The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

The Housekeeper and the Professor
by Yoko Ogawa, 2003
translated by Stephen Snyder, 2009

This was a very small and sedate novel, focusing on the characters, and experiencing the world through those characters, rather than any particular plot. It was also a quietly sad story about a successful friendship. It has the feel of a classic, or an archetype, helped by the way that none of the characters are named.

I rarely read books from the Literature genre, which might explain why this book felt so unique to me, but I think it really is unique. I rarely read Literature in part because I don’t tend to enjoy it, but I did like this one. Despite how different it was from other books I’ve read, or maybe because of it, my brain kept reminding me of other books that had some point of similarity.

It had a similarity in tone to the calmness of The Empress of Jade and Fortune. A scant handful of characters and a house. Nothing terrible happens in the book, and anything that happened in the past has been survived, by these characters at least.

The titular Professor reminded me of Paul Erdős from The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, and also of Charlie Gordon in the later half of “Flowers for Algernon”. The professor is a mathematician who sees the deep beauty of numbers and also a brilliant man with a brain injury that he’s aware of and trying to compensate for. His injury prevents him from making new memories, so that every day he meets his housekeeper for the first time.

The book itself delves into some of the math puzzles and history that he tells to the housekeeper and her son, and shows how the housekeeper learns to appreciate the endless stability and mystery of the numbers as well, despite her not being particularly mathematically inclined. That aspect reminded me of Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, a book that attempted to shoehorn a philosophy textbook into a novel and that I did not much care for. This book is somewhat more successful, I think, in including a few actual mathematics principles with explanations, and might be an interested way to introduce the concepts to a student.

The book is written in the first-person by the housekeeper, and her perspective is fascinating in its incompleteness. There are events in her own life as well as in the professor’s life that she never gets the full story for, and also doesn’t look for. It’s left to the reader to consider what we know or can guess but also put aside what we don’t know and live in the moment. The book as a whole felt like a wonderful and much needed break from the frantic plots and fraught relationships of much of my other reading. I really enjoyed it.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula via e-mail

I just discovered the existence of Dracula Daily:

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is an epistolary novel – it’s made up of letters, diaries, telegrams, newspaper clippings – and every part of it has a date. The whole story happens between May 3 and November 10. So: Dracula Daily will post a newsletter each day that something happens to the characters, in the same timeline that it happens to them.

Now you can read the book via email, in small digestible chunks – as it happens to the characters.

I just signed up for this and am really looking forward to it!

Portrait of a Wide Seas Islander by Victoria Goddard

Portrait of a Wide Seas Islander
by Victoria Goddard
2022

Every so often I google search some of my current favorite authors’ names to see if there’s anything that I missed. And yes! I discovered that this novella published nine days ago. I immediately bought and read it and it’s such a delight. It’s a companion novella to the book, The Hands of the Emperor, (and about a tenth the length.)

Buru Tovo is ninety years old, a highly respected wide seas islander, who has been waiting, mostly patiently, for years for his grand-nephew, Kip Mdang, to return from his travels into the heart of the empire and take his proper place in the island society, trying not to worry that he never will. In this novella, he decides to make the three month journey to the capital and see what his grand-nephew has been doing. In The Hands of the Emperor, we see these events from Kip’s perspective as his grand-uncle suddenly shows up at the capital with questions. This novella is the other side of that interaction. Buru Tovo’s perspective is fascinating and lovely and complex and hilarious.

Petty Treasons
by Victoria Goddard
2021

In writing up the review for Portrait of a Wide Seas Islander, I discovered that I had not made a post about Petty Treasons before. Clearly something to be corrected! I also read this within a week of it being published. It’s another companion novella, this one about Kip Mdang’s introduction to the emperor, from the emperor’s perspective. It’s another delightful exploration of what Kip looks like from the outsider point of view. But more than that, it’s also a fascinating exploration of the emperor’s perspective, because Goddard did something really interesting: at the start, the text is written in the second person — possibly the only time I’ve ever enjoyed a story told in the second person. It’s such a brilliant choice here because it highlights exactly how much the emperor is disassociating, and makes it all the more impactful when he starts to have hope and the text, in fits and starts, transitions into the first person.

