Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Housekeeper and the Professor, Yoko Ogawa

"This is one of those books written in such lucid, unpretentious language that reading it is like looking into a deep pool of clear water. But even in the clearest waters can lurk currents you don’t see until you are in them."
-from the New York Times review

When I read a book like this I am so frustrated by my inability to adequately describe why I loved it. This book was beautiful and thought provoking and tender. One of the reasons I shy away from contemporary fiction is that so often what starts out as a promising story is hiding something really disgusting or graphic that I just don't want to read. This book was not like that.

I loved the relationships that the Professor forms with the Housekeeper and Root and I also loved reading about the math. I loved when Root said he felt smarter in the Professor's study- the reviewer in the NY Times mentioned that we would all be smarter if we had had a teacher like the Professor. I can't help but agree.

"The Professor never really seemed to care whether we figured out the right answer to a problem. He preferred our wild, desperate guesses to silence, and he was even more delighted when those guesses led to new problems that took us beyond the original one. He had a special feeling for what he called the "correct miscalculation," for he believed that mistakes were often as revealing as the right answers. This gave us confidence even when our best efforts came to nothing." (p.2)

"But the Professor didn't always insist on being the teacher. He had enormous respect for matters about which he had no knowledge, and he was as humble in such cases as the square root of negative one itself." (p.3)

"His tone was kind and full of expectation, and it didn't seem as though he were testing me. On the contrary, he made me feel as though I were on an important mission, that I was the only one who could lead us out of this puzzle and find the correct answer." (p.18)

"Only a few people know the mystery concealed in this formula, and the rest of us go to our graves without even suspecting there is a secret to be revealed. But by some whim of fate, I had found it, and now knocked at the door, asking to be let in. Though I had never suspected it, from the moment I'd been dispatched by the Akebono Housekeeping Agency, I had been on a mission toward that door..."(p.52)

"I wondered why ordinary words seemed so exotic when they were used in relation to numbers. Amicable numbers or twin primes had a precise quality about them, and yet they sounded as though they'd been taken out of a poem. In my mind, the twins had matching outfits and stood holding hands as they waited in the number line." (p.63)

"Among the many things that made the Professor an excellent teacher was the fact that he wasn't afraid to say "we don't know." For the Professor, there was no shame in admitting you didn't have the answer, it was a necessary step toward the truth. It was as important to teach us about the unknown or the unknowable as it was to teach us what had already been safely proven." (p.63)

"There is nothing more shameful for a housekeeper than to rummage through her employer's personal property." (p.82)

"Every time I see the Professor writing a note with that little pencil, I feel like crying," Root said.
"Because it's sad!" he said. He was almost angry now." (p.85)

"I remembered something the Professor had said: "The mathematical order is beautiful precisely because it has no effect on the real world. Life isn't going to be easier, nor is anyone going to make a fortune, just because they know something about prime numbers. Of course, lots of mathematical discoveries have practical applications, no matter how esoteric they may seem... The only goal is to discover the truth." (p.115)

"All I knew for sure was that they were math books. As I looked at them, their contents seemed beyond the comprehension of human beings. The pages and pages of complex, impenetrable calculations might have contained the secrets of the universe, copied out of God's notebook." (p.124)

"The mathematics stacks were as silent and empty as ever- apparently no one suspected the riches hidden there." (p.127)

"He treated Root exactly how he treated prime numbers. For him, primes were the base on which all other natural numbers relied; and children were the foundation of everything in the adult world." (p.130)

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