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The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic (original 2011; edition 2012)

by Julie Otsuka

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1,5431534,758 (3.77)211
Reading this book was like reading a poem! Written in the collective voice of Japanese "picture brides," it follows the women from ship sailing to internment during WWII. They are seasick, marry, divorce, fall in love (sometimes with men other than their “husbands”), have children, grieve losses that we do or don’t connect with, and through it all speak with a voice that sings like a praise hymn and a lament simultaneously. I haven’t read a book that has such wonderful use of voice and language since “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy. ( )
  jenn_stringer | Apr 29, 2012 |
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The Buddha in the Attic reads more like a prose poem than a novel. With the predominant theme of displacement running throughout, it is not the most lighthearted of reads. First the reader experiences the displacement of Japanese women making the uncertain voyage to America for arranged marriages, and then the displacement of entire Japanese American communities through their forced removal to internment camps during WWII. Not only does it remind the reader of a shameful moment in American history, but it also speaks to the difficulties immigrants face at any time. Short but strong work. ( )
  Matthew.Ducmanas | Mar 18, 2016 |
The aggregated voice of the "narrator" was interesting at first, but it got old after the first couple of chapters. No distinct characters or plot....it is the combined perspective of these women from their arrival in the US through their internment during World War 2. They had things in common and had individual personalities, characteristics and situations. True of any group of people. I did not find it a compelling read. ( )
  ValNewHope | Mar 5, 2016 |
Such a good book! The Buddha in the Attic is about Japanese picture brides coming to America in the years before WWII. It's told from all of their perspectives and experiences from the boat ride, seeing their husbands for the first time, having sex, having children, working and then what happens to them, their families, the lives they built after Pearl Harbor happened. I love how it was written no set characters and it shows the diversity of these women's experiences during this time. ( )
  GrlIntrrptdRdng | Mar 3, 2016 |
Haunting! ( )
  pathogenik | Feb 18, 2016 |
I was interested in the lives the women had lived when brought here under the horrible conditions these women had been, Sold to men in America as wives, directly from Japan some not even passed puberty yet. The details are there, as they traveled through the experience. The are listed like a grocery list with little emotion. It is a collective or truths about the women "WE" their trip, their husbands, their work, their children, their encampment. Little details, big details. Then it just ends. I was disappointed, it felt like a warm up, then nothing.
I am between 2.5 and 3 stars on this one. i wish I passed on it. ( )
  TheYodamom | Jan 29, 2016 |
Buddha In The Atticis a small book and different from a style of writing that I would usually lean to.
I opened it hoping for something similar to the picture brides from Honolulu

Instead, a Japanese narrator speaks in a "collective voice" and traces the picture
brides voyage and arrival, all the in betweens to the eventual prospect of internment.
There is no individual to follow but many instead.
Then an American narrator speaks collectively tracing the effects of the Japanese
no longer present in the city.

Probably not my personal favorite but interesting, none the less ( )
  pennsylady | Jan 27, 2016 |
Enjoyable, insightful, evokes a wide range of feelings for the reader. Recommend it. ( )
  pammosk | Jan 26, 2016 |
The Buddha in the Attic is sparse account of Japanese ‘picture brides’ experiences in America: the hopes and dreams of a new life in America; the disappointment of the meeting the men they are promised to; the abuses they faced from their husbands and from the others around them; the fear of and sadness of life in a new country; the harshness of manual labor working for as maids, laundress, groceries, and farm labors; the rejection they faced from society, from their husbands, and even from their children; the fear of the interment process; and even a few moments when life wasn’t disappointing.

It was a pretty dark and depressing little novel. And told in the third person singular (we) forces the reader to recognize the collective nature of the experiences of these women. Lot of folks will find the writing style annoying and are unable to connect with these women. For this story had been told as a single person narrative it wouldn’t had been as impactful for a story with a wide ranging experience of picture brides and the interment of the Japanese people deserve. My only issue with the story is how diverse Otsuka made California sound. Her depictions of rural northern California and the lives of farmers was spot on. It was actually pretty cool for someone like me to get the places I grew up in name dropped and for those places to feel authentic (Yuba City, Gridley, Elk Grove, Chico, Lincoln, etc.). The problem is that the very small populations of these places just haven’t been all that diverse through our collective past. I think making the lives of the Japanese characters throughout California was to make their absence something more widely felt. But the sad reality is that internment went unnoticed by very large portions of the state. ( )
  stretch | Jan 26, 2016 |
The subject of Japanese Americans during WWII is not a subject in which I am well versed, and I found this book intriguing. The summary calls the writing style of the novella "incantatory", which is an apt description of the staccato-like cadence of the writing. Many voices speaking about the same subject and separated by an ellipses. The tone is perfectly set in Otsuka's writing style in that it gives the impression of faltering, hesitant, circumspect recollections.

