THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR by Yoko Ogawa
translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder
My only experience with Yoko Ogawa before now was her terrific short story collection Revenge, and though I’d heard that all of her books are drastically different from one another, I think I still expected to see a bit of Revenge‘s dark and macabre tone here. Instead, The Housekeeper and the Professor is utterly and unapologetically charming.
It focuses on the relationship between a housekeeper, her son, and a man whose house she’s assigned to by her agency, who she refers to only as ‘the Professor.’ The Professor has a condition which prevents him from creating new memories – his memory lasts only 80 minutes. He is nevertheless a brilliant man, and the likewise unnamed protagonist becomes increasingly spellbound by his unsolicited mathematical lectures.
There are any number of reasons why this book shouldn’t have worked for me; it’s sweet in tone, it’s about math, it’s about baseball. I don’t like any of these things. However, this book’s passion is positively infectious; this was like listening to a friend tell a story about something they love which you don’t particularly care about – sometimes regardless of the content, the enthusiasm itself is contagious. Also, I will say that this book helped me understand the sentiment that ‘math is like poetry,’ that I’ve heard a few times throughout my life, better than anything else ever has. No matter how many times I’ve witnessed an individual’s passion for math, it’s always seemed to me like this cold and rigid thing, but The Professor’s perspective on the relationship between numbers, and the solace he takes in their familiarity, really moved me.
But beyond the math and baseball, what makes this quirky book near-universally appealing is the unconventional, infinitely touching relationship between the two titular characters. The Housekeeper and the Professor is about empathy; it’s a testament to the unexpected possibilities of human connection. I just found this book to be a joy to read – quiet and subtle and nostalgic and affecting. Very highly recommended.
You can pick up a copy of The Housekeeper and the Professor here on Book Depository.
THE BIRD TRIBUNAL by Agnes Ravatn
translated from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger
Orenda Books, 2016
What a bizarre, enchanting, darkly chilling little book. I am not in the habit of quoting others’ reviews in my own, but there’s a blurb from crime writer Rod Reynolds on the book that says ‘A masterclass in suspense and delayed terror, reading it felt like I was driving at top speed towards a cliff edge – and not once did I want to take my foot off the pedal’ – and I think that sums it up better than I could.
I’ve had this book on my shelf for years, and I can’t remember where or how I first heard about it, but I think I had it in my head that it was going to be a fairly standard thriller, which I had been in the mood for. But it was no disappointment to me when it turned out to be a different beast entirely. The Bird Tribunal felt to me like a modern-day Scandinavian Rebecca, following a young woman living in the shadow of her enigmatic employer’s first wife, but with all the dreary atmosphere and profound social isolation of Wuthering Heights. But though I wouldn’t necessarily classify this as a thriller, and I think it might disappoint readers who are specifically seeking out twists and turns, the tension and sense of growing dread I experienced while reading this were palpable.
The relationship between Allis and Sigurd is a tender, terrifying thing; this is the hook that gets its claws in you from the offset. Through Allis’s first person narration we’re drawn into her obsession with Sigurd, a distant, surly man who employs Allis as a kind of housekeeper while he awaits his wife’s return. Though Allis is blind to so many of the warning signs that the reader has access to, her obsession with Sigurd doesn’t feel unnatural or unrealistic or frustrating – reading this book isn’t like watching a train wreck so much as feeling like you’re the one steering the train. I wouldn’t say I ‘enjoyed’ this as the sense of discomfort I felt while reading it was pretty significant, but the fact that I stayed up until 1 am finishing this after taking Benadryl two hours earlier since I couldn’t tear myself away kind of says it all.
You can pick up a copy of The Bird Tribunal here on Book Depository.
A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING by Eimear McBride
Coffee House Press, 2014
Having already read Eimear McBride’s sophomore novel, The Lesser Bohemians, I thought I was prepared for A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing. And indeed, I was prepared for McBride’s signature and singular prose style, a terse, choppy sort of stream of consciousness that mimics the incompleteness of thought. It’s a difficult style to warm up to: I’ve heard that listening to this book on audio can help, but personally I tried that and as I’m not an auditory learner at all, I found it much more comprehensible in print. So I think it does depend on your personal preferences, but once you settle into the rhythm of her words, it’s not as daunting as you might expect.
“Him anxious. Not at all like. But I am happy. Satisfied that I’ve done wrong and now and now. What now? Calm sliding down into my boat and pushing out to sin. He’s on the shoreline getting small.”
What I was not prepared for was how utterly gutting this book ended up being. This has to be one of the most intense, visceral, excruciating things I have read in my life – second only to A Little Life, perhaps? Just, don’t pick this up lightly. Trigger warnings for everything. Seriously, everything.
But it’s not just brutal; it’s good. Form, style, and content all dovetail here for one of the most perceptive examinations of the psychological toll of sexual assault that I have ever read. But more than that, this book is a raw and unfiltered look at sex, isolation, terminal illness, and sibling bonds, and though it’s relentlessly internal in its construction, a commentary on growing up as a young woman in Ireland beautifully underscores the entire thing. The protagonist remains nameless, something that I often find gimmicky and unnecessary, but here it works perfectly as a constant reminder of the narrator’s fractured sense of identity as she finds herself defined by the horrifying things that happen to her and around her as a young girl. This is a hard book to recommend as it’s so impenetrable at a glance, and so harrowing once you do get into it, but I think this is a book that is going to stay with me for a long time.
You can pick up a copy of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing here on Book Depository.
