Monday, June 17, 2013
Yoko Ogawa is the author of more than 20 novels in Japan. In The Housekeeper and the Professor she tells the story of an unlikely family.
The narrator of this novel is a fatherless young woman, the single mother of a ten-year-old boy. Her early pregnancy forced her to leave school, and now she works for a housekeeping agency. She knows she is lucky to have a steady job, and is happy to be assigned to cook and clean for an elderly former professor of mathematics.
Due to injuries suffered in a car accident in 1975, the professor’s short-term memory is damaged - he can only remember 80 minutes at a time. His suit is covered with little reminder notes, attached to him with binder clips. The housekeeper must introduce herself to him every day. It seems that the only constant in the professor’s life is mathematics - the beauty and elegance of numbers, and the complex relationships between them.
Even without the short-term memory issue, there are plenty of barriers that would prevent these three people - the housekeeper, her son (nicknamed Root), and the mathematician - from forming any sort of relationship. There is a deep divide between their social classes and educational levels.
But using the language of mathematics, they succeed in bridging these problems and, against all odds, they become a family. Though I’m far from a student of mathematics, I found the conversations in which the professor explains number theory to the housekeeper and her son to be comprehensible and surprisingly poetic.
The Housekeeper and the Professor is a story of kindness, generosity, and the love of knowledge. By the standards of a blockbuster thriller, The Housekeeper and the Professor is an uneventful book, but Ogawa manages to find drama in scenes of the professor’s ironing a tablecloth, or of housekeeper’s quest to find him a gift. It is an elegant and tender read.
Thursday, June 13, 2013
While I do definitely have a thing for young adult novels (especially ones
which take place hundreds of years ago and may or may not involve awesome magic), I think Grave Mercy by R.L. LaFevres will enthrall adults as well as teens.
We meet Ismae in 15th century Brittany as she’s getting married to some jerk of a pig farmer at the order of her mean-mouthed, ham-fisted father. When her new husband discovers the extensive scarring on her torso (a mark which we discover means that she was fathered by the god of death, Mortain), he attacks her and locks her up, but by the intervention of a local adherent to Mortain, she is able to escape to the convent of St. Mortain where her wounds are healed and she begins to learn the craft of killing the right people at the right time, the method by which the sisters of St. Mortain serve the god of death. So she basically becomes a murderous nun.
While completing her first missions, Ismae meets Duval, the devastatingly handsome and sharp-tongued illegitimate brother of the duchess of Brittany, whose throne is threatened by an unknown traitor close to the royal family. Ismae is dispatched to the duchess’ side as a spy to seek out the malefactor. As she finds herself falling in love with Duval, she also begins to understand the true nature of Mortain. Sophisticated, with complex characters and a truly impressive grasp of medieval life (not counting the whole supernatural business), Grave Mercy is a total page-turner.
Wednesday, June 12, 2013
I have a confession to make. I am getting old(er). And I haven’t been taking it well. I’m usually not much of a self-help book reader but when Susan Moon’s, This Is Getting Old came across the circulation desk, it was the subtitle that spoke to me: Zen thoughts on aging with humor and dignity. I thought to myself, “yeah, that’s how I want to do it, with humor and dignity.” I checked out the book and took it home.
The author divides her two dozen essays into three sections. The first, “Cracks In The Mind And Body”, gently introduced me to all the physical frailties I have to look forward to. One of the more hopeful is a reflection on forgetfulness entitled “Senior Moment, Wonderful Moment,” a wry play on words taken from a poem by the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.
The second section explores changing relationships among friends, family and the realization that, as an older adult, the author’s previous intimate relationship may well have been her last. The final section deals with matters of the spirit and coming to terms with death.
Moon’s essays are wise and funny and often irreverant, something you’d expect from an ex-hippie Buddhist from Berkeley. Although I haven’t quite come to terms with the gray hairs, creaking joints and near-constant desire for a nap after lunch, reading Susan Moon’s This Is Getting Old has given me the useful perspective of that cool grandmother I never had.
Never mind that she’s not much older than I am.
You can reserve This Is Getting Old here.
