and I love the way you said it made you feel at the end, a gentle book.

I didn't realize that it's so short; this is the perfect book for me right now! Spring fever, for lack of a better explanation, leaves me jumping around from task to task, and not really concentrating on my books right now (maybe I just need to pick a different book from my stack).

Adding to my wish list ... Thanks!

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