I’m always so impressed with Goddard’s ability to infuse her writing with such joyful excitement. Both of these are so delightful and make me want to bounce on my toes with sheer glee.

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water
by Zen Cho
2020

This novella is described as a found-family wuxia* fantasy, so obviously I had to read it immediately. It was also a reminder to check in on this author whose previous books I’ve really enjoyed. This novella was really good and fit in quite well with both The Empress of Salt and Fortune and When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain.

It’s amusingly laid-back in tone given how action-packed it is. It’s full of twists and turns despite being quite short. The writing is a work of art and also hilarious; the characters and relationships are complex and play with expectations and stereotypes; and the world building is rich without being dense.

Having read it along with the Hugo-nominated novellas that Anna recently reviewed, it’s solidly grouped with them in my mind as also having been nominated since it was just as good and just as distinct. I highly recommend all of them!

* Wuxia is a genre of Chinese martial arts story that I’ve recently watched a lot of.

This Is How You Lose the Time War by El-Mohtar and Gladstone

This Is How You Lose the Time War
by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
2019

This is a fascinating book that has both time travel and a branching universe physics as the background to a war between monolith entities, and all of that as a background to the relationship that builds/grows between Red and Blue, the respective top agents of each side. They are each other’s main foe and foil and the book starts when they begin an unsanctioned correspondence.

The authors make the extremely good decision to not explain how the technology works, or the physics of the universe, since that would simply bog down and distract from the relationship that is the focus. And so the hints and peaks of that background are little teasers that define a rich background and could act as prompts for a hundred other stories. But this story is about two agents who are closer to each other as enemies than they are to their allies, comrades, or commanders.

How, and why, (and when!) that relationship develops has it’s own twists and turns. While this is not a long book (less than 200 pages), there were several points where I thought I knew how it was going to go and then it twisted away in such a manner that was both completely unexpected and yet entirely perfect and how had I not seen that coming?

A good portion of the book consists of the letters that Red and Blue send to each other, so there are also three distinct voices in the text: Red, Blue, and the third-person omniscient narration that alternates which character it’s following. While the letters sometimes get a bit florid for my taste, it’s also interestingly true to the characters who write them.

This is a beautiful and fascinating story and I definitely recommend it.

Good Talk by Mira Jacob

Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations
by Mira Jacob
2019

This is a very good book. It’s made up of illustrated conversations that the author had with various people in her life — her young son, her aging parents, her brother, her friends, her boyfriends and girlfriends, her husband, her extended family, her in-laws — skipping backward and forward through time. It starts out cute and funny but with heart and then keeps going, right for the heart. It never loses the cute, but it gets pretty serious.

The author is a dark-skinned child of Indian immigrants, born and raised in New Mexico, who moved to NYC to become a writer. She lives in NYC, married to a Jewish man, and with a son just old enough to watch the news as Trump runs for election. The conversations address and illustrate a number of issues — racism and colorism, expectations and dreams, personal identity and political division — from a very personal perspective. The central theme of the book is how can she be honest with her child, preparing him for the world and raising him to be a good person, while also protecting him from the pain of a world that’s not going to be as kind to him as he deserves. In many ways, it reminds me of Coates’ Between the World and Me.

One of the real strengths of this book, that comes from Jacob’s use of dialogue, is how it presents these complex interactions without attempting to simplify or explain them. It’s all friends and family and lived experiences. As she explains to her son on page 85: “We’re in the middle place where sometimes we get treated badly and sometimes we do it to other people. But I mean, that’s not the end of the world, right? Knowing we’ve got room for improvement?” To which her young son Z replies: “I’d rather just be the good guys.” (Me, too, kid. Me, too.)

As the memoir of a living women still very much in her prime, this book doesn’t really come to any conclusions other than the need to continue on, trying to find a way to make the world better than it currently is and trust that loved ones can be better too. It ends with a kind of grim determination to keep trying.

