22 July 2010

The Houekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa

I picked this book up completely randomly - I had seen another book of the author's at the bookstore yesterday and been intrigued by it, and when I went to find it in the library, this one was there too. When I read the description and learned that the main character was a mathematician, I of course had to read it, and for whatever reason, I decided that I'd do it today.

The novel is about a housekeeper who comes to work for a mathematician who has a kind of amnesia where he can't remember things that happened more than 80 minutes earlier. It's a quick read, very simple and pleasant for the most part. I suppose that the amnesia is meant to be the hook, but I loved the book for the math. There are these absolutely gorgeous explanations of various mathematical concepts (some of them, I actually had to stop and think about for awhile to fully understand), and, well, as a child of mathematicians, I'm a sucker for that kind of thing. People talk about the beauty of math all the time, but this is one of those rare books that really makes you SEE it.

Honestly, so far as I'm concerned the rest of the story is actually probably somewhat meh, though it's a pleasing read, but thinking back on it (having finished it all of 5 minutes ago), it's really the math that kept me riveted. Here's an example - the idea of amicable numbers. Amicable numbers are two numbers whose factors add up to each other. For example - 220 and 284 -- 1+2+4+5+10+11+20+22+44+55+110=284 and 1+2+4+71+142=220. Amicable numbers are extremely rare. If that doesn't seem interesting to you (though it should be mentioned that the book sets it into a much more appealing, literary context), well, then maybe this book isn't your cup of tea.

Oh, ps - there's baseball in it too. But I have to say, the baseball part isn't really as compelling as you might want it to be.


Barb @ 1SentenceDiary said...

I thought this was a brilliant book. I loved how it used the relationships between numbers (um, sometimes called equations) to illustrate the relationships between people.

I found myself constantly wondering: how could the housekeeper love the professor, knowing he couldn't even remember her from day-to-day? And, even more, what did the professor feel for the housekeeper, this person who seemed like a stranger but who treated him with love and kindness.

Fascinating. If you're interested, you can read my full review: Barb's review: The Housekeeper and the Professor.

Martin G* said...

I visited Kobe+Tokyo+Kyoto in January, and got interested in the book when I saw that a mathematician and even some mathematics were featured in the book.

Coming from Europe, I was unable and unwilling to appreciate the baseball references, so I skipped over some parts of the book. I wonder if readers who have no patience for (no understanding of, no interest in) mathematics -- after all, mathematics is less popular than baseball -- similarly skipped all the chatter about prime numbers. They would have overlooked a crucial part of the professor's character. But perhaps I did, too?

culture_vulture said...

Martin, interesting question. I think you would really miss a major aspect of the book if you skipped the math. Whereas the baseball is pretty miss-able. I actually really like baseball and find it interesting, but as I mentioned (briefly) above, that part of the book was pretty bland - it felt like cheap sentiment to me. I have yet to find a book on baseball that manages to get what's really great about it, unfortunately. I think the closest approximation I've encountered is the movie Bull Durham, and even that is only an approximation.