housekeeper-and-the-professorThis lovely jewel of a novel, set in Japan, explores the power of memory and how it shapes our lives, and how love and friendship can transcend hardship and loss.

The Professor is a brilliant mathematician, able to describe and demonstrate the most complex formulas into something simple and poetic and beautiful, but due to a traumatic head injury his short-term memory lasts only 80 minutes. The Professor spends his days in his study, working on difficult mathematics problems; everything before that fateful night in 1975 still clear and real to him, everything else more than 80 minutes old, new and confusing.

The Housekeeper, a struggling single mother, is assigned to care for him. Gradually they make a connection – the Professor pins multiple notes to his coat to help him cope with his handicap – and the Housekeeper’s young son often joins them. The Professor shares his love of numbers with them and joins the boy in his love of baseball.  Together the three form an unconventional family.

Thoughtful, poignant and bittersweet, this spare, elegant novel will stay with you long after you’ve finished.

To be filed under the category of “where does it come from” is Richard Ellis’s Tuna: A Love Story. There are all kinds of fish facts to amuse your dinner company, including:

* What you’re eating out of the can scientifically isn’t tune per se, but a member of the family called skipjack.

* The largest fish market in the world is in Tsukiji, Japan. Every day, this icebox is loaded with catch from around the world and millions of dollars are exchanged. One fish brought $173,600 US in 2001.

* The purse seining method of tuna fishing leads to the deaths of thousands of dolphins per year. If a can is labeled “tuna safe”, it merely means a good faith effort is made to rescue as many as possible, and these regulations are far from a global standard.

* A highly-prized bluefin tuna (a rich dark red meat unlike our Starkist, Bumblebee, and Chicken of the Sea) can fetch upwards of $400 a pound. The sushi restauranteur marks up from there.

* Around one in 40 million tuna eggs will make it to adulthood. Once they do, however, few species can compete physically with a quarter-ton fish that can swim in excess of 50 mph.

* The insatiable appetite and unlimited finances of the Japanese for this delicacy may very likely result in the species’ extinction in the future.

Sorry Charlie!

The Commoner by John SchwartzOffering a peek into the largely closed and secret world of the Japanese royal family, The Commoner by John Schwartz is the story of Haruko, the first commoner to marry into the oldest monarchy in the world. Set in the years immediately after World War II when Japan was undergoing great change, Haruko goes from the relative freedom of a well-educated college graduate to a tightly the controlled world of a princess whose only duty was to produce a male heir. Spare and beautiful, it is a culture very foreign to us, but the thoughts and feelings of its characters are universal. While the storyline is somewhat similar to recent real-life events in Japan, this is a novelization, beautifully imagined.