WALK THROUGH WALLS by Marina Abramović
I don’t even have words for how much I adored this book. (My one-word Goodreads review before I finishing gathering my thoughts was just ‘Perfection’.) Let’s get this out of the way: Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović is a controversial figure, and much as I’d love to shove her ghostwritten memoir into everyone’s hands, I must admit that there are plenty of people who will remain thoroughly unmoved by it, and that’s completely fine. But I also want to clarify that I don’t think it’s essential for a reader to love or understand or even be familiar with her art in order to appreciate this. The best thing to be while picking up this book is open-minded.
Personally I love contemporary art, I love performance art, and I love Marina Abramović, so this was always going to work for me. But it still managed to exceed my expectations; I think I was anticipating entertaining and instead I got revelatory. I did study Art History in college and am hardly a stranger to thinking critically about what art is, so I wasn’t expecting my perception of that question to be so shaken by Abramović’s perspective. Art and life are fundamentally inextricable concepts to her, which she explores throughout her career in a series of daring, unconventional performance pieces, which are chronicled in this book with vividly descriptive imagery. This book, as well as Marina’s career, is a testament to her unbelievable ability to push her body to its limits, and using her own physicality to connect with her audience. The way her performances build upon and interact with one another is delineated here with clarity: I genuinely feel enriched from this new understanding I have of her work and what she has tried, and has succeeded, to achieve.
Even outside of her art (though she would probably frown upon making this distinction), Marina’s life is a constant source of fascination. This reads more like autobiography than memoir, as it’s heavy on fact and chronology and light on emotional analysis, but this isn’t a criticism. Marina is presented in this book as an open, vulnerable figure, her methods and ideology made accessible through a thorough excavation of her life, from childhood to present day.
If you’re interested in Marina Abramović but aren’t a big nonfiction reader, the novel The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose is a brilliant depiction of her 2010 show The Artist is Present. Otherwise, I really couldn’t recommend Walk Through Walls highly enough.
You can pick up a copy of Walk Through Walls here on Book Depository, or The Museum of Modern Love here.
CONSTELLATIONS by Sinéad Gleeson
Picador Books, April 2019 (UK)
Constellations is the debut memoirist essay collection by noted Irish arts critic Sinéad Gleeson, and it’s a collection that appears to have been years in the making. It’s unsurprising then that the result is as masterful as it is – I inhaled this utterly marvelous book in one day and could not stop thinking about it after I finished.
Gleeson puts her own body at the front and center of these essays; she writes of hip replacements, leukemia, arthritis, and childbirth, deftly tying in her own stories with broader observations about the politicization of women’s bodies. These essays are at their best when they’re the most personal, I think, because Gleeson has the remarkable ability to express vulnerability without self-pity, but there isn’t a single essay in this collection that isn’t in its own way thought-provoking and memorable.
This is perfect for fans of Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death, though I consider Constellations to be (perhaps ironically) more thematically coherent. ‘Blue Hills and Chalk Bones’ opens the collection with a story about a school trip to France and coming to terms with her body’s limitations, a moving opening that segues into the more widely accessible ‘Hair,’ which interrogates the relationship between hair and identity. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that captures the utter senselessness and cruelty of death better than ‘Our Mutual Friend,’ far and away the collection’s standout, but even though that emotional crescendo comes early, the essays that follow continue to hold their own and deliver the occasional gut-punch while meditating on themes of illness, death, motherhood, and the interplay between art and health.
All said, this collection is essentially a reminder of the importance of bodily autonomy (which Gleeson fights for most ardently in her essay in which she reflects on Ireland’s notoriously harsh abortion policies). But despite the relentlessly heavy subject matter, this is the kind of book that you feel lighter having read, because it isn’t weighed down by the kind of hopelessness and despair that Gleeson has been fighting through ever since her first health diagnosis. As a self-proclaimed lover of all things macabre I tend to shudder at the word ‘uplifting’ so I’m trying to avoid using it, but suffice to say that this is a beautiful book that works through a number of difficult subjects to a consequential and impactful end. Read it.
You can pick up a copy of Constellations here on Book Depository.
ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS by Ocean Vuong
Penguin Press, June 4, 2019
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, the bold and bracing debut novel by acclaimed poet Ocean Vuong, centers on Little Dog, the son of a Vietnamese immigrant mother and an absent father. Raised in present-day Hartford in a predominantly white community, Little Dog struggles from an early age to both assimilate with his peers and to honor his Vietnamese heritage, but here Vuong deviates from the standard immigration story blueprint in favor of something more darkly sensual and internal. As the story unfolds, the reader comes to understand that the novel is an elaborate letter written from Little Dog to his mother, though she will never read it, as she is illiterate: the story he tells her is consequently private and unsparing. “The impossibility of you reading this makes my telling it possible,” Little Dog confesses.
Read the rest of my review HERE on BookBrowse, and if you’d like a little more context on this book, you can read my piece on Vietnamese Amerasians HERE.
You can pick up a copy of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous here on Book Depository.
HUMAN CHAIN by Seamus Heaney
A sparse, supple collection of poems that each capture something singular and striking about human connections. The standouts to me were Human Chain, Route 110, “Had I not been awake,” and “The door was open and the house was dark,” the latter of which I’ll copy here because I think it captures what’s so elegant and perceptive about Heaney’s style:
The door was open and the house was dark
in memory of David Hammond
The door was open and the house was dark
Wherefore I called his name, although I knew
The answer this time would be silence
That kept me standing listening while it grew
Backwards and down and out into the street
Where as I’d entered (I remember now)
The streetlamps too were out
I felt, for the first time there and then, a stranger,
Intruder almost, wanting to take flight
Yet well aware that here there was no danger,
Only withdrawal, a not unwelcoming
Emptiness, as in a midnight hangar
Or an overgrown airfield in high summer.
You can pick up a copy of Human Chain here on Book Depository.