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Friday, May 21, 2010

BPL Book Discussion: The Housekeeper and the Professor

The Housekeeper and the Professor: A NovelOn Monday the book group got together to discuss The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa. This was a very different book for us. Firstly, we had never read a Japanese author in translation before, nor had we ever read a book set in modern Japan.  Our only experiences with the Japanese perspective were through Memoirs of a Geisha (written by a white man about WWII era Japan) and When the Emperor Was Divine (written by a Japanese American about Japanese internment)..

Here is the plot as I described it about six months ago when I first read it:
A housekeeper is assigned by the agency she works for to take care of the a former mathematics professor's home and make his meals. She is the 9th housekeeper assigned to the professor. This is because the professor has a brain injury. He can remember everything that happened before his accident (1970s), but since, his memory is on a 80 minute loop. That's right, his memory only lasts 80 minutes. Intriguing, huh?

The ensuing story is about her time working for the Professor and the bond they form. It is about her son's relationship with her and the Professor. It is about the loss of a genius; we still see sparks of the old Professor as he works on complicated math problems. And finally, it is a story about living, no matter the obstacles; about living a life with meaning even if you cannot remember what happened 81 minutes ago.
[On an interesting side note, The Housekeeper and the Professor is also the book that inspired Kathy (our fearless leader at BPL) to get our entire Browsers' Corner project started. Here is her recommendation for the book, which inspired me to read it back then, and our entire department to start writing blurbs of our own.]

As usual I began by asking for a show of hands voting for if they liked, disliked, or were so-so on the novel. I was surprised that all but two said liked and those two hold outs voted for so-so. Also, before I begin with the details, I think it is important to let you all know that the characters have no names here. We have the Housekeeper, her son (nicknamed Root) and the Professor. That they have no names is obviously a discussion thread in and of itself.

Now on to the discussion itself.  Here are some of the major issues and themes that were brought up over our thoughtful discussion:
  • Although I was fine with all of the math (and to put it nicely, I am not a numbers person), many of the participants thought there was too much math. The overall consensus was that they loved the story and the characters but that the math distracted them from that. They spent too much time trying to figure the problems out. Others just skimmed the math parts.I tried to counter that the math was there to give us a way to connect with the Housekeeper, but the group as a whole didn't need the math to connect with her.
  • Some did find the math integral to the book though. One participant said it was as if there was another language (besides the Japanese and then English translation) in the story...the math. Others who enjoyed the math thought that it served as a leveler in the relationship between the Professor and the Housekeeper. He may need her to teach and reteach the everyday things to him, but he can teach her math. He is impaired, but not stupid.
  • This lead us to discuss how similar the Professor's condition is to those suffering from Alzheimer's. Many of the participants (being mature women) have seen others go through this disease.
  • Of course, this lead to a lengthy discussion of the Professor's condition. We talked about the soothing power of numbers on him, his suit covered in notes, and what could be going on in his head. Talking about what life would be like with a memory on an 80 min. loop was an huge part of our entire discussion.
  • How can you have a relationship with anyone when your memory only lasts 80 mins? This book is about the bond that is created between the Housekeeper, Root, and the Professor. But how? This lead into how much the Housekeeper grew as a person as a result of her time working for the Professor, and how much stronger her relationship with Root became.
  • Again back to the no names. We talked about how this technique by Ogawa has the effect of putting the reader in the dark, much like the Professor always is. It also made it easier for our group to empathize with the characters. We liked how this made the characters relationships with each other more important than their personal identity and how it kept the setting fairly nonspecific (creating a more universal feel). Many participants said that if Japanese names were introduced, that could have been a barrier to their enjoyment. Without the foreign names, the group felt like these characters could be anywhere.
  • The Legacy of the Professor was another topic. Their time with the Professor was the first time Root and the Housekeeper had a family. All together they were a family. Being with the Professor also gave Root's life meaning and purpose as Root goes on to be a math teacher when he grows up. Even those of us who did not like the math in this book had to admit that the Professor's love of it was contagious.
  • We also discussed Ogawa's unique writing style. It would be hard not to as this book is really about the characters and the language over plot. We liked how she spent a lot of time on the little, everyday details of their lives. Images like the Professor's suit covered in reminder notes, his moldy shoes, or how the Housekeeper was preparing dinner were written about with such care and reverance.
  • We talked about how such a complex story was told in only 180 pages and then shared examples of how this was accomplished with sparing but powerful prose. One participant used the example of two scenes, one where Root cuts himself, and the other when the Professor knocks over Root's birthday cake and the Professor's inappropriate responses in each scene as powerful examples of just how diminished the Professor really was.
  • Finally I ended by asking people to tell me one thing they learned about math from reading this book. A few brave souls offered the following list
    • 2 is the only even prime number
    • the concept of a perfect number
    • the concept of amicable numbers
    • zero had to be discovered
As you can see, the great thing about using The Housekeeper and the Professor for a book discussion is that is really forces the group to talk about what the author is NOT explicitly saying, The book is under 200 pages and is thin on plot, but, as you see in the list above, it is full of issues and themes worth spending time to talk about together. And my group didn't even get into all of the baseball metaphors in the novel.

If you need a short title that packs a big discussion punch, try The Housekeeper and the Professor.

Readalikes: Here are the original readalikes I gave when I first read this book:
One reviewer said that this novel with its larger message and nameless characters felt a lot like Aesop's Fables.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is similar to the works of other Japanese writers. If you liked this novel, try Haruki Murakami or Kobo Abe.

I also found this novel to be very similar to Japanese American author Julie Otsuka's When the Emperor Was Divine about the Japanese-American internment camps. Both are short, but leave you thinking. Both are very domestically focused but look at a much larger and thought provoking picture.

Richard Powers' award winning, The Echo Maker also looks at a man unhinged by a mental defect caused by an accident. However, here we get the perspective of the person living with the brain injury.

The Housekeeper and the Professor also reminded me of the work of Jose Saramago. Try Blindness where everyone has gone blind, save for one "survivor."

For Nonfiction options, people may be interested in books about popular Japanese literature (Ogawa has won many awards in Japan), failed memory, and, of course, mathematics.
To this varied list I would also add the backlist gem, The Universal Baseball Association by Robert Coover.

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