The chapters are written to highlight a particular part of the journey, moving chronologically from the war brides' time on the boat to America to their eventual internment during the war. Each chapter provides a collage of the event (meeting their new husbands for the first time, bearing children, forced into migrant work, etc.). It is a very concise yet stunningly completely view of the scene.

This will make me run right out for Otsuka's other book, When the Emperor Was Divine.

Highly recommended, but with adult themes. ( )
  CarmenMilligan | Jan 18, 2016 |
Told in a collective voice, this book takes true stories of Japanese picture brides from the early 1900s who came to America to marry men they had never met. The vast majority of them were lied to by these men and came to lives that, though awful, in many cases seemed to be better than the life they left behind.

I thought the first chapter with it's plural voice was wonderful and I enjoyed the stylistic way it started out. Soon the constant repetition of “we” and “they” and the endless lists began to irritate me to the point I couldn't concentrate on the story and never made the emotional connection I know the author intended the reader to make.

It could have been an interesting story of Japanese women who left behind their culture and family for a better life in America, but the failure to have any identifiable characters made it a very disjointed list of pain and injustice. I thought the ideas for the chapters was an interesting premise but would have preferred to have individual characters highlighting the chapters of “First Night”, “Babies”, “Children”, “Traitors”, etc.

I did come away marveling at how courageous these women were to give up everything and come to a new country and a hard life. It was a heartbreaking story that I would still like to know more about, maybe in the more traditional writing style that I prefer.
( )
  Olivermagnus | Jan 17, 2016 |
In this spare but luminously written novel, Otsuka tells the story of young women who came to America from Japan as “picture brides” in the early 1900s. Through the course of the novel she traces the lives of these immigrants from their journey by boat, to their arrival in San Francisco, their first nights as new wives, their hardships working in unaccustomed ways, their experiences raising children, their relief and pride in building a new life in a new land, and finally to the arrival of war and the loss of what they had built as they were sent with their families to internment camps.

Otsuka won the Pen Faulkner Award for Fiction for this book. She writes mostly in a first person plural voice, using short simple sentences: On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall.
They gave us new names. They called us Helen or Lily.
We gave birth to babies that were so beautiful we could not believe they were ours. We gave birth to babies with colic.
In this way the story is about everyone, or anyone, or no one. Yet it is strongly evocative of time and place, and has an aura of immediacy about it. The reader feels the hopes, sorrows, disappointments, joys, fears, anguish, love, puzzlement, and pride along with these nameless women.

I’ve read other novels that dealt with the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas and Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet are two examples. But this novel and Otsuka’s previous work, When the Emperor Was Divine, are special in the way she conveys the thoughts and feelings of the Japanese themselves.

Highly recommended.
( )
  BookConcierge | Jan 13, 2016 |
What an intense reading experience. Using simple prose and the first person plural the author creates a unique perspective on a very real historical episode. The story begins, "On the boat we were mostly virgins." That is they were innocents on a voyage to a strange new world; one that would not be what they expected. It would turn out to be a new life that they had dreamed about, but it would sometimes seem more like a nightmare. It is a story told from the point of view of many girls and women, none of whom is individualized as a continuing character, but all of whom are vividly described in a sentence or two.

The first chapter, "Come, Japanese!" describes a boatload of Japanese picture brides coming to California to marry men they have never met; men whom they have no true idea about, for they are entering the unknown. The next chapter, "First Night", tells of the consummation of their marriages with their new husbands, most of whom are nothing like the descriptions they had given. In the following chapter "Whites", the communities of the young women and their husbands are described: "We settled on the edges of their towns, when they would let us."(p 23) There was no assimilation as the women lived lives apart in this foreign country. Some of the women labor as migrant workers living in rural shacks, some become domestic workers living in the servants' quarters of suburban homes, and some set up businesses and living quarters in the "Japantown", or "J-Town", area of big cities. "Babies" tells about giving birth and "Children" about raising American-born children, who want to speak only English and are ashamed of their immigrant parents, but are discriminated against by most of their classmates, neighbors and merchants.

The final chapters depict the terrible impact of the Pearl Harbor attack and World War II on the families: the rumors and increasingly the reality of Japanese men being arrested without warning, the fear and eventually the reality of entire families being sent away to parts unknown. "Some of us left weeping. And some of us left singing. . . A few of us left drunk. Others of us left quietly, with our heads bowed, embarrassed and ashamed." (p 105) "Last Day" tells of the departure of the Japanese from their homes, jobs and schools. Finally, "A Disappearance," is told from the point of view of the white American families left behind, who at first miss their Japanese neighbors but gradually forget about them.

