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

by Julie Otsuka

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1,3351285,805 (3.76)187
jenn_stringer's review
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 style of first-person plural is not an easy one to use in a novel. In this case it serves to remind the reader that the story describes the experience of a vast number of individuals. The text forms a rhythmic, steady pulse beating time to the inevitable conclusion. It is a heart-breaking reminder that for many immigrants, life in the new world was not what they expected. In this case the immigrants were Japanese "picture brides", carrying photos of their prospective husbands who in reality turned out to be quite different from their descriptions: the first of many disappointments.

This book is a little jewel: important to history and to our multi-cultural society. Highly recommended. ( )
1 vote VivienneR | Dec 9, 2014 |
This historical fiction novel tells the story of Japanese "picture brides" coming to California in the early 1900s.  It begins with their journey on the ship from Japan, and continues through their first nights with their new husbands (few of whom match their photos or descriptions), their work and lives in America, the birth and raising of their children, and the effects of World War II on them all, culminating with their being sent away to relocation camps.  The final chapter of the book is written from the point of view of the non-Japanese families left behind.

The latter section of the book is strongest.  California-born author Julie Otsuka's Japanese-American grandfather was arrested as a suspected spy the day after the Pearl Harbor attack, and his wife and children (including Otsuka's mother) spent three years in the Topaz, Utah relocation center.

The book is unusual in that it is written almost entirely in first person plural, and it reads almost like free verse, thanks to the repetition of phrases (usually at the beginning of sentences).  This does get tedious after a while, as the repetition makes the book start sounding like a series of lists.  That, and the use of the "we" narrator, limits character development.

This book won the 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the 2011 Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction, and was a 2011 National Book Award finalist for fiction.  Actress Samantha Quan reads most of the book, while well-known audiobook narrator Carrington MacDuffie handles the final chapter.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[This audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library. This review also appears on Bookin' It.] ( )
1 vote riofriotex | Aug 23, 2014 |
A series of stories about Japanese women in the early 1990's traveling to meet their new husbands in America. The stories use spare prose, and a royal "we" language to tell the story of landing in San Francisco, fanning out over California, then being rounded up during WWII and sent to internment camps during the war. The method of storytelling reminded me a lot of O'Brien's Things We Left Behind way of story telling ( )
  nancynova | Jul 20, 2014 |
An uncommon book, given that it's written in the first person plural. The device worked well in my view, although it might not appeal to everyone. It came across to me as a sort of cubist patchwork of images, which resulted in a complex - and lovely - vision of the Japanese "picture brides" in California. Almost an extended poem, but very absorbing. At times I could hardly put it down, although it is in no way a typical page turner. ( )
  meredk | Jul 18, 2014 |
In this short novel, I got a deep, sad, account of what life was like for Japanese immigrants. This is the story of several Japanese women, who made the journey from Japan to San Francisco after marrying their husbands (sight unseen). When they arrive--their husbands are not who they said they were--their pictures might be them, several years earlier, or might be someone completely different. Their husbands "take them"...repeatedly in many different ways, and put them to work: in the fields, as maids, as whores. They have children (or don't), they work, they toil, then they are interned by the US goverment.

The book was written in an interesting first-person plural point of view: "This happened to us; we came from small towns" etc.