Monday, June 10, 2013
In We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Fowler explores the effect of these questions on Rosemary Cooke, whose life is sharply delineated between an idyllic early childhood and the aftermath of the loss of her siblings, both of whom, we are told, are still alive. The tension in the story arises from wanting to find out how things could go so wrong as to leave Rosemary and her parents pretending that two family members never existed.
Strange factors have influenced the trajectory of the family’s lives and the development of their personalities, which are fascinating from a psychological and a personal perspective. Because Rosemary’s father is a psychologist, and because of the circumstance under which she grew up, there’s room in the book for conversations about the definition of sentience, the Theory of Mind, and the ethics of scientific experimentation, which are integral to the plot and quite fascinating.
Karen Joy Fowler is best known as the author of the bestselling novel The Jane Austen Book Club, which was made into a movie of the same name. Because I’m not fond of books about Jane Austen or book clubs, I know her best from her short story collection Artificial Things, published in 1986, which is still on my shortlist of personal favorites because of the combination of lyrical writing, feminist science fiction, and stark and haunting settings in many of the stories. Although We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is not science fiction, it feels as though Fowler has discovered a way to explore many of the same themes in literary fiction as she did in the stories I love.
Friday, June 7, 2013
Why not try one of these online tools?
NovelistPlus: Using your library barcode, login to the link above the central picture on the library's homepage. Use it for reading lists, professional reviews, and information about your favorite fiction genre.
Goodreads: While you can make an account and start keeping track of what you have read or want to read (and see what your friends are reading), you don't have to login to use the site. Check out the "Readers Also Enjoyed" list for similar reads for each book you look at.
Whichbook: This is a really fun site that focuses on lesser-known authors and books. Try finding a book by switching around the level on "happy/sad" or "safe/disturbing," etc. or do a character/plot/setting search. This one is definitely worth a look!
And as always, we at the Newport Public Library are happy to give you real-life, in-person book recommendations!
Posted by Alice at 1:03 PM
Wednesday, June 5, 2013
Anathem by Neal Stephenson is surely one of the most difficult novels to describe. When it was first published in 2008, Newport Library originally shelved it in the fiction section with the author’s other works. Later we moved it to Science Fiction: it’s just that hard to categorize.
On the planet Arbre, a cloistered community of philosophers and academics have been granted a ten-day holiday to mingle with the outside world. As much as Erasmas would like to venture beyond the walls and visit with old friends and family, trying to gain access to secret experiments conducted by his mentor Orolo is taking up much of his time. What exactly is Orolo working on and why are the secular powers outside so eager to learn about it? And could it have anything to do with who or what is hovering in the sky above their planet?
What follows is an almost 1000 page adventure that challenges the intellect and dazzles the imagination. If Thomas Mann wrote science fiction, he might have written Anathem. Based on a dizzying variety of theories about mathematics, space travel and cosmology, Anathem constructs a world so engrossing you’ll want to jump right in and explore it yourself. Think of it as a computer game for the mind.
If you’ve ever fantasized about life within a community of intellectually like-minded individuals, like I have, Anathem might just be the next best thing to being there. It was awarded the Locus Prize for Best Science Fiction Novel in 2009. And you can reserve it here.
Monday, June 3, 2013
Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution by Michelle Moran is a fictionalized account of the life of Marie Grozholtz Tussaud. Marie learned the art of wax modeling from her uncle, Philippe Curtius, who learned to create body parts in wax when he was a physician. Their Salon de Cire was filled with life-sized figures of popular people, dressed in authentic clothing and arranged in realistic settings.
At the height of its popularity, lines formed early in the morning in front of the salon and continued into the night until the exhibits closed. At first people flocked in to see Marie Antoinette’s latest fashions and marvel over the heroes of the American Revolution. Over time, they came for the latest news and to see tableaus featuring the leaders du jour: Maximilian Robespierre, Jean-Paul Marat, and the Duc d’Orléans.
Marie straddled two diverging worlds as long as she could. She sculpted the royal family numerous times, tutored the king’s sister, Princesse Élisabeth, and was a guest at the Court of Versailles. At the same time, the Salon de Cire became a gathering place for those who talked of revolution, and Marie could not avoid being drawn into the spiraling horror they set in motion. To save her family and herself she agreed to make death masks of guillotine victims, who were sometimes people she had known and loved.
|Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette|
(Photo courtesy of Iman1138)