This is a heart-rending look at a culture that was held together by the hard work and discipline of a group of warm-hearted young women. And which was tossed asunder by the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The author raises her prose to the level of poetry with the simplicity and rhythm of her writing. Brilliantly she manages to leaven the hardship with humor while allowing the women share their personal stories. The result is a short novel that cuts deeper and closer to my heart than almost anything I have ever read. It is an emotional look at history that I will never forget. ( )
  jwhenderson | Nov 9, 2015 |
This is a recent short novel about Japanese picture brides coming to San Francisco at some undefined time in the early 20th century (1910's most likely.) It is told in a very artistic manner that initially I found refreshing until I realized the entire story was going to be told like this. We have eight vignettes at different points in time and place of the women/girls from Japan. To me the strongest chapter was the first with the passage across the ocean from Japan to California with a collection of hopes, dreams and fears. The story does not have individual characters to follow through time. There is always a collective "We" with the occasional mention of names, but not anything like a "normal" continuity. As I said the method of storytelling was initially refreshing, but for me ultimately unsatisfying. I am sure other readers may have different reactions. The story is also much darker than I expected. This is the 20th century after all, with all the plusses and minuses that go along with that and we spend a lot of time on the dark side.

I didn't like the story but I can admire the skill that created it. There's an odd cadence to much of the writing and while reading this it was almost like a rhythmic chanting of the sentences. ( )
  RBeffa | Aug 28, 2015 |
This book is the story of group of women who came to California from Japan in the early 1900s as mail order brides. It follows the group of women from the time they are on the boat coming from Japan, through their first meetings with their husbands, the birth of their children, and their internment during World War II. The style of the book is really interesting. It is written from the first person plural perspective. I don't know that I have ever read a book from this perspective before. The novel does not have any central characters. Instead, it captures the general story of the women as a group, yet it still honors each individual's experience. Many of the sentences in the book start with, "Some of us...", "Many of us...", or "One of us..." While this perspective was interesting, I found that at times it became a little tedious. ( )
  klburnside | Aug 11, 2015 |
There was so much in this work - so many voices and so many experiences. But I was expecting a novel reading experience and this was more like reading a poem - there was no main character or storyline. In our bookclub one reader posited that the author chose this form to make a point - that to outsiders the Japanese women of this novel were just one big nameless, faceless group. If so, this form is a bit hostile to the reader - saying in effect, "this is all you think of us anyway". I would have enjoyed it more if there had been some consistent storylines that I could follow from chapter to chapter. ( )
  tjsjohanna | Jul 19, 2015 |
“And we knew it would only be a matter of time until all traces of us were gone.”… except… “Haruka left a tiny laughing brass Buddha up high, in a corner of the attic, where he is still laughing to this day.” Forgotten, erased, but nonetheless there – the book’s title.

Written in the highly effective collective, the “we” expressed numerous parallel experiences of the early Japanese immigrants rolling over a duration of about 23 years, ending at a piece of disgraceful American history – the Japanese Relocation Exec Order. Between the “all of us”, “many of us”, “some of us”, and “one of us”, with or without specific names, stories were told in the same time frames, often in continued text without paragraphs that spanned pages, and yet very easy to understand and most importantly, to feel. The rush of emotions – despair, optimism, defeated, resilience, acceptance – from this collective was almost overwhelming at times. However, unlike many books where all the negative events dwell on one or two characters, having infinite characters share different experiences made the book much more realistic than any immigrant stories I’ve read.

Engrossed at the start by Chapter 1 (the best chapter), the background, hopes, dreams, and friendship of these picture brides provided firm character developments and created high affinity. My brain knows things won’t end well, but my heart is still rooting for them. Chapter 2 was incredibly gruesome – their “first night”. I genuinely couldn’t handle it, especially since the words felt so true. Even the last sentences, though more positive, read like Stockholm syndrome. (The majority of the men throughout the book are deplorable.) The story move onwards with “Whites” – their encounters with white men and women, their meager means of making a living in farm and city life, “Babies” – the beginning of many but also quite a few deaths and also the ability to lease land under the name of their American born child, “Children” – conveys new perspectives from the new generation but also their labors in the fields, “Traitors” – the war begins, “Last Day”, and finally “Disappearance”. The last chapter wisely switched perspective to the Americans, describing what they thought was happening. Again, very effective. The ending was exactly at the point I would have wanted.

