Welcome to the discussion for our first Japanese Literature Book Group selection for 2010, The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, and translated by Stephen Snyder.
This is an open discussion, and you are welcome to talk about any aspect of the story you like. Don't hesitate to ask any questions you might have, and I also encourage you to chat among yourselves. I've removed comment moderation for this post for the next couple of days so that you will be able to discuss more freely. I'd also suggest subscribing to comments so that you'll be notified when others have added their thoughts.
One note of warning, for the discussion it is assumed that you have read the book so the comments may contain spoilers. If you have not yet read the book, please proceed at your own risk.
I've listed the discussion questions below that are available from the publisher. Feel free to use them as a kick start for discussion, but don't feel obligated to answer them. In addition to the more thought-provoking questions supplied below, also let us know simply what you thought of the book.
Did you enjoy it?
I would also be interested to know...
What did you think of the translation?
If you've read any other titles by Yoko Ogawa, which did you like the best?
Have you seen the movie based on the book? Would you like to?
How does this book compare to other Japanese literature that you've read?
The Housekeeper and the Professor reviewed by:
The Zen Leaf
We Be Reading
kiss a cloud
If anyone has posted a review or other thoughts on the book on their own blog, leave a link in the comments and I'll add it here.
Much of the book and author information, as well as all of the discussion questions below were taken from the Picador Reading Group Guide, with some additional information from wikipedia.
About the Book
First published in Japan in 2003 as 博士の愛した数式 (Hakase no aishita sushiki), it won the Yomiuri Prize in 2004.
In The Housekeeper and the Professor, Yoko Ogawa tells an intimate story about family, the nature of memory, and the poetry of mathematics. It is also, in a sense, a story about the simple experience of getting to know someone, but with a twist: the person forgets everything in eighty minutes. How do you form a relationship with a person who cannot remember? In this uplifting and often poignant novel, Ogawa seems to ask whether our immediate experiences are more important than our memories, since memories inevitably fade, and the eponymous Professor’s condition of limited short-term memory allows the author to explore this question with great creativity. At the same time, Ogawa invites the reader into the world of mathematics, using complex equations as a metaphor for the themes running throughout her book. The Housekeeper and the Professor is a rich, multilayered novel that offers much to discuss.
About the Author
Yōko Ogawa (小川 洋子,) was born in Okayama, Okayama Prefecture, graduated from Waseda University, and lives in Ashiya, Hyōgo, with her husband and son. Yoko Ogawa's fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, A Public Space, and Zoetrope. Since 1988 she has published more than twenty works of fiction and nonfiction, and has won every major Japanese literary award. In 2006 she co-authored "An Introduction to the World's Most Elegant Mathematics" with Masahiko Fujiwara, a mathematician, as a dialogue on the extraordinary beauty of numbers.
1. The characters in The Housekeeper and the Professor are nameless (“Root” is only a nickname). What does it mean when an author chooses not to name the people in her book? How does that change your relationship to them as a reader? Are names that important?
2. Imagine you are writer, developing a character with only eighty minutes of short-term memory. How would you manage the very specific terms of that character (e.g. his job, his friendships, how he takes care of himself)? Discuss some of the creative ways in which Yoko Ogawa imagines her memory-impaired Professor, from the notes pinned to his suit to the sadness he feels every morning.
4. The Professor tells the Housekeeper: “Math has proven the existence of God because it is absolute and without contradiction; but the devil must exist as well, because we cannot prove it.” Does this paradox apply to anything else, beside math? Perhaps memory? Love?
5. The Houskeeper’s father abandoned her mother before she was born; and then the Housekeeper herself suffered the same fate when pregnant with Root. In a book where all of the families are broken (including the Professor’s), what do you think Ogawa is saying about how families are composed? Do we all, in fact, have a fundamental desire to be a part of a family? Does it matter whom it’s made of?
6. Did your opinion of the Professor change when you realized the nature of his relationship with his sister-in-law? Did you detect any romantic tension between the Professor and the Housekeeper, or was their relationship chaste? Perhaps Ogawa was intending ambiguity in that regard?
7. The sum of all numbers between one and ten is not difficult to figure out, but the Professor insists that Root find the answer in a particular way. Ultimately Root and the Housekeeper come to the answer together. Is there a thematic importance to their method of solving the problem? Generally, how does Ogawa use math to illustrate a whole worldview?
8. Baseball is a game full of statistics, and therefore numbers. Discuss the very different ways in which Root and the Professor love the game.
9. How does Ogawa depict the culture of contemporary Japan in The Housekeeper and the Professor ? In what ways does is it seem different from western culture? For example, consider the Housekeeper’s pregnancy and her attitude toward single motherhood; or perhaps look at the simple details of the story, like Root’s birthday cake. In what ways are the cultures similar, different?
10. Ogawa chooses to write about actual math problems, rather than to write about math in the abstract. In a sense, she invites the reader to learn math along with the characters. Why do you think she wrote the book this way? Perhaps to heighten your sympathy for the characters?
11. Do numbers bear any significance on the structure of this book? Consider the fact that the book has eleven chapters. Are all things quantifiable, and all numbers fraught with poetic possibility?
List of mathematical terminology that occurs in the story (from wikipedia)
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