Thursday, May 31, 2012

Review: The Housekeeper and the Professor

Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor is not a classic.  But it is one of those rare finds that starts charming and ends even more delightfully, in which nothing really bad happens to the characters and you can relax happily and observe the growing relationships.  Plus there’s math.  Really interesting, quirky math explained in a totally understandable way, that isn’t a throwaway but completely essential to the trajectory of this novel.  (How awesome is a writer who can pull that off?)

In this novel, a young housekeeper takes a new job, caring for the Professor and his small cottage.  This old man is a genius at math and has a gentle, sensitive personality, but the job has an unexpected difficulty: the Professor suffered brain damage, and his short-term memory only lasts 80 minutes before it begins to erase itself.  Thus, the housekeeper must re-introduce herself each morning to a man who cannot remember her from the day before.  The Professor’s life is small – he fears to leave the cottage and instead spends his days solving math puzzles for a mathematics journal.  He was once destined for greatness as a mathematician – his college thesis was groundbreaking – but now, the man is reduced to clipping small notes to his suits as reminders and carefully picking out carrots from the food that is prepared for him.  The housekeeper and her son, who begins spending afternoons after school at the Professor’s cottage with his mother, are the first friends the scholar has had in a long time.

We never find out any of the character’s names.  The housekeeper who narrates is never named, nor is the Professor.  Her son is known throughout the book only by the nickname the Professor gives him: Root, for the flat top of his head reminds the man of the square root sign.  This lack of specificity makes this unusual story somehow more universal, and bestows upon the novel a fairy-tale-like quality.

The real beauty of this tale lies in the relationships between the three.  Any good novelist can tell you that when writing three characters, you must consider four relationships: those between each pair, and the dynamic that occurs when all three are together.  In The Housekeeper and the Professor, each of these four relationships is patiently and delicately explored (making me wonder if a better though less catchy title would be “The Housekeeper, the Professor, and the Boy”).  The Professor, whom we first encounter as a crotchety, messy, inwardly-drawn man, slowly unfolds over the course of the novel, and it is really heart-warming to see him accept and embrace the younger woman and her son as family – especially since he must essentially restart his relationships with them every day.  For that is what the three gradually become: an unconventional family, one that all three people desperately needed.  Yet there is no sense of desperation in their growing friendships, and no hint of sexuality.  The story is innocent and beautiful.

The Professor and Root bond over a mutual love of Japanese baseball.  The Professor delights in the statistics inherent in the sport, and Root is overjoyed to have a friend with a similar interest.  The two spend many hours listening to games on the Professor’s old radio, which Root convinced the Professor to get fixed (in exchange, he solved extra math problems beyond those required for homework).  The Professor seems to have always harbored a love for children, and it’s sad to realize that before the coming of this housekeeper, he had no chance to interact with kids in many long years.  Readers quickly come to realize that the Professor would have made an amazing father, if he’d only had the chance: “The desk was too high, and Root was forced to sit up very straight as he leaned over his problem, a well-chewed pencil clutched tightly in his hand.  The Professor sat back, legs crossed and looking relaxed, and his hand drifted to his unshaven chin from time to time as he watched Root work.  He was no longer a frail old man, nor a scholar lost in his thoughts, but the rightful protector of a child” (37).  Root, for his part, adopts the Professor as a father-figure so completely that he grows angry with his mother when the housekeeper doubts the Professor’s ability to care for her son: “‘Are you mad because the Professor couldn’t dress the wound properly?’ I asked at last.  ‘No,’ said Root.  He stared at me for a moment and then he spoke so calmly it seemed as though he had completely regained control of himself.  ‘I’m mad because you didn’t trust him.  I’ll never forgive you for that’” (74).