Finishing the book, all of me felt educated, many parts of me felt distressed, some parts of me felt traumatized, and one part of me remained hopeful. The collective me approves of this book. :)

4 star for the book + 0.5 stars for the collective “we” usage

Some quotes:

On dreams – and nightmares:
“At night we dreamed of our husbands. We dreamed of new wooden sandals and endless bolts of indigo silk and of living, one day, in a house with a chimney. We dreamed we were lovely and tall. We dreamed we were back in the rice paddies, which we had so desperately wanted to escape. The rice paddy dreams were always nightmares. We dreamed of our older and prettier sisters who had been to the geisha houses by our fathers so that the rest of us might eat, and when we woke we were gasping for air.”

On being accomplished – (my brain jumped to the clever words in Pride and Prejudice also):
“Most of us on the boat were accomplished, and were sure we would make good wives. We knew how to cook and sew. We knew how to serve tea and arrange flowers and sit quietly on our flat wide feet for hours, saying absolutely nothing of substance at all. A girl must blend into a room: she must be present without appearing to exit. We knew how to behave at funerals, and how to write short, melancholy poems about the passing of autumn that were exactly seventeen syllables long. We knew how to pull weeds and chop kindling and haul water, and one of us – the rice miller’s daughter – knew how to walk two miles into town with an eighty-pound sack of rice on her back without once breaking onto a sweat. It’s all in the way you breathe.”

On the memory of a child left behind:
“On the boat we had no idea we would dream of our daughter every night until the day that we died, and that in our dreams she would always be three and as she was when we last saw her: a tiny figure in a dark red kimono squatting at the edge of a puddle, utterly entranced by the sight of a dead floating bee.”

On how to be a wife:
“It was their women who taught us things we most needed to know… How to wash a lipstick stain out of your husband’s favorite white shirt even when that lipstick stain was not yours. How to raise up your skirt on the street to reveal just the right amount of ankle. You must aim to tantalize, not tease. How to talk to a husband. How to argue with a husband. How to deceive a husband. How to keep a husband from wandering too far from your side. Don’t ask him where he’s been or what time he’ll be coming home and make sure he is happy in bed.”

On sweet children:
“They worried about us when we were sad. They knew, without our telling them, when our knees were bothering us or it was our time of the month. They slept with us, at night, like puppies, on wooden boards, covered with hay, and for the first time since coming to America we did not mind having someone else beside us in the bed.”

On lessons to children – I was surprised by some of this and made a note to myself to research:
“… We taught them everything we knew… Don’t be loud like the Americans. Stay away from the Chinese. They don’t like us. Watch out for the Koreans. They hate us. Be careful around the Filipinos. They’re worse than the Koreans. Never marry an Okinawan. They’re not real Japanese.”

On the evacuation order – I didn’t think it’d be possible to smile but I did:
“Teiko stared at the notice in disbelief and quietly shook her head. ‘But what about our strawberries?’ she asked. ‘They’ll be ready to pick in three weeks.’”
I simply find her comment to be both pragmatic and innocent. ( )
  varwenea | Jul 12, 2015 |
33. The Buddha in the Attic (Audio) by Julie Otsuka, read by Samantha Quan and Carrington MacDuffie (2011, 3:52, ~110 pages in paperback, listened May 26-29)
Rating: 3 stars

A National Book Award and IMPAC Dublin award finalist, this short book, told in a collective we, covers the experience of Japanese mail-order brides. They immigrated to California by boat to meet their various generally disappointing husbands and live generally unexpectedly difficult lives as agricultural laborers until they were all sent to concentration camps during WWII.

