Archive for March, 2011

BOOK: The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (2009)

March 9, 2011

I’d never heard of this novel or its author before picking it up — I totally judged it by its cover one day while out browsing in a bookstore.  And thank god I did, too, because it turned out to be absolutely wonderful.

It’s the quiet, simple tale of a housekeeper (never named) who is hired to cook and clean for an older gentleman, the Professor.  Once a brilliant mathematician, the Professor was forced to leave his profession several years ago when a car accident all but destroyed his short-term memory.  Though he can remember every detail of his life prior to 1975, new information is only stored for 80 minutes, leaving him perpetually dazed and confused, not to mention painfully sad.

Every day when the Housekeeper comes to work, she is a stranger again and must reintroduce herself to him, a process that typically involves a discussion about numbers of some sort — her shoe size, her telephone number, anything the Professor can turn into math he can relate to.  The Professor covers his suit in little notes that help him remember key information, chief of which is “My memory only lasts 80 minutes” — a note that makes him cry each morning when he reads it again for the first time.  On the cuff of his sleeve, he eventually attaches one that features a rough sketch of the Housekeeper along with her name.

The Professor and the Housekeeper soon settle into a routine, mostly one of silence, as the Professor spends much of his time working on elaborate math puzzles he finds in professional journals.  But when the Professor learns the Housekeeper has a young son, he demands the boy start coming over after school to do his homework and eat dinner — it’s important that mothers and sons spend time together, he says.  After getting permission from the woman who hired her, the Professor’s sister-in-law (who, we learn later, has a special and heart-breaking history with the Professor herself), the Housekeeper agrees.

Upon meeting her son, the Professor names him “Root,” because, he says, the top of his head is flat like a square root symbol.  Though every meeting with Root and the Housekeeper is a new introduction, both Root and the Housekeeper come to love the Professor very much, and it seems as though, despite his inability to retain any information about them, the Professor begins to instinctively bond with them in return.

Root and the Housekeeper quickly realize the Professor uses lessons about math to make sense of the world and create connections between himself and others.  They begin to cherish these teachings, as the Professor opens up to them the magical world of intricate number systems,  complex equations, and the secrets of special integers, like “amicable numbers.”  In exchange, Root and the Housekeeper keep the Professor connected, tethered to the world, regaling him with stories about baseball, school, and their own discoveries about math (which never fail to delight the Professor, no matter how simple they are).

In short, though his memory vanishes every 80 minutes, Root and the Housekeeper keep the Professor from vanishing with it.

Written simply and elegantly (it’s very Japanese in that regard), this short, affectionate novel is among the most awesome (in the true sense of the word) things I have ever read.  I can’t wait to share it with all the other passionate readers in my life, especially the ones who also find magic in math and science (hi, Mom!).  Definitely going to be one of my Top Ten Books list for 2011, mark my words.

There’s apparently a Japanese film based on this novel (published originally in Japan in 2003) – The Professor’s Beloved Equation.  I haven’t been able to track down a copy of it yet, but will definitely keep trying and let you know if I succeed.  If it manages to capture even a fraction of the beautiful simplicity of Ogawa’s words, it ought to quite literally be breath-taking.  My fingers are crossed.

Highly, HIGHLY recommended, and I’ll be looking for more by Ogawa soon.

[FICTION]

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MOVIE: Peacock (2009)

March 3, 2011

I saw a trailer for this film a month or two ago that made it look it might be sort of a reimagining of Hitchcock’s Psycho – an intense thriller about a young man whose mother recently died after a lifetime of tormenting him, and who has since developed a second personality — a woman.

Though this IS essentially the plot, as it turns out, Peacock is not really a thriller so much as a dark story about one man’s tail-spin into madness.

John Skillpa (Cillian Murphy) is a painfully shy guy living in the small town of Peacock (I’d guess it’s the late 50s or early 60s, but I don’t think they actually say).  He works in a bank (for a bit of a tyrant, the always delightful Bill Pullman) and recently lost his mother, continuing to live in the eerie family home alone after her passing.

The townsfolk all know John, but mostly don’t interact with him much — until the day a train derails and crashes into his backyard, nearly killing a young woman none of them had ever seen before.

She introduces herself (skittishly) as Emma Skillpa, John’s wife, but we in the audience can tell immediately that she’s actually John (why no one else can tell, or even remarks on how similar they look, can only be explained by whatever phenomenon it was that protected Superman’s identity every time he put on a pair of glasses and called himself “Clark Kent”).

