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Edible Psychology Book Club – The Housekeeper and the Professor

February 6, 2012

Welcome to the first ever edition of the Edible Psychology book club! This is a series of posts which I have been thinking about writing for while, and since it’s been cold and snowy here in England, it is the perfect weather to curl up on the couch with a good book, and of course, a cup of tea.

This is England after all – it’s difficult to do much of anything without a cup of tea, even if I mostly drink peppermint or other herbal teas ๐Ÿ˜‰

Anyway, the idea behind these Edible Psychology book clubs is that there are all sorts of wonderful books –ย fiction, non-fiction, self-help, etc. – about topics relevant to food and psychology (I tend to read primarily the ones related to psychology), and I thought it would be fun if I told you about some of my favorites and/or reviewed new books as I read them.

It is difficult to know where to start, as there are so many great books to mention…but for today, I thought I would write about ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ by Yoko Ogawa, which my parents gave me for Christmas, and which I highly recommend!

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As far as I can tell, this book is purely fictional. However, it is hard to believe that someone could create such a wonderful, touching, and detailed story with no essence of truth or relevant personal experience. I guess that is why I write a blog rather than writing fiction myself – I am always blown away by such creativity.

Anyway, getting back to the book…one of the main characters in the story ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ is a mathematics professor, who suffered a head injury in a car crash years earlier, and because of this, is no longer able to form new long-term memories after the crash. Specifically, he remembers everything from before the car crash (e.g, his childhood, his career), and everything from the past hour and twenty minutes of his life. However, his memory only lasts for eighty minutes before starting over again. The other main characters are the housekeeper who comes each day to look after the professor’s house and to shop and cook for him, and her ten-year old son.

The entire story centers on these three characters and their interactions, which, as you can imagine, are quite complicated by the fact that the housekeeper and her son are introduced to the professor afresh each day when they arrive at his house, and he has no memory of ever meeting them before.

In spite of this complicating factor, it is difficult to imagine more wonderful or devoted friendships between any three people, and it made me think a lot about what it would be like to have a relationship with someone who couldn’t remember ever meeting you before.

As someone interested in neuropsychology, I also found it fascinating to think about the coping strategies the professor uses in the story to compensate for his memory difficulties in everyday life, and the emotions which he experiences as a result of his memory impairment. I don’t want to give too much away, but the author does a wonderful job of bringing the characters to life.

An interesting element to the story is that as a former mathematics professor, numbers are what comfort the professor and orient him in an otherwise complicated and scary world. Numbers play a major part in the professor’s life, and therefore, in the story. Interestingly, seeing numbers through the professor’s eyes changed the way I saw them myself, and for the first time in years, I found myself really enjoying and thinking about numbers even when I wasn’t reading the book.

I didn’t notice this until I was quite far into the novel myself, but the author never actually uses the names of any of the three main characters (other than a nickname for the housekeeper’s son). Somehow, this seemed to make it even easier for me to identify with the characters and put myself in their shoes.

This story made me feel a range of emotions, but I would describe this book as a touching, uplifting story about living in the present – something which I would like to focus on myself – and the unlikely, and often wonderful, friendships which happen along the way. For me, it was also a reminder of how important friendships and relationships are, and what a difference we can each make just by being kind and compassionate toward the people we encounter in everyday life. Additionally, this story is a lesson in treating others the way you would want them to treat you, and the fact that kindness is generally met/repaid with kindness.

I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did – and if you are in a cold climate, I recommend reading it with a cup of tea, preferably next to the fireplace.

I hope you enjoyed my very staged photos as well as the book review. ๐Ÿ™‚ I would love to hear what you think of the story if you have read it before, or after you have read it.

Happy reading!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Melisa permalink
    February 6, 2012 6:18 pm

    Emily, I also enjoyed reading the book a lot. Your Mom loaned it to me! I actually thought of you often while reading it, wondering how you would look at various details of the professor’s impairment and how well you thought it was portrayed. I was also impressed by his coping strategies. Like you, it made me think of numbers in an entirely different light. I found it a delightful and touching read.

    • February 6, 2012 9:57 pm

      Thank you Melisa! I am glad you enjoyed it too. To be honest, I had a hard time deciding what I thought about whether the depictions of the professor’s impairment and coping strategies were totally realistic. I think this was for two main reasons. First of all, I was so in love with the characters and the story that I had a hard time being objective. And secondly, it seemed hard to judge because the story felt to me like it was set in a different culture (which it was) and a different time (which I’m not sure if it was). I read another review of the book which said that by omitting the names of the characters, the author made the story feel more like a myth, and in hindsight, I think this was true for me. It did feel to me more like a folktale to learn a life lesson from than a story where each detail had to be accurate. However, I appreciated that nothing stood out to me as being totally impossible in terms of the neuropsychology because I think the story would have then felt less real to me if it had.

  2. February 7, 2012 2:46 am

    I love this idea of a book club! Maybe if you tell us the book when you’re going to start it, we can read it along side you and then kind of book club it together. Love this idea! I’ve wanted to go to one in person, but online is almost better since I can do it in sweats! PS. Those are some awesome windows in your apartment.

    • February 7, 2012 3:12 pm

      Hi Emily,

      I have always wanted to be part of an actual book club as well… Maybe the ideal would be an in-person book club where everyone could wear sweats. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Anyway, I really like the idea of trying to create something similar online. I was hesitant to mention a book ahead of time for everyone to read mostly because 1) part of what always sounds like fun to me about an in-person book club is getting together with people and having a snack and possibly a drink and chatting, so I wasn’t really sure if anyone would want to join in an online book club, and 2) some of the books I am planning to review are more like text-books or self-help books and may not interest everyone. However, if you are interested, then let’s give it a shot just see how it goes. There’s no reason we can’t each still have some nice food and a drink while we read and/or type I guess. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Have you ever read ‘The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down’? It is one of my absolute favorites, and I was planning to write about it in an upcoming book club post – any interest?


  3. February 7, 2012 6:27 pm

    This sounds like a wonderful read – my most recent favourite book has been ‘Freedom’ – have you read it? It’s wonderful!

    • February 7, 2012 7:47 pm

      Hi Em,

      I haven’t read ‘Freedom’ before, but just looked it up and it looks really interesting. In addition, I grew up in northwest Wisconsin and have spent a lot of time in St. Paul, MN (and my brother lives there), so it sounds like an especially fun read to me. Thanks for the tip! I love getting new book suggestions…and maybe it will become a book club book!


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