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….in which I experience a rare reading failure…. #JapaneseLitChallenge14

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The Housekeeper and The Professor by Yoko Ogawa
Translated by Stephen Snyder

Well, it’s rare that I experience a reading failure, as I always try to choose books I think will give me *something* or that I’ll engage with. However, my first read of 2021, a book I chose for the Japanese Literature Challenge, turned out to be not one for me. The book in question is “The Housekeeper and The Professor” by Yoko Ogawa, and it comes highly rated; I’ve seen any number of glowing reviews, and bloggers I follow love it. I don’t, and I’ll try to explain why.

Plotwise, the book is initially intriguing; a young woman is employed as a housekeeper for an ageing professor of mathematics; the latter has memory issues following an accident decades ago, and can only retain memories from the last 80 minutes after which things are wiped clean and his memory starts again. Anything from before the accident is fine, so he still has his mathematical skills, but day to day living is problematic. The Housekeeper is employed by his sister-in-law, referred to throughout as The Widow, and the other character in the story is the housekeeper’s son. He’s nicknamed Root because his flat head reminds The Professor of the square root sign; and the book follows the bonds that develop between the three main characters, while The Housekeeper copes with having to reintroduce herself to her employer every morning…

So far, so good – the premise of the book *is* appealing. However, I had a number of issues which in brief are:

1. I failed to engage with any of the characters; the writing felt flat, the main protagonists underdeveloped and I felt detached from the whole reading experience.
2. The plot was again underdeveloped; there was far too much unsaid and unexplored, and several hints were so low-key you could miss them. Without giving too much away, there was a situation with The Widow and The Professor which could, and should, have been expanded – I think my feelings boil down to the fact that this book was very undercooked and could have been much more than it actually was.
3. I understand why the author gave the characters titles, not names, as I imagine they were meant to represent that part of Japanese society – an esteemed Professor, a lowly Housekeeper – but that didn’t help with the distancing effect.
4. In many ways, I often felt that the setting of Japan was irrelevant to the book and it could have been anywhere – I never got a strong feeling of being in Japan.
5. Baseball and Maths…. Much of the plot (and the book) hangs on the twin prongs of baseball and maths. The Professor sees the world in terms of numbers and attempts to transmit this to The Housekeeper and Root. And strangely, for an uneducated person who’s had to bring herself up, she grasps compex formulae and sees the beauty of numbers. The book is riddled with formulae which lost me – I’m not mathematical and tbh this left me cold – and I found this element too prominent. As for baseball, the Professor and Root are obsessed by it (fair enough); but it becomes again the most important thing for the little pseudo-family, and dominates the book to the point that I completely switched off.

Well, I could go on, but I won’t. You might wonder why I actually finished the book, but I found it so slight that I read it in a day; I kept hoping it would develop into something stronger, but it didn’t. The end frankly peters out and I was left wondering what had been the point? If Ogawa was trying to show that the most unlikely combination of people can form a kind of family group, she could have done so without being so heavy on the maths and baseball, and in fact what happens in the book could be told in novella length. There was so sketchy a backstory for the characters that I could find nothing to latch onto; they seemed like stereotyped cardboard cut outs to me. And much more should have been made of The Widow. There *were* some nice touches to the story; the fact that The Professor had little scraps of paper attached to his clothing to remind him of important things; the occasional hint to events in the past which had led up to the current situation; but these were not enough to compensate for the rest of it.

Enough. This was not a book for me, and I’m just glad that I didn’t spend longer with it. I accept that it may just be me; my expectations may have been too high and I could have been anticipating a completely different book; and I know many love it. But I found it slight, underdeveloped and completely underwhelming. I don’t often write negative reviews, but this was an unfortunate start to my Japanese Literature Month reading, and I wanted to at least share my thoughts. If you’ve read the book and felt differently, do tell me why! As for my copy, I shall pass it on to my old friend J. who is a bit of a Japanophile – maybe it will work better for her! 😀

2021 – dare I make tentative bookish plans????

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That’s a good question on a number of levels really, as 2020 was something of a hideous year and frankly 2021 isn’t looking any better at the moment…  Add in the fact that as a rule, I’m rubbish with challenges or events and you get the picture… However, I *am* going to commit to a couple of things in the first half of the year and we’ll see how it goes!

First up is Japanese Literature Challenge 14 from Dolce Bellezza:

I pretty much always try to take part in this but don’t always succeed. I love Japanese Lit, though, and have any number of books I could read, so I will try..

Coming  up in April, I will be co-hosting the 1936 Club with Simon from Stuck in a Book; our clubs are always such fun and this looks to be another great year – do join in if you can! 😀

I don’t know if there is a formal challenge for this, but I want to spend as much time as possible in 2021 reading from the stacks; Mount TBR is in a ridiculous state, desperately needing pruning and I would like to make some serious inroads. So I shall try to limit the incomings and read what I have (which is enough to keep me going for a lifetime). Will I be able to resist the lure of the new and shiny? We shall see.

There are, of course, all manner of reading events in the second half of the year; Women in Translation month, for example, which takes place in August, as does All Virago/All August – I sometimes try to combine the two. And November is stuffed to the gills with challenges, from Non-fiction November, to Novellas, to German Lit Month and many more. I usually try to do those too, but that’s not for a while so I shan’t worry about them now!

Apart from that, I plan to keep it fluid and read what takes my fancy. However, there *is* one rather special reading event in which I shall be taking part… But you’ll have to wait for more news on that! ;D

 

2020 – will there be challenges???? ;D

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Traditionally, the start of a new year in bookish circles means making plans for future reading, deciding on challenges and projects, as well as setting up piles of prospective reads. I’ve done all those things in the past, but more often than not I fall by the wayside; I’m very much a person who reads by whim and mood, and I’ve found I don’t respond well to restrictions. I prefer to follow my reading muse and pick up whichever book I fancy. So in recent years I’ve tended to avoid most formal challenges, sticking instead to the Club reads I co-host with Simon, and of course WIT Month which is a big favourite. Having said that, I *have* been considering dropping in on a few upcoming reading events:

First up is the Japanese Literature Challenge, hosted by Dolce Bellezza. I love Japanese literature and as the challenge runs until the end of March there’s plenty of time for me to participate, particularly as I have at least one lovely Japanese title on the TBR! I think I *will* sign up for this one, because even if I only manage *one* book at least I’ll have taken part! 😀

Next up is this event:

The European Reading Challenge is hosted by Rose City Reader, and as I read a lot of translated literature, once again this should be no problem – particularly as it runs all year long! 😀 Plus France and Russia are included so really I have no excuse for not succeeding with this one! Again, I have any number of appropriate titles on the TBR, and as the top (deluxe!) level is to read just 5 books from Europe – well, if I don’t manage that, what the heck will I be doing this year????

Finally, there is Robert Musil… I’ve considered his massive magnum opus “The Man without Qualities” and there is a year-long Twitter readalong which has just started. It’s a *big* book – 1152 pages in the easily available all-in-one Picador version – which is vaguely intimidating, although spread out over a year maybe not so. However, I felt I would probably struggle physically and mentally with a book that fat and after a little investigation discovered that Picador had issued in the past in three separate volumes. Well – after a bit of humming and hahing and chatter on Twitter about ripping books into sections (!!), I succumbed and the three separate volumes are on their way. Will I read them? Who knows – I may well have a go! ;D

Apart from these challenges and the others I’ve mentioned above, I think I will try to keep my plans fluid, light and stress-free. Oh – well there might be *one* more event coming up during the last couple of weeks of February… But more about that will follow later! ;D

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