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The Housekeeper and the Professor: ‘a poignant tale of beauty, heart and sorrow’ Publishers Weekly

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Gorgeous, cinematic . . . The Housekeeper and the Professor is a perfectly sustained novel . . . like a note prolonged, a fermata, a pause enabling us to peer intently into the lives of its characters. . . . This novel has all the charm and restraint of any by Ishiguro or Kenzaburo Oe and the whimsy of Murakami. The three lives connect like the vertices of a triangle.”—Susan Salter Reynolds , Los Angeles Times The Housekeeper and the Professor is a novel by Yōko Ogawa set in modern-day Japan. It was published in August 2003. Numbers, as living things, of course interbreed. They may be members of different families simultaneously. Plotting out the sister and brothers and cousins and aunts and the in-laws of numerical familial relations is what keeps mathematicians up at night. There are so many interesting genetic modifications, so many hidden liaisons, so many queer numbers waiting, and proudly wanting, to be outed. And the discovery of new families increases the possible connections among all the families. There's no end to the fun. A bond of friendship formed when they managed to get the old radio working again and baseball broadcasts could reverberate through the small garden cottage. He became a surrogate father to the boy child, while layers of silence were slowly lifted. It did not matter if they got the answers wrong to his math problems. He preferred their wild, desperate guesses to silence. Happy Cubs opening day! 2018 has not been the reading year I had planned on so far. Real life and the stress that goes with it have gotten in the way of being able to focus on reading. Hopefully that changes. In the meantime in honor of the Cubs first home game this year, I am reposting my favorite baseball book from last year, a lovely novella that I am fortunate did not fly under my radar. The Housekeeper and the Professor was recommended to me by my Goodreads' friend Diane because she knows that I love baseball. This March, Japan is participating in the World Baseball Classic so I found this slim novel to be a reminder that America’s pastime is now played happily all over the world.

He didn’t press us. On the contrary, he fondly studied our expressions as we mulled over the problem. It takes a special person to care for those with memory loss. I have seen that first hand in my life. The Housekeeper is a single mother. She is the first Housekeeper who stayed with the Professor for more than one day because she overlooked his 80 minute memory loop. Rather, she embraced learning abstract mathematical concepts such as amicable numbers, perfect numbers, and the professor's love for prime numbers. When he finds out that she is a working mother, he insists that she brings her son to work. What ensues is a touching relationship between the Professor and ten year old Root. Ogawa is able to bridge the gap between the most unlikely of friends by writing about numbers as the universal language. The Professor says that G-D made numbers before people, and the proofs were always there waiting to be discovered. She inserts actual mathematical proofs rather than writing about them, which both speeds up the novel, and allows the Housekeeper to know the Professor on his level. Math has never liked me, and if you make me sit through an entire baseball game, I cry. So how is it that I am about to tell you that a book that is largely concerned with math and baseball has captured my heart? Yoko Ogawa has convinced me, without really trying, that math is beautiful, in a way my college algebra teacher was unable to.

Did your opinion of the Professor change when you realized the nature of his relationship with his sister-in-law? Did you detect any romantic tension between the Professor and the Housekeeper, or was their relationship chaste? Perhaps Ogawa was intending ambiguity in that regard? Lovely . . . Ogawa's plot twists, her narrative pacing, her use of numbers to give meaning and mystery to life are as elegant in their way as the math principles the professor cites. . . . Ogawa's short novel is itself an equation concerning the intricate and intimate way we connect with others--and the lace of memory they sometimes leave us.” —Anthony Bukoski, Minneapolis Star Tribune The story is set in Japan. A housekeeper is hired to clean and cook for an elderly former mathematics professor who suffered a brain injury. (He’s 64 – is that elderly? lol) He can only remember new things for 80 minutes. So each day when she arrives at his house she has to re-introduce herself. It was March of 1992 when the Akebono Housekeeping Agency first sent me to work for the Professor. At the time, I was the youngest woman registered with the agency, which served a small city on the Inland Sea, although I already had more than ten years of experience. I managed to get along with all sorts of employers, and even when I cleaned for the most difficult clients, the ones no other housekeeper would touch, I never complained. I prided myself on being a true professional. Because he starts fresh every 80 minutes, the present becomes of utmost importance. The housekeeper, her young son, and the professor create beautiful times together in these 80 minute snips. During these times, he shares his deep love for numbers and their poetic, natural elegance.