I had just given up on several audiobooks when I tried this one, really as a backup, and found myself instantly caught up it. I kept on enjoying it for awhile. I was caught up by their expectations and really a bit stunned by what they found. It's almost unimaginable, the difference. Unfortunately it keeps going and going and going. By the end I was thankful it was so short. So a mixed experience for me. ( )
  dchaikin | Jun 27, 2015 |
I really enjoyed this different style of writing - no "characters" as such gives the impression (quite correctly) that these experiences were wide spread, and while the results and effects were different for many people, there is a common thread. ( )
  FionaWh | Jun 22, 2015 |
June 14
Finished A Budda in the Attic today.
a summary from the reading guide is provided below
In her magnificent new novel, which can be viewed as a prequel to her first novel, Otsuka spins the clock to just after the turn of the century, as a group of young women from Japan are brought to San Francisco as mail- order brides. In eight haunting, incantatory sections, The Buddha in the Attic traces their new lives: from their arduous voyage by boat, where the girls trade photos of their husbands- to- be and imagine uncertain futures in an unknown land; to their arrival in San Francisco, and their tremulous first nights with their new husbands; to their backbreaking toil as migrant workers in the fields and in the homes of white women; their struggle to learn a new language and a new culture; their experiences in childbirth and raising children who reject their heritage; and finally, the arrival of war, and the agonizing prospect of their internment.
This was a different sort of novel to read, written in 1st person plural. Each chapter depicts a time in the lives of the mail -order brides, first the boat ride, then the first night with their new husband and eventually being seen as traitors and sent to relocation camps. I would have to say that it was a good thing that the book was so brief because once you get the style, it loses something of a narrative by not having any characters to follow. I can assume from the acknowledgement that there was a good amount of research put into the book, so each sentence is like a separate image or a line of poetry and as a whole you get to experience what they endured. The Japanese people depicted in this account come off as incredibly noble and trusting that things will work out. Some sample lines are listed below:

We forgot about Buddha. We forgot about God. We developed a coldness inside us that still has not thawed. I fear my soul has died. We stopped writing home to our mothers. We lost weight and grew thin. We stopped bleeding. We stopped dreaming. We stopped wanting. We simply worked, that was all.

The Nishimotos of San Carlos left out bowls of fresh orchids from their nursery on their kitchen table for whoever was moving in next.

Haruko left a tiny laughing brass Buddha up high, in a corner of the attic, where he is still laughing to this day. ( )
  novelcommentary | Jun 13, 2015 |
This was a book club pick, and an interesting choice. It was narrated by the collective "we" which I've never seen before, but was very effective, I think, for the subject matter. It's about Japanese brides being bought and brought to America and their experiences. It ends during WWII and the Japanese being relocated to concentration camps who knows where in the US. I just finished another book called The Auschwitz Escape, and I find it ironic that we had camps like this in the US, at the same time the Nazis did in Europe. True, we weren't exterminating the Japanese, but what we did was still shameful. I liked the book and liked the author's writing style. I recommend this book. ( )
  sandra.k.heinzman | Apr 2, 2015 |
This was a book club pick, and an interesting choice. It was narrated by the collective "we" which I've never seen before, but was very effective, I think, for the subject matter. It's about Japanese brides being bought and brought to America and their experiences. It ends during WWII and the Japanese being relocated to concentration camps who knows where in the US. I just finished another book called The Auschwitz Escape, and I find it ironic that we had camps like this in the US, at the same time the Nazis did in Europe. True, we weren't exterminating the Japanese, but what we did was still shameful. I liked the book and liked the author's writing style. I recommend this book. ( )
  sandra.k.heinzman | Apr 2, 2015 |
Japanese women come to the US as brides. What they find is not what was promised in the letters and photos they received. They have to reconcile themselves to the lives they now lead.

I liked the sparseness and starkness of the prose. There were no characters per se but the group as a character. The relentlessness of what is happening shows the harshness, bleakness, and hopelessness of their lives. I'm glad I read it. ( )
  Sheila1957 | Mar 23, 2015 |
I loved this book, from the first page to the end, I was pulled in and didn't want to put this book down until I devoured it.

This book isn't the traditional type of novel, it's prosy, I'd say it's closer to a long narrative poem than a novel. While there are characters, they are all nameless, faceless, yet their story is told, in a beautiful, flowing narrative. From their first moments on the ship to their lives in California, they author tells their story and I found it to be beautifully well done.

You do get a full story, as the reader, you can feel the power and emotion of the characters who are speaking as one, telling their story, and while it wasn't exactly what I expected from this book, I think they way the author chose to tell the story was incredibly well done. I loved how well it flowed, how lovely the writing was, I couldn't put this book down, reading it in a sitting - truly a spectacular book

Also found on my book review blog Jules' Book Reviews - The Buddha in the Attic ( )
  bookwormjules | Feb 28, 2015 |
Loved it. Read it very quickly, and was sad when it was over. I really like this writing style, "collective first person" I believe it's been called, and would actually like to try it out in my own work. Highly recommended. ( )
  KelAppNic | Feb 14, 2015 |
Otsuka's book was an unexpected delight—but, yes, it is definitely thought provoking. She designates it a novel, but for me it was a poem of the very best kind. The writing sings; it just happens to relate a story. No, many stories, the most dramatic and poignant of which is the transport of Japanese during WWII. The book is short, about 100 pages, but I believe it will stay with me a long time. Although I rarely recommend a book, this one I recommend highly. ( )
  AntT | Jan 24, 2015 |
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