book review: The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

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THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR by Yoko Ogawa
translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder
★★★★★
Picador, 2009

 

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.

mini reviews #3: short stories, memoirs, and novellas

I don’t always feel like writing out multi-paragraph reviews for every single book that I read, but I do post all my reviews – long and short – over on Goodreads.  I’ve started transferring these mini reviews over onto my blog in groups of 5 – you can check out the first two installments here.  Next up:

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YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT by Daniel Kehlmann
originally published in German, translated by Ross Benjamin
★★★★☆
date read: October 25, 2018
Pantheon, 2017

A delightfully sinister novella that essentially puts a bunch of tried and true horror tropes into a blender but still rewards the reader with its almost unbearably tense atmosphere. Though the creepy house in the woods setting does most of the legwork – I’m afraid this won’t be winning any awards for creativity any time soon – it was a fantastically entertaining way to spend an hour. The translation is excellent; really poised writing that convincingly unravels with the main character’s mental state.

 

535225THE WHOLE STORY AND OTHER STORIES by Ali Smith
★★★★☆
date read: October 15, 2018
Anchor, 2004

This is a rather unassuming short story collection that gave me such joy to read for reasons I don’t know how to articulate. Only my second Ali Smith and I reckon it’s not one of the more essential ones to read but I really enjoyed this.

 

 

34848808THE ONLY GIRL IN THE WORLD by Maude Julien
originally published in French, translated by Adriana Hunter
★★★★☆
date read: September 18, 2018
Little, Brown, 2017

The Only Girl in the World is every bit as disturbing as you’d imagine, but it’s also the single most inspiring story of resilience that I’ve ever read. This is what I was hoping Educated was going to be; the difference for me is that Maude Julien seems to have an appropriate amount of distance and perspective from her horrifying past, whereas Tara Westover’s story still felt too close to allow for much analysis. The Only Girl in the World certainly is description-heavy, and it’s not until you head into the home stretch that you see the ways in which her childhood impacted the person she was to become, but it’s well worth the wait, especially in seeing how her feelings toward her mother shift over time. Only recommended if you can handle reading about very extreme cases of mental and physical abuse; it’s almost viscerally painful to read at times.

 

16032127REVENGE by Yoko Ogawa
originally published in Japanese, translated by Stephen Snyder
★★★★★
date read: August 26, 2018
Picador, 2013

Revenge is a gentle and unsettling collection of interconnected short stories focused mainly on death and grief and an inner darkness that plagues its eleven different narrators. Both melancholy and macabre in tone, these stories range from heart-wrenching to disturbing, each narrated in an eerily calm and poised tone. This was absolutely engrossing and I’m keen to check out more of Yoko Ogawa’s work.

 

25733983LAB GIRL by Hope Jahren
★★☆☆☆
date read: August 24, 2018
Knopf, 2016

This is a textbook case of ‘it’s not you, it’s me.’ I understand the appeal, and in a lot of ways I’m thrilled about this book’s mainstream success (women in STEM fields and healthy, platonic relationships between men and women are two things we need more of in media), but there were only so many loving descriptions of trees I could take after a while. There was just too much science and not enough human interest to keep me engaged, and while I wouldn’t say you need to be knowledgeable about biology to approach this book, a certain amount of interest would be helpful, and I just don’t have that, at all. And the audiobook was a mistake; the author narrates it with a positively bizarre amount of melodrama (like, actually in tears at multiple points, and I’m sorry if that makes me sound callous but I really don’t react well to overly sentimental narration), so I can’t say it was a pleasant listening experience… But anyway, really not a bad book, just not my kind of book.

Have you guys read any of these, and what did you think?  Feel free to comment if you’d like to discuss anything in more detail.