He is a brilliant maths professor with a peculiar problem - ever since a traumatic head injury seventeen years ago, he has lived with only eighty minutes of short-term memory. However, her skill was such that the story was told so smoothly. So smoothly, too smoothly for my taste. You could almost miss the bumps in the road- the language almost never changed, the tone didn't alter, nor, I think most importantly, did your sense of being well taken care of by the author. I felt so safe in Ogawa's hands that I never feared for the characters, nor was able to consequently work up a great passion about any of them in any way. I knew that each of them would be given a fitting, lovely conclusion that wrapped up the tale with dignity, ending it not with a bang, but a whisper. It made me respect Ogawa's skill so much. It made me pay attention, and I understood that certain scenes had more power because of this almost never changing tone, and her plain, even language, even in moments of stress or crisis for the characters. The mutual respect and affection with which the main characters treat each other shine through, as well. The Professor speaks to two friends as if they were real mathematicians. And the housekeeper and her ten-year-old son start, to their own surprise, absorbing his explanations. The Hanshin Tigers, one of Japan’s oldest professional teams, and Yutaka Enatsu (born 15 May 1948) feature prominently in the story. Root and the Professor are fans. The importance of a treasured baseball card collection is part of their friendship.

If we really believed the only reason for being kind to someone was the certainty that they'd remember it, the world would be full of neglected babies and toddlers, who developed into cold and disturbed adults. Fortunately, only a very few people operate that way. The eponymous housekeeper is a young single mother (herself the only child of a single mother) with a ten-year-old son. She becomes daily housekeeper to a former maths professor whose head injury in 1975 means he only remembers the most recent 80 minutes, plus things before 1975, nearly 20 years before the story is set (~1992).

The adoration comes mostly from her, and though this is not at all a love story, it is certainly a story of love. I think that it is only in comparison with each other that both these novels can be recognised as profound metaphysical statements, contradictory to each other, but self-verifying by the protagonists, perhaps even to their authors. If I am correct, the responses of readers will depend primarily on the fundamental presumptions they hold not just about life but about existence itself. Here's why: For a mathematician, defined by intensity of temperament not level of education, numbers are not simply classified as 'kinds' or 'types'. They are living species with distinctive genetic characteristics, with real family resemblances and lasting relationships, indeed with personalities. Some are rare, some shy, some awkward, some maddeningly unpredictable. Some may be hidden in infinity, some are waiting, desperate to be identified, and some may even be the last of their line, but we can't be sure. The ultimate mathematical accolade afforded to any number is to give it a family name, a formula by which all its relatives can be identified, even those we haven't met yet. Of all the countless things my son and I learned from the Professor, the meaning of the square root was among the most important. No doubt he would have been bothered by my use of the word countless--too sloppy, for he believed that the very origins of the universe could be explained in the exact language of numbers--but I don't know how else to put it. He taught us about enormous prime numbers with more than a hundred thousand places, and the largest number of all, which was used in mathematical proofs and was in the Guinness Book of Records, and about the idea of something beyond infinity. As interesting as all this was, it could never match the experience of simply spending time with the Professor. I remember when he taught us about the spell cast by placing numbers under this square root sign. It was a rainy evening in early April. My son's schoolbag lay abandoned on the rug. The light in the Professor's study was dim. Outside the window, the blossoms on the apricot tree were heavy with rain.This sweetly melancholy novel adheres to the Japanese aesthetic that finds beauty in what is off-center, imperfect. . . . In treating one another with such warm concern and respect, the characters implicitly tell us something about the unforgiving society on the other side of the professor's cottage door. The Housekeeper and the Professor is a wisp of a book, but an affecting one.”—Amanda Heller, The Boston Globe An enjoyable Japanese novel that scatters numbers, and facts about the brain, though it's primarily about friendship. It feels light, but prompts profound questions. He has difficulties with his memory," she said. "He's not senile; his brain works well, but about seventeen years ago he hit his head in an automobile accident. Since then, he has been unable to remember anything new. His memory stops in 1975. He can remember a theorem he developed thirty years ago, but he has no idea what he ate for dinner last night. In the simplest terms, it's as if he has a single, eighty-minute videotape inside his head, and when he records anything new, he has to record over the existing memories. His memory lasts precisely eighty minutes--no more and no less." Perhaps because she had repeated this explanation so many times in the past, the old woman ran through it without pause, and with almost no sign of emotion. Ogawa chooses to write about actual math problems, rather than to write about math in the abstract. In a sense, she invites the reader to learn math along with the characters. Thus the sum of all the numbers from 1 to 10 equals 55. But that is just this number's first name, as it were. It's family name is n(n-1)/2+n. All the numbers, 1 to n, in this family are related to each other and have this name. The numbers themselves have always known this, we as thinking human beings who aren't numbers, took some considerable time to recognise the fact.

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