Overall an interesting book, pretty small and easy to read. ( )
  csweder | Jul 8, 2014 |
Enjoyed as I was reading it, but two months later I don't remember it strongly. ( )
  judgedee | Jun 22, 2014 |
Novel is a misnomer for this hypnotic indeterminate prose work. Listing, repetition (anaphora)bring Biblical cadences to this reportage (Japanese American immigrant experience up to & including internment during WWII). This is a Song of Ourselves sung by "we" who are the collective body (mostly female)both part of and apart from an America now called homeland. Mail-order brides, tenant farmers, itinerant field workers, gardeners, maids, prostitutes, shopkeepers, students, American-born children. The moment of disarray, of absence immediately following the expulsion to the camps brings to mind the film A Day Without a Mexican, here transcribed to A Day Without a Japanese American. Experience becomes both universal & entirely personal & unique. ( )
  Paulagraph | May 25, 2014 |
A great short novel written in a poetic format. This is the story of the Japanese immigrants coming to the US as mail order brides. It is also the story of their leaving behind their homes because of WWII. I loved the repetition of the story; I have not read a novel written like this before and I found it quite enduring. This story of these Japanese women and their children is truly unforgettable. The struggles they faced and their journeys will stick with you after the story ends. ( )
  bnbookgirl | May 22, 2014 |
This book delivers a truly unique and unforgettable reading experience. Written in plural form ("we"),which is not a common form, what a great way to emphasize the commonality of these women's lives, even as their stories took different paths. The form also contributes to a realness, and a sense of immediacy, urgency and anxiety that made me feel part of the action, as if I,too, was a part of their community.

Otsuka's prose is in a way poetry --an image, an allusion, a word, and you "get" it. Short phrases of what a person wore, said, or did are like the brushstrokes of a larger portrait or like the stitches woven in an intricate tapestry.

While it doesn't take long to get through 129 pages, I wouldn't classify this as a "quick read" or a "light" read. It took only a couple of days, true, but I lingered over much of it, savored the words with the story.

( )
  FAR2MANYBOOKS | Apr 5, 2014 |
This is a very interesting and powerful poem novella about the coming and going of Japanese immigrants around the time of WWII. I liked the style of the poem as Julie Otsuka told the story through the lives and point of views of many people at once. The repetitive verses made the poem fluid and the historical aspect made it enlightening. ( )
  Dnaej | Mar 14, 2014 |
This is a very interesting and powerful poem novella about the coming and going of Japanese immigrants around the time of WWII. I liked the style of the poem as Julie Otsuka told the story through the lives and point of views of many people at once. The repetitive verses made the poem fluid and the historical aspect made it enlightening. ( )
  Dnaej | Mar 14, 2014 |
I didn't like it at first. The fact that all of the characters at once are talking was not appealing at first, but grew on me. It is the story of Japanese brides who come to join their Japanese husbands and are treated badly to say the least. ( )
  MarkMeg | Mar 1, 2014 |
In the early 1900s, many Japanese women traveled from their villages to California as "picture brides," the intended of men already in America who sent them letters and pictures and the money to come to the U.S. to marry them and work with them. Told in a collective "we," this is the story of many of those women from their time on the boat to the internment during World War 2.

This slight book is at once a potentially quick read and one that you want to take your time reading. The unique narrative structure seldom focuses on one individual - though there are moments when an individual speaks or otherwise stands out from the crowd - but gives a panorama of a collective experience. A fascinating, challenging read that would be perfect for a book club willing to read more experimental, literary fiction. ( )
  bell7 | Feb 17, 2014 |
A wonderful way of telling so many stories of Japanese brides coming to America. This small book packs a lot of power. What amazing lives! How fortunate I am! I feel lucky that a friend recommended it. ( )
  njcur | Feb 13, 2014 |
I loved this book. It's so different from anything I've ever read the way the stories are intertwined. I love the way the author tells the story about the lives of these women. It is so beautiful and sad and it is definitely something I will hold close to and remember
1 vote KerryAD | Feb 3, 2014 |
★★★★ ( )
  cecilia_huard | Jan 27, 2014 |
The Buddha in the Attic is a fictionalized account of the arrival of mail-order brides from Japan, their assimilation into American culture and the start of the internment camp process during World War II. It is written in a very unusual manner and is a quick read. I really enjoyed the style of the writing, however, I agree with other reviewers that it was a bit difficult without consistent characters to connect with in the story. ( )
  jazzyereader | Jan 11, 2014 |
I read the author's When the Emperor Was Divine on Feb 11, 2005, and was quite taken by it so I thought I should read her second novel, published in 2011. It is an account of brides selected by Japanese men in the USA from women in Japan. The account tells of the trip to the USA, and the often doleful fate of the women who came expecting a better life but ordinarily most valued for the work they did for their husbands. There are no identified characters as such, and the story is told in the first person plural. I think this detracts from one's identification with the narrators. Sometimes the point of the recitation of dolefulness becomes crushingly monotonous, sorry though one is for the sorrows the Japanese women go through, especially when they are uprooted from their homes in 1942. ( )
  Schmerguls | Dec 18, 2013 |
The story is well told--I loved the first line--and moves along pretty well, but there are no individual characters to latch on to. The book feels much more like a documentary than a novel. ( )
  Jim53 | Nov 24, 2013 |
This was a fascinating little book, a quick read that really packs a punch. I read this for bookclub and one of the things that struck us was the collective “we” of this book, the fact that it wasn’t about one person making this journey to a new country it was about a whole generation. How some were happy with their new husband some weren’t, some were treated badly some not. It was just a very fascinating look at a whole generation of women.