Of course, Root does forgive his mother, and because of the Professor’s presence in their lives, he and his mother find their own relationship greatly strengthened.  As a poor single mother, the housekeeper has been, up until the events in this book, needy and unsure.  Her son took on a difficult, inappropriate supportive role, perhaps trying to make up for the empty male/father presence in their lives: “‘You’re beautiful, Momma,’ he’d say, his voice full of conviction, ‘It’ll be okay.’  This was what he always said when he comforted me.  ‘I’m a beauty?’ I would ask, and he’d say, feigning astonishment, ‘Sure you are.  Didn’t you know?’  More than once I’d pretended to be crying just to hear those words; and he’d always play along willingly’” (53).  Over the course of the novel, the housekeeper becomes confident and sure, taking on a true parental role and allowing Root to regain his position as child to be nurtured.  After purchasing tickets so that she, her son, and the Professor could attend a baseball game together, she reflected, “Root had never been to a ball game.  In fact, with the exception of a trip to the zoo with his grandmother, he had never been to a museum or a movie theater or anywhere at all.  From the time he was born, I had been obsessed with making ends meet, and somehow I had forgotten to make time to have fun with my son” (84).

Perhaps the most fun relationship is that between the Professor and the housekeeper, for it is built on the shared experience of quirky mathematics.  The Professor, an expert in whole number theory, teaches the housekeeper many theorems and equations and mathematical truths, which, to her, serve as guideposts on a journey toward all the secrets of the universe.  The Professor, distressed each morning by the coming of a woman he doesn’t remember, finds comfort in numbers and their significance.  Countless times, he asks her shoe size, or her telephone number, and she tolerantly answers these repeated questions.  In the course of their discussions, numbers are anthropomorphized, made into people that interact with each other: “I tried picturing 18 and 14, but now that I’d heard the Professor’s explanation [of abundant and deficient numbers], they were no longer simply numbers.  Eighteen secretly carried a heavy burden, while 14 fell mute in the face of its terrible lack” (45); “I wondered why ordinary words seemed so exotic when they were used in relation to numbers.  Amicable numbers or twin primes [emphasis in original] had a precise quality about them, and yet they sounded as though they’d been taken straight out of a poem.  In my mind, the twins had matching outfits and stood holding hands as they waited in the number line” (63).  It is a touching turnaround when the housekeeper herself gets terribly worried, and this time, it is the Professor comforting her with math.

Luminous in its kindliness and simplicity, The Housekeeper and the Professor is a lovely read about family and relationships, with a fun dose of mathematical learning in a most accessible manner.  Who would have thought a return to high school mathematical principles would be so relaxing?  I highly recommend it!

Things I’m reading:
The Awakening, Kate Chopin
Musicology and Difference, Ruth Solie, ed.
How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster
A Journal of Theomusicology (Black Sacred Music, Vol. 8, No. 1), Jon Michael Spencer, ed.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Review: Silence

In the 16th century, Christian (Jesuit) missionaries to Japan initially found an enthusiastic and receptive audience, in part because they brought with them the possibility of economic ties to Europe.  300,000 Japanese converted to Christianity, but in time, the tolerance of the government authorities ended and Christianity was outlawed.  In the years to come, suspected Christians were ritually tortured and killed, unless they denied their faith and “apostasized,” trampling on an image of Christ or the Virgin Mary.  On February 5th, 1597, twenty-six Christians, including both European missionaries and Japanese laity, were crucified in Nagasaki.  By 1630, Christianity in Japan had been completely driven underground.  Set in 17th-century Japan at the height of the government persecution of Christians, Shusaku Endo’s Silence is a fictional treatment of a very real, devastating, and brutal historical situation. 

A novel that could have as easily been called “The Passion of Padre Rodrigues,” Shusaku Endo’s Silence poses difficult questions and gives very few answers.  Broadly, it is about the conflict between Christianity and Japan’s cultural identity.  Specifically, Silence centers on a Portuguese priest who embarks upon a missionary journey to and through Japan, hoping to bring the sacraments to Christians in hiding and find out the truth of the dreadful rumor that Padre Ferriera, his former teacher, has apostasized.  Rodrigues’ experience parallels that Passion of Christ, often quite literally.  He is questioned, tortured, and even, at one point, rides a donkey in front of a crowd.  This is not a hidden allusion; the priest frequently reflects on the similarities and usually finds encouragement in Christ’s acceptance of his pain.  Rodrigues endlessly imagines Christ’s face, finding peace in the suffering he sees there.

