Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Housekeeper and the Professor--Yoko Ogawa (Book Review)

I'm not a big math fan. I mean, I'm not anti-math, but it's a means to an end, for me--stellar for balancing a check book or doubling a recipe, but a thing of beauty? A reassuring constant in an ever-changing world? Not so much.

Maybe I just need to make friends with more math geeks. It works for the nameless Housekeeper, who learns to delight in math as she becomes friends with the professor she keeps house for. Math has become a constant companion for the Professor, since a car accident thirty-five years ago that caused his short-term memory to re-set itself every eighty minutes. Needless to say, this can be a barrier to making new friends. He has to write down "the new Housekeeper," with a little sketch, on a slip of paper he pins to his suitcoat so he'll understand who the Housekeeper is when she arrives each morning. And each afternoon when her son arrives from school, the Professor dubs him with the same nickname, day after day.

Stephen Snyder's translation from author Yoko Ogawa's Japanese flows beautifully, while maintaining a Japanese flavor. Parts of the narrative posed complicated challenges--in one segment, for example, the Professor helps the housekeeper's son come up with a palindrome for a homework assignment. Editor David Rogers said, during a Twitter bookchat, "Palindromes are untranslatable, so we worked with Ogawa to invent a new one. Actually, the original palindrome was (in phonetic Japanese) "reito toire," which translates 'frozen toilet.'"

The new palindrome? "I prefer pi."

I don't normally announce how I receive a book, but this was so fun I had to share: I never would've read this if I hadn't won it through Picador's Weekly Book Club on Twitter. For the next one (this Friday, probably around mid-day Eastern Time), author Augusten Burroughs will be on Twitter to discuss A Wolf at the Table. Even without having read the book, that should be interesting!

The Soundtrack: First, a quote from the Professor, as he explains the history of the concept of zero:
"A ruler begins at zero. All you have to do is line up the edges of what you want to measure with the zero, and the ruler does the rest. If you started with 1, it wouldn't work. So it's zero that allows us to use a ruler, too."
As soon as I read this passage (the full section is too lengthy to quote here) I got the Schoolhouse Rock song My Hero Zero in my head. I prefer the more modern version by The Lemonheads, so that's the one I put in my Soundtrack, but for nostalgia's sake here's the original cartoon as well.


  1. That book looks so good! I tried to get it to, but didn't. Maybe next time.

  2. This looks so good. I see it everytime I go to the bookstore and I always get it confused with The Geography of Bliss, which has a similar cover. I won the Wolf at the Table. Don't know if I will be able to make the chat though. I just gt it today.

  3. twitter gives me a headache...

    but the book looks very interesting. I think math is fascinating..not that I know that much about it, but it is so neat and tidy...until it turns into chaos.

  4. I'm not a huge math fan myself but this does sound interesting. Great review!

  5. This sounds interesting. I like the little bit of info about the palindrome. I always wonder about stuff like that (poems, little sayings) when books are translated.

  6. and so, this title gets added to the tbr! Thanks, Care

  7. This has caught my eye before, but I've never read the bit about the palindrome in translation. "I prefer pi" is fantastic!

    My husband is both a math geek and a word geek; I think that when I do get to read THE HOUSEKEEPER ... I'll be sharing a lot of passages with him.

    And now, Conjunction Junction (instead of My Hero Zero)will be stuck in my head!

  8. Oh my, the sexism inherent in the Schoolhouse Rock video is astounding....were we just all ignoramuses back then? Or is it just me? :-P

  9. Conjunction Junction was always my favorite Schoolhouse Rock song. :-)

    Nicole, try to do the chat if you can! It's a pretty wide window (I signed in at 11:15 Pacific time and the editor was still there. It was really fun!

    Elizabeth, it's just you. ;-)

    I've left this tab open all day with the intention of responding to every comment before bed, but I promised my husband I'd shut down earlier tonight and it's 11:00. So, I'm going to plead the Imperfect Blogger Amendment, thank you all as a group for your thoughtful comments, and go to bed!

  10. This book sounds like it would be an interesting read, although the short term memory loss is sad. I always liked practical math (solving real life problems) but wasn't so enthused about things like calculus.

  11. Guess I'm just in that phase of life where I'm seeing that kind of stuff....when other people were doing that in college I was busy being a good conservative Christian girl. :-P