The narration by, Samantha Quan & Carrington MacDuffie was very well done.
This is a quick yet powerful read that I highly recommend for bookclubs.

4 stars ( )
1 vote susiesharp | Nov 15, 2013 |
Beautiful. I loved the "hive mind" approach to fictionalising oral history, although I know it annoyed some readers: a few members of my book club would have preferred to have followed the individual stories in a more traditional manner. My thought was that to write it that way, while retaining the diversity of experience, would have resulted in a book at least 10 times as long and lacking in the delicious lightness of touch that blesses this slim and enchanting volume.

This made me want to know more about the subject, so I was glad to see Julie Otsuka's long list of references at the end.

I'm very keen to seek out more of her writing. ( )
1 vote Vivl | Nov 6, 2013 |
The Buddha in the Attic describes tales of Japanese mail order brides, who sailed to America at the start of last century. The reader is treated to their innermost thoughts on the journey, meeting their husbands, childbirth, work, raising children in a strange land and, finally, their deportation to interment camps during World War II. The beauty of this book is that each chapter is composed of the thoughts of many women. There are no named characters, no plotlines...what we get instead is a steady flow of different thoughts. Otsuka did some magnificent research for this book and she captured perfectly the lives of these women. ( )
  kingarooski | Oct 18, 2013 |
This is a vey short historical novel about Japanese mail-order brides, and Japanese-American history. Each of the women's stories told by the author gave the historical aspect a personal angle that I liked. Perhaps the personal touch was also attributable to her shifting, mysterious narrator who was generally part of the collective "we". It's an unusual writing technique that worked well in this novel. ( )
  bookwoman247 | Sep 8, 2013 |
This is a fantastic look at culture, voice, and society as told through the hardships faced by Japanese picture brides and the families they began in America. Otsuka's use of collective voice helps to capture the varied experiences of many of those who came to America, while at the same time it strips the identity of the individuals, turning the beauty, intellect, and insight of each person into one voice that is simply seen, just as the immigrants who were starting new lives in the U.S., as Japanese.

The novel is both beautiful and tragic, and is a wonderful example of the power of voice in literature. ( )
  ElOsoBlanco | Jul 15, 2013 |
Buddha in the Attic uses the first person plural to tell a story of collective identity and experience through the diverse experiences of the very different people sharing that collective identity and experience. It is a story that is universal to humans when cultures first come in contact, and it is a very American story, one experienced by almost every ethnic group or nationality when they first immigrate. It is also very American in how war is used over and over again as a reason to go against our constitutional principals. Although the book focuses on a historical period now past, it is an impulse that resurfaces all too often.
Otsuka’s prose has a nice flow to it, and a poetic quality. Often her lists are punctuated by the unexpected in a way that commands attention. There is nothing extra in the book. It has been well edited so that it tells the essential story. I recommend it as a good read. ( )
  KatySilbs | May 26, 2013 |
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