Clean by Michael De Jong

Clean: the humble art of zen-cleansing
by Michael De Jong
2007

This author reminds me of Marie Kondo in that he is crazy obsessive regarding his particular field of interest but also cheerfully understanding of how few other people share his joy. Luckily, like Kondo, he is happy to share the results of his obsession to help make other people’s lives easier.

He makes the solid argument that there are a lot of chemical cleaners for sale for increasingly specific uses and also increasingly long lists of dangers and side-effects to using them. Instead of spending large quantities of money on a vast assortment of supplies while hoping that you don’t accidentally recreate chlorine gas, it’s better to go back to basics with five essential cleaning ingredients: baking soda, borax, lemon, salt, and white vinegar.

The first 14 pages of the book are cleaning chart and indexing listing, in alphabetic order, all the types of cleaners you might want and which of the five ingredients is best to be used for that role and which page it’s discussed on. The next 14 pages are about the author and his philosophy of cleaning. After that, each ingredient has it’s own two-page spread on history and basic usage, and a slew of suggestions and life tricks on particular uses, each no more than a single short paragraph.

Physically, it’s also a cute little book, only 130 pages.

I got this book out of the library but I’m thinking of buying a copy to have on hand. It was interesting to read straight through, but seems like it would be more useful as a reference. Some of the recommendations seem so miraculous that I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t actually work, but everything seemed good to know and well worth a try.

Not Getting Murdered by Johnson & Cooper

Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village
by Maureen Johnson and Jay Cooper
2021

I got this as a Christmas present right before dinner and finished it within a couple of hours, while also eating vast quantities of good food, hanging out with family. This is not a long or dense book. It is hilarious!

It’s clearly inspired by Edward Gorey and also by the whole genre of murder mysteries set in quaint English villages. Especially the long series’ where the amateur detective solves a murder mystery in their home village for each book, and the deaths sure do add up. In a very light-hearted and dark-humored way, this lists all the stereotypical places, peoples, and events of small quaint villages and how murderous they manage to be. (For example: if there are any vats described in the text of a book, it’s almost certainly because someone drowned in it. For safety: stay away from vats!)

The illustrations are frequent and the text is sparse, and it’s hilarious and morbidly adorable. There are also quizes! What do you do in each situation to survive the events? Each of them like a tiny choose-your-own-adventure! Hahahaha! I love this book so much!

The 1619 Project: Born on the Water, by Hannah-Jones, Watson, and Smith

The 1619 Project: Born on the Water
written by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson
illustrated by Nikkolas Smith
2021

This is a children’s picture book that was part of The 1619 Project and it is beautifully written, gorgeously illustrated, and addresses a difficult but vitally important topic in an age-appropriate manner.

The framing story starts with a young child being given a class assignment to write out their family tree. However, while their white peers are able to go back many generations and list which countries their families came from, this black student can only list three generations and feels ashamed. The main focus of the book is the history of that student’s family that starts with joy and culture and rich history in Africa, goes through great suffering and hardship with kidnapping and enslavement in America, but still perseveres, fights, and survives to live on in the student today. It gives a message that survival in the face of trauma is to be celebrated. Black Americans have a great deal to be proud of in their African roots and their American survival and their achievements – past, present, and future.

I’m particularly impressed with the way this book shows centuries of American slavery as the middle part of the history of the student’s ancestors. Slavery was long and harsh and transformational, but it was not the start of their history and it was not the end of it.

This is clearly intended for a young audience, but I highly recommend it for adults as well, not just for the pure artistry of the writing and illustrations, but also for the soft discussion of a difficult topic.

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain
by Nghi Vo
2020

This is a companion novella to The Empress of Salt and Fortune, not a sequel or a prequel, but a companion: another experience of Cleric Chih. It doesn’t have the same calm mood of the other, and I didn’t enjoy it quiet as much, but it’s still really very good and a fascinating story that deals more directly in the magical realism of this world. It’s also another beautifully crafted example of complex story telling with both a framing story and an interior story. It felt like a combination of Scheherazade and Rashomon, as it deals with the use of storytelling as a way to survive the night and with conflicting versions of the same story.

I definitely recommend it.

Also, a minor spoiler:

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