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Thursday, August 7, 2014

Book Review: The Housekeeper and the Professor

(If you must have politics, please scroll down)

I've read several interesting novels this summer.  One of the gems I discovered is The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa. The story, possibly suggested by the case of H.M.,  is both poignant and uplifting — with just the right touch of sentimentality. 

In fact, this book is pure enchantment.  A book to read over and over again!

In spite of the professor's impaired short-term memory, much like a tape that rewinds and starts over every eighty minutes, the man enriches the lives of his housekeeper and her ten-year-old son, whom the professor dubs as "Root" because of the boy's flat top haircut.  The boy's profile closely resembles the square root sign.

You see, the professor relates to everyone and everything in terms of mathematics and number theory.  Serving as a teacher to the housekeeper and a surrogate grandfather to the boy, the professor imparts to this two daily visitors a great deal about numbers; for example, the number 28 is a perfect number.  Indeed, he opens a whole world of mathematics to the housekeeper and her son.  As the reader expects and enjoys, when "Root" grows up, he becomes a math teacher.

The young housekeeper and her son open to the professor the world of baseball, a sport which the professor has always loved because baseball is a sport of statistics.  They take the professor to a baseball game, and this trip is one of the only outside ventures the professor has made since the accident that impaired his short-term memory nearly two decades before.

Of course, because of the professor's memory deficit, every day is a new day.  In fact, every eighty minutes is a new day!  The housekeeper has to keep reintroducing herself to the professor, and he always begins the introductory conversation by asking, "What is your shoe size?"  The housekeeper grows to understand that this kind of numbers conversation with the professor is indeed approval and enjoyment — and his way of making a human connection, something of which he had been deprived for so long.

In addition to number theory, the professor does have something else that he can never forget, but I won't spoil the book's ending by telling you what that one thing is.

Please watch this young man's review of the book:

Also see this essay in Asian Review of Books.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is not a romance, nor is it a novel which analyzes neurology.  Rather, it is a book that pays tribute to the indomitable human spirit, which has wonderful adaptability and resilience.   

Read this book, which I cannot recommend highly enough!   

The Housekeeper and the Professor is available at Amazon and most public libraries. The audio version is among the best audio versions I've ever encountered.


  1. There is no Frigate like a Book
    To take us Lands away,
    Nor any Coursers like a Page
    Of prancing Poetry –
    This Traverse may the poorest take
    Without oppress of Toll –
    How frugal is the Chariot
    That bears a Human soul!

    ~ Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

  2. The important British novelist, E. M. Forster, famous for A Passage to India, Howard's end, A Room with a View, and the posthumously published Maurice, advises us, "Only CONNECT."

    What he means, of course, is that we open ourselves to genuine communication with others as opposed to spending our time going through the stilted polite-but-meaningless rituals we've been conditioned to accept as sufficient in making the necessary transactions we must perform to earn our daily bread and get through our lives. The inference is that those who live by those stultifying, soul-deadening procedures do not truly live at all.

    SO, this book about the Housekeeper, the Professor and the boy Root -- a most unlikely cast of characters -- offers further indication that life may become beautiful -- even blessed -- when true interconnection between human beings is achieved.

    This is what "intimacy" is really all about. It is not about "romance" or "sex," although it may on rare occasions be achieved even in that over-wrought, over-rated context. Instead it comes when we take the pains to bother developing relationships that involve more than merely "going through the motions."

    This most satisfying form of connectedness may happen in the humblest, most limited, most unlikely contexts -- wherever and whenever human beings drop the masks behind which most hide, and take the risk of bothering to look beneath the surface and into the soul of another.

  3. I neglected to add it also means learning to be content to "bloom where you're planted," instead of always wishing you'd been placed in a prettier, richer, better-tended garden on the estate of a rich aristocrat, or whatever.

    It means making lemonade out of the lemons life hands you, and all those other clichéd pieces of timeworn advice we've heard all our lives but rarely thought much about.

    Books of this sort bring the meaning of such good advice into so sharp a focus that it may pierce the armor of our stilted rituals, and provide our starving souls with much needed nourishment.

    1. FT,
      The clause bloom where you're planted describes this novel perfectly!

      Every character in the book blooms.

      There are only four characters in this novel: the professor, the housekeeper, her son, and the professor's sister-in-law. Those last three learn so much from the professor -- and I don't mean learning solely about mathematics.

      The professor cannot effectively retrieve any of his new memories. However, he does retain the important parts of those recent memories in his heart.

      I can't imagine that anyone wouldn't find something of value in The Housekeeper and the Professor. I have recommend this short novel to several of my students and their parents.

    2. Some love lemons just the way nature gives them to us, without the unhealthy additive known as "refined" sugar.

      There are few drinks as refreshing and fine as fresh squeezed lemon and water. I drink it all day everyday.

  4. FT,
    As you know, I often read and enjoy "dark" novels.

    The Housekeeper and the Professor is not a "dark" novel. Neither is it a medical novel -- another genre which I enjoy.

    It's available on audio CD. I used that medium to "read" The Housekeeper and the Professor. An excellent audio! Maybe you should try it.


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