Rodrigues’ anguish manifests in his constant plea for God to cease being silent in the face of such persecution.  Why does God allow his true believers to endure such pain and torment?  The priest at one point explains the traditional Christian explanation for the existence of evil – “God created everything for good.  And for this good he bestowed on man the power of thought; but we men sometimes use this power of discrimination in the wrong way.  This is evil” (89) – but shows signs that he himself has difficulty accepting this easy explanation, as when he silently asks God, “Why have you abandoned us so completely?  Even the village was constructed for you; and have you abandoned it in its ashes?  Even when the people are cast out of their homes have you not given them courage?  Have you just remained silent like the darkness that surrounds me?  Why?  At least tell me why.  We are not strong men like Job who was afflicted with leprosy as a trial.  There is a limit to our endurance.  Give us no more suffering” (96).

The novel explores the contrast between strong and weak men, endlessly considering what the difference might be and coming to no conclusion.  Nor does it provide a decisive answer to the intense moral dilemma Rodrigues faces, as the Japanese peasants he came to save are tortured and killed because of his refusal to apostasize.  And yet, if you look carefully throughout the book, there are hints of answers.  Is God truly silent through this novel?  Or is Rodrigues failing to listen?  “The noise of the oars from beyond stopped, and a weak voice could be heard trying to answer.  The priest had a feeling that he had heard this voice somewhere before, but he could not recall where” (96).

The sniveling Kichijiro plays the part of Judas, betraying Padre Rodrigues to the authorities.  But he stands for more than a mere representation of a betrayer.  He is a recurring presence in the book, for he follows the priest wherever he goes or is taken, continually confessing that he is Christian to the authorities, asking for forgiveness and absolution from the priest, then renouncing his faith when faced with the threat of punishment and death.  I see Kichijiro as a model of Christ’s forgiveness: no matter how many times he falls, Christ would receive him back to his flock.  The fact that Padre Rodrigues is unable to extend the same forgiveness highlights the fact that despite the similarity between his torment and Christ’s Passion, Rodrigues is merely human.  Rodrigues too may fall, but readers are reminded that even an apostate priest can be forgiven.

This narrative raises many theological questions.  Can someone have doubts about their faith and yet be Christian?  Is Christianity truly universal?  Is it still Christianity if a people newly introduced to it misunderstand some of its central tenets?  And then there are the endless questions about Judas.  Why did Christ accept Judas as one of his apostles?  Did Christ forgive Judas in the end?  Was Judas condemned to hell?  Was Judas merely used as an integral part of a foreordained plan, given no chance to choose a different path?  Silence would make a phenomenal choice for a Christian book club.  I myself am trying to persuade both my husband and one of my priests to read it, in the hope that it will spark some difficult and deep conversations.  This book makes you long for answers.  It provokes serious reflection on theology and Christ’s forgiveness.

In conversation with my priest, I learned that the persecution of Christians in Japan is commemorated by the Church.  The Roman Catholic church and the Anglican Communion celebrate the Feast of the Martyrs of Japan on February 6th each year.  This is a lesser feast, one that most remain unfamiliar with unless their parish specifically celebrates it.  Certainly I had never heard of it, nor did I know anything about this terrible period in Japan.  After reading Endo’s powerful story, I am no longer blissfully ignorant.  Christians died for their beliefs.  Others chose to believe the authorities when they said that trampling was merely a formality and wouldn’t truly deny their faith.  Some apostasized to save their own life or that of others.  I and, likely, all you reading my blog are in the privileged position wherein we don’t have to wonder what we would have done in their place.  Next February, though, I intend to say a prayer for the saints of Japan.

I need to thank Teresa of ShelfLove for her recommendation of this powerful book (found at  I couldn't not read it, after hearing what an impact it had on her own journey of faith.  I can't say that it's my favorite book - perhaps because it is so heart-wrenching and difficult - but it has definitely provoked more thought that any of the other books I've been reading lately.  Silence is a novel that will stay with me.  Thank you.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Review: Half Magic

What would you do if you found an talisman that granted wishes – but only half of the wish you requested?  That’s the dilemma faced by a quartet of children in Edward Eager’s delightful Half Magic.  When Jane, the eldest of the four siblings, picks up what looks like a nickel, strange things begin happening, because whoever touches it and voices a wish finds that it partly comes true.  Eventually, they catch on to the secret of the charm, but only after Jane accidentally causes a fire (a small fire, a playhouse rather than a real house), their mother wishes to be home and ends up halfway there, and Martha, the youngest, makes her cat halfway able to talk (mostly, Carrie the cat sputters nonsense, with a good number of “fitzes” thrown in).  When the children catch on, they pass the charm around and embark upon a number of strange and wonderful adventures.  The secret, of course, is to wish for two of whatever you want, or for twice the result.  The real escapades result, of course, when the children speak hastily, forgetting double their wishes!

