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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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1,4511445,175 (3.77)207
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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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 |
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.] ( )
2 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 |
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