Almost immediately, a local politician and his wife come up with a great idea — he’s running for reelection and wants to hold a rally in the Skillpa’s backyard, as the train crash has caused a bit of a sensation.  Emma agrees, but John disagrees, and soon, the two personas are engaged in a furious battle of wills.

When a young woman named Maggie (Ellen Page) shows up to tell John her son is his child, the product of a visit from her years ago when she was a prostitute, this throw John even further for a loop.  Especially when he learns Emma is also talking to Maggie and seems to be trying to figure out a way to get custody of the little boy, Jake.  John, afraid Emma will torture Jake as his own mother tortured him, immediately begins trying to subvert all her plans for Maggie.

As the conflicts between John and Emma pile up, John becomes increasingly unstable while Emma begins to come out of her shell.  This transition was fascinating to watch and Cillian Murphy did a fantastic job, I thought, of expressing the contrast between John’s building terror and Emma’s increasing confidence.

Oddly, though the film feels like it’s leading up to a dramatic, thrilling showdown, it ends with more of a whimper than a bang.  It’s possible a more thriller-type finale would’ve felt too predictable, too expected, so I can understand why the filmmakers might not have wanted to go that route.  But while this film was definitely adept at creating a mesmerizing and tense mood, ultimately it left me feeling unsatisfied.  I don’t know how it might’ve avoided that — I have no suggestions for a better ending.  But I wanted more than I ended up with, which is always a bit of a let-down.

All in all, an interesting and unusual film, and one well worth a rental for Cillian Murphy fans.  Sort of recommended, but don’t hate me if you end up hating it.

[Netflix it | Buy it]

Genre:  Drama
Cast:  Cillian Murphy, Ellen Page, Susan Sarandon, Josh Lucas, Graham Beckel, Bill Pullman, Keith Carradine

BOOK: Ice Cold by Tess Gerritsen (2010)

March 2, 2011

I’ve been in the mood for an entertaining mystery/thriller for a while now and was having a hard time finding one I could really get into (slogged my way through the first half of Kathy Reich’s 206 Bones before giving up on it, for example).  Picked this one up at the library, having read several of Gerritsen’s Rizzoli and Isles series before, and man, was it ever the perfect thing!

For those unfamiliar with the series (which is also now a TV show on TNT — not brilliant, but a guilty pleasure of mine nonetheless), Jane Rizzoli is a cop and Maura Isles is her medical examiner buddy.  They solve crimes.   (There, you’re all caught up.)

In this installment, Maura is at a medical conference when she reconnects with an old friend who invites her to go skiing the next day with him, his teenage daughter, and two of his best friends.  Maura’s reluctant at first, but since she’s been struggling with her boyfriend a lot lately (he’s a priest — it’s complicated), she decides a little fun might be a good idea.

Naturally, the trip doesn’t go as planned.  A blizzard hits halfway through their drive up the mountains and they end up sliding their truck into a ditch.  Stranded in the howling wind and snow, Maura spots a sign warning against trespassers on private property, and the group heads past the sign hoping to find a house and some help.  Instead, what they find is an entire village, completely deserted, which turns out to be the community of a creepy religious cult.

They take shelter in one of the houses, but almost immediately strange things begin to happen:  a door is opened during the night, Maura spots snowshoe tracks near the treeline, one of the houses has blood spatter all over it and drag marks, etc.  Pretty soon, people start dying and Maura finds herself on the run with a kid named Rat who first kidnaps her then convinces her he’s trying to save her life.

Meanwhile, Jane and her husband, an FBI agent, are desperately trying to find out what happened to their friend.  As they work with local law enforcement, though, they begin to suspect that not all there is what it seems.  Hard to know who to trust.  Especially when a local cop ends up dead and it looks like Maura and Rat were the ones who killed him.

Gerritsen can be a really entertaining writer and storyteller when she’s on a roll, and any fan of thrillers that keep you up late into the wee hours should add this series to their list.  Specifically this installment, in fact — it was by far the best of the bunch I’ve read so far.

Recommended!

(p.s. One complaint:  what’s with the book cover, Ballantine?  There are no unconscious, half-naked ladies in this book whatsoever!  Bah.  Whatevs, marketers.)

[MYSTERY]

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