The four children follow the standard pattern in children’s books: you’ve got Jane, the bossy eldest, Mark, the boy, Katherine, the bookish middle child, and Martha, the youngest who gets herself into trouble.  Individual characterization is not so good as in, say, The Penderwicks, but the focus of this book is the magic and the adventures, rather than on character and growth.  That being said, Eager really understands children, their fundamental good nature and slight tendency to mistrust adults and rebel against them.  For example: “All of the four children hated Charlie Chaplin, because he was the only thing grown-ups would ever take them to” (100).  Yet, adults aren’t all bad.  Their mother is a lovely if somewhat overworked woman…and who is that strange, short man who keeps popping up?

I read and enjoyed this book as a kid, but I think I appreciate it even more now.  I recall thinking it moved a little too slowly, that it took a little too long to figure out how the charm worked and to get to the adventures.  Now, of course, I read much more quickly, and was sad to reach the end.  (Luckily, I know that Eager wrote several more, and I look forward to getting my hands on them!)  I’m also certain that I didn’t pick up on the frequent literary allusions as a kid, and now, I consider them to be one of the best parts!  Robinson Crusoe, The Once and Future King, E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle, and the poem Jabberwocky all play a part in Eager’s charming narrative.  Of the four, I’ve only ever read the poem, but the other three are all on my list!

Things to consider:
Did you ever pick up a book as a kid because it was mentioned in another book you loved?  I don’t think that ever happened to me, but I’d love to think that other kids noticed and took these sorts of suggestions!
If you had a charm like this, what would you wish for?  (Don’t forget to double it!)

Things I’m reading:
The Awakening, Kate Chopin
Silence, Shusaku Endo
The Housekeeper and the Professor, Yoko Ogawa
Musicology and Difference, Ruth Solie, ed.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Review: A Journey to the Center of the Earth

The best of science fiction starts with contemporary scientific ideas and asks, “What if?”  Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are some of the greats when it comes to historical science fiction novels.  Surely you’ve heard of A Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in Eighty Days (Verne), The Invisible Man, The Time Machine, and The War of the Worlds (Wells)?  With some exceptions – The War of the Worlds the most notable – their novels aren’t concerned with aliens and space travel, like a lot of modern-day science fiction authors.  Instead, they ask questions about the world in which we live.  Starting with the science of their day, these authors asked “What if?” and explored questions of geography, geology, oceanography, time, optics, ecology, natural selection, microbiology, and more.  Many of these books feature fantastical journeys in which the characters experience some possible answers to these questions firsthand.  The fact that these books’ prose is relatively unelegant is beside the point: these books helped to shape not only future science fiction, but also future scientific endeavors, and they are now a collective part of the Western psyche.  They have been adapted and referenced in countless cultural works.  And sadly, like most people, I am familiar with these works only through these cultural references.  I intend to read all of six most famous (listed above).

I picked up a copy of Verne’s A Journey to the Center of the Earth at a fantastic used bookstore in the airport (how often do those appear these days??) on my way back from a trip out to Duke to meet the music department.  It’s a good thing I did – I finished D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover on the plane and was glad to have another book for the rest of the flight.  Somehow, it got set aside when I got home, and I’ve only recently returned to it and finished the novel.

As I mentioned, it doesn’t have the most elegant prose.  In fact, I would venture to say that compared to some of the great literature I’ve been reading lately, it’s quite poorly written.  The focus in this novel is on the story, not on how it was told.  And what a story!  Completely fantastical.  There are so many aspects of physics that Verne gets wrong.  It makes me wonder, though: what was the state of the field of physics when he wrote it?  I think it would be fascinating to research the relationship of science to science fiction at this point in history.  What aspects of science did these fiction authors get right?  What ideas that they thought they were completely making up turned out to be true?  What wrong ideas sparked further investigation by real-life scientists?  As the novel writes, ““Science – great, mighty, and in the end unerring,” replied my uncle, dogmatically, “science has fallen into many errors – errors which have been fortunate and useful, rather than otherwise, for they have been the stepping-stones to truth”” (233).

