Saturday, September 11, 2010

Mathematics--Straight from God's Notebook

Occasionally, I'll find myself recommending a book before I've even finished it. Sometimes the story line will make me think of a fellow reader for whom it is perfectly suited; at other times, I just love the characters so much that I want someone else to meet them, to read the book so I can talk about it.

This week I read The Housekeeper and the Professor, a simple novel by Yoko Ogawa, translated from Japanese. The premise of the book captured me: the narrator takes a job as housekeeper for a mathematics professor who was at the top of his field until a car accident resulting in brain damage that interrupted his memory every eighty minutes. He could remember his mathematical curiosity and genuis--predating the accident--but every morning, she had to introduce herself to him again (always answering his first two questions: What is your shoe size? What is your telephone number?)

Reminiscent of the main character of the film Memento, the professor pins notes to his clothes to remind him of things he doesn't want to risk forgetting--his eighty-minute memory, the housekeeper, and her son, whom he calls Root (because his haircut reminds him of the square root sign.) In fact, Root is present at the home at the professor's insistence that the child not be left at home alone while his mother worked.

Woven throughout the novel is the professor's fascination with numbers, prompting him to share his curiosity and knowledge first with his caretaker and then with her son. Not surprisingly, he also loves baseball (and all those statistics), although he doesn't realize his favorite pitcher has been long retired, information they keep from him.

I'll confess--I am not a math person, but neither was the housekeeper, a single mother and a high school drop out, but I loved the way the author wove numbers through the story, information the professor claimed not to have unlocked but to have transcribed from the notebook of God.

I had shared Blue Baillet's middle school novels, The Wright Three and Chasing Vermeer, with math teacher friends, along with The Curious Incident of the Dog at Nighttime, all building stories around math in some way. This simple story, while nothing like these other three beyond the fascination with numbers, will be on my short list of recommendations for lots of my fellow readers, whether they are math people or not.


Jessie Carty said...

another fascinating book! where do you find out about them?

Nancy said...

Finding good books is just one of my passions. I have a network of reader friends. This one came from Carol Jago, current NCTE president. She shares a list of reading suggestions at the national conference every year, and she's always on target.