In this novel, Harry (the narrator) and his geologist uncle, Professor Hardwigg, undertake a journey deep into the earth after finding a note from a sixteenth-century alchemist reading: “Descend into the crater of Yocul of Sneffels, which the shade of Scartaris caresses, before the calends of July, audacious traveler, and you will reach the center of the earth.  I did it.  Arne Saknussemm”  Professor Hardwigg cannot pass up the lure of adventure, the possibility of success and academic fame, and so, despite his nephew’s sensible protests, demands that the pair descend into the Icelandic volcano, accompanied by an eider-duck hunter named Hans and vast quantities of supplies.  The brave trio faces labyrinthine tunnels, thirst and starvation, imagined psychological terrors, and the perils of rock, water, heat, sea, and storms in their quest.

Harry’s passivity baffled me.  At nearly every step, he makes it known to his readers how little he wishes to continue on the journey, and his fears that they cannot succeed and will never return to the surface of the earth, where his fiancée is waiting.  And yet, Harry obeyed his determined uncle’s every demand to continue.  “I was fairly launched on a desperate course,” he wrote, “and all I had to do was to go forward hopefully and trustingly” (123).  The subliminally tempestuous relationship between these two men kept the story absorbing, even when several chapters are spent retracing their steps when their chosen course reaches a dead end.  Despite his fear, Harry is constantly amazed by the wonders discovered in the interior of the earth.  He finds beauty in his surroundings, and surprise and wonder in the instrument readings and even prehistoric bones that prove or disprove current scientific ideas.

In contrast, Professor Hardwigg’s motivation is purely selfish.  His single-minded focus on the task to be accomplished creates (pun intended) a tunnel vision that prevents him from admiring any of their discoveries.  After coming upon a vast inland sea, which Harry calls a “magnificent spectacle,” one “worth the whole journey to have enjoyed,” his uncle responds, “I care nothing about seeing, nor about magnificent spectacles.  I came down into the interior of the earth with an object, and that object I mean to attain.  Don’t talk to me about admiring scenery, or any other sentimental trash” (253).  I can’t help thinking that Professor Hardwigg is neither a good scientist nor a good teacher!  Blinded to questions of science, he is a single-minded traveler who cannot find satisfaction in anything but the completion of his quest and is indignant at the thought that anything might hold him back.  He represents the eternal struggle between man and nature.  Will human ingenuity and stubbornness, aided by tools, be able to overcome the implacable indifference of the elements?  In response to an extreme setback, Hardwigg says grimly, “So, fatality will play me these terrible tricks.  The elements themselves conspire to overwhelm me with mortification.  Air, fire, and water combine their united efforts to oppose my passage.  Well, they shall see what the earnest will of a determined man can do.  I will not yield.  I will not retreat even one inch, and we shall see who shall triumph in this great contest – man or nature” (295).

The theme of light and darkness is pervasive, both in a physical and metaphorical sense.  The group often struggles to make their surroundings lit.  Harry is careful to detail all uses of lanterns, torches, and an ingenious light-creating device called a Ruhmkorf’s coil.  In several instances, the electrical properties of the rocks themselves create light – sometimes so much light, in fact, that all shadows are dispelled.  In another case, Harry finds himself lost, and with no source of light to guide him back to his uncle and Hans, Harry gives himself up for dead.  The emphasis on light echoes the scientific search for knowledge that this novel embodies.  At several moments, Harry and his uncle make discoveries that would completely overturn the scientific world, if and when the pair survives to relate them.  For all the questions answered during the course of their quest, even more arise.  Isn’t this the way of all academic inquiry?  But Harry remains confident that in time, all questions can be answered: “This lucid explanation of the phenomena we had witnessed appeared to me quite satisfactory.  However great and mighty the marvels of nature may seem to us, they are always to be explained by physical reasons.  Everything is subordinate to some great law of nature” (299).

You may be wondering how this trio of intrepid adventurers expected to get back to the earth’s surface.  I did too!  At times, their return by the same route seems impossible.  And yet, Harry stresses that his narration takes place after the journey has concluded.  As the group descended deeper and deeper into the bowels of the earth, I constantly wondered how the novel could end.  I won’t spoil it for you here, but I will tease you with the fact that Verne invented quite a clever (if not entirely believable) conclusion.